A writer for all seasons. Jim Lehrer balances fact with fiction as newsman, novelist, and playwright
Washington — When he's through dealing with the daily wars and rumors of wars, Jim Lehrer, co-anchor of ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,'' gets down to the real excitement in his life. He writes. Lehrer the newsman is also Lehrer the playwright, who's been juggling three new plays this year - and Lehrer the novelist, whose forthcoming novel, ``Kick the Can,'' will be published by Putnam next spring.
His play ``Chili Queen'' has just had its first major production, at Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. A second play, ``The Great Man,'' is having an experimental production at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in Utah. And a third play, ``Church Key Charlie Blue,'' will premi`ere at the New Stage Theater in Jackson, Miss., Jan. 27, 1988.
The quiet man with the dark brown hair and the auburn eyes sits in his office at MacNeil/Lehrer and grins like a cub reporter with his first scoop. He's got a scoop on life that came to him after a serious illness 3 years ago.
``When I was recovering from that, I thought, `I've got to get back to my fiction writing.' It was just like waking up, you know, bug-eyed. It wasn't a revelation necessarily. It was just a realization that I needed it. So I started writing plays, and I've written a novel.''
It was not his first novel. That was ``Viva Max,'' about a Mexican general trying to recapture the Alamo. It later became a 1969 movie starring Peter Ustinov and Jonathan Winters. In the intervening years he'd also written some short stories.
Mr. Lehrer says it's a difficult leap from journalism to fiction. ``It's tough. There's no question about it. And I think it's an individual thing. I mean, there are some people who write beautifully who have never been in journalism, you know.''
Lehrer, a journalist for 27 years, decided when he started out that he wanted to be ``either Ernie Pyle or Ernest Hemingway.'' With a BA degree from the University of Missouri under his belt, he got his first job at the Dallas Morning News, quit on a matter of principle, and was hired by the rival Dallas Times Herald, before his public broadcasting career began in 1969. He is now associate editor and co-anchor of ``The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.''
As a fiction writer he says, ``When I started out, I was from the old school, the Hemingway school. The route to becoming Ernest Hemingway was to become a newspaper reporter. It wasn't to teach creative writing at some really nice, effete Eastern school. And that's all changed now.
``Of course, that's my own private theory, that some of these folks need to go out and experience a little life. [If] you go directly from the end of the graduation platform right back into teaching, and you're writing fiction, what are you going to write about? Of course, I know the argument: You're writing about interior things anyway. Well, OK, but it helps to have a story.''
Along the way, as a newsman, he found that journalism was helping his style as a fiction writer in two ways: ``Sparseness. Out of training, you're always trying to write your stories as short as possible in journalism, and you tend to cut out a lot, you get down to the ... nub of it. And that's been tremendous training.
``The other thing, not really related to this, is that journalism has taught me to write any time of the day or night, no matter how I feel or whatever. I mean, I don't have to wait for the breeze to come through the window and have the little voices speak to me and all that sort of stuff. You have a deadline, and you deal with it every day, and it's the ability to keep the bottom on the chair that's about 90 percent of what writing is all about. And I have that ability.
``But I'm not what I'd call a graceful writer. I mean my wife, for instance, who's a novelist - her first book, `Best Intentions,' has just come out, a super book - she's a graceful writer. She uses the language artistically and in a way that I never will be able to do.''
Lehrer, sitting at a long table in his cream-colored office, faces the interviewer like a camera. He has the newsman's habit of never letting his eyes leave yours, always watching for the glance or blink or reaction that will tell him something more for the story.
In this case, he's the story, but he still seems to be taking mental notes - and, of course, he is, for his fiction. He keeps a little notebook handy for that and a small tape recorder to dictate impressions. He is affable, low key, with a frequent, rumpled smile and considerably more of a soft Texas twang than you hear on the air.
The walls around him are paved with colorful bus depot signs, a reminder of his father's life in the bus business. It's 11 a.m., but he's already up to his blue-and-white-checked shirt sleeves in work. By air time he'll slip into his newscaster chores, along with a brown tweed jacket.
Some journalists like Ward Just and Jimmy Breslin have made the jump to fiction successfully. Some have not.
It used to be, Lehrer says, that his instincts as a journalist got in the way of his writing fiction. But journalism's insistence on just the facts has recently yielded to a separate impulse to listen instead to the reporting of the imagination as it creates:
``I'm having absolutely no problem now separating: My imagination goes with my fiction writing very well. The juices are flowing. But if it's stuff for the NewsHour, I'm not making things up. It's not flopping over the other way. In other words,'' he laughs, ``I'm not lying on the NewsHour.''
Some of his plays are rooted in his experience as a newsman. Stephen Holden, reviewing an Off Off Broadway production of ``Chili Queen'' in the New York Times, called it ``a small, dark comedy that reserves its sharpest jabs for the way television packages daily events while coolly manipulating the helpless participants.'' The idea for the play ``Chili Queen'' came to Lehrer when he stopped in an east Texas Dairy Queen and saw a fight brewing between a waitress and a customer over whether he'd paid for his order with a $10 bill or a $20. Lehrer never found out what happened, but the incident percolated in his memory. Out came the play titled ``Chili Queen.''
In the play, the disagreement over change escalates through the hyping of the media into a hostage standoff, eventually involving squads of police cars, a helicopter, and a SWAT team armed with machine guns. ``The television camera is the 800-pound gorilla of American life,'' says Lehrer, ``and it's becoming worse and worse all the time.''
Like ``Chili Queen,'' whose recent production at Kennedy Center was short-lived, Lehrer's play ``The Great Man'' deals with a media situation. This one, says Lehrer, ``is about a man obsessed about what his obituary will say in the New York Times. It actually takes place in New York, but this guy is a Washington figure who is on the verge of dying and becomes concerned about his funeral and his obit in the Times. And this play is about how he tries to get it worked out to suit him.''
The third play, ``Church Key Charlie Blue,'' is scheduled to run in the Eudora Welty new-play series in Jackson, Miss., late in January for three to four weeks. Lehrer says the title character is a retired, over-the-hill professional football player, who has been hired to promote a brand of beer by giving out ``church keys'' (can openers) at taverns where sports fans gather to watch Monday night football.
``It's a communal event. And Church Key walks into a hornet's nest in this one little bar, and that's what the play's about, with the game going the whole time,'' says Lehrer.
Lehrer has just finished his new novel, ``Kick the Can,'' about how an injury resulting from that childhood game alters the future of its main character. ``It changes his life, and he goes off to be a pirate in Texas and has a bunch of adventures and ends up in Oklahoma as a county commissioner.''
Lehrer, with his novels, TV, short stories, and plays, seems to be a one-man media event.
``Yeah,'' he says and laughs. ``A friend called the other day and said, `I hope I'm not interrupting anything.' And I said no. And he said, `Well, I figured you'd probably have written an operetta since we talked.'''