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Interview with Paul Wilkes, December 8, 2005 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Paul Wilkes, December 8, 2005
December 8, 2005
Interview with author Paul Wilkes. Wilkes is the author of nineteen books and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. He has been a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, Columbia University, and the University of Notre Dame, among others.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Wilkes, Paul Interviewer: Hayes, Sherman Date of Interview: 12/8/2005 Series: Arts Length 60 minutes

Riggins: Good morning. My name is Adina Riggins. I'm the UNCW archivist and I'm here for a fourth interview with Paul Wilkes. It's December 8, 2005 and we're in the home office of Paul Wilkes. I believe we're going to start today talking about the writing life and various other things. This should be very interesting to get into the mind of an author. Hello.

Wilkes: Hello again, what mind, what author?

Riggins: How would you like to start?

Wilkes: Well what I have before me are the books that I've written and I thought it might be interesting just to tell a little bit about each one, how they got written, and their path to being published. I mean everybody wonders about how this gets done and how people get published. And at the end of it what we'll do is if we have time to go to a manuscript I'm working on right now. Notice I don't call it a book because before it's-- unless it's between hard covers or even soft covers it's not a book. It's still a manuscript and it's got to get published because I have some unpublished manuscripts. I have a couple of those around.

Riggins: Would it be considered jumping the gun to call it a book?

Wilkes: Well I have a manuscript. I'm working on a book. I guess that's the way I would say it but I don't call it a book until I kind of get there. Turn off the old cell phone here.

Riggins: I think many authors are that way.

Wilkes: Well, yeah, and I'm not spooky about talking about it. I mean I don't show it around. I'm not a workshoppy kind of writer.

Riggins: Oh, really?

Wilkes: Oh, no, no, no, no. I mean I guess that's good but I've got to kind of keep going on it and keep writing on it and maybe my ego is too fragile or something. I don't know but that's not what I do. I write it and then I send it out. So here we go. You ready on these?

Riggins: Sure.

Wilkes: Okay, well the first one is called Fitzgo the Wild dog of Central Park, okay. Fitzgo was a little dog that I saw out my window in New York City when I lived on Central Park West and he was eventually a dog that I adopted, brought into my own house and wrote a book about him into my apartment. And this book was actually written, I don't know it's about 120, 130 pages, was written in about a month in Mexico when I was on vacation one year and just kind of came out and I didn't really believe. Anyhow it came out and it got published and it went into paperback and did pretty well. There was a movie option on this at one time. This is kind of interesting. This is the finished version of Fitzgo. It was published paperback in Finnish and then there was a British edition of it too.

Riggins: When did you write it?

Wilkes: That was in 1973.

Riggins: Is it a non-fiction book?

Wilkes: Yeah, it's a non-fiction book about this dog and adopting it and this is on wife number one with wife number one whose picture is actually in the back of the book. But now when I give them away we kind of remove that and let's not go on with that one. So it was a book that kind of was a very natural experience and I wrote it. I didn't consider myself a children's author or a book writer. Actually it was published as an adult book and it sold also to a young audience but also to grownups. So we're going on in our lives and this is about the time in my life too that I come back to the Catholic Church and I was very interested in what was happening where all the priests were leaving the priesthood and why? And this is a book I wrote called These Priests Stay and this is a book about ten priests who thought about leaving the priesthood but then indeed chose not to. They stayed in the priesthood so they got to the wall but they didn't jump over the wall. They stayed. And moderately interesting I guess is me on the back of this with my cross on. This is me. I had been working, began to work at chips at my storefront and I was trying to live a good life and trying to be a good Christian man. I was writing about these priests that had had this crisis of faith but yet had decided that the priesthood was for them.

Riggins: He looks different.

Wilkes: He looks different. I look different. Well, yeah, I went through sideburns and parted hair and hair straight back.

Riggins: Changed with the times.

Wilkes: Well, in 67 years you have a lot of incarnations. But this was the real book that I was working on at the time trying out the dream and this book was a year in the life of the average American or an average American family, mother, father, three children.

Riggins: In fact the subtitle looks like it's a year in the life of an American family.

Wilkes: A year in the life of the American family, how about that? And what I did I basically lived with this family for a year. I wouldn't live there every day but I'd go out and visit them two or three times a week. They lived out on Long Island and I did not name that. They were not named. Their location was not named.

Riggins: What year was this?

Wilkes: This was in 1977. It's 1977, yeah, 1975, 1975. So this was my first real book. I got a $10,000 advance for this book which seemed like an astronomical amount of money at the time. I remember working at the Boulder Daily Camera. I guess I was making $125 a week so I guess it was. That was an astronomical amount of money for me to get that from Lippincott which is I guess not in business anymore but that was the first real big book. This was a Book of the Month Club selection and also this was the book that found its way to Westinghouse Broadcasting that they said "We want to get you in and you'll work on this series, Six American." It wasn't called that but a series on the American family and what's happening with the family, kind of for the bicentennial in 1976 so this was '75. So at the time that this book and this book was reviewed in Newsweek. Joe Kremitz [ph?] a very famous photographer came out and took my picture. It was a lead review in Newsweek. They saw it. And at the time I was living at the storefront. I was basically a homeless man living with Jacques Travers [ph?] who is my friend that's up here on the wall.

