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Interview with Paul Wilkes, September 11, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Paul Wilkes, September 11, 2007
September 11, 2007
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Interviewee: Wilkes, Paul Interviewer: Diesenhaus, Doug / Parnell, Jerry Date of Interview: 9/11/2007 Series: SENC Writers Length 40 minutes

(Crew talk)

Diesenhaus: I'm Doug Diesenhaus, I'm an assistant at the Randall Library and we're doing an oral history project interviewing writers about the writing process and creative writing. It's September 11, 2007, and I'm talking to Paul Wilkes at his house. So I think a great place to start is if you could just talk about how did you get started writing?

Wilkes: A lot of writers have these very inspirational moments, you know, like I want to tell a great story to the world or I feel I have this talent or my father was a writer or relative was a writer. I had none of those things. My father was a carpenter. He went to the sixth grade. My mother had us seven children and cleaned houses off of Shaker Heights up above Cleveland where I lived. But I was in high school and I was too small for the sports teams when I got to high school. I was only about 5'1", 110 pounds. And I had this really hot chick named Carol Corsaro that I really wanted to--well you know what I wanted to do. But I really wanted her to fall in love with me. And I realized that the real--what I needed to do was to have one of those letter sweaters. But I was not going to get one is sports because I was too small. So I see this fellow come down the hallway and he had this really nice looking cathedral Latin CL with a quill on it. And I said, "Hey man, how'd you get that thing?" And he said, "Well, I write for the newspaper." And I said, "I guess I could do that." So I began to write for the newspaper. My first stories were about sports. And I always started with an adverb or whatever crashing or smashing or -ly or whatever those words are. I wouldn't know a gerund if it walked down the street. But anyhow, I started, and I guess I was doing okay as a sports writer for my Latineer newspaper. So then it comes to the time of graduation. I'm ready to go get a job in the steel mills downtown in Cleveland, you don't believe me. And there's no steel mills there, but there was when I was younger. And this guy, one of the brothers--it was an all boys Catholic high school said, "Hey Wilkes what are you going to do next year, I'm a guidance counselor." This was a new concept, guidance counselor. So I said, "Well, I don't know brother, I'll go work in the mills or something like that. My father's a carpenter, maybe I'll follow him." He says, "Wait a minute, you know you did okay in this IQ test here. You know you can go to college." I said, "College?" I said, "My brother didn't even graduate high school." He said, "No, no you can go to college." Let's see, let's see what did you do here in school? Newspaper. Journalism." There was one Catholic school for journalism and that was Marquette University in Milwaukee. So I don't even think I applied to Marquette.

There were no such things as SATs or anything. I think he wrote a letter or something. I was, I didn't do that well in high school, but I was in the National Honor Society and you know, I did all right, you know. So I guess if you were in a certain percentage and, you know, you could go. So all of a sudden I was accepted to college, to journalism school. So, there I was going off to Marquette University. My father took me down to the train station in Cleveland, Ohio with a box about this big with everything I own. Pushed me and it on to the train and I couldn't even spell Marquette or I didn't know where Milwaukee was. I was off to college and that's how my writing career started.

Diesenhaus: And even earlier when you were a child were there any things that might have foreshadowed the choice of writing? Did you like enjoy reading a lot? Were there other kinds of influences?

Wilkes: I always thought--I guess I like reading enough. I don't think I was a voracious reader. I went through the typical--I was into deep sea diving books. And Son of the Middle Boarder and all those--I forget who the author was of those great books about the West. But I don't think I was that, like, inspired. You know, like writing, like really floated my boat or anything like that. I'd always like story telling. See I think that's basically what nonfiction writing is. It's like, hey Doug, I want to tell you about an orphanage I found in India. And then that's the story. Or this priest I found, or this rabbi I've been following around. Man, this is terrific. You know what he does? So instead of telling it orally, of course we put it down on paper.

Diesenhaus: I noticed something in the transcript you talked about being a later child in birth order.

Wilkes: Yes, seven.

Diesenhaus: Sort of you felt a little bit almost like an only child, a little bit of solitude? Did that have--?

Wilkes: I was. I've always, you know, I'm a--people that know me from Randall Library and UNCW know me as a very gregarious guy. Okay, I'm always you know, out there. But there's a real quiet side to me. I spent a year as a hermit once. I mean, I'm home all alone all day with whatever I do. So there's a real, there's a real quiet and almost contemplative or monastic side to me, which is of course very, very important in the writing life. And then when we get to it, if we get to it, my life in New York was absolutely horrible for my writing life because I had so much of a social life and a physical, sexual life too. Not that I don't have one now. I hope have one every time and again, but we're not going into that. But I mean, I just was sowing--my libido was working overtime and I didn't have much time or energy or inspiration to write.

Diesenhaus: Now, when you talk about going to New York, was that about graduate school after Marquette?

Wilkes: Well, the Marquette--I went to Marquette and did very poorly in school, very poorly. I had a 2.34 average out of four. I barely got out of the place. I was working full time. And I was also kind of bemoaning my fate full time. All these kids from Oak Park, they get the check for $25 bucks from home and here I go out to the factory. Of course, they were coming in to philosophy class at 8 o'clock with a little cornflake on their lip and I had just been to Johnny's Round Up for a shot and a beer after the third shift at the can company, because I was a working class guy. And I was probably pissed off about, you know, they had, excuse me, that they had all this kind of you know, they hadn't had all this stuff laid in their lap. I had to work for everything.

