There’s a moment before you send questions to Cal Fussman in which you remember that you’re about to interview the Obi Wan Kenobi of interviewing. You start to think of all the people whose minds he’s been privileged to probe: Mikhail Gorbachev, Muhammad Ali, John Wooden, Richard Branson. You wonder if the Godfather of Interviewing is going to judge your questions, your style, your approach, or the whole project.
Then you remember that part of the story of Cal’s extraordinary success is his generosity of spirit. People engage with him because he engages with them—deeply and thoughtfully. He’s gotten access that most journalists and writers only dream of, and he’s written for some of the biggest magazines in the business.
So you press send and hope for the best. The result of that leap of faith is the following interview. In it, Cal talks about his writing life and habits, the advice Salman Rushdie gave him about writing, and the books he reads about the craft:
For many years, I woke up at about three in the morning and went straight to the keyboard. With three kids (two have since grown and moved out), two dogs, a cat and a Brazilian wife, a carnival generally erupted at about 7 a.m. When it did, you might as well have fixed yourself a Caipirinha.
I travel some now to speak. So my schedule varies. But I still write in the early morning. When I’m home, I meet Larry King and some buddies afterward for breakfast. A gathering of friends is a great way to start the day. Plus, writing first thing in the morning means you never have to feel guilty later in the day for avoiding the work.
I started out writing for newspapers and the newsroom could be noisy and distracting. Early on, I learned to block everything out.
I’ve always felt rhythm in the words I wrote so it’s never made sense to me to have someone else’s music playing. That would be like listening to two songs at the same time.
I remember Salman Rushdie telling me how he gives it the first energy of the day. As soon as he gets up, he goes to his office and starts writing. He’s still in his pajamas. He believes there is a “little package of creative energy that was nourished by sleep,” and he doesn’t want to waste it. He works for an hour or two and then goes to brush his teeth.
I have a very similar approach. Only I brush my teeth before I start. I guess that’s my pre-writing ritual.
If I’m writing a talk to be given in my own voice, I can comfortably produce 1,500 words a day. If I’m writing an as-told-to book, I can put out up to 3,000 words a day…but that happens only if a deadline demands it.
I’m not the type of person who buys a book because it’s a bestseller—or because everyone is talking about it.
To get my attention, a book or a magazine story has to overlap with the current of my life.
For example, I started out wanting to be a newspaper columnist. When I was in journalism school I sat for hours in the school library reading the columnists in papers that had been shipped in from around the country.
Days after I started my first newspaper job at The Miami Herald, I met a writer who’d just come back from traveling in Europe. He introduced me to Henry Miller writing about Paris and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. We went to Key West on our days off, visited Hemingway’s home and Sloppy Joe’s saloon and soon I was reading everything Hemingway wrote. When I found out that Ernest loved West with the Night by Beryl Markham I reached for that. A lot of my reading has been a chain reaction of authors speaking highly of one another.
My next newspaper job was in St. Louis and I hung out at a pub called Llywelyn’s near Left Bank Books. In the bookstore I would find short story collections published in the Forties and head to the pub to read writers like William Saroyan. Paperbacks like these were tattered and there were advertisements to buy War Bonds in the back. I also left the bookstore with John Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, Ayn Rand, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Philip Roth and Isaac Bashevis Singer. I took A Confederacy of Dunces on a road trip to New Orleans. That was a hilarious and delicious experience – though bittersweet knowing John Kennedy Toole committed suicide after all the rejections he got, and that his novel was published more than a decade after his death. I saved Faulkner for when I could read him in Mississippi. I hope that will happen before I die.
Then I moved to New York to be a magazine writer and got into Hunter S. Thompson, David Halberstam and Tom Wolfe. My friendship with one of the world’s great sportswriters, Gary Smith, began at this time and I read everything he ever wrote. It was great to read Time and Again by Jack Finney when I was living on Gramercy Park.
I began to travel around the world and it was wonderful to read Dostoevsky in Russia, Zorba The Greek in Greece, Balzac and De Maupassant in France, Gunter Grass in Germany, Dickens in England. I guarantee you that Dracula is scarier when you read it at night in Transylvania. Reliving Patrick Leigh Fermor’s walk from Holland toward Constantinople in the 30s while you’re traveling through Europe brings an overwhelming depth of feeling to A Time Of Gifts. I fell in love with the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Jorge Amado made me want to go to Brazil. When I arrived, I read a lot of his work in English and Portuguese side-by-side to help myself learn the native tongue. My wife and kids came to me because of Jorge Amado.
I was back in the States when my kids were born and I read to them all the great children’s books and fables from around the world. When I started working in the as-told-to format, I turned to Studs Terkel. Interviewing some of the world’s most compelling and powerful people for Esquire made me seek out their biographies for research. When I began to smoke turkey on Thanksgiving, I studied Steven Raichlen’s Barbecue Bible. When I was learning to become the sommelier at Windows on the World, I threw myself into magazines and books about wine. When I wrote a book about the legacy of Jackie Robinson, I read all about race in America. Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club meant much more to me when I reread it after my mom died. And it was precious the first time. When I assisted Larry King and Tommy Mottola with their autobiographies I read widely about the evolution of radio, television and pop music.
