1. J.R. Moehringer on ghost-writing Andre Agassi’s memoir Open:

I found out that all the research in the world doesn’t get you very far — that when you start telling the story, there’s all this stuff you really don’t know. And I had the wonderful perk of being able to call him, sit down with him, every time I came to something and didn’t know what it looked like or smelled like. So it was like writing a novel about an imaginary character, but then being able to call that character and say, ‘What was this like? We forgot to talk about this. Tell me what this person said.’
So really, it was a lot of fun, and it also wasn’t very different from writing my own memoir. When you’re writing a memoir the trick, I think, is to treat yourself as a character — to distance yourself from yourself. You write about yourself in the first person, but you think about yourself in the third person. That’s the only way you can gain any perspective, any clarity, and keep the dogs of narcissism at bay. And then when you’re writing someone else’s memoir, you do just the opposite. You try and inhabit their skin, and even though you’re thinking third person, you’re writing first person, so the processes are mirror images of each other, but they seem very simpatico.

    J.R. Moehringer on ghost-writing Andre Agassi’s memoir Open:

    I found out that all the research in the world doesn’t get you very far — that when you start telling the story, there’s all this stuff you really don’t know. And I had the wonderful perk of being able to call him, sit down with him, every time I came to something and didn’t know what it looked like or smelled like. So it was like writing a novel about an imaginary character, but then being able to call that character and say, ‘What was this like? We forgot to talk about this. Tell me what this person said.’

    So really, it was a lot of fun, and it also wasn’t very different from writing my own memoir. When you’re writing a memoir the trick, I think, is to treat yourself as a character — to distance yourself from yourself. You write about yourself in the first person, but you think about yourself in the third person. That’s the only way you can gain any perspective, any clarity, and keep the dogs of narcissism at bay. And then when you’re writing someone else’s memoir, you do just the opposite. You try and inhabit their skin, and even though you’re thinking third person, you’re writing first person, so the processes are mirror images of each other, but they seem very simpatico.

  2. J.R. Moehringer

    Andre Agassi

    Open

    Fresh Air

  1. He just had these beautiful pipes. I might not have been so inclined to romanticize him if he hadn’t sounded the way he sounded. But he really did have this beautiful, almost Paul Robeson voice. And then when he wasn’t speaking, he was playing this new, incredibly exciting music. Every time I hear certain Stevie Wonder songs, certain Van Morrison songs, I can hear my father.

    But it was so frustrating to be a little kid. I didn’t have a relationship with him — but also, the radio provided this spotty access to him. So I was always trying to dial him in. I didn’t understand that he had a certain shift every day, so I’d sit out on the stoop and I had this transistor radio, and I was turning the dial excruciatingly slowly trying to find his voice, which really broke my mother’s heart. And yet she didn’t quite know how to step in and take the radio away from me.

    And then what was strange is that when he died in 2002, a lot of his fans posted their favorite shows. They’d saved recordings of some of his best shows, and so I was trying to download them on the Internet. And I was having trouble and I was getting frustrated and suddenly I just stopped and I had this complete flashback. I was doing exactly what I had done when I was a kid, sitting on the stoop, and I just had to turn the computer off and walk away. It was just too trippy, and it took a long time to unwind my sense that he was living this exotic party life — that really, he was a lonely guy projecting a false image through that microphone. It took decades to figure out that that wasn’t the truth.

    — J.R. Moehringer on listening to his absent father, Johnny Michaels, on the radio

  2. J.R. Moehringer

    Fresh Air

    fathers

  1. J.R. Moehringer on why he chose to write a historical novel from the point of view of Willie Sutton, “America’s greatest bank robber”:

I thought it would be healthy to live vicariously through a bank robber at that moment that bankers were ruining the world.

(Photo credit: Donna Svennevik/ABC)

    J.R. Moehringer on why he chose to write a historical novel from the point of view of Willie Sutton, “America’s greatest bank robber”:

    I thought it would be healthy to live vicariously through a bank robber at that moment that bankers were ruining the world.

    (Photo credit: Donna Svennevik/ABC)

  2. Sutton

    J.R. Moehringer

    Fresh Air

  1. "I was 17 at the time — I thought that writing meant using $20 words and if you can find $50 words, all the better. And I wrote these essays about — I don’t know what topics — topics I considered worldly. And I had my mother read them before I sent them off to colleges and she said, ‘You sound insane.’ It was one of the biggest arguments we’ve ever had and we just went around and around. I thought, ‘This woman obviously doesn’t know good writing.’ And we were slamming doors. I remember this like it was this morning.

    But she, as she always does, she prevailed and she said, ‘Just tell them the truth. Pick out something from your life. Speak from the heart.’ And so I told them about a part-time job I had with these two eccentric booksellers in this little bookstore near our dinky apartment, and I just wrote about how these guys gave me books and talked to me about books and how much I looked up to them and how they’d open the world to me and I couldn’t wait to extend that experience to college — just read more books with smart people.

    — Author J.R. Moehringer on writing his college application essay

  2. J.R. Moehringer

    Sutton

    Fresh Air

  1. Photo courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

    "So I went into a cell that was just like the one Willie would have spent years in and it was horrifying for me. I have a touch of claustrophobia, so just to go inside, just to be led in by the curator — because it’s now a national historic site — was terrifying and my blood just stopped slugging through my veins. And I stood there and I could just imagine how you would unravel psychologically. It’s not a normal cell. It’s a dungeon. It was built in the early 1800s. It was world famous instantly because it was considered so inhumane.

    "When Charles Dickens came to America, he said he only wanted to see two places: the U.S. Capitol and Eastern State Penitentiary. And he actually interviewed a lot of the prisoners there and upset his American hosts by writing about the suffering that they were enduring. So just the seconds that I spent in that cell was life changing because the first thing you think to yourself is, ‘I can’t imagine surviving this.’ And the second thing you think, if you’re researching a book about Willie Sutton, is how remarkable it is that more than survive it, he had the will to live that permitted him to devise an escape."

    - Author J.R. Moehringer on visiting the prision where Willie Sutton stayed

  2. J.R. Moehringer

    Sutton

    Eastern State Penitentiary

  1. After the global financial crisis hit in 2008, Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer was so angry at banks, he says, he decided to write about the people who rob them — in the form of fiction since he’s not an economist.

    "I thought it would be healthy to live vicariously through a bank robber at that moment that bankers were ruining the world," Moehringer tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

    In his first historical novel, Sutton, Moehringer writes from the point of view of Willie Sutton, whom he calls the “greatest American bank robber.”

    - via J.R. Moehringer’s 'Sutton': America's 1920s, Bank-Robbing 'Robin Hood'

  2. J.R. Moehringer

    Sutton

    Fresh Air