Jesse Katz will be speaking at one of the afternoon tracks at the PLL Summit on “Releasing your Inner Writer.” Track coordinator, Holly Riccio, asked Mr. Katz to respond to a series of questions on writers and writing.
• When and how did you know you wanted to be a writer?
As an undergraduate at Bennington College in the early ’80s, I was fortunate enough to study with Joe McGinniss, then famous for having written The Selling of the President (and now infamous for The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin). He turned me on to a whole catalog of fabulously perceptive writers, from Joan Didion and Truman Capote to Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thompson—the New Journalists, as they were called. I loved the idea that nonfiction didn’t have to come in a dry, genteel package; it could be as inventive and spellbinding and irreverent as fiction, just true.
• What was the impetus for writing your memoir, The Opposite Field?
When I volunteered to become commissioner of my son’s youth baseball league a decade ago, I never imagined it would lead to a book. Like the world really needed another nostalgic yarn about freshly mowed ball fields and misty-eyed dads. But the more I immersed myself in our kooky mom-and-pop organization, and the more I invested myself in the peculiar slice of immigrant suburbia that had become my L.A. home, the more those next four years began to seem like the defining experience of my adult life. I was tested in unimaginable ways: as a father, a leader, a judge of character, a man. I did not pass all the tests.
• Tell us a little bit about taking on your current position as an Editor in the Litigation department at O’Melveny & Myers?
For the first 124½ years of its history, O’Melveny somehow managed to get by without an editor. Did pretty good in that time, too. Then a forward-thinking partner named Rich Goetz came to the realization that law firms are essentially publishing houses, that most of what we do is generate reams of written material—and for one very important reader, the judge. Just as The New Yorker would never print an article without kneading and tweaking and buffing the language until it met the magazine’s rigorous standards, why would a firm of O’Melveny’s stature not want its briefs to be as cogent and concise as possible? By “editing,” we’re not talking about correcting the writing. My job is to enhance the message, to pare the clutter and extract more meaning.
• What do you think the three most common misconceptions are about writing?
How about one? That it gets easier with experience. I love the Thomas Mann quote: “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Most folks look at that and go, huh? How can that be? I suppose it’s like any activity or field of study—the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. When my son was eight and learning to pitch, the goal was just to get the ball to reach the plate. By the time he was headed for high school, he had graduated to breaking balls and pickoff moves, stuff that I could no longer help him with. After three decades as a journalist, I have a good sense of how to string sentences together. But the stakes keep getting higher. If I’m trying to blow one by Albert Pujols, I’m going to labor over that turn of phrase.