Riggins: The storefront?

Wilkes: The storefront is Chips so I was living, working, kind of a street worker living and working with the poor and so this thing came into my life. I had written a book and it was going through publication, all the process, and I didn't forget about it but that was kind of on a past life. All of a sudden I had this opportunity to do this television series and I did it with Six American Families. And I left the storefront, got a small apartment in Brooklyn and then eventually a very nice apartment in Greenwich Village and began my life as a single man in New York, not living the most exemplary life as I've talked about before. But nonetheless here I was doing-- I had done this book on the American family. I was doing this television series. "Hello, I'm Paul Wilkes and I want to tell you about the American family" and indeed my own life was just imploding.

Riggins: What conclusions did you make about the American family at this time?

Wilkes: Well, the title of the book, Trying out the Dream, it's a little, you know it catches in your throat. It's not very melodic but that was the idea. They had moved out of the Bronx. They had moved to suburban America and they were trying out the American dream and it wasn't working out. The woman never quite had enough or she had kind of a _____ son. The husband never made enough money to suit her. She really when the last child left there was a terrible empty next syndrome because this was a time when there was still a lot of dad at work, kids at school, mom at home, 1975, and it was really the beginning of the end of that. And so she was I think kind of dissatisfied. She thought that moving to suburbia would save her or make life more interesting but it kind of didn't. They were more isolated actually and so it was not a happy story. They're really good people and I feel badly because they didn't feel too well treated in the book. They were not too happy with the portrayal but it was an honest portrayal and I tried not to be unkind but life is that way. I'm sure if they came into my life, especially during those years in New York, it would read like a horror story so that's what it was.

Riggins: It sort of reminds me of similar stories and books I've read. I think there was a book about a family in Long Island and the daughter was Lydon. She became a feminist. Her last name was Lydon. She was a feminist. Anyway she was brought up in one of the first suburban--

Wilkes: Like Levittown kind of a place, yeah.

Riggins: In fact it was Levittown. She got into drugs but then she wrote this very important essay about women. I believe her last name is Lydon, L-Y-D-O-N. So anyway I read an essay and I believe a book was written about her family too. Her father was a World War II vet.

Wilkes: Yep, yeah, yeah. Well, yeah, and that kind of ___ that goes with the suburban life. They had lived in the Bronx. They had a tight community and then it wasn't so tight out there but they had a lawn and garbage collection and that wasn't clanking trucks and stuff like that. So I guess your own kind of soul follows you whether you're living in the city or you're out there in suburbia. The kids were a little dissatisfied so it was that kind of coming out of the '50s and the '60s, the '70s were a time of I think more dissatisfaction in America. Also on that one I did a little book called Six American Families where I talked about the six families that I profiled in the television series.

Riggins: And that same family wasn't in that one?

Wilkes: No, no, no. This was a black policeman in New York, a rural family in Iowa, a nuclear engineer out in New Mexico with a retarded child, a divorcing Jewish family in Mill Valley, California, a poor family in Dalton, Georgia, and a Polish Catholic sanitation worker outside of Chicago, in Chicago, and those are in the UNCW collection. I gave a set of those to it. Now there will be a big jump here in terms of years because that Six American Families appeared in 1977. The next book will not appear until 1984. Now what was Paul Wilkes doing this time? Well he was being a very bad boy as a single man in New York City was what. I was devoting a lot of time to my libido and very little time to my literary, I wouldn't call my literary life, to my writing life so interestingly enough it was a time when I had the most time. I mean I could have gone to any war, which I should have done. I should have gone wherever there was a war I should have been there covering it and being there and I didn't do that. I was just-- I went to a lot of parties. I guess I knew a lot of famous people, Andy Warhol and Kurt Vonnegut and Betty Freidan and Lauren Bacall and all these people, Gregory Peck were in and out of my life and I was on the periphery of their life I mean I was not a big star. I was nothing really and so I was just kind of going on that party scene, kind of writing. I did kind of a feckless series on being single in New York that was absolutely, I mean reading it you want to throw up today.

Riggins: You were writing for a newspaper.

Wilkes: I was writing some magazine pieces and I was researching a long historical novel. I was really obviously trying to find who the hell I was. I was reading, which I called In Due Season. It comes out of the first psalm and "He shall be planted along living waters and he shall blossom or show fruit in due season." It's Psalm 1 and it was all about kind of the immigrants, Slovak immigrants coming to America, coal mines, and then it was a four part book. The fourth part was me as the protagonist. It was fiction but it was loosely based on my life. So I wrote that and it never has been published. It's a manuscript about this fat and I'm probably not a very good novelist is what it boils down to, although there will be a novel here later but we'll get to that.

