Russell Baker: “Writing Has Always Been Work. But It’s the Kind of Work You Enjoy Having Done.”

From an Adrienne LaFrance interview in 2013 with reporter and columnist Russell Baker, who since 1985 has lived in Leesburg, Virginia, a town 30 miles west of Washington. Baker started his journalism career at the Baltimore Sun, moved to the New York Times, wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography Growing Up, and for 12 years hosted the PBS show Masterpiece Theater.

Baker: I have a granddaughter who was assigned The Great Gatsby a few years ago. I think teachers assign it because they love it. I said to my granddaughter. . .‘Do you know what a bootlegger is?’ She hadn’t the faintest notion. I said, ‘How can you read Gatsby if you don’t know what a bootlegger is?’ But it’s a wonderful book, beautifully written. And I grew up in that era. I recently re-read Gatsby just to see how he did it. You learn a lot about writing from Fitzgerald, at least in that book.

LaFrance: What strikes you about the mechanics of it?

Baker: I’ve read it off and on over the years. It’s a short book. It’s an easy book. It’s really not much more than a long story. But this time I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before, which is how he handles conversation among a large group of people.

If you’ve ever written any fiction, trying to create a big scene with a lot of people talking, you tend to do it by everybody talking, with a lot of quotation marks, which is extremely dull and wears out quickly. And you can’t get it right.

But he creates the sense of these big parties at Gatsby’s house where hundreds of people show up, and gives you a sense of what everybody’s talking about with a very sparse use of quotation marks. He’s sort of paraphrasing. It’s beautiful to see how he does it. Because you really know what these people’s minds are like in a very short space. It’s a gift to be able to do that, to write that way.

LaFrance: And you’re still writing for the New York Review of Books.

Baker: I do an occasional piece for them, just to keep my hand in. My mind is too slow now to do much. With age, everything slows down, your mind the most disconcerting of all. I don’t write with the glibness and facility that I used to. It’s a labor for me to write now.

LaFrance: Did it never feel like a labor before?

Baker: I’m writing because I love to write, of course. It was just a pleasure to write. I’d write things for fun and throw it away. Of course, once you start making money it becomes work and it ceases to be fun, but your writing gets better.

LaFrance: That’s true, isn’t it?

Baker: I’ve always found that when writing is fun, it’s not very good.

LaFrance: I’m afraid you’re right.

Baker: If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light. I did enjoy writing. Also, I’ve probably said everything I’ve wanted to say.

LaFrance: So much of your writing is woven around acute observations. I’m curious whether there’s been a change over time in the kinds of things you notice. How has the way you observe the world changed?

Baker: I don’t think my view of the world has changed much since I was probably 10 or 11 years old. I look at things very critically. I’m one of those awful people who’s looking for flaws. Everybody has flaws. This son of a bitch, he spots them right away. It’s an untrusting eye looking at the world. You try to make an argument to me, I immediately will spot the flaw in it. I loved covering politics because politicians are always telling you what they’re doing, and it’s easy to spot.

LaFrance: It seems like you still keep a close eye on politics.

Baker: I do. It’s got to be a habit with me. I spent so much of my life covering politics and I still read the papers closely every day. I get the Times and the Post and various other little papers. I’m always reading politics. It’s just a habit, really. But what else is there to do in Leesburg?

Later in the interview:

Baker: The Baltimore Sun was a really good paper. They put a lot of money into journalism. Good foreign correspondents. I got a couple of years in London as a correspondent. I really learned the trade in Baltimore. It took me 30 years at the Times to learn what I learned at the Sun in maybe a year.

LaFrance: But New York is New York.

Baker: Yes. I really like New York. I think New York is the only real city. I’ve been in a lot of cities. I like London. Paris is Paris. But New York? You can’t beat New York. I just felt that I couldn’t handle it financially. It’s a place for extremely rich people. I lived in Washington for 20 years and I never felt there was any place there. It was just a job.

LaFrance: It’s hard to imagine feeling at home in Washington.

Baker: Yeah. But I knew everybody. I certainly was very successful there. You work all the time in Washington but you don’t have the feel for it the way you get the feel for a city like Baltimore, which is an interesting city — a full city but on a small scale. You can see how a city works. There are all these communities interacting.

In Washington, you get no sense of that, of being in a city. I loved Baltimore. I still love Baltimore. When I go to Baltimore, I feel like I have so much past associated with it. It’s like home, as close to a home place as I’ve ever had.

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