Every year the New Yorker magazine hosts a three-day festival that brings together writers and editors from the magazine, movie stars, authors, directors, critics, politicians, historians, philosophers, singers, photographers, designers, painters, and even people from a few other professions.
The events take place in small theaters and usually last 90 minutes. There’s occasionally a panel, otherwise it’s often just two people – an interviewer and the subject – sitting onstage, chatting away with nothing next to them but bottled water.
A question and answer session follows the interview, where attendees walk up to a microphone and with varying levels of nervousness in their voice ask about old movies or books, discuss long-forgotten plot points in memorable novels, display the type of inside knowledge of the interviewee’s life that could lead to a restraining order in 25 states, occasionally chastise or simply ramble on for three minutes without actually fulfilling the question portion of the Q&A. It’s a blast.
A year ago I saw novelists Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith, though I didn’t see every second of their performances. During Chabon’s reading, I suffered a coughing fit that lasted several minutes and led to me briefly exiting the theater as I tried to both survive and maintain a level of dignity. It was one of those episodes where you suddenly choke on nothing but can’t stop coughing, all while a hundred people who previously had been listening to a genius read from an unpublished work stare at you and wish you would leave, or perhaps simply keel over so there’d again be silence. Fortunately I returned to my seat before Chabon finished. Later I had the opportunity to ask him a question about similes, though the catch remained in my voice.
Frazier has long been one of my favorite writers. I’ve been a bit more leery of Malcolm. Frazier is one of the most versatile authors anywhere, a genius humor writer who can pen serious pieces and epic travel memoirs on places like the Great Plains and Siberia. He’s sort of like Tom Hanks, able to deliver superb performances in any style. Malcolm is one of the most influential nonfiction writers of the past 50 years, though part of that is due to her occasional disdain for…nonfiction writers.
Her study “The Journalist and the Murderer” is famous for the line, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
The book focused on a journalist – Joe McGinnis, whom you might remember from a certain book about Sarah Palin – and a murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, who actually wasn’t the villain in the book. Malcolm’s complaint with McGinnis focused on how the author basically seduced MacDonald, long after he believed the man was guilty of murder. To his face McGinnis told MacDonald he thought he was innocent, but that was just so MacDonald would open up to him so the author could write behind his back about he thought he was guilty.
On Saturday, Frazier briefly touched on that work, but the focus of the interview was on Malcolm’s most recent opus, which details the bizarre case of a Queens woman who was convicted of hiring a hitman to kill her dentist husband. The case would have been strange enough on its surface, but as Malcolm revealed in her stories – which are now a book – the surrounding characters added a new level of bizarreness. You had the judge who wanted to keep the trial moving because he had a vacation scheduled and a prosecution witness who called Malcolm at home to reveal his thoughts on a hundred different conspiracy theories, a conversation Malcolm found so strange and disturbing that she phoned the defense attorney to give him a heads-up (both the wife and the hit man were eventually convicted).
Frazier asked Malcolm about moves like that, moves that most journalists would never think of doing – which, Malcolm believes, is sort of the problem with journalists. During the Q&A session, one chap with a British accent who identified himself as a journalist said he disagreed with Malcolm’s famous “indefensible” line and said that writing about things such as the arts seemed to be quite morally defensible.
“If you say so,” she replied.
The fun for me came in watching two masters discuss their craft, dissecting everything from how to start a story to which details you should look for when doing a profile, the basic lessons everyone learns about early in their career, but only learns how to do with experience.
My favorite line from Malcolm arrived when she talked about the unique characters and stories she’s had the opportunity to write about during a career that is still going strong as she nears 80 years of age. She said she was blessed by “these gifts from actuality,” a great new update on the old cliche “truth is stranger than fiction.” Gifts from actuality. Curiosity drives most journalists – or at least should – and writers are always on the lookout for those stories and people who will make readers say, “You couldn’t make something like this up.”
At one point a woman asked Frazier how he came up with the idea to do a book on Siberia. While answering, Frazier talked about how difficult it is today to find subjects that haven’t been written about everywhere else. In a world where everything and everyone is online, how do you find those stories that haven’t been told, or at least haven’t been told well?
