Q: Why did you write Playing Catch with Strangers?
A: Soon after I hit age 50, it dawned on me that I had at last become old enough to have what is called a past. I also realized I might finally have something worthwhile to say about my life, and might even have figured out more or less how to say it. And so for the next 10 years or so, I turned exclusively to the personal essay.
Q: Why personal essays?
A: Mainly because I tend to take life personally, and like writing that gets personal. In this vein, I also started keeping handwritten journals to give our son Michael and our daughter Caroline as Christmas gifts. Then, with an okay from the kids, I created a blog, letterstomykids.org, based largely on those journals.
Q: So how did all this lead to Playing Catch with Strangers?
A: By accident. I eventually realized that without my intending it, my personal essays and the blog amounted to a memoir of sorts. Over about 12 years, it all came together piecemeal, without the benefit of conscious, much less intelligent, design.
Q: Was it hard finding a publisher?
Q: Please elaborate.
A: Fifty publishers declined before Naomi Rosenblatt of Heliotrope Books said yes, demonstrating excellent taste.
Q: How must that have felt?
A: Among the most exciting moments of my life. This will be my first book published in 25 years. Two of my novels went unpublished, but deservedly so.
Q: So you just collected all your essays?
A: Were it only quite that easy! No, I adapted the essays with an eye toward telling the bigger story. I put back in material previously left on the cutting-room floor to in order fit newspaper and magazine formats. I also put in some new essays that have never appeared anywhere before. It took a lot of spackling and whittling and smoothing over to get it right. But now it has a true beginning, middle and end.
Q: So what’s Playing Catch with Strangers all about?
A: Well, I have two versions of an elevator speech, one topline and the other anecdotal.
Q: Let’s go topline first.
A: It’s about my struggle to achieve something approximating adulthood. About how getting married and having two kids inspired me -- okay, forced is more like it -- to finally grow up. And about my occasional successes and frequent failures trying to be a good son, a good husband, a good son-in-law and a good father. And about my how even today, at 65, I remain very much a half-finished canvas.
Q: Can you be more specific?
A: It ultimately focuses less on me than on those closest to my heart: my mother, often tormented and, in effect, doubly disabled mother; my father the workaholic, so gentle-hearted but distant; my maternal grandmother, ever doting but domineering; my mother-in-law, heroic in her generosity of spirit; my wife, ever-competent, ever-practical and ever-forbearing; my children, blessings beyond measure; and my friends through thick and thin.
Q: Let’s hear the anecdotal version now.
A: Here are some sample chapters. My mother, stricken with spinal meningitis in infancy, long struggled with her deafness, entangling our whole family. My father, deaf from birth, found his calling in life as a pioneering crusader for the deaf community. My mother-in-law, crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, devoted her last years to helping to bring up our two children. A friend who, despite prostate cancer and a heart attack, found the strength to help me look for work after I lost my long-held job. I tell how a man running toward me and my wife with a gun in his hand showed me exactly what I would do to protect her.
Q: Serious stuff.
A: Only some chapters. I’ve long believed that life is much too serious to take too seriously. You can also find out how one day I suddenly discovered that I was among the oldest employees at my office, a full-fledged tribal elder. And how my throwaway question to a boyhood friend in idyllic suburban Connecticut – “So what do you do for hostility around here?” -- revealed, for better and worse, why I’m a New Yorker in my bones. And why my bid to be a hero to my family during a stormy ferry ride from Martha’s Vineyard proved disgustingly ill-fated.
Q: So what would you say is the upshot?
A: Well, if I may, I’m going to get a little deep here. To me, Playing Catch with Strangers is about certain milestone recognitions, and a groping to make sense of the how and the why of it all. It’s about my undimmed longing for the carefree abandon of boyhood, the ever-louder demand to finally feel comfortable in my own skin, the insistent appetite to heal old hurts and reconnect with long-estranged family. In compiling this memoir, I answered a kind of siren song to confront my life at midpoint. I now see that I’ve emerged as a grown-up in more than name only – and that mine is a coming of age all the sweeter for arriving so late. Then again, others may read it differently.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Mainly tomorrow and the day after that. But I do plan three more memoirs. A memoir based on my blog, letterstomykids.org. A memoir that will be a tribute to my parents. And last, a memoir about my three decades as a “hitman” in public relations.