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Writerland, Chapter 5: New Face at the Cool Kids' Table
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
The first thing you need to know about Cornelius Ryan is that he was not cool. Certainly not cool enough to be asked to sit at the cool kids’ table.
A generation ago, when the New Journalism was new and the self-appointed arbiter of cool, Tom Wolfe, was deciding which writers would make the cut for his New Journalism anthology, he surveyed the field with his co-author E.W. Johnson and began to pick his tablemates. Hunter S. Thompson? In. Norman Mailer? In. Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Joe Eszterhas, Gay Talese, Rex Reed? In. Rex Reed? The critic who asked movie stars if they slept in the nude? Really? Tom Wolfe? Why even ask.
Cornelius Ryan? Go sit with the chess club.
No matter that by 1964, Ryan’s “The Longest Day” had sold millions of copies around the world and been made into a movie that featured every single living male movie star. Not enough to clear the cool kids bar, which makes no sense except when you consider coolness from the perspective of what was then being celebrated across the new journalism landscape: style.
The people whom Wolfe wanted to hang with had flash. Zip. Pizzazz. And even if they weren’t given, like Wolfe, to flamboyant uses of punctuation – Q: How many exclamation marks are too many? A: There are never too many – their prose was in the new parlance of the moment, hip.
If you are thinking, Well that was then, when narrative journalism was in its early, heady days, you’d be wrong.
I remember not that many years ago judging feature writing for the National Magazine Awards and as we whittled the field down to the finalists, one of the other judges championed a story by a well-known writer. I had problems with the story, especially with the reporting, which felt lacking and close to suspect. I said as much. A fellow judge did not dismiss my concerns. But they did not trouble him. “But the writing is so stylish,” he replied.
I only wished I had a copy of “The Longest Day” to hurl across the room.
Learning just how cool Cornelius Ryan was, is akin to the feeling when you discover that you have found your life’s partner: this one is different; this one is going to last. What made Ryan cool was not the prose, per se. Rather, it was what the prose was in service of: conveying what he learned when he set out to report every known thought and fact experienced, felt and recalled by every man or woman he could find who happened to be at or in close proximity to Normandy on June 6th, 1944, beginning just after midnight. Every. Single. One.
Writers have always appropriated from one another, which is a nice way of saying stealing. Shakespeare borrowed from Ben Jonson who borrowed from Kit Marlowe. I went through a Jimmy Breslin Phase, and a J.P. Donleavy Phase and risked serious damage to my psyche when I tried to organize my notes into envelopes tacked to a cork board they way John McPhee did – unwise for nonlinear thinkers. But when it came to reporting, I felt no need to copy, except in learning how to file effective FOIA requests and other tricks of the best investigative reporters.
By the time I reacquainted myself with “The Longest Day” several years ago, I was well enough along in my career to understand that while my writing had reached a point where improvement would happen incrementally – this happens to all of us; your voice is your voice -- I recognized that I still had things to learn about reporting.
And what better Master Class to take than pouring through the notes of Cornelius Ryan.
Ryan, who died at 54 in 1974, had willed his papers to Ohio University, where the curator, Doug McCabe, told me that even decades after D-Day, it remained the most widely used collection in the library. McCabe offered to send me a sampling. What arrived in a thick manila envelope was a revelation.
Ryan, who was born in Ireland, had been a solid, if not necessarily flashy, professional; he’d covered the war for London’s The Daily Telegraph before emigrating to America, where he worked for Time and Newsweek. He wrote a couple of books, a good many magazine pieces and in 1957 pitched to the woefully uncool Readers Digest a D-Day reconstruction piece, focusing on the first couple of hours.
And then, to the benefit of every practicing and aspiring nonfiction storyteller, he kind of went nuts.
He began by posting personal ads in newspapers around the world, asking anyone who had been at Normandy on June 6th to send him a note. Thousands replied. He then sent to all those respondents a three-page questionnaire asking such questions as: Where did you land and at what time? What was the trip like during the crossing? Were you wounded? Do you remember what it was like?
One thousand one hundred and fifty people filled out his questionnaire and mailed them back. Ryan culled through the responses – “No pain, just stunned. Figured my brains were spilled all over my helmet…” wrote Lt. Donald Anderson of being wounded. From them, Ryan selected 172 people all over the world to be interviewed by him or his assistant.
The interviews themselves were a model for building a narrative: a series of small questions designed to elicit the details. Ryan was creating a mosaic, fashioned from the recollections of how people somehow made their way through the perils, terror, and occasional moments of unexpected humor of that day. He did not ask their opinions. He asked what they had for breakfast. And whether they were sick on the passage over the English Channel.
He was looking for characters. He was looking for little dramas from which he could build a vast one.
My favorite interview was with Captain Hellmuth Lang, adjutant to the German commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. As fate would have it, Rommel chose that day to return to Germany to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Ryan wanted to know what time they left, what kind of car they drove, the chauffeur’s name. He wanted to know what gift Rommel was bringing his wife.
Shoes, replied Lang.
Five and a half.
Put a pin in that one. Because right there you see what reporting for storytelling is all about. It is a slow, arduous, relentless process akin to filling a 55-gallon drum with an eye dropper. And when you are done, you have succeeded at doing what fiction writers do with their imaginations: you have created a universe, and filled it with people who, by dint of your small but revealing questions, you have set in motion.
When I say I found those notes revelatory I mean that they displayed how one, driven reporter who’d set out to do a modest magazine piece could end up so engrossed in the stories he was finding that he’d need a book to tell them. And even that book could not hold them all.
Ryan had gathered so much that he despaired of what to do with it all. “I do not know how I’m going to do this right now,” he wrote to his novelist wife.
But that decision was for another day, when the joy of reporting would finally, and perhaps reluctantly, have to come to an end.
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