Political novelist and satirist Christopher Buckley answered questions from SMU and high school students on November 17, 2009, at the Turner Construction Student Forum of SMU’s Tate Lecture Series. The author of 11 books and editor of Forbes FYI spoke to students with humor and candor about the future of journalism, making a living as a writer and the current political scene.
Here’s a sample of the conversation:
My mortgage banker.
I graduated from high school in 1970, Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson were the exciting writers we all aspired to be. Download Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. They were authors that made our hearts go pitty pat.
What inspired your book Thank You for Smoking?
One day I was cooking dinner and watching the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on television. The guest was a scientist with so many Ph.Ds they wouldn’t fit on the screen. He was a tobacco researcher on to describe discovery No. 587 as to why smoking wasn’t good for you. For balance, they had a woman from the Tobacco Institute. She would refute all his claims.
I thought, “What an interesting job – to sell death for a living.”
I called her up and said, “I’d like to hang out with you.” Of course she smoked, a beautiful smoker.
I was in her office one day and I said, “There’s a question I’m dying to ask you.”
She said, “What’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?”
I said “Yes, exactly.”
She said, “I’m just paying the mortgage.”
Should intellectual conservatives try to take the Republican Party back from Rush Limbaugh?
I’m speed-reading Sarah Palin’s book. I’m up to the chapter “Drill Baby Drill.” So I’ve been thinking about this. Is Sarah Palin the future of the Republican Party? Rush Limbaugh declared Sarah Palin’s book the most substantial book on politics in the last decade.
People like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, you have to view them as entertainers. They are incredibly good at what they do, but I don’t think people go out and vote because Rush Limbaugh told them who to vote for.
I think Sarah Palin will end up with a TV show.
Should Republicans try to elevate the dialogue and do a little intellectual cleansing? Sure.
What is your advice to young writers?
There is no training like journalism. Look at famous novelists, a lot of them got their start in journalism. That’s how Earnest Hemingway, Mark Twain and Jack London got their start. Journalism is a passport to everywhere. What I wouldn’t do, unless you’re a genius, is go off to a cabin somewhere and write. I’d say err on the side of journalism.
The trouble is that journalism is changing. We are in a transformational moment. The New York Times is laying off people faster than a lumberjack can cut down trees. A lot of people of your generation probably will do the Internet.
When I graduated from college in 1976, I sent out 50 resumes. I thought I’d be exhausted fielding all the replies. I got one offer from the Charleston Evening Post in South Carolina. I accepted it.
On my way to South Carolina, I attended a cocktail party in New York where I met the editor of Esquire. They had an opening; Nora Ephron had just resigned. We talked and I took the job.
I’ve often wondered if that was the right decision.
Do you think members of the upcoming generation are afraid to speak their minds?
I have a son who is 17 and a daughter who is 21, so I have an opportunity to observe people your age. The thing you need to watch out for is political correctness, I think the pendulum has swung too far in that direction. But it is beginning to swing back. The Internet is changing that. You can say anything and five minutes later someone will make a post saying that you are an idiot.
Just a precautionary note – Be careful what you put on Facebook. Through the Internet you can communicate with a billion people. Think of it as a privilege and treat it accordingly.