Alex Tizon: “Great journalism from a great journalist”

Alex T. bookjpgBack in the 1990s, I was working as a news editor at The Seattle Times, putting commas in the right places, writing headlines and helping decide where to put things in each day’s edition. That last part was never a problem for stories by Alex Tizon.

“A Tizon story? Put it on Page 1. Photos by Alan Berner? Make it the centerpiece.”

I was reminded of that in a sad way on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, at the Elliott Bay Bookstore when people who knew Alex or admired him gathered to hear readings from “Invisible People,” his book of stories he had written for books, magazines and newspapers where he had worked. His work was there, but Alex was not. He died in 2017 at age 57.

His work was read by a student from Seattle University and by his younger daughter, who is a student at the University of Washington.

People who brought this book together explained their roles and why they wanted to see these stories published in a collection.

Melissa, Alex’s widow, remembered Sam Howe Verhovek, who worked with Tizon at the Los Angeles Times, coming up to her at Alex’s funeral and saying, “Don’t throw anything away. Let’s preserve his voice.”

Sam wanted future journalists to learn from the way Alex used literary techniques to tell news stories. So Sam went through what Melissa had saved, won cooperation from Atlantic magazine, the Los Angeles Times and The Seattle Times and got David Boardman, former Seattle Times executive editor, to “go to bat” for this book at Temple University Press. Boardman probably had the inside track there as he is now dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple in Philadelphia. He referred to the book as “great journalism by a great journalist.”

Several of Tizon’s co-workers and editors wrote introductions to his stories reprinted in the book. As a former news editor, I see this book is a gift to me and my memory. The problem a news editor has is trying to remember a story – no matter how good – as it flies by in the whirl of four editions a day (back then). The story is there one day, then we’re reading copy for the next day’s paper. And now, with the news running on a full 24-hour news cycle, I wonder how anyone will remember anything that happens.

But Tizon’s book reminded me of how well he could, as one of the commentators said Thursday night, take an assignment that might be a throwaway to another reporter and “find a story with anyone.”Alex T 3

I also remember that Alex still told the news. In a story he wrote about a young bride from the Philippines murdered with two others in the hallway of Seattle’s King County courthouse, he talks about the mail-order bride business, the village in the Philippines where Susana came from, her life there, her time with Timothy Blackwell, who brought her to the United States and then, outside an ugly trial to annul their marriage, shot her three times, also killing a baby she was carrying.

When terrorists attacked New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, killing more than 3,000 and injuring 6,000, Tizon teamed up with photographer Berner on a cross-America trip. The story I remember from that series was the interview with Birdella and Ollie May Wells, a daughter, 49, and mother, 74, sitting on their front porch and “talking to neighbors passing by.”

They were “raised on grits and church hymns.” Ollie May’s “face was as stretchy as a rubber band, her voice, happy as a banjo.” She referred to the terrorists as “Kamikazmi-nauts” and noticed that “much of America seemed to be thinking of God right now.”

“An airplane goin’ into a building will do that,” said Ollie May. “Praise be to Jesus,” said Birdella.

It’s an added delight to read the stories that didn’t pass over my desk at The Seattle Times and to reread those that did in a voice that needs to be preserved.

 

Amor Towles entertains with history, how he writes

Towles coverAmor Towles started with history.

Towles, who wrote “A Gentleman in Moscow,” told a full Benaroya Hall, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, the history of the Kremlin, Red Square and the surrounding area, including the Metropol Hotel, the setting for his novel.

The hotel opened in 1905 and was the first in Russia to have hot water in the rooms. This was during the era of “grand hotels” from 1890 to 1910, to “serve the great new wealth that came out of the 19th Century,” Towles said.

The Metropol was mostly used by Muscovites until 1917 when it found itself in the middle of a proletarian revolution. The tsar’s government housed soldiers in the hotel, with snipers at the windows. When the Bolsheviks took over, they kicked out the soldiers and all the windows.

