Matt Labash Unplugged: On Deer Turds, Journalism, Trump’s Hair and Dick Cheney

Today is the debut of The Weekly Standard’s/Daily Caller’s Matt Labash’s first book, Fly Fishing With Darth Vader – And Other Adventures With Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys [Simon & Schuster]. His philosophy on reporting: “The best details always come when you think you already know everything.”

1. If this book were to become a film whom would you want to play you? Daniel Schorr. Because he’s 93, which I think is an accurate reflection of my old soul. If we can’t get him, then Nick Jonas, because the book could easily be re-imagined as a teen musical.

2. Where is your favorite place to write? Due to stacks of books and misplaced files, my home office is basically a dump/archaeological dig. I can’t even get into it without a Hazmat suit. So I no longer write there. I basically find some squatters corner in my house – most often the dining room table. But I might write anywhere that I can find quiet. Though it’s hard to find quiet. Especially with the voices. Who said that?

3. Have you ever gotten stereotypical writer’s block? That’s such a terrifying question, that it could jinx me to even answer it. So I won’t.

4. In writing the Detroit chapter you say, ‘It’s the only time I’ve ever felt like I was going to physically expire while writing a piece.’ Elaborate, please. Did you think you were having a heart attack? Also, you once ended up in the emergency room. Elaborate on that one, too. Actually, I had a writing-induced trip to the emergency room another time. I did a New Orleans trilogy during and after Katrina, over the course of a year and a half. The second installment came after spending a week in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Tough assignment, I know. But I was keeping very late nights and really trying to drill down on the wreckage and misfortune of friends of mine who live there, cutting across all strata of the city. I cared a lot about the piece. Maybe a little too much. About once every year or two, when I’m real fatigued, and my resistance is down – which usually happens when I’m coming off the road – I get this lip edema, some type of allergic swelling that’s triggered by stress. About half your lip grows to the size of a pregnant nightcrawler. Pop a few Benadryl and it goes down. This time, however, it didn’t go down. It just kept growing. I looked like one of those Amazon tribesmen with a plate in their lip. It was troubling, though my kids thought it was hilarious. I was on deadline, but I had to go to the emergency room before my throat started closing up. So while there, I had to keep knocking out interview tape on the laptop while laying on a gurney, or I’d never get done in time. (More on stress after the jump…)

5.How did Donald Trump get reporters like you to agree to go off record for the rest of the luxury flight? In the end, did you like him? What was his hair like up close? His hair is not to be believed. It has to be real. Nobody would buy a rug that bad. Up close, it looks like an abandoned bird’s nest. Or maybe apricot-flavored cotton candy. (More on Trump after the jump…)

6. Your new Daily Caller boss, Tucker Carlson, writes that former subjects still seek your advice. Is journalism a form of psychotherapy? Have you had a subject cry mid-interview and how do you deal with it? Oh, hell yes. Journalism is definitely like psychotherapy. When you successfully get into a subject’s head, you’re their priest, their best friend, their spouse, their bartender, their shrink. They end up telling you, a stranger, things they often don’t tell the people they know best. And you know why? Because you asked (More on journalism as psychotherapy after the jump…)

7. What, if anything, surprised you in the writing of this book? Hard to say, because I get surprised by something almost every story. In fact, I live for those surprises. That’s the best part. If I had to pick one, though, it’s probably that Mudcat is a woman trapped inside a man’s body. He didn’t say that, or anything. But he didn’t have to.

8. One gets the sense reading your book that each word is vigilantly chosen. Tell us about your writing process – do you ever throw out what you’ve done and start over? Do you ever think, ‘Damn, that is good.’? I don’t do drafts. I edit as I go along. So I’m always throwing stuff out. And then when I finish, I read and read and re-read. I do so at the computer about 10 or 15 times, all the way through, hammering things out here and there. Then when I have it pretty close, I print it out, and I read and read and read some more, while I pace. Because walking helps, for some reason. We live in our own heads too much. It’s good to make writing as physical as possible. Sometimes I read out loud, not because I need to sound out big thesaurus words, but because it’s easier to tell if you’re missing a beat or have an extra beat too many. Writing and music – same difference. It’s all about rhythm. And I look like an idiot doing this, quite frankly. During the Iraq War, I roomed with my colleague Steve Hayes, who couldn’t get enough of this process. He told everybody back home that ‘Labash loves to walk around the house reading his own stuff.’ That’s why I don’t speak to Hayes anymore.

