DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Christopher Dickey, the foreign correspondent and editor who covered war, terrorism and espionage for more than 40 countries, died last week from a heart attack at his home in Paris. He was 68. Dickey was known for his coverage of conflicts in Central America and the Middle East. He worked for The Washington Post and Newsweek and for The Daily Beast, where he was foreign editor until his death. In a moving obituary in The Daily Beast, longtime colleague Barbie Latza Nadeau recalled chasing a story with Dickey in Italy in 2003. When she finally tracked down the number of an Italian secret service agent who might have some information, he answered his phone from a restaurant where he was having a drink with Dickey. Dickey was the best beat reporter she ever met, she wrote, friend to spymasters and sheikhs, cardinals and cops, insurgents and intellectuals.
Dickey wrote two novels and five books of nonfiction, including “Securing The City,” an account of the New York City Police Department after the 9/11 attack. Dickey also did television reporting. Here he is on MSNBC in March of last year discussing a controversy surrounding Jared Kushner’s trip to meet with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to discuss U.S.-Saudi cooperation in the region. This was five months after The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The MSNBC anchor speaks first.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANCHOR: All right. Let’s talk now about Jared Kushner and his latest trip to Saudi Arabia. Your Daily Beast colleague reported that the U.S. embassy staff there were shut out of his one-on-one meetings with the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS. A senior administration official said that report is not true. So how do you think that trip was handled, Chris?
CHRISTOPHER DICKEY: I think our reporter was right and the administration is lying, as usual. Kushner went to Saudi Arabia to see Mohammed bin Salman. Why? Mainly because the Trump administration and Kushner particularly is deep into the deep pockets of Saudi Arabia and particularly Mohammed bin Salman. We don’t have a Middle East policy. We have an MBS and Bibi Netanyahu policy. And we have an MBS policy because he’s willing to pay for lots of guns, lots of ammunition, lots of airplanes, lots of stuff that – I don’t know – it seems to me you don’t want to sell somebody who also pays for bone saws and hacks up journalists and burns them in ovens. But that doesn’t seem to bother Kushner. So he’s there talking about Iran. He’s talking about money. He’s talking about Palestine. He’s talking about money. He’s talking about money. And he doesn’t want people from the U.S. embassy to know that.
DAVIES: That was Christopher Dickey in March of last year on MSNBC. Dickey was a frequent guest on FRESH AIR, reporting on conflicts all over the Middle East. One of those interviews was in April of 2002 during an ugly period of escalating tension, with demonstrations across the Arab world protesting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. At the time, Israeli tanks and infantry were pouring into the West Bank following a series of suicide bombings and attacks inside Israel. Dickey was then Newsweek’s Middle East regional editor, as well as their Paris bureau chief. He spoke with Terry from Paris where he was preparing to return to the region to cover the conflict.
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TERRY GROSS: Christopher Dickey, before we began our interview, you told me that the reason why you went back to Paris was basically to pick up your flak jacket.
DICKEY: Well, that’s right. I also wanted to see my wife and get a change of clothes, but the flak jacket is very heavy, and you have to sort of carry these things yourself. And I didn’t have one would be in Beirut, but I think it’s pretty much standard equipment now, especially if you’re going to go to the territories.
GROSS: Where do you plan on going when you return?
DICKEY: Well, I’m going to spend some time, if I can get in, in Ramallah, Bethlehem, maybe Jenin and some of the other flashpoints, probably Gaza as well. But I also want to spend much more time in Tel Aviv, in Israel, in Haifa, in Netanya, in places where we’re not talking about militant aggressive ideologues but average Israelis who want to go on leading peaceful lives and who, in many cases, are very sympathetic to the Palestinians and to what they’ve suffered under occupation. I think their voices are getting completely drowned out in this.
GROSS: What advice are Newsweek correspondents being given now to go into Ramallah in spite of the Israeli prohibitions against having the press there or to stay out of Ramallah?
DICKEY: Well, we judge it on a case-by-case, moment-to-moment basis. The only way to judge that situation is to be on the ground. Nobody can give you guarantees. Nobody can tell you you’re safe. No amount of armor on your car or on your body is going to keep you alive if you make the wrong judgment. So we don’t have any guidelines on that, to tell you the truth. Our guidelines are to get as close to the story as we need to to get it and to tell the truth and to tell it in a balanced way but to live to tell the story as well. So that’s all I can tell you. It’s just a case-by-case, moment-to-moment thing.
