Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Book hung heavily over St. Norbert president

Thomas Kunkel, president of St. Norbert College_-3857452535655543722

PHOTO: Thomas Kunkel, president of St. Norbert College and author of a new biography, poses at a bookshelf in his office on campus in De Pere. Warren Gerds photo

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – Hold this thought: Memos.

Thomas Kunkel is in the unusual position at the moment – college president/author. ’Twas a long and winding road to get there.

This is the second half of a feature on the process. The first half is here: http://www.wearegreenbay.com/story/d/story/critic-at-large/23170/1fHYMMMOEEWG0LThGtHx4Q). This time, we delve more into the making of “Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker” (Random House) and explore other topics with which Kunkel has expertise, such as newspapers and the ties between St. Norbert College and the Green Bay Packers in a national academic conference.

Kunkel has been president of St. Norbert College in De Pere since 2008.

Here are edited excerpts from an interview that took place in Kunkel’s office. In some cases, the vernacular is kept in. Responses are by topics.

Jumping out of and back into writing the book.

It’s terrible. It’s horrible. There’s so much stuff that comes into a president’s office anyway. My mind is easily diverted. My mind, I feel, is more Swiss cheese than brain anymore. Stuff goes in and out. I knew I was going to have interviews coming up now with the publication on the precipice, so I had to sit down and re-read this stupid book almost to refresh my memory about, “Oh yeah, she died then.” It’s not the sort of thing where two of your appointments fall through in an afternoon, you can go, “Oh, I’ll pick my book up for 90 minutes, and I’ll work on that.” Say you’re working on a section about Joe Mitchell during World War II, well, you’ve got to go back into your files and refresh your memory of all the details that you know about Joe during World War II and then, “Oh yeah, I forgot that,” and it’s terrible, just terrible. It’s a wildly inefficient way to write a book. The way to do it is just get steeped in it, go somewhere where you’re just living it again, with no other distractions. The way I did it was the worst possible way to go about writing a book, but I didn’t have any choice. That was all I could do.

Committing to the book.

The tipping point came four to five years ago. There were several times when I actually went back to Random House and just said, “In fairness to you, I just don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this. I literally don’t know if I’m going to be able to find the time to write this book.” I had an advance. It wasn’t a huge advance. I said, “It’s not about the money, I’m happy to send the money back. In all honesty, this is the situation.” And several times they said, “We’d still like you to be able to do the book if you can, don’t worry about the time.” And that’s when I decided. I felt like I had a moral obligation. It wasn’t just a professional obligation to myself and to Random House to fulfill my contract, although that was part of it. It was really more a moral obligation to the Mitchell family and the people who had been closest to him who had been so helpful to me and maybe, in helping me, maybe even told other people who were interested, “Well, I know you’re interested in doing this book, but there’s somebody who we’re already working with.” There’s just a lot of things. I said, “Well, then I have to try.” And if I tried, if I had written the first half of the book and Random House said, “You know, this doesn’t strike us as particularly good,” at that point I probably would have said, “All right, well, then we’ll just call it a day.” But they were very encouraged by it. They were very complimentary. So then, well, “Let’s try to finish it.” I was only able to do it, though, because I had the great support of a ton of people. The college knew when I came to St. Norbert that I had a book under way. Everybody here has always been very gracious and considerate if I needed to take a long weekend to finish something. Certainly my family. My wife and my now grown children kind of lived with Joe Mitchell for a decade, and there were times when I was probably spending time with Joe Mitchell, if you will, when they might have appreciated that I was spending the time with them. But that’s the way writing is. Any family of a writer can tell you about that.

Some challenges.