Diesenhaus: Mm-hmm.

Wilkes: So it was Marquette and then it was the Navy. And really the Navy was the thing that formed me, I think. I came--I went in a boy and I came out a man. Because I was--I went to officer candidate school. I was an officer in the Navy. The draft was on and either you joined--either you allowed yourself to be drafted or you joined one of the services. I always looked better in blue than khaki. So I joined the Navy although I couldn't swim. But that's another story. So in the Navy, the real moment of where I really began, where my writing life really began was in Karachi, Pakistan, not meeting my first wife which you probably know about. But looking out the porthole and reading the Karachi Dawn, the daily newspaper. Pakistan is doing wonderfully. We are eradicating poverty. Illnesses are on the wane. I looked out the window, elephantitis, leprosy, chronic, you know. I said wait a minute. This is crap. This is not true. That's truth out there, out that window. It clicked in, wait a minute. I went to journalism school. I can tell the truth about life. And that's where really, really it began. And then I went to my first newspaper and--

Diesenhaus: And throughout either school or the Navy or in your journalistic work were there particular people who served as teachers or mentors or influences that really were important?

Wilkes: Yes. Undergraduate at Marquette they were--these were--they were lovely guys but they were not you know, they were--you know, as they say if you can't write, you teach, so. I've also taught so I mean, I guess I'm in that boat too. And really there wasn't that at Marquette and at Columbia, I don't think I had inspiring teachers that I can remember. But I do remember the city, the beat of the city and the pulse of the city and the excitement of being in New York. That really got me going and being around the real writers that came up from downtown to teach as adjuncts. And the real, real writers of that era were the true new journalists. Gabe Talise, Tom Wolfe, you know, people like that. And I'll never forget, I did a story for New York magazine. This comes later, but I was walking down the street and I ran in to Tom Wolfe, because we always used to hang out at New York Magazine. I was on the masthead of New York Magazine. Gloria Steinem, Paul Wilkes, Tom Wolfe. Now I don't know what happened to those two people, but we know Paul Wilkes is just so famous. But anyhow, so I was walking down the street and ran into him, "Hey Tom how're you doing?" "Hey man, how're you doing?" I say, "Yeah, I'm doing this story about New York City garbage and I'll ride in the truck and I'm going up to the landfill." "Man that's the way to do the story." "That's the way to do the story". It was the new journalism, the participatory new journalism. And that really did excite me because I'm not an intellectual, I'm not a guy to sit and ask a lot of questions, I like to see--I find it more important to see what a person does than what they say. So that new journalism, that really got me. And I would clip out articles from Esquire, you know, famous--Gabe Telise: Frank Sinatra has a cold, Junior Johnson from Tom Wolfe. You know, those are the really classic bedrock of the new journalists. You know because I--creative nonfiction is not a word I use or I believe has any volume of validity it is total fabrication, polyester, you know, nothing. That is, I don't know what that means. But I do know what the new journalism means. It means that kind of being involved in the story, creating a narrative out of your events, you know, the significant detail, those are the real key. Those are the elements, key elements, at that time.

Diesenhaus: Yes. Sounds like you have strong opinions about creative nonfiction.

Wilkes: Me? Strong opinions?

Diesenhaus: Can you talk a bit more about your thoughts about the term and are there other--

Wilkes: See I know Lee Gutkind, the guy coined it. We talk together a bit. And he's a nice enough guy and he has a beard and all this--he's a good guy. But it's crap, creative nonfiction. What the hell does that mean? And it's so bandied about and people say I want to study creative nonfiction. It's a bullshit term. I don't know. I just--it means nothing to me because in essence it kind of creative nonfiction means that you're creating something, like you're creating something out of something that isn't there. But the best of the new journalism is it's all there. You're just kind of, you know, putting it in order and making a story of it. So--and I've been to those creative nonfiction workshops and I--my head spins and I get dizzy and I get angry and I want to go drink, you know. I mean, it's junk, you know? I just--that's not my kind of journalism, let's just put it that way.

Diesenhaus: If--would you say that you know, early on in your career you were working in a new journalism model? And now are you, do you see yourself in that way?

Wilkes: Yeah, literary journalism too, I mean, yes, I'm just a Slovak kid from the east side of Cleveland. I don't even, you know, again, I wouldn't know a gerund if it walked down the street to meet me. So I don't know that kind of stuff. I'm more of a-- well you see it, I'm a shirt sleeve journalist. And I think, look, I've written for the New Yorker magazines and I've written 20 books, so I mean, I obviously you know, I don't want to play love thy journalism with you. But I believe that it's ffairly simple, our craft. And when you call it literary nonfiction, I mean, give me a break. I mean I read a lot of literary nonfiction and, you know, it sticks in my throat. I don't--I'm not a fancy writer. I'm a writer who tries to as best I can marshal the facts, tell them in an interesting fashion and bring the person alive. The way I see my job, Doug, is I'm a pipeline, I'm a conduit between that event and the page. And I have to be a conduit. I have to be this pipe without any junk in it so that event or that person or that statement comes through clearly to the page and the person. I'm there, I can smell this. I know that guy. That's what I want to do. That's my kind of writing.

Diesenhaus: And now you started in newspapers?