9.You profess to despise Facebook and Twitter. You say the tweeters “can tweet until their tweeters fall off” – do you still have accounts in either? Is any of it good or is it all sh-t? Such naughty language, Betsy. Is that how the kids talk in their social networkings? You ask if I still have an account? That would suggest I ever did. The answer is no on both counts. And I’m not getting one, either. Almost all of my friends and colleagues are on both, of course, which doubles my resolve not to join them. My goal is to serve as a totem of their shame. (More on Facebook and Twitter after the jump…)

10. What’s next for Matt Labash? Lunch, I suppose. I try not to think too far ahead.

Extended Questions and Commentary with Matt Labash

11.Were you surprised when Mudcat’s deer sh-t turned out to be Raisinets? Very. Mudcat Saunders, the democratic bubba wrangler, took me hunting, and had me convinced that the way he tracked deer, discerning whether he was on the trail of a doe or a buck, was to eat a fresh pile of their droppings. Doe droppings are sweeter, he said. We came across a gleaming pile, and he tried to get me to eat it. I didn’t bite, as I prefer venison. But then he swallowed a big handful, as I stood there with my jaw open. When I asked him what it tasted like, he said, “Like shit.” He let it stand for a couple days. I don’t hunt, so I was calling every hunter friend I had asking, “Have you ever heard of this before?” All of them were seriously puzzled. Just as I was about to leave his house in the Blue Ridge mountains, he said he had a gift for me, and threw into my lap a Raisinets box labeled “one box of Mudcat’s deer shit.” Apparently, he’s played the trick on people before. There was this one guy he didn’t like, however. So in the woods, when he brought him to the fake pile of frozen Raisinets, and the guy wouldn’t eat any, Mudcat just started going to work on his manhood. By the end of their hunting trip, the guy, now shamed, saw a real pile of deer turds, and said, “Hey Mudcat, watch this!” and scarfed a bunch down. Mudcat was shocked. He didn’t have the heart to tell him about the Raisinets trick.

Did you think you were having a heart attack in Detroit?(continued from page 1, question #4.) I was exaggerating about Detroit, slightly. No heart attack, though. It involved a good friend of mine. So I was a little extra uptight about it. No emergency room visit, however. Just seven days of next-to-no sleep in Detroit. Followed by having to crunch over 1,000 of my interview transcript pages, so I could root out and organize my material over about three days. Then I had to write a 10,000 word story involving about eight major characters in two days. I felt really close to kicking on that one. It was probably just internal pressure (which can be a problem) and caffeine-induced arrhythmia. I drink gallons of iced tea when I write, the effects of which I can usually temper with two bourbons. It’s my emergency upper/downer regimen. It can help you achieve perfect balance if you hit it right, though I didn’t hit it right. I’m pretty sure doctors don’t recommend it. So Detroit was actually worse than the New Orleans ER episode. Though I think the kids enjoyed New Orleans more, since their dad looked like a carnival freak.

More on Donald Trump…(continued from page 1, Question #5)
I was shadowing him in California when he was considering a Reform party run for president. We’d watch him do things like give advice at a Tony Robbins seminar (“Always get a prenup”), or congratulate a rabbi at the Holocaust Museum on having a “nice property.” So of course, you have to love the guy. I did, anyway. Not sure he liked me. I mean, he appeared to on the trip. We got along famously. In his private plane, he went off the record for hours (I can’t tell you why – it was off the record. But he’s a pretty salty guy, so use your imagination.) He even let the few of us reporters aboard go up to the cockpit. I think he might’ve offered to let Adam Nagourney fly the plane. Luckily, he didn’t.

Anyway, some ill-tempered editor in my shop ended up titling the piece that followed, “A Chump on the Stump.” The piece was a little more affectionate to Trump than that, but I’m told he never got past the headline. Six months later, I saw him at a party and reintroduced myself. But he didn’t need a reintroduction. He said he remembered me, and “I think you know what I think of you: not much, now head out.” He tried to fire me from the party. But it wasn’t his party. Which I pointed out to him. So he and Melania, his supermodel girlfriend, now his wife, wheeled around and left the room. I’ve always respected him for that. He might not have a lot of principles, but the ones he does, he sticks to.

Is journalism like psychotherapy? (continued from page 1, question #6) Empathy, even when you’re doing a hitpiece, is a grossly underrated reporting tool. If I were teaching a journalism class, I’d tell students to be a human being first, and a journalist second. Because even if you’re a cold bastard, you get better stuff. Respond to people as you would respond to them naturally, not just as a “journalist” would respond. That’s important, since most people think journalists are assholes, which is not without some justification. Most subjects though, at least the ones I often write about, tend to be kind of lonely. Even and especially the famous and quasi-famous. So when you become their friend – in the artificial way journalists and subjects become friends – you’re halfway there. And sometimes you even stay friends after. Most people just want to be understood. And all people like talking about themselves. As I think this interview proves.

