Me and Charlie Rose

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

(I seldom stay up late enough to watch Charlie Rose on PBS, but when I do I am always reminded of how much I’ve been missing. Charlie is an excellent interviewer, I think because he has a genuine interest in his guests and in ideas and events. He is definitely and definitively connected. Add in that dulcet North Carolina accent and you have a real treat. His guests the other night were Tom Brokaw and Calvin Trillin—Charlie doesn’t traffic in the usual Tinsel Town fluff—both pushing their latest books. No surprise that I slipped into the following reverie.)

Charlie Rose: Our guest tonight is Jerry Shea, whose collection of essays, I Just Wonk to Entertain You, is the literary surprise of the season, having this week claimed the number two spot on the New York Times best seller list for non-fiction. I am pleased to have him at this table for the first time. Welcome!

Jerry Shea: Thank you, Charlie…good to be here.

CR: Would you like to comment on that pun in the title?

JS: No. Well, ok. Evidently it hasn’t hurt the book’s sales, so I’ll stand by it, having always been a punster. My editor was nervous, though. “Wonk” comes from Weekend Wonk, my nom de plume when I write these weekly essays. And I was always surprised at the number of people who didn’t know what “wonk” meant, as if they’d never heard of policy wonks or computer wonks. Go figger. A wonk is a nerd with an obsession. What’s ironic is that I was cast as a computer wonk even though I am a techno-idiot as far as computers go.

CR: These wonks were originally written for a website called “Macinstruct.” Tell us about that.

JS: Well, Macinstruct is the brainchild of a former student of mine, a guy named Matt Cone. The idea was to share with the real computer wonks all the useful and fun and arcane things you could do with your Mac. In fact, it was Matt who came up with the name “Weekend Wonk,” so you can blame it on him. He said I would be the change-of-pace guy, the weekend relief, and could write whatever I pleased. I couldn’t pass up an invitation like that.

CR: So, did you—do you–enjoy being a blogger?

JS: I’m not a blogger, Charlie. A blogger is somebody who sets up for himself; I was invited to write for somebody else’s website. Most blogs that I’ve seen are either narratives of the blogger’s daily doings—a kind of diary—or have just one focus: politics or fashion or genealogy or dog training or whatever. I should add that some bloggers are quite good. Heck, my daughter’s a blogger. But I ain’t. I write on all sorts of stuff and try to craft my essays as best I can.

CR[grinning]: I stand corrected and chastened, Jerry.

JS: No, my bad. Sorry I got prickly about it.

CR: Well, you certainly do write about everything. I was just riffling through these pages and I found stuff on aging, on rewards and punishments, on tabloids, on chronos and kairos—I won’t even ask about that—on education, on language—I know that you have been an English professor all your life—on colors, on Sasa and Zamani—I’m dying to find out what that’s about—on your travels both alone and with the “Longsuffering Diana,” on birth order, on Neanderthals. Wow. You really are all over the map.

JS: Uh, I wrote a couple of wonks on maps, too! [shared chuckling]

CR: Jerry, there are those who might say…

JS: Names, Charlie, I want names! [genial laughter].

CR:…who might say that because the world is going to hell in the proverbial hand basket, we can’t afford to lavish attention on these genteel essays that you write, essays that are arguably so inconsequential. What would you say to those people?

JS: Oh, dear me—can the term “moral firepower” be far behind? And “lavish” is a word that always makes me giggle. I’d say, “If you feel that way, just don’t read my stuff!” I don’t make great claims for those essays myself. I’m pushing seventy, Charlie, and I’m not out to change the world, even though I dearly wish I could, for the sake of my grandchildren. I’m a writer, not a crusader—and, yes, I do think one can separate the two roles.

CR: Who’s your hero, Jerry? [patented soulful Charlie Rose gaze]

JS: E. B. White.

CR: That’s it? That’s all?

JS: What? I need more, Charlie? White’s the one I most often think about when I wrestle with words. I know that Tom Wolfe called White and the rest of that New Yorker crew “tiny giants.” That was a wicked jab. But you know what? I’d be honored to be called a tiny giant. I said a minute ago that I make no great claims for these essays. But the craft of writing means everything to me, and I am always striving, aiming, to construct little jewel boxes out of words. Is that fatuous or what? Well, never mind, because I always fall short. But if I ever did write something that came close to “Second Tree from the Corner” or “Death of a Pig” or “Poetry,” well then, as Fred Allen would say, I’d happily stick my quill back in my goose.

CR: You think that will ever happen?

JS: No. Thank goodness.

CR: Jerry, it’s been a pleasure.

JS: Indeed it has, Charlie—mine.

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