A Possible Infinity of Novels

Life lessons of a newspaperman

By Brian Doyle | July 10, 2015
Newspaper production office, interior, Auburn, WA, ca. 1920
Newspaper production office, interior, Auburn, WA, ca. 1920


My friend Mr. Mahoney began his career as a newspaperman by setting hot-lead type for a tiny town newspaper. It doesn’t matter which tiny town, he said. All tiny towns are beautifully immense in the scope of their comedy and sadness, their courage and cruelty. This is why so many plays and films are set in small towns, because small towns aren’t small at all. The smaller the town the better you can see the scope of the story. Cities confuse the actions. Any story set in a city must necessarily limit its scope to tiny-town size. The city is useful only for a vast welter of background noise, which sharpens the focus on the small stage on which the story is taking place. The same principle applies to stories set on other planets and in other centuries. The largest story needs the smallest stage. All love stories entail at most three players, and usually two, one in pursuit and one in retreat. There are endless permutations of this story. You can be in pursuit physically and in retreat emotionally. You can be in pursuit of yourself in the guise of another person. You can be in pursuit perpetually, always retreating as soon as the pursued ceases to retreat.

I learned everything I know about stories as a newspaperman in that tiny town, he said. First I learned to ask questions and listen to the answers, and then I learned to listen to what was being said beneath the answers, and then finally I learned to listen to what wasn’t being said at all. I also learned to ask questions of bodies, as it were. I learned how to read the way that people walked and stood and slouched. I learned that people often shout when they are not sure of themselves or when they know they are not telling the truth; the more people insist they are right, the more you should suspect that they are wrong and they know it very well. I learned that sometimes the most searing things are whispered and muttered. I learned that a lot of public events are the flimsiest most ephemeral theater, without the slightest actual news or revelation or basis in fact. I learned that people who get in your face, and get on your case, and attack you sharply verbally, are usually playing offense so that they don’t have to play defense. The loudest, most vociferous arrogant man is usually a man deeply afraid that he is small and insignificant and insubstantial. He shouts to prove to himself that he is important. Often men like that go into politics. Often politicians are men who desperately want other people to think they are important and charming and eloquent and visionary, because they know they are none of those things.

First I learned to set type, and then I learned the printing trade, and then I learned about finance and marketing and advertising and distribution, and eventually I rose to be the editor of the newspaper, and then the regional manager of several newspapers. I enjoyed all these jobs; I enjoy listening to stories, and each time I went up the corporate ladder I was given a chance to hear many more stories. As regional manager, I made a point of visiting every newspaper in every town as often as possible, and listening to every person there, from the kid reporter to the grizzled wizard of the printing press. Then I would also stop in at the police station, and the firehouse, and the train station, and the library, and at least one church, and also any diners or restaurants that looked promising, and listen to people there also. Policemen and librarians are wonderful storytellers, as a rule. And probably the best judges of character I know are the men and women who sell train and bus tickets. Those men and women have seen every sort and shape and style of human being, not to mention other species, and they never forget anything. You could write a dozen novels just by listening to the stories of one train-ticket seller in one tiny town. You absolutely could. And that would be only a handful of a possible infinity of novels.

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