Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Q&A with Barry Kalb

Barry Kalb is the author of the new novel Ludwig's Fountain. His other books include Cleaning House and Chop Suey. He has worked for a variety of news organizations, including Time and the Washington Evening Star, and he's based in Hong Kong and Thailand. 

Q: You note that much of Ludwig's Fountain is inspired by real events. As you were writing it, what did you see as the right blend of the fictional and the historical?

A: The overriding story I wanted to tell in Ludwig's Fountain was how the second half of the 1960s degenerated from the carefree atmosphere at Berkeley in 1965 (which prompted the title), from the supposed “summer of love” in 1967, to the divisive and extremist atmosphere of 1968-1970.

As I said in the foreword, when people today talk of the ‘60s, the sex, drugs and rock & roll aspect is what is emphasized, and that certainly was a major aspect of the era.

But I wanted to remind people that it was not all peace and love by any stretch of the imagination. By the end of 1968, a lot of people really did believe that the country was coming unraveled. Fifty years from that most horrible year of 1968 seemed an appropriate time to do it.

I was there for all of it, first as a student at Berkeley, then as a reporter covering most of the upheaval during the rest of the decade and into the beginning of the ‘70s.

For the purposes of the novel, I had to come up with the characters and the story line to tell what it was like being in the midst of it all, but the major events (and a lot of the minor ones) were there for the writing.

There was so much going on during those years, in fact, that to tell it all would have interrupted the narrative and made the novel too unwieldy. So I adopted an old technique from the movies, interspersing headlines and snippets of news stories to give a feel for what else was going on at the time.

Q: Your story focuses on a journalist. How would you compare the role of journalists 50 years ago, when the novel is mostly set, to their role today?

A: The role of the journalist today is still what it was back then, when people like your father and I were in the midst of our careers: to tell people what’s happening in their world, to help explain it, to put it into context and perspective. What has changed, for so many reasons, is how journalists go about that job today.

The period from the 1950s through, I would say, the 1980s, was a time when professionalism and rigid accuracy were the standards in American journalism. The television networks, before the days of cable news, had strict rules: no staged footage, no mislabeling of footage, no exaggeration, no on-screen theatrics.

I tried to portray this atmosphere of strict adherence to accuracy in my descriptions of the newspaper where David Tuchman worked (a thinly disguised facsimile of the late, lamented Washington Evening Star, where I began my career).

There have always been careless or lazy reporters, there have always been outright cheaters and hype-artists, and many journalists are profane, iconoclastic, hard-drinkers.

But among the vast majority of the professionals I worked with around the world, the credo was always, first get the story, get it right, get it fast, and get it out to your audience. The fun waited until the work was done.

A lot of that ethos still exists, especially among the much-derided mainstream media, but there is far too much opinion masquerading as news today, in both the print media and television. And those TV standards I described have all but disappeared, replaced by entertainment and hype.

Q: Fifty years later, what do you see as the legacy of the events of 1968?

A: I have long said that much of what has happened politically and culturally since the 1970s, in America but also belatedly in Europe and other parts of the world, has been a backlash against the political and cultural changes brought about during the ‘60s: sexual attitudes, the role of women, abortion, race relations.

To put it in starker terms, it has been the revenge of the conservatives against the liberals.

This has now reached its peak in the Trump era, as I point out in the book. People rightly talk about how divided America and many other western countries are today.

But the latter part of the “swinging ‘60s” was just as divisive, just as ugly, as the situation today. By 1969, you could not have a discussion about the Vietnam War or race relations with anyone in America who did not agree with you entirely. It was that, or a fistfight. There was no middle ground. It’s the same today with discussions of Trump.

Q: Did you need to do any research to write this novel?

A: As I said, I was either there in person or writing about most of the major events that I describe in the book. I was even at the Altamont concert in December of 1969 that put a figurative end to the 1960s. It was easy for me to dredge up the emotion of those events from memory while I was writing, but I had to spend many hours researching the details after so many years.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have just put the finishing touches on another novel, which deals with wine and terrorism—not two themes you would normally expect to find together.

The story harks back to Eastern Europe during the days of Poland’s Solidarity movement (I covered the early days of that), and up to the period following the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., and it takes repeated glimpses into the world of wine along the way.

Again, it’s based largely on my own experiences and observations. I think it’s an informative and entertaining read—not as somber as Ludwig’s Fountain. It’s called Cerny’s Message, and it’s already available for pre-order on Amazon.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barry Kalb, who is a fellow journalist but (as far as we know) not a relative!

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