I don’t concentrate on any one period of history; I like to locate my stories in wildly different eras and places. I seem to be drawn to large, sprawling, uncomfortable swaths of American history, finding embedded within them a tight narrative that involves strife, heroism, and survival under difficult circumstances.
The thing about Memphis is that it’s pleasingly off-kilter. It’s a great big whack job of a city. The anti-Atlanta. You go there, and you can’t believe the things people will say, the way they think, the wobbling orbits of their lives. There’s an essential otherness.
Americans have a profound longing for heroes – now perhaps more than ever. We need our explorers, our sports icons, our Medal of Freedom winners, our Nobel laureates. We need our Greatest Generation warriors, our ‘Sully’ Sullenbergers, our Neil Armstrongs. On some level, we still subscribe to the myth of the man in the white hat.
I’ve sort of been an anthropologist of modern America, in a non-academic way. Whether it’s Marines or Tupperware salesladies, high end audiophiles or bike couriers, I’m fascinated by the hallmarks of the American tribe.
I’m not a Man U fan at all, but I can’t get enough of Rooney. What a joy to watch!
Probably the biggest influence on my career was the late John Hersey, who, while he was at ‘The New Yorker,’ wrote one of the masterpieces of narrative non-fiction, ‘Hiroshima.’ Hersey was a teacher of mine at Yale, and a friend. He got me to see the possibility of journalism not just as a business but as an art form.
The Tea Party has very close affinities with independent third-party movements like the George Wallace movement. The Tea Party is still inchoate, still trying to figure out what it’s going to become.
I love Memphis, I guess you could say, in the way that you love a brother even if he does sometimes puzzle and sadden and frustrate you. Say what you want about it, it’s an authentic place. I was born and raised in Memphis, and no matter where I go, Memphis belongs to me, and I to it.
Sometimes it takes a brush with eternity – a crash, an illness, some shock to the system – to get you really thinking about what you want to do with your limited time here, and why you’re living on this wobbling dirt clod in the first place.
I find there’s a thin, permeable membrane between journalism and history, and though some academic historians take a dim view of it, I gather a lot of strength and professional inspiration from passing back and forth across it.