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Transcript: An Interview with Dave Itzkoff

This is a rough transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Dave Itzkoff for the Grammar Girl podcast. Listen here.

MIGNON: Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language—writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. Today, I have an interview with Dave Itzkoff about his biography of Robin Williams, his new podcast based on the book, and about writing biographies in general. Dave is a culture reporter for the New York Times where he mostly writes about film, TV, and popular culture. “Robin” is his fourth book. 

Before we get to the interview, I do want to remind you that you can watch my new video course on LinkedIn Learning free if you have  LinkedIn Premium, access to lynda.com through your library, or want to sign up for the 30-day free trial. Just search those platforms for Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

And now, on to the interview.

MIGNON: Hi, Dave, thank you so much for being here today.

DAVE: Sure. Thank you for having me.

MIGNON: Yeah. So I have your newest book, "Robin," here, and I've been reading it. And I'm wondering, you know, what inspired you to become a biographer and a memoir writer? Someone who writes about people instead of events or issues, for example.

DAVE: I don't know if anything inspired me per se. I think that's just sort of the trajectory that my life took, my career took. You know, as a writer, you just try, I think, all different kinds of things, and you just sort of go in the direction that, you know, whichever whichever lanes are open to you and whichever paths keep you going. I've certainly, particularly as as a journalist, a lot of the stuff that I write, needless to say, is not about me. But it's often looking closely at other people's lives and delving into them to the extent that either they'll allow you or you sometimes have to push a little bit beyond what they want to tell you and see what else you can find out about them. So that's been one sort of strain of my my career for a while. And the first couple of books that I wrote were personal memoirs. One, the first and the first book that I ever wrote was a personal memoir about my own experiences in men's magazines and sort of the earliest days of my own career. And then a few years later, that that book then led to the opportunity to write an essay about myself and my father, who was a drug addict for for many years. And then that essay in turn led to the opportunity to write a book about my life with my father and his experience of getting sober and what our lives were like after that.

So that those those processes just kind of one facilitated the next, facilitated the next. But at that point, also, I think I had kind of written as many memoirs as a person could when you've only been alive. I think I made that point. I wasn't even thirty-five when...how old was I when "Cocaine's Son" came out? Yeah. Thirty five. So I think after that point that's that's like enough memoirs. Yeah. So you know, most of the writing that I did for the Times was more it was report pieces. It was, you know, either doing interviews, using primary sources. The next book that I wrote was just to kind of sort of straightforward classical work of journalism about Paddy Chayefsky and the movie "Network." And that was a lot of archival research going through Paddy Chayefsky's papers talking to the people from the film or from his life that were still around. And that was a little bit more in line with the kinds of things I'd been doing at the Times for a while. So that that kind of those are all the stepping stones.

MIGNON: Right. The library approached you about the papers for that book. They had the writers or directors papers that you could look through and they were thinking you might make a good story for the Times.

DAVE: That's right.

MIGNON: How did the, how did how did the book about Robin Williams come about? Was that something also that someone approached you or is it something that you came across, things that you weren't really interesting? How did that happen?

DAVE: It was a little complicated. I mean, for one thing, I had written about Robin quite a lot while he was still alive for the Times, including like I did a long profile of him. I guess it would have been 2008, 2009, where he let me go on the road with him for a few days. And that became this this whole story about basically a live comedy tour would end up being his last stand up to a really that he had tried to do and then had to put on hold because he had heart problems and had to get open heart surgery and then recover from that. And the whole tour itself was already about the experience of him having basically relapsed into alcoholism and then gone to rehab and gotten sober and divorcing his second wife after getting out of rehab, all these really difficult things that had happened in his life. And so that was, you know, all those things were dealt with in the comedy act. And, of course, things that he and I had to talk about in in my interviews and conversations with him. So I got a little taste of his world through that experience and got to meet his manager and his older son, Zach. And, you know, he and I, you know, would would I'd write about him, know every couple of years, whether it was for when he came to New York to do his Broadway show or when he. I did a profile of Billy Crystal that, of course, Robin was was part of. And then sadly, I wrote his obituary for the Times because that was the situation where we had literally nothing on file, nothing ready to publish for him, because nobody had any expectation that that he would die so soon.

