Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, native New Yorkers, veteran newspaper reporters, and winners of many awards together and separately, now write for The New York Times. Dwyer is co-author of Two Seconds Under the World, an account of the 1993 effort to knock down the World Trade Center, and of Actual Innocence: Five Days to Execution and Other Dispatches from the Wrongly Convicted. He is also the author of Subway Lives: 24 Hours in the Life of the New York City Subway. Flynn, a special projects editor at the Times, was the newspaper's police bureau chief on September 11. He previously worked as a reporter for the New York Daily News, New York Newsday, and the Stamford Advocate.
Author biography courtesy of Henry Holt and Company.
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In the fall of 2005, Jim Dwyer & Kevin Flynn took some time out to tell us about some of their favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. To a 12-year-old, the journey of the Dust Bowl people was a revelation. My parents were immigrants who settled in New York, and I suppose the Joads' struggle to make another place in the world for themselves was especially captivating. For the first time, it seemed that a writer not only could invent a world but could put his shoulder against real places and make a difference.
Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, for its ability to vividly re-create the past without rewriting history.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain -- Nothing else will do.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee -- The characters are charged with life; the memory voice of Scout is perfectly pitched; the eye is so sharp. More than 35 years after I first read it, the Finches, the Radleys, the Cunninghams, the Ewells, and Sheriff Heck Tate all feel like people from my own childhood.
Herzog by Saul Bellow -- The exuberance of Herzog's collapse never slows: It's as if you are on a brick that's falling from the sky, and you are riding him down, not with a sense of doom but with exhilaration.
The Known World by Edward P. Jones -- The plot concerns a black slaveholder, before the Civil War; the real action is about moral transactions, how the soul is bartered when flesh is sold.
Political Fictions -- All writing on politics as fable should be this trustworthy.
The American Journey of Eric Sevareid by Raymond A. Schroth -- In the life of this mostly forgotten broadcaster -- a physically and morally brave man, whether covering wars or bullies -- you get to see the American century at high tide.
The Spirit Level by Seamus Heaney -- Just to pick one volume by Seamus Heaney, at random: a steady, wise, accessible voice.
The Lives of a Cell by Lewis R. Thomas -- A book that put the "bio" into biology writing: the long lens that saw the cell and the planet in the same glance, almost as the same form.
How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman -- Because the writer is not a tyrant about ingredients.
Flynn:The Hardy Boys series, by the conglomerate known as Franklin W. Dixon, which were my first chapter books.
Don Quixote by Cervantes, for its modern comic sense.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding, for its insight into human nature.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, for its perspective.
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, for its adventure.
Collected Poems, 1909-1962, by T. S. Eliot, for their music.
Janson's History of Art by Anthony and H. W. Janson, for its visual vocabulary.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, for its journey.
Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey, for its gentleness.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
In Witness by Peter Weir, one sequence involves an Amish community building a barn, helped by a Philadelphia detective who is on the run from assassins. For seven minutes, not a word of dialogue is spoken, but all the subplots are captured in gestures and glances. It's a good, strong movie. The power of that wordless stretch floored me.
One of most extraordinary films I've ever seen is Pretend -- a small, independent movie by Julie Talen. It is the story of two little girls who create a fake kidnapping scheme, trying to keep their squabbling parents from splitting up. It goes terribly wrong.
The story is very strong -- the mythic qualities of a fairy tale -- and the telling is magical. You see three, four, sometimes five screens of the narrative at a time: the parents arguing, the children observing. One kid hiding, another one skipping along the road. The technique of multiple perspectives simultaneously running on the screen feels novel only for an instant, then becomes perfectly natural -- it makes other storytelling seem diluted.
The Crying Game -- Neil Jordan
Northwest Passage -- Spencer Tracy
The Great Escape -- Steve McQueen
Robin Hood -- Errol Flynn
Harry Potter -- Quidditch
Bye Bye Birdie -- Ann-Margret
Birdy -- Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage
School of Rock -- Jack Black
Rear Window -- Alfred Hitchcock
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Van Morrison. Springsteen. Michael P. Smith. Beth Orton. Anne Hills. The Rolling Stones. Paul Simon. Eva Cassidy. Nancy LaMott. Eileen Ivers.
Neil Young, the Chieftains, and the Temptations.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Start early. Skip the newspapers in the morning. Steer clear of the computer for the first draft (the Internet was devised by the serpent to provide endless distraction). When taking a break, always leave instructions on where to pick up -- on the thought or episode that comes next. I play the same music over and over.
And I find that having a bank overdraft statement on the desk helps to focus the wandering mind.
I like the music off and the heat on. I organize material on a checklist, write an outline from the checklist, do a quick write-through for flow and then a second, slower draft for fact-checking and polish. I find that I talk to myself a lot.
What are you working on now?
I'm a reporter with The New York Times, so I'm covering a variety of stories -- most recently, I was in Louisiana for a few weeks on Hurricane Katrina.
Back to newspaper work. I am editing special projects.
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