Note: This is Part II of a February 1994 presentation Clay Blair gave as guest of the Island Writers group. He began with a description of the latest book project he and Joan had recently completed. (He thought they had completed the book, but this project eventually became two, large volumes, the second one published shortly before his death in 1998. For more details, see interview with Joan Blair in the August 7, 2011 blog that followed the seven-part Clay Blair interview).
Here, in Part II, Clay recounts his younger years, his entry into journalism, and his early career as a writer. While some of the material in this presentation covers similar ground with the interview of Feb. 1994, the reader will also find new material and new insights on writing not covered by the interview transcript series.
- Dick Purinton
PART II - AN ISLAND WRITERS GROUP MEETING AT REC CENTER WITH CLAY BLAIR
I have to tell you that the work we do is a joint endeavor, Joan and I. We work side by side in the archives. She will research this line, I’ll research that line, and we bring all of this stuff back here, to write. And that’s the only drawback, that you have to get two or three railroad cars full of research and bring it back. But then, the other six years (working on this book) were really wonderful.
I write, Joan edits and puts it in the computer. The way it stands, a chapter - and there are 20 of them - each chapter is 40-50,000 words, which is really a book. And so, we did 20 little books. All chapters, of course, on the same subject.
Our writing is aimed at, you might say, the Book-of-the-Month Club mentality. We try to deliver that in terms of writing and subject matter and style, in a way that it will be interesting, if not gripping, and in language that will pass muster with the Literary Guild or Book of the Month. In fact, we’ve been lucky to have one main selection as Book of the Month. We’ve been selected by the Literary Guild, and many other book clubs.
We research and present our material on a level well above PhD or professional historian. We do these serious things, but we’ve also done all sorts of other things, very short, quick, fast books. We’ve published novels, and non-fiction work, and a whole bunch of other stuff.
Now, I’ll talk a little bit about how I became a writer.
A writer. I’ve been a writer for almost 50 years.
I’ve known a lot of writers, and they’re all, like, drunks… crazy like I am. No…they’re really different. I think a writer – a real writer – there again there are writers, and there are writers … I’m talking about real writers, professional writers now… they’re doing the screen work, for sure - that’s the only general definition I can make.
If you look in the lives of many writers across the USA, you find out they lost their parents. Hemingway lost his father. His father was shot when he was 14 years old. I did a little study one time. His father shot himself when he was a kid. You can find this stuff, this adversity. That’s generally another factor that goes into it: screw loose; adversity in childhood. These are all givens, I think.
And then, a talent. Talent somehow for writing a sentence. Talent. Not a learned talent, just a talent that sort of spews out. I can’t, I can’t for the life of me begin to tell you how that happens.
I’ve been through all kinds of theories about this, how a writer translates things into different terms. That good writers have conflict, have plot. That the writers with a screw loose from childhood were really playing out a natural plot in disguised form.
But, again, we’re really way out, up on the wall now, and I don’t know how this sets a pattern.
I do know that in my own case, maybe starting in 8th grade, I was writing essays in English class. Everything just came naturally. And I read a tremendous amount as a kid. I was a lone wolf and a lone sheep. Kept to myself pretty much. I did not engage in sports in younger years, or hunting, fishing, or any of that. I just read a lot, and that also is a very important factor in being a writer.
You read, read and read all your life and never stop reading, because that’s how you learn to write. You absorb that by osmosis in some way. I mean, you don’t sit down and study somebody’s columns, for that sentence or that word, but if you read and read and read – good stuff - and if you are a writer to start with, then you’ll absorb it. And it will show and become your own writing - not consciously - because that’s, to my view, that’s the end. When you’re writing against the show of conscious...if that’s what you’re writing, the effort to write or to copy somebody else - it shows. And that’s no good. That doesn’t work.
I was in the navy in WWII. I was on a submarine, and the first thing I ever published was related to the submarine.
After the war we came home to the sub base in New London, Connecticut, to mothball our submarine. And at the end of that period you have a decommissioning party, for your boat, your crew, and they have a printed menu – you know, turkey, giblets, gravy, rolls. And they had a lot of blank space on the menu because its not like a funeral here where there is a Psalm to read, verses, a biographical sketch based on this person. For this souvenir menu I wrote a poem about our ship, and we put it on the back – they put it on the back – and that was my first published thing.
That was a hell of a good poem! (pauses) No, it was really dull!
It was a tribute as well, the sadness of this decommissioning trip to Connecticut. You’d probably look at that and say, “My goodness, he’s probably a war lover.” I might be. But you can tell it was my first published effort.
And then I went home after the war to college at Tulane University. I entered the School of Architecture because I always thought I would be an architect. And after I’d been there several months, the dean called me. I had a very tough time with algebra and trig, which I hadn’t seen in three years, if not four. I must say, I was not the top student in the classroom. We took aptitude tests for engineering.
