Steve Oney is one of the most gifted long-form writers alive, and his new book, A Man’s World: Portraits, compiles the best of his magazine stories into one volume. An Atlanta native and alumni of the University of Georgia, Steve Oney began his writing career with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday magazine when he was 22. His work has since appeared in magazines as diverse as Esquire, Playboy, Los Angeles and the New York Times Magazine.
He’s the author of And the Dead Shall Rise (Pantheon Books, 2003), the definitive and critically acclaimed book about perhaps the most sordid moment in Georgia history: the 1913 lynching of Leo Frank in Cobb County.
The book has a decided Georgia perspective, with profiles of architect John Portman, Georgia football legend Hershel Walker, former Hawks coach Hubie Brown and the late Gregg Allman. Oney also writes about novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren, writer Harry Crews, actors Harrison Ford and Nick Nolte, among others.
Now living in Los Angeles, Oney returns to Atlanta Thursday for an appearance at the Margaret Mitchell House in conversation with former WSB-TV anchorman John Pruitt.
Oney recently talked to ArtsATL about A Man’s World, his career in journalism, growing up in Atlanta and his thoughts on the future of long-form writing.
ArtsATL: In the introduction, you write that “nobody taught me how to be a man.” You mention that most of your journalistic subjects were dealing with something you felt you needed to deal with, too. How much has your writing career been informed by that quest, of seeking out subjects who had something meaningful to teach you about how to survive in this world?
Steve Oney: My late father was a wonderful man, and he and my late mom did a fabulous job during my boyhood years. As the saying goes, I was raised right. But in my teens, the available male role models — mostly my coaches at now-defunct Peachtree High School in DeKalb County — seemed lacking. It was the usual collection of borderline sadists and masochists who in the late ’60s and early ’70s could be found on the sidelines under Friday night lights from South Carolina to Mississippi.
I don’t want to be too hard on these guys. To this day I call on the discipline they instilled and the guts they prized. But in some intuitive way I just didn’t think that would be enough. I was an emotional kid interested in creativity and the arts. So once I got into magazine journalism, I sought out novelists, musicians and, yes, jocks — I never fully put that behind me — hoping to learn how to do the man thing in a more original way. Mind you, it wasn’t really a quest. In my 40 years as a reporter, I have written about anything and everything — crime, business and politics. But many of my best pieces are indeed profiles of men, and by the time I turned 30 I realized I was writing them because I was looking for something.
ArtsATL: On the surface, the title of the book could be taken as exclusionary. Explain the intent of A Man’s World, and why you selected it as the title.
Oney: When I broached the idea of a collection of profiles to Beth Vesel, my agent, I said it should include both men and women. A couple of my favorite pieces are, in fact, portraits of women — Tracey Ullman for GQ and Arianna Huffington for Los Angeles magazine. Beth countered that the book would have more of an edge — and be more original — if it included only men. I believe she was right. A Man’s World breaks manhood down into categories — fighters, creators, actors and desperadoes — and the guys featured in the book offer a cross section of each. Some are geniuses, others are failures and a few are criminals. There are similarities and differences, which I think make the choices interesting. As for whether this is exclusionary — Beth believes women will be more inclined to read the book than men. We’ll see about that.
ArtsATL: The book includes a lot of people who have Georgia connections: architect John Portman, Herschel Walker, Gregg Allman, Hubie Brown. How has growing up in Atlanta and starting your career at The Atlanta Journal & Constitution Sunday magazine informed your perspective as a writer?
Oney: At age 22, I went to work as a staff writer at the old Journal & Constitution magazine. This was a great piece of good fortune. Jimmy Carter had just become president, and the management of the Atlanta papers was determined to make the magazine a showcase. The staff was talented and young, and while there was some adult supervision — initially Andrew Sparks, later Nancy Smith then Lee Walburn — the inmates essentially ran the asylum. Although we sometimes fell on our faces, we more often turned out excellent stuff, and we were encouraged to take chances. For instance, in 1980 when Herman Talmadge was fighting for his political life, I was given two months to put together a two-part piece about the end of Georgia’s greatest political dynasty.
My fellow writers — Jim Dodson, Russ Rymer, Mitchell J. Shields and the great Margaret Shannon, a legend in Southern journalism — challenged me to be better. The magazine, eventually renamed Atlanta Weekly, was a center of creative energy, and ultimately, esteemed outside writers like Pat Conroy, Toni Cade Bambara, Marshall Frady, William Hedgepeth and Paul Hemphill started contributing. For a while we were on top of the world, and Atlanta seemed like the center of the universe. I never wanted it to end, but it did. The magazine folded in 1986 — an early casualty in the war that has so diminished American newspapers. I miss it, but I’m glad I had the chance to cut my teeth there. I gained a lot of experience and confidence in those years.
ArtsATL: Gregg Allman just passed away, and one of the core stories in the book is your first piece for Esquire, a profile of Allman written in 1984 when his career was at its lowest ebb. What did you learn about him, or from him, that has stayed with you?
Oney: Gregg was on the ropes when I reported that piece, battling so many demons. While he’d beat his heroin addiction, he was an alcoholic, reeling from a divorce from Cher, ostracized by many Allman Brothers fans because of his testimony against the beloved roadie Scooter Herring in a drug trial and — most significant — still haunted by the death of his older brother Duane in a motorcycle wreck 13 years before. It was terrible to see him in such distress, especially considering that just a few years earlier he’d been among the biggest stars in rock. But he was fighting to get back on his feet, and I followed him on one of his many comeback tours. Just about everything that could go wrong went wrong: equipment failures, sick bandmates. Gregg was exhausted. But he kept his head up, and that’s what stuck with me. Gregg possessed great inner strength. He didn’t quit. As he once sang, he was no angel, but there was much admirable about him as a person. Also, he was just a great musician.
