20 Questions: Howard Blum

Photo by ©Mark Schafer Courtesy of Vanity Fair

Bestselling author, Vanity Fair contributing editor, and New York Times award-winning investigative reporter Howard Blum chats with PopMatters 20 Questions about Bob Dylan, Melville's Ishmael, and a bit of a Mafioso affinity.

American Lightning

Publisher: Crown
Subtitle: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century
Author: Howard Blum
Price: $24.95
Length: 352
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780307346940
US publication date: 2008-09

The Eve of Destruction

Publisher: HarperCollins
Subtitle: The Untold Story of the Yom Kippur War
Author: Howard Blum
Price: $13.95
Length: 384
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780060014001
US publication date: 2004-10

The Brigade

Publisher: HarperCollins
Subtitle: An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation, and World War II
Author: Howard Blum
Price: $13.95
Length: 352
Formats: Paperback
ISBN: 9780060932831
US publication date: 2002-10

Howard Blum, an award-winning former reporter for the New York Times and currently a contributing editor of Vanity Fair, is the author of several bestselling non-fiction books, including The Brigade, The Gold of Exodus, Gangland, and Wanted! The Brigade is being made into a major motion picture by Miramax Films. His newest book, the suspense-generating American Lightning (Crown) publishes this week. He chats with PopMatters 20 Questions about Bob Dylan, Melville's Ishmael, and a bit of a Mafioso affinity, among other things.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

I'm not so macho that I don't cry, but, truth is, I can't think of a book that ever brought me to tears. More often, if something grabs me I'm awed. And envious of the writer's talent.

The book that most recently knocked me for a loop was Richard Price's Lush Life. The throwaway lines, the minor characters, the passing street scenes - everything on the page is memorably crafted. There's a funeral scene that's not too relevant to the plot where a couple of characters just appear for a few pages and then disappear from the narrative - and yet each of their voices is wonderfully unique. They come alive in just a few careful sentences.

Price has a stunning gift. But it doesn't make me cry. It just turns me green with envy.

2. The fictional character most like you?

I can see some similarities between myself and Melville's Ishmael. Both of us try to escape from our problems ("the grim, gray November in my soul," is how Ishmael puts it) by running away. And I sorta feel Ishmael is a journalist at heart, someone who is always checking things out, observing, mining the experience for the story that lies underneath. And I'd like to hope that like Ishmael, I'm a survivor. When the ship goes down, I'll come up floating to the surface ready to be picked up by the next passing ship.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Dylan's Blonde on Blonde. You can't be a teenager worrying about SATs, parents, girls, wondering if you're ever going to get to go off and live in another zip code, and then hear a line like "the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face" and not believe there is a larger world out there for you. And a nobler calling then all you've seen growing up in the suburbs. Its music that is magic. It has a transformative power.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

I ain't much of a Star Wars fan. I find the stories not mythic, but simply derivative and even commonplace.

Star Trek is much more inventive. More sci fi. And the characters are cooler and more complex, not simply caricatures. I mean, Dr. Spock or Hans Solo? It's not much of a contest. The good Vulcan wins, hands down.

5. Your ideal brain food?

When I'm stymied or simply not in the mood to work, I play Dylan's (again, I know; see question 3) "Like a Rolling Stone" - but it must be the live performance at Royal Albert Hall. At about eight-minutes, this tells a self-contained little story that's remarkably energizing to anyone who has the ambition of making art or being an artist.

There's Bobby, maybe 20, and as soon as he comes out on the stage, the crowd starts booing. They're calling him "traitor" and "Judas" because he dared to go electric.

So what does Bobby do? He tells the band (and you can hear it on the cut)"Play it f-ing loud!" And the band tears into it. It's like a sonic boom. And Bobby is wailing, the words screaming out of his mouth like a madman's howl as the electric guitars are rattling like machine guns. And when the song ends - the crowd is cheering.

That's what it's like to be a great artist: To take great risks. To defy the critics. And in the end, to triumph.

When that's playing through the speakers, volume up high, I'm energized.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I happened to read an item (OK, someone sent it to me) in The Harvard Law Alumni Magazine about an alumnus who had been appointed the head of the Justice Department's War Crimes Taskforce. He said he had been inspired to apply for the job because he had read my book Wanted! The Search for Nazis in America (1977).

It makes me feel good that something I had written had positively influenced someone else's life. That, after all, is one of the reasons why I write.

7. You want to be remembered for...?

Being the father of Tony, Anna, and Dani. I'm so very proud of my children.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

The story of Moses has always fascinated me. There he is, 80-years-old (or close enough), and he gets this message from a burning bush (no less) to return to a land where he is wanted for murder (he had killed an Egyptian guard), to confront the Pharaoh, and to demand that Egypt's slaves should be released. And to further complicate things, this old man can't talk very well. He stutters. And he has a temper, to boot.

Yet Moses drops whatever he is doing, leaves his family, and despite his age, his disability, his doubts, and his temper, leaves Midian and returns to Egypt. And gets the job done.

Not bad for an old man. Which resonates more and more as I grow older.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Jasper Johns' Corpse and Mirror (1975-76) is an inspiration, very beautiful, and very mysterious. It's a complex, multi-layered masterpiece. I sure would've liked to have painted it.

10. Your hidden talents...?

I once had a very effective hook shot that I could make while driving to the basket. I can still sorta make that shot - as long as I'm playing basketball with old men like myself. And it still always takes them by surprise.

Photo from Vanity Fair profile page

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

My dad told me that all you can ask out of life is opportunities. I listened. And whenever an opportunity has popped up, I've tried to take advantage of it. Not always successfully. But I've always tried.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

When I went off to Stanford, I had a scholarship and some money I had earned from a summer job. My parents kicked in a bit, too. And I got a Volvo. SuperCar. To be driving the first car that's your own, radio blasting as you head over the Stanford Hills toward the Pacific - well, that felt so good.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?

I gotta go for both. An Armani blazer with a pair of jeans - now, that's a look that's both funky and chic.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

I stayed at the Ritz (Paris) on my honeymoon and had dinner there with my wife. She's now my ex-wife, but it would be kinda interesting to share a meal there with her now and try to gain some perspective on the places we've been, alone and together, since our first dinner at the Ritz a long, long time ago.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

The American colonies, 1773 or '74, just on the verge of the Revolution. The times were certainly changing. A great democratic vision was about to be realized. And it would have been a blessing and an adventure to have been a witness, and maybe a participant.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

I sorta tend to believe in the "don't get angry, get even" school of anger management. I'll take my revenge, as the Italian proverb goes, cold. But I'll want it. I guess I'm more Mafioso than Zen.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?

Never have smoked. And would take chocolate over vodka if given the choice. But coffee - it keeps me going. And going. It jumpstarts my day.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I like cities. I like to be able to walk the streets, turn a corner, and not know what I'm going to find. And my favorite city for walking is London. Each new block always brings a treat: something to see and ponder.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Congratulations, President Obama.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

I'm following American Lightning with another narrative history. Like American Lightning, it's a true-life mystery with cultural overtones, and it's driven by some unique and complex characters. Only this new book is a Western. Sorta.

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