“I try to do things that aren’t on the Internet,” Frazier said, to laughter.
My second event featured Giamatti, one of the best actors today, even if he doesn’t exactly give off a movie-star vibe. When Giamatti walked down the aisle and toward the stage, he looked less like a perennial Academy Award contender and more like a city councilman stumbling toward a podium to resign over an embezzling scandal.
Before his appearance, I spent my time listening to the two elderly gentlemen in the row behind me, who attempted to remember every role in Giamatti’s career. They failed. I think they missed Saving Private Ryan, though they recited about 48 other films. And, guys, how about Lady in the Water? The men also discussed their respective physical issues. One had been battling severe intestinal distress and announced he was a “bad vomiter,” an affliction I wouldn’t have been concerned about if I had been seated one row behind the gentlemen.
The men quieted down once Giamatti appeared. He shuffled onto the stage and fidgeted on the chair while the New Yorker’s Singer went over the roles and achievements.
When Singer called up clips of Giamatti’s performances – which played on the large screen behind the two men – Giamatti watched from a small screen at the front of the stage. It was fun watching Giamatti watch himself. Head bowed, his right hand rested on his right leg, which he shook up and down, as if he was in a room waiting to hear if he landed a role.
I’ve enjoyed Giamatti in most every role he’s had, from Pig Vomit in Private Parts to Miles in Sideways. He’s now appearing in George Clooney’s The Ides of March. The movie looks like it will be good. There’s little doubt Giamatti will be great.
For years I’ve secretly fantasized about Paul Giamatti. The bald head, stocky build, the lineage, those eyes…
The fantasies actually centered on my dream of seeing him cast in the inevitable-actually-probably-won’t-ever-happen movie adaptation of my book Keeping the Faith. I pictured him playing the head coach. If anyone could pull off playing a coach who quotes the Bible while suffering through two seasons that include losses of biblical proportions, it would be Giamatti. Maybe one day.
Singer opened the interview by asking Giamatti, “Who are you,” a question that, unsurprisingly, flustered the actor. He eventually gave a well-thought out, intriguing answer that touched on his own personality but also the eternal question of how actors perceive themselves to be, considering they spend their professional life being someone else.
(Note: Singer said he asked a similar question of Donald Trump. That was for a profile in the New Yorker, which eventually ended up in a book collection of Singer’s work. That collection was then reviewed by one of my favorite writers, Jeff MacGregor, who wrote, of Trump, “most New Yorkers, including me, would readily climb the arch in Washington Square to drop a flowerpot filled with nasturtiums on Trump’s astonishing head if given half a chance to do so.” And that review led to Trump writing a letter to the New York Times, where he blasted MacGregor and Singer, noting,”I have no doubt that Singer’s and MacGregor’s books will do badly – they just don’t have what it takes.” And as evidence Trump used a review from Joe Queenan, which he thought was filled with accolades for The Donald’s writing skills, but was actually filled with shots. And a few months later, MacGregor wrote one of my all-time favorite magazine stories, Let Us Now Raze Famous Men, a piece on a Friar’s Club Roast of Don King, hosted by Donald Trump. It included the line, “Trump scowls that well-known scowl, all gunfighter squint and powdered jowls, a dour look that must have bought him all kinds of street cred with the other kids at military school.” Confusing, I know. But read the links. And think to yourself, millions of people in this country wanted that man to be president.)
Back to Giamatti. At one point he startled Singer by declaring his admiration for the zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, which he called the “Citizen Kane of zombie movies.”
The Q&A included questions about whether Giamatti would want to return to the stage – perhaps, but he’s really gotten use to the life of a film actor – and who he’d be “scared to work with.” Daniel Day-Lewis, for the record. The intensity.
At the end of it, the audience applauded, the gentleman behind me went off to find some Pepto-Bismol and Giamatti shook a few hands before exiting. The 2011 New Yorker Festival was over. It’ll be another year before I get to see great authors and superb actors talk about their crafts in this particular setting. And I’ll probably never again be that close to Paul Giamatti as he talks about his roles and his motivations as an actor.
Unless he signs up for Keeping the Faith.