GROSS: You’ve been covering the Middle East for Newsweek since 1993. Just on an emotional level, what’s it like for you to watch the peace process fall completely apart in the way it has and, you know, to become more like war than a peace process?
DICKEY: Look, I have a lot of friends on both sides of this. And it is just deeply, absolutely depressing to see what’s happened, to see a process that seemed to be so close to completion two years ago just completely crumble and then head in a direction which was not only about no movement in the peace process but was about movement toward an expanding and terrifying war that is going to inflict really terrible fear and suffering on all sides and probably will reach out and hurt people very far from the conflict as well. And that – you know, that is just – it’s – in fact, I first went to the Middle East in 1985. I’ve spent a long, long time back and forth to the Middle East. And it’s just awful.
GROSS: You say you have friends on both sides of the conflict. Is it hard to maintain friends on both sides?
DICKEY: Well, you start to – well, it’s hard to have the same kinds of conversations you used to have. I have friends in Israel and friends in the Arab world who – with whom I used to feel I had relatively rational discussions. And now the rational element seems to be evaporating very quickly from those conversations. So you do what you do with friends. You just try and avoid the topic if you have to. But…
GROSS: Well, that’s not hard when you’re – it must be very hard when you’re in the Middle East to avoid the topic of the Middle East.
DICKEY: But I was going to say, it isn’t that hard to avoid the topic because everybody kind of desperately wants it to be solved. And so many people desperately want it to be solved and desperately want to avoid the topic, want to pretend that they can go on with their normal lives. But now the violence, I think, is just impinging on all sides, everyone, too much. The sense of desperation – well, the sense of desperation that I feel is nothing compared to the sense of desperation that they feel.
DAVIES: Christopher Dickey speaking with Terry Gross in 2002 as he was about to return to the Middle East from his home in Paris to cover the deteriorating situation during a period of increased violence and tension in the region. Dickey died last week at his home in Paris. He was 68. We’re going to listen to the interview Terry recorded in 1998 when Dickey had written his memoir, “Summer Of Deliverance.” Much of it is about growing up as the son of the acclaimed poet and novelist James Dickey. He wrote the best-selling novel “Deliverance,” which was then adapted into a popular film starring Burt Reynolds. Their interview began with Christopher Dickey reading from his memoir.
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DICKEY: (Reading) I thought that I could save my father’s life. For most of 20 years, I did not see him, couldn’t talk to him, could not bear to be around him. I believed I knew that he had killed my mother. He belittled and betrayed her, humiliated her and forgot about her, then watched her over the course of a few years quietly, relentlessly poison herself with a whiskey she had at her right hand all day long, every day, until she died, bloated, her liver hardening and the veins in her esophagus erupting, bleeding to death at the age of 50.
My father was a great poet, a famous novelist, a powerful intellect and a son of a bitch I hated, and that last fact was just a part of me. It was a cold knot of anger that I lived with and that helped drive me to do the things I wanted and needed to do in my own life. I became a foreign correspondent, as far from him as I could be. Anger was so much easier to deal with than love, and he made it so easy to be angry. He was drunk himself for most of those 20 years. If I didn’t get him on the phone before 11:00 in the morning, there was no point in calling at all. He wouldn’t remember or couldn’t speak coherently enough. And he never called me.
So those times I got out of El Salvador or Nicaragua, Libya or Lebanon, feeling lucky to survive and in love with the world, I could just barely bring myself to call him. We’d talk, but not much. And I’d say I love you when I said goodbye and to hell with you when the phone hit its cradle. What a shame, I would think, that I still loved him at all. But I did, and that disturbed me much more than the anger. I understood my hurt; I didn’t understand him. I didn’t begin to understand us.
GROSS: That’s Christopher Dickey reading from the beginning of his new memoir about his father James Dickey, and the memoir is called “Summer Of Deliverance.” As you point out, Chris, your father was an acclaimed poet, a great poet, and when you were young, you thought that he was seen as a god. Was that very confusing to you to feel such strong and mixed feelings about your father and know that other people saw him as a god?
