J. R. Moehringer has an old-fashioned flair for infusing potentially hard-boiled subject matter with humanity and pathos. This gift was first evident in "Resurrecting the Champ," an article which originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine. The article detailed Moehringer's attempts to track down former boxing champ "Battlin'" Bob Satterfield. However, percolating just beneath the surface of this "where-are-they-now" sports story was an issue much closer to Moehringer's heart: the gnawing need to locate the father that abandoned him as a boy. The resulting story not only became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, but it also gained the attention and accolades of everyone from Chris Jones of Esquire to Katie Couric of The Today Show.
With the publication of Moehringer's first book, it is clear that his journey remains ongoing. The Tender Bar is a memoir that finds Moehringer digging deeper into his own past with yet another decidedly masculine backdrop, the local tavern. Moehringer writes about Dickens Bar in Manhasset, Long Island, with a rhapsodic affection that conjures a setting more akin to a family living room than a haven for drunken carousing and televised ball games. He portrays the various barflies as colorful fountains of homespun wisdom, reserving a special fondness for Steve, the owner of Dickens who provided a sanctuary for the drunks in Moehringer's neighborhood. In fact, in the wake of the meltdown at Three-Mile Island in 1979, several patrons even called Steve to find out if they could use the airtight basement of Dickens as a makeshift fallout shelter.
Moehringer found his own sanctuary at Dickens at a young age, long before he could even utilize the pub for its intended purpose. Instead, he found a home where the various rummies served as stand-ins for his absent father, who is merely a phantom-like presence in the book. He speaks of his disc jockey dad as a disembodied voice over the radio, and young Moehringer spent many hours with a radio pressed against his ear in a futile attempt to connect with the father that left him. However, at Dickens, Moehringer found a group of men who welcomed the boy into their world and supplied him with their own brand of woozy fathering. Colorful characters with names like Colt and Joey D. (not to mention Moehringer's own Uncle Charlie) guided him through his young life, functioning as the various components of the male role model he so desperately needed.
As Moehringer grew older and faced challenges that he never dreamed of as a boy, Dickens would continue to serve its chief function for him as a refuge with a built-in ramshackle family. The Tender Bar is no mere sugar-coated tale of drunks with hearts-of-gold, though, and the sweetness is often underlined with the bitter realities of both bar life and modern life. The story's climax set on September 11th, 2001, plants the fantasy world at Dickens firmly and tragically back into Earth.
The complexity and pure readability of The Tender Bar certainly has not escaped critics, whom are already hailing this memoir as "funny, vivid, and clever" (The Washington Post) and recognizing that "listening to Moehringer's soothing voice is like basking in the glow of a barroom storyteller-not the one who shouts to be heard over the din, but the one whose story is good enough to make everyone keep it down." (Publisher's Weekly).
Moehringer has assuredly survived the ups and downs of his unconventional upbringing, winning the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2000, and continuing to work as a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. With the highly praised publication of The Tender Bar he may very well find himself playing a role for his own readers not unlike that of his boozy benefactors back at Dickens: a storyteller with a gift for making the world seem a little less lonely.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Moehringer:
"I have a weakness for really bad TV. The badder, the better. Particularly reality TV."
"I care way too much how the Mets are going to do this year."
"Some years ago I started taking cello lessons. Learning to play had been a dream for years. But my job, and my book, and my utter lack of talent, sidetracked me. This year I'll take up my cello again, not only to unwind but to better understand the rigors and rewards of ‘practice.' Maybe if I publicly declare my goal, here and now, I'll feel added pressure to stay with it this time...."
"I'm blessed by friends. The ancient philosophers thought friendship the cornerstone of happiness, so I never miss an opportunity to give thanks for the people who make me laugh, kick me in the pants, and steer me clear of the jagged rocks with their sage advice. Without Sloan and Roger Barnett, Jim Newton, Emily Nunn, Amy Wallace, Bill Husted, et al., The Tender Bar wouldn't exist and my life would be many shades dimmer. To know me is to love them."
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What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
The Stories of John Cheever. I discovered Cheever when I was a teenager and it was a lovely shock to my system. Here was a writer who possessed all the best qualities of my two heroes. He combined Hemingway's carved sentences and deep regard for the "masculine" virtues with Fitzgerald's wistfulness and poeticism. Also, Cheever's characters lived in my world, the suburbs of Manhattan, and like no one else he evoked that world's romance and poignancy -- the epic drinking, the lonely trains, the heartbreaking autumns. I fell headfirst into his collection of stories. I read it over and over, and still reread it regularly, for comfort, for pleasure, for inspiration, for instruction.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- The Greatest American Novel. Ethereal language, universal themes, vivid characters, a haunting sense of the past as the thing to which we're all relentlessly drawn -- it's as close to a perfect book as I've ever encountered.
A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr -- A novella that says in fewer than 150 pages what others try to say in five times that many. A story about art, love, and trauma, and the courage it takes to survive all three. Told in a voice of great dignity and kindness.
A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley -- A "fictional memoir" about drinking, rooting, tomcatting, and the insanity of trying to write a book. Despite its cult following, still an underrated classic. Exley was a tortured soul, but hammered his torment into rare gold. The language is rich, luscious, and both invites and defies imitation.
The Stories of John Cheever -- See above.
