John Christie: “Getting the words right”

Revise, revise, revise — My home office is littered with six full rewrites of my book, and that excludes dozens of partial rewrites. Hemingway was asked why he rewrote the end of one of his novels 39 times. He replied that he was, “Getting the words right.” I had the pleasure of interviewing John Christie a veteran journalist […]

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Revise, revise, revise — My home office is littered with six full rewrites of my book, and that excludes dozens of partial rewrites. Hemingway was asked why he rewrote the end of one of his novels 39 times. He replied that he was, “Getting the words right.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing John Christie a veteran journalist who has worked as a reporter, editor and publisher for newspapers in Massachusetts, Maine and Florida. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Boston magazine, Yankee magazine, the Boston Phoenix, NPR-affiliate WBUR and elsewhere. His memoir, “Prince of Wentworth Street: An American boyhood in the shadow of a genocide,” is a revealing portrait of a boy determined to escape the cocoon his extended family created for him and of an aging man who finds his way back to peace with himself by returning to the blood-soaked hillside in Turkey where his family’s story began.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

I went to university with hopes of becoming a lawyer, even though growing up working class, I had never actually met a lawyer. From what I saw on TV, it seemed like a better job than the factory jobs my parents and friends’ parents held. Under the impression that as a lawyer I would need to be required to write briefs, I signed up for a basic writing course. That’s went I got lucky — it was taught by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist named Donald M. Murray, who was to become known as the nation’s premier teacher of writing. From there, it was one step to working on the college newspaper, my first byline and a long career as a reporter, editor, publisher and author.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

When I was a statehouse reporter in Boston, officials were concerned about conditions at the state mental hospitals. I wanted to get more details, get closer to the action, so I went undercover as an attendant at one of the hospitals. For nearly a month, I worked eight hours a day on a closed ward, keeping peace among the sometimes-violent patients, feeding them their meals, escorting then to therapy sessions, cleaning up their messes. It resulted in a multi-part series for six Massachusetts newspapers that won a major award and dozens of letters to the editor thanking me for exposing what life was like in one of these deadening institutions.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

The hardest thing in writing my book was finding the single idea that could be sustained for 70,000 words. Every time I tried to tell someone what the book was going to be about, I stumbled over the description. I could not make it sound like a unified story, like something worth reading. I was reluctant to discard an idea that I had become enthralled with and had spent months researching. But it helped to have been a newspaper reporter and editor, because putting out a paper every day trains you to make hard calls and make them fast. Difficult as it may be, I had to start over again, rethink the whole concept, do more research, and revise, revise, revise. There’s an old saying about writing well: Kill your babies. It means if you have an idea, a sentence, a phrase that you think it the best thing ever, well, you may be the only one who sees that and if you want to write for readers — not yourself — you may have to kill that baby. If you’re serious about writing well — about being published and reaching readers — you have to be hard on yourself.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was the “summer kid” at a weekly newspaper in Maine the editor sent me to take photos at a local event. When I got there, they were serving hors d’oeuvres and drinks. On e adage of the old-time newspapermen was, “Never turn down a free meal or a drink.” Well, I took advantage of that saying and drank too much. I shot the photos and wrote down the names of the people in the pictures — but, being a bit drunk, I got all the names mixed up. Fortunately, the editor knew everyone on town and she fixed my mistake before it made print. Lesson: Never drink on the job.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

With my book now published, I have been free to consider projects I had put aside. Like most journalists, I have a half-finished novel in my files, and I am now looking at that ms. with an eye towards returning to it with the fresh confidence I have from finishing my memoir. It’s the story of a disgraced investigative reporter who tries to redeem himself but falls into a trap set by ruthless politicians. For a possible screenplay, I’m researching a 17th century dispute between colonists and native Americans that resulted in the native people being enslaved and colonists murdered in their beds.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

To complete my research into the murder of my grandmother’s parents in the Armenian Genocide in the early 20th Century — the seminal event in my memoir — I had to return to the scene of the crime, a remote village in Turkey. But there was a major obstacle: I didn’t know precisely where my family was from. All I had was the name of large district of nearly 30 villages. I couldn’t search 30 villages with the few clues I had to her origin: a place where mulberry trees grew and there had been a silk factory — more than 100 years ago. With a local driver, a guide and my adult son, we asked questions at cafes, drove up and down steep switchbacks to small villages of stone houses centuries old, looked for the right kind of trees and anything that looked like an abandoned factory. In a village called Bitias, our guide spotted a mulberry tree and our Turkish driver asked an old woman sitting outside a small store is she had ever heard of a silk factory nearby. She pointed down a dusty street to a “Y” in the road where it had been decades ago. Now, our search was over. We had found where our story began in the year 1909, where my Nana has last seen her father alive before he was stabbed to death by a gang inspired by a pogrom to rid the Ottoman Empire of “infidels.”

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

I open up one chapter with this quote from a Van Morrison song: “Don’t ever stray/stray from own ones.” The lesson I learned is the price you pay when you forget where you came from and neglect honoring those who made you. My book taught me there is no deeper, no stronger virtue for me than loyalty.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

Find a story you care about — Writing a book is a long, hard process. You have to have a plot or, even better, characters you want to spend time with. For example, I had a charming, rascally uncle, and I every moment I spent writing his story was like hanging out with him all over again.

Expect failure — My book proposal was turned down by two dozen agents before I found a publisher on my own who, to my great luck, had an affinity for the locale of my story.

Show, don’t tell — This is the best writing advice there is. As Mark Twain advised, “Don’t say the old lady screamed — bring her on and let her scream.”

Revise, revise, revise — My home office is littered with six full rewrites of my book, and that excludes dozens of partial rewrites. Hemingway was asked why he rewrote the end of one of his novels 39 times. He replied that he was, “Getting the words right.”

Remember the reader — Professional writers write for an audience. When I read what I have written, I ask myself will the readers understand and even care what I have written. If the answer is, “No,” I revise.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

It was recognizing writing is a craft. It can be learned if you devote yourself to it the same way a master cabinet-maker would to their work. When I read a sentence or a paragraph in a book that moves me, I study how it was done.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I am most inspired by any writing that uses the fewest words to make the greatest point. So, I can be inspired by the poems of Emily Dickenson and Yeats, by the final sentences of Joyce’s “The Dead,” by the lyrics of Bob Dylan and John Prine, by John Updike’s essay on Ted Williams, just about every essay by Joan Didion, Henry V’s speech at Agincourt (words by Shakespeare) and the humanity of all of Philip Roth’s work.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

What would do the most good for this country would be a much firmer and deeper understanding of civics and history. Recent controversies — no matter which side of them you fall on — have made it clearer than ever that too few people understand how our nation runs, why it was set up this way and what their role is in keeping and improving our democracy. My movement would begin with students of all ages taking a civics course, not just a few hours a year or just one course at middle and high school, but a course every year they are in school, each year adding more depth to their knowledge and understanding. We teach language and math at every level; democracy is just as important. Call it the Good Citizen Movement.

How can our readers follow you on social media?


Twitter: @JohnTChristie


Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

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