Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Delightfully Long Q & A with the AMAZING Hank Stuever!

Hank Stuever Thinking: Photo by Michael Witchita
copyright 2009

I am beyond beside myself with joy to be bringing you this latest installment in the World's Slowest Moving Blog of All Time. Please allow me to introduce you to my wonderful friend, Hank Stuever. I met Hank back in the '90s when he wrote for the Austin American-Statesman. If memory serves (and I'm going to say it does, even if we don't always like what it serves) the last feature Hank wrote for the AAS before he left to take a features writing gig at The Washington Post was a profile of yours truly. My first book had just come out, and Hank followed me around, quizzed my friends, and put together a piece that was super excellent. Why is that? Is it because I am such a super excellent subject? I'd like to think so. But the truth is, Hank is such a super excellent journalist that you could give him a litter box full of year old cat shit and he would write the heck out of a story on that topic. 

After ten years of reporting and writing features for DC's daily, Hank took over as The Washington Post's TV critic. In Hank's words, "All told, I've been a newspaper reporter/writer for 21 years and I feel very fortunate about that, even now. I hope to be one for many years to come, but I'm not hanging my existence on it anymore."

But wait, there's more! Hank also has two books out: Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere, a collection of his essays and articles; and Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present. To research the latter he spent three consecutive Christmas seasons in the Dallas exburb, Frisco, TX. Again, in Hank's words: "I follow the stories of three families as they shop, decorate, and pray their way through the nation's most over-the-top celebration in 2006, 2007, and the economically downbeat denouement of 2008." 

I read Tinsel huddled in bed on a Christmas Eve and morning in 2009 in Paris, where I had (as I often do) fled my home country to escape Christmas. But reading Tinsel-- with its great insights and descriptions-- counted as an okay activity despite its contents. See? Hank is so good he can make me dig something holiday related. Toward that end, the one other thing I like about the holidays is the same thing that reminds me of Hank every time I see it-- the old air traffic control tower in Mueller, when the big NOEL lights go up each year. (They're up now.)

I sent Hank about five million questions recently. Below you'll find what he had to say. For still more Hank you can Check Out His TV Reviews and Read His Blog TONSIL. Thanks, Hank!

The Symbol of Hank Stuever!!

SG: Brief arc of your career-- NM, TX, DC, right? Am I missing anything? 
HS: That's right. I graduated from Loyola University (New Orleans) in 1990 with a journalism degree. I had done some summer internships at papers and, of course, donated most of my life to the college newspaper, but my first real job was at The Albuquerque Tribune (RIP), an evening newspaper in a two-newspaper town, where I started out in 1990 as a general-assignment reporter on the city desk, which means a I wrote a little bit of everything. There's always a lot of strange and bizarre news in New Mexico, which is why "Breaking Bad" has for me the ring of a documentary instead of fiction. I learned all the basics there: how to look stuff up, how to knock on doors, how to handle yourself in touchy situations, how to empathize with sources, how to hang around long enough for something to happen, and how to write rillyrillyrilly fast.

After a few years, they moved me to the features department to write narratives, where my stories (and the time I spent writing them) grew exponentially. The great thing about the Tribune was that it had sort of embraced its fate and decided to go down with guns blazing. Actually I don't like guns, so my preferred inappropriate metaphor for life at theTribune is that is was kind of like a Make-a-Wish foundation for journalists. Faced with death, we took ourselves to the journalistic equivalent of Disneyland. We always felt the paper could close next week, so the editors put a big premium on risk and creativity along with strong journalism. That newsroom was very alive, very passionate; 60 people arguing and laughing a lot. In spite of the diagnosis, the paper stayed open long past its sell-by date. (Scripps-Howard closed it down in 2008.)

In 1996, I was hired at the Austin American-Statesman where I worked for a little more than three years, writing feature stories for everything from page 1 to the XL.ent section (also RIP). It was a really good time to have been there, part of an effort to expand and improve the Statesman's feature writing. Also, like everyone else who has ever lived in Austin, I think the city was at its most interesting when I was there. (That's a joke.)

In 1999, I was hired by the Post and moved to Washington. Working for the Style section, the best newspaper features section in the country, had been my number 1 goal all along; I had interned there as a college student in the summer of '89.

