Gene Weingarten on “the god of journalism,” compulsive editing and “The Peekaboo Paradox”
After some months spent planning to write about Gene Weingarten’s story “The Peekaboo Paradox” for this site, I caught up with the two-time Pulitzer winner in Texas this summer at the Mayborn Conference. And when I say caught, I mean caught. I had never met Weingarten before, but I saw the highly recognizable, highly mustachioed former Nieman Fellow sneaking out of the hall halfway through the Saturday night awards banquet. I slipped out myself and followed him to the lobby, where he was kind enough to sit down with me for a few minutes.
We ended up running a post on the story as part of our “Why’s this so good?” series. But I also wanted to share these excerpts from the conversation, in which Weingarten talks about the writing/editing process, being a reluctant character in his own stories, and how he built his profile of the Great Zucchini.
Give me a little background on the story.
I had spent a week in New York at the U.N., because [my editors] had asked me to do a story about how the U.N. was funny.
How the U.N. was funny?
I was going to do a piece on the hilarity of the United Nations, and after a week I had nothing. I got a phone call from David Von Drehle, who was a writer at the Post. He said, “OK, there’s this guy we’ve hired.” David has four kids, ranging at that time from 6 to 1. He said, “We’ve hired him to do birthday parties successively for three of our four kids. With each party, he seemed to have deteriorated a bit in terms of his personal habits, how he looked, how he dressed, and I’m thinking that there’s a drug problem here.”
As he was talking to me, I was leaving the U.N. and going to La Guardia to return to Washington to do this story. I had decided, “Fuck the U.N. This sounds interesting.’’ It was somehow the nexus of childhood and humor and darkness. I didn’t know if it was about drugs or what, but it seemed perfect.
Do you still know that piece well enough for me to ask you some really specific questions about it?
I’m sorry, but I do.
Of course you start it at a party – it’s about a performer. But when did you find the woman who asks why you want to write about this guy? Did you go to 15 parties before she handed you this line, or was this early on?
That was not the first party I went to. Look – I don’t believe in God. I don’t think there’s a god. I’m an atheist, but I do believe there’s a god of journalism. I believe this because – I’m an old man. I’m 59 years old. I’ve been doing this for many years. And it seems to me that every time I’ve done an extra thing, every time I’ve made the extra call, gone on the extra assignment after I thought everything was done, and I didn’t really need to do it, but I say, “Oh, what the fuck,” and do it anyway – every time it results in the best thing in the story.
And that happened here. There was a final day, and I had done all my reporting. And Zucchini called and said, “I’m going out for one more Saturday. You want to come?” I didn’t need to do it, but that Saturday wound up being the opening party and the kicker party.
The special needs kids’ party was the same day?
Yes. Both of them the same day. And there are a few other unusual things about this story.
In general, my rule is that you don’t make yourself a part of the story unless you have to. The default is to keep yourself out of the story if you can. Midway through this story, I realized I had to be part of it, because virtually all the important moments of this story happened during my confronting him – the Gene-and-Zucchini moments. Not all, but many of them. The single most important moment in the story happened as a dialogue between us.
So I realized that to take myself out of the story, to pretend I wasn’t there, No. 1, would have been a lie, and No. 2, would have been really awkward. I would have somehow had to write around the fact that the person asking the question was me. So, Tom Shroder, my editor, and I decided that I have to be in this story. And we looked at each other and realized at that point, “This can never win a Pulitzer Prize, because we’re breaking the most basic rule. However good this story winds up, it’s not going to win the Pulitzer because I have to be a character in it.”
Now why do I have to be a character? What is this story ultimately about? It’s ultimately about the fact that life is terrifying, and humor is the way we tame that terror. That’s what the story is about on its highest level. Given that fact, what is the key moment in the story? It’s the point at which I sit across the table from the Great Zucchini and confront him with the thing he saw as a 12-year-old boy.
What his mother has told you.
Yes. He doesn’t want to talk about it. He’s in denial about it. “What happened?” “I don’t remember what happened.” “Yes, you do remember what happened.” “Well, there were shots. Maybe it was the Superbowl.” “No, it wasn’t the Superbowl.” “I don’t remember the boy.” “Yes, you do, you remember every child.”
“They’re all the same.”
Exactly. He has to get rid of me. So what does he do?
He makes a joke.