Towles told the story of John Reed, who wrote about the Russian Revolution in “Ten Days that Shook the World,” and his checking into the Metropol. The desk clerk said that would be fine “if the gentleman doesn’t mind a little fresh air.”

When Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over in Russia, they moved the capital from St. Petersburg to Moscow, taking over three hotels to give government officials suites, making the Metropol the single biggest bureaucratic building in the country.

By 1922, the European nations were starting to recognize the Communist government as legit, opening the way for business representatives to start arriving in Moscow to start turning an agricultural society into an industrial one – and turning a profit. We can’t house these people in ratty hotels, the new Russian leaders decided, and the bureaucrats were out of the Metropol, the place was spruced up and an orchestra playing American jazz moved onto the bandstand.

The Communist leaders started hanging out at the Metropol even though it was supposedly off-limits to Russians. Towles said only about 10 percent of the Russian population belonged to the Communist Party, a status that brought multiple privileges and rights: Special stores where they could shop, schools their children could attend, or maybe a meal or a drink at the Metropol.

Ninety-five percent of the Russian population before the revolution was illiterate, Towles said, mostly peasants working other people’s lands. The Communists started a rapid reversal of that, using “five-year plans” for a quick industrialization of the country. To pay Western nations for help and material, the government needed hard currency, and it had little of it. But citizens did, stashed under mattresses, etc. in case who knew what might happen. So the Metropol was opened to all Russians, as long as they paid in Western currencies.

The decade of the 1930s was a bleak one for Russia, with the five-year plans failing and starvation taking millions of lives. But inside the Metropol, it was like “F. Scott Fitzgerald describing the Plaza Hotel in New York City.”

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None of that, Towles said, is in the book.

The book is about individuals, especially the Count, the gentleman who lives through this history.

Towles came up with the idea about where to place his individual while he was working in finance, traveling to different cities to do presentations. He noticed that many of the same people were in the lobbies of hotels where he stayed as he returned year after year. In 1998, he visited the Metropol.

Next came the outline. He said he spent a year and a half designing “A Gentleman in Moscow.” His outline included a description of each chapter, what would happen in it, some poetry, some events, some language that could be used.

Having a structure for the book freed him to let his subconscious go, to choose the right words, to let the “flow” of creativity happen without worrying about where the book goes or how it gets there.

It took him another year and a half to write a first draft. “I write the first draft for myself,” he said. “Everything goes in, anything I want to do goes there.

“I had to ‘spend’ 32 years with a different person placed in a situation I’ve never been in, all presented to me through the craft of writing.”

The tone of voice of the character gets decided as Towles writes. Who Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov would be was decided when Towles wrote this passage, which appears on Page 10, about the Count being escorted to the hotel by two guards:

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“That’s the guy,” Towles said as he finished. He may be imprisoned in a hotel for the rest of his life, but he still takes charge.

What about historical research? “Pre-research,” Towles said, too often comes out as “clunk, clunk, clunk.” And he gave an example:

Let’s say you wanted to write about a child in the 1960s, arriving in the kitchen where her Mom is preparing dinner. Research would tell you what the room looked like and that the mother probably unwrapped a box of frozen Birds Eye peas and dumped them into a pot of boiling water. But what the child might remember is the solid brick of green peas, maybe some frost clinging to it, her reaction to that, her feeling toward her mother and what she might have said.

“And all that goes on in that room (goes there) so that when you go back and read it again, you say, ‘Oh, that’s when all that happened.’ ”

The research has to be there at some point for Towles to know whom the count is mostly likely to meet throughout the years in the hotel. But it never comes off as clunk, clunk, clunk.

He wrote the first draft for himself, but the revision is for the reader. Time to get rid of redundancies, use as few words as possible, clean up your own work and create the covenant with the reader. “I write with an audience in mind.”

That audience will probably be expanded in the next year or two as “A Gentleman in Moscow” is being made into a television series.

And Towles is working on his next book.