Mr. Personalities: A Conversation with Mark Singer

The new, freshly painted offices of The New Yorker magazine are at 20 W. 43rd St., but despite the shimmering white walls, the recessed lighting and the potted plants, there are still the expected clutter and the labyrinthine corridors, as if they were an old dream that can’t be shaken. Chairs, desks and boxes of books punctuate the narrow halls like randomly placed commas in a sentence written by Alexander Woolcott.

Someone once described the typical New Yorker office as a “bleak little ill-painted cell.” A few days before Christmas in 1994, I went with my youngest son, Owen, who had just turned 13, to meet with Mark Singer, author of two books of nonfiction and a staff writer at the magazine for over 20 years, in his cell. Owen combines the sound heart and the adventurous spirit of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, and although as far as pilgrimages to New York City shrines are concerned he would rather have gone to Madison Square Garden to see the Knicks play than to The New Yorker to see the sedentary amidst bookshelves and word processors, he is a good sport and almost always willing to humor his fathers eccentric interests. So we went, right past Madison Square Garden, a look of regret flashing in Owen’s blue eyes, and headed up to midtown Manhattan, settling for the shades of E.B. White and John Cheever, as Owen grudgingly acknowledged that he did not much care for John Starks and Anthony Mason anyway.

With him, Owen carried a borrowed video camera, for I wanted to film my interview to show in one of my writing classes. So I needed someone with an instinct for technology, a young man who worked cheap, and an individual who could accept tragic losses (i.e., not glimpsing Patrick Ewing dunking the ball over the outstretched arm of Reggie Miller)—Owen was my first choice. When we got to Mark Singers office, Owen angled himself into a corner seat and became the eye of the camera and, except for a few exchanges with Singer, played the recording angel. In terms of dimensions, Singer’s office is probably smaller than the average convict’s quarters, and Singer has a hooded, melancholy look in his brown eyes that might make you think of some prisoner in a 19th-century romance, the Count of Monte Cristo or Melville’s Pierre. Singer has a pleasant hound-dog sort of handsomeness. His blue sweater and tan pants are rumpled like an undergraduate s after the Yale-Harvard football game. As he speaks, he tousles his thick dark hair intermittently with a nervous left hand. He includes Owen in the conversation, occasionally complimenting him on his patience and technical skill. Besides demonstrating that he is fond of children, Singer’s behavior dramatizes one of his talents as a writer: He has always been genuinely interested in other people’s lives.

In 1974, when he was in his early 20s and just graduated from Yale University, he was the youngest person ever to be hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker. But his early success does not seem to have made him egotistical, any more than the fresh paint on the walls of The New Yorker has given him an inclination to organize the seeming disarray in his office. Two boxes filled with notes on Brett Cole-man Kimberlin, the subject of a book he is working on, sit near his desk. There is plenty of company for those boxes—two word processors, a printer, a laptop, dog-eared manilla folders, old newspapers, a puddle of letters, a two-day-old banana. All of this seems not a sign of sloppiness, however, but the markings of a writer, the signs of work in progress. And despite the simplicity of his work space, there is a grandness at the same time. Behind him, the blinds are pulled up, albeit at an unmindful slant, giving view in the dusk to the renovated New York Public Library directly below and later, in the gathering darkness and in the distance, to the red and green lights of the Empire State Building.

Singer leaves his door ajar, and occasionally there is the sound of footsteps in the hall and at one point a gentle tap. Roger Angell peeks in, almost shyly, and excuses himself for interrupting our conversation. While Singer is out in the corridor, I browse through the Japanese translation of “Funny Money,” his chronicle of the Oklahoma oil-boom years and an account of the rise and fall of the Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma City. “Funny Money” was his first book, published in 1985, but most readers know him for his “Talk of the Town” pieces and profiles in The New Yorker. Thirty-three of his New Yorker profiles and “Talk” stories were collected in the 1989 volume “Mr. Personality.” In this remarkable collection Singer writes brief pieces about zipper repairmen, knife sharpeners and tomato salesmen. The titular character in the book is Paul Schimmel, “Mr. Personality,” a clarinetist who entertains rush-hour crowds in the New York City subways. Mr. Personality “doesn’t necessarily land on every note as precisely as Rodgers and Hammerstein, Billy Strayhorn, or Leonard Bernstein might have preferred,” but he is a perfect example of one of the gallery of individuals that Singer discovers on the streets of the city. As Garrison Keillor once said,” Singer works in the neighborhood of AJ. Leibling, Joseph Mitchell, and E.B.White. … his name deserves to be hung up alongside theirs.” It is in his longer stories, the profiles, that Singer shows his true artistry, however. Such stories as “Court Bluff,” “Supers,” or the profile of his uncle, Goodman Ace, “Words Fool Me,” demonstrate his skillful reporting, sharp sense of humor and instinctive understanding of characterization. Singer has the knack of writing the sort of leads that don’t merely entice the readers to enter his stories—they compel them.