He makes a joke. That was the moment when I felt this could be a great story. How do you tell that moment without it being a conversation between the two of us? You can’t! So that was the point we realized, OK, I have to be a character. At whatever cost, I have to be a character.
By the way, the conversation about the Pulitzer was sort of a joke.
It may have been then, but you’ve won two since you wrote “The Peekaboo Paradox.”
I should just say this for the record: Winning the Pulitzer Prize is a crapshoot. It is not a validation of the story. If you think otherwise, you’re fooling yourself.
Does this story feel different in some way from other stories you’ve written?
I felt when it was done that it was the best thing I’d written, and I still feel that way. It’s not that I did it so great. It’s that everything worked out perfectly. He didn’t have to have that in his background.
And it still would have been a good story.
But things worked out. He might not have deflected my questions with a joke. Things worked out beautifully.
I wrote to you the weekend that story came out in 2006 – a critical email praising the story but asking how you decided it was OK to drive him to Atlantic City.
He was going anyway. He would have gone with other friends. We thought about this, and I talked to my editor about this. I remember your email now, because you were talking about it as an addiction.
You asked how was it different than buying a drunk a drink. If I were writing a story about an alcoholic, and he said, “Let’s go to the bar,” and he goes to the bar every night, I’m not going to feel like I’m being an evil person by joining him in what’s killing him. The only difference here is that I physically drove him to Atlantic City.
Which was why I wrote you.
At the time, it was true that he didn’t know I knew that he couldn’t drive. But a friend would have taken him, or he would have gotten there some other way. I didn’t feel bad about that decision then, and I don’t today.
One of the things I find interesting is that so many of the things that the Great Zucchini does in the course of the story are things that bring you to mind. He is very much like you.
He has a central dysfunction that is not entirely dissimilar from my own dysfunctions.
The way he deals with his terrors and anxieties, which are both the same as and different than yours: the flirting with addiction, the –
The humor. For you, it’s making poop jokes, for him it’s using a dirty diaper as a prop.
I hadn’t thought of it quite that way.
Taking a deliberately juvenile approach as a way to manage –
You could argue that the only thing distinguishing him from me is that I married an adult who in some ways saved my life. Not from addiction, but from this central dysfunction. I am married to a woman who is the adult in my life, who makes sure that our rent is paid.
But he’s alone. He doesn’t have that. Would I be homeless without my wife? No, but I would live much more marginally, more the way he does.
Are you writing about yourself in writing about him?
I think that the fact that at our core we’re kind of similar helped inform my understanding of him. I don’t really feel in writing this story that I was writing about myself. That is more true in the story about the dead babies. There I felt I was writing about myself.
As you were writing it or revising it, how did you think about the movement from the ridiculous to the very serious – to go from the guy wiping a dirty diaper on his face to pondering the terror of death?
I pretend I’m directing a movie. This is the best way I can explain this. You can’t bore the reader. And the same way a good director knows to intersperse scenes of action with scenes of reflection, if you look at my stories, they tend to have a rolling topography.
You’ll see that in this story, too. There will be a scene filled with presence and action, and then we’ll come off and think a little bit about what this means. That I do deliberately.
Do you write a lot and then cut it down?
I’m an editor. I edit as I go. I don’t write longer than the story winds up being. Sometimes Tom will cut something out, but rarely. Most of my life, I’ve been an editor. So I compulsively edit myself. The most galling part of that is that as I’m writing, every time I go back into the story, every new day, I start from the beginning, and I word edit from the beginning.
It will be the ninth day of writing. I will have written 118 inches for a story that’s going to be 180 inches, and I can’t boot up the computer and go to inch 118 and start writing. I start with the first word of the story. It’s horrifying.
So do you end up happier with your ledes than your kickers?
That’s a funny question, but yes, it’s true. The tops of my story become so much better because they’ve been gone through so many times.
The first great writer I edited was Madeleine Blais at The Miami Herald – a former Nieman. She would write the kicker of the story first. I don’t have that kind of discipline. She would literally write the last paragraph and then build the whole story to deliver on that. I’m not that good.
[For more on Gene Weingarten and “The Peekaboo Paradox,” read our “Why's this so good?” post about the story. For more on Weingarten and ethics, read our transcript of his talk at the Mayborn Conference about two moments in his career when he struggled with journalistic ethics.]