Interview with Mark Danner: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Being a Writer: Conversation with Mark Danner, staff writer, The New Yorker; 3/3/99 by Harry Kreisler.

Photo by Jane Scherr

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Background

Mark, Welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

Where were you educated?

I attended John F. Hughes School in my home town of Utica, New York, and then Utica Free Academy. And I was an undergraduate at Harvard College, where I took a degree in modern literatures and aesthetics, which is essentially comparative literature and philosophy. And I am afraid from then on my education was in the world of writing and books and magazines.

Before you took off to confront the world, what did you read as a young person?

Well ...

Everything?

I think I did read everything. I was a very ardent reader as a young person, as my parents were. We essentially sat in the house after dinner and everybody had their book while the TV was going, which is something I can no longer do. I don't know how my parents managed. I read a good deal of fiction when I was in junior high school and high school, and actually in college, too. I still do read a lot of fiction.

I had begun reading an awful lot of history in college. My father is a very serious amateur historian and he got me interested in history from a very early age. We had a small house in the Adirondacks, just north of Utica, and we would drive up the forty-five minutes to get there. When you are very young this is an eternity, of course. During those drives he would tell stories, which began when I was very young, stories from The Iliad, the story of Hector, of Achilles. At the time I didn't know anything about The Iliad, of course. From the Old Testament, Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath. Those were favorites. And I would beg him for them after awhile.

As I got older, he would tell more sophisticated stories; eventually reaching his favorite topics, which had to do with twentieth century history, in particular World War II, in which he had fought. He always said that his original impetus for learning about history was that he had fought in the war and, as he put it, he never knew what the hell was going on. So after he got out of the navy -- he had been in the South Pacific, off of Okinawa, and other places -- he began reading about the war and eventually started reading about World War I, and is still delving into those subjects. So I remember again and again him telling me about how World War I began in Sarajevo, the various interests of the players involved. Giving me these intricate descriptions. And I was fascinated by it. So I don't remember the first time that he started telling me stories. I was so young.

Obviously, this was pointing you in a direction that you were later to pursue first-hand and in greater detail. How would you summarize the values that you drew from your parents?

Well, I would say first of all the primary values, I think, were decency, I hope, and how to lead a straightforward and decent life. This is what they emphasized again and again. And also the importance of doing something, of pursuing an interest, a field of endeavor, a career, however you like to phrase it, that made me happy and that was rewarding. My father was a dentist and it was very common, I think, for dental, medical families -- and all their friends were either doctors or dentists -- to press the children, particularly the sons, to follow in their footsteps. There wasn't any of that in my family, and my father emphasized again and again that I should do what I wanted as long as I could support myself. And I have tried to achieve that. I am not sure the latter part I have quite achieved.

Where did you learn to write? I know you were an editor of a high school paper.

That's right. Co-editor. Must not forget my co-editor, Sam Weinberg.

And you won an award for best high school paper in New York State.

That's right, and to my mind that is still the greatest achievement of my life. The UFA Corridors was the second-oldest continuously published high school newspaper in the country. It began before the Civil War. This high school was very inner-city and didn't have much money. That award always went to high schools from Long Island that were very prosperous and so on, and we did [win it] when I was a senior. We actually got the award when I was a freshman in college, and we traveled to Syracuse to be in the competition where we won it. But it was a momentous achievement, because no one had heard of this school and we were very proud.

I did a lot of writing for the high school newspaper. I did not write for The Crimson in college, although I took the writing I did for my courses very seriously, not always the reading, but I did take the writing very seriously. And I am not sure where I said I learned to write but I just was always very serious about writing. I guess I could also trace a little bit of this to my parents. My mother's side did a lot of writing in her life. Both my parents, thank goodness, are still alive. My mother did a good deal of writing. She would write poetry. She did songs for the local women's organization and things like that. She was thought of as very artsy, as the phrase was in those days. And I, from as early as I could remember, was very serious about writing papers, even in grammar school, so I don't know where that came from.

What writers did you admire most as you began to read more seriously?

I liked Mark Twain an awful lot when I was growing up. Earliest, I was a great fan of the Hardy Boys. I must say that.

Did you read all of them?

I did indeed read all of them. Not only did I read all of them but I would write these plaintive letter to Franklin Dixon, whose existence is somewhat in doubt. (We don't want to admit this to viewers who are too young and disillusion them.) I would write these plaintive leaders asking when will the next book be out. I was very interested in those Johnny Quest books. Later, as I mentioned, Mark Twain. Eventually I was very interested in Albert Camus whose work I really liked a lot, and Sartre. I actually humiliated myself in high school by going up the librarian and asking her if she had anything by "Albert Camuss." I thought myself very serious at the time. She always reminded me of it. I was given to European writers at the time. I read a lot of Herman Hesse who was very popular at the time, and who I liked a lot. And that brought me to Thomas Mann and Death in Venice which I loved, and André Gide. I read a lot of European books. I don't know why that is. They had a certain glamour, and that is certainly what I was reading in junior high and high school.

So after college you decided to become a writer. Correct?

I don't think it is correct. This may be a semi-convoluted answer from a lot of people who write for a living. I never really remember making a decision to become a writer. I think certainly by the time I was in college I assumed I would become a writer. I would certainly not have the nerve if someone said "What are you going to do when you get out of here?" to actually say, "Oh, I am going to be a writer." That seemed much too brazen or presumptuous. And indeed I don't think I would say it even now. There is a sense that if you have people you admire greatly who are writers -- I always tend to think, well at some point I will be a writer, even though indeed I make my living from it now . I certainly did not decide on graduating from college. I spent the summer after I graduated in a small apartment in Harvard Square lying on my back and living on fried rice delivered from a Hong Kong restaurant. This pink building. I got to know the deliveryman very well. If I knew then what I know now, I would say I was very depressed. At the time I thought I was resting, I think. I didn't know what I wanted to do. I couldn't admit that this was what I wanted to do. By happenstance, I came to work at the New York Review of Books. In retrospect, who knows if it was by happenstance? But at the time it seemed like it.

What was your first big project as a writer?

When I was at Harper's. I was editing various articles and at the same time a section that then appeared monthly called the forum section and that was a discussion amongst people we invited on a given subject, and I would do the introduction to it and edit it monthly. I then went from Harper's to Haiti which is a subject that turned out to obsess me. I am still working on it in one way or another. It is a country that is fascinating to me. I went to Haiti to do a piece for Harper's. In the event I wound up publishing it at The New York Times Magazine some time later. But it was a story -- there are these stories that seize you. At the time I went to Haiti, Duvalier was at the end of a thirty-year dictatorship.

This was what year?

This would be 1986. I had earlier done for The Times a fairly long piece on nuclear weapons. I had done a number of things. I think if you look back and say "What is the first serious piece of writing for publication?" it would probably be this story on Haiti. That was five years after I graduated.

And the Haiti piece resulted in three long articles in The New Yorker.

That's right.

When one reads these articles, lo and behold, there is a lot of history there.

Yes, that is true.

Next page: Writing about History

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