Wilkes: I started in newspapers but I always, I was never a daily journalist. I always did feature stories, Bolder Daily Camera, and then I went to Columbia. You know, I was rejected at the University of Wisconsin, Marquette told me not to apply to their graduate program because I had such a terrible average. And I was accepted to Columbia with a fellowship, because I had written for a daily newspaper at the time. I mean, they knew I was a serious guy. I don't think my clips were anything outstanding, but they saw he's a real journalist. So that's why I went to Columbia and that beat of the street and the rhythm of the city and all that. That really got me. And then I went to the Baltimore Sun and wrote for them for about a year and a half always thinking about I want to be a freelance writer. I'm going to write for Look magazine, Life magazine, I want to write for these slick magazines which were very big at the time. And the break came when, and I was trying to always find a story that I was doing in Baltimore that would have national, have a national significance. The big break came with Dustin Hoffman coming through town with a play called Jimmy Shine, a Murray Schisgal play. And in the play, Dustin Hoffman is an artist, tortured artist and he's slashing this canvas. What happened somehow they didn't dull this knife as you do on the stage and he cut his hand. I didn't know he cut his hand. But he went through the second act with his hand in his pocket. And the end of the play he (claps) Dustin Hoffman comes in, pulled his hand out of his--it's dripping blood. They wrap it in a towel, I'm backstage. And I'm following this story as you would do, Doug, you would follow the story. Oh no, no, no. No journalists, no journalists. I said three words that changed history, my history. John's Hopkins Hospital, now I lived in Baltimore, John's Hopkins Hospital, I didn't know where it was. But I knew I had to be in that limo. But I knew I could find John's Hopkins I wasn't going to hurt him any. I knew I could find it easier than they could find it. Get in the car kid. So I got in the car, got to the first stop light. Cab driver, where's John's Hopkins, right, left, right, left. And there I sat with Dustin Hoffman and the lead of my story eventually was last name Hoffman, first name Dustin. You know, like they ask you in the hospital.

Because I knew I had a good story, Dustin Hoffman was very hot at that time. I called Clay Felker, the first editor of New York Magazine. "Do you want a story on Dustin Hoffman cutting his hand, you know, celebrity piece, kind of, you know tortured." "Have it to me tomorrow, 1500 words total." Excuse me, tomorrow? Bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup. That was my first story for New York. Did a story for TV Guide and I said it's time to go to New York and Sport magazine, God forbid. Don't ever--sports is a stupidest kind of writing there is, so I don't--I didn't--I do none of that. So, but that was one of my breaks. And I took a job as a PR guy, as a flack, as a corporate pimp at Harper and Row writing their newsletter, their corporate annual onion report, and their quarterly reports. I hired a very smart girl out of Bennington who you know, who knew how to answer the phone with an English accent, "Hello Paul Wilkes' office." And she wrote the whole damn thing. I closed my door and began to freelance. I started to do stuff for the Times and did that for a while and then I was on my freelance career which has been some 35 years.

(Crew talk and phone rings)

Diesenhaus: What do you--you talked sort of wanting to be a freelance writer and it sounds like there's a little bit of romance there.

Wilkes: And an insanity, because nobody makes a living as a freelance writer. We all know that. It's stupid. But, you know, I didn't want to write for a--I would have Life Magazine or Look or Newsweek would have offered me a job, I mean, take me I'm yours. But that wasn't happening. And I just, I guess I've always been kind of an independent person. I'm not a--you should see me at faculty meetings. I'm the grim reaper, man. They'd have straight jackets for me. Oh God, he's coming and tackled me. Because I'm not a--I'm kind of an instinctual person and let's go with this thing, let's stop talking about it, let's go. So I think that's probably why I want--I thought about more independent kind of a life. And to write about things that I cared about. I didn't want to write about crap. I wanted to write about things I cared about. And that time, I didn't even know that. I was writing celebrity pieces and stuff like that. But that would change, I could tell you when. But that would change and I would shift another gear.

Diesenhaus: Were there other limitations in the form of your newspaper work. Was there something you were trying to get away from?

Wilkes: That's a good question. That's a good question.

Diesenhaus: Was there, did you find a new freedom in the new writing that you really--?

Wilkes: I did find a new freedom. It was like a bigger stage maybe. I mean I was working for the Baltimore Sun. I mean, it's not shabby, but it's--Sunday magazines are Sunday magazines. I just wanted to go to the next level. Life, Look, you know those (inaudible) and magazines like that. So I just wanted a--you know, the thing of it is when you write--my first stories were like about the election of office, the Lion's Club election of officers, and what the hell can you write about? But it means you got to you know, got a priest that's dying of cancer, I mean the stage is bigger. The events are more to work--you've got more material to work with. And that's what I think I wanted to do. Not a bigger stage for like fame or fortune, or anything like that. I'm not that kind of guy. But just like bigger stories, more important stories.

Diesenhaus: And, I'm curious, you clearly seem to be moving around.

Wilkes: I like this kid.

Diesenhaus: You talked a bit about in being in New York it might have been a distraction, but was community of other writers important?

