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Interview conducted by Lazaro Aleman and Steven Robinson
Leon Hale needs no introduction to Texans. As a columnist for the Houston Post for nearly thirty years, Mr. Hale is well known throughout the state. It should be no surprise that to read the column is to know the man. He is as engaging in person as in print. We began the discussion by asking about where his ideas come from.
Dialog: Let’s start off with your columns. You’ve been writing these for the Post for approximately twenty-seven years now. After writing a column for that length of time, do you find yourself at times not being able to come up with ideas?
Hale: Of course. that’s the job, as much as anything. It’s coming up with the ideas. In the first place, you repeat yourself a lot after you’ve been around as long as I have. But you also get a lot of help from the readers. Mail and telephone calls. That’s what the job is, a constant search for ideas. What are you going to write about tomorrow? And you look for ideas in almost anything. Like this right here. Before we’re through, I’ll probably get an idea from you guys.
Dialog: Do you receive much mail?
Hale: Well, I have never gotten bushel baskets of mail except when I ask for it. I can ask for mail and get more than I want. I avoid asking for it ’cause I have to answer it.
Dialog: What about travel? Do you still travel as much as you did, say ten or fifteen years ago?
Hale: No, I think the first year that I was on this job and this column, I traveled about 75,000 miles over the state. But it’s come down about a thousand miles a year since then. And in the last couple of years, I haven’t traveled as much. I’ve traveled farther. I’ve been to the West Coast, and this past summer, I did a series on London. So I’m kind of spreading out. But I don’t travel as regularly on the routine travel.
Dialog: Are you meeting as many people, do you think?
Hale: Yeah, I’m meeting as many, ’cause I’m staying here in Houston, where all the people in the world are. I think it’s important to keep meeting new people and doing new things. I never have quit that. But I have gotten a little bit weary of going to Nacogdoches. I can still enjoy it, but I find I enjoy it more when I don’t go as often. Nacogdoches is sort of the word I have for just traveling in Texas. Everything is Nacogdoches; it saves time.
Dialog: What are the advantages of a column, as opposed to being a general ‘beat’ reporter?
Hale: Oh, man, you’re your own boss! You do what you want, write about what you want. I’ve never had any ambition whatever to be a newspaper reporter who goes out and reveals the sins of the public. I’m glad other people do, but that’s assignment stuff mostly, and I’ve never been too much of a crusader. I’ve tried to understand the world more than I’ve tried to change it, and I know it needs changing. When I started out, I decided, well, the first thing I’ll do is try to understand everything, and then I’ll know how it oughta be changed. And I’m still trying to understand it.
Dialog: Some of your columns, no doubt, change people’s attitudes for the better.
Hale: If I’ve done any crusading and changing, that’s the way I want to do it. And I have got my little causes. I was doing things on the environment back when I didn’t know what ecology meant. Way back there, and I continue to do that.
Dialog: Yet you seem so at peace with yourself in your columns. How do you deal with your anger?
Hale: I write the column in place of it. I think all column writers have some problem within themselves. That’s why the position of columnist is so desirable an occupation. It’s a way of expressing something they need to express. And, as you can see, I write a whole lot better than I talk.
I’ve had chance and chance again to give up the column and be a full time book writer. But I’m afraid to. I’m afraid I’d miss it so bad. I’d miss whatever its given me, the chance to sound off and get rid of my frustrations. You see, I can get up in the morning, and if I feel bad, I can write about how bad I feel. Or if the house is dirty, well, I can write about how dirty the house is. It’s therapy. I guess that answers your question.
Dialog: So, though you might experience the same positive effects without the column, you’re not willing to risk it?
Hale: I think so. I’ve always been scared to death to let go. It’s been a part of me so long, though right now would be a pretty good time to check out. You know the paper’s [Houston Post] been sold, and I’ve been there a long time. I’ve got two publishers who say, “We’ll keep you busy.” But I still haven’t decided that I’m going to do it. I don’t think I will. I may cut down a little more where I can do books.
Dialog: We want to discuss the sale of the Post further, but right now, can you tell us how you became a Post columnist?
Hale: I came out of school in ’46 after the war, and I went to work at A&M College. I didn’t want to work at A&M. I’ve been accused of being an Aggie, but I’m not. I went to Texas Tech. But I worked there because they gave me a job at $200 a month, and I stayed there about a year and a half. My job was to interview experts up there and write press releases then send them out to the newspapers.
The only thing I ever wanted to do in journalism was to write a column. I did one in high school, and I did one in college. I was looking for a place to write a column. So I started one up there and started sending it out. The Post editor grabbed hold of it and called me about it. Told me their farm editor was quitting, so I took the job. I did that for five years. I was running around covering county fairs. Wrote about cows and horses and cotton and all that stuff. I never did want to write about that stuff, but they let me write a column along with it.
