Journalist-turned-novelist Pete Dexter collects his powerful newspaper columns in Paper Trails.
Do you miss the everyday energy and drama of deadline-driven journalism?
Some of it I do. You go home at the end of the day with 800 to 1,000 words finished. It feels good. The piece is what it is. Even after seven books, I still ask, "What did I fuck up?" And working for the Philadelphia Daily News was as much fun as you could have working. There was no paper like it in America. The editor who ran the place, Gil Spencer, gave us freedom to pursue what we wanted to pursue. I don't call people great often, but he was great.
What's your take on the current state of American journalism, particularly big city columns?
It's a yawn. I quit reading the papers. There was just no opinion anymore. There were no columnists that made me laugh or made me angry. Same with the editorials. Dorothy Rabinowitz at the Wall Street Journal still has a fine sense of outrage. She could write a column about maple leaves, and I'd read it. Maureen Dowd hits it sometimes at the New York Times. You just can't count on it.
Reading this collection, one can see the world where so much of your fiction comes from. Where do you find inspiration now?
I was at a writer's conference recently, and the advice I heard for writers was to read, read, read. It's the opposite for me. To come alive as a writer, I think you've got to live in some meaningful way and live long enough to look back and write about it. I still find inspiration in what's been done to me and for me. You look back on your life in a mature way. I understand people now far better than when I knew them in the past. I just make sure I'm telling what I need to tell.
What's up next for you?
I'm finishing a novel right now. I love it. It's about my stepfather and me. What our relationship was all about. Problem is the manuscript is 200 pages too long, and I still have 150 pages to go. I'm also working on a screenplay for Train.
How do you feel about being described as a "writer's writer"?
I don't take it as an insult. I think it's meant as a compliment. I write clean sentences. Writers appreciate that. If someone writes me and tells me I wrote a terrible paragraph, I appreciate that. I'll take the criticism. Mostly, though, I don't listen to anyone's opinion. It's bullshit.