photo credit: KK Ottesen
I had a book of photographs by Paul Fusco called RFK Funeral Train, and I was constantly picking it up and studying the images, always finding new details I hadn't seen before. Fusco was assigned by Look Magazine to photograph Robert Kennedy's burial, in Arlington, and he had gotten himself on the funeral train. And once the train came out of the tunnel of Penn Station, he was amazed to see miles and miles of mourners lining the tracks. They were people from all walks of life who were moved to come out and pay their respects to Robert Kennedy, and for the next eight hours, Paul Fusco shot over 1,000 pictures. Those pictures didn't come out for another few decades, but when I saw them, I was profoundly seized by what he had captured. They radiate a deep sadness, of course. In June of 1968, America was being torn apart by violence. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot two months earlier, and now Robert Kennedy, as a presidential candidate, had been gunned down, too. And after King's death, American cities were ravaged by riots from coast to coast. But on this day, June 8th, 1968, young and old, black and white Americans were standing shoulder to shoulder, coming together in the only way that made sense: A man who had sought to make America a better, more moral place, was dead, and this is what people from New York to Washington could do--they could stand alongside the train tracks and bear witness, say a prayer, hope for their country to find its way back, somehow. And Fusco had caught all that pain, but also a sense of conviction, as well--a sense of faith that we, as a country, would endure. And I wanted to get inside those pictures and imagine story arcs and dialogue. I wanted to explore what these people's lives were like before the killing, but mostly I wanted to write stories about what seeing the funeral train might mean to them, if anything.
Writing a novel about these pictures, I thought, would let me write about America at one of its darkest times, but it was important to me to let the funeral train be a backdrop to the more ordinary events going on in these characters' lives. So the very personal dilemmas of these characters--the hosting of a pool party, an interview with a reporter, a first day on the job, etc.--would be the primary points of tension in the book, but what hovers over all of that is not only the funeral train itself, but also another killing of a great American leader--and the uncertainty of what tomorrow would bring. That was an appealing juxtaposition to work with.
As you immersed yourself in your research, did you often feel that you were crossing a divide far wider than a period of forty years might suggest?
Definitely I became aware, in a way I wouldn't have otherwise, of just how starkly different the times were. One of the things that struck me the most was the remarkable candor of Robert Kennedy, as a candidate. Kennedy appeared on "Meet the Press" after he had declared that he was running for president, and at one point he said, "I am dissatisfied with our society. I suppose I am dissatisfied with my country." Can you imagine anyone running for president today with the nerve to be that honest about his own views of what is happening in this country and still hope to win?
Kennedy talked about what he thought mattered, and he didn't care if people didn't want to hear about the ravages of poverty, or the plight of the Native American, or, as he saw it, the wrongness of the draft deferment. He would sometimes start a speech in front of thousands and say, "Some of you are not going to like what I have to say. . ."
In another way, as much as we live today with mass shootings and the ongoing pain of the events of 9/11, there are generations now that can't imagine what it is to have their elected leaders shot down, as was happening in the 1960s. So you have a different kind of violence inflicted in different ways, but we're still a country with a history of violence all the same.
I was a little daunted at first to write about a period that I didn't know firsthand. I was born in 1967, and I was writing about a day in 1968. So I had my research to do, yes, but on the other hand, I stuck to the conviction that everything I really needed to know to write this novel was in those pictures, and I kept going back to them--particularly in the first year of writing. The novel had to be entirely convincing and authoritative in terms of the feel, the understanding of race relations, for example, the sense of fatigue people felt, the despair. But ultimately I was creating a cast of characters who had to be real and believable on their own, and that was really the bigger challenge--to create this kind of swirling panorama of multiple characters and storylines and have that make a coherent narrative.
So, with your newfound historical perspective, are we justified in our nostalgia for that era? Or are things actually better now?
I would say that's more a question for a historian instead of a novelist. I think any nostalgia is justifiable, which is not to say that it can't be wrong-headed. But who's to say? So many things are better now--by any standard--but there's a reason we still feel the full force and influence of the 1960s. I think the 1960s did much more to shape our society and our ideas about who we wanted to be than the 1970s did. We're still taking our cues from the voices of the 1960s in lots of ways, and you could argue that we're still making the same mistakes, too, I suppose.
You've taught a class on literary journalism at the college level. What is that? Many members of the press today lack even basic writing skills. Does literary journalism deal with that or is it something else entirely?
When I taught literary journalism, I was teaching how you could write a story, through reporting and a true attention to the writing, that had the elements that make up great short stories: strong characters, great dialogue, a sense of place, conflict, resolution. In other words, a true story in which the main character or characters go through some often quiet, internal change by the end of it, and you know that they are forever changed. At least, that's the ideal I always shoot for as an editor.
I was teaching the class to writers who were mostly fiction writers and poets--pretty inward people in some ways. And some of the students got really excited about the possibilities of this kind of storytelling. I mean, they were a little daunted by the idea of going out and interacting with strangers and having to find ways to shadow someone for weeks at a time, but they also saw the power of that kind of writing. Journalism with voice, journalism in nuance. I love working in that field by day, and teaching it was an enjoyable way to get re-energized about it. As a teacher, you have to break it down to its barest forms, and you're taking them through it step-by-step, and in trying to articulate it like that, I was being reminded all over again why it's so important, and also why it can be so affecting.