And yes, people cry now and then. Last year, I was doing a long hang-out piece with Marion Barry, and he got to talking about his ex-wife, Effie, dying. It was a vivid, brutal story. He clearly loved her still. It actually affected me. When he got to the part where she passed, he started crying. Totally threw me for a loop. You don’t expect to ever see Marion Barry cry. So to cope with it, I went into the bathroom and did some of his crack. See – that was really wrong. That was the a-hole journalist in me answering, not the empathetic human being. Marion Barry, though. I really liked him. He’s alright. Who knew?

Is Facebook or Twitter good at all? (Continued from page 1, question #9) Sure, when people promote the last piece I’ve written on them. Then, I regard such usage as the Hand Of God Working Mightily. I salute it. Otherwise, I’m indifferent-to-hostile about the whole thing. I don’t really begrudge people using these things on a personal level, he said, lying through his teeth. But what I have no stomach for is the twittish triumphalism of journalists pretending as though it’s the wave of the future. No it isn’t. Not really. Nobody’s getting paid for it. And I’m dubious that better stories are getting written as a result of it. It might be easier to find sources here or there. But it’s mainly just a vanity production – more clutter and white noise in the masturbatorium, and a distraction from the glug-glugging of the ship going down. It is what it is. A Pew study just came out announcing that the early-adopting kids aren’t even that bullish on it – only eight percent of teenagers even use it. But just try telling that to the big kids in the press corps, who act as though they’ve discovered a way to stay relevant and save journalism. No they haven’t. You know what would save journalism? The advertising market coming back. And people hiring more journalists. To tell better stories. And to pay them for it. When Twitter finds a way to do that, let me know. Maybe I’ll sign up.

12. Favorite writers, newspapers, fiction and otherwise I used to love both Henry Allen and Angus Phillips – the outdoors writer – at the Washington Post, but they both recently retired. Two of the saddest days journalism has seen in a year of many sad days. I strongly urge The Post to get on its knees and beg them to come back, as they still write as well as anyone in newspaper journalism. Books-wise: Richard Ford, P.G. Wodehouse, Peter De Vries, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Lynch, Tom McGuane. A lot of Tom’s in there I just realized. If I threw Tom Paine and Thomas Mann in, will you pay off a straight flush?

13. Is there any publication, if they offered, you would go? I don’t really have a bias for or against any publication. I like editors who let you play to your strengths, and encourage you to do what you do best, and who trust you enough to run it like you write it. As long as you’re making a living doing what you love to do, where you’re doing it is almost incidental. For the last 14 years, the person who has let me do that has been Bill Kristol, God bless him, at The Weekly Standard.

14. Why do you hate going on TV so much? Because to me, it feels like public speaking, and I hate public speaking. It also feels false, contrived, and tends to put me in positions where I have to pop off about things I know nothing about without giving them thought. Which makes me hate myself. So I pretty much try to avoid doing things that make me hate myself. Which is doctor-recommended, since I’m a cutter.

15. What “funtivities” do you like to do for fun sake? I fly fish all year around, whenever and wherever I can. This time of year, when it’s really cold, I mainly fish sewage treatment plants. With the warm water outflow, the fish like to stack there. Though I wouldn’t eat them, of course, even if I weren’t a catch-and-release guy. They’d probably taste like Mudcat’s deer turds.

16. If you could go and do one of these stories or interviews over just for the sheer fun of it, which would you choose? The Dirty Trickster Roger Stone always makes me laugh. He’s a maniac. He’s 57 years old going on 12. He always has three diabolical schemes cooking at once, which are usually not for financial gain, just for fun or revenge, as he has a lot of enemies, both real and imagined. He’s out of control in nearly every way. He has no censor button. So he’d be high up on the list. But if I could re-report a story, it would probably be fly fishing with Dick Cheney. Not because of Cheney – who was surprisingly funny and a trash-talker besides – but because I was getting paid to fish the South Fork of the Snake River in Idaho. Which doesn’t suck. And I’d rather be fishing than writing any day.

17. Is writing a talent or can it be learned? I think you’re pretty much stuck with the writing talent you were born with. But if that’s not good enough, you could always try plagiarism.