DICKEY: Well, I saw him as a god. I thought he was wonderful when I was a child, and he was wonderful when I was a child in an awful lot of ways. He was tremendously attentive. He found a lot of time for me when I was a little boy, as indeed he did for my brother when he was little and for my much younger sister when she was little. The problems tended to come later, as he started drinking more, as I grew up, as his kind of animal competitiveness took over. All kinds of things contributed to what eventually became an untenable, unendurable situation. But, no, it wasn’t too bad having a father who was a God. It felt great for a while.
GROSS: Did the acclaim that’s around him leave him immune to criticism from the family?
DICKEY: Well, not in the early days, not when it was acclaim of his poetry, not when he was in the course of making his reputation. The problem with the acclaim around him, the adulation around him, really started about the time that “Deliverance” came out, both as a novel and then as a film. That became such a big phenomenon in movie theaters all over the country, the book a bestseller, that all of a sudden he felt as if he could do nothing wrong, and he began to indulge all of the worst aspects of his character.
But there was another element to that, too, which is that people expected him to indulge the worst elements of his character. He was a legendary drunk, and they wanted to see him drunk. He was a legendary womanizer, and they wanted to see him try to pick up women or even make a fool of himself with them. It didn’t matter. It was all just part of the show. He was – and even before “Deliverance,” you know, he was a big, handsome – especially when he was young – incredibly handsome guy who could be absolutely charming and had spent much of his life getting whatever he wanted, whether it was from his mother or from women he met or from the men that he worked with and for.
GROSS: Your father had a teacher who told him that no artist is bound by the truth. That’s a nice thing to say when the artist is writing fiction (laughter), but some artists use that as a justification to lie in real life. Did your father do that?
DICKEY: Oh, my father did that in ways that are almost impossible to imagine. And, in fact, it was only very recently that I began to discover how extensive the lies were. The last couple of years of his life, we spent a lot of time talking about the truth and about what really had happened, about all kinds of things that he’d told me before.
And I discovered, for instance, that a marriage that – he had told me that he had been married before he met my mother and that that was in Australia during the war, and the woman had died of blood poisoning. And that was a very vivid tale to tell an 8-year-old boy, and I always thought it was true. But when I asked him about it when I was 45 years old, he said, no, I just made that up. (Laughter) He just thought it was something interesting to tell people, to tell me. And that was just one of countless lies, countless stories that he made up just because he thought it was more interesting than the reality of life.
DAVIES: Christopher Dickey speaking with Terry Gross in 1998. Dickie died last week in Paris of a heart attack at the age of 68. We’ll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We’re listening to the interview Terry recorded in 1998 with foreign correspondent and editor Christopher Dickey, who died last week. They spoke after Dickey had published his memoir “Summer Of Deliverance,” about growing up the son of poet and novelist James Dickey, who wrote the novel “Deliverance” and the screenplay for the film starring Burt Reynolds.
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GROSS: When you were young, your mother found a letter from a woman who your father had obviously slept with, and you write that you realized that your father was living a life that wasn’t about the family and that threatened the family. Tell us more about that realization.
DICKEY: Well, that was in a period where he had begun touring the country, reading his poems – barnstorming for poetry, he called it. He loved that life on the road. He would always say, ah, I’m so exhausted. I’m so tired. It’s been so difficult to do that. But, in fact, he loved the adulation. He loved going to these colleges. He loved a situation where young women would throw themselves at him or older women would throw themselves at him. He was happy to have any woman who would throw herself at him. And that was, obviously, very difficult for my mother to handle. And I was in the awkward position – I was 11 years old when that particular incident with the letter happened – of trying to reassure my mother and, at the same time, trying to defend my father from my mother’s wrath, from her fury, which is not really a good position to be in when you’re 11 years old.
GROSS: By the way, what was it like to hear your father read a poem about an adulterous affair when you were at the reading?
DICKEY: Not real nice.
DICKEY: Not real nice. It was the kind of thing – you know, I’m sitting beside my mother along with my 6-year-old brother and Michael Allen (ph), who’s one of the closest friends of the family. He was in his early 20s then. And my father stands up drunk, as he often was at readings, and presents this poem, which I had no idea he’d ever written, with a smirk. You know, to tell you the truth, it wasn’t just the poem.
