Interview with Ward Just

Ward Just. Photograph by Laura D. Roosevelt

Photography by Laura D. Roosevelt

Ward Just shows up as a good and likable man. Authentic, centered, without the studied panache common to writers with big publishing chops and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. His midwestern roots didn’t make him a good man; that seems to have come from long dedication to being honest with himself.

But the Midwest invests its children with a specific set of values and a sense of place that Just suspects has stayed with him throughout a very big life on the world stage — far from the family daily newspaper business in Waukegan, Illinois, forty miles up the road from Chicago.

He writes directly in an intelligent, unhurried, graceful style. His body of work includes eighteen novels, two non-fiction books, and several collections of short stories. They are literary books, written in his voice with a just-evident tang of Henry James and Ernest Hemingway, his stylistic heroes.

Just, 78, is clear on his beliefs and about his enjoyments, which include Camel-straight cigarettes and a particular red wine from the Cahors region of France. (“Chummy. It doesn’t cost too much and treats you right the next morning.”) Likely, he is wise as a result of dedication to a pursuit of knowledge, a search that has graced him with humility. He has put himself in harm’s way on several continents in his pursuit of knowledge of the world and of himself.

He is gracious and will pass by a poorly framed question in order to answer the question that should have been asked.

Just became an Island seasonal resident in 1977, year-round in 1992. After decades of living on Lambert’s Cove Road, Ward and his wife of thirty years, Sarah Catchpole, moved a year and a half ago to the village of Vineyard Haven, to a sturdy, white Civil War–era wooden house, in which he has written his latest novel, American Romantic, published April 1 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The story draws on Just’s experiences as a war correspondent in Vietnam to create Harry Sanders, a young U.S. diplomat who bites off more than he can diplomatically chew, an event that informs his life into his dotage.

Just spoke with A&I contributor Jack Shea recently about his life and how writing has worked out for him.

Jack Shea: Were you a newspaperman who became a novelist or was fiction writing always your goal?

Ward Just: I always wanted to write fiction. Before I was a teenager, I fancied myself a storyteller. A later thought was that I didn’t know enough about how the world worked to write about it. I couldn’t learn it from books, it had to be an observed thing for me. That was one reason I went into newspapering right away. I had to find a voice that satisfied me so I could tell a story. And it was fairly clear that my newspaper-publisher father cast such a long shadow in Waukegan, Ill., that it was impossible to escape it, so I had to go elsewhere.

JS: What happened then?

WJ: I got lucky. I had always worked at the paper growing up, so I haunted the newspapers and the national magazines for a job. In 1959, I was ready to take a writing job at a magazine called Medical Economics when I decided to check once more at Newsweek. The editor said: “Jesus Christ! You were hired a week ago! You’re supposed to be in Chicago right now because the Queen [of England] is arriving.” I loved Newsweek. We were the new guys, chasing Time Magazine, who’d have five reporters on the story you were covering by yourself. Wonderful, genuinely eccentric people at Newsweek. Then I worked at The Washington Post for years and got out of the business in 1969. I tried to be true to my thought to find myself in as many strange situations as I could.

JS: And the journalistic experience helped you to develop as a storyteller?

WJ: Journalism was my training ground. The newspaper business throws you right into it. I needed to be exposed to fear and apprehension and random violence and events that were not part of my life in Waukegan. I have to experience things to know them. Some writers can map the terrain of their own psyches without a lot of experiences. Philip Roth comes to mind. And Shakespeare. Where did all that stuff come from? How did he know all that he wrote? What an intellect!

JS: What is Sarah’s role in your writing?

WJ: Sarah is always the first reader. She is better-read than I am and she has a very good critical sense. Good judgment. And she is tactful. We have a strange language. When she says, “That’s a beautiful passage,” it means only a little editing is needed. She is a creative reader. There are always holes and gaps in books that writers try to fix cleverly. She always finds them and roots them out.

JS: You say that Henry James and Hemingway, very different men and writers, inform your writing. Why are they important to you?

WJ: Hemingway fetched up my imagination with a wonderful descriptive style, written briefly. James did the same thing with a lot more words. Readers need to know the characters and they both provided that. They were masters of realism. You feel you really know these characters you’ve been hanging out with. Hemingway was more compressed. He did it in 300 pages, James did it in 600 pages.

JS: You told Scott Simon from NPR that the difference between fiction and journalism is what’s withheld from the journalist, thus can’t be reported. Is the novelist’s job to figure out the unsaid? Is that the information that makes the novel attractive to us?

WJ: That’s one part. The other part of a successful novel, I think, is that there is much that you’re withholding, particularly in dialog. You have to do it in a fairly serious way so the reader is able to read between the lines. That’s where the real material is.

