Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Weekend Edition's Scott Simon talks about writing to make sense of the world, his favorite Weekend Edition Show, adoption and so much more

I am so completely thrilled and honored to interview Scott Simon, the host of Weekend Edition Saturday. I first met Scott virtually on Twitter, when he responded to a post of mine, and we began to chat. I soon found out that as well as being brilliant, he's also off-the-wall hilarious. (I shared my favorite game with him, deciding which you would rather be: a chimpanzee with the brain of a man, or a man with the brain of a chimp.) 

His resume is dazzling. Scott Simon has reported from all 50 states, covered presidential campaigns and eight wars, and reported everywhere from Africa to the Middle East. His work was part of the Overseas Press Club and Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards NPR earned for coverage of Sept. 11 and its aftermath. He was part of the NPR news team that won prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards for covering the war in Kosovo as well as the Gulf War. In 1989, he won a George Foster Peabody Award for his weekly radio essays. He received a Major Armstrong Award in 1979 for his coverage of the American Nazi Party rally in Chicago, and a Unity Award in Media in 1978 for his political reporting on All Things Considered. He also won a 1982 Emmy for the public television documentary The Patterson Project, which examined the effects of President Reagan's budget cuts on the lives of 12 New Jersey residents. A frequent guest host of the CBS television program Nightwatch and CNBC's TalkBack live, he's also appeared on NBC's Weekend Today and NOW with Bill Moyers. He also narrated the documentary film "Lincoln of Illinois" for PBS. Simon participated in the Grammy Award-nominated 50th anniversary remake of The War of the Worlds, and hosted the BBC series Eyewitness. He's written for the New York Times Book Review and Opinion sections, the Wall Street Journal opinion page, the Los Angeles Times, and Gourmet Magazine. 

But wait, there's more! 

Simon's Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan topped the Los Angeles Times nonfiction bestseller list for several weeks, and was cited as one of the best books of the year in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and several other publications. His second book, Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball, kicked off the prestigious Wiley Turning Points series, and was the Barnes & Noble "Sports Book of the Year." Simon's first novel, Pretty Birds, about female teenaged snipers in Sarajevo, was released in 2005. His political comedy, Windy City, was chosen by the Washington Post as one of the best novels of 2008. Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other, is his latest, extraordinary memoir, about adoption.  

I cannot thank you enough, Scott.

You’re kind of an amazing Renaissance man. You’re a highly respected broadcaster and journalist, you write brilliant novels and books on everything from sports to politics to adoption, you’re a devoted husband and father--and you even appeared in a production of The Nutcracker! Is there anything you can’t do and wish that you could--and why?

Tons! I wish I could hit a curve ball (or for that matter, a big league fastball), sing like Harry Connick Jr., cook and create like Rick Bayless, or write novels like Mark Helprin. Or do just about anything as well as Scott Turow. But alas, the only thing I can do to a true world standard is toss a malted milk ball or grape high into the air and catch it in my mouth. Our daughters can loft them from across the room, and I can usually gobble them. I’ve been known to toss grapes high in the air, on windy days, and still snare them in my mouth. It’s a fine talent for a parent to possess. But I’ve yet to discover how to make it into a livelihood. So I have to do all that other stuff.  

I know that I write to make sense of the world, to answer questions that obsess me or simply to work through things I’ve lived through. Do you feel that you do the same, or do you write for different reasons? And are the answers always the ones you expect? Is it easier to write fiction or memoir? My husband and I always joke that he writes truth (non-fiction), where I write the deeper truth by lying about it in fiction. Would you agree?

Writing is the only way I really have of trying to make sense of what’s around us. I find fiction harder to write than non-fiction, and that’s why I do it (as opposed to—you will recognize the difference—enjoy it). I like trying to slip into other skins, and soak myself in their history, viewpoint, and emotions. When it’s done well, fiction sinks deeper and stays in a soul longer. In that way, it surely is truer. Fiction creates characters that accompany us for the rest of our lives, speak to us, inspire, counsel, caution, and make us laugh.

Mercutio, Graham Greene’s Wormold, Mr. Biswas, Rusty Sabich, Frank Skeffington, and quite a few more characters, rattle around in my head and thoughts almost every day in a way that “real” characters from events and history rarely do.