Riggins: I can't remember if I asked this on the previous tape but what was Betty Freidan like?

Wilkes: Betty Freidan, it was an interesting story. I was assigned a piece for the New York Times and I said, "Betty Freidan, feminine mystique."

Riggins: Been there, done that.

Wilkes: This broad hey man we're going to take her apart and fillet her in small pieces and serve her up. I mean what's this stuff she's writing about? Well I traveled with her for about a week and I always-- I do regard myself as first of all a reporter. I mean I will report the facts and the facts were she was telling America and women and men something very, very important and she was the real thing. So by the end of the piece it became a very complimentary piece on Betty Freidan. I did not fillet her at all but I still can remember she was a not very attractive Jewish girl in a very non-Jewish area, I think in Illinois, and she would just go up to this hillside. She had kind of like that beak-like nose and she was so smart but she was so unattractive and her heart just was aching. You know when you're 14 or 15 years old you don't give a damn about how many brain cells you have. You want to have firm, upright breasts, short hips, narrow hips and clear complexion and have blond hair and be a cheerleader. I mean what does every girl want to be at 14 or 15 but she really had something to say and it was interesting when she wrote the book. Her husband was a PR guy in New York, Carl Freidan and the story was that as her book went up the best seller list she used to get pummeled, beaten, hit. The more successful she got the more ugly he got in their lives so she eventually left him and then went on with her life, but a very interesting woman and, yeah, I carried Betty Freidan's bags. I thought it was a good-- I hope it was a good profile of her but I really saw into that who she was. Does this thing show up a lot on the camera, nothing, okay? I cut myself shaving. I can probably take it off.

Riggins: Now I notice it. I didn't notice it before.

Wilkes: Let's stop that and let's get rid of it. I was just thinking about it as I touched my chin and I'll come back. So there's this great gap as I'm being the single man in New York and being half crazy and probably more than half crazy. But I happened to run into a woman in New York, who is an ex-nun actually, and we began-- she and her husband and I talked about Thomas Merton and we both discovered a great interest in Merton and that nothing had ever been done film wise on him. So the project began to do a documentary on the life and times of Thomas Merton which eventually was funded by the Catholic Communication Campaign and which eventually would appear on public television in a primetime spot one evening in 1984.

Riggins: Thank you for having that list.

Wilkes: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, believe me I can't remember it either. So Merton came out and it was very well reviewed and it still goes on. I just got a little couple hundred dollar check for DVDs that still sell. That's 20 years later so that one-- he was a classic figure and, of course, you remember Merton was the guy whose book, autobiography I was given by one of the brothers at my high school in Cleveland and so Merton was really a very profound influence in my life and I traveled and I visited every spot where he so much as took out a Kleenex. I was in the room where he was born. I was in the room where he died and I was at the monastery where he lived, so it was really quite an extraordinary experience to film that and it went on as an hour long show. And then I did this little book called Merton by Those Who Knew Him Best, taking the interviews from the thing because you use the little snippets to make a film but they were really good interviews and now this book is kind of a bit of not a classic but a very valuable resource because half of these people are dead now that I interviewed about Merton's life, struggling at this time, struggling at this time to be a writer. Tracy [ph?] and I had married in 1982 and lived two years in Brooklyn and then moved up to my little cabin in Massachusetts and then bought a little bigger place and were living in Hardwick, Massachusetts having a very tough time, very tough time. I just couldn't sell anything. I didn't know what I was doing. I just couldn't get back into it somehow. So I wrote a series of profiles called Companions Along the Way and I guess what you could call this is a kind of a moral profiles in courage kind of a thing like Kennedy did and really quite a wide range from Akiba [ph?] to Schweitzer to Spinoza to Huxley to Emerson to Marcus _________ really kind of a broad spectrum of admirable people. And so, Companions Along the Way was something I could work on because I couldn't figure out what I was going to do for my next project.

Riggins: Did you find you liked biography?

