Thu 18 Dec 2014
by Susan Tepper
“Harvey Araton is a sports reporter and columnist for The New York Times. He was nominated by The Times for a Pulitzer Prize in 1994; was named 1998 Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association; won first place in 1994 for Best News Story from the Associated Press Sports Editors; won first place in 2005 for Column Writing from the New York State Associated Press Association; and was honored in 1997 and 2007 for Column Writing by the Associated Press Sports Editors. In 1986, he received the Feature Writing Award from the Associated Press Sports Editors.” [from The New York Times] He discusses his new book, Cold Type, in this conversation with Susan Tepper
Susan Tepper: You are a career journalist as well as a book author. How much do you relate to the inner life of your protagonist, Jamie, who is also a newspaper man?
Harvey Araton: I think I best relate to Jamie through his ambivalence, his general sense of uncertainty over where he belongs with regards to his work, or even whether he belongs in that world at all. While Jamie often feels like an outsider in his own family of newspapermen, I struggled with the fear of being trapped within my own family’s lack of upward mobility and have had to fight the notion that I was somehow fooling people along the way to a four-decade career in journalism. Perhaps to some extent many of us deal with such doubts, especially with work that is publicly judged.
ST: That’s for sure. Anything we put out there in the public domain is subject to intense scrutiny, and we often take that scrutiny into ourselves very personally.
HA: In Jamie we have a character who seems to resent the people around him who walk and talk with a self-assurance he can’t muster or relate to. He correctly assesses and understands that audacity typically wins out in the sensational world of tabloid journalism, but he prefers a more nuanced approach, more order and predictability than the world in which he works.
ST: His struggle with order and predictability extends beyond the newspaper world, too, in this novel, as he is in the midst of a marital breakup when the book begins.
HA: Yes, life is spiraling out of Jamie’s control and without much direction from him. His wife had dictated a move to a distant suburb and greeted him at the door of their new home by announcing an unplanned (at least by Jamie) pregnancy that immediately put him under enormous pressure to advance and earn more money at his job. While he ultimately succeeds, he inadvertently creates schisms not only with his wife but also with his father, leaving him in precarious personal and financial positions.
At the outset of a strike at the newspaper, the heart of the story’s conflict is set in motion as the divergent interests of Jamie and his father create a much-too-public and violent confrontation between them. And one that is exploited by several people for various self-interests.
ST: Do you think it took a great deal of bravery on Jamie’s part to cross the picket line alone?
HA: From my own singular experience of crossing a picket line (for one day) during the Daily News strike of 1990-91, there can be a certain sense of bravery, however misguided the act is in the first place. Sort of facing the music and your fellow strikers, as opposed to sneaking in a side door, as one of my sports colleagues did that same day. Jamie’s decision is more tortured, based on the generational differences with his father and resulting acrimony. Part of his decision to cross his father’s picket line is to confront him, finally demand the attention he felt lacking in his life and incapable of otherwise earning. But while Jamie crosses alone, an act that becomes a pivotal part of the story, he does so with the assurance that Patrick Blaine, the paper’s esteemed columnist and someone he greatly admires, is already in the building. It provides for Jamie a sense of comfort. But that is obliterated once he enters the newsroom and discovers what is really going on.
Jamie and his father become victims of their own industry’s insatiable appetite for news however it can get it. Finding a path to family resolution for Jamie—and especially his desperate need to maintain a relationship with his two-year-old son, the one joy of his life—will not be easy.
ST: Cold Type (your title) is a newspaper term that a lot of people may not be familiar with, can you explain it to us?
HA: Hot Type was the primary part of the printing process back in the dark ages of publishing, lasting—depending on where you were—into the late 1970s. The process actually involved injecting molten type mental into a mold that would ultimately be fitted to become a page. It was painstaking and even potentially dangerous work that created a composing room that was a cacophonous and crazy, certainly by today’s technological advances, the kind of place Morris Kramer—Jamie’s father and longtime printers union leader—would naturally romanticize roman like an old war veteran. He brags to his indifferent son about the days when the paper couldn’t be put out without the proud tradesmen, even if reporters got the bylines, the glory and the starring roles in Hollywood movies. When these old composing rooms were finally replaced by the room-cooled hum of the computer age, the new age of printing became known as Cold Type. The decision to use it as the book’s title reflects not only the evolution of the industry but also the chilled relationship between generations or, in the case of my narrative, father and son.
ST: I have always been enamored of journalism, and journalists. There is a kind of glamorous noir quality to the concept of ‘the newsroom’. Do you think with Jamie there is more than meets the (surface) eye? Is he perhaps out to carve his place in history, consciously or otherwise?
HA: I agree that the newsroom, be it for print, electronic or digital, has, for many, been a very seductive workplace. Hence, the glut of films and television shows across the decades, from His Girl Friday to Mary Tyler Moore to HBO’s latest iteration, The Newsroom. After almost four decades at four very different newspapers, let me just say that the reality, for most, is that the newsroom is far more about stress and toil than it is about glamor. But, yes, there is no denying that the untidiness of it all, the daily racing against the clock, has been an attraction for me, as well as an affliction and a way of life I worry will be difficult to replace when I am done with my daily journalism career in the not-too-distant future. Jamie, conversely, was never consciously drawn to the newsroom; for him it was going there as a matter of survival, a chance to do something, anything, to earn a living. He resented the family help he needed to get there, the sacrifice of having to work in the shadow of his father, a printer but also a respected union strongman, and his cousin, always the cool kid and the star Jamie never imagined he could be. Most of us spend a good deal of our working lives trying to find or sustain that proper balance between personal and professional. But the tangled events that create the arc of the story lead Jamie to the threshold of media celebrity and the existential dilemma of having to choose between that and his young son, who provided the inspiration that drove him to professional triumph in the first place. Should he let go of the rope after he’s finally climbed to what feels like the top?
ST: He should not let go of the rope.
Susan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2014, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd. www.susantepper.com
Editor’s note: This is the final installment of Susan’s UNCOV/rd series. Thank you, Susan, for an entertaining and educational series. Hopefully, she’ll be back in 2015 tackling a new project.