And he said, “Mr. Blair, do you have other interests?”
That was the end of my architecture. The fact is, I did quite well in the English Department through high school, and so I moved into my writing on the GI Student Loan.
This thing happened. I wrote this short story. Boom! Right out of the blue. And so I typed it out and put it in a drawer. I had no intention of being a writer. I had a roommate, and he took this story to our college literary magazine, the Tulane magazine, and gave it to the editor who then published it, and I won the prize for the best short story of 1947. And $25! This is really true. And that really impressed me. Because this was so easy, I thought, Wow! I could do that for a living. So, then I decided to be a writer.
There were very few places you could go then and be a writer, or study being a writer. One of them was Columbia University, New York, which had a school of creative study. They had a writing thing in their curriculum. You could take play writing, novel writing, short story writing, journalism, poetry…anything.
And so I wrote short stories, more stories, and sent them out to Columbia, and they accepted me. And it turns out, there were quite a few other kids in college at the same time doing the same thing (applying to Columbia). I didn’t even know this. But when we arrived we were sort of an expatriate southern group, and we had our own little community. Columbia, and Southern Columbia, I should say.
We didn’t have any money. I got a job at Time Magazine as a copy boy. All the copy boys were either in the PhD programs or were writing "their novel.” We were all in the same boat then. And it was the most disorganized, fouled up outfit you’d ever seen. There were like 30 of us.
And, I had some experience in the navy heading up a department, so I fixed this department, and he (Clay's boss at Time) was so impressed with that, for having done it, that he offered me a job to be a trainee correspondent. They’d teach me how to write and be a reporter. And although I had not graduated from college yet - I still had a year to go because I couldn’t transfer all my credits from Tulane - and so I had this terrible angst, Gesthemane, and I finally decided I would take the job, even though I hadn’t finished college, hadn’t graduated yet. And the rest of it is…history.
I was in a year’s training, a youth writer who aspires to be a writer. You talk about a wonderful experience. All my life I’ve fallen into things like that. I guess I was, in a way, prepared.
The bureau chiefs kept moving me around…and all these people were critiquing me week in, week out, month after month. And it was just fabulous. So at the end of that time, I’m up in Washington, at Time Magazine, and the day this war broke out - June 25th, 1950, the Korean War broke out - the regular national security correspondent at Time was named Bob Sherry. He was away writing a picture history of WWII. It was like a sink-or-swim deal. And, I swam. I did all right.
The guy who went to write the picture history never came back, and so I was the Pentagon guy for years. I made the connections in Washington that I used when I began to write books about the military, and to make a long story short, I became a staff writer for Time.
I wrote no less than 10,000 words a week, in eight or ten written stories. And in those days, what you did was, you “over-filed” for Time, and then the writers in New York rewrote it. If I filed 1000 words, they might boil it down to 200. So they would completely rewrite your stuff. And meanwhile, you’re filing at length. And the cover stories for Time Magazine - they had no rule - but I had to do one cover story about generals and admirals in Korea that was about 25,000 words. And then their writer in New York would take your 25,000 words and boil it down to 5,000 with no attributions, no name on it, no nothing. They called it “group journalism.” We called it “gang journalism.”
It was a fabulous way to learn to be a writer, but very unsatisfactory in terms of recognition. So I started writing long pieces, 5,000 words of my own, and I published eight or ten of those, and because of that, and because I liked that so much, I went over to Saturday Evening Post after eight or nine years at Time as a staff writer.
At the Saturday Evening Post the people were old, they were tired. Television had come and they were taking advertising from magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, which was carrying Ladies Home Journal, Holiday, House and Home. They then asked me to be Editor of the Post. It was a wonderful job, but I didn’t know about all the problems of the corporation. I went up to Philadelphia and was Assistant Managing Editor, then Managing Editor, got caught up in corporate BS, the trench warfare. We had a circulation of 7 million a week, and you had to produce 10 or 12 stories, fiction, and covers…an incredible rat race.
In 1965 I left that, and I had what I call a “brass parachute.” It was enough to get started on being a freelance writer who wrote books. I went to Washington, and I needed a typist. (Looks at Joan in audience.)
“You want to tell that part?”
I met Joan, and we talked about Washington Island. I didn’t know where this place was. I couldn’t conceive of it. We ran off together, and we had a wonderful life. We’ve written …how many books?
Anyway, our lives have been hectic, and scary at times. We’ve managed, since 1967, to write many books. Sometimes we’ve had some pretty good luck with very good sellers. There’ve been very lean times, too. Feast or famine, unless you hit one big one. But, it’s a very rewarding life. We’re very pleased now to see books such as David Halberstam’s new book The Fifties using our books as references for this war.
End Part II - Dick Purinton