Wilkes: Yeah, okay. They were short pieces. I've never written a biography, biography, so they were like short profiles of these people. But also though at this time my son Noah is born and he's now one year old or two years old and I'm trying to give him a little moral and spiritual dimension to his life and I buy a whole bunch of prayer books. They're either so Catholic that I want to throw up or they're so pious, so punitive or so _____ like a Hallmark card between "You little sweet thing," I hated them. So I said, wait a minute, well let me start telling them stories that make sense to me and him. So I began to do night prayers, "Dear God, I know you love me so much." Every one of them started, "Dear God, I know you love me so much," every one of the ones and it's about rain and about a visit and about being afraid and being all the things, about friends or whatever it is and all these things are about things that kids go through and I would make one up every night. It rained today, "Oh, Dear God, I know you love me so much. You sent the rain so that" whatever I would say. So I began to kind of write them down and indeed, voila, we have a book and it was illustrated by a woman who I never had met but this is still in print, barely in print. It will go out of print pretty soon but so this was a book that I wrote with Noah really because he was really a part of that. So again tough times in the Rockies; when I look back at how much money I was making, Social Security tells you how much you make every year, we must have been eating bark off the trees or something. I don't know what we were eating but it was a very simple life up in the country. We heated with wood. We had a very big garden, raised some sheep, chickens, eggs, meat, chickens. I had a couple hogs one year really living on the land so we didn't need a lot. I was teaching at Clark University at the time and that was kind of providing sustenance for me. So I sent-- I wanted to do a book on a priest, styled after the book, Diary of a Country Priest by George Bernanos and Diary of a Country Priest was about a priest who was so good but everything was going wrong for him in his wretched little village that he was living in and also he was getting sicker and sicker and sicker. I wanted to do a modern day corollary to that of a priest who was sick, what happens, and dying, what happens to his faith as he is dying? So I went to three diocese, the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts; Diocese of Worchester, Massachusetts; Diocese of Boston, Archdiocese of Boston, Massachusetts to their personnel department and basically I said, "I'd like to do a book and a story about a dying priest." So that's a little squirrelly but they gave me some names of people that they knew that had some physical problems and I interviewed quite a few, 30 or 40 people. Finally, I found one guy who said, "I'm not the guy for you but this guy Joe Greer over in Natick, N-A-T-I-C-K, Natick just had a diagnosis of multiple myeloma and he was always well respected by his other priest friends and I think it really turned a corner for him. So I went and talked to Father Greer and I thought to myself, yeah this would make a good book but before that it would make a great New Yorker profile. So I wrote a query to Robert Gottlieb who was the editor of the New York at the time saying, "I've got this wonderful priest. Here are some of the characteristics of this priest. I think he'd make a great New Yorker profile." Gottlieb was very quick, wrote me back within days said, "Well, Mr. Wilkes, we don't commission pieces by writers who we don't know. Write the piece and we'll certainly take a look at it." You don't want to do articles on spec. I mean this is a bad, bad thing for freelance writers, which I am. That's what I do. I'm a freelance writer. So I said, let me go back at this one more time, so I included an article from the New York Times I'd written about the Episcopal Church and their election of their presiding bishop and I said, let's see what does a New Yorker piece sound like? Now I had never really read the New Yorker but I kind of knew that style, so I sit down at my keyboard. In the town of Natick, Massachusetts there's a high spire church, within Father Joseph Greer, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So one of those kind of New Yorker-ish kind of things, a page and a half that took me maybe ten minutes. I sent it off to Gottlieb, didn't hear anything for a while. One Friday night a few scotches in me, feeling good, friends had come up from New York cooking, I love to cook. The phone rings. Tracy answers, "Wilkes house." "Is Mr. Wilkes there?" "Sure, hold on just a minute. Paul." "Hello." "Mr. Wilkes?" "Yeah." "This is Bob Gottlieb." I go Bob. "Yes, we'd like you to do that profile of Father Greer. Well yeah that's fine. I think you'll do just fine" gave me really no guidance or anything like that. He said, "Call our office on Monday and we'll make arrangements." So I called the financial office. I had never gotten an advance except for a book. I had never gotten an advance for a magazine article. They said, "Well how much would you like?" And I said, "Well" I didn't know what this thing was going to pay so I said, "Well maybe is $5,000?" "Oh, yes, $5,000 is just fine, $5,000 is just fine. That's my usual and expenses I was going to say like $500, $2,000?" "Oh, yeah, yeah, $2,000 is just fine."

Riggins: I bet you could have asked for more.

