Writing: A Business, A Trade, A Life
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By B.B. Whitebook

"Some years," Roy Hoopes says, "I had the ultimate tax dodge–no income." The precarious nature of the writing life is familiar to anyone who has tried it, briefly or at length. Paying taxes, however unwelcome, means at least you made some money and could live. It does not much matter if the taxable income flows from a book deal, a little real estate on the side, or a day job, all of which have earned Hoopes money. Ideas and literature are wonderful, but breakfast and dinner are irreplaceable.

Earning his daily bread is only one literal fact about Hoopes' life as a writer, not the whole truth. Not at all. The truth, or at least the heart, of the matter is that writing for Roy Hoopes, BA '43, MA '48, is a business, a trade, and a life–and has been all three for 50 years. These three strands of course braid up tightly as the various strands do in anyone's life. Yet each is revealing on its own.

And along with some buttons of biographical fact, they give us some glimpses of Roy Hoopes' admirable and happy life.

a business

"I figure all the money I've made on real estate is more money than I've made writing books. Literally. You buy a house, you live in it, it goes up. The whole neighborhood has gone up. The trick is you move farther out. And I've always been my own real estate agent, saved the six-percent commission." The sideline of flipping houses as the market has risen or the plummy income from the Rehoboth beach house "bought for practically nothing in 1960 something" have allowed him to write and to support a family and to chase ideas and people he has found interesting. Being a freelance writer is a high-wire act, with editors, book reviewers, and readers ready at any time to throw you off balance and watch you fall. Writing books, unless they turn out to be best sellers, doesn't pay well. A writer who wants to keep the act going learns how to string up his own safety net and keeps a sharp eye out for rips and damage. Thus, the necessary sidelines.

When writing Our Man in Washington, Hoopes was confident that few if any would find fault with his handling of H.L. Menchken's dialogue; he was, after all, using quotations from Mencken himself who was famous for speaking as he wrote. He was a little nervous, however, about Cain, who is the first person narrator. The style is not the hard-boiled Californian of The Postman Always Rings Twice or Serenade. His defense, should he have needed one, would have been that at the time of the novel's action, 1923, Cain had not yet developed that style, but wrote a highly literate journalistic prose. To Roy Hoopes' relief, no one has called him on this stylistic matter.

But the business of writing itself is something different–not an obligation, but something he likes. H.L. Mencken, one of Hoopes' great admirations and the hero of his murder mystery Our Man in Washington, once threw up his hands in disgust at the "literary gents" who talked endlessly about the extreme pain of writing. Hoopes knows the quotation well and laughs. "That's not true of me. I like writing. I actually felt better when I started my latest book and felt better when I began to revise it. It's a physical thing. I really feel better when I am writing."

There's more than feeling. In the last 40 years, he has written 34 books, with another on the way. To look at a list of them is a little baffling at first–books for young people on what a president does all day long or how to be a professional football coach, biographies of James M. Cain and Ralph Ingersoll, books on Hollywood stars during wartime, books on the Peace Corps and a Mormon apostle (his grandfather), books on being your own general contractor, the steel industry, the vice-presidency, and a paralegal career. Where's the pattern? Go figure.

The pattern is not in the eyes of the reader but inside Roy Hoopes' head. He is a man with real interests and enthusiasms that he turns into books. He tells stories to illustrate the point.

Early in the Kennedy administration, he was having lunch with some writers and editors at the Press Club when the Peace Corps came up as a topic for a book. Neither the Peace Corps nor the book seemed very popular at the table, and no one present proposed an author. Hoopes went home, thought about it, and decided he liked the Peace Corps and liked just as much the idea of writing about it. The Complete Peace Corps Guide was published with an introduction by Sargent Shriver.

His book on what Hollywood stars did during World War II grew out of similar determination and enthusiasm–and both seem important in equal measure to his success. Hoopes has always liked movies and Hollywood and began an article for Modern Maturity that grew into a book, first in his mind and then on paper. His agent turned it down, so he sent it out on his own to 15 editors, three of whom liked it and one of whom, Bob Loomis of Random House, bought it. His mystery Our Man in Washington was also turned down by an agent because "no one was going to accept a book of fiction from a 75-year-old writer who'd never written a novel." But someone did, and it's in the bookstores now. And a collection of humorous essays on Washington which he published over 20 years as "Peter Potomac" in the Berkshire (Massachusetts) Eagle he published himself–an example of samizdat after the Soviet Union had gone out of business and before anyone had heard of the Internet.

The determination that backs up the enthusiasms is present in his history and gains force from the clear, strong voice and the eyebrows as white and thick as feathers. He comes across. A good-looking man at 79. Some older pictures show he was bluff and handsome, in the IBM salesman mold — fair-haired, confident, built for splitting wood. It's a surprise that he's five-eight or so, not six-two, but he still comes across. When the subject of a photograph comes up, he says there's a picture of him with a stack of copies of Our Man in Washington taken at the Press Club that he likes.