ArtsATL: You profiled John Portman for Esquire in 1987. As an architect, he set the vision for downtown Atlanta with Peachtree Center, the Westin and the Hyatt Regency. Part of his vision involves the tunnel passageways that enable people to park their cars and never leave the environment that Portman created for them. He imagined Atlanta as a “modern Venice.” With the perspective of time, has his concept for Downtown Atlanta proven visionary or folly?
Oney: John Portman hated that article, mostly because I mocked his hairdo, which is an elaborate comb-over disguised as a Calder sculpture. Far from being gratuitous, I believe this description offers a genuine insight into Portman’s architecture, how it’s at once defensive and outrageous.
As for the ultimate verdict on Portman’s work, I don’t think it’s in yet. Overall, I’m grateful to him. He believed in downtown Atlanta — and in other American inner cities — when most developers were running for the suburbs. In fact, I think without Portman Atlanta would be in much worse shape. On a personal level, he’s responsible for some fond memories: My dad and mom took me to lunch at the Polaris Lounge atop the Hyatt Regency after I graduated from high school. It was a thrill to sit up there in that blue bubble and contemplate my future. The problem with his work is that for all its exuberance, it turns its back to the streets. As you say, people with offices in Portman’s buildings use those tubes instead of the sidewalks. Again, though, without Peachtree Center Atlanta wouldn’t have much going on downtown except Georgia State and the capitol. So I tip my hat to Portman. He loves Atlanta, as do I.
ArtsATL: Who is the most fascinating person you’ve ever written about?
Oney: Hard to say. When I take on a big assignment, I’m all in, and the topic becomes the center of my existence. For the purposes of this conversation, I’ll say Bo Belinksy, subject of my piece “Fallen Angel,” which comes near the end of A Man’s World. Bo was a talented and glamorous pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels who came apart in mid-career — drugs, alcohol, you name it. To write that piece I had to confront not just the sad facts of Bo’s life (he ended up selling cars in Las Vegas) but explore my own self-destructive impulses. I think all men — all people, really — must face down demons in their lives and choose to embrace the good. Bo had terrible demons, and that was fascinating. But it made the story difficult to research and write. It’s essentially a close-up portrait of failure. Like I say, it was fascinating, even mind-boggling, but sad.
ArtsATL: What’s the strangest, most bizarre situation you’ve found yourself in with someone you were writing about?
Oney: My first big assignment for The Atlanta Journal & Constitution magazine was a profile of the novelist Harry Crews — “Getting Naked with Harry,” which is the last story in A Man’s World. I flew from Atlanta down to Gainesville, where Harry was teaching at the University of Florida. My first night there, I ended up back at Harry’s house, where something vague but sinister was going down — I think a drug deal. One of Harry’s friends was sitting on the sofa with a Taser, and Harry was drinking, and it was all a little tense. In the end, nothing bad happened. On a brighter note, for a New York Times “Arts & Leisure” story, I spent several hours one evening on a candle-lit porch with Ann-Margret — who, even at 50, her age at the time, took your breath away — discussing her career and the incredible dance sequences with Elvis in Viva Las Vegas.
ArtsATL: Do you keep up with people you’ve written about? Have friendships grown from the writer–subject relationships you’ve had?
Oney: The thing about magazine journalism — even in-depth magazine journalism like mine — is that you make very few friends or enemies. Each job is a transaction. The subject wants something — usually publicity but sometimes understanding — and the writer wants something: a good story. That said, I’ve made a couple of friends. I profiled Brandon Tartikoff, the legendary president of NBC, for California magazine. The piece, titled “That Championship Season,” is in the “Creators” section of A Man’s World. Brandon and I became close. In fact, we played softball together every Saturday for nearly 10 years after my article saw print. We just hit it off. I’ve also made several enemies. From a journalistic standpoint, one of the boldest pieces in A Man’s World is “The Talented Mr. Raywood.” It’s a portrait of a high-end conman. I worked on it for nine months. To put it mildly, the subject of that story wishes we’d never crossed paths.
ArtsATL: Robert Penn Warren told you, “It may be said that our lives are our supreme fiction.” What did you take from that?
Oney: Mr. Warren, a hero of mine and subject of a Journal/Constitution magazine story included in A Man’s World, believed in the great power of imagination, as well he might. He received three Pulitzers — two for poetry and one for the novel All the King’s Men. What he meant is that we’re all capable of conceiving a brilliant future and achieving it. To put it less originally: if we dream big, we just might realize those dreams. It’s a lovely, hopeful thought — our lives are our supreme fiction. It’s a mantra of mine, one I don’t always heed, but I try always to come back to it.
ArtsATL: With the Internet and social media and shorter attention spans, long-form journalism is under threat. As one of its best practitioners, what is the value of in-depth writing and how can it be kept viable?
Oney: I may be deluding myself, but I keep thinking that there’s an appetite for great, long narrative writing that’s similar to the appetite that has powered the slow-food movement. To me, a tweet is no more satisfying than a Big Mac. So my hope is that just as diners have turned to cuisine that bears the imprint of great chefs and is made from fascinating fresh ingredients, readers will turn to outlets that offer well-considered and imaginative prose. You see some of this in magazines and on literary websites. The big problem is money. How do you finance a renaissance? Do you sell memberships? Do you put everything behind a paywall? I will say this: as long as there are people there will be stories and a hunger to read those stories told imaginatively and gracefully. I felt that 40 years ago and still do today.