JS: You have successfully published a book, without fail, every two to three years for Forty-five years. How do you
do that?

WJ: Each book seemed to me to have a natural arc to it. My natural arc seems to be 280 pages. That’s my “normal” and that’s how long it took to write those pages. You can get to be a prisoner to that. I’ve never reread a book I’ve written, but upon rumination, some of them could have been longer. [He laughs.] If I knew then what I know now. But that was the best I could do then. You only have the time at hand and you finish the damn thing and say, okay stick a fork in it, it’s done.

JS: Who are your favorite authors?

WJ: The German polymath W.G. Sebald absolutely hypnotizes me. He writes fiction in a new way. Actually, he’s an essayist and lobbyist. Marilynne Robinson is superb, her novels about Midwestern farmers living on the margins. Her fingernails are under everything. She peels back the onion skin. Kent Haruf is a novelist in the same vein. I’m drawn to them because they describe so well the vastness and sometimes monotony of the midwestern Great Plains and the presence of the plains in the lives of the people.

JS: Over the years, have the challenges of writing shifted for you? Has the business of publishing changed?

WJ: Not really, in terms of the composition of the work. I haven’t changed much, except as I get older I am more interested in my cohort than my son’s cohorts. I understand [my cohort] better.

In terms of publishing, you reset your sights a little in terms of commercial success. It takes a miracle — a miracle! — to get a literary novel on a best-seller list. But to be honest, you spend two years writing the best you can, and really, the marketplace doesn’t bear on that. I rarely show up on best-seller lists.

JS: How does the new generation of electronic devices affect writing and publishing?

WJ: I’m a poor witness because I don’t have an e-reader or email. I don’t understand the discipline. I write on a typewriter. Sarah emails and handles that part of communication, though I feel badly because [not emailing] is a real inconvenience to my friends who are not used to writing letters. But if you can get it done on a machine like that [points to my laptop], then good
for you, I say.

Novels are much longer now, and I used to think that was because it’s so easy to gather and store information with electronic tools. And if you’ve got the information, the temptation is to use it. Henry James was the first novelist to use a typewriter, and his novels were long, every goddamn one of ’em. But that belief did not stand the test of fact. In fact, Balzac and Hugo wrote 700-page novels using quill pens.

JS: Harry Sanders, the protagonist in American Romantic, was in Vietnam at the same time and at the same age as you were in Vietnam. How much of Harry is you, particularly related to his views then on Vietnam as a “winnable” war?

WJ: I don’t write autobiography, although an event in my life will trigger a story. I do write about characters who are my age because I know the historical period around them. I don’t have to consult historical records and documents for information on historical events.

I don’t think about Vietnam much anymore. I arrived there in November of 1965. When I left in mid-1967, I thought there was no way we could win. You had to be Joe Alsop [a hawkish national columnist] to believe we could win. Looking back, it had to be hard to pull the plug there and to march men into the fire while we searched for a way to stop it. Heartbreaking to think about. The Americans were responsible for organizing the Fates and eventually the Fates turned against them.

JS: What do Harry and his professional experiences tell us about America’s policies?

WJ: I don’t think much. Harry is smart but not a star. An ordinary guy, an ambassador of the second rank. Not ineffective, but doesn’t find himself at the center of the action. He was at the center of the action once. That decisive moment in his life provided a clarity not present in his later postings. His moment of clarity occurs when he’s thirty, and that moment was not a brilliant success. But sometimes all you can wish for is clarity.

JS: American émigrés like Harry are common protagonists in your novels. Are you an émigré on Martha’s Vineyard, across the water from “America,” as we call it?

WJ: I feel like an émigré virtually wherever I am [chuckles]. Perhaps it’s fallout from growing up in a small midwestern mill town. It may be that I never got out of Waukegan entirely.

JS: Do you prefer “city living” in Vineyard Haven to the wilds of Lambert’s Cove, your former home?

WJ: We do. There’s something nice about being able to walk downtown, to go to the bookstore, or to get a meal.

JS: How do you reward yourself, take a break, after a good writing day or finishing a book?

WJ: American Romantic is written, but there’s a lot to do around the publishing of it. I decided to take a leisurely approach to the next book. So after four or five months, I have a dozen publishable pages. The plot is still amorphous, it hasn’t sorted itself out yet.

JS: Is it uncomfortable being a smoker on Martha’s Vineyard these days?

WJ: Yes. I cannot remember the last time I had a cigarette in someone else’s house. In fact, I can’t think of a friend who smokes. Martha’s Vineyard is a smoke-free zone.

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