It’s not every day that a very special visitor decides to drop by RobAroundBooks (not that I’m saying that everyone who visits RobAroundBooks isn’t very special), but this past weekend was a little more than memorable because Norman Sims, author of True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism (Northwestern University Press), stopped by to say Hi!
You may remember me saying a little something about Norman Sims in Friday’s Daily Bookshot post, when I featured the aforementioned book. Not only he is a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts, but he has dedicated much of his life in the study and promotion of literary journalism. One of Prof. Sims’ biggest attractions for me however, was that he had a personal association with my all-time favourite journalist, Joseph Mitchell.
I think I made the extent of my love of Joseph Mitchell wholly apparent in that Daily Bookshot post and follow-up comments (as I have in a number of other posts, including this one), because Prof. Sims, aside from recommending another literary journalism title I should check out (John Hartsock’s “A History of American Literary Journalism: The Emergence of a Modern Narrative Form” (University of Massachusetts Press)), also took the time to not only offer up his own observations of what Mitchell was like, but to also share a golden nugget from the great man himself on what he considered to be the secret to his success. All of this was buried in the comments thread, but such is the importance of this commentary – to me and I hope to others – that I thought I’d reproduce it in a dedicated post. So without further ado, here’s the great Prof. Sims, on an even greater Joseph Mitchell:
He [Joseph Mitchell] was a quiet, curious, mannered gentleman who was always interested in the other people in the room and hesitated (in the extreme) to talk about himself. He told me that if he had any skill as a reporter, it came from two qualities: He could talk to anyone and he was genuinely interested in what they had to say. Over 30 years of study, I’ve met a lot of literary journalists. I’ve never met one I didn’t like. But two of them share an interesting quality. Writers have a voice and a presence on the page, but when you meet them, they are not always the same as that voice. On the page, voice can be a selective and creative element in their writing. Mitchell in person struck me as exactly like the Mitchell I had met on the page. He was gentle, knowledgeable, had a great memory, and held a quiet philosophical perspective on his work. The other writer was John McPhee, the great literary journalist from The New Yorker. In person, he’s cautious in what he says and his sentences roll out in complete form, structured just like the ones on the page. In short, when I met both men, I felt I had known them for a long time.
My thanks again to Professor Sims for taking time out of his busy life to share this with both myself and the readers of RobAroundBooks.