Listen in on this delightful conversation between Tommy Shea and Sandy Chmiel, in which Tommy, who will be teaching the Creative Nonfiction Writing I course in the MFA, shares his history as a writer, his memorable moments chasing stories, and his ear for the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Can you tell us a little about your path to becoming a writer?
I was outside a church when I decided to be become a writer.
Wait, that isn’t quite accurate.
I was outside church in Springfield, MA selling newspapers. When I wasn’t selling them I was reading the sports sections. We sold newspapers from New York City to Boston, so many city and town names that if I read them aloud you’d swear I was reciting an Amtrak route.
I had grown up wanting to be the first American Pope – I had a name picked out and everything, Pope Patrick I – or replace Mickey Mantle as the centerfielder of the New York Yankees.
At 13, those plans were dashed against the rocks of reality.
I liked girls and I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be at baseball.
At a loss for what I was going to do for the rest of my life, it dawned on me – between the 9:15 and the 10:30 mass – I could become a sportswriter.
The emphasis was on sports not so much writing.
That would come later – when I discovered the work of Pete Hamill.
He wrote for the New York Post, a very different newspaper back then. It had a female publisher and actually told the truth about Senator Joe McCarthy, when few media outlets did.
Pete Hamill wrote a daily general interest column and he really mixed things up: writing about political chicanery, of course; boys returning from Vietnam not quite the same as they left; a poor neighborhood in its struggle to save the local firehouse; his father; what it was like to grow up poor.
The following week it was different topics, but the same heart and soul.
There was something about his sentences that made me want to write like him – or at least try.
I’m still trying.
How do you get people to trust you with their stories?
I’ve never found it hard to have people trust me.
I have to think why that is.
My mother always thought I’d be a priest because she thought I’d hear a good confession – and never repeat it.
Maybe because I never thought I was the story.
I want to think I’m a good, attentive listener.
I’m curious, I know that.
I do believe people respond if you are truly interested.
In my nearly 39 years as a newspaper reporter, I was in loads of situations where it could be – I don’t know if combative is the right word, but I’ve had my share of testy exchanges, scenes spilling with tension – but people still talked.
Even if all they said was “no comment.’’
That could say a lot.
At the risk of repeating myself, I think most people just want to be heard. If you care about them – with thoughtful questions and real listening – I think they will trust you.
That has been my experience.
You’ve written about everything from baseball to music to the Catholic Church abuse scandal. Is there a story that touched your heart more than any others?
I have been lucky– and I know it – to get to have covered the variety of stories I’ve covered.
Newspapering allowed me this life. I wouldn’t have met my wife Suzanne if I weren’t a reporter. (We met when I was covering high school hockey…)
But of all the stories, I guess the one that sticks out was one that involved the ongoing coverage of the murder of 12-year-old altar boy Danny Croteau.
The only suspect in the murder was a Catholic priest. He was arrested 20 years after the murder for molesting two brothers named John and Paul (after the then Pope.)
I started covering the story in the fall of 1991. So this might have been sometime in 1992, there was a new fact in the story – maybe another charge against Richard Lavigne - and I didn’t get the phone call confirming whatever it was until late. It could have been closing in on 10 p.m. Deadline was 11.
I needed a reaction from the Croteau family. Called the house, no answer. Called one of their sons. He didn’t want to comment and I asked a question out of desperation: “Do you know where your parents are?’’
He said they were at BINGO.
St. Catherine of Siena is an inconvenient ride from downtown Springfield, not far as the crow flies, but too much stop-and-go with all the lights if you are in a hurry.
When I got to the parish hall it was packed. I started looking for Mr. and Mrs. Croteau.
I was pointed in every direction:
He’s over there.
She’s over here.
The clock was ticking. It had to be at least 10:30. People were leaving.
Finally, someone said look in the church.
The lights were so dim it was almost dark, but the sacristy was lit, and in the shadow of Jesus on the cross there was Carl Croteau, Danny’s father – kneeling at the altar, head bowed.
No one knew he was there.
It certainly wasn’t a show for me. Whatever I asked, he answered.
I rushed back to the paper, not quite blowing red lights, more like easing through them, pressing the gas harder than I usually do when the coast is clear.
The story, I don’t remember the story or any of the details, just that I made the deadline.
But I’ll never forget standing in the back in the twilight of that church, wondering what the deniers, liars and character assassins, priests, lawyers, spokespeople, the faithful flock, would think if they saw this: the father of a dead altar boy, humbled before his God, praying.
It wasn’t for faith. Carl Croteau still had that.
I was a witness.
That’s what all writers are.
You have been a part of the MFA’s Summer Seminar in Ireland since it began. What makes the Dingle experience so memorable?
It is a place where confidence is built.
And inspiration comes from people whose last names you might not even know (yet.)
Work gets done.
And you take it home with you. Where more work is done.
The town is very pretty. The food is great – even at gas stations.
The people are friendly and helpful.
I think it is a place well worth the jet lag.
This fall you’ll be teaching Creative Nonfiction I in the MFA program. What about this class are you most looking forward to?
The easiest question!
I can’t wait to read the work and talk about it until we are all hoarse.
I know I can offer a tip or two. And present many examples of great creative nonfiction that we will dissect.
Powerful topics know no boundaries.
You are a big music enthusiast. What are you currently listening to?
AH, Sandy, thanks for asking about music.
What I’ve been listening to:
Sam Baker: Mercy. He’s like this cross between folk singers John Prine and Townes Van Zandt. His voice isn’t probably for everybody – I love it, but I came to music through the Bob Dylan door. Sam, who has some back-story, writes with the spareness of an Edward Hopper painting.
Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air did an interview with Sam a few years ago. Listen in…