December 2004

John Detrixhe


An Interview with Ward Just

Ward Just is a novelist, and he has been a novelist for thirty-four years. It is important to remember this because Just’s credentials as a journalist are so impressive -- he was a war correspondent in Cyprus for Newsweek, and he was the Washington Post’s point man in Vietnam -- that perhaps his credentials as a writer of fiction are underestimated. Just is the author of fourteen novels, a play, and three collections of short stories. His novel Jack Gance won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award for fiction, and Echo House was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction. His latest novel, An Unfinished Season, won the Tribune’s American Heartland Prize for fiction.

Season is the third book, including Jack Gance and A Family Trust, in what Just has called “an Illinois cycle.” It is set in 1950’s Chicago, and the story is related by narrator Wils Ravan as he recalls being nineteen on the North Shore, and his summer job as a copy boy for a downtown paper. As is typical of Just characters, Ravan is an acute observer:

“The winter of the year my father carried a gun for his own protection was the coldest on record in Chicago. The winter went on and on, blizzard following blizzard, each day gray with a fierce arctic wind. The canyons of the Loop were deserted, empty as any wasteland, the lake an unquiet pile of ice beyond. Trains failed, water pipes cracked, all northern Illinois was locked in, the air as brittle as a razor blade.”

There’s a temptation to draw a parallel between Ravan’s summer job at the paper and Just’s early career at the family owned Waukegan News-Sun, and to assume Just is reflecting on his own youth on Chicago’s North Shore. But Season is not a memoir, and as one would expect from a Just novel, these details are bundled together to comprise a much more complex story, for which old world Chicago and Cold War America are the backdrop.

On November 7, 2004, Just accepted his latest Heartland Prize at the Chicago Symphony Center, and afterwards he met me at the Hotel Intercontinental. Before our wineglasses were empty, Just kindly commented on, among many things, his latest novel, some of his influences, and his distrust of novel writing stratagems.

I know whenever you’re interviewed, your work early in your career as a journalist is brought up. Do you feel like, at this point in your career, that those influences are for the most part minimized as a fiction writer?

Oh yeah. And that’s a good question and one I don’t mind answering. I think what people forget are the number of novelists who started out in journalism -- Graham Greene, Mavis Gallant, let alone Joseph Conrad, Henry James. Let alone Hemingway and the usual people who are cited.

You start out in that, and all it gives you is the soil. Or some fertilizer maybe to nourish the soil that’s already there. [Laughs.] I’ve been out of that business now for thirty-five years. I left the Washington Post in 1969. And it’s hard even for me to remember those days, the newspaper days. I remember a lot of stuff, the places I went. The last chapter of A Dangerous Friend, the one called “Famagusta,” which takes place in Famagusta, Cyprus. I covered the war in Cyprus in ’62 and ’63 for Newsweek. Weirdly, the only city I never got to in Cyprus was Famagusta. I got just about everywhere else. But I liked the name, which is why I used it, and I liked its location, directly across from Smyrna -- across the Mediterranean from Smyrna. But some of the lore that’s in there, the lore that I remember -- the smell of poverty in a village, a charcoal smell. All of that came from some reportage that I did, all those years ago, much distilled. I mean it’s exactly the same way that you might remember the curve of lake Michigan at Lake Shore Drive. It’s that kind of thing. But the -- how can I say this -- the experience of journalism is long departed from my consciousness. I don’t think I’ve conducted an interview, probably, in twenty-five years. I don’t do any nonfiction anymore.

Do you prefer that your novels are regarded as novels, or as historical novels?