Wilkes: Well, no, no. I'd never hang out with other writers and that's the worst thing writers can do. See, the first time in New York, Doug, I was at Columbia with wife number one, with my little short haircut and very put together, not drinking. You know, good boy. The second time in New York I was divorced and I was raping and pillaging like Attila the Hun. I was the Catholic boy who had never done anything wrong in his life. All of a sudden I came in to the '70s, the sexual revolution was alive and well. I had all my teeth and hair, excuse my Jerry. I had all my teeth and hair. I was a heterosexual. I mean, there was like this cornucopia, I mean I would walk in to a party and say, "I'm going to nail you tonight, I'm going to put you on stand--no, no please, please, don't even get in line, it's not even going to happen. I'll get your number." Because you know, I'm not a you know, I'm not a--I'm not the handsomest guy in the world, or the best guy in the world, but it was okay. I had enough goods to work with. And it--I mean, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it man. I could be--I was dating three different girls--I was in bed with three different women every week, you know. I mean, I just couldn't believe this could happen. And that's why my writing life went to hell. Because I was so involved in my social, I mean I knew Andy Warhol, I knew Kurt Vonnegut. You know I traveled in those circles and it was just very, very bad for me. Because the whole world was hey what's your paperback deal and what's this and how's your agent. It was very, it was--see my contemplative side wasn't there at all. I mean I was depressed and drinking too much and doing too much whatever substance I could get my hands on. But my really truly contemplative side was kind of, wasn't there. And that's the part that really allows me to, I think, write.

Diesenhaus: Yes. On the flip side did other places give you that opportunity? Does geography you think play a role in what--

Wilkes: You're not going to ask me that sense of place question, that creator of nonfiction place question. Just get rid of that one. No, to tell you the truth, here's the story, I can write, I can write in a telephone booth, I can write on an airplane, I can write in the orphanage in India. I can write in my office. I can write any place. That crap, that place crap. (laughs) We need strong opinions. If the story's there, if it's exciting me, and I believe in that. I mean, I wake up in the morning, Doug, and I can't wait to get in to that office. Right now it's the orphanage which is taken over my heart. But when I'm working on--I just finished the book. When I was working on it man, I want to get to what happened. I take notes, I got, you know, I got scraps of paper and all that stuff. I really, I want be excited by a story. So it doesn't matter where I am. Does not matter where. I'll filed stories from every--I've--El Salvador, Bosnia, you know I've been--I've covered wars and everything. Doesn't matter. Doesn't matter. I don't need a, you know, view of the lake, soft breezes flowing. Because I'm a journalist in the heart, you know, you have to be in a corner of the, you know, of the newsroom. You had to file your stories.

Diesenhaus: And you're obviously working with longer work and book length works is that what gets you through them? It's you have the enthusiasm for it?

Wilkes: Well yeah, I mean, books are like--books are like falling in love. You really fall in love with the idea. And then about the fourth week, you wake up. She has a bad breath. She has bunions. You didn't know she had cellulite underneath beautiful silk blouse that you ran your hand over. And all of a sudden you say, oh, I'm doing this (inaudible). I don't like this idea. I'm bored with it. You've got to kind of work through that, see, that's what happens. But it might not--you know, okay, I've written 20 books. But when I write, you know, nobody writes a book. Nobody sits down, that's a room, that's a bit, you probably did. Nobody sits down and says okay, here's page one. What you do is I try to write, I always compartmentalize it. This is a chapter I'm working on. This is what I'm trying to do with this chapter da-da-da-da-da-da-da. And then sometimes they fit together and sometimes they don't. And of course as we both know, writing is not writing. Writing is rewriting. You put it down on paper. I remember, I've taught journalism classes you know and nonfiction writing. And I think it was at Pitt when I was there. And I played this film from the New Yorker and John McPhee talked about his first draft. And he says, I write my first draft and I want to puke, puke, because it's so crappy. And that's--you look at my first drafts and I've given a lot of this stuff to the library you know, whatever it's worth they'll probably shred it someday. Because I don't think I'll leave any legacy. But, you know, when you look at that first draft, it really is crap and you don't have the right words. And then you-- but see I'm a very impatient guy, I'm ADD. But when I get to my writing, I go over it and over it and over it. Because unless it's right--I did a little farming in my day and unless that soil is just perfectly smooth, as smooth as I can get it. I mean, I only have so many talents.

Diesenhaus: And I think that kind of leads into, like your actual writing and physical process of doing it. Are there rituals or things that you do before you kind of get in to it?

Wilkes: Well you know, the old one, you know, you open your veins and, you know, bleed it in to your--.No, you know, I wake up in the morning. I go swimming every day. I come back, I have my oatmeal and my cappuccino, I have nice cappuccino machine. Wife and I talk a little bit, I read the paper. And I go in there. I'm like a plumber, I go to work. I mean, Elnora [ph?] always jokes about you know, when I'm in the kitchen, I say, "I got to go to work." And she says work, "Yeah right." But it's kind of fun. But, so I just go in there and I start. I don't do, you know, all night stands. I don't wait for inspiration. Five o'clock I'm done. I love to cook, so I like to start cooking. I just go in there. Now what'll happen, sometimes you're writing actually--you've actually got yourself together and you're writing. Sometimes it's not working and you got to say let me go over and talk to Jerry and what does he know about early rabbis--the beginning of the rabbinate in Jewish history. Or let me go over and get a couple books at the library. Now you know, with the online searching, I mean it's just fabulous. Bingo, you can anything you want. So, I'll always do something. See the writing may not be coming, but I'm always going to be doing some researching or phone calls, or stuff like that. So I don't really--and it's always amazing to me. When I look at my shelf of books, I see 20 books, did I really write those damn things, because I don't really remember writing them. I mean, I remember each day that I would do it, but then they eventually became books and you know, that's the way it goes.

Diesenhaus: So it sounds like you don't, do you feel that you have to write every day or do you feel that these other things can also be, or just part of (inaudible)?

