Road trips, literature and life in the East Village: Ryerson professor Bill Reynolds talks about Manhattan and his first sabbatical

Staff Reporter

Like innumerable other people, on the evening of May 1, 2011 Ryerson University associate professor Bill Reynolds caught a news report on Internet television that Osama bin Laden had been located and killed by United States Special Forces. In what was for him an uncustomary fit of enterprise journalism, Reynolds jumped on his bicycle at eleven o’clock on a sleepy Sunday night in Manhattan and headed for the World Trade Center site. Reynolds didn’t believe the reports that it was exclusively young people who were celebrating the death of the America’s most wanted man, not only outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington but also at Ground Zero. But once he arrived at the Vesey Street epicentre he realized Brian Williams and the crew had called it exactly as they were witnessing it. Suddenly it all made sense—young adults living under the spectre of Homeland Security for the past decade were cathartically exhaling and rejoicing after a lost decade. Reynolds wrote up his experience and a scant few weeks later, the piece appeared in Firsthand, the front section of the Walrus magazine.

Usually Reynolds doesn’t work that fast. In fact, his research and writing interest is literary journalism, which nearly always necessitates a much longer gestation period. His recent sabbatical, which included six months as a visiting scholar at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, was an opportunity to present the results of some of his longer-term projects and to launch new research.

“I was allowed an office at the journalism institute. Mostly I did my own research but I did help some graduate students with their feature drafts in Ted Conover’s Ethnography for Journalists class, which was time-consuming but also a lot of fun. There were amazing events held at the institute on a regular basis. It’s New York City, right, so big-name journalists such as Gay Talese, Janet Malcolm, Calvin Trillin, Pete Hamill and so on would drop by and talk to students and faculty.”

When Reynolds was not in NYU, he was attending academic conferences – five in all – over the course of his sabbatical. He presented his first paper at Roehampton University in London in May 2010 at the fifth annual conference of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies (IALJS).

“It’s my area of research, literary journalism, which is roughly speaking, like journalism as literature (as opposed to journalism about literature), or applying techniques of fiction to nonfiction,” says Reynolds, whose undergraduate and graduate teaching in 2011-2012 includes a workshop on feature reporting, a class on, magazine and feature writing, and a literary journalism course.

At the IALJS conference, Reynolds moderated a panel called “Get Out the G____,” where he and four others presented papers on Hunter S. Thompson, the American journalist credited as the creator of Gonzo, a style of writing where reporters involve themselves in the action so they become central figures in their stories.

“The whole idea of that panel,” says Reynolds, “was you couldn’t talk about drugs or alcohol, or Thompson’s prodigious substance abuse in general. And you couldn’t talk about his Hawaiian shirts, his cigarette holders, his funny looking hats or anything else about his persona. And you couldn’t call him ‘Hunter,’ either, like he was your buddy. You had to talk about his writing—his literary journalism—period. We mostly kept to that standard. I wanted to avoid the Myth of Hunter syndrome.”

In February 2011, Reynolds attended the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900, where he presented a revised version of his Thompson paper at the University of Louisville, Kentucky (Thompson’s hometown, incidentally). His talk, which was revised again into a long research paper, outlined his admiration for Thompson’s work as a literary journalist: “If Thompson’s Gonzo journalism does not flower until the end of the 1960s, we can say elements of Gonzo have been imbedded in Thompson’s style from day one. At the very least we can say Thompson has his speedboat gunning down the river of literary journalism from the get-go, settling for the tributary that will become Gonzo.”

The five London and Louisville panellists have submitted their papers to a peer-reviewed journal, Literary Journalism Studies, where it is hoped they will be published as a special section to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Thompson’s classic text, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.

In addition to his work on Thomson, Reynolds attended the NonFictionNow conference at the University of Iowa, in November 2010. There, he presented a paper on the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968, as seen through the eyes of two New Journalists: author Norman Mailer, in his book, Miami and the Siege of Chicago; and Toronto journalist David Lewis Stein, in his book, Living the Revolution: The Yippies in Chicago.

“I flew to Cleveland and then did a road trip to Iowa with my lALJS colleague Josh Roiland, who teaches at Case Western Reserve University,” Reynolds says. “We listened to indie rock and gabbed about music and literary journalism and the university profession. Josh kept an eye on the road and watched for state troopers on the horizon—he was really good at spotting them—while I stared out at the big midwestern sky all the way to Iowa City.

“David Lewis Stein used to be a Toronto Star reporter and city columnist but early in his newspaper career, when he was about 30, he filed freelance pieces from New York City,” says Reynolds. “He became friends with the Yippies, guys like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin—he was interested in and admired their activism and revolutionary zeal—and with one Yippie in particular, Keith Lampe. He ended up going to the Chicago Democratic Convention, August 1968, where there were riots and police beat the crap out of demonstrators. He was on the ground, dodging cops, and wrote about what happened to him, trying to capture exactly what he saw and what it meant, with some personal impressions and judgments thrown in. He filed pieces to the Star and then his extended take, the book Living the Revolution, was published by Bobbs-Merrill the following year. It’s long out of print, but is an honest, refreshing, straight-forward New Journalistic take, and I think a bit of a lost classic.”

For the sixth annual IALJS conference, Reynolds travelled earlier this spring to Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium to present another aspect of his Stein research. “This time I wanted to look at Stein’s work in relation to four writers who had been sent to Chicago by Esquire,” Reynolds says. “Esquire was a powerful, transcendent magazine in those years, when Harold Hayes was editor, probably one of the most cutting-edge magazines going. Its art director George Lois came up with outlandish, arresting covers and the editors always found contrarian angles for big stories. The November ’68 issue featured a special section on the Chicago debacle. The editors hired four freelance writers—two New Journalists, Terry Southern and John Sack, but also, more unconventionally, the gay “outlaw” authors William S. Burroughs, of Naked Lunch fame, and Jean Genet, of The Thief’s Journal notoriety—and sent them to Chicago. I compared what these guys wrote to Stein’s book, sometimes favourably, sometimes not.”

