Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dan Barry (GSAS '83): From Womb to Writer

danbarry.jpg Photo Credit: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Dan Barry is an author, columnist, and award winning journalist. He writes The New York Times’ celebrated “This Land” column, a national feature he inaugurated in 2007. During his 17 years at The Times, he has served as Long Island bureau chief, City Hall bureau chief, and “About New York” columnist, and was a major contributor to the newspaper’s award-winning coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath.

On April 19th, Mr. Barry will be presented with the Distinguished Alumnus Award at the 2012 Alumni Awards Luncheon. We had a chance to interview him about his time at NYU and his career as a writer.

Do you have any specific memories of your time at NYU? Any professors who had an influence on you?
I remember having no money, at a time when everyone else was wearing suspenders and loud ties; it was early Gekko. Several of the professors in the journalism department were very helpful; make that memorable. David Rubin, the chairman; Margo Jefferson; Terri Schultz-Brooks; others. And there was Richard Petrow, an old hard-news kind of guy who taught me how to report and write on deadline. I’m forever indebted.  

At what point in your life did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
In the womb; about 7 months, to be exact. I don’t know. I think very early on, when it was clear that I would never make it as a cartoonist or as a baseball player.  

Before starting the “This Land” column you had written a column called “About New York.” Can you give one or two examples of things you learned about New York City while writing this column that were most interesting to you or something our readers might not know about NYC?
What I would say is that people who live in or commute to New York should try to shed that seen-it-all persona we all adopt as we navigate the city. Once you do that, the city becomes a marvel. How do we ever take for granted the Brooklyn Bridge, or the subway system, or the Staten Island ferry, or even the Hudson River Drive, at evening time, when the night is clear and the river’s water seem at eye level. Another thing? That a guy up in Harlem once kept a tiger named Ming in his apartment – and this was accepted by neighbors as mere New York eccentricity.  

How did the idea for the “This Land” column come about?
I had been doing the “About New York” column for a couple of years when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. I was dispatched to New Orleans and wrote several column-like pieces for the National section. The idea to do a kind of About America – however crazy that may sound – grew out of that experience.

Has writing “This Land” changed your view of America?
I guess the column has changed my view, because my view was limited. I had never spent much time in the south, or in the Pacific Northwest, or in Indiana, or Tucson. The column has allowed me to visit all 50 states, so my view has, shall we say, broadened. I am quite aware now that New York is only a part of the country, and not the entire country.  

Do you have a favorite spot that you’ve journeyed to? Is there a place you haven’t been where you’d like to go?
I like many places very much. I’m fond of New England, where I lived for more than a decade. I like northern California. I’ve been blown away by the sight of the Hoover Dam, by the beauty of Molokai. I’ve never been to Puerto Rico, which, to my mind, is part of This Land. My favorite spot is on the road, in the evening, listening to the local radio and driving through hills.  

Online readers of your column will find some wonderful interactive features including American Objects, where we can see photos of the souvenirs you have brought back from each trip and hear you talking about them. Would you consider yourself a collector and if so, are there other objects you collect?
I like to collect tokens of places where I’ve been. I initially thought I would collect shot glasses, but that was silly. So I pick up odd things. The latest, for example, is a copy of an old poster for the Joe Frazier-Ron “The Butcher” Stander fight in Omaha, way back when – signed by the loser, Ron Stander.  

Your most recent book, Bottom of the 33RD chronicles baseball’s longest game against the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings. Was this an event you had always wanted to write about?
I wouldn’t say always. I had known of the game, played in 1981, for quite a while. I lived in Pawtucket after it was played, and so knew the lore of the 33-inning game, the longest in baseball history. But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that it came to me: to describe what it must have been like to be, say, the center fielder for the Pawtucket Red Sox, freezing at 3 in the morning on Easter Sunday, trapped, by a never-ending game – and there is virtually no one watching the game.  

What kind of effect did the game have on the town of Pawtucket, RI?
 I think that the game gave Pawtucket, and McCoy Stadium, the WPA ballpark where the game was played, an extra distinction. The city was known as central to the Industrial Revolution, but now it had this: Pawtucket, Home of the Longest Game. I think the residents are happy that this little bit of history happened on their ground.  

Do you have plans to write another book? If so, have you decided on a subject?
I do want to write a book, but I am, at this moment, hampered by one problem: No idea about what the book should be about. Working on it, though.  

Some people enjoy writing in a crowded space, others retreat to the wilderness. Is there a place where you prefer to write?
I’ve written in noisy newsrooms and in the midst of natural disasters, but I prefer to be alone somewhere – a hotel room, my attic – where I can get up, wander around, mutter bad words, and sit back down to search again for the right words.  

What advice would you give to someone attempting to make a career as a writer?
Keep at it. Write every day. Read the best. Write some more. Have a job on the side to keep your creditors at bay. Write some more.

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