Dialog: This was your first stint at the Post?
Hale: That was the first five year period. And then when I got unhappy there, well, I quit and went to work for an oil company for three years, where I was more unhappy. Then they [the Post] said “if you come back, we’ll let you do what you want.” That’s how I got the column. I was running around the state, you know, writing about bums under bridges, nice old ladies doing quilts, things like that. And I’ve been doing it ever since.
It’s changed a little, though. I do more commentary now, rather than just interview stuff. I cut that down because I got the feeling that, especially out in these small towns in rural Texas, which was my beat for so long, that I had covered it. I felt like when I went into a country store, I already knew what everybody was going to talk about and the stories they were going to tell. Now, that’s not necessarily true, but I had that feeling. So I’ve quit that now. I talk to more city people and do more of my own opinions.
Dialog: It would be interesting to know what some of your strong opinions are, with respect to things we are all prone to have opinions about, such as politics, for example.
Hale: As I said a while ago, I feel strongly about environmental matters. What would qualify as crusading for me has been along that line. Just almost any environmental matter I feel strongly about. I lived five strange years in Pasadena. I was married to a woman out there. Talk about being in the belly of the beast! I’m not talking about the woman, either. I’m talking about the Ship Channel. Breathe enough of that stuff, and it’ll give you a strong opinion.
As for politics, when I grew up, we had a picture of Jesus Christ on one wall and Franklin Roosevelt on the other. My parents were Roosevelt Democrats. They thought the devil was Herbert Hoover for causing the Depression, which of course he didn’t. So I grew up that way, until the war, and then I became a damn wild-eyed conservative. I’ve sort of drifted back toward the middle since them. There have been times, I guess back about the ’50s, when Eisenhower came in, when I was really just a flat conservative Republican. Now, I’m not sure what I am. I just take it by the issue.
Dialog: A lot of people who are familiar with your columns are probably not aware that you’re also a fiction writer. So let’s discuss this aspect of your writing for a moment, specifically your novel Bonny’s Place. In this novel, as in your columns, you don’t ever preach or moralize, per se, yet the book seems to have a religious theme: the examination of good and evil. Bonny, for example, by conventional or religious standards, is not a good man. He cheats, steals, commits adultery. Yet, by the morality you seem to project in this novel, he is the closest thing to a “saint.” What is your definition of a good man and of evil?
Hale: I can’t define what a good man is. But the reason the character Bonny interested me was that he was the combination of, if you want to say so, good and evil that’s in most all of us, except to a greater degree. He’s a worse man than I am. I mean, I don’t steal and cheat on my income tax. At least, not very much like he does. But I’m not as good as he is, either. I wouldn’t go and take a black kid into my house like Bonny did. I might, under some circumstances. But I never have. I’ve never really considered it.
I don’t know. I don’t know what a good man is. But I was fascinated by that intensity of good and bad as good and bad are perceived by the beer joint people. I used to hang around beer joints, and Bonny is a composite of about seven or eight people I knew. I became fascinated by their values. What they considered to be right and wrong. It’s a pretty interesting study of humanity. I thought of it as a novel about judgment, because people like Bonney are judged as being evil by people who don’t know him, just because he runs a beer joint.
Dialog: In the novel, one of Bonney’s patrons, a local school superintendent, is talking to the narrator and says that basically what he likes about the beer joint people is that they don’t judge, unlike the solid citizens he spends most of his time with. Would you say this pretty much summarizes your point of view?
Hale: Well, I’m not sure about that, whether he’s speaking for me. He’s speaking for that character and for a whole lot of people in his position who I know, who are judged. He’s in a very sensitive position in the community. But he could go out there to Bonney’s and he wasn’t judged. He walked in, and he was just another person. Yeah, that speaks for me, in a way. I think that’s good.
Dialog: Would you say that is what you admire most about the “common man?”
Hale: That’s what I admire most about the people who I was meeting around beer joints at the time I was sitting around among them, yes. That they just didn’t want to judge me as good or bad. And as long as I went by the rules and didn’t go in there starting trouble, they accepted me. That appeals to me.
Dialog: Would you say you romanticize that type of character?
Hale: Yeah, I guess I do. Is that all right? [laughs]
Dialog: Bonney’s Place, in mood and characters, is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Was Steinbeck an influence on your work?
Hale: You know, I had not read Sweet Thursday when I wrote Bonney. But I had read Cannery Row, of course.
Dialog: What other writers influenced you?
Hale: The standards. Mark Twain. It’s kind of a strange combination, because when I was going through school and it occurred to me that someday somebody might pay me to write a sentence, the people I read were Mark Twain and Damon Runyan. Talk about a wide spectrum. Runyan wrote about the New York underworld. He was a columnist on the New York papers. Guys and Dolls was based on some of his stuff, and movies like Little Miss Marker. I just loved his rhythms and his lilt. Of course, Mark Twain, I loved his work and his genius. They’re the people who most influenced me in the beginning.
