Gene Weingarten is a columnist and humor writer for The Washington Post. He recently pulled the remarkable trick of winning two Pulitzer Prizes for Feature Writing—the only person to win twice in that category—in a three-year stretch. His first winning story, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” explored what would happen if a virtuoso violinist named Joshua Bell masqueraded as a street musician in the D.C. subway. (Virtually everybody except children ignored him.) The second, “Fatal Distraction,” was a heart-wrenching account of parents who accidentally killed their kids by leaving them in hot cars. He has written four books; his latest… well, you’ll see.
I’m thrilled that Gene—this award-winning journalist and kind soul who also sports a terrific mustache—agreed to be the first subject of Son of Bold Venture’s new feature, Five for Writing.
Thank you, Gene, very much. Enjoy, everybody.
1. You’ve won two Pulitzer prizes for stories that might seem, on the surface, very different. But both of them, in some way, are about inattention, about carelessness. Was that a conscious choice of yours—are you particularly struck by our modern rush?
It’s an interesting observation, but no, it was not a conscious choice. I don’t tend to think in terms of themes. Mostly, I’m looking for the potential for surprise: Will this story defy people’s expectations, cause them to think more deeply about their assumptions?
Yes, in fact, we will walk blindly past incomparable beauty. A good, loving parent could negligently kill his child.
Specifically, each of these pieces was occasioned by an event. In the first case, at rush hour, I watched commuters ignore a talented street musician playing Beethoven on a keyboard outside a Metro station. It occurred to me that Beethoven himself probably wouldn’t have turned a head, either. In the second case, a baby died in a car in suburban Washington. There, I had to do the story because I had an emotional connection too strong to squander. See below.
2. Would you call yourself careful?
Depends what you mean. If you mean, could I have left my child to die in a car? Absolutely. Twenty-eight years ago, I almost did it. The only reason my daughter is a veterinarian today and not a pile of small bones under the ground somewhere, is that at the last minute, as I was parking my car outside my office in the sweltering heat of a Miami summer, she woke up and said something.
If you mean, am I careless with the facts of my life? Also, yes. As an exercise, I once tried to come up with the single adjective that least describes me. I spent a long time thinking about it (I am easily distracted) and the word I came up with was “fastidious.” If I were not married to an adult, I’d live marginally, in squalor, in the lacuna of society. I’d live like an assassin.
But I AM careful about writing, because I have to be, particularly because of the way I work. My Method. I’ve never actually put this in writing before for fear that one day a libel lawyer will get hold of this and use it to destroy me: After I have reported a story, I skim through my notes, then lock them away and let a full day pass before starting to write. I don’t go back to the notes until I’m finished writing, which is when I discover which facts I misremembered, which quotes I mangled, what premises I made that I can’t really support, and so forth.
This process can be frustrating, but mostly, it’s liberating. By not enslaving yourself to your notes, you can think in a utopian way about your story: What’s the best it can possibly be? And once you’ve created that ideal, and seen where you can’t deliver it, you know what additional reporting you may need to get as close to it as possible.
I’m mentioning all this because tempting yourself with exciting falsehoods means that in the end you have to be EXTRA careful with the truth. I am. Or try to be.
3. I can still remember the terrible detail in “Fatal Distraction” about the girl pulling out all her hair before she died. Can you remember the moment when you learned that? And did you ever wonder about leaving it out of the story? Were you ever worried that it was just too sad?
Because of the nature of this story—the fact that it was going to be extremely sympathetic to these parents—I felt I had to confront, in some way, how gruesome the deaths of the children were. For one thing, it was part of the truth of the story, and belied the delusion some parents understandably clung to (and one articulated in the story) that their children peaceably slept their way into the realm of the angels. Had I not visited the horror head on, I think a reasonable person could have reasonably contended that I was being an apologist for the parents.
So I felt I had to deliver one strong, viscerally disturbing example of the nature of the children’s suffering. (Sadly, I had many.) In the end, I chose one that was particularly awful, but was delivered at a slight remove, by an expert discussing an anonymous case. “The child pulled all her hair out before she died.” I understood the power of those few words. I kept taking them out of the story, then putting them back in. Eventually, they stayed. I do think it was the right decision, but I know of one person who got to that line and vomited.
4. You’ve managed to write little entertainments and to write serious stories, to write hilarious and to write heartbreaking. Is switching between the two as natural as moods for you? Or do you have any secrets for pushing yourself into the right frame of mind?
The funny stuff underwrites the serious stuff. It allows me to go deep and dark. If I wrote only about people who left babies to die in cars, I’d become a brooding, sullen, paranoid melancholic. I’d be Raskolnikov.
That’s probably not the answer you wanted. You probably wanted me to say that, at the heart of it, there is no difference between tragedy and comedy, that they both draw from the same existential terror we have at the knowledge that we are trapped in an implacable, uncaring, perverse universe; that laughter and tears are the only two reasonable responses; that comedy and tragedy are, like matter and energy, two forms of the same substance.
Okay, that, too.
5. Where do you keep your Pulitzer prizes? Do you see them often? And what do you think when you do?
I have them framed on a wall, which embarrasses me a little because I’d really like to be the kind of person who doesn’t remember where he put them, or whose Pulitzers are coffee-stained, stashed in a closet under appliance warranties. I’m just not that cool.
In my defense, however, the wall they are on is in a dank, 9-by-7 foot chamber in my basement. It has one window that leads out only to an interior stairwell. The room is so small, austere, and oppressive that when we had the rest of the basement renovated, I had the workmen put prison bars on that window. This is where I often work. Beside the Pulitzers is a framed degree in “Outerspace Physics” that I purchased online while researching a story on diploma mills. On the other side of the Pulitzers is a framed proof of the cover of my first book, The Hypochondriac's Guide to Life. And Death. This cover proof was sent to me by the publisher, as a courtesy, literally minutes before the press run was to start. I had to inform them that “Hypochondriac” was spelled wrong.
I don’t look at the Pulitzers very often. But when I do, what generally occurs to me is something Dave Barry once observed. It won’t make sense unless you’ve seen one. They look exactly like junior high school diplomas.
6. Is there any way a reader can find all of your serious work in one surprisingly affordable book?
It’s a new book called The Fiddler In The Subway, available everywhere. Thanks for asking!
7. I didn’t ask. You added these last two questions.
It's only ten bucks at Amazon.