How To Write About Tragedy And/Or Lindsay Lohan: Advice From Stephen Rodrick

by Michelle Dean

The Rodrick Family in 1972

Stephen Rodrick, a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, of late best known for the single best story on Lindsay Lohan ever, has a new book out today called The Magical Stranger: A Son’s Journey Into His Father’s Life. His father, Commander Peter Rodrick, died in 1979 when his Prowler crashed into the ocean. The book traces the aftermath of his father’s death for his young family, and its ripple effects in Rodrick’s adult life — but is also a book documenting military life today. It’s also really good, particularly in the way it calibrates the telling of such an openly emotional story. It’s not easy to write something like this without coming off as maudlin, but Rodrick’s natural talent for self-deprecation keeps everything elegant, so that the book devastates you in a way only a really fine implement can. We talked about the book by email.

The book is structured in such a way that it flips back and forth between your story and that of another pilot, James “Tupper” Ware. (Heh.) Of course your stories eventually become entwined, but without giving away the game, can you comment on why you chose to structure it that way?

I’d been kicking the idea of writing a book about my father who was killed in a plane crash off The USS Kitty Hawk when I was thirteen. He was a ghost in my life, even when he was alive, gone 200 days of the year. Then I did a magazine story on Navy pilots about a decade ago that some people liked. I remember having a drink with an agent at Brooklyn Social and he was talking about how he could sell it and we could have it come out around Father’s Day. And there was something weird about it, the whole commodification of tragedy.

So I backed away and decided the only way I could do the book was if there was a component of reporting to it that involved me getting out of my head and writing about my family’s loss in a larger context, namely what it is like to serve in an era of two wars and endless deployments. When I was trying to sell the book, an editor I like shrugged his shoulders and said ‘I’m not sure how you’re going to link these threads. My response was ‘Yeah, that a real good question. I have no idea!” Shockingly, he did not buy the book.

The Magical Stranger

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But the fact that Tupper held my Dad’s last job, skipper of VAQ-135, a squadron based on Whidbey Island in Washington state, gave the memoir and the current stuff a certain symmetry. Going back and forth seemed natural, I was hoping to show a family blown apart by military service — my own — nd a family — Tupper’s — trying NOT to be blown apart by military service in real time.

Oh and in the end, the book is coming out a few weeks before Father’s Day. And I want people to buy it and read it. Agent guy was right. I was wrong. This happens to me, on average, seventeen times a day.

Has Tupper read the book?

Tupper hasn’t read it. He said early in the process he didn’t want to read it before it came out. That was very cool of him. I did make an extra trip to Dubai and we spent 3–4 days holed up there — me with bronchitis so loud I was sleeping in a walk-in closet to muffle the gruesome noise — and we went over the facts of his story a last time. We literally did not leave the hotel grounds for the entire time of stay. That’s really the only way to do Dubai. I’ll be up on Whidbey Island on Thursday and Friday and we’ll see if the Navy folks love it or hate it or somewhere in between. I’m sure there will stuff that the guys will be like ‘I wish you hadn’t put that in,’ but we’ll see.

“Tupper” at work

It’s interesting that you felt reluctant to “commodify” your “tragedy,” as you put it, since we live in this age of ascendance of the personal essay. I think you handled it pretty well, actually, being honest about the emotional impact of your father’s death while not making this book feel confessional even in its most directly personal moments. (It’s funny but I could see in it the same light-but-honest touch you had on that Lindsay Lohan profile I loved, though it was someone else’s tragedy there.) Could you talk more about how you negotiated that boundary with, you know, yourself? Did you just have to shut off the yelly in-writers-head voice that repeats, “This is EXPLOITATION” (not that it always is, it’s a self-doubt thing) over and over again?

Well, in the end, to fall back on a tired cliche, it turned out to be a story I needed to write. If I had a dollar for everyone who told me “you have to write this,” I’d have exactly 43 dollars. I needed to get it out whether anyone read it or not.

But the idea of not making it tragedy porn stuck with me through the whole process. I consciously wanted the tone to be a bit minimalist with a light touch and heavy on the quiet heroism and utter absurdity of military life. I really love Hanif Kureishi and Evelyn Waugh and their novels have death and war and revolution, but they’re not overwrought or filled with 87-word sentences or page-long paragraphs. They’re more: this is what life is about; a mixture of glory, death, and kicks in the crotch. And they’re fucking funny. Their writing is filled with absurd comedy amongst lives falling apart — the end of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust where the fallen aristocrat Tony Last takes a misguided South American expedition and finds himself reading Dickens to a man gone native, perhaps for the rest of his lifetime, is my favorite chapter of fiction — and that’s pretty close to my worldview.

