Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Drunk with Richard Yates, sipping soda with Liberace, and the author of a new novel: Interview with writer Daniel Gewertz
Somerville resident Daniel Gewertz made a living as a Boston-based freelance journalist for 28 years, writing largely about music, theater and movies. From 1995 to 2005, he wrote a weekly Boston Herald column on folk and blues music. Over the years, Gewertz has written for periodicals ranging from Harvard Magazine, Boston Globe Magazine and New York Times, to the Cambridge Chronicle and The Tab.
In the last 10 years, Gewertz turned his attentions toward more creative writing, namely personal essays, short memoir pieces, story-telling and fiction. Recently, he completed his first novel, "Ghost To Genius." He frequently performs his work on stage. He has taught writing at Cambridge Center for Adult Ed., Brookline Center for Adult Ed., Lesley University and Bay State Community College. He holds a B.S. from Boston University in journalism. Or rather, he keeps it in a bottom bureau drawer.
With Doug Holder
Doug Holder: In your career as a journalist at the Boston Herald and elsewhere you have had many experiences with significant figures in the arts. You told me you had lunch with Glen Close, a soda with Liberace, and you got drunk with the novelist Richard Yates, author of the novel Revolutionary Road. Tell me about your experience with Yates—he is a favorite author of mine.
Dan Gewertz: That was a strange thing. This was during the time The Boston Herald had a pretty decent sized Sunday magazine back in the 80s. I needed a few hours of interviews for a good story. He was teaching at Boston University at the time. I don’t believe he wrote his last novel yet. But he was drinking extremely heavily. We were at the bar the “Crossroads” in the Back Bay of Boston. Both of us drank an enormous amount during the afternoon. I got 3 hours of him on tape. After the first hour he became more and more slurry and confused. I ended up being baffled what to do with the interview because I I didn’t want to show him in a bad light. So I never used it until it the interview was used on Robin Young’s radio show on WBUR. So I was able to use the interview after all the years that had past.
DH: Recently you finished writing a novel Ghost to Genius. One of the themes is the disconnect between commercial success and artistic talent.
DG: The novel is an emotional journey not only a message novel. But—on that theme—especially with music and movies—I feel that they have been brought down to the lowest common denominator. It has always been true that intellectuals looked down on anything that was popular. The Golden Age of Hollywood in the late 1930s and 40s was dismissed by people of this ilk as sentimental garbage. But the studios really knew how to create art in those days. And now…well..with Hollywood today, they found out that people under 45 weren’t going to the movies, so they made movie for 20 and 30 year old people.. Then they found out people in their 30s weren’t going to the movies so they made movies for people ages 10 to 24 The blockbuster has taken over…same with music. When I wrote for the Herald I mostly wrote about the blues, jazz, American roots music…stuff that was outside the mainstream.
DH: The future of journalism, at least print journalism, looks pretty bleak.
DG: Yeah. I left the Herald in 2011. As far as I know the Herald is presently operating with a skeleton staff. The days when newspapers look for local-out of the way-stories, is a thing of the past. Now, an art/entertainment critic, has to write about the biggest productions and try to find something interesting to say about them. Lady Gaga is written more about than other serious artists.
My book Ghost to Genius takes all this as an underpinning. The story of the book is about a little known, middle-aged singer/songwriter Philip Levinson. He is making a bare living with his songs despite having a sterling critical reputation. He has been at it a long time and he is becoming demoralized. He is a widower, a loner, and he gets an opportunity when he meets a high-powered entertainment lawyer in New York City. The lawyer wants him to be a ghost writer for a legendary singer/songwriter who can’t write anymore. The legendary singer is playfully based on Bob Dylan. So it is a secret job—if Levinson tells anyone he loses it and all the money that comes with it. But this is also a fun novel. There are depictions of Cambridge and Somerville that is full of eccentric people.
DH: You teach memoir writing. Aren’t the same essential elements of fiction true for memoir: character development, realistic dialogue, vivid description, setting, etc…?
DG: Those are all good. I tell students that the bottom line for a good memoir is one that provides an emotional punch and a great story. All of memoir is based on memory—and why this memory mean so much to the author. In terms of getting all the facts right , I try to research things because the reader may think why should I believe the author if many of the facts are wrong or inaccurate.