"A Man's World" author Steve Oney: Whether happy or sad, writing "should be a delight to read"
Steve Oney’s “A Man’s World” gathers 20 profiles of men from Oney’s more than 40 years as a magazine writer. Oney characterizes the pieces as “portraits” that show men interacting with the world as “fighters, creators, actors and desperadoes.”
The book encompasses a rich selection of famous and ordinary men and their challenges, triumphs and failures. Displaying a consistent control of language and masterful use of details, the pieces cover Oney’s career from his start at the old Atlanta Journal and Constitution magazine to those written for Los Angeles and California magazines, Premiere, Esquire, GQ, Time, Playboy and The New York Times magazine.
The personalities and their pursuits blend into a complex look at men’s place in American culture, from the military to sports, entertainment and literature. They show how the understanding of men’s roles has shifted, and how men cope with fame and professional and social expectations.
A native of Atlanta and a graduate of the University of Georgia, Oney left his native state for a long career in Los Angeles. His “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank” is the definitive book on one of the darkest and most momentous events in Southern and American history.
In this Southern Bookman interview, Oney discusses his reporting and writing philosophy in relation to “A Man’s World.” He also speaks about his work on “And The Dead Shall Rise.”
Oney will be discussing “A Man’s World” in an appearance at The Atlanta Journal Constitution-Decatur Book Festival at 11:15 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 2, at the historic DeKalb County Courthouse. He will also appear at the Southern Festival of Books Oct. 13-15 in Nashville. The schedule for the Nashville event has not yet been released. (Photo by Raymond McCrea Jones, courtesy of Mercer University Press).
1. In “A Man’s World,” you place your subjects in different categories: Fighters, creators, actors and desperadoes. Where would your place be as a writer?
A. All of the above. Writing is a fight for me. Sometimes you’ll hear a writer say that a piece “wrote itself.” I never say that. It’s always a struggle for me. At the same time I’m open to creative inspiration. When I’m stuck at the end of the day a solution often arrives out of the blue the next morning. Overnight my subconscious has done the work. As for the acting part, I’m very aware of presentation. I plot my articles as if they’re plays. There are opening and closing scenes, narrative arcs, and character development. The desperado comes out in story selection. I’m attracted to unruly people. In “A Man’s World” I’ve got Harry Crews, Andrew Breitbart, Nick Nolte, and Gregg Allman. Even John Portman, who’s also in there, could be called a desperado – he achieved success by bucking the architectural establishment. Come to think of it, Herschel Walker, another guy in the book, is kind of a desperado. I quote him saying that to become a great athlete, you must get a little crazy. I’m a little crazy, and it hasn’t made me a great athlete – but maybe a slightly better writer.
2. You describe your profiles as portraits. Along with evoking physical attributes such as John Portman’s hair, and a sense of place, you give each subject a distinctive voice. How did you convey each man’s special way of talking?
A. Years before she started directing films, the late Nora Ephron was exclusively a magazine writer, and she titled a collection of her stories “Wallflower at the Orgy.” It’s a provocative title and also one that articulates my journalistic philosophy. The reporter’s job is to find their way into the best parties and wildest scenes then stand at the periphery and take notes. You are not a participant. You are an observer, and if you are a good observer, you can capture descriptions of people’s dress, hairdos, and, most especially, verbatim chunks of their speech. So it’s all about staying out of the way and taking notes. Occasionally, I use a tape recorder. One of the stories in “A Man’s World” is a profile of the novelist Robert Penn Warren. In that piece there’s a spirited exchange between Warren and his wife, the writer Eleanor Clark, about the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Warren was a conservative, Clark a liberal. So they had differing views, and they were both very articulate in expressing them. Their back-and-forth was like a championship tennis volley. Boom. Boom. Boom. Thank goodness I had my tape recorder going; otherwise I could never have kept up. After I transcribed the tape I realized I had something fantastic, and I used it almost word for word in my article.
3. The story of Chris Leon, a Marine killed in Iraq, is the most complex in the book. Along with his suburban California life, his relationships with his mother and other strong women, you give a moving portrait of his father, Jim, whose grief for a son killed in war goes back to “The Illiad.” How do you view Jim in relation to the other men in “A Man’s World?”
A. I dedicate “A Man’s World” to my father, and while most of the book is about young men, a strong subtheme concerning father-son relationships runs through the best pieces. “Casualty of War,” the profile of Marine Corps Corporal Chris Leon, revolves largely around the way Chris’s father coped with his son’s death by sniper fire in the Iraq War. I’d had the idea to write about the family of an Iraq KIA for some time. The third or fourth person I contacted was Jim Leon, and I could tell from the moment he picked up the phone that he badly wanted to talk with someone about his son, so I drove to his home in the L.A. suburbs and spent an afternoon with him and his wife, Kathi. They were in terrible shape. We met in their living room. Chris’s ashes were in a box on a shelf. A sense of loss filled the house, and there were some treacherous undercurrents. On the one hand, Jim and Kathi were proud of Chris. He’d had a screwed up adolescence, and the Marine Corps saved his life. On the other, the war took him to his death. Not only were they trying to come to grips with the loss of Chris, but they were struggling with this paradox. Jim was having a hard time with it, and I think my presence did him some real good. I was a sounding board. As I got into the story he started calling me every day to discuss different aspect of his feelings, and much of my piece came from what I learned in those conversations. Of all the fathers in “A Man’s World,” Jim is the most fully realized. I write about Robert Penn Warren’s relationship with his children. I touch on the feelings of the actor Bryan Brown for his daughters. But the story of Jim Leon runs the entire emotional gamut. It includes his joy at Chris’s birth, his concern during Chris’s bad high school years, and the devastation following his death. I was privileged to tell the story. It was a bequest, and I tried to treat it with care and sensitivity.