Dialog: What about your writing style, which is basically clear, simple, and folksy now? Yet, in the preface to your first book of collected columns, Turn South at the Second Bridge, you mention how, in your youth, you used to make “unqualified, assertive statements,” and also use “four-bit words” that you wouldn’t think of using now, like “sobriquet.” What changed you?
Hale: That’s right. That piece was one of the things I wrote back to my people at Texas Tech. Nobody out there ever told me to write simply. I thought the way you wrote was to write in the most complex, complicated style possible. I remember when I graduated, the greatest compliment in my view that I’d ever received was that somebody said to me, “Hey, I saw your piece in the paper, and I didn’t know what you were talking about.” I thought that was really neat, that I’d written something nobody understood. Then when I went to work at Texas A&M, I was there about a week when they said, “Look, guess who’s reading your stuff? It’s the farm people of this state, and they have a reading level of sixth grade.” So they put me on a train and sent me to Auburn, Alabama, for two weeks, to a simplified writing school. I learned more about writing in two weeks there than I did in four years in journalism. They said, “Son, forget all this crap that you learned about writing. This is the way you’ve got to do it if you’re going to be understood.” That two weeks in Auburn is still a force in my writing.
Dialog: One last question about Bonney’s Place. At the end, the narrator realizes he’s basically “an outsider,” in spite of the affinity he feels for these people. Does this apply to you, also?
Hale: It’s true that he never really became one of them, and I didn’t either. I’m not a beer joint person. I did a lot of research and work around them, and I can still enjoy going to them. But I never became one of them really. I never did become one of anybody I wrote about.
Dialog: Do you think it is the nature of a writer always to be an outsider?
Hale: Sure, I think so. I’m never in the middle of things. I’m over at the edge observing and listening. And even though you get mixed up sometimes in the lives of the people you write about, you’re never a part of them. I’ve found that I can’t be, don’t even want to be. I thought at one time maybe I would, when I got divorced this last time. Anyway, I thought “I’ll get out of Houston. I’ll move out in the country, among these people I write about. I went to New Ulm, which is one of my favorite little villages, and they were going to help me get a house and live there. I did have sense enough to take a test. I stayed up there a couple of weeks, and about the seventh day I knew I’d never stay there. I’d see the same people every day and hear the same old beer joint stories, and I knew I never would stay.
Dialog: Besides Bonney’s Place, have you written any other novels?
Hale: One other that’s been published. It’s called Addison. It was written after Bonney’s, and it didn’t sell as many copies. but I think overall it’s probably better written than Bonney’s. I think it contains some of the best writing I ever did. It’s been called a military novel, but it’s not really. It’s kind of a love and sex story about a guy in the army who takes under his wing three younger guys and teaches them what he knows.
Dialog: Do you have any desire to write another novel?
Hale: I’m working on now that I don’t much talk about. It’s the one I’ve lived for the last few years here in Houston. An old guy caught in middle age just struggling with this strange city and his own personal problems. That’s as much as I can talk about it. I think about it all the time, and I think it’ll probably be by far the best thing I’ve ever done, if I can ever get through it.
Dialog: Have you started to write it?
Hale: I’ve been working on it quite a while. This last few years, I’ve been in this transition period between keeping the column going and recovering from the turmoil of my personal life. In the interim, we’ve put out one book of columns from the Post. We’ve got another one coming out this week. That’s what I’ve been doing in the book business.
Dialog: What’s the new book called?
Hale: The title is Easy Going, and I think it’s going to be a better collection than this one we did last year and that one. [pointing to a copy of The Smile of Kattie Hatten] It’s far better than either of the others I’ve done.
Dialog: Are you good about the public relations aspect of the book business?
Hale: Sometimes I’m pretty good at it. But that’s not, as you can imagine, my long suit. Probably one of my weaknesses as a writer of books is that I’d just a heap rather write the book, pitch it out there, and let it sink or swim on its own merit. But you’re just kidding yourself if you think that’s the way you’re going to make it now. You’ve got to write it, and then you’ve got to sell it.
Dialog: Are you trying to be more active in this regard?
Hale: No, I’m trying to be less active. I’m trying to get somebody else to do it. Anyway, it has to be done. When I get hyped up for it, I’m better at it than I’m being here. I mean, going on TV and all that stuff. I’ve done it, and sometimes I’m pretty good at it. But I’d just rather not.
Dialog: When did you discover that you were a celebrity?