Wilkes: Whatever, so within two days the checks were in my mailbox, $5,000 advance, $2,000. Man this is a great place because the New Yorker pays you whether or not the piece runs. That's the whole idea. That's why they don't commission pieces unless they want you to do it. Eventually the piece would be $15,000. That's what the New Yorker paid then and really kind of pays now. It hasn't gone up much but that's a fair piece of change but it's a lot of work. So anyhow I went back to Father Greer and I said, "I talked about doing that book on you but I've got this assignment from the New Yorker to do an article about you" so I began and I virtually lived with Father Greer who really gave me new insights, not only into writing but what it was to be a Catholic that you could be a sinner and a good person too because he had been a sinner. He had at the time many of the priests were leaving. Father Greer put aside his black coat and his Roman collar, put a nice herringbone on and a sports shirt and went out to the bar. You remember the song, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," well I think Father Greer did a little bit more than holding her hand, so he violated his vow of chastity of celibacy and but yet came back from it and that was the best part of it see because he was a sinner but he came back as a good man and a great pastor and he had multiple myeloma and he was about to go through a bone marrow transplant. So the profile follows him just as a parish priest. It was not about the bone marrow transplant. But then I had this profile and I got a couple, I got more than one call, Knopf, Random House, a couple other places, "Do you want to do a book about Father Greer?" And I said, "I do because not only is he an interesting guy but he's going to undergo this bone marrow transplant." And Random House, Sam Vaughn [ph?] was the editor was the best. I really wanted to go with Knopf. I really wanted to. I really liked them but I knew the editor. As a matter of fact, she was one of my old girlfriends and I knew that she was a little flaky and Sam Vaughn was a legendarily good editor and I wanted a really good editor so eventually out comes In Mysterious Ways, the Death and Life of a Parish Priest. Now why I say death and life is because when you go through a bone marrow transplant they kill you. They kill all the cells in your body. They just radiate you down to nothing. They chemo you. You're bleached out and then they re-infuse your stem cells which then will generate healthy cells hopefully and keep you alive. And, as a matter of fact, Father Greer did live about another five years and I was very close to him. I was with him right to the end almost after the book was done and everything like that. I was reading the bravery to him, the Psalms to him in the hospital as he was in intensive care and suffering and he came to my house before that, said mass. I have a wonderful video of the boys being altar boys while Father Greer is saying mass so I really loved this man, loved this man and really he turned my writing life around also, so it was two things. And when he died it was a very sad moment for me too. At the time of that book I also had a novel that was kind of perking around in me which eventually was called Temptations. Now this is a kind of a fictionalized version of my year as a hermit. This happened in about 1980 after my just being so ____ with my New York life. I was getting sick of myself, knowing Tracy but not knowing that I would marry her I just said, "I have to really go up and see if I'm to be this trapist monk or not and I'm going to go up to the monastery and live for a year and be a holy man hopefully. Anyhow, this novel, my first and last novel as I say is all about a guy who goes out of the city and tries to figure out if he's going to be a trapist monk or not. This guy happens to be a trapist monk. I chose to be married so that was it. And so I had a new relationship with the New Yorker now because of Father Greer and the next-- I did a two-parter on the Archbishop of Milwaukee Rembert Weakland, Rembert R-E-M-B-E-R-T, Weakland W-E-A-K-L-A-N-D, and Rembert Weakland was a very interesting guy. Eventually he was tossed out because they found that he had been messing around with a guy and the guy was blackmailing him. It was kind of a sordid thing but he was a great, great archbishop and a great churchman. But in this book and in the two-parter in the New Yorker I followed him to the bishops' meeting in Washington. We went down to El Salvador during the war, went up into the rebel held territory, was shot at and everything else, so it was a little bit of my war. I've only been to a couple wars in my life. I later would go to Bosnia too but El Salvador was really that. So the New Yorker I had a good experience with. So next I'm going to do-- I had done Father Greer. Let's do a Protestant minister and do a similar kind of a book. I visited five or six Protestant churches around my area in Massachusetts. One was more boring than the next. I'm taking my kid to the pediatrician Arnie Gurwitz, G-U-R-W-I-T-Z, nice Jewish boy from Worchester and I says, "Arnie, I don't know what I'm doing here. I can't find an interesting Protestant Church. He says, "Well, why don't you do Jews? Why don't you do a synagogue? We got an interesting rabbi?" So I go to talk to the rabbi and indeed he is interesting and Judaism is far more interesting. I don't want to get sectarian about this but the average congregational church and the average synagogue there's no-- I mean one is borscht and the other is Lipton soup.

Riggins: Including Catholic?

Wilkes: Well, Catholic has that texture too. Catholic has that texture, yeah, that rich 2,000 year tradition and it's not the church's fault. It's probably my fault for not seeing the stuff.

Riggins: Everybody brings their own.

Wilkes: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, their own template to it. So anyhow so I said to this rabbi, I says, "Rabbi, I'd like to write about you and do a profile for the New Yorker and I thought that it would eventually turn into a book but if you have the New Yorker on your side you're going to get paid for it plus all your expenses." So I basically followed this rabbi for a year's time through all the congregational battles and all the horrible stuff that happens in synagogues as he's trying to make people more and more Jewish, more observant. And eventually the whole thread through the thing was a trip to Israel, a congregational trip to the Holy Land, which eventually happens. We get on. We go to the plane. We're in Israel. I'm at the--

Riggins: You went with them?

Wilkes: Yeah, I went with them. I'm at the Dead Sea. It's about 150 degrees. I'm on a patio.

Riggins: Can you show the book?

Wilkes: Yeah. I'm on the patio of this very nice resort by the Dead Sea and one of the guys comes running across these hot rocks saying, "Here's the copy of the International Herald Tribune. The New Yorker, Robert Gottlieb has just been deposed. The new editor is Tina Brown." Tina Brown, of course, had a rep as a kind of a scandal mongering, good journalist but liked the other side, the seedier side of the news and stuff. So anyhow Tina Brown is now the New Yorker editor and I say to myself, could I please have a double vodka because Tina Brown is not interested in a conservative show in Worchester, Massachusetts and the rabbi. So anyhow I got back to America and I wrote it. Gottlieb was still kind of in office. He paid me for it, God bless him, before he left and Tina Brown indeed was not interested in it but I just continued on to do a book called And They Shall be my People, an American Rabbi and his Congregation," which also-- I'm not mentioning all this-- a number of these books were Book of the Month or Literary Guild or stuff like that. So this book then came out and the interesting story about this is that the book comes out. The rabbi they have-- he's a very good rabbi but the congregation said, "We really can't afford to give you a raise this year. We know you're doing good work but we"-- so anyhow that came out in the book that he was not going to get a raise although he was a very good rabbi. It was like the front page of the Worchester Telegram and Gazette. They met together immediately, bingo, the rabbi got an eight percent raise or something like that, plus the wife did not like the book very much because I talked about her shopping at night because the congregants wouldn't see what she put into her basket. You know what I mean?

