A Fan’s Notes: An Interview with Journalist Bob Drury

Let’s talk about your recent books. You have written and published two amazing military adventure history books with fellow East Hampton writer Tom Clavin — Halsey’s Typhoon and The Last Stand of Fox Company. One of the reasons these books are so fun to read is because I had never heard about either story before. My questions — how did you and Tom Clavin first meet up and decide to collaborate on these books? Two reporters seem better than one for research and reporting. But how do the two of you approach the writing aspect? Do you split the chapters up? How does the writing process work when you have a partner?

Interesting question re the book “production”. As you probably know and understand, two people “writing” one book never works. The reader can just … feel the disjointedness.

Tom and I met years ago when he was the editor of the East Hampton Independent. He’s the smart guy in our partnership. What we try to do — and I suppose we’ve boxed ourselves in this modus operandi — is attempt to find a little-known heroic incident from past American wars that we can turn into a narrative from the boots-on-the-ground perspective (as opposed to the saddle.) Then we hunt and dig and hunt and dig some more for men (and so far they have all been men) who lived through such tragic circumstances. Nothing interests us so much as ordinary men facing extraordinary, life-or-death situations. A kind of, “What would I do?” pervades all our tales. I believe that is why readers relate.

The fact that both of our collaborations have been mini-victories in otherwise fucked-up situations — Bull Halsey possessing the hubris to attempt to sail straight through one of the largest typhoons of the 20th century; the “attack in another direction” Chosin campaign — is coincidence, I think. Although we just sold another book, this one about a single day in Vietnam, and I guess you can’t really call that a feel-good war.

The two of us form a nice assembly-line team putting these books together. We’re both pretty good at face-to-face, or even telephone interviews, although I may excel in that a bit more. It’s like following bread crumbs. You find a US Navy veteran in Minneapolis who lived through his destroyer breaking apart and capsizing out from under him in the Pacific, or a US Marine who lived through a 400-1-odds-five-day-battle in 30-below weather on top of a desolate North Korean mountain, and he tells you his story. You are blown away. Then, at the end of the interview, he mentions Harry Smith in Kansas City with a better story — “If you think I’ve got a story, you better speak to Harry” — and you travel to Kansas City. Then Harry in Kansas City mentions Joe Jones’ story, and Joe lives in Texas … well, you get the idea.

I’d say our books are perhaps one-third personal reminiscence, one-third letters from the front and other written material our characters put to paper either right before or right after the incidents we write about (the more immediate material is the most poignant, as well as the most truthful and accurate), and one-third official history. This is where Tom Clavin shines.

I suppose I could descend into the bowels of the National Archives, or the Library of Congress, or the Quantico (Virginia) Marine Corps Museum, or myriad other research facilities, and perhaps-perhaps-perhaps if you came looking for me in a couple of months with a miner’s light and a treasure map I may have come up with some useful information. But Tom is a dedicated museum rat. He likes going in there, and the stuff he comes out with blows my mind.

I do the writing and Tom does the editing before it gets the editor at the publishing house, who further refines it. I’ll write a chink, pass it along to Tom, and he’ll work on that while I’m writing another chunk. All in all, as I say, a nice Henry Ford assembly line (without the racism, anti-semitism or fascism).

When I look back at your magazine writing career, I have some favorites. Your 1998 Men’s Journal piece on the death of sportswriting; your 2002 GQ war reporting with the Northern Alliance, and your 2001 GQ memoir about hanging out at Elaine’s with your writer friends. When you look back, are there stories from Men’s Journal, GQ or Men’s Health that stand out for you? Do you have two or three favorites?

You have nailed one of my favorites — riding Marco Polo ponies across waist-deep rivers with the Northern Alliance warlor … er, general Mamur Hassan and witnessing the WWI-style trench warfare between his troops and the Taliban — “Talib, tonight you die,” they would whisper into their radios, knowing the enemy was on the same frequency — was beyond my imagination.

I suppose that is of a piece with many of my other favorites. Seeing the world is what it is all about, no? I mean, schlepping through the Liberian jungle for GQ looking to find Pat Robertson’s gold mines (and nailing that slywit with the contract he’d signed with the predator Charles Taylor), or running around Cuba looking for Sicilian mafioso in bed with Castro’s lieutenants; traveling the Chad-Sudan border with a Medicine Sans Frontiere mobile unit ministering to Darfur refugees or flying with US Army medics and living with US Air Force surgeons at the Balad FOB for Men’s Health — what could be neater?

But though I seem to have a preference for foreign correspondence, not all overseas assignments have to involve war or danger to be fun for me. I’ve written travel pieces from Tahiti, Glastonbury, and — yes — Sarajevo. I’ve shared a four-hour, five-course (six-bottle) lunch with Peter Mayle in the Luberon. I’ve rappelled down French Alpine cliffs with the Haute Montaigne Rescue Service, and I’ve chronicled the downtown scene of Montreal. No one was shooting at me, but it sure was cool.