You had the kind of childhood that made for a great memoir, Home and Away. You’re the son of a comedienne and an actress, your stepfather owned a bookshop and was also a minor league baseball player, and you have lived just about everywhere--how did all of that shape your world view?

My wife says that moving around as we did had the effect of strengthening my identity as a Chicagoan—which, after all, is a fabulously diverse place, not only ethnically, but a northern city filled with migrants from southern places, a Midwestern town with both western prairie and eastern urban traces. That makes sense to me. Wherever I’ve been with the exception, perhaps, of Saudi Arabia, I find ways in which I fit, while always keeping some of the eye of the stranger. That’s a good perspective for both for journalism and fiction. 

I also think I’ve been blessed to have a special, personal experience with comedy, theater, reading and baseball, which all occupy the same shelf in my heart. 

What's the best part about preparing for Weekend Edition?

The chance to learn something new every day. The collegiality of working with both bright young staffers you’ve just met, and older talents with whom you share some history. The chance to talk to (and this is just one week; a great week, but not untypical) Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Tom Stoppard, Christopher Plummer, and a Utah man who is racing his stomach cancer to try to finish carving a carousel for his grandchildren—is a blessing.

What are the stresses? 

Well, without forgetting the blessing, sometimes all the reading, planning, editing and meetings—especially meetings!--can seem a chore. But who wouldn’t want that kind of drudgery? Sometimes the travel can be a taxing. But I always wind up being glad I made the trip and met new people. War zones can be stressful, but alas, also very satisfying opportunities to tell important stories. 

Has there been a favorite show that you did? 

I should say, “All of them.” But without doubt, it would be the 5-hour special show we did in the days following the attacks of 9-11. We read some poetry. We talked to people. We remembered those who died. We tried to hold everyone who was listening close, in the embrace of our shared loss.

I still remember something Fran Lebovitz said—she even laughed at herself. “All of these people I’d seen all of my lives—firefighters, cops, emergency crews—turned out to be so brave. So damn useful in a way I’m not. And they would unflinchingly sacrifice their lives to save my useless one. It’s very humbling for a writer.”

It was a sad, angry, emotional, stressful time and I often broke down. But I was also glad to have work that might have meant something to people. We certainly felt that way all over again when we did our show in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut shootings (for those who think journalists don’t have feelings—we all spent several days working with red-rimmed eyes). 

If I sold shoes, I wouldn’t know what I’d do during a time like that. Go door to door, I suppose. 

Or one that you wish you hadn't?

Oh gosh yes. But I’d prefer not to say. I don’t mind criticizing my own flops, but any story, show, or interview that I might cite is the result of me working with a producer who cared about that show and did their best to make me sound good, and I appreciate that.  

I do get twinges when we—or I—haven’t given someone their due. Just a couple of years ago, we had the late classics professor, Rufus Fears, talk about the evolution of democracy. We asked him to reflect on events in Egypt, and he cautioned that Egyptians might wind up choosing a more restrictive, religious system of their own free accord. He reminded us that democracy is a process, not a guarantee. A lot of people complained that Professor Fears sounded as if he didn’t know Egypt. As I write this now, in January, 2013, would anyone say Rufus Fears was wrong? But alas, we can’t have him back on our show—he died just a few months ago.

Also, our sports man Tom Goldman broke a huge story in 2007 that one of Lance Armstrong’s teammates had said that he had used steroids with him. Tom was on our show, but my questions were hard and skeptical. I kept asking, “But no athlete has been tested more, and he’s passed every one of them.” Well as I write this, the story is breaking that Lance has finally confessed to Oprah that he was essentially running a criminal steroids conspiracy scheme to win all those titles. Tom was utterly right, and deserves special respect for reporting that story when a lot of people refused to believe it. 

In your video, How to Tell a Story, I love that you talk about writing lean, mean, and clean, and how a story is really about discovery and communication, and the fun and the spirit. I truly think that this willingness to converse, to open yourself up and discuss your personal life, is part of what makes you such a brilliant journalist. Would you agree? And do you think there are different rules for telling an engaging story on the air and on the page?