In the beginning, the question was, Was it just going to take too long to get enough of the material? Joe was a pack rat, and he left behind 80 or 90 boxes of stuff. Some of it was important, journal kind of stuff and records. But a lot of it was just stuff, like magazines that he thought were interesting. He belonged to the Gypsy Lore Society, so he had a whole box full of journals of the Gypsy Lore Society. It was all stuffed in a midtown Manhattan storage facility. It took awhile working with his executor to, first, just get access to the material to see what was there, and that took several years. And then, even when I got to that point, I still needed to write it, and by then I had become the president of St. Norbert College. And then I just didn’t know whether there was ever going to be enough time to really be able to do the writing. That was really the only question. I really wanted to write it, for my sake, for the record’s sake. I really wanted to write it for the sake of Joe’s family, and they have been very gracious with their time, and I knew they were looking forward to having a biography of this important member of their family. I didn’t want to let anybody down, but I just didn’t know whether I was going to be able to do it. (Eventually) I took about two years where every available spare moment where I could get two or three days to get away, I did. That’s what I was doing. I was writing – trying to write – chunks of this book.

Walking the tightrope of writing about a gifted writer.

I do worry about it. But I worry about it less than the first book I wrote (on Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker). I was nervous for two reasons. One is that I had never written a book before. I had done plenty of writing, but I never wrote a book before. The other thing I was nervous about was, if you’re going to be writing about the New Yorker, which is known for, among other things, a very high level of writing quality, you’re going to want it to be well written and not have people think that some hack is out there writing about this. The whole point of writing about the New Yorker is it was and it remains an influential shaper of American arts and letters. People seemed to like the first book; nobody said, “Why is this hack writing about the New Yorker?” So I was a little less worried about that with Joe Mitchell. But I do have to say that one of the reasons that Joe Mitchell endures is because he’s just a wonderful writer. Like all great writers, he writes about things that are timeless. He writes about the human condition, he writes about life and loss and emotion and all these things – and he writes about them beautifully. He’s got a style that’s very distinctly Joe Mitchell. He’s very elegant. So you do feel pressure to the best you can be in terms of writing about Joe, but you have to be true to yourself. I mean, I have to be the best Tom I can be in that situation. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to, even unconsciously, try to be doing a Joe Mitchell impression, if you will. At the same time, you’re trying to fit your style to your subject and to spend a little time. I think the most important thing about this book, or any book if you’re writing about another person, is you have to have some basic competence that you understand them. Not necessarily even from a psychological standpoint, but do I get why this person was the way they were, why they were interested in the things they were, why they did the things they did, why they chose to do this rather than that. I did feel going into the Ross book that I had a fairly fundamental sense, as one editor writing about another editor, why he did what he did. With Joe, I did have a sense why he did what he did, why he pursued the things that he did, why he didn’t pursue some of the things he didn’t pursue and even why he stopped writing. So I had a fundamental comfort level with that. But at end of the day, all you can do is the best you can do and put it out there and then the world will decide whether you had any business doing it or not.

Audience for “Man in Profile.”

(Kunkel resides in the Midwest, tucked away in the Upper Midwest, where for many people The New Yorker magazine is an unknown or exotic. So does the audience lie east?)

I would think that the biggest audiences for this book are probably going to be more East Coast than anything. But there will be a fair amount of interest in North Carolina (Mitchell’s home state, with which he continually connected), there’ll be a fair amount of interest in and around New York, there’ll be a large amount of interest among anybody who’s interested in The New Yorker as a subject – and that’s an audience that’s all over the world; The New Yorker itself literally distributes all around the world. And then there’s anybody who’s still a fan of Joe Mitchell, even though Joe’s not with us anymore. When they brought his book out, “Up in the Old Hotel,” in 1992, it not only was a wonderful thing for the people who read Mitchell in The New Yorker when he was writing in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, but it also created whole new audiences for Joe Mitchell’s work. One of the things we found in Joe’s material is that he had started a memoir. He wrote three chapters of the memoir, and then he stopped. It’s one of the things he started and then stopped. The New Yorker published those three chapters. They staggered them. The most recent was about two months ago. I think anybody who’s seriously interested in American letters, certainly American nonfiction and creative journalism – those are all audiences as well. By the time you put into so many hours on a project like this, you basically have worked at much less than minimum wage. You don’t write books about people like Joe Mitchell to make tons of money. It’s just something you do for the love of the subject and to keep yourself creative as a professional. Those are the reasons to do it. If people buy it, great.

A visit from David Maraniss.