This is such an abbreviated history. But in short, all of my reading overlaps with the timing of my life.
For me, writing means re-writing. If I were working with pen and paper I’d have to cross out a lot and the page would get ugly very quickly and make the copy seem unclear.
Not only that, but when it was finished, I’d have to type the final version into a computer because nobody is going to accept a handwritten manuscript.
The computer allows me to move copy around and simultaneously keep the page clean. It saves a tremendous amount of time.
There may be a few old-timers out there who cling to their typewriters. Robert Caro, author of The Power Broker, is one. But he told me that finding new ribbons can be a problem.
I do find it quite satisfying to send someone a hand-written note. I’ve never done the wax seal on the envelope. But one of these days…
One of the pieces I’m deeply proud to have written started with a paragraph that read: “This story needed an ending before it could find its first sentence. So please forgive me for delivering it ten years overdue.”
That ten years was a war with writer’s block. I’d spent a couple of years learning about wine in order to become a sommelier for a night at Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center. It should have been a joyous piece. But soon after my night as sommelier, the hijacked planes smashed into the towers on 9/11.
For years, I couldn’t write about the experience. I could write other stories and books—but not a paragraph about Windows. On the sunniest day of summer the fact that I couldn’t write that piece hung over me like a dark cloud.
I remember asking the chef Mario Batali if it were possible to write a story that balanced the fun I had discovering wine with the horror of 9/11. He slowly shook his head and said: “No. You’ll never be able to do it.” Then he paused and added, “but you’ve got to.”
Took me ten years before it all came into focus and I could get it down right, and the story won a James Beard award. I’ve never been motivated by awards. But that one is special to me.
I guess you could say that my routine has changed more in the last year than in the last three decades.
A little more than a year ago, I was asked to give a talk on a cruise at a gathering of 4,000 entrepreneurs. I’d never really done anything like it before and had no idea how it would go. When I finished, everyone was standing and applauding. Now, I’m asked to speak a lot at conferences, company events and retreats.
The stories that I include in my talks generally are rooted in my meetings with Muhammad Ali, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert DeNiro, Jeff Bezos and hundreds of other extraordinary people I’ve interviewed over the years. They blend into a performance that’s sort of like a one-man Broadway show.
So the process is more complicated for me than simply putting words on paper. Now, I have to act out the words. That requires rehearsal. I spend time during the day studying myself in the mirror. And I find myself rewriting a lot as I rehearse.
The process of what I do now is probably more like being a stand-up comic, although often the material elicits tears.
The biggest change for me is in seeing how the words are received. When you’re writing a book or a magazine piece you’re generally alone in a room. You send the work in and you very rarely see your audience while it’s appreciating it. You may get some nice emails and phone calls, or see a list of comments online.
But that’s very different from getting a standing ovation and having people hug you afterward. When I finished a talk in South Africa, to my surprise a cake was brought on stage and nearly three thousand standing people sang Happy Birthday to me. Once you feel that, you want it a lot more.
Took me a long time to learn that my best writing comes off my own lips.
Funny thing is, I do write off my own lips from the start. Many people find it hard to believe, but I write when I’m walking down the street, driving the car or taking a shower. My lips are subtly (or not so subtly) moving as I try out sentences for myself. I can talk out paragraphs.
When I get to the computer the creative aspect of the work has often been done. It’s sort of like a sculptor gathering the raw materials out on the street. When I arrive at the keyboard, I type in the raw materials and then begin to chisel away.
By the way, Aaron Sorkin told me that he plays out all the parts while he’s driving around when he’s writing dialogue for his movies and television shows. People who pull up next to him in their cars at a stoplight might think he’s insane.
But anyone who’s seen A Few Good Men can tell it’s worked out pretty well for him…
I’ve never broken down the tasks the way a time management expert might for a business.
If I did, I might become more efficient. But my process feels fluid.
The biggest problem I have with time is that my curiosity is attracted to too many ideas. It’s like a 19-year-old guy who feels an urge to check out every beautiful woman he meets.
A publishing house recently reached out to me with an idea for a book. I had no real connection to the idea, but the editor’s passion for it made me curious. I did a bunch of reading around the subject and made a few phone calls. Ultimately, I became certain the project wasn’t for me.
I’d get more done if I said “no” a lot sooner.
Six to eight hours a day when I include rehearsing, sending notes to people and returning e-mails. I don’t substitute “u” for “you” in my e-mails. I craft e-mails as thoughtfully as I would write a book.
Ideas have always bumped into me when I’ve least expected it. After I spoke on that cruise, a long line of entrepreneurs formed to meet me. In one way or another, they were all curious as to how changing their questions could help them hire better, sell more, improve their storytelling, bring their employees together or even choose the right partner in life.
So that’s where I’m headed. A book, maybe even a series of books, that relate to my talks, and show how changing your questions can change your life.