Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Q&A with author Mark Di Ionno

Mark Di Ionno
Mark Di Ionno, a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, is the author most recently of the novel The Last Newspaperman. He also has written three non-fiction books about New Jersey, and earlier this year was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He lives in Mountain Lakes, N.J.

Q: How did you come up with the story of The Last Newspaperman and the character of Fred Haines, the 1930s-era journalist?

A: When I started as a sportswriter in 1979, I met guys like Barney Nagler from the Racing Form, who had covered Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth—they were…still working. I had a picture in my mind of old-time journalists. Then I worked at the New York Post as a sports columnist and sportswriter, and I saw the tabloid effect up close.

The tabloid effect of the ‘20s and ‘30s is now even more pervasive, with celebrity TV, reality TV. It’s interesting to look back at the roots of it, where it began.

Q: The book’s main characters are two New Jersey journalists, one from the 1930s and one from around the year 2000. How would you compare them?

A: Both guys have a great sense of story. For Fred Haines, the sense of story is a little jaded—he’s on the trail of what he thinks is a great story, and he wants to tell the story. The narrator wants to tell Fred Haines’s story to the point that he quits his job. The difference is that the young man has seen the residual effects of the tabloid mentality, and what he sees as the alienation of the thinking population from the media; [he senses that] the population is not trusting the media and is thinking that most of the media is all garbage. What he thinks is [that it is] the beginning of the disenfranchisement of Mr. and Mrs. America from the media.

When do we in the media have that discussion? When do we begin to talk about it? In my lifetime as a journalist, there has never been that discussion. What about our overkill, our sensationalism? What about our overreliance on crime, on sports, on celebrity? That has diminished our role in [this] democracy. That’s part of the book. The narrator and Fred Haines are bandying that about. It’s not a historic novel. It looks at the modern media and our failures.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on the story of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping?

A: Lindbergh was the first modern-day celebrity. Prior to him, nobody has that iconic celebrity/accomplished person [aura]. He was invited into everyone’s living room.

Unlike George Washington, or Julius Caesar, or Napoleon Bonaparte--you only knew what George Washington looked like if you saw him with your own two eyes.

Q: New Jersey is almost another character in the book. Is there anything you’re trying to tell readers about your home state?

A: One thing about New Jersey: it’s what I know. When I was a young man in the Navy, I wrote to Bernard Malamud for advice, and he sent back [on] an index card: “Learn who you are and write what you know.” I’m still trying to figure out who I am, but I know New Jersey and I know newspapers.

In New Jersey history…there were big international stories in the 30s: the Lindbergh baby, the Hindenburg, the Morro Castle. Most shipwrecks didn’t happen in the eye of the public. The War of the Worlds—it was such a famous broadcast…it always fascinated me: Hey, this is where I’m from, and people know it in this way.

I began the book before The Sopranos and Jersey Shore [made] Jerseyana part of popular culture. It preceded that. For people in New Jersey, my readership has really loved the book. They can see their home places. …

When I was a columnist in New York, I felt I had to wear a phony New York wiseguy persona. I looked forward to leaving New York and dropping that New York thing. Going back to work in New Jersey was a much more authentic role for me. This year I was rewarded by becoming a Pulitzer finalist.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m three-fourths of the way through my second novel. It’s about how sports and celebrity have avalanched over all the other aspects of our culture. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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