Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pete Hamill's Ode to New York City and Tabloid Journalism, with a Bit of Terrorism Thrown In

In his new novel “Tabloid City”(Little Brown, $26.99, 288 pp.), the legendary journalist Pete Hamill has created a frenetic 20-hour snapshot of New York City--a socialite and her secretary are brutally murdered in Greenwich Village, a dying tabloid newspaper and its crew of reporters scramble to cover the crime, while the police hunt down a homegrown terrorist bent on going out in a blaze of jihadi glory.

Hamill tells his New York story through 20 characters, including a young journalist covering the socialite murder, the terrorist named Malik, his cop father, an elderly blind painter and an illegal office cleaner. At the center of this sea of voices is Sam Briscoe, the seasoned editor of The New York World, a doomed newspaper. On this freezing night in 2009, Briscoe travel around New York, seeing shadows from his tabloid past. Hamill has written a glorious homage to New York and the tabloid journalist who cover the gritty corners of the city.

In his five-decade journalism career, the 75-year-old Hamill has been both a columnist and the editor of the New York Post and the New York Daily News. Hamill met with freelance writer Dylan Foley at his home in Manhattan.

Q. Why did you write a novel that mixes murder, tabloid journalism and terrorism?

A. What I was trying to do was write a novel about what a good tabloids has to deal with. I didn’t want to write a book about the decline of newspaper journalism. There will be hundreds of those in the next 20 years. I made The World, a totally imagined newspaper, to get some sense of the older tabloid culture and some of the things you lose when you don’t have a city newsroom.

Q. Briscoe, the editor in the novel, has some of your autobiography. Why?

A. I wanted someone about my age, who came from the tabloid world before it began to change. The story is a composite of me and other editors. Briscoe is not memoir. He is a work of the imagination. What I had imagined first was the framework of the newspaper, in a day when newspapers are folding or shrinking. I find a lot of journalists turn to fiction because as a journalist, you can’t write the truth you feel. You have to write the truth you can prove.

Q. Through Briscoe’s eyes, New York is a city of ghosts. Why?

A. Ghosts are part of memory. This explains why New York, a city so hard-bitten, one of the emotional things common to all people is nostalgia. Nostalgia is a sense of loss of People, places that existed and that you were a part of. The existence. You have a favorite bar, you go away, come back and the bar is gone. There’s a sense of loss that people have.

Q. Malik, the young jihadi wannabe, is both fearsome and pathetic. How did you create him?

A. When I was covering Northern Ireland, I met this crazy IRA guy, whose solution was blowing everything up. Great therapy, but bad politics. As a reporter, I don’t trust “true believers.” Malik came to me as a sketch. I had a friend who was a police officer who had trouble with his son, who had picked up with radical Muslims. I just tried to be Malik. I walked Malik’s streets and what did I see? What set me off, what influenced me? I wandered around at night, I wandered around the Meatpacking District (in Manhattan) looking for targets Malik might look for. I went around, acting like I was going to play Malik in a movie. It was an anarchist rage. I also had to try to build some decency in Malik…he tries to find some money to take care of his pregnant girlfriend. Trying to borrow money from his mother led to the savagery in the story.

(Originally published in The Newark Star-Ledger in June 2011)

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