Monday, February 7, 2011


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.


  1. Yay! Just bought the new book and can't wait to read it.

  2. I love Gene. His pieces always seem so thoughtful, like David Foster Wallace's footnotes. He answers questions that I never would have thought to ask.

    I'n not surprised that he aims to "defy people's expectations." He is a master at precisely that.

  3. Weingarten is that rare writer whose heart always seems to be in the right place. He couldn't write from any other viewpoint other than common-sense sympathy if he tried. Nice guy, too.

    Jones, looking forward to more of these. I find these kind of things immensely helpful as a writer.

  4. Man, this was phenomenal. Thanks, Chris. And Gene.

  5. Love the insight, and laughed at 6 and 7. Well, chuckled. Maybe guffawed, if I knew what guffawing sounded like.

  6. This blog's level of quality just went stratospheric, good questions, great answers. Any story (post, interview, ramble) discussing the depths of horror/sadness above only to elicit laughter a moment later is on to something.

    Keep up the good work - I'll be tweeting and posting this to the world now...

  7. Great piece. Gene's story on the violinist was really augmented by video on the Post website, and is one of the few stories I felt worthy of e-mailing to my brilliant - and classical-music loving - father.

    here's the link:

  8. Loved the idea of writing the perfect story without notes and then trying to emulate it with the real facts and quotes.

    Will have to try it!

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  10. I like the idea on writing without the notes at first. Might have to try that this week.

  11. Chris and Faithful Readers: My favorite of Gene's stories is about "The Great Zucchini." If you have not read it, here's the link: . I just re-read it and still find it breathtaking.

  12. Great, great stuff. Seriously, thanks for doing this, Chris.

    Even if you went into a story knowing you could go back and rework it, you'd have to know your subject cold to be able to write it without notes, no? I'm wondering what you thought when you read that. Given the level of detail you like to use -- the flowers on the little girl's dress, the ambulance strobes reflecting off the snowflakes -- could you see Weingarten's method working for you?

    Also ... prison bars on the office window? Yikes. Then again, Jerry Pournelle calls his similarly austere writing room "the monk's cell" and suggests working on a computer with no access to games or the Internet. (Think I've heard that about your next FFW entrant, Wright Thompson, as well.)

    Wonder what percentage of writers prefer the Fortress-of-Solitude atmosphere, and which ones -- Pearlman comes to mind here -- would rather work in public places?

  13. Hey Lori— glad you liked it.

    I didn't want to say anything, because it will seem like I'm jumping on Gene's bandwagon—and also because, like him, I don't want to get sued—but I write largely without my notes, too. Have for the last five or six years, I'd guess. I might transcribe some interviews before I start writing, just to get everything straight in my head and to warm up the engine, but I don't sit there surrounded by a pile of papers.

    As for the details I use, I'm not sure how to explain this without sounding like a dick... But I have a really good memory for stuff like that. I know when it happens or when I hear about it that it's going to go in the story, and it sticks.

    I know I could fake this, but with "The Things That Carried Him," for instance... gravedigger was Don Collins Jr.; general at the funeral was Belinda Pinckney; Joey's best friend was Ryan Heacock; general at the plane was Richard Formica; chaplain was Sparks, and the head of the mortuary was Karen Giles; pilots were Linton and Jones, and they dropped off a kid named Tuba before they dropped off Joey; soldier in the helicopter was Slaght; soldiers in the line were Ross, Gilliland, Meeks, Leland... I could name everybody from that story, I think if I thought about it.

    But remember, it's not like I'm reporting a story a day. I do six or so a year. They can take months. You get to know your stories, which means you can write them with your eyes closed, so to speak. And then you open your eyes and make sure what you remembered is, in fact, what you saw.

    Gene's right. It's liberating. And your memory is usually a pretty good editor, I think. If you can't remember something without looking it up in a note, it's probably not worth putting it in the story.

  14. I was in DC for the first time just last weekend. Returning from Busboys and Poets via the Metro, I found myself heading to the surface at Wardham Park on what seemed like the world's longest escalator when I began hearing violin music wafting down.

    As I rode to the top I began listening closer. Not knowing much about classical music, I wondered what he was playing, and if he was a famous musician taking part in another social experiment.

    I have no idea how good the violinist was, but he sounded good to me. Soothing. Familiar. The surrounding clamor fell away.

    Nearing the top, I saw the man just to the right of the escalator playing his violin. People passed as if he was invisible. I wondered if anybody else even saw or heard him.

    Soon I was back out on the street with my wife and friends, heading to the hotel. But for just a few moments I had paid attention to the music and it made me feel good.

    I have Mr. Weingarten to thank for that. If not for his tremendous story, I probably wouldn't have given any thought to the violinist. Sure, my life might not have changed in any immediate or perceptible way that evening, but listening to the music gave me something.

    This blog has the same effect.

  15. "Fatal Distraction" was published a few months after my first daughter was born and I was in the throes of sleep deprivation.

    My wife and I called each other at work every morning to confirm that the person responsible for dropping the baby off at day care had, in fact, done so.

    I still can't make it more than a few grafs in that story without stopping. I don't think I have it in me to read the whole thing.

  16. My Gene story...I can't actually tell. Sorry, I know that's a tease. But it's a necessary one.

    Needless to say, Gene helped me when helping me wasn't a part of his job description. And I'll never forgive him for it. (Thank you, I'll be here all week!) Just kidding: I'll never FORGET it.

    Thanks, Gene.