Interview: Jon Winokur

Jon Winokur (pronounced winne-kuhr) is a writer’s writer and the author of numerous books on writing and other topics, including The Portable Curmudgeon, Advice to Writers and his newest book, The Garner Files: A Memoir, written with 83-year old actor James Garner. We talked about his books during a recent conversation.

Scott Holleran: How did you approach James Garner as a subject?

Jon Winokur: As the subject, he is there, bigger than life—the subject approaches you. You know that guy up there on the screen and you think he’s a nice guy. Well, he’s even better—and that’s after taking two years of researching his life. He was there. He writes the book for you. Much of The Garner Files writes itself.

Scott Holleran: Is it mostly based on interviews?

Jon Winokur: Yes, with him and with friends and colleagues and quite a few interviews with family members. It’s a wonderful clan, by the way; there’s a certain dignity and honesty about them.

Scott Holleran: So you created the narrative?

Jon Winokur: Yes. It was easy to do because I’ve known him for 25 years. With a lot of famous people, you think you know them and you don’t. But Jim pans out.

Scott Holleran: That’s impressive. You’ve got his tone down just right—

Jon Winokur: —sometimes, I’d find myself putting down a word and saying, ‘oh, no, that’s not a Garner word.’

Scott Holleran: Did you have an outline?

Jon Winokur: Yes, because I had put together an outline for the book proposal, which I had to tweak a little bit. But this is a departure [for me]. I’d never done a memoir or anything biographical. There’s autobiography, there’s biography and there’s memoir. The distinction I make is that autobiography has to cover all the details and a memoir is from the subject’s perspective. A memoir is subjective—and an autobiography strives to be objective.

Scott Holleran: Did you have a theme?

Jon Winokur: I think the theme emerged. I don’t think it’s helpful to say ‘insert scene here’; [the theme] will be organic. A couple of themes emerged. One is his sympathy for the underdog, which informs his work, his personal relationships and his politics. It’s probably unavoidable to point to his being abused as the source of at least some of that empathy.

Scott Holleran: How did you get the job?

Jon Winokur: I published The Portable Curmudgeon in 1987—it was a tiny first printing—and it came out and was doing OK. At that time, someone had suggested that I get an unlisted telephone number because sometimes a writer get some bizarre responses. So I said, ‘why? I’m lonely. Let them call me,’ and one day I got a call and heard, ‘this is Jim Garner. I’m an actor.’ And of course I knew who he was. Then he said, ‘What kind of a curmudgeon has a listed telephone number?’ Apparently, he had been in the hospital and he had been depressed. [Comedians] Bob Newhart and Dick Martin had sent him my book and he said he wanted to thank me because the book had cheered him up. That was that, until about a month later. The phone rings at 9 o’clock at night and a friend told me that [Mr. Garner] was reading from my book on The Tonight Show. It put my book on the map and sales shot through the roof. It in effect gave me a career. He and I kept in touch—he would send wine from his vineyard for Christmas—and about two years ago we were having lunch and I heard myself asking ‘how come you’ve never written a book?’ And he said because he thought no one would want to read it. I thought and thought about it and I wrote this letter and brought out all guns for writing a memoir. His manager called and said OK. I guess he felt safe with me.

Scott Holleran: What’s your favorite line in the book?

Jon Winokur: There’s a line he quotes from Murphy’s Romance, something like, ‘When I’m pushed, I shove.” He doesn’t go looking for a fight. But, by golly, if you wrong him…

Scott Holleran: How did you primarily relate to Mr. Garner—as his friend, observer, partner?

Jon Winokur: As the most extraordinary human I’ve encountered. The things he’s done anonymously for countless people—the endless goodwill—comes up whenever I mention his name. I always get the same response: “Oh, I love him.” In one of the TVQ categories [a measurement of a celebrity’s cultural influence] he’s still in the top ten. He’s wonderfully skilled. He could have been a pro golfer or a pro race car driver, and he has a great intelligence that I don’t think always comes through. Jim’s really good at whatever he chooses to do—the Grand Prix drivers [working on the movie] say he could have raced and beat some of the pro drivers. He’s just an amazingly quick study. He could sit in the makeup chair and learn the script right there. He learned how to memorize lines from his first acting job in [the stage production of] the Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. He played a judge and he had no lines but he was paid by the producer to run lines with Lloyd Nolan and Henry Fonda and he told me that he learned to use the lines as building blocks—building one line on top of the other—and he said the trick is that you don’t go from one to the next without learning the first line. ‘You don’t learn lines,’ he told me, ‘you learn thoughts’. He’s the most easygoing person I’ve ever worked with—he applies his work ethic—and he was always there. The only negative thing he ever said in our two years was when I brought him the [book jacket] cover. He didn’t say anything and, finally, he said, ‘I don’t like it.’ I asked why and he said ‘your name is too small.’ So they made it bigger.

