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Remembering 'New Yorker' editor and renowned baseball writer Roger Angell

Angell's writing earned him a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame, when he received a career excellence award in 2014. He died May 20 at the age of 101. Originally broadcast in 2001.




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Other segments from the episode on May 24, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Tuesday May 24, 2022: Interview with Sarah Silverman; Roger Angell Obituary



This is FRESH AIR. For many fans of good sports writing, baseball season was also Roger Angell season. He wrote about the game for The New Yorker, where he was published most of his adult life. His first piece was published in 1944. In 1956, he became the magazine's fiction editor. He described The New Yorker as the family store. His mother, Katharine Sergeant Angell White, had worked there as an editor. His stepfather, essayist E.B. White, was a New Yorker writer and contributing editor. Angell's writing earned him a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame when he received a Career Excellence Award in 2014. Roger Angell died last week at the age of 101. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with him in 2001 after he'd written a book about pitcher David Cone.


GROSS: Roger Angell, let's talk about your writing career a bit. You've been writing for The New Yorker since 1946, so that's 45 years. When you started writing for The New Yorker, your mother was the fiction editor. Your stepfather, E.B. White, was one of the magazine's star writers. Did it feel like the family business to you?

ROGER ANGELL: Yeah, it did. I mean, I didn't think in those terms then, but I really wanted to be a writer, I guess, and an editor, too, so I ended up doing both. And writing for The New Yorker seemed the natural thing. And I did write a couple of little fiction pieces when - back in those days, we could have tiny little back-of-the-book fiction pieces that got me going. But I think I learned from my stepfather really how hard writing is. I mean, his writing always - E.B. White's writing always looks absolutely like the easiest thing in the world, just nothing to it. There's no strain in anything he ever wrote.

But I'd watched him as a teenager when he was writing the Notes and Comment page for The New Yorker every week, and he'd go into his study up in Maine and close the door and be there all day long, and there were long silences between the little rips and sounds from the typewriter. And he'd come out, and he'd be silent and pale, not say anything at lunch, and at the end of the day, he'd file it off. And then the next day, he'd say, wasn't good enough. He'd try to get it back again. Writing is hard. And I think that there aren't many writers who write with ease. So I got that idea early on, too.

GROSS: Your mother was fiction editor of The New Yorker, and this was in an era where not that many women even worked, and certainly most of the women who did work worked in traditional women's professions, and being fiction editor of The New Yorker doesn't fall in that category. Were you aware of how unusual it was to have your mother do what she was doing?

ANGELL: Terry, I don't think I was sufficiently aware. I mean, I always admired her. And she thought of herself - she said - she didn't use the word feminist, but she spoke of herself as being a working woman. But work was so much a part of her life, and The New Yorker was the main event in her life, really, and it surrounded her every day. And I think of her now, and I think of her with galleys in a manila envelope under her arm or around the house or even in bed in the mornings or something, a bunch of galleys and brown - soft brown pencils and soft - and erasers, a lot of erasing, the stuff that comes off erasers around her and smoking cigarettes. And that was the standard of her life, and she was deeply involved with the magazine and with her writers. I think that if any way it inspired me to be a writer, then certainly she inspired me to be an editor. I actually ended up as the fiction editor of The New Yorker myself. I'm still a fiction editor there. And at one point, I would - I inherited her old office. And a shrink that I was seeing at the time heard that I'd moved into her old office and had the same job that she'd had, and he said, this is the greatest single act of sublimation in my experience.


GROSS: Your stepfather, E.B. White, was the co-writer of, you know, the most used style book, Strunk and White. Is that a stylebook you've used over the years?

ANGELL: Oh, sure. Yeah. They're a set of general - there's general advice in there. Be clear; don't be fancy. I don't have them by heart. But that's the heart of the book. There are lots of helpful hints about punctuation. And anyway, he once told me the rule about that and which, which I memorized on the spot. He said, The New Yorker is the magazine that cares about which; The New Yorker is a magazine that cares about that (laughter). No, I'm sorry - a magazine which cares about that, a Magazine.

GROSS: Oh, see - this never helps me.

ANGELL: All right.

GROSS: I'm still as confused as ever (laughter).

ANGELL: One is the defining - the magazine that. Or nondefining - a magazine, comma, which (laughter).

GROSS: You know, with that and which, I always say to myself, should I struggle again to figure out what the difference is between the two, or should I give up and figure most people don't really care anyways? What advice would you have for me on that?

ANGELL: I think you're right, that...

GROSS: Give up?

ANGELL: I don't stop and think about it. I just put down what - I mean, part of my mind does this anyway. It usually gets it right. And I don't stop and say, is this the correct form? And I will - the big thing is to look at what you've written and to - when it's done and to see if it's any good and to also to think about how it sounds. I think a lot about how writing sounds. Even a perfect sentence that sounds terrible in the end, if you almost say it to yourself as you're closing in at the end, you'll probably get it right. I still edit John Updike, and this is what he does. He corrects over and over, and he corrects on page proofs. The last day things are going in, he will rewrite and rewrite. And he will say on the phone to me, how does that sound? How does that sound to you, Roger? And I do the same thing to myself. How does that sound? Writing is meant to be heard as well as looked at.

GROSS: My interview with Roger Angell was recorded in 2001. He died last week at the age of 101.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR. My guest will be poet Diana Goetsch. Her new memoir, "This Body I Wore," is about transitioning to living as a woman when she was in her late 40s. We'll also talk about what it was like to grow up trans in a time when she didn't have the language, literature or subculture to help her understand what it meant to be trans. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE MCKENNA'S "A SHINE ON YOUR SHOES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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