"We could crop it."

"To show just the head?"

"No, just the books." He laughs.

Cora Hoopes, his wife, laughs louder and says, "He's a very good salesman." No apologies for that. He has had to be, living for his enthusiasms and by his wits.

a trade

Writing is also daily work, and Roy Hoopes has taken to it like a craftsman to his trade. He writes every day, seven days a week. He prefers mornings. "I shoot for 1,000 words, about four pages, and I usually make it with a little to spare," then a beer on the deck and physical labor in the afternoon, maybe chopping wood for the Vermont Castings stove in the living room or building a bookcase. When a deadline is in plainer sight than he might want, he works all day. The work is constant and busy with sometimes three or four books written, published, and in the bookstores simultaneously and with always something new in the works.

Thirty-four books by themselves might illustrate his diligence and discipline in his trade and convince anyone that he is both a workman worthy of his hire and a pretty fine writer too. And so they do, yet there is more—some 250 articles, published in papers and magazines as prominent as American Heritage, The New Republic, The Washingtonian, The Boston Globe, and Newsday and in other publications like The Kent County News, Amtrak Express, and The Retired Officer. Like his books, his articles touch on everything and go anywhere. And, as with his books, there is no pattern–except perhaps for two possibilities.

First, so many things genuinely interest him. As he talks about his writing, his enthusiasm is as strong and his clarity is as bright for things he wrote half a century ago as it is for the last piece he finished. The interest is still there, and perhaps he has made the subjects of his interest his own things by writing about them.

Second, though he is not a compulsive writer like Mencken, he seems to need to write for a sense of good health, as he said, and also for the same reason a carpenter does not lay down his tools for very long, lest they grow dull and rusty. He does not say so, but the need to keep his skill polished and sharp seems part of him. He is not a man, despite all his writing, who appears to want the last word—he knows how to listen and give the other guy the pleasure of the punchline. Nonetheless, it is impossible to imagine him putting a final period on a page and saying, "That's my last word."

When in the course of conversation he referred to retirement, it was jarring. The retirement, however, referred to one part of his working life. In addition to all the books and articles, Roy Hoopes has been a magazine man for a good part of his life. It is that from which he meant himself retired, not from writing with all the current and planned projects.

The magazine jobs—they were jobs, not freelance gigs—were part of both the business and the trade of writing. His first break came with Pathfinder, now defunct and not much remembered or lamented, with offices near Thomas Circle. It was, he says, "a poor man's Newsweek, which was a poor man's Time." This led to a position in promotion with Time-Life International, and to editorial positions on High Fidelity, Washingtonian Magazine (where he was present at the creation, being on the pre-publication staff as well as its managing editor in its first year), The National Geographic, and Newsday, and in government agencies, including HEW and the EPA. He was Playboy's man in Washington in the early 1960s and did the same for Modern Maturity for 10 years until recently.

Being a magazine editor gave him a stable paycheck–like real estate, part of the business and a necessity. Being on a magazine gave him a place to float his ideas, a place to publish them, and the trade contacts necessary, when he was freelancing, to get not just his foot but his ideas and enthusiasms in the door.

The most interesting example is his biography of James M. Cain. When the great newsman, Walter Lippmann, died in 1974, Hoopes read an appreciation in the Washington Post written by Cain. He had read Cain's famously hard-boiled novels (in that era who hadn't?) when he was at GW and was trading books and thoughts about books with Professor Howard Merriman. What he learned from Cain's article on Lippmann was that Cain had worked as a journalist for Lippmann on the old New York World in the 1920s. Cain had also written for Menchken's American Mercury. The tough-guy novelist with the spare style and the sexually charged plots had been one of the most elegant stylists ever to grace a magazine or an editorial page.

A revelation, but only one with more to come. Hoopes was surprised Cain was still alive and thought, if he was, he'd still be living in Hollywood where he had been when he wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and the other novels. But no, not at all—Cain was alive and living in Hyattsville, Md., inside the Beltway, right up the street.

That was 1975, just after Roy Hoopes had gone full-time free lance, without a magazine job. But his connection with Washingtonian Magazine paid off. He proposed a profile of Cain for the magazine. The editors liked the idea, and Cain was willing.

It was not surprising that Hoopes had thought Cain was dead. No one had heard from him for years. He wrote his best novels in an explosion that lasted less than 10 years, with a fame carried along a few years more by the success of movies based on his books and the serial publication of some potboilers.