So after all those experiences, it just seemed sort of understandable that, you know, the publishers would be interested in at least speaking to me about doing a book. And I on my end wanted to fill out some people in Robin's world, both on in his family and in his sort of professional circles, just to see how people would feel, not to say, can I have your permission, but just to make sure if I were to go ahead and do this. How would you feel? Because it was a tremendously sensitive subject. And even in the course of writing the book, a lot of the details of his death. That's only when we started learning, you know, really what what had had happened in his last days and even hours of his life.

MIGNON: So we had to really, he didn't have lewy body dementia and most people didn't know what that was.

Well, that's exactly that's what had happened. And that was completely unknown at the time of his death. That would take months for essentially his autopsy to be completed. And that was all turned up in the in the autopsy. That was not, you know, he certainly was going through a lot of what in retrospect people now understand were symptoms of that disease. But it was not anything he'd been formally diagnosed with before he died. So all of which is to say that, you know, as I'm approaching people either to say this is a book I'd like to write or is a book he'd participate in it. People are still grieving for him. And we knew it was going to be a process of approaching people very gently and being patient, waiting for people to at least feel like they were in a place that they might want to talk about him, being understanding of people that didn't want to participate because those memories were either too sensitive or that were just so intensely personal for them that they didn't want to share them with anybody else and being understanding of that.

MIGNON: Right. I was wondering about that because he was really open with you, which sounds amazing. And then I was wondering how it was talking to his friends and family and colleagues. And if you had any people who were more reluctant, you know, as a biographer, what can you do to either try to coax people to talk to you or maybe find information in other ways? If people just want to talk to, you know, how do you make sure you're providing a balanced view of that person's life and getting the whole big picture?

DAVE: Yeah, I the only I mean, this is such a sort of unique case in a way because of all the sensitivities and the tragedy that that we talked about. And the one thing I knew, not now with absolute certainty, but going in, I had had some communication with Zack, Robin's older son, and he at least gave an indication that at a certain point he might be open to talking with me. And that gave me a certain amount of reassurance that at least if somebody that pivotal in Robin's own family was potentially available or thinking about it, then, then that might be something to build on. But that was almost it took almost two years before Zach was in a position to speak with me, partly because of just what he was dealing with and what his siblings were dealing with. And then there were some some legal issues going on within the family over Robin's estate. And so that, you know, that all had to be resolved, too. So in the meantime, I just tried to talk around to people that perhaps didn't have a direct connection to the family or weren't so central that it might seem like a kind of imposition or to ask them. I mean, I remember one person that I spoke to very early on was Gary Marshall, who was one of the co-creators of "Happy Days" and "Mork and Mindy," and who'd obviously given Robin a hugely important break in his career by casting him as Mork from Ork. And that was just such a delightful conversation because it was more about Robin's formative days. It was it really wasn't none of the the tragedy or the sadness. It was encapsulated that it was about celebrating Robin and remembering him before things really took off for him and having those kinds of conversations, you know. At an earlier stage in the research process that I mean, that certainly help fill in a lot of the story, but also like, you know, gave me a certain sense of confidence or reassurance that little by little we would piece this together.

And let's let's start with again, people that weren't, you know, so directly connected to what would invariably be the end of this story. Let's talk to the people at the beginning who knew Robin and all these other capacities so that by the time, you know, it really is time to start talking to the family to the very best friends.

That way, I would have a lot of information that I could, on the one hand, I could be very judicious about the kinds of questions I would ask the people I was still waiting to hear from. And then also those people could know that I was really doing my homework, that I think one fear that I think understandably a lot of these people might have is, was I trying to write something that would be exploitative of Robin or his legacy? Was it some kind of dirt digging expedition? Was it going to make him look bad? It was going to paint essentially an incorrect picture of him. Was I going to just make him seem like a really kind of messy person with all these problems in his life? It obviously did have problems. But the more I could show people that I was trying to sort of take in the fullness of his life and also celebrate his talents and his artistic contributions and really, you know, just be as comprehensive as possible, I think.

You know, I can't be certain, but I think that that put more and more people at ease.

MIGNON: So so you're sensitive and you reassure the family, and it sounds like you sort of start on the periphery of the people who knew him and work your way toward the closest people in the family to show them that you're doing your homework and you're not wasting their time. And it also made me wonder, do you start with the big picture and sort of filling the details along the way? Or are you more likely to start with some interesting anecdotes and really key details and flesh that out to build the big picture over time?