SG: Are you tired of being asked about the Pulitzer nominations? I am just SO PROUD OF YOU for that. Well, I'm just so proud of you, period. Maybe you can just say what it feels like to find out you've been nominated.
HS: Nobody ever mentions it anymore because it happened so long ago. There was a rom-com many years back with George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer in it. Clooney played a newspaper columnist in New York. He was having a big fight with his editor and shouted something like "I almost won a Pulitzer last year!" And the editor snaps back, "Nobody 'almost' wins a Pulitzer." 

That's pretty much how everyone feels about it. Still, the jury does nominate three finalists in each journalism category. Somebody wins and the other two finalists get a very nice note on Columbia University letterhead, reminding them just how close they came. 

I was a finalist in the feature writing category twice, both times for when I worked at The Albuquerque Tribune: In 1993 for a 9,000-word story I wrote where I followed an Albuquerque couple through their engagement and wedding. And again in 1996 for a 5,000-word reported essay I filed from Oklahoma City, my hometown, in the immediate days after the federal building bombing. I was too young (24, then 27) to put the nominations in proper perspective, but I did put them on my resume'. Luckily, nobody around me really made too big deal of it, and all I can hope is that I didn't act like too much of an asshole about it. I think it was just an early, weird fluke.


SG: If you can stomach it, let's talk about Changes in the World of Writing. Crap, I don't even know where to begin. I, personally, have a theory that there is a collective grieving going on among those of us who came up in "traditional" newspaper and magazine writing. It's not that we are necessarily bitter, but the whole thing just sort of came crashing down and I, for one, have felt pretty unmoored at times, trying to figure out What Next?. And you? What's it been like for you?HS: I read an essay by futurist/tech guru Clay Shirky a few years ago from which I gleaned a line that he either wrote, or my brain thinks it read and has magically attributed to him, but basically it is this: Stop taking the renaissance personally.
That's been my mantra ever since. Whether you are a writer or a reader, we are all collectively living through and definitely grieving the undoing of six centuries of mass media and the printed word. 

The last renaissance (which we call, um, "the Renaissance" and the more pretentious among us pronounce "the re-NAY-sahnz") took, like, what, a century or more, right? And how long was the Industrial Revolution? Well, we're going through a big renaissance now. And it just destroys everything I love. Newspapers, for one. Magazines. The notion of paying a writer for her work. The notion of paying editors. Book releases, book signings, book parties, and worst of all, the loss of bookstores. No longer being able to see what someone on the subway is reading, because even book covers are gone now. It took the music industry, too -- our record stores, our record collections and the idea that everyone makes out and/or gets laid to one hit song in the same summer. It's taking away shopping malls, so it's taking away something I consider key to the American adolescent experience. 

The Internet abhors fixed destinations. Everything has to be in motion, temporary, here and gone. It's also going to destroy the lovely act of going to a movie with a theater full of like-minded strangers. And what it promises in return has not, for me, been a heartwarming or sentimental experience -- not yet. And it keeps wanting to replace "new" things before I'm used to loving them. My MacBook for example. I've recently been informed that nobody will have a laptop in 10 years. Well, I was just starting to love my MacBook.

Nevertheless, it is a renaissance. We're all headed there together, do or die. And I remind myself five times a day to stop taking the renaissance personally. Which means, when the renaissance snuffs out my job and/or my newspaper (and it will come), I have to not take it personally, which is really fucking hard. Because all this new stuff came along and usurped the collective experience of media and fragmented it, personalized it, to such a degree that I feel lost. Note that I am 43. Maybe the 22-year-olds are just loving it, but when I talk to them, they are as apprehensive as I am, unless (and this is key) they are being paid to proselytize about the new ways, products, etc.

The problem is, when you work for a newspaper or write books for a major publisher (both of which I do), you're sort of participating in this frantic hurry to FIGURE IT ALL OUT. You become emotionally invested in helping find the new "business model" that will magically meld the new technology with the old literary conventions in a way that makes money, even though customers demand that everything be free. 

The Shirky essay, as I recall, suggested that none of us will figure it out or see it in a settled state, nor will our children -- at least not the business part of it. Something else will rise from the rubble of our technological agitation and perhaps our grandchildren will get a taste of what media really becomes. Or maybe people 100 years from now will get it right. I believe that, if only because it helps me not take the renaissance personally. It reminds me that we're all just swept up in something very big. When it's long over, we'll all be reduced to the tiniest footnote in this story -- all of the journalistic nonfiction of our era, from Horace Greeley to Rolling Stone to Woodward & Bernstein to Tina Brown to the Huffington Post. It will all just be crammed into a single footnote, if people of the future even DO footnotes.

