This book is not only about loving and leaving New York, as the subtitle states; it is about writing and surviving as a writer, about parenthood, and the many changes that becoming a parent brings about. And so, ultimately, it is about change, change in the city and especially in one neighborhood, and change in the protagonist, who happens to be me. The lesson I would like the reader to take away is the same one that I have come to, which is to at least accept if not embrace change. I fought it, but somewhere along the way I came to realize that change is more relentless than I am at resisting it. By all means cling to essential values and standards, then take them with you as you progress through life, adjusting as you go.
Skip Rozin is a journalist with 50 years of experience, on staff and as a freelance reporter, writing on wide-ranging subjects. Along the way he has published five books, most recently “The View from Apartment Four; On Loving and Leaving New York.” His travel articles have run in The New York Times and the Washington Post, with general readership articles in the Wall Street Journal, Harpers, Parents, Audubon, BusinessWeek and more than a dozen anthologies.
Thank you so much for joining us Skip! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I enrolled in the University of Miami in the fall of 1959 with no vision of my future. On a lark I entered the school newspaper office; I guess the movie “Deadline USA” inspired me. My first assignment, about the school’s counseling program, resulted in my first published article. While it was seriously rewritten — only the byline indicated it was my story — my pride in seeing it published was enough to carry me onto my next article, and on to the next. I soon gained more satisfaction from the writing than from what appeared in print. That satisfaction continues today.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
An early assignment was to write about icebergs for Audubon magazine, leading me to West Greenland, to Jakobshavn (now called Ilulissat) north of the Arctic Circle. Getting as close as possible to the glacier, I walked nearly two miles along the one road leading away from town and then headed out across a squishing field of tundra.
Being there was eerie. I could have been the only person in the world; it was that empty, that quiet. Only the wind made a sound, whistling against the naked peaks of rock that blocked my view of the fjord. Suddenly everything changed. First came the faint rumble from the edge of the glacier, then a loud crack echoing across the sky; the splitting, the ripping asunder of thousands of tons of ice. The rumble grew to a deafening roar, only to be swallowed by the explosion of the ice crashing into water.
In minutes it was over, replaced by the quiet. It had happened — an iceberg had calved. I saw nothing, but had been witness to an act of creation.
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?
I hired on at the Miami Herald in my junior year of college, a unique opportunity for a 20-year-old with limited experience. One afternoon while writing “cutlines only” — a caption for a photo without an article — I labored to achieve the right feel for the image of police officers in a funeral procession honoring their fallen comrade. Finally I decided that “gunned down in the line of duty” conveyed the drama of the moment. It survived through the city desk, but when it reached the copy editor he held it high over his head and yelled in the room filled with reporters working to meet the deadline. “Rozin,” he bellowed, not really looking for me and not waiting for a response, “the cop hit a grease patch and crashed his motorcycle.”
Thereafter, whenever I am tempted to place mood over accuracy, I hear those words.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
From 1970 through 1998 I completed five novels and sold none of them. Throughout that same period I interspersed fiction by writing nonfiction, completing four books and dozens of articles. My time writing fiction was good and bad; I loved the process but hated the rejection; see below. The bad was so bad that I gave up novels in 1998 to concentrate wholly on nonfiction. But I have missed it, more and more with each succeeding year, and am now returning to fiction. My new novel, Obituary Man, is about Albert Zuckerman a mild-mannered New Yorker obsessed with death.
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?
First, I work on being as good a writer as I can, but 50 years of writing and even more of reading have convinced me that great is beyond my capabilities.
Seeing myself as a work-a-day writer and not a celebrity has led me to rely on diligence toward my craft, a perseverance to produce the best possible and most readable final manuscripts. This attitude can be especially difficult to maintain in a field so filled with obstacles, that drumbeat of evidence that you are just not good enough. For me this began early.
I split time in college between being a student and a reporter. Each morning I took classes in English literature and European history, then drove to the Miami Herald to cover robberies, fatal traffic accidents and such stuff of city life.
One morning my English teacher asked me to remain after class. “You concern me,” he said. “Of all my students, you have the most trouble expressing yourself using the written word.” I thanked him without telling him where I spent my afternoons, and promised to try harder. I passed the class with a C.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
I was 42 when I got married, leaving me with plenty of time to develop a personality of self-indulgence, a quality well suited for being a writer. I managed this by exerting as much control as possible; control over my time and my schedule, control over my state of mind. This was more of a struggle when I first became a father, but I managed, or thought I had.
Then we decided on a second child. One kid was good; how much harder could a second one be? That question became complicated at 12 weeks of pregnancy when we discovered that our second child was triplets. Our true education began on the morning they were born.