Hale: I never have really felt like a celebrity. You hear people say nice things and all that, and some of my friends get really teed at me for not considering myself one. I know when you’re in the paper every day, and people write letters and say nice things or bad things about you, you take on some sort of celebrity status. But I don’t think of myself as one. And I’d just as soon sit over in the corner and let someone else be the celebrity. I don’t deny that there are times when it’s fun and it feels good. I’m sort of in the entertainment business, show business, and not too well suited for it. But that’s okay. It’s a living, and I can stand the negative part of it.
Dialog: Is there possibly anything you could do that would be more stimulating and more fun for you? Don’t you have the perfect job?
Hale: Well, I’ve thought so, on both the writing, which I enjoy, though sometimes its hard, and the gathering of material. Both of them are probably the sort of things I would do if I didn’t have to work for a living. I think I would pretty much go around and do what I do. At least up to now. I may be changing. I have a hankering to spread out a little and see some more of the world, do a little bit of traveling, learning, just daydreaming.
Dialog: Do you have any ideas about where you’d like to travel?
Hale: Well, I have proposed it to the paper, and I don’t know about whether the new owners are going to go for it. But I’ve started out to, first off, see my own country. I haven’t really done any wide traveling since World War II. The first leg of it was the trip a year ago, when we went to about twelve western states. Up in the Redwood Country.
Dialog: You must have enjoyed that.
Hale: Oh, man, it was really great. I wrote a whole month about it, and been writing about it on and off ever since. I want to do the same thing up the other coast. I’ve traveled pretty well in the South, the Deep South, but not the eastern seaboard. I want to go to Maine, Canada, and then across the top. Then I’ll start maybe looking at the rest of the country, if I’m still alive.
Dialog: So we can assume then that as long as you’re able you will continue to keep writing about your travels and the people you meet?
Hale: I would never quit. Now, it may not be safe to assume that I’ll keep doing it for the paper. I may just quit doing the paper and write books. But I’ll keep writing.
Dialog: On that matter, would you tell us your feelings about the Post being sold to a Canadian syndicate?
Hale: I don’t really know these people yet. I had in my head a personal preference for the people who I was aware were looking at the paper. There were about six of them that I know of, and of my personal choice, the people who bought it were next to the worst. That might be an unfair thing to say because I don’t really know them yet. But we had people like the Washington Post looking at us. That was my first choice. Who wouldn’t want to work for those people. Of course, it’s just been twenty-four hours since it’s been announced, so everybody may be perfectly happy. I think one of the reasons that, at first blush, a lot of folks over at the Post are disappointed—and me too, really—is that the Toronto Sun itself is a flashy tabloid.
Dialog: Shades of Rupert Murdock?
Hale: Yeah. So we may be entertaining notions that they’re going to make the same kind of paper out of the Post. I don’t think they will because, in the first place, they’re a newsstand paper. They don’t even have home delivery. So I’m hoping the people don’t turn things upside down.
Dialog: You’re hoping they will adapt themselves to the readership the Post has already established?
Hale: I’m sure they’ve got that much sense. Anybody who can raise one hundred million dollars has to have some judgment.
Dialog: Why was the Post sold?
Hale: I don’t really know. I just know what they announced. They said it was for tax purposes and changing interests on the part of the publishers. But the assumption has been that the tax advantage to them would be after the demise of Mrs. Hobby, who is seventy-eight years old, by the inheritance tax. You know, there are children involved. This is a very closely held corporation.
Dialog: H&C Corporation, right?
Hale: Yeah, Hobby and Catto. Anyway, I assume that’s the story. I’ve never heard them say that.
Dialog: A few months back you did a column about having nightmares that you would lose your job if the Post was sold. Is that a real fear, or were you just having fun?
Hale: A little of both. All of us have had our little wonderment about what we would do if they came in and said “All right, folks, all of you over fifty years old just pick up your bed and walk.” But I’m not seriously worried about it. If I walked out of there now, it would be a pretty good retirement.
Across the years, I’ve been proud of the Post some days. I can’t say I was ever ashamed of it. I’ve never been ashamed to go around representing the Post, but I’ve been disappointed in it a few times because it didn’t become as great a newspaper as I think it could have become. Sometimes, all of us get frustrated when we can’t do as good as we know we can. What I hope is that these new people provide the resources to make the Post the paper it ought to be.
Dialog: In conclusion, how would you like to be remembered? As a columnist, a novelist, a good person?
Hale: I would like to be remembered as a guy who brought some pleasure into people’s lives. Mainly through the column. I really didn’t give a damn if I’d be remembered or not up until the time I was about fifty. And then I got to having pains in my chest, and things like that, and I decided that I did want to be remembered. That’s when the books became more important to me because you’re more remembered by books. Who sits around reading old newspapers? Nobody. Books endure. That’s another reason I wanted to put out these volumes of columns in book form. I’d just as soon be remembered for the entertainment value of these books of columns as anything. I want my kids to say, “Yeah, the old man was a pretty good old boy.”
This interview originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.