To my huge surprise, I won a prize a couple of years ago from the Society of American Historians, for the book called A Dangerous Friend. And I thought to myself, maybe I’ve been writing historical novels all these years. And I suppose, they are historical novels to the extent that I believe all my books, without exception, take place in a specific timeframe of people who are very aware of their political surroundings. They’re people who know who their senator is, who know who their congressman is -- God knows they know who the president and vice-president are. They’re worldly people, they have some knowledge of the world. That said, historical novelist is the wrong term, because unless I’m forgetting something, I’ve never written a novel around a historical event. For example, the Kennedy assassination. An election. Nine-eleven. I’ve never taken a historical event and spun a novel around it. I’ve set novels in places where history is transpiring -- Vietnam. I don’t mind the term historical novelist -- it’s just not accurate, I believe.

I don’t know exactly why this is, but to me Unfinished Season feel fundamentally different from some of your other work. Maybe it’s because it’s in first person and some of your work I’ve read is third person. Was there an intention to write something different in Unfinished Season, or did it write itself this way?

It is different. In part it’s the first-person voice, which is not my usual voice. I think there’s one other novel written in the first-person voice, and I have to tell you I can’t remember which one it is. It’s not a voice that comes natural to me. Third person comes natural to me. But when the first sentence of the book arrived, and it arrived along with a couple of images of things I remembered. Before I even knew what it was going to be about, it was “The winter of the year my father carried a gun for his own protection was the coldest on record in Chicago.” Almost simultaneously, the last of what turned out to be the penultimate chapter came also to my mind, and that was “I was nineteen years old.”

All right, you set out those two sentences and the first-person singular just announced itself, whether you want it there or not. I thought of playing around with “In the winter of the year his father carried a gun for his protection was the coldest on record.” But it didn’t sound right to my ear. “He was nineteen years old,” sounded a little bit better, but that didn’t sound right either. So, I’m in the first-person singular pretty much whether I want to be in it or not. Unless I got further into it and saw that it was going to be a mess, but it turned out not to be a mess, and so it went on in that way.

The book may have a little bit of a different tone, for that reason, and also for the reason that the... I think after a while the reader catches on that it’s a much older man remembering his youth. In other words, he’s not twenty when he’s talking about the fact that he’s nineteen. He’s somewhere up in his sixties, and you know that for damn sure when you get to the last chapter where he’s, by my calculation, I think at that point he’s sixty-one or two. And so it’s evident, certainly by the last chapter, and I think by some internal clues, it’s a much older man looking back on this thing in the first-person.

That allows you a distance. It’s a much more distant voice, which is much more congenial to me than it would be if I had a twenty-year-old looking back, or thirty-year-old looking back. In that sense, I think the reader would find it different than some of the other books, and even the ambiance -- I’ve been thinking about this book for many, many years. The look of those debutante parties under the high-topped tents. The look of the Eleven-Eleven Club before the band comes in at eight o’clock in the evening. The look of a deserted country club swimming pool at two o’clock in the morning. Those are things that I remember.

It goes without saying that most people think this book is deeply autobiographical, which it is not. The autobiographical parts about it are the things that I remember indelibly as if it happened yesterday. Not the dialogue. Not the people, but the look of things, the look of the dancers, and the kind of conversations that were going on. I remembered all of that pretty well.

And as a result I think people look at it and they find it a much more intimate book than in fact it is. But I don’t have any problem with that if they want to do that.

I have a friend who once mentioned that the longer he’s away from a place, the easier it is to write about it. Is that your experience?

Yeah, I really think that’s true.

When people discuss Echo House, a lot of times they mention how overlooked [Washington] D.C. is in American fiction. What brought you back to Chicago?

A Dangerous Friend follows Echo House, and that takes place in Vietnam. The Weather in Berlin obviously takes place in Berlin. It seemed to me to be simply the time to get back to Chicago. Washington is sort of dead for a subject for me right now. I haven’t lived there in so many years. I said pretty much what I wanted to say about it in Echo House; I don’t have a new thought about Washington.

The cities or places where I set these books are characters in my own mind. They’re characters as much as, you know, the boy, the girl, and the dog. I’d been thinking about this book for thirty years and it just seemed like it was time to take the time to write it. It seemed time to go back to Chicago.