DAVE: Yeah, I think it's everybody's approach and strategy is going to be different and differ based on the subject of your book. But in my specific case, I literally sat down and made an Excel spreadsheet of every single person I could think of that I would want to talk to and then sort of grouping them by category, whether it was the people in the immediate family or the people closest around Robin, his managers, his assistant, though. Those kinds of people, then the comedy people. And then so, you know, all the the stand ups and the comedy actors that that he knew and then sort of going, you know, through sort of the different areas of his life. So the people that knew him at his various high schools and middle schools and people that knew him at the different colleges he attended. Juilliard was its own specific little universe because that had some key faculty, people that had other students who were famous students who weren't famous. Then you're talking about his San Francisco comedy career, then his L.A. comedy career, then the "Mork and Mindy" people, than the "Popeye" people, etc. So, you know, pretty comprehensive, but trying to keep people grouped by category. And then, you know, there were there were certain people, like I said, who I knew were sort of out of the gate, don't go right to them.

Don't start here or at least give those people a little more time to process. But then everybody else, it was a little bit of a kind of just a mass outreach going one by one through these people and people turning me on to other people looking at like the back of the album cover for reality. What a concept. And realizing that Robin acknowledged this one co-writer whose name I had never seen before and seeking out that person. Then he turned into a tremendously valuable source and helped connect me to other people, and so on and so forth. You know, every every person, you know, you would get a few doors slammed in your face for sure. But people either. Some people were eager to talk or willing to talk. Some people needed a little bit of time, but did come around. And often the people who did talk always had suggestions of, hey, here's who else you should try or have you spoke to so and so yet. Oh, no, I haven't. I didn't I wasn't aware of that person. Where did how did they know Robin? And little by little, you know, that that plan or that grid, you know, came together.

MIGNON: Right. it’s important to pull on all those little threads and find surprises.

DAVE: Yes. Yeah, exactly.

MIGNON: Are there times when you weren't working on biography, is that your view of the person change from what you expected it to be? Did you find things things that were so surprising that you had to reconsider the way you were framing the story?

DAVE: Not not in this particular case. I would say in a way, I think Robin was so open about his life, certainly in the later portions of it. About a lot of the the misfortunes he had suffered, all the ways that he had wronged other people. And certainly a lot of the, you know, the substance abuse, the drugs and the alcohol. That wasn't a secret. So in that sense, I didn't feel like that with any of those things were surprising or that writing about it was going to somehow upend how people viewed him or that that was going to disparage him in any way. What I found really fascinating was learning about the the start of his life and the origins of his family and especially about his parents and the lives that they led even before Robin was born. Because I think if you look at sort of the earliest early interviews that Robin gave. He was a little more open, I think, about talking about his parents and at least giving some sense or acknowledgement of really the life of wealth and privilege that he had come from. And then the later he went, he either would kind of fall back on kind of stock answers that, you know, he'd just been asked about those things so many times that he would just kind of, you know, give you like a familiar one liner. And that was usually satisfactory to whoever he was talking to or he started to get a little bit more closed off about himself. He had had a pretty nasty incident after he divorced his first wife and started dating the woman who would become his second wife.

They gave this interview to People magazine. And People portray, People portrayed it as if he basically, you know, his nanny his nanny had robbed the cradle or had basically stolen him away from his first wife. And that experience, I think sort of tainted his experience with the press that he became slightly more walled off person. But to really learn about the way he had been brought up and that both of his parents had had previous marriages, both had a child from their previous marriage. So Robin had these two half brothers that he had grown up sort of intermittently alongside. And those brothers, the half brothers were also extremely influential people in his life. The parents themselves had led kind of really fascinating lives. His dad was a World War II hero and a real kind of, uh, he had also come from a very wealthy upbringing. The mom was a kind of Southern debutante, and great-great-granddad was a senator and a governor from Mississippi. All these things, it's like, you know, once you understand exactly who the parents are, you realize like there's no other way. There's no other kind of person that they could have turned out except Robin Williams, that he had this one half of himself that was very outgoing, very forthcoming, kind of zany, like his mom, and then a part of himself that was very reticent and very kind of, you know, hardworking and industrious, but also a little closed off. And that was his dad.

MIGNON: OK. Well, I have some more questions about his background and how you find someone's background.

DAVE: Yeah.

MIGNON: But we're going to take a quick break for sponsors. And when we come back, we'll talk about how you find out about someone's background from a different time and maybe about story structure, and definitely your upcoming podcast. So we'll be right back.