Riggins: Grocery shopping?

Wilkes: Exactly. I mean to be a Rabbetezin and they'll figure out the spelling for that one, R-A-B-B-E-T-E-Z-I-N, which is a Rabbi's wife is a very difficult thing because the people, kids got to be ideal. What kind of salad dressing should you buy? Of course it's going to be kosher but it's got to be not the most expensive, not the cheapest and all that stuff but anyhow so one of her only satisfactions was eating so she gained about 20 or 30 or 40 pounds so she got a little more zaftig and that was in the book that she ate more. She gained weight. So right after the book came out she didn't like this at all. She lost about 20 pounds, 25 pounds, so when I went on the road to write about this book I said, "It's not only a book about rabbis getting a raise, it's a Jewish diet book because when you read this book you're going to lose 20 pounds." I hope you don't lose 20 pounds. So anyhow so life is going along pretty good but Tina Brown is now the editor of the New Yorker. Tina Brown is not going to write-- I'm not going to do priests and rabbis. She wants all the scandal stuff. I went into meet her and she said, "Paul, I love your stuff for the magazine. We just want more, more, more, more and more." I said, "Tina, take me. I'm yours." "What shall we have you do?" Where is Bruce Ritter, R-I-T-T-E-R, Bruce Ritter now?

Riggins: Who is that?

Wilkes: "Tina," I said, "Bruce Ritter who was the founder of Phoenix House in New York City, which was for runaway kids and all that stuff, a very good operation for these kids, Times Square, was also caught diddling around with teenage boys and had been thrown out of office. Where is he now?" I looked at her and I said, "Tina, if there are ten people on the face of the earth I'm not interested in talking to one of them is Bruce Ritter." Bingo, there went my career with the New Yorker for that time except that I had an assignment to go to Bosnia during the war, the town of Mostar, M-O-S-T-A-R, with that great bridge that was eventually bombed. I was there during the war, shells coming in and all that stuff, so flack jacket and helmet and the whole business. The interesting thing about it is that before I went I didn't want to have a khaki colored helmet because I might look like the military so I was still living in Massachusetts. I had the local farmer paint it about this color of blue actually. This is almost exactly the United Nations color of blue which they hated so I had painted-- yeah, both sides. The U.N. was trying to keep them apart, the Croats and the Serbs so everybody hated the U.N. so I had the worst color on. I could have been shot anyhow but I wasn't and I came back. She did not like the story. She thought it was a little too pious and eventually they paid me but my career at the New Yorker was gone for a while. So I eventually ran into the National Catholic Reporter and so that was it. So anyhow I'm becoming I think more and more Catholic in my ways but a certain kind of Catholic and I thought to myself I want to write about that. I want to write about what it is to be a modern day Catholic, faithful and thoughtful at the same time.

Riggins: I like that title, A Good Enough Catholic, a Guide for the Perplexed.

Wilkes: A guide for the perplexed and what this is about there's a term in psychology in child raising. It comes from Winnicott actually about being the good enough parent and the good enough parent is not the perfect parent but the parent that doesn't let their kid get in trouble, does listen to them but not all the time, takes care of their basic needs. I mean is very loving but is not perfect or extracting perfection from their child. It seems like weak tea but it's not weak tea. It's really sensible child rearing and it's sensible Catholicism. Of course, the right wing of the Catholic Church thought this was apostasy. But anyhow again it was a Book of the Month Club selection and it was all about living a Catholic life and that book is still in print to this day. So I'm writing more and more about the Catholic Church. I'm teaching. I'm now coming down-- I've now come down to UNCW so I'm here and I always have a trapist monastery in my life. I used to go to Spencer, which was the monastery right by where I lived in Massachusetts. I had been to Gethsemane where Merton had lived during his life. I was there as a young man, never met him, but I was there. Then I went back after to film when I did the documentary. Well I found a monastery down about three hours south of Wilmington called Mepkin, M-E-P-K-I-N, Abbey in Monck's Corner, South Carolina, M-O-N-C-K-'S Corner. It was a monk person. It wasn't anything about being a monk. So I thought to myself it's wonderful when I go there. I have a great spirit when I come out but then I lose it within about 15 minutes of hitting the highway. How about a book about trying to live the monastic life outside your monastic experience? So I made a pact to myself to go down there once a month and to write about my experiences and how I was bringing monastic life into my life. So the book became Beyond the Walls, Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life" and it's a series of 12 chapters, January through December, about bringing monasticism into your life for instance, about detachment, stability, all about faith, discernment, I mean how to figure out what's right for your life, chastity, see because I think even we in our lives have to be chaste. I don't want to get too pious about this but I've lived a very un-chaste life at times but now I have to look at the world. I can appreciate what a woman looks like but I can't-- if I'm lusting after her that's not a good thing for my soul or for anybody else. Or if I'm going to the computer for pornography, which a lot of guys do, and I'm not judging that but that's not a good thing. It's not good for my soul. It's not good for my mind. It's not good for my kind of self. Also it's not good for me as a parent raising the two boys that I then had. So I wrote about all these monastic qualities that you--