As I stood there in the delivery room and looked at our three newborns I felt something I did not immediately understand. This was more than relief that they had arrived and were healthy, and I was inexplicably unconcerned with providing food and clothing and space for a family of six. And while there was a palpable rush of exhilaration, what I felt at the moment was more profound, overshadowed by a new reality.
That control I guarded most of my adult life had always been a struggle to maintain, especially with marriage and the birth of our first child. But on the morning when the triplets arrived I gave up that fight. Seeing them, and imagining my part in their future, I realized that control was an illusion, probably always was.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
This book is not only about loving and leaving New York, as the subtitle states; it is about writing and surviving as a writer, about parenthood, and the many changes that becoming a parent brings about. And so, ultimately, it is about change, change in the city and especially in one neighborhood, and change in the protagonist, who happens to be me.
The lesson I would like the reader to take away is the same one that I have come to, which is to at least accept if not embrace change. I fought it, but somewhere along the way I came to realize that change is more relentless than I am at resisting it. By all means cling to essential values and standards, then take them with you as you progress through life, adjusting as you go.
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 other aspiring writers can learn from?
Outside of generating enough work to pay my bills, my biggest challenge was and continues to be fighting the pain of rejection.
Looking back over my body of work, I estimate I’ve published about 50 percent of what I’ve written. This means that half of my finished manuscripts were rejected. The challenge in the face of that rejection is convincing myself that I am a good writer, necessary if I’m continuing to write.
My favorite antidote to the ensuing pain is a short story called “The Coffee Break,” about a man’s frustrating interaction with a coffee vending machine. Though no magazine accepted it, most liked it enough to encourage me to keep it moving, so I did. Until the day I received the hand-written note with just three words: “Not funny — yuck.”
I was appalled, and embarrassed. I threw the story into a drawer and swore never to show it again. And I didn’t, until years later when Harper’s magazine was publishing a special section of short piece focusing on two or three subjects; in January of 1975 the principal subject was villains. I thought my coffee machine qualified. Harper’s agreed, renamed it Big White and ran it.
A year later Scholastic Books published a little paperback called “Loving, Dying, Living: Faces of America” and filled it with poems and short stories; one was “Big White.” Later that year Reader’s Digest published my story under the headline “Duel with the Devil.”
Since then it has been reprinted more than 20 times. Each time I am reminded of an important writer’s reality: What one editor thinks is “Yuck” others might think has value. This exercise in mental health compensates for a lot of rejection letters. Doesn’t wipe them out, mind you, but helps balance the scale.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
All good writing impresses me, inspires me to think deeper and write better. I felt this early on when I read “Henderson The Rain King” by Saul Bellow, and later “Growing Up” by Russell Baker. These are of course well recognized works of literature; I have a similar reaction whenever I encounter good writing, as I did recently with Anna Quindlen’s “Still Life with Break Crumbs.”
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
My best opportunity to impact readers is when I am fortunate enough to combine a good subject with my skills as a writer and a reporter to inform and move thinking in a new direction.
This happened for me with Daufuskie, a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina, mostly populated by descends of slaves who once worked its plantations. Inaccessible by car, unlike neighboring Hilton Head, it had for generations avoid development as a resort, leaving its residents to ease their way into the modern world. But money and the growing shortage of island property pressured that unique status. My articles — I wrote three for different magazines — pointed out what would be lost when exclusive resorts replaced homes and families with roots tracing back to Revolutionary War time.
I doubt if my reporting changed this process; my best hope is that it informed readers of the cultural expense of, as the headline on the Time magazine article put it, “Trading Traditions for Jobs.”
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
The only thing I wish I had known when I started comes with a serious caveat. I wish someone had told me how hard it is to make a living from being a writer, at least the kind of writer I wanted to be, one driven by a broad interest in many things, a variety of stories about people carving out a life in different and often difficult circumstances.
The caveat is that I am thankful nobody ever told me that. If they had I would have probably not chosen this path and therefore missed a wonderful life filled with rewards and frustration, but on balance damn good.
Why so good? Because it grants writers the opportunity to seek out subjects real and imagined, and exercise the craft necessary to make them come alive for readers. In doing so, we employ the full range of the mental process, a worthwhile challenge for a life’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. 🙂
If I were that person — a question to be debated another time — I would convince people to be more accepting of the views and choices of others. We as a nation are far too insistent that we all speak with one voice, leading to a shocking intolerance of anyone who does not. (This is actually a global problem, but I limit my response to this country, mistakenly called The United States of America; united we are not.)
I do not suggest that we all need to agree, just leave room for those who harbor opinions and positions other than our own.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
While I have no social media connection, I do have a website — Skip.rozin.com — and am available by email: [email protected]
Thank you for all of these great insights!