Behind the Books with David Margolick, Author of Dreadful

David Margolick - Dreadful

David Margolick is newly the author of Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns, a biography of a 20th century gay novelist. Margolick is also a columnist who never leaves home without his signature empathy, a trait he regularly shows by thinking on a global scale while writing/acting on a local one. While he's spent part of his career covering the high profile trials of O.J. Simpson and Lorena Bobbitt, he's also voiced the outcries of his own community in A Predator Priest, a book demanding justice for the victims of a pedophile priest who haunted his neighborhood of Putnam, Connecticut. His other work likewise operates on both the macro- and micro- levels, as displayed by his profiling of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery, two players on opposite sides of the rumbling racial segregation at Little Rock in 1957, a small-town skirmish that had massive implications for our nation.

In Dreadful, Margolick chronicles the psychological turmoil and creative energy of author John Horne Burns, whose first novel -- The Gallery -- landed to applaud and uproar in 1947, unabashedly depicting gay life in allied-occupied Naples, Italy. Margolick's work is a raw read, dimensional and dynamic, sympathetic without being sentimental, and lifts the veil on a little-known life who, in his own way, paved a literary path for gay writers to come.

Margolick is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Stanford Law School, wrote the law column "At the Bar" for the New York Times, and is currently a longstanding contributing editor for Vanity Fair. His other works include Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, a biography of Billie Holiday, and the aforementioned Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock. In this installment of Behind the Books, we've asked David about his life as a writer and reader: the musicality of Thomas Wolfe, how tenacious research is the unspoken asset of a great biographer, and the north-star advice for aspiring writers: "If you want to be a writer, write."

Signature: What's your writing routine? Where, when, and how does it happen?

David Margolick: It rarely starts earlier than nine or ten in the morning, and rarely goes beyond ten at night except for re-touching something that's already pretty polished. I'll seldom begin work on anything new late in the day. Writing fills up most of my time: either thinking about it, or engaging in intermittent bursts of activity. Usually the work intensifies around three or four in the afternoon, by which point I've shaken off my early-morning fatigue and post-lunch doldrums and am beginning to worry that I've gotten nothing done that day.

SIG: What writers have influenced you most?

DM: Probably Thomas Wolfe. He's very unfashionable now, and even in his prime was dismissed as of only juvenile appeal -- a phase sensitive young men go through until they discover writers of greater sophistication. My latest subject, John Horne Burns, dismissed his writing as "diarrhea." But I've always loved his powers of observation and the musicality of his prose -- the rhythm of his sentences. I've nonetheless tried to pare down my prose in recent years, in the manner of -- if not necessarily inspired by -- Hemingway or Sherwood Anderson. Often less is more. And for whatever reason, I feel less need to show off.

SIG: What books are you currently recommending?

DM: I loved The Passage of Power, Robert Caro's latest volume on Lyndon Johnson. Both as someone who lived through it, and as a writer imagining the challenge of describing it, I found his description of November 22, 1963 to be absolutely thrilling.

SIG: Though the subjects of your biographies vary, you seem to always take the temperatures of the ethical climate in which your subjects lived. To what extent does your writing reflect your own life story?

DM: I like to write about people and how they cope with adversity and, in particular, prejudice. The challenges faced by Joe Louis or Billie Holiday or Elizabeth Eckford or Wladyslaw Szlengel or John Horne Burns dwarfed anything I have or will ever face. But the degree to which they and others I've written about maintained their dignity and integrity in the face of such torment, and tormentors, is of great personal significance to me. Always, I wonder how I would have done under similar circumstances, and on which side of that divide I'd have fallen.

SIG: Read any great biographies or memoirs recently?

DM: I greatly enjoyed David Nasaw's biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, a book from which old man Kennedy emerges as both more monstrous and more sympathetic than I'd ever have imagined him to be.

SIG: What classics would you read if you had all the time in the world?

DM: I'd finally get past page 341 of Proust, page 228 of Middlemarch, page 49 of War and Peace and page 25 of Absalom, Absalom!

SIG: What five writers -- dead or alive -- would you invite to an imaginary dinner party?

DM: Philip Roth, Walt Whitman, Tolstoy, Primo Levi, and Alberto Moravia.

SIG: To the aspiring writer, what advice would you give? What advice helped you become the writer you are today?

DM: If you feel you have something to say, you must try and find a way to say it, and not listen to those who'll tell you it's unfeasible or unwise. You have to give it your best shot. The best advice I ever got along these lines is,  "if you want to be a writer, write." That means, don't content yourself with some job where you're sort of writing: you need to confront the task, and do it. That's the only way to learn, and to improve.

SIG: Faulkner said a writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination. Do you use all three equally, or rely on one over another.

DM: Frankly, I think Faulkner wasn't talking about writers of non-fiction like me. We can lack his third quality and still get by all right. I need to have my plots handed to me: I don't have it in me to invent them. But within the constraints of lives actually lived, there is plenty of room to observe, and to avail oneself of the experiences one has had. And, in lieu of imagination, we writers of non-fiction need something Faulkner didn't mention: the tenacity to research diligently, to look for material in every conceivable corner. This is especially true when you're writing about someone obscure or un-rediscovered, like Burns.

SIG: What's next on your reading list?

DM: I'd like to tick off a long list of books, but the truth is that freelance writers nowadays must juggle a number of projects -- books, magazine stories, short articles -- simultaneously simply to get by, and that if you're not dealing with one, you're dealing with another. Your work is very seldom done. When you finally read for pleasure, sometimes a newspaper or magazine -- with any luck, something nourishing, inspiring, replenishing -- is all you can manage.