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MIGNON: Okay, we're back. You were talking about Robin Williams' amazing, interesting, fascinating. parents, and I had been wondering how you sort of put yourself in an earlier time. I mean, Robin Williams isn't that much older than you. He was born about thirty-five years before you were, but still, it's a different time. And so how much of your work goes into understanding the culture from which the person you're writing about came? You know, I imagine back then it was much more unusual for parents to be divorced, for adults to be divorced and remarried and have half siblings. And, you know, how much work do you have to do to understand the culture about the person that's the target of your biography?

DAVE: I think it's extremely important. It was something that I really wanted to be careful about and wanted to be thorough about, because just for starters, those are going to be, unless you're going to to take a very kind of unconventional structure in your writing, that's going to be your first chapter. It's that person's earliest, the earliest years of their life. That's where you're kind of establishing your own authority to your reader. And so if you can't convey that to them, if you don't feel at that stage like you know exactly what you're talking about and where this person came from, you have lost them for all the subsequent chapters. So that was extremely important to me. And I just also found it so interesting as I started learning about these people and the world that Robin came from. To me, you know, I think of comedians for the most part, the people that I write about and encounter and the ones, you know, who usually become famous, they often come from these lives of kind of deprivation or there is something something happened to them in there in their childhood, something that that was withheld from them or, you know, they were from lower class, or they usually were from some minority group.

They didn't fit into the wider world. And that's why they turned to comedy. And none of that really applied to Robin, at least not on the outside. So that really was a kind of a mystery to begin with, is what what drives a person like that, which steers them to the life and the career that he led because he doesn't fit that mold of that profile. And, you know, I just I always just find it kind of interesting to just learn about the people who came from, let's say, the era right before me. It's just, you know, I, I'm a big fan of certainly movies and TV shows from the '60s and '70s. And it just, I don't know, maybe, maybe it's a grass-is-always-greener kind of situation. They just feels like the lives that those people led were a little bit more, they just had more going on. There was a little more grit, a lot more conflict. People got into much worse and much more dangerous situations. They treated themselves and their bodies horribly because they didn't know half the things that we know now. And so all those things, I think, just make them really interesting and fascinating to me.

MIGNON: Right. You know, it really surprised me when I started reading the book, too, that he had this one very privileged background, a great childhood. It's not what you expect from a comedian. The, the, you know, the cliches...they're troubled. So that was a surprise. And I think when when a book is so great like this one was, when you get sucked into the story, and I I don't think about the bigger writing issues. But I found myself wondering about the biographies or memoirs. Do you, as a writer, do you sort of follow the same story structure? Are you thinking about story structure with the conflict, you know, the three conflicts of a hero's journey or, you know, some way of framing the story like, you know, fiction writers do? Are you thinking about story structure when you're, when you're putting the work together?

DAVE: Yeah, I don't think I'm sort of taking the kind of the Joseph Campbell approach of, you know, which archetype does this fall into. But certainly structure is important. Thinking about what the big themes, the through lines are going to be, because particularly in Robin's life, there are beats that kind of keep coming up, whether it's, you know, certain kinds of movies and movies he likes to making, characters he likes to play, or misfortunes that he's going to suffer. Certainly kind of, you know, in his own mind, certain fears, certain, you know, phobias that he has. What if this happens to me and then sadly sees them realized in his life and career to a certain extent. And we know how the story is going to end to end. So you're trying to in some ways flag to your reader like we know where this is going, keep this in mind, remember this. Like you...here's a little, just a little, you know, outro from an episode of "Mork and Mindy" that's really kind of bittersweet and all about the, you know, the burdens of celebrity. That's gonna be really important later on. Here's a kind of throwaway "Saturday Night Live" skit that he did in the '80s where he's already kind of ruminating on old age and losing his career and his fans. That's gonna be important later, too. So, you know, the one advantage you have is that you know where the story is going.

And so you can you can point your camera wherever it makes the most sense and you can decide what to emphasize. Or you can sort of give your reader a little tap on the shoulder and say, you know, remember this? So I think certainly laying that all out in front of you as best you can before you start to write is supremely important. And just writing, writing an outline, you know, for the obviously the the breadth of the book writing chapter by chapter outlines, it was very important. And then just writing. I guess that's the best way to put it. And in the writing, things come up. You remember you're not, it's not like you're Charles Dickens and you have to keep publishing something every week. You're, you're kind of writing in, you know, you have it in your, you know, and your computer and you can say, "Oh, hey, I remember I put this thing in Chapter 16. That reminds me of this thing way back in Chapter 2. Did I, did I remember to set that up so that this pays off? Oh, I didn't. Let me let me go back to Chapter 2 and put that back in," you know, all of all those kinds of strategies.

