Just about every columnist wants to write like Jimmy Breslin, the legendary wordsmith from Forest Hills — and those who don’t probably should, or maybe they should find another line of work.
Breslin writes exciting. He writes interesting. He writes real life. When Kennedy was assassinated, he famously interviewed the gravediggers. When he wanted to write about the mob, he hung out with mobsters. And when Son of Sam serial killer David Berkowitz wanted to write a letter to a newspaperman, even he in his insanity knew there was only one choice: Jimmy Breslin.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author sat down for an illuminating discussion of the craft of writing columns with several other journalists on “The PBS Newshour” in August 1998. The talk was prompted by columnist Mike Barnicle’s recent resignation from The Boston Globe amid then-allegations of plagiarism and inaccuracies.
Breslin is no stranger to controversy himself, having made news a number of times for a number of reasons, but no one’s ever accused him of plagiarism. He’s all original.
Asked what a reader has the right to expect from a columnist, he said hard work, hitting the streets, being out there to get the real story — and of course getting people’s names right.
“They don’t know, as they read somehting, that you have done a lot of walking around, a lot of interviewing, but they get the idea that someone cared enough to put some work into this piece they’re reading because the chemistry of the piece has work in it, and that’s the whole game,” he said.
He also said the worst thing a columnist can be is boring, calling it “a felony” if “your words are made out of balsawood,” and adding, “Your newspaper folds with boring people.”
Writer Tom Wolfe was one who recognized early on the value of the gritty, on-the-street work Breslin puts into his columns, lauding him as a leader of “the new journalism” in a piece for New York magazine.
“Breslin made a revolutionary discovery,” Wolfe said. “He made the discovery that it was feasible for a columnist to leave the building, go outside and do reporting on his own, actual legwork.”
Other columnists start with a few ideas they’ve had for a while and quickly run out steam, Wolfe said. Then they try to get ideas around the house, or from some book, or TV — and that’s when you know they’re done. “Without television shows to cannibalize, half of these people would be lost, utterly catatonic,” he said.
But not Breslin. And given how good he was from the start, some of the establishment was bothered by what the gumshoe guy from blue-collar Queens was writing:
“Breslin’s work stirred up a certain vague resentment among both journalists and literati during the first year or two of his column — vague, because they never fully understood what he was doing.”