Scott Holleran: Maverick or Rockford Files?

Jon Winokur: Maverick. Because I’m that old—I was ten [years old] when it came on. There was Mad magazine and there was Maverick.

Scott Holleran: What’s your favorite James Garner movie?

Jon Winokur: I’m going to agree with him—The Americanization of Emily [1964]. I love [screenwriter] Paddy Chayefsky’s work. The script and the way Garner handles it is amazing. But the role was a huge departure for him.

Scott Holleran: Did you watch any of the movies together?

Jon Winokur: Yes. We watched a few, such as Skin Game. He likes to watch Grand Prix for the racing. We were watching Support Your Local Sheriff and that’s when he told me he was imitating Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine when he was sitting with his feet propped up.

Scott Holleran: Are you surprised by the media’s emphasis on the book’s salacious aspects?

Jon Winokur: No. [Pauses] Maybe a little bit.

Scott Holleran: Does it surprise you that Mr. Garner adores The Notebook?

Jon Winokur: Not at all. Because it’s his best work and I think he thinks so. He loved working with [director] Nick Cassavettes and Gena Rowlands and I think it was one of those shoots where everything fell into place. He cried in that movie; it’s one of the few movies he cries in, the others are The Children’s Hour and Promise. He hadn’t planned to do it. He said he was going to take his cue from [Ms. Rowlands]. I think he was a little out of control and it turned out OK.

Scott Holleran: Did you co-write the memoir’s “outtakes”, too?

Jon Winokur: Yes. Those are based on interviews, basically edited versions.

Scott Holleran: Did you meet and interview Doris Day?

Jon Winokur: I talked to her on the telephone. She was amazing. The most amazing was Lauren Bacall.

Scott Holleran: Do you have any other memoirs planned?

Jon Winokur: I have had some nice feedback from people in the [entertainment] industry, and from Simon and Schuster.

Scott Holleran: What is the impetus for Advice to Writers?

Jon Winokur: My first [non-self] published book, Writers on Writing, was a collection I had been amassing since I was 13. Advice to Writers [stems from] my attempt to try to figure out how to write.

Scott Holleran: Any new works in progress?

Jon Winokur: I don’t like to talk about it because when you talk about it, you discharge the energy. I am working on a pre-proposal. I can say it’s non-fiction.

Scott Holleran: Who are your favorite writers?

Jon Winokur: George Orwell. I like the essays on politics and the English language mostly and the short stories, especially Shooting an Elephant. He was on the right side of the Spanish Civil War [against the fascists] but he wasn’t taken in by [their enemies] the Communists. He was right about poverty and capitalism and he lived by his principles—he renounced his modest inheritance, which may be part of the reason he died at age 45. I also like Christopher Hitchens, Joan Didion—just her Zen-like brevity—Kurt Vonnegut, who’s the most magical, whimsical writer. Also Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac.

Scott Holleran: Any curmudgeonly thoughts on the late Andy Rooney?

Jon Winokur: I tried to interview him for one of the Curmudgeon books—and he refused, thereby verifying his curmudgeonliness. He served a great purpose—he was a gadfly and he was certainly a curmudgeon. He was 92. I’m sorry to see him go.

Scott Holleran: What’s the difference between a curmudgeon and a cynic?

Jon Winokur: That’s a good question. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that a cynic knows the price of everything—and the value of nothing. A curmudgeon knows the value of everything. Curmudgeons are offended by the lack of value—they’re fighting the good fight for truth, justice and the American way; their crankiness comes from being disappointed from the lack of quality around them. They are hurt easily—they’re very fragile and they need the misanthropy to protect themselves. In [The Garner Files], Jim calls himself a Tootsie Pop. Hard on the outside, soft on the inside.

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