I’m not interested in creating a fable or myth about my father or Lindsay Lohan. The idea is to humanize the icon whether it’s my dad or a starlet. Show people as they really are and let the reader draw their own conclusions. I’m not saying it was completely conscious as I was writing the book, but I wanted to show my family and Hunter Ware’s family as we really are, whether that meant dysfunctional, heroic, broken, or obsessed with pulling off elaborate pranks involving statues of little German boys in lederhosen. (Buy the book). The life of a navy pilot is more Catch-22 than Catch-22 and I wanted to capture that. I sometimes get called a cynic or a shitliver, but you lose your father under these circumstances, you’re going to have a slightly dark view of the world. Still, I spend a large part of my day chuckling while watching Love Actually.

I am curious to know, given that I know you as sort of funny and sardonic, what precisely appeals to you about Love Actually (funny and sardonic not being words I am moved to apply to that film).

Oh man, will the New York snobbery about Love Actually never cease? I’m tempted to rip off the mic and leave you with dead air. But I was raised better.

It’s a great corny movie with tons of excellent actors vamping; The Hobbit Guy, Kenneth Branagh’s ex-wife, the man from Taken, Stacey from “Gavin and Stacey,” Betty Draper, and, I think, River Phoenix. Do I need to go on?

Richard Curtis makes well-made, humane middlebrow stuff that I enjoy like a nice bowl of Frosted Flakes after a hard day at the office. (Sort of like a good general interest magazine article). Curtis wrote The Tall Guy, one of the most underrated British comedies of my lifetime and also The Girl In The Café with Kelly MacDonald and Bill Nighy as a completely preposterous couple trying to find their way during a G-8 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. Kelly MacDonald. Sigh. I was so grateful Kelly didn’t get murdered in No Country for Old Men. Weren’t you? Should I go on? Wait, where did you go? There’s a certain British-based romantic comedy — About A Boy, Truly. Madly Deeply — that melts this American’s cold, cold heart.

I love The Girl in the Café too. And I agree, there’s something super-romantic for me about the sort of restrained-Brit approach to romance. But life is not like the movies, etc.

One big moment you do get into, in the book, is how your first marriage broke up. And to an extent some of this journey, though you’re more oblique about it, is motivated by a new romance. I liked how you were not, you know, hokey about any of that stuff though. I wonder if you might be really imitating the quietness of the Brit romcom, at least a bit?

Maybe! I do think the British do a generally better job at conveying “we are mostly well-meaning knuckleheads living life out in our own idiotic and quixotic way.” The thing that makes a movie like Withnail & I funny and touching and sad is that it is real. There are really people out there who live like that. Many of them are my friends. But America doesn’t do that kind of comedy as well. There’s always a redemption at the end; the couple stays together or the guy gets the beautiful girl. Withnail & I ends with one guy getting cast in the lead of a play and another, Richard E. Grant, is shouting drunken Shakespeare at animals in the zoo during a downpour. That’s how life really is.

Breakups of marriage are similar; they’re usually brutish and excruciating and full of self-degradation. And, in retrospect, that kind of meltdown is so full of laughs, I couldn’t help but mine them a bit.

Yeah, but it is still be hard to write about. All this family stuff is hard to write about because, well, you know, people sometimes don’t like what you write about them. Have your mom/sisters read the book yet?

My sisters were like Tupper, they were both ‘We’ll read it when it comes out like everyone else.’

Now my mom, she got to read it in galley.

Funny story. Well, not funny ha-ha. I flew out to Michigan in a futile pursuit of an interview with Charlie LeDuff and gave her a copy. I was staying with my sister about 15 miles away. After a few days, Mom called and said she’d read it and why didn’t I come over lunch?

I drove over, heart pounding, and she told me “I really like it.” I was so relieved. We watched the Lions game and I went back to my sister’s on some kind of high of there not being a lot of drama.

I spent the next day while my sister was at work and her kids were in school blasting Prefab Sprout on their stereo and dancing around in my boxers in relief. Alas, my sister came home that afternoon and said, “You gotta talk to Mom again, she complaining about the book all over town.” (Which means probably three people.)

Uh-oh. I got a little nauseous and climbed back in my car. In my jean pocket was a Xanax that either I was going to take or I was going to make my mother take. I got there, took a breath, and went in. My mom said, “I don’t want to rain on your parade, I know you’ve worked so hard on this but, I kinda come off as a bitch. There’s no mention of me getting food on the table, keeping your clothes clean, and getting you to all your practices.”