Wilkes: No. No. No. I don't to--no, it's not like I got to go to the bathroom or something like that. No. But I have--it's probably more--it's a mind thing. I like to do things that--I'm not an intellectual, so I'm not an intellectual suit. It's kind of like intellectual stimulation. I like to be thinking about things and trying to make sense out of life and when I'm writing to put it on paper.

Diesenhaus: And is your office the place where everything happens?

Wilkes: Yes. That's usually--I mean when I'm--like I covered the Pope's funeral and the conclave two years ago in Rome. So my little laptop and I did a blog actually. I don't even know what a blog is, but I did one. And so did that from Rome and I filed it and you know. So I can do it anyplace, it doesn't matter.

Diesenhaus: Yes. You talked about that and you talked about the Internet. Is that something you're using a lot for your research? What's your interaction with technology?

Wilkes: Well the beauty of the Internet. My God, Jerry and I both remember the days of the Periodic Guide to Literature. Rabbi--okay February--January through June 1982, nothing here. Okay, July through December. I mean it was excruciating to try to-- okay Saturday Evening Post. Saturday Evening Post, God they don't have that one. You guys don't even know how good you got it now. Man, you don't, just don't--I just don't like what did I just do this morning? McSweeney's. I was in a--who the hell is this dude McSweeney? Bingo. Wikipedia which is a bad source, but it's a source. All of a sudden I found out what the hell it was about, David Eggers and all that kind of stuff. My God, yeah, that makes it a little easier. It makes it easier to be accurate. Because when I'm writing a story, sometimes I don't have the facts. I'll write a story like, you know, on his desk he had several copies of McSweeney, so and so. The magazine was a very famous (inaudible). I didn't even know this famous thing. But I'm going to put that in there for now because I'm going to catch it on my rewrite and then I'll go to the Internet and say okay what the hell does this McSweeney thing? And I'll say, oh, this is worth putting in. Or it's not. See the significant detail is the essence of good nonfiction writing. Sometimes it doesn't matter. You see writers and I see writers that think that they are putting in a significant detail, but they're missing the point completely. The significance of details tells the story just like that. Just by the book the person has on their desk. Just by the way they lay a hand on the table. All those things tell so much about persona. I remember my editor from the Baltimore Sun, Hal Williams, a really good guy. And it was story in Life Magazine about baseball, baseball team or something like that. And the guys would sign auto--sign the baseball you know, the whole team does. And the kind of minor players would kind of sign near the seams. And the big guys like Joe DiMaggio and Don DiMaggio, or you know Ted Williams or--I know that's going way back, but they didn't sign it. See that's a significant detail. Because I'm just a minor player, I'm not Ted Williams so I'm not going to go, "Paul Wilkes." I'm going to go, "Paul Wilkes." So that tells the story and that's again, the kind of writing I try to do.

Diesenhaus: And in terms of how you come to that significant detail, when you said that you may not be sure of the importance. Is it then just observation?

Wilkes: It's observation and the ability to toss nine of the ten things away. That's the problem. So many stories I had students, you know, and it seems like they took notes, opened up their book and typed their notes. No one cares about this stuff. He walked in to the room. Yes, what. You know think that you walk into a room with a look on his face. So what. You know, where does the story really begin and that's the real, I guess, the art of it is being able to say, there's the point man. That's the way. Just the way he greeted me at the door. Or the way he slumped in or the way he kicked his dog the way he petted his dog or whatever it is. That's something that's most important. What time is it by the way?

Diesenhaus: It is 11:40, 11:35.

Wilkes: I don't want to hold Elnora [ph?] up. Can we stop for a minute?

Diesenhaus: Sure.

Wilkes: Let me page her so she can--

(Crew talk)

(Tape Skips)

Diesenhaus: Okay.

Wilkes: Okay.

Diesenhaus: I guess what I was curious about is essentially I'm curious in terms of preparation. Are you preparing yourself through your research to be available to those significant details or do you find more in the revision in your recalling them from what you're observing?

Wilkes: Well, maybe I can answer that by doing this. If say I'm writing a profile for the New Yorker. Now every story, every story boils down to about six parts. Whatever. You know, the introduction, the background, you know, the--so I have--whenever I outline a story and maybe this will help. I outline the story in maybe six parts. Then what I do is I take the Internet information I have, or the book research, I take my notes. And put them in these six categories. So then I take this part and start writing. And so as I look through it, things'll pop out of there that will just say this is important to the story. And this is not. This sounded great when I got it, this was a "Wow." Every story that you'll ever write--or you're going to have the best things you're never going to use. You're just never going to use it because it doesn't fit in. And so that's how certain things just fall by the wayside and--because the narrative, the narrative is everything. If it doesn't keep the story moving, it's got to go because you know, people don't have patience for it, I don't have patience for it.

Diesenhaus: And those six categories, can they change or do you think (inaudible)?

Wilkes: Yes. It isn't like beginning, middle, end or anything like that. It's like, like say it was the profile I wrote on the priest, Father Greer. Set the scene at his parish where he fits in, where the church is today. That would be part one. Okay, and in native Massachusetts a high steeple of and then underneath is Father Joseph Greer. He's 56 years old blah, blah, blah, blah. Father Greer is an anomaly in the Catholic Church today. Priests da-da-da, the Catholic Church, the numbers have gone up, numbers keep going up, blah, blah, blah, blah. So I'm probably about eight graphs, six, eight graphs in to the story by that time. You know exactly what I'm talking about. And then okay, okay how did he get here? Father Greer's vocation to the priesthood, early days, bad days during the busing in Boston, his disease. You know, and then these are kind of categories that then get mushed up a little bit because you don't want to bop-bop-bop. So you write good transitions and you take a piece of that when it goes over here. But that's the only what that I know how to do this stuff. Because just to sit down and say I've got a pile of notes, I'm going to start writing the story. It never works for me.