I wrote one of my favorite pieces for GQ in 2003. I was on my way back from the Balkans and Art Cooper asked me to stop in London to profile Lennox Lewis. He was fighting a Boer, Franz Boetha, “The White Buffalo”, in the East End. I have a son who lives in France with his mother. Long story. He’s 12 this June, and visits me five or six times a year — I am proud to brag that he has been flying TransAtlantic by himself since he was five years old — but back then I didn’t see him much, and Art was always trying to get me to write a personal piece about living across an ocean from my boy.

Since I was in London anyway, and had only seen the western North Atlantic from my commercial fishing days on the Cape, I convinced Art to let me train to Glasgow (stopping on the way in Edmonton to watch Tiger Woods one day in the British Open), and ferry and tramp steamer across the eastern North Atlantic. Melville remarked that it is water and meditation that are forever wedded, and I told Art I’d write a reflective piece about me and Liam-Antoine while I sailed.

It was wonderful. Glasgow to the Orkneys to the Shetlands to the Faeroes, stopping at B&Bs to see the sights along the way. I ended up on the ass-end of Iceland — can’t remember the little fishing town on the island’s east coast — and the trip was everything I had dreamed it would be. Wrote a pretty good story, too.

Finally, this doesn’t mean I have to be overseas to write good “stuff”. I once spent a jolly, twisted week in Philadelphia profiling Joe Frazier — what a guy! — and I’m very proud of a lot of the stateside pieces I’ve done over the past couple of years for Men’s Health. The concussion story I mentioned jumps immediately to mind, as does the third and concluding part of the “Doctors of …” series, the time I interviewed the soon-to-be suicide.

Most of my favorite magazine writers — you, Mike Sager, Charles Bowden, Gary Smith, Charles P. Pierce, Tom Friend, and the late, great Dick Schaap — all have one thing in common: you toiled at daily newspapers before heading to the glossies. How important do you think it is for a budding magazine writer to start out newspapering? Also, the world of journalism right now — especially for newspapers — seems to be dying or going down the tubes fast. What advice would you give a young man or woman with a desire to pursue reporting for a living?

To answer your second question first — as I do happen sometimes to speak at journalism schools and the like; reporting is reporting, and no matter who you do it for, it involves the same steps — literally the same steps, as in shoe leather. I know this from my days as a copyboy and I know this from experience researching non-fiction books. That said, used to be, say, 10 years ago, when kids would ask me how to become a newspaperman, and I’d warn them off it real fast, advising them to get into some kind of electronic media. Now, well, now I don’t even get those questions. Not surprised.

It’s a good question you have about newspaper people moving on to glossies. I think it used to be, at least when I was coming up, that you felt deep down inside that you were apprenticing at a newspaper if you had any desire to “move up” to magazine or book work. Working in a newsroom as a kid, learning how to ask a question that does not elicit a pat answer, how to develop a “nose” for the thing that will make a good lede, how to crash a story on deadline, I suppose it served as a kind of vocational school. A plumber knows his U-joints, a crime reporter or city hall reporter knows his bullshit meter.

Not that there weren’t colleagues, good reporters and writers, who saw themselves first, last and always as newspaper people. I don’t care how many best-sellers or screenplays Jimmy Breslin has written, he’s still a newspaperman. Same with Denis Hamill and Michael Daly. Some guys are just born to the job, and they’re going to be there no matter what else they succeed in. I’m not sure I know how to explain it, the “moving up” process, other than the obvious. Space, for one. I tend to be prolix — the devil’s sign for a good newspaper editor — and I was always looking, even in my early newspaper days, for a way to bust out of the conventional newspaper story-telling confines and write some long narrative pieces. Moreover, from a strictly practical point of view, magazines and, of course, book contracts, paid better. And not least, they got you more famous — not a small accomplishment when you are young and horny and stupid. (Frank Sinatra once told Humphey Bogart that he hoped in heaven there were lots of broads and no newspapermen; Bogart replied that when he grew up he’d realize he had it backward.)

As for where we’re heading, this is what I will find interesting: I read a lot of blogs. Probably too many. The late NY football Giants GM George Young once told me he didn’t hire people who do crosswords — they waste too much time at work. If my editors knew how much time I waste surfing the web …

Anyway, so I read a lot of blogs. Good stuff. Good writing. Provocative. Like that. But the thing is, most bloggers are riffing off what reporters have uncovered in Afghanistan, in the State Department, in City Hall and the Gaza Strip and the campaign trail and Caracas and … well, once there is no more reporting from these places, what knowledge is left to riff on?

It will be interesting to see.

Steven Ward is a general assignment metro reporter at The (Baton Rouge, La.) Advocate and a freelance magazine writer.