Did you ever meet Adlai Stevenson?

Yes I did. His son’s wife was there today [at the Symphony Center] -- I was very pleased, she came and said, “I just loved the part about the gov.” I did not know him well, but I knew him a little bit, and was tremendously attracted to him. He liked me, because my grandfather -- who was the editor and publisher of the Libertyville Independent-Register, which is a little newspaper in Libertyville -- always used to write the most vicious editorials about Adlai Stevenson when he was running for governor, and of course later on when he ran for president. Just hated him, because he was a Democrat -- my family’s a staunch Republican family. I met him a couple of times, and it became evident to the governor that, politically anyway, I was not my father’s son, let alone my grandfather’s. So he went out of his way to be nice, went out of his way to give me a quote if I wanted something when I was working for Newsweek. He was most kind in a lot of ways.

He was a gent, Adlai Stevenson, maybe even the last gentleman in politics that I’ve known. So I did know him a little bit. That little section about him, I wanted to tip my hat to him.

Anyone I talk to from Illinois, they always have the nicest things to say about him.

He was just a peach of a guy, just a nice man. Damn smart, too.

Do you put much stock in what I generally call “textbook plotlines”? I’ve noticed that some of your books have an apex to the story and then a steep conclusion.

I have a deep, and almost visceral, distrust of the kind of writers who will use novels’ strategies, I think they’re called. I don’t believe in them because I think there are too many exceptions to every rule. I do not think plotting is my strong suit as a writer, I’ll say that. But I think that’s part of the package, that’s what you get. I don’t think about strategies, I don’t think about trajectories. I don’t write that way; it isn’t the way I’ve gone about it.

Will you describe for me, if there was something, the spark for Unfinished Season?

Yes, very specifically. Understand that this is in the context of thinking about the damn thing for thirty years. I didn’t have a plot, I didn’t have a character, I didn’t have action, nothing. I had the idea of the high-topped tents and trying to write about a summer, the summer of 1953. Just because I liked the cusp of the year.

An image came to me, a middle-aged man, skating. I saw that he was wearing a dark letter-sweater, or a hockey sweater. And then the sweater had the number thirty-three on the back. And then there were sycamore trees lining the pond. His wife is watching from the den downstairs, and his son is watching from his second floor bedroom -- the son is watching admiringly, and a little bit envious, because of his father’s athletic ability. The wife is watching and she’s worried.

I thought, why is she worried? And inside the duffel is a long-barreled Colt .32. I think when I came up with that, all of a sudden the first sentence of the book flew into my mind: “The winter of the year my father carried a gun was the coldest on record in Chicago.”

Then all I had to do was fill in a hundred thousand words, and I was done. But that’s how the whole thing came. And I knew perfectly well that that skating scene, if not the opening of the book, would be very close to the beginning, and as it turns out it’s page two or page three.

I read an interview of yours, I think it was for Dangerous Friend [Boston Phoenix, May, 1999], and you described a man sitting on a pier, kind of a similar visual situation.

Right. It’s interesting because that image, a man sitting on the pier, never got into the book. That ended up being a fifteen-thousand word coda. Something like Famagusta. And I looked at that, and I thought, no, this book ends when they’re offloading all that stuff at Saigon Pier. This later thing I really didn’t need. But the image that began the book, didn’t even end up in the book.

In an interview in the Boston Phoenix in May, 1999, Peter Kadzis made the comment that “you work a discernable landscape in a definable way.” He described “Ward Just’s terrain” as: “if something can go wrong, it will. If it does go wrong, it’s not tragedy, it’s almost fate. And that there’s a gulf between appearance and reality, and no matter how hard or sharp the surface of that reality may be, there’s a certain hollowness to the central experience.”

That’s a pretty shrewd remark, I have to say. Who wrote that?

That was Peter Kadzis, at the Boston Phoenix.

It’s a smart remark. And I think it’s still largely true.