Sharing Goodman Ace’s company as he ambles through his seventy-ninth year of life, I often get the feeling that I’m watching a lucky and gifted veteran lion tamer work before a largely empty house. Risks ensue and minor mishaps sometimes threaten, but instinct prevails above all. Ace’s primary instinct is to be funny, and he almost always is.

As Singer says, quoting his uncle, Ace is a “ragged individualist,” a man who could have taught, and did teach, Groucho Marx a few things about comedy. Singer s special talent may be his ear for the disparate phrase, the comic incongruity in speech, the telling locution, and he does not necessarily need the genius of Goodman Ace to recreate a sympathetic and amusing character. Singer combines the reporter s skill with the writer s talent. He can hear the music amidst all the other sounds of the city, and he can repeat the tune when he has to—be it the soliloquy of Louis Entman, a trial groupie, or the “raspy, whiskeyfied” Brennanese of Pete and Paddy Brennan, two Manhattan superintendents.

In his introduction to “Mr. Personality,” Singer mentions that, after moving to New York City in 1974 and beginning to write “Talk” pieces, at first he was assigned stories, but within a short period of time he was finding his own. “Ideas materialized,” he said. “Every serendipitous subway ride to Brighton Beach, every trip to Hester Street to buy pickles, loomed as a potentially tax-deductible adventure.” I wondered how much the outsiders point of view (in his case the Oklahoman or the resident of Connecticut in New York City) initially helped him to discover his subjects and his style.

“I definitely had an outsiders point of view,” he says. “It made an enormous difference because I was able to see things that, had I grown up in New York City, simply would not have appealed to me in a fresh way. I wasn’t looking for cutting-edge things, things that were hip and new. I was looking for things I hadn’t seen before, and there was a lot of it. Also, it was a question of things I hadn’t heard before—literally, people who spoke differently than I was familiar with. I was looking for things that didn’t seem to belong, for strange juxtapositions. I would ask myself, ‘Why was that thing there at that moment?’ I was interested in something that was always there … in people whom I encountered that I realized did something every day that others might consider mundane but who were interesting to me.

“The essence of writing is style. When I started at The New Yorker, I was conscious of what people expected of the magazine and its writers, and I was eager not to fulfill those expectations. In other words, I really did not want to write in a voice that people identified as some urbane, droll New York voice. That wasn’t who I was, and it turned out that wasn’t what The New Yorker was about. I never want to be mistaken for a literary person. I hold literature in great esteem, and that’s not what I’m doing. I’m really gathering facts. I’m not an essayist, a person who can travel very far on ideas alone. I need facts. I have always looked for a way to tell stories that was not mannered, ornate, writerly. I wanted to be a reporter telling stories.”

Like most writers, Singer has a healthy insecurity and the question “Can I do it this time?” is one he faces with each new piece he attempts. He has read, and he re-reads, the masters of nonfiction, particularly AJ. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, E.B. White, Calvin Trillin and John McPhee. But he also re-reads his own work so that he “can remember how I did it.” As he says, “It’s easy for a writer to forget.” But there are certain things that no writer of nonfiction should forget.

“You can’t make things up or put words in people’s mouths,” Singer says.”I don’t use a tape recorder but a form of shorthand that I learned in an adult-education class. I transcribe my notes as soon as I can. But no matter what you do, the question of accuracy is a thorny one. It’s impossible to get down exactly accurately how someone says something unless you have a tape recorder, but you have not essentially distorted what a person says if you have reported their words as carefully as possible. Then the piece of writing all adds up to something that is true when you put it down on the page. You have to ask yourself: ‘Am I telling the truth?’ It’s an aesthetic-moral question.You have to be honest with yourself and ask,’ Have I taken too many liberties here?’ If you have, you have to know that inside, instinctively, and pull back. I’ve never had anyone complain that I’ve misquoted them, and yet I can’t say that I’ve quoted them in a strict, verbatim way.”

Singer’s writing methods and his goals have stayed very much the same over the past two decades even though The New Yorker has gone through some changes, especially in recent years. “It’s changed a lot since Tina Brown arrived about two-and-a-half years ago,” he explains. “The expectation is that pieces can be delivered much more quickly. Ideally, you just do the reporting until it’s time to write. That’s in a world in which there are no deadlines.” Singer may be referring to the magazine in which “In Cold Blood” ran in full or in which “Coming into the Country” appeared in three parts. The New Yorker now seems to be a magazine in which it is rare to see a long piece by John McPhee or Ian Frazier.With a story on OJ. Simpson or some other topical issue nearly every week in the magazine, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish The New Yorker from certain others on the shelf. “The New Yorker used to be a magazine that you picked up knowing that it was not like other magazines, for better or worse,” Singer says. “It’s harder to say that nowadays. The magazine is now more ruled by what it thinks the audience expects.”

