David Mamet On 'Chicago': 'These Were The Stories You Grew Up With'

Feb 24, 2018
Originally published on February 28, 2018 8:38 am

Chicago. David Mamet.

Maybe that's all that needs saying to introduce the first novel in more than 20 years by the celebrated and controversial playwright and screenwriter, who has so often made the city a signature in his works. It's a story of the mob era: hits ordered and adversaries iced; hooch in trucks which winds up in teapots; gunsels, madams, made men and molls.

"You know, I was thinking a lot about historical novels," Mamet says. "And Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather -- and then of course he and Francis [Ford Coppola] made it into a movie, which is rather different than the book. These were the stories that they grew up with. That was the stuff that being an Italian-American, whose grandparents had been connected with the immigrant generation and thus with the mob, just like Margaret Mitchell grew up with stories of the Old South. And in Chicago in my generation — I was born in 1947 — you grew up with stories of the mob, because my parents were the immigrant generation, and all the parents of my friends were the immigrant generation, and those were the people whom they were associated with, or were their adversaries starting off in America. So when you grew up in Chicago in the '50s, these were the stories you grew up with."

His new novel is simply titled Chicago. He spoke from NPR West in Culver City, Calif.


Interview Highlights

On protagonist Mike Hodge, and how his World War I service and journalism career shapes him

Well, I don't know – I mean, the whole trick to art is what you leave out, of course. Because I've been looking at the Olympics — maybe you have too — and there are some figure skaters who do everything correctly, and admire their athleticism. And there are others who you just — your jaw opens and you're struck by their grace, because they aren't adding anything to it. You know, there are a lot of pianists who can play Bach, but there's only one Glenn Gould. And if you listen to Glenn Gould, you think, "Hey, I can do that," because he left everything out. And that's what art is.

On the theme where many characters get ahead in the novel by cornering the franchise for sin

Well, it's true. You know, I'm over in Culver City, and there's a huge billboard about marijuana delivered directly to your door, OK? So what does government do? OK, when they can't make money or gain votes from combating sin, they take over the franchise. "Oh, you can't play the lottery, you can't play the numbers, oops, but you know, we're going to take over the lottery." So one of the themes of the book is the Chicagoan way of looking at the world, which is: Nothing's on the level. Which, as far as I can tell, is true.

On how to write David-Mamet-style dialogue, and on his craft in general

I wrote a book once called Some Freaks, which is kind of how I always thought of myself. It's what I do all day — I sit alone in a room and dream up stuff and write it down, just doing the best I can. Someone said to me, "How do I write like you?" I said, you know, "I have to, you don't."

Well the question is: Do I keep working on this piece of garbage and hope that something will come up, or do I put it aside and take up something else? And sometimes the answer is one, sometimes the answer is the other. But the only thing that I know is what Anthony Trollope said. He said, what does every writer need? He said, he needs cobbler's wax to stick him to his chair. ...

And just keep staring at it until you get so sick of yourself. You might write something. Because one doesn't know the difference between "this is a terrible idea" and "there is something so deep inside of me that every atom of my existence is resisting it." Because that might be genius. You don't know! Because not only does a good writer throw out what the others keep — a good writer keeps what the others throw out.

Sarah Handel and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Chicago - David Mamet. Maybe that's all that needs to be said to set up the first novel in more than 20 years by the celebrated and controversial playwright and screenwriter who so often made the city a signature in his works. It's a story of the mob era - hits ordered and adversaries iced, hootch in trucks that winds up in teapots and gunsels, madames, made men and molls.

David Mamet joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID MAMET: Oh, you're welcome. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: What made this - these characters, this story a novel in your mind?

MAMET: You know, I was thinking a lot about historical novels. And Mario Puzo wrote "The Godfather." And then, of course, he and Francis made it into a movie, which is rather different than the book. These were the stories that they grew up with - that was the stuff of being an Italian-American whose grandparents had been connected with the immigrant generation and thus with the mob, just like Margaret Mitchell grew up with stories of the Old South.

