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"I wanted to write an entertainment. It is a fact-based entertainment. I think it's funny in a lot of places. Sad in others. But look, it's a novel. I've written lots of non-fiction about this business. Many speeches. My first book in 1969, called The People Machine, was about television news. I've taken part in endless seminars, I've written articles about it. I've been a boring critic of the business as much as I've been a practitioner for 35 years now."

 

 

Let's face it, Robert MacNeil was interviewing people when I had yet to become a gleam in my father's eye. When, in fact, my father's eyes had never even gleamed at my mother. The man is a pro: a professional journalist with a capital "P" who knew Karsh and Nixon and Reagan and a whole pile of others that I am too young or isolated to have even heard of.

I knew all of this stuff when I sat down to interview Robert MacNeil, but I was still unprepared for the reality of interviewing this world class interviewer. I knew that I'd have an hour at best with him: just a single, frail hour. I knew I'd have to make the most of that time. And he greeted me warmly, made sure I was comfortable and then launched in. He is deeply interested in the Internet and doesn't know as much about it as he'd like to, and he asked me about that. He asked about my work and my books and even some of the things that interested me. He did this with ease and with a polish so deeply imbedded you can't even see the patina. More: it took me -- a fairly seasoned interviewer in my own right -- a little while to realize I was being interviewed. That familiar, rumbling voice and those pale blue eyes -- filled with wonder and interest even after so much seasoning -- are almost hypnotic. Like I said, the man is a pro, and he's incredibly good at what he does.

MacNeil is no longer a professional journalist. That is to say that he no longer makes his living in that way. At least, not most of the time because he still does specials for television. If one were to get right to the heart of the matter, it's probably true that he doesn't have to do much of anything to make a living anymore. So successful was he at his chosen field that he reached a level of identification in the lucrative television market that when he retired from The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in 1995, he did so in wealth. But do humans stop breathing when they retire? And Robert MacNeil hasn't stopped writing. He's turned his well seasoned hand to fiction, and the stuff he's writing is selling to both his huge television following and a lot of people who just like good books.
In his new book, Breaking News, MacNeil outlines the late-career crisis of fictional anchorman Grant Munro. There are obvious similarities between the author and his creation, and a good part of our time together was spent discussing the differences. And the similarities.


Linda Richards: Do you miss being on television in a regular way?

Robert MacNeil: Not at all.

How old are you, can I ask?

I'll be 68 in January.

I'm going to ask you a question that I know everyone is going to be asking you: are you Grant Munro?

No. There are pieces of me in there obviously because it's my sensibility to circumstances and my attitude. And my generation. And some of my experiences. But I like to think I have a slightly better developed sense of irony about myself than he does. That I'm not quite as stolid as he is. I know that I'm given to make speeches when I'm asked questions but I like to think I get it a little better than he gets it. At one point in Breaking News the Time magazine guy is talking to his girlfriend and says, 'I'm getting a better feel for him. I like him better than I thought. He's a lot smarter than I thought,' and so on. 'But he just doesn't get it.' And she says, 'What doesn't he get?' and he says, 'He doesn't get that the battle he's fighting is over. The war he's fighting is over.' And she says 'That's pretty cynical. The battle for decency is over?'

So he is not me. But there's a lot of me in him. Inevitably. But there's also me in Christopher Siefert the Time magazine guy. And there's me in Laurie Jacobs who's the PR woman in the newsroom. There's me in the elderly lawyer who Grant Munro consults towards the end of the book who's extremely cynical about it all. But in a funny way there's also me in Ernie, the little guy who discovers the photographs, and in the detective. I mean, you are all of your characters because it's the life you've experienced filtered through your memory and sensibility. There's me in Grant Munro's wife. Obviously, there's more of me in Grant Munro, because we've shared the same business.

One of the things I like about this book is that anybody who's in the business should recognize all the little detail of what it's like doing that.

It's very authentic. It has a very authentic feel.

Well, it's real and it's based on a lot of experience. That's why I'm in it that way. It's what it feels like to be in that chair and do that job.

Is there an agenda for the book?

No. Or yes: I wanted to write an entertainment. It is a fact-based entertainment. I think it's funny in a lot of places. Sad in others. But look, it's a novel. I've written lots of non-fiction about this business. Many speeches. My first book in 1969, called The People Machine, was about television news. I've taken part in endless seminars, I've written articles about it. I've been a boring critic of the business as much as I've been a practitioner for 35 years now. This was not written with the same intention, for instance, with which I wrote the speech I did for Aspen year before last. Now some of the ideas for that find their way into this, inevitably, but it's not the same motivation: yeah! I'm gonna stand up and tell 'em. It's not that. The people, to me, are more interesting than the issues. But then, they swim in that sea of circumstance.

You're fulla great quotes. I love this. And a rich set of characters. I really enjoyed them.

I hope they are characters and not just two-dimensional figures. I like making characters.

See, people will read this and say, 'Well he's taking all those people from the real business and he's copied this,' and obviously it's inspired by my knowing a lot of people in the business for a long time. But, if you read my other novels, where I like to think I've created palpable and breathing characters: they're totally removed. Removed in time; the first novel is about the first world war. The second novel is about the 1960s. So I like trying to create believable characters who interest me. And whom you live with when you're writing it.

Reviews for Breaking News are starting to come out now. Do you consider a good review one that likes the book, or one that is constructively critical ?

