A Lot to Learn From Pete Hamill

By Dean Stattmann

In Esquire’s “Meaning of Life” issue, published in January of this year, the magazine invited one representative from each state to share pieces of what they had learned over the course of their lives. The feature was made up entirely of their responses and interviewees ranged from Clint Eastwood (78, California) to Evander Hollyfield (46, Georgia), making for a insightful and diverse collection. But with just Shepard Smith (44, Mississippi) and Esquire’s Chuck Klosterman (36, North Dakota) holding it down on the writers’ front, I thought that the feature could have used another word man (and anyone other than Paris Hilton to represent New York). So who better to have share his wisdom than famed author and newspaperman, Pete Hamill (73, New York).

Memory is crucial to the writing game.

My brain had been shaped by comic books, and with writing I was able to deal with sequence, with narrative. I was able to tell a story.

I love talking to musicians, because music to me is the highest art.

In my experience, generally if you try to do too much, you’re going to be ordinary at all of it. It’s about being honest with yourself about the thing you’re really good at. Give it every God damn thing you have.

When you’re first starting, you’re under the influence of the writers you admire the most.

I’d take a paragraph from Joseph Conrad about a storm at sea and I’d convert it to a winter storm on land. And I’d change it, sentence by sentence. You’re learning how to structure that paragraph.

You’re not a prisoner of where you were born. You’re not trapped in your childhood. You can make yourself in a city like this.

The Irish were trained by the Brits to eat food as a sort of punishment.

Every immigrant wave brings something new to the conversation – what I call the common language.

I went to Mexico City College, where they supported G.I.s. I went there wanting to be a painter.

I wanted to be a writer after nine months.

You have to make mistakes.

I was wandering around Brooklyn last summer and I didn’t see any kids playing in the streets. I worry that they’re having virtual childhoods instead of childhoods.

Work will come first because it’s the engine of your life.

I was never happier than during those three or four years as a newspaperman.

It’s sometimes hard to separate the lifestyle from the work. I had a sort of discipline. I never drank when I was writing or reporting. I drank in celebration, when the day was over.

In my case I was able to always squeeze enough out of my talent.

The key is, if you go out for a good time and you don’t learn anything, don’t do it again.

One of the problems with alcohol is it’s a lot of fun.

I haven’t had a drink in 36 years.

I don’t know the Bronx very well because I hated the Yankees growing up as a child.

I liked the 50s. I was young in the 50s.

When you come to Manhattan from Brooklyn, you think you know everything. The truth is you don’t know a damn thing.

When I’m on the subway and there’s a 75-year-old lady, I try imagine her when she was 12. I look at her and try see what’s left of her childhood on her face.

You don’t know if you can write a novel until you write one.

I think that the New York of the last 10 years has been a great version of itself.

Don’t get married. wait until you’re 30, wait until you have 3,000 bylines, wait until you’ve covered a war.

You have to make sure you’re falling in love with the person, and not the notion of falling in love.

North River Check out Pete Hamill’s latest novel, North River.

“Hamill is at his best when he writes about his city. He knows New York present and past, and he is able to make us taste the early-20th-century time frame of North River.”

– The New York Times Sunday Book Review

Pete Hamill was interviewed on April 9, 2009

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