David Remnick: Last week, Roger Angell, the longtime fiction editor of The New Yorker and a friend to generations of staffers at the magazine died at home at the age of 101. As a writer, Roger took up the subject of baseball in the early '60s, just as the Mets were being born, and he was soon recognized as the greatest chronicler in the history of the game.
One of the best memories I have at this magazine was sitting in the left field stands with Roger at Shay Stadium as the Yankees beat the Mets in the deciding game of the World Series in 2000, and then entering the Yankees locker room with Roger under huge plumes of champagne.
Joe Tori, the Yankees manager who had known Roger since his playing days greeted Roger like a brother. We're going to revisit now an interview I did with Roger in 2015, just a year after he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
One of the things that always amazed me about your baseball writing is that you have a tone of a happy man, of someone who's going at this at his leisure and that all the difficulty of writing which we know to be the case [chuckles] is somehow way out of the frame. That there is this voice of someone just in love with what he's watching. That's hard to achieve.
Roger Angell: Well, it developed over the years. I didn't really plan it in advance. It was some kind of me.
David Remnick: What was the kind of sports writing that you couldn't stand? What were you trying to avoid?
Roger Angell: Actually, when I started, Sean said--
David Remnick: William Sean, the editor of--
Roger Angell: William Sean my editor said, why don't you get on spring training and take a look? He said, we don't want to be sentimental and we don't want to be a tough guys, those two things to avoid.
David Remnick: Did Sean know anything about baseball?
Roger Angell: Nothing.
My first piece, he came into my office carrying the galleys, my first piece of that spring training and he pointed to a place on the page and he said, "What's this" I looked and I said, "That's a double play Bill." He said, "What's a double play," and I explained it to him and his cheeks glowed with excitement.
It was something new.
David Remnick: Did you find it harder to talk with players as time went by, as you got a little older, did you gravitate more toward coaches and managers than players?
Roger Angell: Once they call you sir, you're in big trouble. I gravitated toward good talkers as I've said before.
David Remnick: Did they thin out was what I mean, did the good talkers become less and less numerous?
Roger Angell: Yes, I think so. When I got over 80, it was impossible for me to talk to players really because they would say sir, and also as you've said, the habit of talking openly as a person not as a very well paid celebrity, semi celebrity ball player is pretty well gone.
David Remnick: It's because it's a big difference when the ball players are making a bet as much as a solid orthodontist and now they're making as much as an oligarch.
Roger Angell: Sure, but you did pay attention. I would carry notes and write endlessly long notes and keep my ears open and listen for something. I remember being outside the office of Jim Frey the Kansas City manager after his great star George Brett had another extraordinary day at the plate and I'm waiting to go in to see the manager and there are two old coaches at their lockers just outside the door in their underwear and clogs talking to a couple of country guys. One of them says to the other, 'Everything that George hits goes through the infield like a stream of milk [laughter] and this country image, and I've wrote it down. Wow. Thank you.
David Remnick: You wait days for things like that in the non-fiction game. Roger, you practiced non-fiction as it were by night and fiction by day. For years and years, you were the fiction editor of The New Yorker to this day, you read short stories for us and in the fiction department, was this bred in the bone with you?
I think some of our listeners will know that your mother really had singular responsibility for introducing serious fiction to The New Yorker. Catherine White was the person who brought real fiction to The New Yorker and you must have grown up hearing about this process and knowing this process,
Roger Angell: My stepfather was EB White, who was EB White and writing for the magazine every week and my mother and stepfather's house was full of galleys and pencils and eraser rubbings and conversation about the magazine and about Harold Ross and about the writers of the day. Sure, I paid close attention, but I wasn't planning to be a New Yorker editor or to be a New Yorker writer.
David Remnick: What were you planning on?
Roger Angell: I was hoping to be maybe a boy natural, the herpatologist [laughter] was my first first name, but I did pay attention and they were doing the same thing and my mother was editing Vladimir Nabokov and people like that.
David Remnick: How did Nabokov take editing?
Roger Angell: The usual haughty way and the famous Nabokov editing was by the great New Yorker founding editor Harold Russ who loved clarity above all and was not classically or much educated, but loved clearness. In the middle of some terrific Nabokov member, I think part of his peak memory pieces is wonderful memories about his family.
There's a line at the dinner table and someone says, "Pass the nutcracker," and one of Harold Ross's endless queries, he always had about 20 or 30 queries about every piece of copy. He said, "From the evidence we've been given so far, I would've assumed that the Nabokovs were a more than one nutcracker family," [laughter] so they're famous--
David Remnick: Roll Doll. I was looking through some letters that came to Harold Ross and Roll Doll who wrote all those great children's books but also a number of things for The New Yorker and memoir pieces for The New Yorker wrote a scathing letter to Ross complaining about the editing and the number of commas that had been injected into things. He says it's as if you would take a great comma shaker and sprinkled commas throughout my copy. [crosstalk]
Roger Angell: Well, that was our style. It's lightened up a little bit.
David Remnick: Now, tell me about this new book. You've put together an enormous range of things. You've got in here some obituaries that were published in The New Yorker online, you've got a couple of long sustained essays that we'll talk about, some baseball writing--
Roger Angell: Letters.
David Remnick: The book is called This Old Man by Roger Angell All in Pieces.
Roger Angell: This Old Man Roger Angell on Pieces.
