I started at The New Yorker in 1963 and was doing what New Yorker writers in those days generally did, which was write, I don’t know, four or five very long pieces a year. It seemed to me that there were stories worth telling that really didn’t deserve 20,000 words, and that a series of shorter articles set in different parts of the country would be a way of getting those sorts of pieces into the magazine. I talked to William Shawn [then editor of The New Yorker] about it. He liked the concept but we didn’t really know how to proceed.
Then in 1967 I did a piece called “The War in Kansas”, which was really about the home front. I went there for two or three weeks. I wrote the piece in sections, with each section set in a different part of the state. That summer, my dad died and I was actually having trouble starting to write again. And Shawn said, ‘Why don’t we try to do that series?’ I realized that the way to do them is not to wait to see if one that seemed interesting came along, but instead to just go someplace and find one. And I asked him how many weeks of reporting and how long would they be, and he said maybe three weeks and 3000 words. I thought that I would do it for a year as I got back into the rhythm of writing, and then I really liked it. I did it for fifteen years. Magazine people would say to me, ‘How do you keep up the pace?’ and newspaper people would say, ‘What else do you do?’
A lot of writers, perhaps most notably Steinbeck, have attempted to write books that presented these encompassing notions or theories of what America is. Maybe you wouldn’t admit it, but was “U.S. Journal” ever about that in any way?
No. [Laughs.] A simple no. It was always a specific story, and don’t think you can tell something about the country that is true for the whole country. Someone asked me once what I had learned about the country, and I said, “Well, more things are about real estate than I thought.” Other than that, I don’t think I could draw any conclusions.
I think that reporters almost always make a mistake talking about more than one person at a time. There was an editor at Time. In those days it was sort of a double system. Time was written and edited in New York, and then there were reporters [in the field.] And there was one guy in New York who had risen quite high in the firm without ever having been a reporter. He went on one of these fact-finding trips to England. According to the story, I’ve never known if it’s true, he got in at night and sent a cable the next morning that started something like ‘The people in England believe.’ Well, the people in England in that case must have been the cab driver, or whoever picked him up on the way in. When I read about what people are like or what they believe, if it’s more than one person at a time I’m always a little suspicious.
If I were you I wouldn’t be so modest about presenting myself as an expert on the country. I would tell editors, ‘Just send me to San Diego or Wichita or wherever. Pay my expenses and I’ll answer every question you could ever have.’
At one point during the beginning of Watergate there were surveys that showed that the majority of the American people thought Nixon had committed a felony, but the majority of the American people were against impeaching him. And this really amazed Shawn, so he asked me to look into it.