All this notwithstanding, Cain seemed exciting to Hoopes, not as a has-been or a great writer of the forgotten past. Cain embodied three qualities—three trades of his own—that spoke to Roy Hoopes. First, Cain's Hollywood connection just connected with his own still lively fascination with it, even if Cain's career as a screenwriter was, as he thought himself, mighty inglorious. Second, Cain had been a journalist–a magazine journalist, like Hooopes—and a magnificent specimen of the breed. Third, Hoopes had always loved Cain's novels. There was a fourth reason that he offers separately—no one had yet written a biography of Cain. Cain would be new material for Hoopes to cut according to his own pattern, a chance to write about the man without the distractions of refutation or revisionism.

He wrote the Washingtonian profile, and on the strength of that Cain agreed to let him write his biography. It took Hoopes four years—his longest project–and Cain died before it was finished. It is a fine book, equally monumental in scope and heft (Hoopes is thinking about cutting it down). It is also a monument to Roy Hoopes–not simply to his first-rate accomplishment as a biographer, but to how a hardworking writer practices his trade to make his life and living by his wits and on his own terms.

a life

Figuring out how someone else makes his living is a lot easier than making sense of his life, even when they are connected as in the case of Roy Hoopes. In the preface to his Cain book, Hoopes used Mark Twain's statement on biographies as "buttons" that appears at the beginning of this article. Invoking Twain on the failure of biographies, as he launches into nearly 700 pages' worth of one himself, is courageous, honest, and modest. In spite of the hazards, which he admits, he is willing to give rein to his enthusiasm for Cain and his determination to grasp as much of him as possible. Risky business.

Taking the risk reveals more than a button from Roy Hoopes' clothes. It displays his character. So does his early decision to write for magazines rather than newspapers because "of the ephemeral nature of papers," and his later decision to begin books because magazine journalism seemed almost as ephemeral: "You'd see them stacked up in corners." As a writer, he was willing to accept magazine journalism and book writing because he wanted to produce things that would endure—or at the very least have a chance of enduring. There may be some vanity in this, but it seems a healthy sort of vanity that has stoked his career and, it seems, guided his life.

The house he and Cora live in is a good illustration: it is their house, and not quite like any other. He was his own general contractor when it was built. Naturally, he got a book about it out of the experience, but he also got a house which suits him and of which he is truly proud. For example, he solved the problem of storing his many books by simply widening a downstairs hallway by two feet over the standard plans and lining it with bookshelves. You could call it a library, but it might be better to think of it as a writer's hallway. It is a fact of his life.

There are other facts, some of them buttons perhaps, others more like glimpses into what he has made himself and become over 79 years. He was born in Utah in 1922 and came to Washington with his parents when he was 4 so his father could study law. And Hoopes grew up in Foggy Bottom in an apartment house on 23rd and C Streets. (The building has since been torn down, and the site is now occupied by an annex of the U.S. Department of State.) He played sandlot football in Washington Circle and baseball by the Lincoln Memorial. He went to the Grant School on G Street (now the School Without Walls) and Central High (now Cardozo). He knew the city.

He remembers the Old Ebbitt Grill before it moved to 15th Street and became a tourist haven, the Shoreham Hotel when it was still down the street from Lafayette Square and not an encroachment on Rock Creek Park, K Street with houses instead of office buildings. Buttons perhaps, but the truth of a lifeless biographical revelation—is what you do with it if you are a writer.

Hoopes put memories like these to work in Our Man in Washington. Some reviewers understood what that book was about—trying to make sense of some of the scandals and mysteries of the Harding administration through the eyes and in many places the actual words of H.L. Mencken. Hoopes prepared pages of quotations from Mencken's published work on dozens of topics and used them as dialogue. It was fun, "it was something I could not not write," Hoopes says and laughs and looks happy.

But his own experience in the streets of Washington—his sense of how the city looked and what it felt like—gives the book a texture beyond the fun with Mencken, the unraveling of a murder, and a game of catch with the Hope diamond. There seems to be something very personal about it. This work of fiction carries bits and pieces of him, the ultimately inseparable braid of business, trade, and experiences lived. It will not be surprising if the work in progress, a mystery about Watergate, has the same texture under its different plot and characters.

Nor is it possible to believe it will be his last book. "I wrote my best work after 50, in my 50s, 60s, and 70s, without any doubt, not even close." The obvious and universal pleasures of age, "grandchildren and also knowing the alternative, which is not being here," are no more powerful than the sense that his creativity is expanding, that his writing has improved with every book he has written and every editor he has worked with. With all his ideas in mind and the sense of improvement, there is no reason to stop writing now.

There is another reason to continue. In his study, where he works standing up, is what he agreed is an "ego wall," a space above a work table where he has hung the covers of all his books, including later editions. There is room for more.

Budd Whitebook is a Washington writer.