Well, I'm a little tired of the joke and the title already.
David Remnick: [laughs] Tell me about the book itself.
Roger Angell: Well, I wrote the piece, this old man, I started the piece in 2013 I think late in the year and I think handed it to you long about February, something like that.
David Remnick: Came as a complete surprise to me, just plopped it on my desk done.
Roger Angell: Well, I wrote it in different pieces because I didn't quite know what I was doing. It was about physical debility and it starts off with a description of my arthritic hands.
David Remnick: Which you say the tips of your fingers look like they've been the subject of torture by the KGB.
Roger Angell: If I point my four finger at you like a pistol and fire and for your nose, I hit you in the knee, [laughter] but I describe some of the everyday debilities of age. I didn't quite know what I was doing, but I knew that loss was at the middle of this. I had lost my wife of been married for 48 years and I'd lost a daughter and a beloved dog of Carols and mine went out the fifth floor window in the middle of a, threw him in panic, jumped out the window of the fifth floor and was killed.
Losses for people my age are common. Ed Hershey the wonderful poet lost his son and wrote a great book about it last year. He says that anybody over the age of 65 has a 100 pound bag of cement of loss on his shoulders. He writes about writing about the loss of his son and he says you can't make a story out of it, you can't do that with a life.
I didn't know how to touch on these subjects and I didn't know if I wanted to even, and I did so actually through the loss of the dog. I'd written a piece about the losing my wife, losing Carol called Over The Wall which began this process. I waited six months and just after the first Obama election, she died in April and I said she didn't know this news and she didn't know about the hurricane that fall and nothing she didn't know.
I said, the dead don't know what's happening and the dead leave quickly. I quoted a Kenneth Coke poem. saying [unintelligible 00:09:19] but they draw quickly. There's a line in that which says no more scenes in the bedroom, no more waiting in the hall, waiting to stay hello with mixed feelings, perfect line. I described the death of Harry this dog and then threw in that Carol and I wept, we couldn't get over weeping for him.
He'd lay in our bathroom between us on the floor and we'd sit through Kleenex back and forth. I said, we were also weeping for my daughter Carla who committed suicide a couple years earlier and events that we knew we couldn't just get our minds around in any way, but it was for both. I don't want to dwell on this I didn't want to make much of this because everybody's experienced loss and there are many changes of mood through this piece. I patched the thing together and some of the sad or little moment paragraphs that are hard to take are often followed by a joke or a lighter moment. There's some actual jokes in there and it is okay because I like to take jokes. I count on jokes myself I'm known to tell jokes.
David Remnick: There's also the opposite of loss. There's new love.
Roger Angell: Yes. This was happening I was finding someone new in my life, my present wife, Peggy, and this was going on I wanted to say that, and time was going by and I was still engaged in life. I said that old people are like everyone else. We need connection, we need love, we need intimate love.
David Remnick: The hand on the shoulder. there's sex the piece ends with in a sense life against all other things and--
Roger Angell: All odds against all odds. I wanted to say what was happening with me, which happens with other old people. All people fall in love. All people have love life, have intimate connections, have sex lives and people don't like to admit this, mostly their children, but--
David Remnick: Because they're somehow revolted by.
Roger Angell: Well, I think people are getting over this because it's now known. It's not something to be repelled by, it's something to be grateful for. This brings up something else, which I've noticed with writers that I've dealt with, writers that go on and on, or often go back as [unintelligible 00:11:37] go back to the same subjects again, and again he went back to his mother, to the sandstone field of farmhouse, to his father, to his teenage courting years, and did the same story really again and again, but much better each time with increased feeling. Some of the very best stories he wrote for us were at the very end. The same thing happened with another writer of mine that I edited over a period of 40 years VS Pritchett, great British writer in his middle '80s suddenly he got in this amazing hot street writing some of the greatest stories of his life.
I think that all of us do this at any age because we go basically go over the same material in our minds again and again, the stories that really mean a lot to us, and it's not we're trying to get them right. We're not trying to change the outcome, but we're trying to keep them or to say, was this the way it was and psychologists and experts on the subject say that this is what the memory is. It isn't just a defensive thing to protect us from falling out of a tree when the Tiger's passing by. It is a trying out of a scenario again and again, because it may be of use that's what memory is and this is why the same scenes recur. After I wrote scenes, a lot of this personal stuff I used to have dreams about or think about over and once I put them down, I got them published I don't think about them anymore. It's very strange, it goes away.
David Remnick: When you go back and read your earlier stuff, do you recognize it? Does it feel like you?
Roger Angell: Not the very early stuff. No. It feels like Hemingway.
David Remnick: [laughs] and can you relate it all to the decision like Philip Roth's to stop writing?
Roger Angell: Well, I haven't got there yet. I'm thinking I'm not blogging anymore because I don't think it's, my blogs are quite up to what they were.
David Remnick: I'll be the judge of that. Keep going.
Roger Angell: I don't want to stop. I like to have it still going on a little bit and then this way, once again, I think I'm extremely lucky. I'm 95 and still writing my goodness I'm startled and very happy.
David Remnick: I'm happy to be here with you always. Roger, thank you very much.
Roger Angell: Thanks. Thank you, David.
David Remnick: Roger Angell, who died last week at 101, our love and condolences to Roger's wife, Peggy Mormon, and to all of his family and friends.
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