The troubles I’ve seen
More than a year ago, I wrote about my so-called career, beginning with a high school news column and proceeding to books. It sounded like an idyllic life, but what I did not reveal were any of my blunders along the way. There was one particular high school column when I quoted an unnamed friend saying, “You can’t let schoolwork interfere with your extra-curricular activities.”
After publication, I was summoned to the office of the principal, Lorne Fox. Already on hand were the heads of Student Council and Athletic Council. Fox was livid. “What will Fred Hamilton, head of the school board, think when he reads this?” Fox ranted for a while and threatened to cancel the Friday dance. In the end, the dance went on but in future I had to submit my column, before publication, to Kathy Kraak, an English teacher. She never changed a word on any column but I learned an important lesson: it’s the gratuitous stuff that gets you every time.
My next faux pas came while I was writing for the The Gazette, the student newspaper at Western. It was Winter Weekend, maybe 1965, and the school always hired a big star. That year it was the late Judy Henske, whose song “High Flying Bird” was a big hit. Assigned to interview her, I wandered the halls backstage, and was told she was in a certain room. I entered and found her half-dressed and screaming at me. She moved behind a screen but, because she was more than six feet tall, remained visible although she may have believed she was suitably hidden. As you might imagine, Henske was less forthcoming than I’d hoped. Lesson number two: Always make sure you have permission to enter a subject’s room.
In the early aughts I was researching a book on Edgar Bronfman Jr. The first interview, lasting three hours, took place in his New York office in late March. More dates were scheduled in April, most of which were cancelled. When the next day came we were to talk again, he met me in reception and was actually cringing at the sight of me. Slightly stooped, with both elbows tucked at his sides, his forearms were raised with his palms showing as if fending me off even though I was two metres away. After a limp handshake, he scuttled down the hall. There were no more interviews. Maybe it didn’t matter. The time I’d already had with him was spent on his growing-up years hearing stories that only he could tell. The rest of my 125 interviews more than filled in the years that followed. Still, the lesson learned was: never assume you’ve got the interview until you’re actually sitting with the subject, tape recording running.