And in Chicago, in my generation - I was born in 1947 - you grew up with stories of the mob because my parents were the immigrant generation, and all the parents of my friends were the immigrant generation, and those were the people whom they were associated with or were their adversaries in starting off in America. So when you grew up in Chicago in the '50s, these were the stories you grew up with.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a few people. Mike Hodge, your central character, is a reporter but an admirable guy. (Laughter) And I'll point to two things. He fought in France. He flew in France during World War I, and he covered the fire at the All Saints Catholic school. How did both of those events stay with him and, in a sense, make him who he is?

MAMET: Well, I don't know. I mean, the whole trick to art is what you leave out for - of course. Because I've been looking at the Olympics - maybe you have, too - and there are some figure skaters who do everything correctly, and you admire their athleticism. And there are others that you just - your jaw opens, and you're struck by their grace because they aren't adding anything to it. You know, when there were a lot of pianists who can play Bach, but there's only one Glenn Gould. And if you listen to Glenn Gould, you think, hey, I could do that - because he left everything out - and that's what art is.

SIMON: I was at the point in the novel of being kind of reconciled to the idea - and maybe this is the Chicagoan in me - that anybody who got plugged in this story probably deserved it. But then, of course, Annie Walsh - and you are reminded that in mobs and gangs, the innocent suffer. She's an extraordinary young woman Mike Hodge is deeply in love with.

MAMET: Yeah. It's a love story, you know? And it's - and he's found the love of his life, and she gets assassinated in a mob killing. And he spends the book trying to figure out how he can live with his guilt for having gotten her killed - because he's involved in reporting in the mob - and how he can go on in a world where she doesn't exist. And one of the answers he comes up with is drink yourself to death. And the other answer is, find out who did it and kill them.

SIMON: There's a theme in the book that a lot of people get ahead by figuring out how to (laughter) - how to corner the franchise for sin.

MAMET: Well, it's true. I mean, you know, as I'm over in Culver City, and there's a huge billboard about marijuana delivered directly to your door, OK? So what does government do? OK? When they can't make money or gain votes from combating sin, they take over the franchise. Oh, you can't play the lottery. You can't play the numbers. Oops, but, you know, we're going to take over the lottery. So one of the themes of the book is a Chicagoan way of looking at the world, which is nothing's on the level - which, as far as I can tell, is true (laughter).

SIMON: I wouldn't contradict it. How do you write Mamet dialogue?

MAMET: I wrote a book once called "Some Freaks," which is kind of how I always thought of myself. It's what I do all day - sit alone in a room and dream up stuff and write it down. I'm doing it - just doing the best I can. Like, somebody said to me, how do I write like you? I said, you know, I have to. You don't.

SIMON: (Laughter).

MAMET: You know?

SIMON: That's a good answer. But you're an artist. I mean, you do this for a living. There must be some - if not do's and don'ts, there must be some feelings you've developed about how to do it.

MAMET: Well, the question is, do I keep working on this piece of garbage and hope that something will come up? Or do I put it aside and take up something else? And, sometimes, the answer is one. Sometimes, the answer's the other. But the only thing that I know is what Anthony Trollope said. He says, what does every writer need? He said he needs cobbler's wax to stick him to his chair.

SIMON: (Laughter) In other words, just keep - one word after another.

MAMET: Well, yeah. And just keep staring at it until you get so sick of yourself you might write something - because one doesn't know the difference between this is a terrible idea and there's something so deep inside of me that every atom of my existence is resisting it because that might be genius. You don't know because not only does a good writer throw out what the others keep. A good writer keeps what the others throw out.

SIMON: David Mamet - his novel, first in more than 20 years - "Chicago." Thanks so much for being with us.

MAMET: You're so welcome. It was great talking to you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENNY GOODMAN'S "SING SING SING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.