Living in New York for six months and working out of NYU in Greenwich Village inspired Reynolds to develop a new idea for another paper, which he presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in St. Louis, August.

The view from Bill Reynolds's sabbatical apartment in New York's East Village

“Early on when I was in New York, back in late January, early February, I read Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage, a high-quality memoir about Greenwich Village in the years immediately following World War 2. And also Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which has a fair bit of material about the Village as well. So I had some passion for the neighourhood I was living next to (I was actually living in the East Village, in Alphabet City). I also got excited about going to NYU’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, south of Washington Square Park, a ten-minute walk from my office. The Bobst is a library with stacks that are actually filled with books—shelves fully jammed, floor to ceiling, with books. It reminded me of being an undergrad and just wandering through the stacks and discovering stuff.

“One of the things I stumbled upon was the fact that the author Mary McCarthy had written, in February and March, 1950, for the New York Post of all places, a ten-part series called ‘Greenwich Village at Night’,” Reynolds continues. “McCarthy was one with the sharpest high-brow wits in New York at the time and I thought it peculiar that she would stoop to write for a tabby. I didn’t know much about the New York papers, other than the Times, of course, and I certainly didn’t realize the Post was not a feisty right-wing tabby but in fact a feisty liberal tabby from the time Dorothy Schiff bought it in the 1930s until the late 1970s. It exposed vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon’s slush fund in the 1952 election campaign (which prompted the famous Checkers the dog speech), for instance, and attacked and helped to bring about the end of Joseph McCarthy and his Communist witch hunt. It also stridently opposed the Vietnam War. When Rupert Murdoch bought it from a retiring Schiff in 1978 he flipped it to a right-wing tabloid overnight. I was fascinated by all of this.”

Reynolds kept reading references to the McCarty series but struggled to find a copy, eventually getting photocopies of it sent from Vassar College, where the McCarthy archives are stored. He decided to analyze her writing techniques.

“I read the series and thought, Hey, this is great because it raises all of these issues. Can a tabloid publish literary journalism? Is McCarthy in fact using techniques of literary journalism in these columns? If so does that mean she presages the New Journalists by a decade and a half? Is she applying fiction writing techniques to her rather risqué (for the time) series about nocturnal gay and lesbian Greenwich Village? Does she quote dialogue? Does she incorporate scenes into the material? Does she show more than tell? I got so fascinated I chucked my agreed-upon topic for the St. Louis AEJMC conference and instead presented all this McCarthy stuff.”

When Reynolds wasn’t attending conferences, he was working on a nonfiction book, which started out as a magazine piece in 2007. The original story profiled Calgary lawyer, entrepreneur and musician John Lefebvre, who was arrested for money laundering and racketeering by the United States Department of Justice in January 2007.

“I read this story online at the Globe,” says Reynolds, “about a guy who had been arrested for money laundering. The name caught my eye because a John Lefebvre had been president of the Students’ Union at the University of Calgary one year when I was attending school there. Turned out it was the same guy, and I hadn’t talked to him in over 25 years. A few months later I found out that he was out on bail working on an album at a place called the Village Recorder in Los Angeles, which might be the most famous music studio there. He booked a month of weekdays and hired a producer and the crème de le crème of session musicians to record his own songs. I spent a couple of days with him, hanging out and talking about making music and his predicament with the FBI.”

Reynolds says he knew immediately upon reading the various news reports that there had to be a larger feature beyond the news follow-ups. He convinced his editor at Swerve, a weekly magazine insert to the Calgary Herald, to allow him to hand in a 6,000-word story.

“The article led to the book, which I started working on in winter 2008. I’ve been tinkering away at it part-time ever since. I’m three-quarters of the way through. Lefebvre pled guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for cooperation with FBI officials, and he’s paid off the hefty forfeiture he got saddled with. But he still hasn’t been sentenced, so there is no natural ending—yet.”

Non-academic writing has always been of great interest for Reynolds, who has written features for Canadian Business, the Walrus, This magazine and the Globe and Mail, and has won National Magazine Awards and Western Magazine Awards for his writing. Editing is also a passion of his—he was associate editor, then managing editor, then editor of Eye Weekly through the period 1991-2002, before coming to Ryerson.

But Reynolds’s main area of research remains literary journalism. In addition to the conference presentations, he and professor John S. Bak of Université-Nancy, Nancy, France co-edited a book called Literary Journalism Across the Globe, which was published this past May by University of Massachusetts Press. During his sabbatical Reynolds also found time to write a chapter on Robert Fulford’s long march from liberal cultural critic to arch defender of all things neoconservative for the forthcoming anthology, Global Literary Journalism.

“There are different levels of journalism and understanding what is going on in the world,” says Reynolds. “There is the immediate gratification of online news, of tweets, of quick hits, of nabbing the basic facts as quickly as possible, of finding that source through Facebook. There is much that is seductive in that. Then there is news analysis, which requires some reading and thinking but still has to be accomplished on a pretty tight deadline. This is also seductive because it can involve heavy reporting as well as some crafting of a point of view. Then there is the magazine feature, where the editor, after agreeing to buy your story, says, See you in two months. You are required to go hang out with people and do a lot of observing and make sure there are scenes in your piece. You want to aim for a narrative arc, just as you would in storytelling. It’s the level of writing that takes up the most time and is potentially the most sophisticated. That’s where I think literary journalism comes in. It’s a richer and deeper experience. It can, at its best, tell us about ourselves in ways that are profound.”

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