The facts are, of course, critical to literary journalism, and so you have to be good at researching and reporting. But unlike a newspaper piece, literary journalism can't be done if you don't know how to write. When I was hired at The Washington Post, I hadn't edited a single piece of journalism. I hadn't gone to journalism school and had never given any thought to it as a career. But I did know about good writing and storytelling. The edtior who hired me--Glenn Frankel--struck this deal with me: He said, in essence, We can teach you the rules of journalism. That's not rocket science. But it's harder to teach the literary editing that you do.
So it was an experiment, and in the first year in particular, I didn't always know what I was doing. It took a little while. But it proved a great blessing for me, being brought into journalism. My first love will always be fiction, but in learning about literary journalism, I was like a magician who had previously only been able to do card tricks. There was a fuller world of storytelling that I just had never tapped into before, and I suspect I would have never ended up writing this novel if I wasn't commuting in both worlds every day.
Cool! I see that. What's next for you, David?
I'm working on another novel, which is considerably different than The Train of Small Mercies. That novel has about 30 major and minor characters, and this next one has about six, so I'm getting to really bore in on the characters in the way that the structure of the first one didn't allow. And it's a bit more personal, I'd say. If The Train of Small Mercies, in some ways, was trying to be a portrait of America, this new one is trying to be more of a portrait of an American family. This time, I'm not necessarily having to make so much up.
Sounds good, can't wait to read it. How do you juggle your writing with work at The Washington Post Magazine?
It's very helpful for me to think of fiction writing as a job. So on a mundane note, I think of my second job as starting at 10:00 each night, and for five nights a week, I write for three hours. During my day job as an editor, it's true that I'm dealing with all the things that ultimately I'll be consumed with at night: Is the story coming through? Is the character coming through? Is that sentence as good as it can be? Is there enough meaning in this story? The difference is, during the day I'm thinking about everyone else's work, and at night, the work is mine alone. And that's all the difference I need. Plus, the shift from nonfiction to fiction is significant--it's like going from classical to jazz. So in that way, I'm energized again to pick up the fiction writing after a few hours of not doing either. The fiction work is freer, and in the late evening hours, the combination of being a bit sleepy, even dreamy, and trying to be inventive can work out pretty well.
I like that! Before we wrap this up, what haven't we talked about yet?
I appreciate that question. Here's a thought: The novel has a pretty complex structure, with six storylines and multiple characters going on all at once, so while every novel has its challenges, this one, it might be fair to say, had some real potential pitfalls. Could we ask a question about the challenges of trying to pull that off--for example, what went into managing those very distinct narrative threads, or something about the challenges of a novel that doesn't have one or two major characters, but many more?
Sure. Go for it!
From the beginning, based on what I was setting out to do, I knew this was not going to be any kind of straightforward novel. And while that mostly thrilled me, it did create some challenges I had to give careful thought to. One, I was telling six stories all going on at the same time, unfolding in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington--all following the gradual journey of the train. So that meant six groups of characters, and the implication of that was, with a much larger cast of characters than your average novel, I was going have to work very hard at every character being really distinct from everyone else. Otherwise, the reader would have track following along--"Who is that again?" "Wait, have we been introduced to this character?" Those were questions I didn't want to pop up. As a writer, that was a good challenge to have. It also meant I could have quite a distinct group of characters to work with: a Cuban mechanic, a young veteran, an African-American train porter, pre-teen boys, an Irish nanny, an African-American hotel concierge, a beleaguered housewife, a little girl. So every line of dialogue had to resonate in some quiet way; even the briefest of characters had to stand out in the few pages he or she appeared.
I had been working on the novel for a while before I began to watch "The Wire," but that show was a great reinforcement of what I was trying to do because "The Wire" has a really large cast, and in any given episode, you are being swung all around the city--with various drug dealers, with various police officers--and sometimes the most moving scene in an hour was one that last for 10 or 12 seconds. Sometimes, the character in question didn't even say anything. It was just a glimpse, but in the way it was acted and shot, it resonated in a really profound way. So that was inspiring for me, and it made me dig deep for those little moments, to see how just a snippet of dialogue might carry a story until you would come back to that story many pages later.
The structure of the novel also meant that the storylines had to be quite distinct from each other. On the one hand, this is one day in the lives of these ordinary characters, and there was never going to be anything particular dramatic outside of seeing the train itself, and yet, there is violence in the book, and betrayal, loss, and redemption, I believe. But because it is just one day in the lives, only so much was going to be resolved. As a reader, I very much like being left to wonder a character's fate, but that's also the short story fan in me; short stories should never be tying up anything neatly. Readers brings different expectations to a novel, though. In the end, I wanted the novel to feel like riding the train itself; you look out the window, and there are multiple things to see and consider, and they're all part of the trip. And at the end of the train ride, or at the end of the novel, the hope was, you had seen a lot.
You pulled it off for this reader. Thanks so much for talking with me, David. It was a pleasure.