Riggins: It sounds like monastic life outside of the monastery.

Wilkes: Right, but with those principles, those guiding principles that the monks go by. So I'm still at UNCW and at this time for some reason I had talked to the people at the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis or I met one of their guys at some conference or something like that and I was going on and on about this one. I had started to give talks around the country about Catholic life and from this book, the Father Greer book, and it was really about how to live a Catholic life. I went and gave a series of talks at a parish in New Jersey, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. I was there for three days and I saw something I had never seen before. I mean these people were having a great time being Catholic, doing good in the community, being holy and happy people. I had not had that kind of experience in my entire married life to tell you the truth. I had had a-- one of my pastors up in Massachusetts was convicted of child pornography. I wrote about him in the New Yorker. The other one was punitive. We came to Wilmington at St. Mary. It was not a happy church. We had a very punitive pastor, a very, very unhappy parish secretary whose answer was always no that I just said-- I went to this other place and I said, "Man, this is Catholicism the way it should be." So I was talking. He said, "Why don't you write about that?" I said, "I don't write about the institutional church. I write the profiles."

Riggins: Actually you wrote about a synagogue.

Wilkes: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah right but see I don't write about institutional Judaism. I write about specific examples of it. So he said, "No, no, no, I think you're onto something here." So eventually I got a grant through the--

Riggins: I remember this because I was at UNCW by then.

Wilkes: You were, yeah, okay. Well I got a grant through the university and hired two people, two former students of mine as researchers and then Miles also to help me to find excellent Catholic parishes throughout the country and excellent Protestant congregations. So that was my first Lilly grant and then these books, I got these books together. I found 300 of each, 300 excellent Protestant, 300 excellent Catholic and then I thought to myself, gees, I really should bring them together to exchange ideas, so I created something called the Pastoral Summit. I just pulled it out of the air, Pastoral Summit. That sounds good. So the Pastoral Summit was held in New Orleans.

Riggins: I remember there was a website and online registration and all that.

Wilkes: Right and we had about 600 or 700 people came to this first conference, some of the talks and practices of which were then compiled in this book called "Best Practices from America's Best Churches." And then I got another grant from Lilly to film these churches and create a documentary, which I did part of and just ran out of money and steam and I included it in my New Beginnings stuff now but it didn't go anyplace really. So that's the kind of the last book that I have. After that I created two programs for church renewal and good stewardship called New Beginnings. New Beginnings is and I have a website for it, but New Beginnings is a three-hour program to revitalize churches and then the stewardship program is to have people be more generous with their stewardship. Now which brings me up to date of sitting here today so I'm working on the next let's hope it's a book but this is the-- I don't want to call it a memoir because I hate that word.

Riggins: I remember you said that.

Wilkes: I mean everybody-- when I was teaching at UNCW everybody wanted to write about themselves and my training as a journalist was always not to do that, to not use the personal pronoun I, to write about other people and get into their own lives, the "new journalism" that Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese really pioneered back in the late '60s and early '70s. But I think my life's been moderately interesting. I have this ethnic background, breaking out of it, my mother's accident, her death, going to college, being a motherless child with service, first wife, New York, being the street worker, then being the hedonist, then being the good hopefully the good father and better Catholic hopefully. I thought it was kind of there was some texture to my life so now I am about writing that book. I have about three other books in various stages of writing too, so I kind of work on a couple of them at a time but this is the one that I'm working on right now and I don't know what it would be called but I kind of have a working title called Looking for God in all the Wrong Places, One Man's Life or One Man's Catholic Life. I don't know if I want to make it Catholic or not. Maybe we can broaden the readership a little bit but that's what it's going to be about. It's about looking for God and trying to find God in life because I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to be Dorothy Day. I wanted to be a street worker working, living with the poor, Mother Teresa. I couldn't do it. I wanted to be a monk. I wanted to be a trapist monk and just sing and pray and be away from the world. I couldn't do it so here comes Tracy and here comes two boys that I'm lucky enough to be the father of. This is where I found my life. This is where I found God is in the most banal, ordinary, hey Mr. Mom, I've got bread rising and I cook and I bake and I took the kids to soccer and did all that stuff and that's really where I found if you want to call it my vocation. I'm also a writer but I think being a person is my first vocation, hopefully being a good husband and a father. So if you want to I can pull it up on the screen and I'll show you just a paragraph or two of the work that I'm working on right now and I'll show you kind of how I kind of jiggle around with it and try to make it work.