4. You said at a recent appearance at Atlanta’s Margaret Mitchell House that you try to write with a sense of joy. Could you explain this further, especially how it relates to sadder stories like that of Angels pitcher Bo Belinksy?
A. Whether a piece is happy or sad, whether it takes you to a bright place or a dark one, it should be a delight to read. I never want reading my work to be a chore, so I labor – not always successfully – to infuse stories with life. The story of Bo Belinsky is a good example. Everyone thinks Sandy Koufax pitched the first Major League no hitter in California. Not so. It was Bo. He had everything – talent, good looks, an incredible way with women – and he threw it all away. He was a drunk, a cocaine addict, and a danger to himself and others. Yet there was something wonderfully human about him, and he had an infectious, ironic sense of humor. He was funny. In writing the piece, I tried to convey all that. Only then could a reader care about what happened to Bo. It’s a bit of a contradiction, I know, but tragic as that piece is, I wanted the response to it to be a muted Wow. Before Bo hit the wall – even after – he possessed some dazzle, and I worked to get that across.
5. Fame, and how your subjects deal with it, is a unifying theme. You see Gregg Allman and Herschel Walker on the downside of fame, John Portman, Hubie Brown and Robert Penn Warren at the height of fame, and actors Harrison Ford and Nick Nolte ascending to greater fame. How do you see fame, or celebrity, in American culture?
A. As you say, there are different kinds of fame. Look at the Kardashians. They’re famous for being famous. They lack any intrinsic talent. That kind of fame debases the culture because it isn’t earned. However, there are certain people in this world who’ve earned their fame, and I’ve written about a few of them. In “A Man’s World,” the article that comes closest to dealing with this sort of person is the profile of Harrison Ford. It originally appeared as a cover story in Premiere magazine, a now-defunct glossy movie monthly that was owned by Rupert Murdoch. The hook for the piece was Ford’s then new film, “Frantic.” When I took the assignment, I was told by Ford’s publicist that I would not be allowed to visit Ford at his home and could not name in print the city or state where he lived. That all seemed slightly absurd to me, but then again, Ford is an international movie star. He’s both Han Solo and Indiana Jones. As a result, he attracts stalkers and freaks. However, there’s also something else going on. He’s a very prickly guy. I think I get at the riddle of fame – at least in this piece – by pushing back at Ford gently and comically. I respected his request for privacy, but in the story I reveal him to be a pill. Luckily for me, he actually has a pretty good sense of humor. Throughout the article he reveals that he’s in on the joke. Ford knows that he’s a famous guy throwing his weight around and is kind of chagrined – but not genuinely sorry. It’s a wry story. I guess that’s how I view fame – wryly.
6. Shifting attention to your marvelous book on the Leo Frank case, “And the Dead Shall Rise,” how did your journalism background aid your research and writing?
A. Researching and writing “And the Dead Shall Rise” was like surviving the Bataan Death March. The book took 17 years, and it just about killed me. I haunted every library that contains anything of relevance – Brandeis, the Atlanta History Center, the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, and a bunch of others. I read every newspaper account of the case – most on old-fashioned microfilm machines. I interviewed just about every person in Marietta, Georgia, site of the Frank lynching, searching for next of kin to those involved. (I actually interviewed three people who saw Frank’s body hanging in the oak grove.) I went through city directories and crumbling phone books trying to determine where various participants lived not only at the time of the crime but later in life. I tromped through graveyards, corresponded with distant relatives, pored over diaries, and stood on the steps of the old Milledgeville, Georgia, state prison where Frank was abducted. I even requisitioned 1915 Georgia auto registration records to discover who owned the cars used by the mob that snatched Frank and drove him more than 100 miles to his death. All of this is a long way of saying I was obsessed with answering a basic but hard question: What happened? That’s the essential journalistic question, and too often today historians don’t even think it’s relevant. They’re more interested in looking at an event through a contemporary prism. They peer backward through the lens of gender, race, religion, or class. A good reporter is, of course, aware of those perspectives but believes they pale before the old-fashioned who, what, where, when, and why. I’m not so bold as to say I solved the Frank case, but I got close. By the end of the book a careful reader knows who killed Mary Phagan – the 13-year-old girl Frank was convicted of strangling – and who lynched Frank. For nearly a century those things had been mysteries. Incidentally, next year marks the 15th anniversary of the publication of “And the Dead Shall Rise.” The book just went into its 10th paperback printing.