I admit my thoughts may be fatalistic. My latest coping mechanism is this: When I get super pissed or worried about it all, I go to my online bank account. I think about how pissed (or anxious) I am, and I transfer a relative amount from checking to savings. I'm storing nuts for the long winter. Something about that just makes me feel a little better. But most days, I'm actually optimistic in a strange way. Or accepting. Then again, ask me the day after I get laid off.

SG: How did you get into/wind up/fight for your current position writing about TV? And really, I confess, my fantasy image is that your job involves a really nice, really comfy couch that you can just sit on all day and watch TV and eat lots of snacks and it's just all super awesome. Will you give me a reality check?HS: The Post's previous TV critic did the job for 34 years, which, while impressive, was way too long in my opinion. He also took the buyout (retirement) offer but remained on contract. There were enough signals that the job would come open sooner rather than later, so I just asked for it. I had been writing feature stories for 20 years, my only break being the time I took off to write a book. Some of my feature stories were done in a day's work, and some took weeks and even months to finish. But they all had this in common: The minute they were finished and printed in the paper, my editor wanted to know what was coming next. So that rock always rolled back to the bottom of the hill. I could tell I was starting to run out of ideas. It felt like I had done a lot of subjects the same way, in the same style. I also felt like I always had a term paper due, and realized I had been feeling that way since 1986, when I actually had term papers due. So I needed something new, but fun-new, not boring-new.

So, TV critic. Nowadays I never have to wonder what I'm working on next. There is always too much TV to write about -- a full-blast firehose of 800 channels pointed at me. My approach to it is that I am still writing stories about society and culture. Only I am doing it through the prism of television (or screened media, since people now haughtily insist that watching an entire season of "Boardwalk Empire" on their iPads is NOT like watching TV) and I'm doing it in the form of a critical review or essay. My sources are the shows themselves; watching a show is like an interviewing a story subject for me. I interrogate it. I ask why (or "hunh?") over and over. It never answers. So I'm forced to ask another source, which takes the form of research into how the show was made, by whom, why it is the way it is.
Writing criticism is harder than it looks. Everyone thinks it's easy and the Internet has only encouraged that impulse. I never thought it looked all that easy but I have learned just how hard it really is, day in and day out. I'm out of words for "fascinating" ("intriguing" "mesmerizing," "absorbing" -- all spent); there are lot more words for "boring," and a lot more shows that are. There's a lot to accomplish in 700 words or so. You have to evaluate the work on its own terms, its own genre, and sometimes ignore your own biases and tastes, only to find yourself coming back around to the fact that, no, you are being paid for your taste and readers await your judgment. You also have to write very sharp plot summations without pulling the spoiler alarm in every other sentence. You also have to be entertain-ing about enteratin-ment, if you catch my drift. And there are a lot of mistakes to potentially make -- cast names, character names, references to other shows, other years, history, fiction, geography, and most of all, what night/what channel/what time. Every show has fans who will pelt you with spitballs when you make a single, tiny error about the show or the plot.

All that said, your fantasy is not so far off. It's a great job and I'm lucky to be doing it. Sadly, there is no couch in my office but I do get paid to watch a lot of television. I try to evaluate everything that comes to me. I get new shows weeks in advance -- about a dozen new DVD screeners a day, sometimes more than that if fall is approaching. (Or I get them sent me via encrypted network press sites.) I look at everything long enough to know which stack it goes in. A lot of my job involves just keeping track of everything and when it airs and whether or not I'm going to write a full review of it. 

I file about 140 reviews/essays/stories a year, which range in length from 500 to 2,000 words. The real trick is trying to just keep ahead of the watching. I've tried to separate the "work watching" from the pleasure watching. There is also an amount of watching I have to do on shows I've already written about, but in order to stay current, I have to keep watching the new episodes. I've also tried to shield my partner, Michael, from having to watch any seriously bad TV with me at home, to varying degrees of success. I have a TV in my office in the Post newsroom. I sit in there in the dark and try to do all my work-related watching there -- which can sometimes mean I don't leave the office til 10 at night. But at least Michael will never have to watch "I Hate My Teenage Daughter."