The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (Finca Vigia Edition) -- I love The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast, but I think Hemingway was at his magnificent best in the short stories. The economy, the compression, the toughness. Also, nearly all the writers these stories spawned and inspired, from Richard Yates to Raymond Carver, are on my personal Mount Rushmore.
Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, (1st and 2nd series) -- Instantly calming and uplifting. Can be read as philosophy, poetry, memoir, religion, self-help -- or prophecy. And I know of no book that's better at three o'clock in the morning.
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter -- Some of the most perfect sentences and scenes ever written. With apologies to Henry James, Salter is The Master. (And he's forgotten more about sex than James ever knew.)
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- Brilliant, courageous, linguistically breathtaking -- and so damned funny. One of the greatest novels, in any language, of all time.
The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling -- The greatest book ever written about boxing, by the second greatest writer ever to work at The New Yorker.
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell -- Brilliant portraits, essays by the greatest writer ever to work at The New Yorker, including his two masterpieces about a shape-shifting homeless man named Professor Seagull, a.k.a. Joe Gould.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Casablanca -- The perfect movie. The Great Gatsby of movies.
Cinema Paradiso -- The most poignant film I've seen (with apologies to the much-loved You Can Count on Me) about a fatherless boy and his surrogate father. The last frames, with the soaring musical score, are devastatingly beautiful.
Midnight Run An underrated classic. DeNiro frowns and fumes and drops the F-bomb like so many men I knew growing up. And Charles Grodin is his ideal straight man. Wish they'd worked together more.
All the President's Men -- Half the reason I became a newspaper reporter.
Reds -- The other half of the reason I became a newspaperman. Biopic of Jack Reed, American journalist who covered the 1917 Russian Revolution. Starring Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill -- wow.
Three Days of the Condor -- A thinking person's spy movie. Robert Redford as an unwitting CIA agent whose job is to read books -- a job he does too well....
The Godfather -- Because it's The Godfather.
Glengarry Glen Ross -- David Mamet + Jack Lemmon + a career-making cameo by a young Alec Baldwin -- and still Al Pacino steals the movie with his ‘80s haircut and shiny suits and crazy philosophizing. A great look at how men would rather die than lose.
Penny Serenade -- Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are as classic and well-matched as Tracy/Hepburn or Bogey/Bacall. If you can make it dry-eyed through the scene in which Grant pleads for the judge not to take away his daughter, you're made of stronger stuff than I.
The Verdict -- Brilliant Mamet screenplay; Paul Newman in The Zone; and James Mason as the evil opposing counsel is like a crocodile in a necktie.
Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid -- Best screenplay ever written; best movie ever for both Newman and Redford; and what's not to like about Katharine Ross?
Hannah and Her Sisters -- Woody Allen's botched suicide attempt and subsequent reaffirmation of life while watching the Marx Brothers is one of my favorite film moments. Plus, Max Von Sydow, Michael Caine, Diane Weise, the Pageant Book Shop -- so much to love about this movie.
Groundhog Day -- So silly and charming that you run the risk of overlooking how deep its message is.
The Best Years of our Lives -- Tender and extremely literate depiction of soldiers coming home from WW II. Virtuoso performances from Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, and especially Harold Russell, a real-life vet who lost both hands in an explosion during the last days of the war. His scenes are even harder to watch when you know that in 1992 he would become the first Oscar winner ever to sell his statue. He auctioned it off to pay for his dying wife's medical expenses.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
All kinds. Everything. Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Indigo Girls, David Wilcox, The Thorns, Frank Sinatra, Mellencamp, Springsteen. I don't usually listen to music while writing, but when I do I prefer Old School jazz (Miles, Basie, Ellington, Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins, et al.) and Mozart/Bach.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
The Sot-Weed Factor, by John Barth, because it's what I'm reading now, and because it's genius. So raunchy, so funny, it would be great fun to discuss/read aloud in a group. Also, in some places the plot is confusing, and it might be nice to have other people help unravel the twists and characters.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Signed first editions and coffee-table art books
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Tacked above my desk are photos of artists I admire -- Hopper, Sargent, Twain -- and postcards from beloved bookstores where I've spent all my time and money -- Tattered Cover, Elliot Bay, Harvard Bookstore. Also, favorite quotes about writing/fear from W. B. Yeats and Thomas Hornsby Ferrill, long-forgotten Colorado poet from the ‘30s.
What are you working on now?
Newspaper stories for my employer, the Los Angeles Times. Narratives that will run later this year. One about a Los Angeles poet/novelist, Dan Fante, son of John Fante, great writer from the ‘30s. The other is in its embryonic stage, too early to talk about....
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I've been trying to write a book since before I was old enough to vote, and I've collected many rejection slips from publishers and magazines. I used to keep them all stuck to my refrigerator, with magnets, but an ex-girlfriend told me they were depressing, and defeatist, and suggested I take them down. A very wise suggestion on her part.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I'm a big fan of the poet Mary Jo Salter, and although she doesn't need to be discovered at all -- she's widely admired and anthologized and extremely accomplished -- I wish she were a household name.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
All the same tips that were given to me along the way. Write every day, never give up, it's supposed to be difficult, try to find some pleasure and reward in the act of writing, because you can't look for praise from editors, readers, or critics. In other words, tips that are much easier to give than to take.
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