Diesenhaus: Well it sounds like--

Wilkes: I'm a very orderly guy, a very disciplined guy.

Diesenhaus: And it seems like you're taking at a kind of highly structural approach.

Wilkes: Very.

Diesenhaus: And the structure is informing your decisions and what you're doing. Would you see that as one of the most important elements?

Wilkes: Well, just, yes. Because you need some control over it. You need some control because you know, you know, a book, or New Yorker profile, I mean this is a complicated, you know, it doesn't look like that when it ends up. I mean you read a New Yorker profile, and you think, I could write that. Well, the last one I wrote went through 53 revisions. Some are minor, you know, a few word changes. But by the time it was--golly, 53. I mean that's torture besides everything else just to get to that kind of simplicity and that kind of directness and use, you know, again, my motto is that there's one right word and all the other words are wrong and that's my standard. I don't usually make it, but that's what really what I'm getting for. But you have to control it. You have to know what the hell you're at because that's--you know, everybody has good ideas, everybody can write the first three paragraphs. That's the hundred yard dash. But if you want to run the distance, you got to pace yourself, and you have to really say okay, I've gotten this far today, and that's okay. I'm going to go here tomorrow and I'm going to go here.

Diesenhaus: I'm personally very interested in how you deal with the information in your notes. Do you review them immediately? How do you work with them?

Wilkes: Yeah, well I usually use one of those reporter's notebooks that kind of thin ones because what I do is I'll just put a couple words on every page and then in my best--when I'm doing my best--when I'm being most disciplined. After the interview, I'll go and fill out Jerry's beard, great beard. Start to say I cleaned up over here, you know, I'll add some details because there's a lot floating around in your mind that you didn't put on the paper. And it comes to you even as you look at your notes. It's isn't all on paper. So, I'll do that. And what I do is I take the spiral thing out of it so that I don't rip them up. I just take the spiral thing out. I have all these pages and then I'll be able to kind of sort those into those categories I have. But I do--see one of the books I wrote, one of the early books, there's book called Trying Out the Dream about the American family. I never took a note in front of those people. Never. Because I was observing just like we're here today. I'm observing so, but when I would have three thoughts I would go to the bathroom. (inaudible) Son with his dirty shoes coming in the door, mother buying Wonder Bread, father's missing two fingers. And then I would go back that night and say, what do these things mean and then I would fill them out. So that is what I'm doing in an interview, because you can't write correctly and I've never used a tape. I used a tape recorder once. I was doing a story on a very famous sex researcher. They're called Masters and Johnson and I was out to their clinic and stuff like that and I thought it was kind of a historic interview because they didn't talk to many journalists. So I recorded. Recording is, it's awful, your voice sounds bad, you don't want to listen it again. And it takes the spontaneity out of it. And you know, people think you've really got to be accurate. You do have to be accurate for the essence of your quotes. But you have to help your subject out too. You'll look at this transcript and there's maybe four complete sentences in the whole thing. You know, people don't speak that way. And so you kind of have to put pieces together for people. Always keeping the essence of what they said. Because I can quote you exactly and do you a disservice. I think the UNCW creative writing program is really terrific. Semicolon. But you know what, I'm really having a hard time with certain parts of it. Well, if I started it--if I quote you accurately and stop you from the semicolon, that's not, you know--so you really got--you're trying to get the essence of what a person's says. And to quote them as best you can in the kind of way they speak.

Diesenhaus: I'm curious about, you talked about discipline essentially. And I'm curious about how you come to your ideas.

Wilkes: Well, let me tell you about this one just for a minute. I have one thing. I have one thing. I live in fear. That is my great discipline--I live in fear that I'd have to do a real job. That is my greatest fear. That motivates me on a daily basis that I would have to really go out and work for somebody. So that's the whole thing. Where do ideas come from? I probably, I have 20 ideas a week. I mean, some of them, very few of them float, very few of them are worth anything. I can show you, I've probably got files in there of ideas I've pitched to magazines, books and stuff like that that never make it, you know. They just don't, there's not really something of great import there. So they just come from being a human being and walking in the streets. How does that work? It's like a journalist. Why do they do that? Hey there's a Mexican on a street corner, where did he come from? Hey, there's five Mexicans standing on the street corner. Do they know each other? Did they come from the same village? You know, it--just having your eyes open is what it's all about.

Diesenhaus: And as you have them are you laying them out in a controlled manner? Like starting up processes or are you just sort of open to (inaudible)?

Wilkes: No, I wouldn't say so. I would say that, you know, there's a lot of scribbled notes in my life and I would--so right now, I can probably take you in there. I think I've got an old yellowed piece of paper there some place with about 8, 10, 12 book ideas that I've forgotten about already. So they kind of fall by the wayside naturally, like right now I've got a couple ideas that I'm kind of working on. And they may turn out to be books and maybe not turn out to be books.

Diesenhaus: And you're writing these on paper, by hand?