I mean, the poem is – sure, it’s about waking up in motel rooms with other women. And there’s a famous line of his in that poem where he says guilt is magical. Well, it might have been magical for him. It wasn’t magical for us. But what was really disturbing was the way he presented it, the smirk. He was like a boy smoking in the bathroom who thinks his mom is not going to catch him. It was my father at his worst. And I think that that, in the book, it’s one of the scenes that people probably remember the most who’ve read the book.
GROSS: Do you think your father would ever come home disappointed in the family because you and your mother didn’t have that adulation that strangers and readers would have for him?
DICKEY: Sure. Absolutely. I had idolized him when I was a little boy. But I was getting older, more skeptical of him and what he was doing. My mother – I think my mother’s heart was broken a lot of the time. And she was certainly critical of him. I mean, he was just – he was her husband. But he was just her husband. Whereas, he was a – when he was on the road, he was larger than life. And he’d like to be larger than life, my father.
GROSS: Your father had this very manly idea of manhood, I think it’s fair to say – you know, hunting, being a war pilot, playing football, writing a novel about men like “Deliverance.” Did he kind of want to train you to be a man’s man?
DICKEY: Yeah. I think I was always a little bit of a disappointment in that regard. I was not much of a football player. I was about, oh, five or six inches shorter than my father. And I was never comfortable with that man’s man kind of role, at least not the way he conveyed it. Also, there was – a lot of that was exaggerated where my father was concerned. He was in the war. But he wasn’t a pilot. He did play football. But he was never a star. He was just – played one semester of college football. And so I was trying to live up to his imaginings of what he had done, to his lies about what he had done. And that was pretty hard to do. And it was something I quit trying to do, oh, by the time I was 15 or 16, I guess.
GROSS: You said that he told you stories about being a pilot, but he wasn’t really a pilot. And he wasn’t really a star football player. How much of his public profile was based on lies that he had told?
DICKEY: Well, I think he exaggerated a lot about his background partly because he saw it as good public relations when he was first acquiring a reputation as a poet. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, certainly, there was an idea that poets were all kind of terribly cerebral and withdrawn and that they were wimps. And he wanted to come across as something very different from that. So part of this was, I think, a conscious public relations construct in terms of his public image. But the problem for us is that he was playing the same game at home. And that was very difficult to understand.
GROSS: But were there things that you’d read about in his biographies, you know, like in writers’ encyclopedias, that you thought, well, that’s a lie.
DICKEY: There was a kind of a cumulative realization of the lies that didn’t really come to a head until the last couple of years of his life because they were lies that he sustained for a very long time. I had no idea that he was not a pilot during World War II. His agent didn’t have an idea. Nobody had any idea, it seemed, until I was about 30 years old and he was on trial – not on trial. But he was in a civil case, a lawsuit. He was asked to testify under oath and was asked if he had been a pilot during World War II. And he said, no. He was the intercept officer, the second guy in the plane.
And all of us who knew him and loved him were like, what? How can this be? And so that was that realization. The business about him having been married before, it was only in the last year of his life that I found he had not been married before he married my mother. So there was a kind of a cumulative effect. And, sure, the jacket copy for “Deliverance,” when it came out, is full of exaggerations. It didn’t bear much relationship to the truth at all.
DAVIES: Christopher Dickey speaking with Terry Gross in 1998 after he published his memoir, “Summer Of Deliverance.” Dickey died last week in Paris of a heart attack at the age of 68. We’ll hear more of their interview after a break. And Justin Chang will review two new independent horror films, “Amulet” and “Relic.” I’m Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today, we’re remembering veteran foreign correspondent and editor Christopher Dickey, who died at his home in Paris last week at the age of 68. We’re listening to the interview Terry recorded in 1998, when Dickey had written his memoir “Summer Of Deliverance,” about growing up as the son of the acclaimed poet and novelist James Dickey. James Dickey wrote the bestselling novel “Deliverance,” which was adapted into a popular film starring Burt Reynolds.
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GROSS: You write in your book that your parents, when you were, I guess, a young teenager, were afraid that you were going to be a homosexual (laughter). So they used to give you Playboy magazines and Henry Miller novels to read to help arouse those hetero instincts. What did you think of that? Did you realize what was going on there?
DICKEY: Let me just say, it worked remarkably well.