SG: Do TV bigwigs try to schmooze you/curry favor/get in your pants?
HS: Once a year, in the summer, I go to the Television Critics Association "press tour" in Beverly Hills, at which the broadcast and cable networks do their annual dance of the seven veils for a few hundred journalists and critics. It lasts almost three weeks. What I've realized is that I'm the last of a dying breed: I'm a newspaper TV critic who has the luxury of mostly just reviewing TV shows and thinking critically about the upcoming season and "What it Means" and all that. Everyone else is multi-platform bonkers -- they're tweeting, blogging, filing constant items about TV industry gossip and cancellations, renewals, hirings, firings, ratings. They do write some reviews too, but they have to do so much else. I'm very lucky because my colleague, Lisa de Moraes, writes the Post's daily "TV Column," and she's all about that other stuff. She's also very funny.

So TV bigwigs don't even know I'm alive. But they definitely know about Lisa, and she's nobody's fool.

SG: You've written two books. It's a tough process in my experience-- not just the writing but the marketing, the whole enchilada. Got any thoughts on book writing for us-- will you ever do it again?HS: My first memorable exposure to "the whole enchilada" was, interestingly enough, when I first met you. I wrote a profile of you for the Statesman in 1999 when All the Wrong Men and One Perfect Boy came out and you were, as ever, a study in DIY promotion. Even though you had a big publisher, you had recognized that the fate of the book was going to depend on your own hustle. That always stuck with me. The biggest mistake authors make is thinking their work is done when they hit SEND on a manuscript. In a way, the hardest work begins there.

I keep wondering when either of my books will really be "done"? Because if I keep checking their Amazon ranks, if I keep in touch with the people portrayed in my books, then how can I honestly say they're done, that the experience is technically over? You are correct -- the research, the writing, the marketing, the worry. Bah!

But I also loved it. Bringing out a book is still a form of writerly validation like no other. My first book was kind of an easy induction into the publishing world -- it was a collection of my previously published essays and stories from the 1990s and early '00s, called Off Ramp. It was published by Henry Holt. The editor was very enthusiastic about it -- my voice, the stories, the sensibility, the themes. It was published (in 2004) with the understanding that I would come back with a longer, all-original work of non-fiction. We batted around a few subjects and in 2005 I came to him with an idea for a journalistic narrative about Christmas in modern-day America, in which I would move to the suburbs someplace and follow a few families through a few consecutive Christmas seasons -- to study the intersection of myth and reality, not just in the whole idea of Christmas, but also the retail economy, the wars, politics, popular culture, religion. But gently so; not a harangue or a Bill McKibben book. 

Everyone loved the idea, I wrote a proposal, a contract was signed, I got a leave of absence from the Post, I moved to suburban Dallas for many months and it just went on and on and on. When I came to, it was 2009 and I had spent almost four years reporting, writing, editing and marketing that book, called Tinsel. I had followed my first editor to another publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and then, after some drama, my book went to another editor and so on and so on. In many ways it was exactly the book I set out to write, and in some key ways it was not. You just don't know until you do it -- and that goes for nonfiction books as well as novels. You have no idea where the material is taking you. Then it comes out and you go through a very peculiar form of grief for it.

Totally worth it, but also hard to make a case for doing it again. It doesn't add up on paper -- what I was paid to do the book [a nice sum], divided by how many hours I actually worked on it [equaling mere pennies per hour], times the square root of the money I chipped in to promote it [traveling to book signings, calling in every multimedia favor I could think of], and on the other side of that equation is the publisher's own math, which is just a series of minus signs, because the book wasn't a best-seller. Yet, to their credit, no one at my publisher had anything but nice things to say to me, ever, about the book. They loved it, they tried to sell it, we got some good press, radio, TV. Now what? They left the door open to new ideas for another book.

I've tried to open myself up to the idea of new book. I get little pieces of something and jot them down. I go on wild Google chases after the spark of an idea. I've even toyed around with a novel, something totally new to me. But really I've just been too busy with my real job to get another book proposal launched. 

And while I dither, the book industry has changed as much if not more than the newspaper industry. The E-book revolution is now moving at supersonic speed. I'm not even sure I could sell a book proposal now, or sell one for enough money to live on while I write it. Just thinking about it makes me antsy.

SG: You seem to really have hopped into the virtual life-- you have a blog, a lively FB page, etc. Did you resist this at first-- I mean, if I recall, your cell phone is an orange juice can and a really long string.
HS: I'll have you know that I upgraded my orange juice can to a banana, which has a sliding Qwerty keyboard circa 2008. A "dumbphone" works for me -- I can do calls and texts, that's it.

Meanwhile, if my blog was my front lawn, the Homeowners Association would have taken me to court by now. I've left old cars and refrigerators on it, and I almost never mow. 