Despite more of an emphasis in The New Yorker on deadlines, brevity and topicality, Singer’s writing methods have not varied much. He is still an immersion reporter, spending considerable time over the period of a year and a half with Sam Cohn for the writing of “Sam Cohn: Professional Doppelganger,” or making about 20 cents an hour on “Benjamin Shine: Court Buff” because he spent so much time in the courthouse getting to know his subjects. Singer cultivates his subjects by acknowledging that an interview is an exchange between two human beings. “I’ve made it a habit to be forthcoming about myself,” explains Singer. “I try to establish some rapport, let them know who I am, what kind of work I do. If you’re only asking questions and not revealing anything of yourself, you may not get very far.”

His writing process, as Singer explains it, is “pedestrian.” He laughs a bit, runs his hand through his hair, and says, “I think most writers are afraid to talk about this because it sounds so pathetic. For me, it begins by taking an insane excess of notes. I end up with a lot of verbiage, which I look at carefully to identify scenes and topics. Once I identify the various topics in a given story, I collate the notes and divide them into files. I write from those files and the outline that I have created. I think John McPhee is more disciplined than most of us can ever hope to be.”

The crucial part of the process for Singer is finding a theme, a synthesis of what the writer has learned during the weeks or months of saturation reporting. From an understanding of that theme, in part, comes the lead, which could be a paragraph or 10,000 words. “The lead is the indispensable, essential ingredient,” he feels. “It sets the tone. You have to deliver on whatever is in the lead. The conclusion is a lot easier because very often in the course of doing the reporting you hear someone say something that you know will be the ending of the piece. Knowing where to enter the story is much more of a challenge, not only knowing the scene but feeling that the words are balanced and the sentences have the right feel to them. For an ending you try to come up with something that tells your readers why they have read the story. Revision stops, I suppose, when the story goes to press.”

Darkness has fallen now on the city, completely and dramatically, with the colored lights from the Empire State Building rising like sparks above the blaze of white lights from office buildings and stores. Owen and I follow Singer into the corridor. The camera dangles from a strap on Owen’s side as he follows Singer through the hall, stopping as I do to gaze at the photo of the purblind Thurber. We stop at Joseph Mitchell’s office. Singer knocks gently, suggesting that the seemingly reclusive Mitchell, nearly as renowned as Salinger for his literary silence, will be happy to speak with us. But he is not there, and what kind of small talk might have been appropriate in such an encounter? McPhee is not in his office either. As if to make up for the loss, Singer shows us the famous fact checkers’ office, grown bigger perhaps in the wake of the Janet Malcolm lawsuit. As we stroll toward the reception area and the elevators, Owen slips behind us and looks back toward the editorial offices, and Singer begins to speak again of his latest subject, the man who draws him back to his office, a mystery to be entered into if not a puzzle to be solved.

In an era of celebrity, Mark Singer is interested in writing the real stories of ordinary people. Perhaps for that reason, in a story that centers upon Dan Quayle and convicted criminal Brett Kimberlin, Singer became interested in the convict, not the celebrity. In the course of writing Kimberlin’s story—the tale of a man who has spent time in Oklahoma, Illinois, Texas and a few other states for selling drugs and placing bombs in suburban neighborhoods near Indianapolis—Singer came to the conclusion that Kimberlin had lied about selling marijuana to the law student who was eventually to become vice president of the United States. Kimberlin, who appears to be a thoroughly narcissistic sociopath, is not the typical Singer subject. But perhaps writer and subject have some things in common. The opening sentence of the Oct. 5, 1992 story “The Prisoner and the Politician” reads, “Brett Coleman Kimberlin is a small thirty-eight-year-old man who has spent more than a third of his life confined to small spaces.” Back in his own cell, nearly three years after he began the difficult, complex task of writing Kimberlin’s sinuous story, Mark Singer continues to do what he must to insure that the words are balanced, that the sentences have the right feel to them, and that this piece of writing all adds up to something that is true.

Before we leave, Singer pushes Kimberlin out of his consciousness for a moment, looks at Owen, smiles and hands him a copy of “Mr. Personality.” On the elevator we read the inscription: “To Owen Pearson—a yeoman with a videocam, and a patient fellow to boot. Cheers, Mark Singer.” Owen appreciated the gift, and I admired Singers attention to the present as he faced a story from the past. When Owen and I reached the streets it was cold and dark. I took the video camera from him and let him hold the copy of “Mr. Personality,” as we trudged off toward Madison Square Garden, surrounded by strange juxtapositions, things that didn’t belong and, if we looked carefully enough, a world of personalities.

About the Author

Michael Pearson

Michael Pearson is the director of creative writing at Old Dominion University. He is the author of “Imagined Places: Journeys Into Literary America.” “A Place That’s Known: Essays,” “Dreaming of Columbus: A Boyhood in the Bronx,” and most recently, the novel “Shohola Falls.”

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