I wouldn’t say different rules, but some approaches work better than others. I think being open about yourself can subtly encourage people to open up, too. A discipline that you should observe in broadcasting is to avoid dependent clauses (or as I like to joke with my producers, “Speaking of writing for air, avoid dependent clauses, whenever possible). Readers can go back and forth on a page. Listeners cannot. I strive to write that way, and sometimes it reaches into my novels, too. I like to think it can make paragraphs a little more active and sturdy.

I also think that broadcast prose should be correct but conversational. People on a bus do not say to each other, “Did you hear that President Barack Obama, the recently re-elected Illinois Democrat, announced today that he is appointing John Kerry, the three-term Massachusetts senator and former Democratic presidential nominee, to be the next Secretary of State?” Not even people in Georgetown talk like that. 

One of the (many) reasons that I enjoy writing novels, though, is that you can trifle with some of those storytelling truisms. In the novel I’m finishing now, a reader won’t realize until the very last pages that the narrator of the story is… whoa, there, almost gave it away. But this being said, I think both fiction and non-fiction can benefit from story-telling techniques. A news story may be utterly responsible, but if there is no narrative tension, no one will be listening at the end of it. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Well, I think at the moment I answer this, a lot of Americans are wondering what we can do about reducing the violence around us. I am an old crime reporter. I am under no illusions that tightening gun laws will deter professional assassins, drug thugs, and mobsters from acquiring assault rifles. But as a father, I wonder if it wouldn’t be wise to see for sure.

As someone who is able to work only by the grace of free speech, I tend to be an absolutist on the First Amendment. I wouldn’t want to see laws to censor video games, movies, or any media for children. I’m not convinced that playing games like Mortal Kombat stir up violence. But when you see children imitate the way Derek Jeter wiggles his bat, or the way Katy Perry stands when she sings, it’s hard to say games and shows have no effect on children. Why would decent adults want to produce them?

I am also concerned about the wide and growing American use of drones, domestically and internationally. Attention is mounting now, but I would commend the October 14, 2012 column of Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor of the New York Times, who quoted David Rhode, the former Times reporter who was once held captive by the Taliban, as saying, “If a Republican president had been carrying out this many drone strikes in such a secretive way, it would get much more scrutiny.” Are citizens failing to raise those questions because the president who orders these drone strikes supports green energy? 

I am also troubled by the public indifference over growing homicide rate in inner city America. Lives are being lost every day—cruelly, stupidly—to a new kind of drug and gang violence, and virtually no political interest mentions it. But this violence is eating away at life in the hearts of our great cities.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

You are lucky that you didn’t ask about my wife and daughters. This Q and A would roll on! Let’s just say that I have become galvanized about adoption. My wife and I kind of fell into it—it wasn’t our first option for starting a family (we tried what I’ve come to call The Biblical Method to beget). But after trying a couple of rounds of lab assistance, we looked at each other and said, “Why I am I having a ten-minute date with a paper cup, and why are we pouring money into a lab tube, when there are millions of children already in this world who need the love of parents?”

You, Caroline, have written beautifully about the complicated feelings of birth mothers. I have been targeted as “The Adoption Pimp” by an organization (Birth Mother, First Mother Forum). I hope I respect the pain they feel, even as I cannot pretend to truly know their loss. I think they have judged my book (Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other: Random House, 2010) merely by its’ cover and title.

My wife and I don’t feel that we snatched our daughters out of the arms of their mothers or away from their culture. We feel blessed to hold in our arms two little girls who would otherwise spend their childhoods in orphanages, a place in which they would never know parents, or the touch of love.

(And they will have the chance to learn about their culture, growing up here, rather than be sent to work in a field or factory by the age of twelve, which happens to orphanage kids in China.) 

I don’t want expectant young mothers in this country to be pressured into giving their children up for adoption. And I respect those laws that give preference to adoptive parents who share the same ethnicity as a child who may be adopted.

(I don’t have the same respect for laws in some places that prevent same-sex couples from adopting.)

But when all of those laws wind up simply preventing children from being adopted by parents who will love them, just because of their origins or ethnicity, is any child or culture better for that? We all have just one life. A child doesn’t have time to waste while adults work out their issues. 

There are an estimated 50 million orphaned or abandoned children on this planet. They need—they deserve—the love of parents. Nothing would be better for this world than for each child to be able to grow up with the everlasting commitment of parents.  


Marisa Birns said...

Really enjoyed this interview. I continue to respect and admire Scott Simon. Thank you both!

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