Well, of course what you want is a review with no criticism at all. You want somebody who sounds like a soul mate. Who's understood it the way you understood it. And I was lucky enough in my first novel to have that in review after review, except for one or two.

It's a difficult question to answer because it's a bit like when your parents praised you. You know how you loved being praised by your parents? And then if they're loving parents they tend to go overboard a little bit. And then you know when it goes overboard with them. So, it's wanting praise that you know is within the realms of reason and is roughly proportionate to what it deserves. I mean, I know I'm not Norman Mailer or John Updike.

How do you know that?

Well, I know because I know the prose I'm capable of writing and I know the level of their talent. And if there's one thing that brings you up against the limits of your talent, it's this. Compared with journalism, well, journalism is easy compared to this. I didn't find myself running into my own lack of talent in journalism. To be a great novelist you need not only to have a great world view and understanding of the human heart and relationships, you also need to have language. You need to have language at a metaphorical level that gives the book the beauty of its language and the beauty and richness of your metaphorical thought.

You read a page of Norman Mailer -- and whether it's a good Mailer or bad Mailer -- it's packed with figurative writing. And some of the figures may be extravagant, but it's just rich. I write plain prose. I wish it were richer. So I know: John Updike has observation of human behavior that is so fine it's like a watchmaker's observation. And he has the tools of language to manipulate the observations and I know I'm not being falsely modest when I say I know I'm not them.

I never in journalism -- with very few exceptions -- said to myself, 'Oh my God. That person who's a competitor of mine is so good that why am I even trying.' I didn't run into that. I write rapidly and fluently and then you start trying to improve it. and you know when some parts are good because you get a warm feeling when you're writing it. You know that there's some good stuff in there and your temperature rises, or mine does. And then there's other times when it's just, you know, routine getting it out. And then you go back and play with it.

In Breaking News you tied it together very nicely. And I even forgave you the happy ending.

You think it's a happy ending?

I do. I do think it's a happy ending.

Well, it ties him up temporarily with himself and his wife. But read the last line of the book again. Just for yourself. Right now.

[I read] Okay. There's irony. And some possibilities. But the threads of the story were mostly happy.

So if the question is if the ending is happy, I think for him it's a sort of temporary happy ending. But for the larger sea in which he's sailing, it's not happy for him. I mean, the writing is on the wall. Nothing is going to stop that.


The world is changing.

Yes. That's right. At least, that's the way I understand the ending.

You know, what I think I liked about Grant Munro as a central character is that he was a fairly flawed hero. And we're all flawed, so we can identify with that.

Well, I can identify with that. At one point the Time magazine guy, who's far from being a heroic figure himself with all his vanities and insecurities and jealousies, he's nonetheless a good observer. And there's one scene where he wakes up in the morning and he's in bed with his girlfriend and he wakes up before she does and he's musing about how to get at the metaphors for Grant Munro. And he comes up with this vision of the effectless hero. The man who goes through everything -- as an anchorman does -- and witnesses everything but feels nothing. Grant may feel his professional discomfort more than he feels his personal discomfort.

Well, he's yours and you'd know. But that was my feeling as well.

And it's a book about aging.

I got that when I was reading. And I want to say that you handled it very youthfully. And there's a youthfulness about the book and aging is a theme. I thought that was quite fabulous. Was it very personal for you? Writing about aging in that business?

It just seems that that's what is poignant about the situation of this generation of guys of whom Grant could be one. Who are either about to be 60 or into their 60s and they're going to have to move on given the imperatives of the business. They're probably going to have to move on fairly soon and they're worried about when their tide goes out what the new tide is going to bring in. And also, they don't want to leave. Cronkite didn't want to leave when he was replaced by Rather. And they get caught in a situation not unlike the one that Ann Murrows' agent is trying to engineer in the book. By putting out a huge sort of thing where she's going to go somewhere else, you know. And all the speculation about it and everything else, which was true in Rather's case. They put Rather in sooner than Cronkite wanted to leave because Rather was -- they thought -- threatening to go to ABC.

So I think the age of these people is poignant. The values that they have tried to represent and that they inherited from the previous generation are harder and harder to maintain now, exactly as they are for Grant. I'm interested in the power that these people have represented in his case by the fact that everybody defers to him and that he has this huge celebrity and wealth. He can buy a vineyard in California, he can copy a library in Italy and have it brought into his New York apartment at a cost probably the equivalent of what most people would spend on their whole homes. And he both enjoys that and yet he's very guilty about it, too because he remembers that his father -- in his entire life -- probably earned $150,000 or something. So he's feeling guilty about that, but he's also -- for all that power -- he's also very vulnerable. He's vulnerable personally and professionally and the effects on him of celebrity are interesting.


That's flawed hero stuff.

Yes. And the expectations that celebrity have brought him. In his world, anything is possible. Except that, in the larger world in which he lives with his wife and the world in which he lives professionally, everything isn't possible.

Are you working on something right now?

It's only since I finished this that I've been thinking about other things and haven't started writing anything yet. I'm going to start, probably in the new year, on something else.

But you're working on a PBS special?

Well, I'm working on two series. We've brought them to a point that if we can get the money then we can go ahead with them. But we haven't got the money so they're stalled at the moment. If either of them came about I would clear the time and do either of them full time for however long it took.

One is a sequel to the series we did in the 80s called The Story of English which was nine hours on the English language. It's called The American Language or Do You Speak American? which means North American these days. Which is the sort of engine driving the English language around the world. | December 1998

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.