Wilkes: Right now, these are on like, here's--let me give you an example. I am really fascinated--you know, I write about religion. I am really--and the title of this book is What Did Jesus Know? In other words, when did this guy realize that he was God? I'm fascinated by that. In other words, he's a little boy, I wouldn't think he waddled in, "Hi mom, you know, I'm God". I don't think it happened. I think he kind of came to this consciousness in a human way. So I read the Scripture every morning, the Catholic bishops have a Web site that you read in the morning, readings. So I read one. And St. Luke in there says--what was it the other morning, I forget what it was. Something Jesus did and it just showed that he really didn't know who he was yet. So I'll take that off the Internet and put a note by it and throw it in that folder. Now, I've got a folder, What did Jesus Know folder, in there now. What else am I working on? I'm a Eucharistic minister in the hospital. I take holy communion to Catholic patients and I've done this for 12 years. And I have some fascinating stories from there. So I've got little--so every week that I would go I have the names and every once in a while as a journalist, I would say, met Doug, young guy, UNC student, has so and so, really seems to be troubled. So I'd write just little things like that down. And I may make a book out of that and I might not make a book out of it. The beautiful thing that has happened in my life is that I started to get Social Security payments. I'm 69 years old, tomorrow is matter of fact. And praise God, I get $1500 bucks a month so, I don't really have you know, a lot. You know, I have no needs, so I don't need to worry as much about, you know, the writing. I write what I want to now, well I always have. But this orphanage is you know, taking a lot of my time.

Diesenhaus: And the jump from idea or note to writing, do you then move to a computer?

Wilkes: Sure. Well probably I would have by the time I get to--I would have a lot of notes, handwritten some I would have you know, typed out from the computer. And then I would take all that and I'd always do an outline. I try to write--introductions usually come last, but I try to kind of, try to kind of write something and say what am I trying to do here? But, by that time I'll have a folder full of stuff and I'll start to segment it and I'll say, like the New Yorker, I don't know anything about this. So, and that's usually a good thing because then I don't have to write and researching is much more fun than writing, I mean, we all know that. So I say, I really don't know about the--where did the priesthood come from? How did it become a celibate thing? That's fun, I'll go to the Catholic dictionary or something like that so that--so in the process of writing, I'm always stopping and saying, I may stop and say I'm going to really look in to this or I may just say, find out later.

Diesenhaus: Mm-hmm.

Wilkes: That's a very--or find right word. I may say, Doug is a kind of a quiet person or self possessive. Sheeze, what kind of crap is that? That's not you, so I'll say, "find the right word," and then I'll, then as I go through the revision I'll look at that word and I'll say that's not the right word, what am I really trying-- what's he really like? And then I'll--because I'm making notes to myself as I'm writing. See people thing you got to write it well the first time. You don't. You can always go back and change.

Diesenhaus: You talked about the research being an easy part. Does the writing come easier or is that a struggle?

Wilkes: No, God no. You know, I hate it in a certain way. You know, it's very difficult to put words on paper and see the problem is it doesn't get any easier. You know, like I'd like to a doctor, man. You know, you come in, you know, you got a little temperature, two aspirins, you know, see you later. The brain doesn't work like that, there's nothing that is ever the same. Nothing. I mean, the appliance guy came in and my motor on my dishwasher, he knows how to put in that motor, bleb, bleb, bleb. I'd love to have a job like that. But this one is like, Jesus, the--Oh God, what a terrible way to begin that thing. Oh God, this is awful and you're writing and you look at your own words and you say, oh God, this is terrible. Who the hell would want to read this? You know it happens all the time. The writing part is very difficult and my wife always knows why I'm starting a book, because I'm a little more cranky than usual. You know, because to kind of get it, you know, get this thing flowing, it's tough, it's always tough.

Diesenhaus: Do you encounter blocks or are there ways around it?

Wilkes: Well I don't--no, I wouldn't--I've never been a writer's block kind of person because I always have something to do. I mean, I'll do some more research, I'll do, you know, I've never a guy, I'm never going to do that. I'm never going to say that--I am never going to sit at that--I do sit at the keyboard wondering how to put it together sometimes. But I don't believe in that. I'm a working class writer. I mean, I don't--I'm not a fantasy writer that I don't feel like writing today. I don't, no, I don't work that way. So it isn't like, you know--and maybe it's because I'm not horribly, you know, blindingly talented. Maybe if I was Ernest Hemingway, then I'd be a different guy, but of course I'm not.

Diesenhaus: We have about ten minutes left so I just maybe want to go through a few more questions. What I think is really important, I really wanted to get to, and you've kind of alluded to it, the shift from celebrity profiles. You sort of a beginning part of your career and then right now.

Wilkes: Yes, kind of a journalism and then the free--the initial freelancing of whatever assignment I got, you know, that was kind of the thing. And then what happened was I met this priest at St. Francis Xavier Church. He was a priest who eventually died of AIDS. Sad. And I was Methodist at the time. I married this Methodist missionary--we were attending Methodist churches, but I always had the itch, the Catholic itch. Anyhow, he was a Catholic priest. And I saw him going around the neighborhood and he would go up and these old ladies would be drinking too much and he'd take them food and get them rehab and give them some clean clothes. And I just came off the movie set with Ali McGraw, I don't know if you ever heard of Ali McGraw, but she was made this thing Love Story, big movie at the time and I'm up there you know, drinking cappuccinos and doing all this stuff. And this guy, and this is far more interesting you know taking care of people, the life of the soul. You know that kind thing. And that was where I really shifted in to writing about religion, and spirituality and the role of that in people's lives. And it's far more interesting, I mean the celebrity stuff, I mean who can say that for very long, you can't. Really the deeper things then--and people you know what, I was, I'm a Catholic, and you know we were supposed to kind of go into religious journalism and I never considered that. I never went into religious journalism. I happened to write about religion. So that's where it comes up.