DICKEY: Really, phenomenally well. Although I did come across a photograph – when I was going through old family photographs while I was writing the book, I came across some snapshots of me standing next to the closet door of my room in California, which was covered with pinups. And I hope nobody else in the world ever sees those photographs because it was very embarrassing (laughter). But it was – no, I think that my father’s idea of my sexuality was – how can I say – it was confused. And, certainly, he was projecting some of his own misgivings about his own sexuality onto me. There is, all through his poetry and his novels, a certain kind of homoerotic element and – that he never wanted to address in public and never talked about. But it may have contributed to his idea that I might be gay. In fact, as it turned out, I wasn’t gay.
GROSS: You write that, at the age of 15, you made a pact with yourself; you’d spent so much of your life being scared that you couldn’t be scared anymore. What was the pact that you made?
DICKEY: I told myself that somehow I was going to live until I was 35 and that I would believe that I was going to live until I was 35 and that nothing could happen to me until I was 35. And I pretty much lived my life that way. I took an awful lot of risks after that and lived very, very fast. I was married when I was 18, a father when I was 19. Fairly soon after that, I went to work for The Washington Post, became a foreign correspondent and, by the time I was 35, had spent most of my career covering wars in Central America and in the Middle East. So it worked pretty well. Of course, when I turned 35, I was left wondering what was going to happen (laughter). But it was just sort of a conceit that I had followed through on.
GROSS: You were married for the first time in 1970 at the age of 18. You short – you had a child shortly after that. When you were married, your father said to you, you’ve thrown away your youth. How did you interpret it at the time, and does what your father say mean something different to you now that you’re older?
DICKEY: Well, it sounds like it could be a conventional remark. I mean, you say you’ve thrown away your youth to an 18-year-old boy who’s getting married, that may seem fairly obvious. But I didn’t feel that way at the time, and in fact, I don’t feel that way now because, on the one hand, I wanted my youth to be my youth, not his. And he had tried so hard to impose his vision of his life and his priorities on me that I wanted desperately to get away from all of that. So I felt, in some ways, as if I was reclaiming my youth.
Sure, as a father myself, if my son had come to me when he was 18 and said he was going to get married, I’d have been a little upset. I don’t blame my father for being upset. But his motivations and what was behind his feelings, that’s what got to me and still does. I think that it was very, very self-centered.
You know, I just listened to the other day – The New York Times has a website where they have a long poetry reading by my father, where he describes me and my brother before he reads a poem about us. And the poem that he wrote about me is almost entirely about him. I sleep all the way through the poem while he contemplates a skeleton, death, the future – all kinds of things. And that is very much the way he saw me, as an extension of him and his – as his protection against mortality.
GROSS: An object for him to meditate about himself (laughter).
DICKEY: Yeah. No, absolutely. That was part of the game.
DAVIES: Christopher Dickey speaking with Terry Gross in 1998. Dickey died last week in Paris of a heart attack at the age of 68. We’ll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We’re listening to the interview Terry recorded in 1998 with foreign correspondent and editor Christopher Dickey, who died last week. They spoke after Dickey had published his memoir “Summer Of Deliverance,” about growing up the son of poet and novelist James Dickey, who wrote the novel “Deliverance.”
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: You read “Deliverance” right after you were married. That’s when “Deliverance” was completed. What did you think of it as a book?
DICKEY: I couldn’t put it down. I thought it was a great novel. I was amazed. I didn’t know that my father would be able to tell the story quite so effectively and beautifully and keep you into it the way – keep me in it the way – keep my attention in it the way that he did. And this despite the fact that I had virtually grown up hearing him tell the story of “Deliverance.” And I remembered very vividly when I was a little boy and he had come back from a canoeing trip with a couple of friends and had been really shaken up, not by anything as dramatic as what happened in “Deliverance,” but just by having gotten into a lot of trouble, that he was afraid he and his friends might not have gotten out.
GROSS: You worked as an extra on the movie adaptation of “Deliverance,” and one of the things you did is that you were the stand-in for Ned Beatty in the rape scene when he’s told to squeal like a pig. And you write about how much that experience troubled you. What was so troublesome about it?
DICKEY: Well, it was hard for me to address what was troublesome at the time. I mean, I wondered why the scene even existed in the movie.
GROSS: We should, just for people who haven’t read the book or seen the movie, just say that it’s about three middle-aged suburban guys who go on this little weekend adventure together canoeing down a river. And they run into some kind of…
DICKEY: Well, they go straight to redneck hell is what happens. They…
GROSS: There you go (laughter) – trying to find a nice way of saying this (laughter).
