Episode 16: The After Show: When a Hero Becomes a Peer
Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Paul Kix: Hello and welcome to the After Show for Now That's a Great Story. On Monday, we talked with Cheryl Della Pietra about her amazing Gozo Girl, and what I wanted to follow up on today is this idea of editing and being strong enough to be the sort of editor that your writer needs.
So there was this guy growing up that I absolutely admired. His name is Peter Richmond. He worked for GQ in the 90s, and he wrote the story that is called Tangled Up In Blue that is just one of my absolute favorite stories of all time. I read it and re-read it in college when I was beginning to take magazine journalism seriously. Tangled Up in Blue is about the gay son of Tommy Lasorda. It deals with a lot of things: the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s in West Hollywood; what it meant for a sort of alpha male like Tommy Lasorda to have a gay son; what Tommy Jr. would do when he got into the Dodgers Clubhouse. It ended up being a really affecting story and a really moving story. But what I loved about it, what first brought me to it more than anything else was Peter's writing.
“Night time in Los Angeles on a quiet street off Melrose Avenue, an otherwise normal evening is marked by an oddly whimsical celestial disturbance: baseballs are falling out of the sky. They are coming from the roof of a gray apartment building. One ball pops in adjacent apartment. Another bounces to the street. A third flies off into the night, a mighty shot. This is West Hollywood in the 1980s where anything is not only possible but likely. West Hollywood shakes head and drives by.”
So you going to figure out from just this lead that it's Tommy Lasorda Jr who's hitting these baseballs. And that lead and that story was one that I’ve probably read 50 times. Moving out of college into the alternative weekly world, just trying to get the cadence right of what it was that Peter was putting on the page. His voice was one that I just wanted to echo and absorb. You know, I think in some measure because of how much time I spend studying him, my own writing improved. I moved from the alternative weekly world to the city magazine world and then from the city magazine world to a position at ESPN the magazine. When I joined the staff in 2011, I was a general editor which meant that my job is to basically find writers who could do great stories. And in 2012 we were trying to put together an MLB preview issue and the Miami Marlins had a new stadium. And I knew because I had read Peter so much, I knew that he had once worked in Miami and had lived there. So I proposed to the editor-in-chief, you know, hey, what if we reached out to Peter? What if we asked him to do this story on the Marlins new ball park? And so I found Peter’s email and email them and I was like a gushing little schoolboy when I finally got him on the phone.
He was very gracious and, you know, sort of deflected my praise about how much of an honor would be to work with him. He was also quick to say how much does a forewarning that what I had read in that Tangled Up In Blue piece and in a couple of the ones that I cited and just said that I absolutely love what I had read? It didn't polished over many drafts and I was like yeah, yeah, sure. And I just thought that he was, you know, being humble. So Peter goes to Miami, heat talks with all of the executives at the Marlins and he files a first draft. And I see it, and the chain of command is that I am going to discuss it and give my thoughts for it. And then the the top editor and then the editor-in-chief will chime in as well. First draft was very well written, it's just that it wasn't quite as good as it could be. I knew that, I think, but I couldn't bring myself to really alter too much of the story. I was timid with it and I was timid with it because I was still kind of in awe of the fact that I was going to get a chance to work with Peter Richmond. And who was I to try to alter some of his words, right, or to suggest anything to him?
So the first draft, it goes back to him and it's -- at least as I recall -- that there aren't there weren't that many changes in it. And Peter submits a second draft and this is when, you know, I realize, okay, this is kind of the same thing as the first draft. And now I'm starting to have this sneaking suspicion. And one, it's frankly that the editor-in-chief confirmed, and he's, like, look, this just isn't yet where we needed to be. What's going on? And that's when I realized... that's when I realized that to honor Peter, I would have to be sort of honest with him about what was working and what wasn't. Now, I'm a little bit scared to say this because, you know, now it's a second draft and I'm going to be asking for more substantive changes then you had on the first draft. Anybody who's not familiar with the process of magazine making, it sort of goes first draft is where the biggest changes are, and then with each subsequent draft, hopefully, there changes are becoming more minor and more minor. But this wasn't going exactly be the case. And again, I want to stress that it wasn't like it was a terrible draft. It wasn't a terrible draft in any way. It just wasn't yet as good as it could be. It wasn't yet the caliber of pieces that I’d read from him and I realized what he had said to me earlier, you know, look, I'm open to feedback here, and I wasn't willing to give it because I was the guy who is still kind of the college kid and just looking up gazing at this guy I who I viewed as something like an idol instead of something like a peer -- which is how I should have been looking at him. So on the second draft, I looked at him like a peer. And I was honest with him and the cuts and the suggestions that I made -- some cuts here, some additions there. Again, I don't have the piece in front of me and don't even frankly know if I still have a record of it, but I just remember it being more suggestions than what he had seen the first go-round. And I was pretty nervous when I gave it back to him, thinking old man what's he going to think of me and all of this. And he didn’t say anything. He just did it like the pro that he is and then handed back of third draft and that third draft was much better than the first or the second and suddenly it's like, oh, we're on our way.
And it was through that experience that I realized that I should always be as honest as possible. Especially with writers, especially when I'm working with their stories. To be anything but honest, to be anything but at times even bracing with them is not doing the sort of the service they deserve. I mean, they spent the time on this. Sometimes they can't always judge what is working and what isn't and it takes up close reader to say, hey, you might consider this or, hey, you might consider that. And when that close reader is giving that opinion, he or she has to put aside any previous opinions they have of the writer. They just have to look at the text itself. It was at that point that I think that my time as an editor -- because I've been working as an editor and a writer, trying to split my time between the both of them -- that piece was where I think my career as an editor really turned and I began to see that honesty really is the best policy.
And it was a sort of honesty that I had with Peter that Alley Russo in Cheryl’s novel ended up having to have with Walker -- her item. She had to be just, like, bracingly honest about what was working and what wasn’t. In that case, she didn't actually tell Walker what she was doing she just did it. But it's that sense that you can actually improve the piece. It's the sense that you have to have the confidence to tell the writer -- a writer who might have a tremendous amount of confidence in his work, and I worked at a lot of writers, and this is not Peter, but I've heard of a lot of writers who have very big egos, and so you've got to go into that conversation very clear on the direction you want to take with a piece. And you have to be just as confident as they are. No. Listen to me. I know what I'm saying here. And those subsequent conversations, I didn't have those conversations with Peter again he was gracious the whole time and sort of did without any complaining whatsoever anything that we ask for the piece.
But that story gave me the wherewithal to then go into far more delicate conversations or far more difficult conversations with other writers and say, look, I know what I'm doing here I know what's best and I know it's best if only because I know that something isn't right, and I and I think I have a pass to getting it to that place where can be right. And Peter gave me the confidence to trust my own instincts. The music for now that's a great story comes from Jeff Willet. Some production help comes from him as well if you would like to receive a short email from me that details what else I'm thinking about the world of writing and reading and watching great TV or listening to great music or whatever it is, go to Paulkix.com/newsletter. If you would like this podcast, please remember to rate and review it I'll be back on Monday. Thanks everybody. Bye bye.