And she was absolutely right. I’d forgotten all the little things that a mom does. What a jackass I’d become! I went back into the galleys and added maybe five or six sentences and they totally made the book better. The Xanax ended up going through wash which was a tragedy in its own right.

The effect on families, though, I think you dramatize that so well. I’m a military kid too. So for me, one of the most interesting parts of the book is how you kept connecting your peripatetic habits as an adult with having grown up with that habit of moving around, to different schools and such. I thought you articulated the rootlessness of that so well. In your case it was complicated by the loss of your dad, but I wonder: do you agree with me that, in a way, this is a thing that is a sort of universal, for military families?

Well, it took me years to make that connection. You grow up as the chronically new kid, the one who doesn’t know anyone, doesn’t know what bus to get on, doesn’t know where the bathrooms are, etc. And what a shocker, that’s pretty much the definition of a magazine writer’s life. You’re dropped into established worlds and you have to master the language and culture quickly or you’re sunk.

I may have taken this to absurd levels — as an adult I’ve lived in Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and now Los Angeles — but there’s an itch that kicks in after a couple of years of living somewhere or working somewhere. It’s built into your DNA from birth when you’re a military kid — I detest the term military brat — and it’s hard to leave behind. I grew up in a house where moving stickers and boxes were as natural a part of our garage as the lawn mower and my Schwinn.

Now my little sister had a totally different life. She was two when my father died. I walked her to the bus stop when she started kindergarten with her best friend Sally and they went to school together for the next thirteen years. She lives 30 miles from where she grew up. In my first thirteen years, I went to eight schools in five different cities.

For me, it’s alternately a fantastic and self-destructive way to live. There’s a built-in confidence that you can make your way in the world, but there’s also that pit in your stomach because you know that you don’t really have a true home. It’s something I used to brag about, but not any more. From 2003 to 2009, I split my time between New York and LA, kept the same set of clothes in both places so I could travel back and forth with just my laptop, maybe deciding at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday that I would fly out the next morning. It definitely had its moments, but you’re always chasing something, never standing still long enough to cherish what you actually have right in front of you. The book, in some ways, is the 120 proof version of that life, I’d get permission to get on a carrier for a week and I’d have to get to Dubai or Bahrain in four days. It takes a toll on you both physically and psychologically. That’s why both the military and some aspects of journalism are a young person’s game. At some point, your body just says ‘enough.’ I’m not quite there, but you can see how this way of living takes years off the back end of your life.

But what was I going to do with the back end anyway? Just watch Love, Actually. Over and over again.

I always think that this is a sort of unaddressed sacrifice of military life, though, the rootlessness, which is funny because military people are obviously terribly patriotic people and are very clear about “where they’re from” in that sense. But the thing is, it’s very hard on little kids and on marriages, too. You write in the book of learning [slight spoiler] that your dad actually told your mom she just had to get used to his career or else, you know, give up on him and on the marriage. And as I read that I both agreed that it was a jerkish thing to say and yet somehow identified with the passion of it. Sometimes if you think you’re meant to do something — like fly a plane, or like writing — it is pretty easy to put everything else second. Women of your mom’s generation, and even of mine, I think, didn’t have the option of doing what was important to them and couldn’t see this, but I guess it goes to show that even men with comparatively large professional freedom couldn’t “have it all,” either. Do you agree?

I think you’re right. One of the themes of the book is men who have long-suffering and ultra-patient women supporting their dream so they can stay a kid and fly jets at the speed of sound off a carrier and hang out with their buddies in the bar at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Uh, when they’re not defending freedom.

On the surface, the men have it all, but they really don’t. Tupper took command — theoretically the high point of his life and something he had spent two decades working for — but it was breaking his heart. He was about to go to sea and miss almost an entire school year of his two girls. He knew he’d come home to two different people. And I think there was a lot of ‘My God, what have I put my family through and what was it all for?’ There’s a moment in the book where we’re riding a bus back to the USS Lincoln from a visit to the Bahrain naval base and the bus is full of the raucous laughter of sailors on leave and there’s more than a whiff of vomit in the air, something Ware once reveled in. And Tupper just turned to me and said ‘I can’t be around this any more.’

I do think some of that is translatable to writing or painting or any kind of work that is more than a job, a work that is your life. Am I going to regret when I’m old that I spent three Christmases on planes on the way to assignments? Maybe. I keep trying telling myself that life isn’t about acquiring the best anecdotes, it’s about having an actual life. And sometimes I almost believe it.