DICKEY: Now, it’s – what happens, of course, is that they – it’s actually four guys – only three survive – who start down this river in North Georgia thinking that they’re going to just have a kind of a guys weekend. You know, it’s what they did instead of playing golf. And they get into a situation where they’re confronted by men who really don’t obey any laws and who kill one of them and rape another one. And it becomes a very ugly fight for survival just a few hours’ drive from their suburban homes.
It was – it’s a pretty dramatic story, and it was a pretty dramatic novel and movie and – that I think touched on a lot of basic fears that existed among men in America, people in America then and now. Whether the fear that lurking outside the calm perimeter of your yards in suburban Atlanta is something really very hostile and frightening or the fear of sort of primal fears like homosexual rape.
GROSS: So getting back to being a stand-in for Ned Beatty – what was that like for you?
DICKEY: It was humiliating. I didn’t have to do what he had to do, God knows. I didn’t have to take off my clothes. I did – nobody rode me like a sow and made me squeal like a pig. But I did have to pose in the various positions that he would take during the shooting of the sequence so that they could set up the lights and camera angles correctly, including leaning over the log with another stand-in behind me. And it was – you know, it was just one of those essentially disturbing experiences even though it didn’t come as a surprise. I guess it came a little bit as a surprise to me that I was the one who was asked to do that particular job as a stand-in.
GROSS: Who asked?
DICKEY: Boorman, the director. There were four or five stand-ins. It could have been any one of them, but I was the one who wound up doing that. And I guess that once he asked me, I couldn’t back off very well. So…
GROSS: You were afraid that the rape scene was going to take on too much significance in the movie, that it would be all that people really remembered.
DICKEY: Well, I think it is the main thing that people remember. It’s the thing that people talk about. I mean, there’s a whole kind of series of redneck jokes around squeal like a pig, and that’s the sort of iconic image from the film. It’s not the central image of the book. It happens in the book. But in the book, the central part of the narrative focuses on Ed Gentry, who has to climb the cliff side at night to try and kill the last of the rednecks with a bow and who has to confront his own fears and find his own depths of courage in order to do that. That’s what happens in the book. It happens in the movie, too. But that’s not what you remember in the movie. What you remember most vividly is that rape scene. And it is one of the most kind of fundamentally horrifying scenes, I think, in all of cinema.
GROSS: Now, you thought that your father, the great artist, had allowed himself to make compromises in the film adaptation of “Deliverance.” Like what?
DICKEY: Well, the film was not his film. He had written the original script, and he got full credit for the script. But in fact, a lot of the dialogue was rewritten. A lot of very bad dialogue was put in it – some of it memorable, some not. Squeal like a pig, for instance, is not in the script. But he went along with all of these things not because he was convinced these were the right decisions – in fact, he had been barred from the set and didn’t contribute to those – but because, ultimately, he just liked having that extra bit of adulation, that extra bit of praise that was heaped on the film and that was heaped on him personally after the film came out. He liked that a lot. And he came back and, of course, played the role of the sheriff in the movie, which was another tremendous boost to his ego – which is all fine except that my father as a teacher and as a father was tremendously demanding of everyone around him.
He insisted on all kinds of perfection in work, particularly in art – particularly in whatever you would write, whatever you would try to do. I have a number of friends who were students of his and who basically have found it hard to write all of their lives not least because they felt they could not live up to his standards. And here’s an example of him failing his own standards rather conspicuously in order to take all the praise that would be heaped on him. It’s not an unforgivable sin. It’s understandable enough. But especially when I was 19 or 20, it was very hard for me to forgive.
GROSS: You write that you clung to the idea that you and your father were very different but that you were somehow living a pale imitation of his life. In what way did your life strike you as that?
DICKEY: Well, at the time that I felt that, I was trying to write movies. I was trying to – I was going to film school. I was doing a lot of things that I thought were interesting but that also fit into a pattern of the kinds of things that he had started doing. And I thought that I could do a pretty good job at them. But when I would write anything – when I would even write in my own journals, I realized to some extent then – and especially when I was working on this book and went back and looked at the journals – how much I was just parroting things that he had already told me. I would cite quotations from poets that he had cited to me, not that I had read originally by myself – that sort of thing. It just was very much living in the shadow of somebody and not knowing how to get out of it – thinking you were going off on your own way and yet never getting very far.