Riggins: Sure.

Wilkes: If you have any questions or anything before, no?

Riggins: No. I'll think about it but if not we'll just move on to this next part.

Wilkes: Episode, all right, let me pull this puppy up here. Okay, what we have on the screen is I just call it chapter 23. I don't know how that's going to work out but this is-- I'm now writing about my life, this book of my-- I don't know if it's an autobiography or story of a man's life, but this is a part where I'm now in the Hamptons and I'm living this very fancy life and I'm at a softball game with a lot of famous people and we're playing and all these women, some of whom I've had somewhat intimate relations with are around and I'm there and I have my shirt off. I have a wonderful suntan. I have Abercrombie and Fitch shorts on. I'm Ban de Soleil on my-- good cologne on my body. Here's a guy that had been working in the soup kitchen with drunks and addicts and wearing second--

Riggins: ________.

Wilkes: Yeah, a year before who is now. Okay, so we go to here and the way it works with me is whenever I have something general I'm always trying to make it specific so here--

Riggins: Your last cursor going around by the word "back".

Wilkes: Yeah, so back at the playing field the ball floats through the air. See I've had the ball like pitched and then I do a digression. The ball is floating through the air. Although he was hardly the athlete in high school and college, now this is-- he is me, so I don't know if I'm going to eventually be I but I'll take care of that later. Although he was hardly the athlete in his younger years, now see I want to give some specifics in his-- although he was hardly-- no that's not even, that's too many words, hardly a great athlete. I'll put this down his younger years just the second string, second baseman, the guard nobody passed to at St. Benedict's. Back on the playing field, the ball field, although he was hardly a great athlete in his younger years just a second string second baseman, yeah that doesn't work does it? Yeah just the backup so we want to not have any repeated words.

Riggins: Do you ever talk out loud when you're writing?

Wilkes: No, not really. I don't read my stuff out loud but that's probably good. Just a backup second baseman, the guard nobody passed to, the basketball guard, see because that would be, yeah. Guard nobody passed to at St. Benedict's and now the pitiful 110-pound center in football in a season of defeats. Now see you can see I don't have it yet. Although he was hardly a great athlete in his younger years just the backup second baseman, the basketball guard nobody-- second baseman we know is baseball, just a backup second baseman, the basketball guard nobody passed to, younger years at St. Benedict's. I don't know where I'm going to put St. Benedict's. Just the backup second baseman, the basketball guard nobody passed to, maybe St. Benedict's will say that. The pitiful-- in football the pitiful 100-pound St. Benedict's center, the pitiful 110-pound St. Benedict's center on the team that never tasted victory. Maybe we'll say it that way. In high school he was short, too short, too slow for any sport besides the school newspaper. I don't know if that's going to work or not. Yeah, but you put it down, yeah. But now being with media people who-- yeah, beautiful, who were equally inept he was somewhat of a star, handsome, popular, scandalously successful with women. He's the host of a series. So again so we have what started with a generic turns out to be, although he was hardly a great athlete in his younger years, just a backup second baseman, the basketball guard ______, the pitiful 110-- St. Bendict's, on a team that never tasted victory, here he is-- no I got to delete that sentence. Here he is some-- although he was hardly a great athlete-- see I don't have a real sentence here yet so I always have to kind of jiggle around with that. Although he was hardly a great athlete in his younger years, just a backup second baseman, the basketball guard nobody passed to, I know it's a dangling participle but we'll work that out, the pitiful 110-pound-- on a team that never tasted victory and this is a long sentence but let's see if it-- and in high school too short and too slow for any-- here he was somewhat of a star. See I've got that at the end of that other sentence too so that's-- that's a very long sentence. But here being with media people who were equally inept-- see I got to figure out-- see I've got the same thing in two places. I got to figure out where that's going to go, what sentence it's going to go in. And again I haven't, huh? Yeah, I haven't rehearsed this so this is-- we're doing this in real time in real thing. But that's the way the writing process goes. You just kind of fuss around with things and you put them in different places. I realize this is a repetition of this and so I may even leave that and I'll say, I may even leave it and say find the right place for this phrase, so I may leave it, yeah, and often I'll have a word. See like up here Willie Morris, who I knew at Harper's his tiny blah, blah, blah, blah, his heart bitter at the New York Alfred Kazen [ph?] wrote about in his pages as-- I know there's a quote someplace about Kazen talking about New York and how it is and how it takes people and spits them out. I don't know what it is. I can't find it right now but I know I will find it and so that's why I just leave it on the page like that. And then I keep on saving it and I go on. Now maybe-- okay you're done. Why don't you stop?

Riggins: We have just a couple more minutes.

Wilkes: Have you done all this stuff on the wall?

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