My personal Facebook page is great fun, but I have whittled down my "friends" list to about 580 people I actually know and/or like. (I also have a Facebook "fan" page, as an author, with 458 people on it, none of whom I hope are waiting with bated breath for updates because they would have suffocated by now.)

I Tweet, too (@hankstuever), a few times per week. I fleetly flee I fly. And I don't think any of it makes a damn bit of difference.

I'm treating all of it the way some people buy empty land. Maybe we'll retire here, Martha, right here on this blog.

I was off work for a week recently, a total do-nothing staycation, and I was driving somewhere and in a moment of private clarity, I decided that I'm STICKING TO MY WAYS. 

I'm entering a cranky cuss phase. I'm entitled to that, because I have rolled with a lot of change. But for now, I'M STICKING TO MY WAYS. I'm sticking with my dumbphone. I'm not joining Google+. I will tweet if I want and I will Facebook if I want but I'm not going to meld them into some social reader account that synchs me up to instantaneousness and lets the world know what 10 articles I just clicked on and what bar I just walked into. I'm still without an e-book reader or a tablet. I like books; I like they way they smell and the way they feel and how I feel when I buy one and have it with me. I still read my newspaper in the morning. I refuse to check my phone for texts while having dinner with a friend. I'm sticking to my ways as they currently are in 2011. I will be exactly where we agreed to meet at the time we agreed to meet, and if you start sending me last-minute texts with amendments to the plan and GPS coordinates of the new location and a change to the cast of who is joining us, I will probably just bag it and go home, because I still believe that a plan is a plan, and that plans are worth sticking to. 

I do have all my music in the cloud but I'm never ditching my vinyl. I do a lot of the "new" things, but I'm drawing a line for now, because where does this end? Just because you CAN have something new doesn't mean you have to download it. From now on, I will need to be CONVINCED. Not just sold, not just tantalized, but CONVINCED that this new thing is indeed better and worth it. Otherwise I just feel like we're all being too easily manipulated.

SG: Is it wrong for me to ask you what you see as the future of Commercial Writing (in general) and Your Own Professional Writing Life? If it is not wrong for me to ask, please answer me.
Stop taking the renaissance personally?

SG: In my writing workshops I often find myself sort of accidentally saying things like, "When I write less I feel better"-- not the best marketing strategy for a writing workshop. But sometimes I find that with less writing work coming in, the silver lining is that I have more time for other stuff. Have you encountered any unexpected silver lines as things have shifted?
HS: I'm not 100 percent sure about any silver lining, but one thing I'm trying to embrace, because it seems like the only way to survive but it also seems like a path to some sort of happiness, is the Internet's disregard for perfection, since the Internet can always Fix It Later. 

The copy editor who lives inside me, as well as the designer, is learning the zen of the fast file, the ephemeral quality to what we do know and how we read, the sense of "good enough." These days I file a lot more, a lot faster, and have at least learned to let it go. Somewhat. I think "letting it go" was going to have to come for me anyhow, in my 40s, as I learned, as all grownups do, that sometimes your best really does have to be good enough. It is what it is, and all those other sports cliches that absolve failure in the face of a good try. 

I think, subconsciously, the undoing of mass media is relieving us of some of the internalized pressures that come with the fact (or delusion) that "everyone's going to read this, so it has to be perfect." Take away everyone, fracture the concept of "everyone" into a thousand little niches, and suddenly you're a little bit more free to be less than perfect. 

But you and I both know that as soon as I e-mailed you all these answers, I asked to have them back, so I could correct some typos and rethink some lines. But I do think the Internet gives as the freedom to be less perfect. You've known about this a lot longer than I have -- the freedom that comes when you remove the pressure. Like, how about we all quit beating ourselves up over the fact that whatever we're working is not going to win the National Book Award? 

I don't think things like the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prizes are going to survive the renaissance. That's another tradition that's going to have to be solved by people 100 years from now -- how to discern quality from everything else. Also, there will be this notion that nothing is ever done. You can always go back and improve a novel and re-upload it, based on reader suggestions. You can keep building a non-fiction piece after the first upload, when new information comes to light. You can't give a Pulitzer to a moving target.

Let me beat this renaissance metaphor one more time, which I've said before somewhere else, to someone else: The point of living in (or through) a renaissance is to leave behind some really lovely frescoes. Paint your brains out and disregard the cultural upheaval around you. For all you know, 400 years from now, someone will be restoring all your Information Age works, to preserve them. (For all you know, and for all you don't know, because we'll all be dead. How's that for some sign-off sunshine?) 

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