By Dave Lieber www.yankeecowboy.com
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Columnist
Secretary, National Society of Newspaper Columnists Education Foundation
Suzette Martinez Standring underwent a career change in the 1990s, deciding to pursue her dream of becoming a newspaper columnist. She launched a column, joined the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, became a self-syndicator, acquired a base of several papers, organized the 2001 conference in San Francisco, and did such a good job that she was chosen as NSNC vice president.
By the time she became NSNC president, she had acquired enough contacts, heard plenty of columnist speakers and led enough conferences so that when a book publisher asked her to write a book on column writing, she knew she could do it. She wrote her book (the first on the subject to come out in a decade) and met her publisher’s deadline. In December, her book, “The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists,” was released by Marion Street Press.
Enter Alex Beam, Boston Globe Living columnist.
Before her book was released, Suzette mentioned her book project to Beam.
“Please send me a copy when it comes out,” Beam recalls telling Suzette. “I promise that I will cruelly mock it.”
Beam kept his promise.
(Before I go further, full disclosure: I was among the first buyers of her book, ordering 20 copies for the students at the high school newspaper where I work as volunteer adviser. I worked with Suzette when she was an NSNC officer, and I am also quoted in her book.)
In early January, Beam wrote a satirical piece about Suzette’s book for his Jan. 9 column. http://tinyurl.com/yppksg .
“There is plenty to mock here,” he wrote. “Pabulum,” he continued. “Bromides,” he added. Lots of opinions from columnists who “seem to have cycled through the National Society of Columnists, whatever that is.”
Among his criticisms, he noted that the book carried no mention of “Ambrose Bierce, the greatest columnist who ever lived.”
It was time to cruelly mock the cruel mocker.
* * *
In the previous installment of “you, the columnist,” in a piece on Bill O’Reilly, I urged that if you want to write about the big boys, you ought to speak to them in person before you write.
So I called Alex Beam. I wanted his office voice mail, but the phone number does not appear at the bottom of his column. So I called the Globe’s Living department and asked for his office phone number.
“I’m not sure he’s in,” a female clerk answered. “Can I give you his e-mail address?”
“No, I’m a newspaper columnist from Texas and . . . ”
“I don’t think he’s in right now.”
“Does he have voice mail?” I asked.
“Yes, but can I just give you his e-mail?”
“I’m kind of old-fashioned,” I said. “You can give me his e-mail, but I want to leave him a voice mail message and ask him to call me, too. Remember? That’s how we used to do it in the old days.”
I asked her three more times for his number; she rebuffed me three times. I hung up and went to the “Contact Us” page of the online Boston Globe. I found a phone number for “Jacob A. Beam.” I called the number, and within a few hours, the cruel mocker called me back.
I told him that I wanted to talk to him about his column. Is that possible?
His reply? “Yes, he says somewhat tentatively.”
It was at that moment that I learned that Alex Beam would be answering me in full-fledged quotes, even adding modifiers for me such as “somewhat tentatively” to set the mood of his quotes. And lo, he describes himself in the third person.
* * *
I began to cruelly mock. I teased that it is obvious he didn’t have a real column that day. So he wrote this. I knew, I commiserated, that every so often, the well runs dry and we have to pick on somebody else’s book for a cheap and easy column to fulfill our job requirements.
“Some people found the column amusing,” he corrected.
I told him that I knew he understood what it was like to be on the receiving end of a bad book review. I told him I found old book reviews of his books.
I started reading one aloud: “A mildly entertaining muddle that often relies too much on exaggeration.”
He stopped me cold:
“Sweetheart,” he said, “I’m going to interrupt you here. I’ve written three books. I’ve received a lot of reviews. I’m not going to direct you to positive reviews.”
One book won a nice award, he told me.
So I pointed him to his bio on the Globe‘s Web site, where it notes that his 2002 book “won at least two awards.”
Which is it? Two, three, how many?
“I didn’t write that,” he answered. “I could care less.”
He was losing patience with me. “Go on,” he said, pointing me to my next question.
I asked about Ambrose Bierce. I told him that I was sort of a columnist historian with a large collection of books and histories, who had written this column for The Columnist for a decade. But I didn’t know anything about him. (Sure, I could have looked him up before calling, but that would have removed the spontaneity of my question. I could have pretended I knew about him, but why bother? When you cruelly mock the cruel mocker, it never hurts to minimize something they care about. Sure, he might call me stupid, but think of the fun when you watch him blow his top).
Which he did.
He shouted into the phone: “You dare to call me? Are you out of your f-ckn’ mind?”
“I’ve heard the name,” I volunteered cheerfully.
“You’ve lost it,” he said. “Here I am politely answering your questions knowing full well you’ve got a little manure barbecue planned with your low-key Texas crap. And you dare? Are you kidding?”
His patience was about gone. “Move quickly to the next subject,” he ordered.
* * *
Some tips for you, the columnist, that I learned after my encounter with Jacob Alexander Beam:
1. Don’t call a fellow columnist, especially one you’ve just met, “Sweetheart,” no matter what stupid question he asked you.
2. Tell the clerk in your office that it’s OK if they give out your phone number; indeed, print it on the bottom of your column. Readers communicate to writers in different ways. A 21st century columnist should be accessible to readers with barriers removed.
3. Learn about Ambrose Bierce as soon as possible.
Dave Lieber, a former NSNC board member, writes you, the columnist for the society’s e-newsletter and also for www.columnists.com. His Web site is www.yankeecowboy.com.