(A Wisconsin product, Maraniss is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and author of such biographies as “When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi,” the legendary Green Bay Packers coach who started the team’s connection to St. Norbert College).

I have a tremendous regard for David, and we got to be somewhat friendly when we invited him to be our commencement speaker in 2011. And he was wonderful. We started comparing notes. We didn’t know each other, but we know a lot of people in common because he’s been connected to the Washington Post for many years and I know a ton of people there. We’ve worked with a lot of people ourselves, not all together, but a lot of the people he’s worked with I’ve worked with, too, in other capacities. So we have a common frame of reference. He was in the middle of his book on President Obama, and I was talking to him about the work I was doing on Joe Mitchell. He was very keen about that, and I knew that he would be certainly interested in helping me with a blurb or something if I ever got the darned thing done. So he was very gracious about that. He’s a fan.

Copyright and the biography writer.

(A topic precipitated by conversation about Maraniss).

Oh, my word. So I wrote the book about Harold Ross, and it came out in 1995. So it’s been this book and the first book I wrote, and just in that small amount of time the lengths that one needs to go to acquire copyright and, more to the point, the concern that the publishers have about copyright and copyright protection, has dramatically increased. It was very interesting. I completely support copyright protection. As a writer and creative person, this is the protection that we have for creative work. But as a journalist I’m very familiar with fair use. It’s just been interesting how the publishers over the years with lawsuits and things like that have gotten much stricter about things that I wouldn’t have had to worry about getting permission to use, like a letter or part of a letter, 20 years ago. Today, they want you to make every effort to bend over backwards, at least show that you tried to get something that could be considered copyright. Any writer of nonfiction will tell you it’s just a pain, partly because you’ve worked so hard to just get the darn thing written and you feel like, yes, I’m done. We yet have to edit it, but I’m kind of done. And then you get into what I call the mule work – oh my word. That’s challenging. It’s acquiring photographs, getting permissions (and proof there of) and sometimes it’s expensive. I use a letter from Lincoln Schuster in the book, where the publisher had written Joe Mitchell about trying to get him to write a book about old Mr. Flood. So I cite most of that telegram that he wrote to Joe Mitchell, but I needed to get the permission from Simon and Schuster to use that telegram. That was certainly appropriate, but that cost me. And they you have to think, “Well, is it worth…? (an unspoken figure)” There was another instance where I cited something from the Herald Tribune, but the rights to the material from the Herald Tribune are now conveyed to the New York Times; they purchased that when the Herald Tribune went out of business. The Times wanted to charge me something like $300 to cite 200 words. It wasn’t worth it. I ended up just indirectly quoting it or something. You just have to make these decisions, but 20 years ago I don’t think that would have even been and issue. So it’s kind of a pain in the neck. But it’s important. Not only does Random House want to be protected, but they are sort of trying to make sure that you’re protected. It’s for your own good, which is true. But it’s a pain. And when you are writing about people who are long dead, many other people who might have been able to tell you who holds the copyright are long dead, too. Each one of these things turns into little detective stories, which is charming in one way and really a pain in the neck. There’s no great volume out there that says for everybody in the world who’s got copyrighted material, here are the people who hold the permissions. I wish there was, but there’s not.

Updated thoughts on newspapers.

(Along with working on newspapers and heading a university’s journalism department, Kunkel edited these: “Breach of Trust: A Crisis of Coverage in the Age of Corporate Newspapering,” with Gene Roberts, University of Arkansas Press, 2002; “Leaving Readers Behind: The Age of Corporate Newspapering,” with Gene Roberts and Charles Layton, University of Arkansas Press, 2001).

