By Brian Hieggelke
On paper (literally), Stephen Rodrick leads a swell life. He operates as a magazine journalist at the highest level, penning thoughtful cover stories about celebrities for the New York Times Magazine, or undertaking month-long adventures with the oil men inhabiting North Dakota’s still relatively rugged frontier. But Rodrick’s been haunted by his father’s absence in his life, first as a Navy pilot who spent more time on missions than at home, and then permanently when his father was killed in a crash while serving the country.
With his new memoir, “Magical Stranger: A Son’s Journey Into His Father’s Life,” Rodrick confronts his ghost head on. His story of growing up the underperforming son of a Type A father he worships, and what it’s like to lose him like he did, is both heartbreakingly sad and self-deprecatingly hilarious. But Rodrick is not content to just rewrite his diary; his father’s life was mostly lived away from his family and the son decides to undertake, through reporting, a journey to understand that part of it. Rodrick spends vast amounts of time on board various ships with a modern-day parallel to his father, Commander Hunter “Tupper” Ware. His up-close-and-intimate portrait of the modern-day Naval pilot is equally amusing and heartfelt; together with his own story, he elevates the form of the memoir.
Rodrick went to college in Chicago at Loyola and entered politics, working for Senator Alan Dixon as well as the ill-fated Mel Reynolds. He had the good sense to get out while he was young, and spent some time writing for Newcity before moving east to pursue his destiny. I interviewed Stephen via email, and we’re hosting an appearance with him here in Chicago on Thursday.
You spent your formative adult years in Chicago, in Illinois politics. Are you happy you got out of it, or do you sometimes think about getting back into it?
Well, while I loved the strange-but-true hilarious tales I accumulated from Illinois politics, I don’t really have a great desire to get back in the world. One of the reasons I left politics was because speech writing felt to me like you were just selling soap by a different name. If your worldview meshes perfectly with your employer, I can imagine it being a great experience, but I was helping to coordinate a press message for a guy who voted for Clarence Thomas. That’s when I started heading for the exits.
I remember you starting to freelance for us, probably about music, while you were still Alan Dixon’s Deputy Press Secretary. Any strong memories of those days or stories you wrote about Chicago?
Newcity was the first place to ever pay me for writing! $30 for a review of Joe Jackson’s “Blaze of Glory” if I remember correctly. Writing for you guys was a great, formative experience and I got to write about almost everything. I’d say my two favorite pieces included a 1992 piece on the GOP Convention in Houston that featured encounters with a wide variety of shady characters. And I still remember fondly a piece I wrote for Newcity on a gay rights march in DC that my sister came down for. She was gay and a lieutenant in the Army and the pain of second-class citizenship really hit me hard. Achy Obejas had a compliment relayed to me that it was the best piece on the march written by a straight guy and that made my day.
How long did it take you to report and write the book once you decided to do it? How much time, in all, did you spend in the company of Navy men, either on the aircraft carrier or otherwise? Looking back, could you see yourself in your father’s career or something like it?
I spent about three years total on the book from my first trip up to NAS Whidbey where we lived when my dad crashed to finishing it last summer. I spent a month out at sea with them and then two shorter stints on the USS Lincoln following Hunter Ware through his next duty station. In the end, I logged about 50,000 miles. For the first two years of reporting, I probably spent ninety-to-a-hundred days a year up around Whidbey reporting the book and just getting to know the guys and their families. I always wonder if I’d had that experience earlier if I would have gone that way as an adult. Alas, as I point out in the book, my motor and mathematical skills are not great. Hard to see me making it to pilot.
It’s a very candid portrait of Navy life. What kind of red-tape-hell did you have to go through to do this book? Did you have to let them review the manuscript, or otherwise encounter attempts to rein the story in?
Well, there was a lot of red tape to machete through at the beginning and every once in a while I’d run into a non-helpful public affairs officer, but the men and women in the squadron welcomed me and treated me like a brother. The Navy had no control over the content and we’ll see what they have to say when the brass reads it. I didn’t want to write a pro- or anti-Navy book; I wanted to write how it really is; the good, the bad, and the heroic.
You must have had a complicated relationship with Tupper, since he became something of a de facto stand-in for your father.
I actually don’t have a complicated relationship with Tupper; while I could see my father in him and understand him better by watching Tupper do his job, I always kept in my head they were separate people. Tupper made it clear he didn’t want to read the book in advance, but I did fly to Dubai last year and we spent four days going over the facts of the book just to make sure my idiot civilian mind had the details right. He had the benefit of getting out of the Navy so he could be perfectly frank about what was great about the Navy—flying, leading men—and what was heartbreaking about the Navy—missing huge chunks of his girls’ lives.
You’ve obviously lived with this story your whole life, and in the book you get at the challenges you had writing about it. Has your relationship with your father’s memory evolved since you finished the book?
It has. Before I wrote the book, my dad was the man on a pedestal, someone who I was told was an American hero and who I could never quite live up to.But working on the book changed that. I found people who loved him, I found people who thought he was a jackass. One of the great moments for me was finding a diary he kept when he was twelve and thirteen, my age when he died. The boy in there hitchhiked across New England, broke car windows with snowballs and got called a punk by the nuns. In short, he was just like me. And that really made me feel at peace.
You’ve written some celebrated stories, most notably this year the New York Times Magazine cover story about the indie film project that decided to cast Lindsay Lohan. If you were assembling a collection of your best stories, which ones would you include? Do you have an all-time personal favorite?
I’m not sure I have a personal favorite, but the Lohan piece and a story I wrote about a North Dakota boomtown last year would be right up there. Any story where I’ve got to see worlds I’d otherwise never see are the best ones whether it was Judd Apatow making “Knocked Up” or Jon Brion recording Fiona Apple at Abbey Road. The idea that I get to watch other artists create things and get paid for it seems like a miracle.
What’s next? More magazine journalism? More books?
More magazine stuff. I’ve got some fun ones coming out over the next month or two. I am in the “I’ll never write another book again” phase right now, but that could change. I’m just not sure there’s much interest in the definitive Phil Ochs biography.
If the journalist Stephen Rodrick was assigned to write a story about the author Stephen Rodrick, how would he approach the subject? What major details would he want to ferret out that aren’t in the book?
1. Ask him why he writes to loud music.
2. Ask him if he’s ever worn his pajamas to Safeway.
3. Ask him if he still considers Howell Malham Jr. to be a role model.
Stephen Rodrick will discuss “The Magical Stranger” as well as all of the above on Thursday, May 23, at The Boarding House, 720 North Wells, at 7pm. The event is free, but reservations are requested at newcityrodrick.eventbrite.com. Newcity is the sponsor of this event.
“The Magical Stranger: A Son’s Journey Into His Father’s Life”
By Stephen Rodrick
Harper, 400 pages, $27.99