Diesenhaus: Did you feel that you were undergoing kind of a personal, spiritual awakening? Or is it coming back to something?

Wilkes: Yes I was at that time. I started a store, you know, the Chips I don't know if you know, down on Fourth and--fourth and Union right down there, it's a store front. That now--I started it at 20-35 years ago as a soup kitchen and a homeless shelter. Now they house homeless mothers and their babies, truly a wonderful place still going on. And I was coming into it. I was really kind of coming back to--I thought about being a priest when I was a young man. And I was not going to be a priest because I was married, and I was going to get married again. But I really had that other side to me where I wanted be of service to the world and that was awakening in me and I wanted to write about it in others. I wanted to be around people that inspired me. I mean, God bless Ali McGraw and Dustin Hoffman, they're okay. But that doesn't inspire me, you know. I'm not going to pattern my life after theirs. But I could pattern my life after this priest or Father Greer who I wrote about in the Mysterious Ways book.

Diesenhaus: And do you feel that you're bringing these stories to others that you're doing of that form of that work through your writings?

Wilkes: Yes. I think so. I think so. I mean like when I wrote that Father Greer--the book In Mysterious Ways, a little bit of profile originally in the New Yorker, I got more letters than I ever got about an article before in my life. And they said thank you. The priests were writing me. Thank you, we're human beings. You wrote about us as human beings. That was very complimentary. I liked that because I was being a conduit. I was--here was this guy, here is the page, and I was able to bring him on to the page for people. And so is that a calling or a vocation? I guess so. And I feel, I really feel lucky to have been able to write the kind of stuff that I do because I don't know if--I don't think anything I've written is going to like, live for the ages. But I think for the moment, it hasn't hurt people. And maybe it's helped a couple people.

Diesenhaus: Before we're done I just want ask a question or two about the teaching of writing and MFA programs. And do you have opinions? Do you feel that writing can be taught? Tell me about that role.

Wilkes: Well, first of all, anybody--you can teach a monkey to write a journal, you know, when, where, why, who, what and, you know, all that kind of stuff, whatever those things are. Anybody could do that, okay. I think that, I think MFA programs by and large are a place where people go when they don't know what to do with their lives. "Oh, I like to write." Oh bullshit, I don't want to hear I like to write, that gets the hair up on the back of my neck. If you have passion for writing, and you really like to be with people and you like to see how people work, that resonates with me. "I like to write," it makes me nuts when I hear that. Or, "I really like the way I wrote that." I have had students say that, you know, "I really love." I say, "Well this isn't really coming along." "Well I really like." I don't give a shit what you really like it or not. Come on. This is not working here buddy or gal, you know. And there's a real self-involvement. Everybody wants to write their memoir. What is memoir? What is that crap, memoir? You know? I don't want to hear about you and, you know, your life up to age 22. I mean, come on. See that's the part about the writing that, especially your kind of writing, nonfiction writing. Get out in to the world. See the world. Go spend six months on the Tram Steamer. Go salmon fishing in Alaska. Go be a ranger. You know, live in a home for mentally disturbed people for a year. I mean, get in to life and be able to write about it. And that's the part that I think is really--I want to see more of that in these kinds of programs. But when we started to one in Wilmington of course, when we started, you take whoever you get and we didn't get the brightest flights like you. So it's probably better now. But it's--I feel writing is a calling. It's like being a doctor. I mean, you are dealing with something really precious. Words and thoughts and you got to really have that commitment to it. It's just something you're doing because, you know, you don't know what else to do with your life. I don't want to know you. I just don't want to--my students you, Jerry, well I don't know if Jerry knows, I had the worst and the best reputation. People, students either loved me, "Oh my God, this is the best thing to happen to me," or, "That bastard, I hate him. I hate him. He's arrogant and dismissive." But I don't think I ever in my teaching of writing, I never tried to embarrass students. I never tried to show them--look I've been doing it for 35 years, I mean, to say, "Hey kiddo, this nothing," is not, you know, that's not a terrible thing to do. But if a person wasn't trying, even if they were not a good writer and they were trying, I was in there with them. If they were sloughing it off, I was their worst enemy. I was their worst enemy.

And they had a little dolls, you know, pins, they were sticking into my head, I'm sure. But there are other ones that come and I still hear from them today. Thanks so much and I made them read the New York Times every day. And I said, "This is not good enough, you can do this one better." And people who have listened to it have done--Dana Sachs is a perfect example of who--one of the first folks that came out of the program. My students have had good luck in writing books too, because I took no bullshit. "I want to write about cat Mimi." Yes, right, not in this class. Good bye, next. Because I dismissed--ideas I've always--we would go through ideas in my classes and I'd shoot down 19 of them, because it is harder to swim the English Channel with an anvil around your neck than holding on to a life raft. You better have a good idea to start with because you're not going to be able to bring it home.

Diesenhaus: And just as a final question. You talked about it as a calling, described it as a calling. Is there any kind of specific advice you might have for young writers?

Wilkes: Well just that you know, if you really, you know, if you are excited by the world and want to tell stories of real people, this is the life for you, simple as that. If you're excited by the world, and you want to tell real stories about real people, nonfiction writing is for you. Not creative nonfiction, nonfiction writing is for you.

Diesenhaus: That's great. I think that's all that I have.

Wilkes: Okay.

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