Well, I will just say that as much as I loved being in the newspaper business that I’m just has happy not to be in it today. I think we have a paradoxical situation on our hands where there’s never been more information out there, but there’s less real news than in several generations. That’s just a shame, but it’s nobody’s fault. It’s the nature of this disrupted media environment that the old models of newsgathering and news organization have just been blown up. It’s very exciting. If I was 20 again, I actually think I would probably be very keen about going into the news business, in part because you can re-imagine news and re-invent news in a way that we couldn’t when we were starting. We knew what the model was and within that model we would do the best we could, but we couldn’t re-invent. That’s different now. But the flip side of that is you’re never going to be able to go to a Green Bay Press-Gazette or a Channel 5 or whatever and honestly expect that you’re going to be able to spend your whole career doing a similar kind of work the whole time. That paradigm doesn’t exist anymore. The single biggest worry I have is that, because of how things are shaking out, public-interest journalism is eroding by the day. There are whole big chunks of Washington, D.C., that have nobody from the media paying attention. There are whole significant city halls out there that nobody’s really paying attention. It’s interesting. When you’re running around and you’re talking to mayors and they’re bemoaning the fact that the media is not paying attention to them, that’s telling you something. Usually mayors are not dying (chuckles) to have the media nosing around their business, but the fact is these public officials know full well that it’s a sad thing if the fourth estate is not paying attention. I think it’s a bad business. I think we’ll come out of the tunnel at some point, but I think there will be new models out there that will get established that will help us get back into a world where there is an outside validation, a check on whoever is responsible for public policy and governing. But right now, I think we’re paying a heavy price for this disrupted news media environment. And I think it’s a big part of the reason that we’re looking at the government dysfunction that we are. I think we all have a lot to answer for.

“A Mirror of Our Culture: Sport and Society in America.”

(St. Norbert College and the Green Bay Packers host an academic conference by that name at the campus and Lambeau Field. Keynote speakers have included the commissioners of the National Football League and Major League Baseball. Question: Putting it on – Fun? Fascinating? Challenging?)

It is all those things. We are working with the Packers as we speak. We’ve been doing this every other year. This is the off year, but we’re working hard to start pulling together the framework for the conference that we will be doing in May of 2016. The planning still is in the works, but we are tentatively thinking about the theme of that being the business of college sports – all the things that are happening in terms of the big business of college sports: Should athletes be paid, what about the disparity between the huge big-sports schools and other schools, what are the ethics of a history professor making $50,000 a year and a football coach making $5 million a year and just the general health of all this sort of thing. And the social indications, the March Madness situation where the NCAA has got a contract with CBS where it’s taking in a billion dollars. I think it’s going to be a really, really interesting conference. But we’re just so thrilled. There’s probably no other pro franchise in America or the world where a college can throw in with them and do something like a conference that looks at this aspect of sports and society. It’s because the Packers are who they are and, frankly, because of the leadership of Mark Murphy (Packers president and CEO). Mark is a highly educated person and was an athletic director at Northwestern and Colgate, so he’s just all about it. We feel very fortunate and honored that the Packers are so supportive of this.

How the conference started.

The genesis of the idea was with Mike Marsden, who was the academic dean at St. Norbert for six or seven years. Mike had had this notion for some time. Mike’s discipline is popular culture. He’s always had this notion. Here we are in Green Bay, what a great opportunity this would be, if… He had floated the idea, and it hadn’t really gone anywhere. So when I got here, he talked about it, and I liked the idea also. By that time, I had new leadership here and Mark had come in at the Packers, and he was intellectually predisposed to like this anyway. So fairly quickly, within my first year, we had broached them, and they were all about it. Each time we do it, we assess. We sort of see, Do we like how it’s going? Are we talking about the things that we think people want to talk about? What’s the interest? What’s the interest in the academic community? What’s the interest in the sports community? What’s the interest in the larger community here? And we felt really good about it. It’s unlike any other thing that, certainly the academics, ever are exposed to. It’s not only the thrust of the conference, but to be here in Green Bay. For many of the participants to be able to go to Lambeau as part of the conference is a huge positive part of the experience. We’re just delighted. We do think that college has a big responsibility to a wider community, and in this case not just the wider community of De Pere/Green Bay, but the wider academic community. We feel like it’s something that we can do because of who we are and where we are and our relationship with the Packers that nobody else can really do. So what a privilege.

Ahead, as a writer.

(Kunkel responds to the oft-asked question of authors: What are you going to write next?)


Because I review a broad range of performances, professional and amateur, and because of the tremendous range of production budgets, I have decided to forego putting star ratings on performances. You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air segments on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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