The Stephen Rodrick interview

May 23, 2013

Stephen Rodrick's "The Magical Stranger: A Son's Journey Into His Magical Life," explores the life of his father, a Navy pilot who died when his plane crashed into the ocean, through the lens of current members of his dad's former squadron as he traveled with them on their aircraft carrier. You may also know him as the New York Times author of "Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie," the fascinating look at...well, you can figure it out. He is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor for Men's Journal and his work has been anthologized  in The Best American Sports Writing, The Best American Crime Writing and The Best American Political Writing. He has also written for New York, Rolling Stone, GQ, and The New Republic. Chicagoans, you can watch him speak Thursday at Northwestern and later at the Boarding House, so check him out.

I know a lot of people in the book opted not to read it until it came out, but how much did you feel compelled to alert about what you would publishing about them?
Not as many as you'd think. Most of my family members and the guys in the Navy said "Write what you see." That was incredibly freeing. The only person who got a pre-read was my Mom and we worked out her problems with it, that wasn't easy, but we got through it.

Why now?
My dad's plane, the EA-6B Prowler was finally being retired. It was my Dad's plane. If I was going to follow his old plane with his final squadron it had to be now. So that was a great motivator.

In an interview with the Awl you discuss your initial efforts to sell the story, which were unsuccessful. As a magazine writer I imagine you have a lot of experience pitching stories: what’s the difference when it’s your own life, both in terms of the pitch and how you feel if it gets passed on?
Actually, I wasn't unsuccessful. I sent in my proposal, my agent slapped a cover page on it and we had an auction a few days later. The editor I mentioned passed on it, but there were other offers on the table thank goodness. We sent it out to probably seven or eight places, some passed, some didn't. The different in pitching this versus a magazine piece is I knew what I wanted to do and was prepared to take less money from a place that would let me tell the story as I wanted it to be written. That isn't always possible in magazines.

What are some of the biggest real-life cliches about living on an aircraft carrier?
The noise. You can not imagine how loud the flight deck is. You can not imagine how a catapult launch will nearly shake you out of your bunk. There is noise everywhere and all the time.

What’s one (or two or three) things you wished you had packed for carrier life that you hadn’t?
I wished I'd packed ear plugs and more clothes. Trying to do laundry on a boat with 5,000 men and women was a real "Lord of the Flies" experience.

In that Awl interview you talk about the parallels between being a military kid and the transience of a magazine writer’s life. For someone considering doing what you do, what tips do you have for making it easier to pick up and move quickly to a new story and location?
An understanding spouse. If you don't have a partner who is independent enough to survive when you're gone 10 weeks of the year, it's going to be tough. And try to park yourself in a place where stories are happening all around. If you're in Chicago, stay in Chicago. Plenty of great stories here.

I’m curious how you pitched the Lindsay Lohan story to your editor at the Times, because while it was a story about Lindsay Lohan and what a mess she is, obviously it was much more than that. 

It was really simple: Lindsay Lohan. Bret Easton Ellis. Paul Schrader. The porn star next door. Complete access. That story was green-lighted in about ten minutes. That is the exact opposite of most pitches and it was because I knew Schrader a little and I emailed him directly and didn't have to go through a squadron of publicists. Lohan's people balked, but Schrader insisted to his everlasting credit.

How much do you hold on to grudges when it comes to stories you’ve pitched and believed in, that got killed? Are there any that you still lament didn’t see the light of day?
I try not to bear grudges, but there is a certain pain when you see your idea at another magazine simply because you couldn't convince your editor of the idea. It doesn't get easier as you get old. I did a story on Wilmette native Julia Allison who was basically internet famous for no real reason. It got killed by New York and I place it elsewhere. I think it's one of my best profiles and it's a bummer it didn't reach a larger audience

Which athletes, either who you’ve profiled or you’ve just followed as a fan, do you think have established some of the best post-athletic-career lives and careers?
That's a good question. Many of the players I written about—Brett Favre, Riddick Bowe, Dennis Rodman—has struggled mightily in retirement. Grant Hill is retiring this year. I suspect he will do great things

What are some of your favorite pieces of creative nonfiction?
Updike's "Hub Fans Bid The Kid Adieu." Anything by Julian Barnes. The flying stuff by James Salter is the best.
 

How does it feel to be the 350th person interviewed for Zulkey.com/WBEZ?
Grateful and unworthy.

Follow Claire Zulkey @Zulkey You can find previous Zulkey.com interviews here.