Monday, June 3, 2013

Fathers and Sons

ONE of the liveliest voices on the pages of the New York Times Magazine has just released a beautifully observed and heartbreaking book. Stephen Rodrick's The Magical Stranger: A Son's Journey Into His Father's Life justifies the overused word "poignant."

Rodrick is known to sharp-eyed readers for a wide range of stories in the Times magazine as well as Men's Journal; a recent story, on Lindsay Lohan, Bret Easton Ellis, Paul Schrader and the movie The Canyons, may be the smartest piece involving a celebrity I've read in years.

The Magical Stranger is both a look back and a look inward: It's a kind of reported memoir in which Rodrick chronicles his Navy-pilot father's early years and death in 1979, when he crashed in the Indian Ocean when Rodrick was just 13.

Full disclosure: Part of my interest in the book comes from the fact that his father and mine were classmates at the Naval Academy; apparently they didn't know each other. And while I've admired Rodrick's work for years before we met, we've become acquainted he moved to Los Angeles. Finally, I am unfairly biased in his direction because of his excellent taste in music, and he shares The Misread City's ardor for Lloyd Cole, the Go-Betweens and other exemplars of unpopular pop, a term it turns out to have coined.

Here is my Q&A with Stephen Rodrick, who appears at Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena tonight, June 3.

You’re a longtime magazine journalist – “I inhabit other people’s lives for a living,” you write – accustomed to looking outward at the world. Was it odd or difficult to look inward, and to report on and research your own life and family history?
It wasn't actually that difficult. I think waiting until I was in my 40s was a fortunate coincidence. The same powers of observation that you need to bring to profiling Judd Apatow or Serena Williams is a tool that serves you well when you look at your own life. As I do with my profiles, I tried to strip away the myth of my father as a fallen hero–which he was to some extent–and replace it with a portrait of him as a real man with foibles and tragic flaws.
I always say my greatest skill as a journalist is simply that I show up: Not just for a day or two, but for weeks in the hopes of getting a full understanding of the person that I'm writing about; the good days, the bad day, the days when nothing happens. And I tried to bring that to writing about my family and my father. There were trips I took cross-country and overseas that didn't make it into the book, but it helped give me an understanding of my dad and naval aviators that I think allowed me to write with a level of confidence about them. I tried to live with them, or my father's memory, as much as I could.

You’ve been living with the painful fact of your father’s death since you were 13. What triggered you to dig into that complicated story now?
Well, it was a bit of practicality that finally got me off my ass. I'd been talking about writing about my father and our family since I wrote a piece for Men's Journal on navy pilots back in 2002. But I kept putting it off, partially because it was a pretty painful experience to write about for six to eight weeks so the idea of spending two or three years on the project sounded pretty overwhelming. But I learned in 2009 that my dad's squadron, VAQ-135, was making their last deployment flying the EA-6B Prowler, my dad's old plane, in 2009-2010 before transitioning to a new jet. Half the book is memoir, half the book is reportage on following my dad's squadron so I knew it if I was going to make the experience as real as possible, it would have to be while they were still flying Prowlers. The guys actually got me up on a flight in a Prowler on a low-level training flight through the Cascades and despite booting a spectacular yellow fluid it was one of the great experiences of my life.

Give us a sense of what kind of research you did to try to understand the whole thing.
It was a little bit of everything: Filing a Freedom of Information request and combing through my Dad's accident report, talking to aviators who flew with him, going to his 50th high school reunion, discovering a diary he kept when he was twelve and thirteen; the same age as I was when he died.
For the modern part of the story; following VAQ-135 and, specifically, Commander James Hunter Ware the skipper of VAQ-135, I spent hundreds of days up around NAS Whidbey where they're stationed and then hit the road to meet them in the Pacific, Key West, Jacksonville, Pearl Harbor, and then traveling to Bahrain and Dubai to spend more time with Ware for his next job on the USS Lincoln where he was the air boss, supervising landing and taking off jets on the carrier. I probably logged about 50,000 travel miles and 250 to 300 days on the road. With some notable exceptions–confined to quarters in Dubai with bronchitis, the entire country of Bahrain–I pretty much loved every minute of it.

Did you have any kind of model for The Magical Stranger or for your writing in general?
I'm not sure I had a specific model but Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life for the memoir stuff, a semi-obscure American novelist Thomas Rogers' to remind me to shoot some comedy into the pathos and your dad, Robert Timberg's The Nightingale's Song for his look at what the Naval Academy was like in the 1950s and 1960s. All were well-thumbed along with some Evelyn Waugh book like A Handful of Dust which is my favorite novel. It really bore no specific relation to the book but reminded me how to write about people and tragedy in a tart, honest and sometimes funny way without either being mean or mawkish.

Your journalism is unpredictably wide-ranging from eccentric purveyor of “unpopular pop” Jon Brion to the making of the strange Paul Schrader/ Lindsay Lohan film The Canyons. Sometimes, of course, you jump because an editor calls, but when it’s up to you, what makes a Stephen Rodrick story?
I think like most writers, I look for people or subjects I can identify with. When I was writing the book, I spent a lot of time trying to parse what makes a book or any creative project work. Not conincidentally, it's a theme in my writing. favorite stories.  My favorite stories are watching artists try and make a project actually happen-whether it's Brion with Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine, Judd Apatow with Knocked Up; Schrader with The Canyons or Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian trying to write a movie.
In a way, Hunter Ware' attempt to build a cohesive squadron that took care of his men and women while also maintaining a high sortie completion rate for missions over Afghanistan is just a military version of that. But watching people try to solve their own riddles has taught me so much about leading and creating that I feel a little guilty that I get paid to basically attend a seminar on 'Here's How You Make Your Dream Come True or Here's How Your Dream Gets Crushed By The Forces of Evil.'

You’ve lived in L.A. for a year or two now – after all your years in New York, what’s that been like?
I love it. I work at home so I don't have to fight the traffic and I get to swim laps outdoors all year round at Occidental College. It is true; it's a more isolated experience; both good and bad compared to Brooklyn. My wife and I have taken to referring to our house as the compound because a) it's great and comforting and b) you have to jump in your car to go do anything so it's also a compound in a house arrest kind of way.
I loved the ten years I spent in Brooklyn, but it starts to lose a little of its allure when all your friends get married and settled down and you're not going out five nights a week. Then all the question arise: Why am I paying $2500 for a 1000 square feet and I have no outdoor space? But there are some similarities; just like there were Brooklyn snobs who would need Jesus to be playing at the Bowery to cross the bridge and go to the Bowery on the weekend; here I live in Eagle Rock and it would take Jesus AND Mary doing an acoustic set at Largo to get me west of La Brea on a Saturday night.
But the tacos here are so much better.

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