GROSS: You write this about your early writing. You say that your father created myths but you weren’t a genius, and demythologizing was becoming your obsession.
DICKEY: That’s right. Maybe that’s why I became a journalist. I felt that I needed to get to the truth of things. The myth didn’t interest me. The facts did interest me. And there was a time when I think – in my early 20s – where that made me probably very cynical and more than – more often pretty snide and probably fairly unpleasant to be around. But later on, I think that manifested itself in my commitment to reporting and to trying to get to the truth of matters, whether I was reporting in Washington or overseas.
GROSS: What did it mean to you to not be a genius? (Laughter).
DICKEY: Well, genius – genius is almost a spiritual experience for the person who has it and also to be around. You’re in touch with somebody – if you’re around a genius – I can’t tell you what it’s like to be one, but I can tell you what it’s like to be around one – you’re in touch with somebody who is – who imagines things and thinks of things in ways that you never could yourself. And although we’ve talked a lot about the negative things about my father, the truth is that when you were around him and when he was on a roll, when he was really thinking, it was like being around some incandescent intellectual power. It was very stimulating, very exciting. And he could convey that to other people.
And so he was a genius. I can’t do that. I don’t know – I’ve known almost nobody else in my life who could do it the way my father could. And I’m happy to say that in the last couple of years of his life, he could do it again. For a long time, the drinking dulled all that. But after he got sick and when he quit drinking, that old incandescence was back. And it was probably the happiest time we ever had together.
GROSS: You know, you say in your book that you think a good reason – one of the reasons why you became a foreign correspondent was you wanted to get away from your father. You wanted to get away from his life. But in some ways, I’m sure a lot of people saw you as kind of living out an extension of his life in the sense of you were doing something, you know really, virile, you know, writing – a war correspondent in El Salvador, which is what you did early in your career, taking a lot of great risks. Even if you were minimizing your risks, you were still taking big risks. So was that kind of paradoxical for you to be perceived as being an extension of what he was doing, when, in so many ways, you were trying to get away from it?
DICKEY: It was a little bit paradoxical. But the best thing that happened was especially once I began to cover Central America and the Middle East, people just didn’t associate me with him. Most people, even people I knew fairly well, had no idea that I was any relationship – I had any relationship with James Dickey the poet and author of “Deliverance.” And after 15 or 20 years of doing that, I felt very much that I had become my own man. So it didn’t bother me. It’s easy to say – and it is probably true – that my father told me about his war, World War II, and he made it up. And I went out to cover wars where I couldn’t make anything up.
And ultimately, no matter how cautious I wanted to be, had to go out into combat and see what was happening if I wanted to tell the truth about the experience. So sure, it is a reflection of some of the kinds of things that my father was interested in, but he had no idea what I did. He had no idea what it was like gathering the truth and going out and experiencing these things firsthand, seeking out combat and looking for confrontations and then trying to find the truth behind what caused those situations. That just wasn’t his metier.
GROSS: Did your father have any objections to you writing a book about him?
DICKEY: Well, I sort of broke it to him gradually. He knew that – he knew from the start that I was going to make a – write a book about the making of “Deliverance,” and that we – and we would talk about that. And then I gradually expanded as we would talk and we would tape record long conversations about this. I would gradually expand the subject matter, so that by the summer of ’96, I think he had not an explicit idea but a pretty clear idea of what I was doing, which is why there’s a scene fairly early in the book where I’m helping him up and down the stairs at our house down on the coast.
And we’re talking. And he knows exactly what I’m thinking and what I’m working on. And we have a whole discussion about truth and lies poetry and making things up. And he says that he wants me to remember what he was to him, to me, and that he wants me to remember what – what he says is, remember what I was to you. And that really is what the book is about. And I think that he would understand that.
GROSS: Well, Christopher Dickey, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
DICKEY: Thank you.
DAVIES: Veteran correspondent and editor Christopher Dickey speaking with Terry Gross in 1998 after he’d published his memoir, “Summer Of Deliverance.” Dickey died last week in Paris of a heart attack. He was 68. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews two new independent horror films, “Amulet” and “Relic.” This is FRESH AIR.
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