Questions For. . . Mark Feeney
We talked to Feeney about his writing process, what the award means for his paper, and why some of the best birthday gifts for your mother don’t cost a penny.
Boston Daily: Congratulations on your win. Was it a shock?
Mark Feeney: Well, you know, it’s—yes and no. I knew I was a finalist, so I knew I had a one out of three chance. That’s better than playing blackjack. Then you hear you win, and it’s like nothing has changed but an awful lot has changed. So, yeah, it is a shock.
BD: What do you think has changed?
MF: Well, my inbox is a whole lot fuller.
BD: Who’s been emailing you?
MF: My favorite unexpected email is from Gene Orza, who is the number two man at the Major League Baseball Player’s Association. He sent me an email of congratulation. I do not know this man. I’ve been reading his name for years in the sports pages, but apparently he is a Nixon freak. Fourteen years ago, I was a finalist for a thing I did on Richard Nixon, and I later wrote a book [Nixon at the Movies] about Nixon. In this email, he says “Oh, you got robbed 14 years ago, and I love your book, and I’m so glad you won now.”
BD: So you’re like his Susan Lucci?
MF: Via Richard Nixon, yes. I’ve heard from high school classmates, ex-girlfriends, readers, which is obviously very gratifying.
BD: Is it like the World Series? Now that you’ve won it do you feel that anything less than a Pulitzer-winning year is less meaningful?
MF: It’s all laurels-resting from now on. No. Part of the beauty of journalism is that every day it’s something new. Far be it from me to speak ill of this wonderful prize, but it’s very much of an artifice to single out a given year’s work, and only 10 pieces within that year’s work, because it’s all about doing it every day. Sure, there’s a certain happy letdown thereafter, but it’s not unlike baseball. It’s a 162-game season, and every day there’s something else to write about.
BD: What are your favorite things to write about?
MF: I’m really a text person, a print person. There’s something slightly illicit for me about the image. I do think that the word is superior to the image, but there’s a bit of a thrill writing about pictures and movies, so in that sense it’s fun to write about those things. But it’s just fun to write.
BD: How do you write a piece? You reference everything from Tinkertoys to Prometheus to Victorian criticism in your work. How do you draw on all that?
MF: One of the things I emphasize to my students [at Brandeis] is to be alert. Keep your eyes open. Take it all in. Everything is, in a sense, a text. It’s not just the newspaper or the book you’re reading or the movie you’re going to tonight. Always question the world around you. As you do that, you amass this information, and then it comes out in odd ways.
When reviewing photography shows, the analogy I’ve come up with is like being a jazz soloist. A jazz soloist will have the chords of the tune in his head and then he or she will improvise on them. I look at the pictures, and I’ll write down descriptions and make connections. It will remind me of some other picture, or some book, or theory, or concept and I just write them down in my notebook and if I’m lucky something good comes out.
The advantage I have over a jazz soloist is that he or she is up on the bandstand in that instant. I get to go back to the paper and massage what I’ve written and rearrange it and fiddle with it, and if I’m lucky it comes out well. If I’m not lucky, maybe the editor will catch it and make it come out well.
BD: Given that, did you feel you had a good shot at the Pulitzer?
MF: There were two pieces I wrote that got a greater response from readers. . . Well, the greatest response I’ve ever gotten from readers is from pieces I write for the Food section.
MF: Let me nod to my wonderful next-cubicle neighbor Sheryl Julian because the readers of the Food section are like no other. I once wrote a piece about Dairy Queen, which I love, and a piece about Dr. Pepper, which I also love. I got a bigger response to those two pieces than anything else I’ve ever written for the Globe or anywhere else.
But those pieces aside, the biggest responses I’ve ever gotten to a cultural story was the piece on Edward Hopper and loneliness. It was just extraordinary, the response from readers. Not just the amount of it, but it really struck a chord with them. I thought it was good, but I’m prejudiced—it’s my stuff. Very soon thereafter, I did a piece on Barbara Stanwyck. That I figured nobody would read, but so many people really liked it. That made me think, ‘boy, there’s something special about those stories.’
In addition to that specialness, part of the artifice of the Pulitzer is that it’s pretty plain that there are certain kinds of submissions that the judges seem to go for. It’s not just 10 really good reviews, but they want a few larger things. As Scott Heller and I put together the exhibit, those two really stood out as the tent poles.
BD: The Globe’s had a run of bad news with the departures. Was it nice to bring some good news to the paper?
MF: Sure, sure. First off, as you know, it’s the whole business, and we’re very lucky to be owned by the New York Times Co. We’ve met with tough times, but we’ve been lucky to be part of such a noble company.
But it’s hard for everybody to see someone like Mike Larkin—who is the best boss I ever had—leave. But he’s been here forever. It’s always been in the nature of newspapers that there’s great change. There are so many really talented people here that it is hard, yes. Certainly in preparing my remarks I was trying to be. . . well, uplifting is too grand and upbeat is too trivial, but I wanted to try to make people feel better.
This is the only full-time job I’ve had since college. This is my home. And it’s not a palace, but it sure ain’t a shack. I love this place. If I made people feel good, I’m just so grateful.
BD: Any big plans for the $10,000 prize money?
MF: Gee, I don’t know. I can honestly say I haven’t thought about the idea.
BD: In the Globe’s story about your win, you said you haven’t gotten your mother a birthday present. That might be something to consider.
MF: She’s not getting the cash. She can get the acclaim.
BD: How did she react when you told her?
MF: She was more pleased that I’d shaved my beard. I grow a beard about every other year and she hates it. So does my wife, but she’s more gracious about it.
BD: I was reading your biography on the Pulitzer website, and I notice that you and I have the same birthday. So I think this means good things for me if the Pulitzer people ever develop a blogging category.
MF: I sure hope so. I believe Jackie Kennedy’s birthday is July 28 as well.
BD: A colleague of mine who shares our birthday informed me that Michael Mukasey also has the same birthday.
MF: Oh, I didn’t know that. Oh well.
BD: But we’re glad to have you on our side.
MF: Well, I’d rather be in his good graces than in mine.
BD: No waterboarding in the Globe newsroom?
MF: No, we haven’t reached that point.
Mark Feeney writes for the Globe’s Arts section.