MIGNON: Great. Do you write in just a word, processing program or to use some sort of story management program?

No, no, I, I just, I just use Microsoft Word. But I you know, I still am big on notebooks and note cards, like very old school, kind of tactile, you know, paraphernalia like that. I realize it's a little outdated and maybe you know this.

MIGNON: No, no, I do that too, so maybe we’re both outdated.

DAVE: Like maybe, maybe, you know, for another this, you know, if I, if I had a project where I had sort of infinite time or I wasn't stressing about a deadline, maybe I would, you know, try out, you know, there are obviously a lot more sophisticated computer programs to do all these sorts of things that take the place of the, the big note card pile. So I, I'm, I'm open to adapting my my strategies, but just for this particular project, because, you know, I just want to get everything just right. Yeah. There was really no room for error. You know, this was not the time to teach an old dog new tricks.

MIGNON: And so for you, what do you think…What’s the hardest part for you of writing a biography. What's the part that you struggle with the most?

DAVE: Mm hmm. I guess. It's an interesting question.

I think it's, it's maybe it's, you know, when you sort of flip the switch from the research mode to the writing mode, because in some ways you could always be doing one more interview or looking at one more archival source or tracking down one more magazine article or whatever it is. There's always a little bit more. And frankly, even in the course of writing the book, there were a couple of pretty important interviews that came through very late in the game, not not too late. And I was very grateful to to have them. But that was at times a source of anxiety. And I certainly could have, I could lived without that. But it's just not the way that, you know, the industry works or that people's lives work. At a certain point, you've just got to say, "OK, I've got to start writing this thing one way or another," and let the chips fall where they may. And so, a, that that, that was making that kind of transition was probably a little stressful to say, "OK, now I'm really in a writing mode," and to some extent just writing the very first chapter and trying to figure out or what, what is the tone going to be? How do I, you know, even though a reader comes in knowing who the book is about, like those first few pages, you're going to say a lot to them about this story they're about to read, and how I view Robin, and how and my perspective on his world. What do I say? It was supremely important. You can really get fixated on that for a while. And I know I did.

MIGNON: Yeah, I was wondering if the tone comes more from you or more from Robin. Are you thinking of his voice when you're, when you're writing, or is it really just really your voice?

DAVE: I know. I know what you mean. I mean, I think it would be very dangerous of me if I were to try to write the book in some kind of tone, like I'm emulating him because he was so singular. And you see people fall on their face all the time trying to do even a kind of half-assed imitation or impersonation of him. And I, I, I hope people like you know, I tried to to sprinkle some humor throughout the book, but I didn't initially want this to be a humorous book per say or to try to show off like, look how funny I can be. I think you want the tone to be dictated by how you think about the subject and also sort of where you are in their life at different times. There are certainly parts of Robin's life that are tremendously exciting. And when his career is taking off and just going to these astronomical heights that nobody really had had achieved and very few have reached since, it's thrilling. And you want the reader to kind of feel that momentum and to be caught up in that and to get a kind of secondhand joy from it. And sadly, of course, you know, there are parts that are gonna be terribly tragic. It's, it's going to have it just no way to avoid some of the realities of how Robin's life ended. And you also want to prepare people for that. You don't want to just suddenly turn on a dime and and have it feel really bleak. I think you really want people to be ready for that and know that it's coming and just kind of have that feel as smooth as possible when they do arrive at it.

MIGNON: Right. Well, it came across my desk because you're creating a podcast based on the book. So can you, can you tell us more about how that came about and especially what it's going to be like and where people can find it?

DAVE: It’s a very new thing to me. I don't want to take full credit or even partial credit because it's something that, you know, Macmillan, which is the parent company of Holt, which published the book, they were all very kind enough to come to me and say they thought that there was a potential and opportunity for a podcast to be made on this book, which I thought was a terrific idea. I think that Robin is just a person that we even though we have been without him for five years now, we still like to reimmerse ourselves in the work that he did and learn about his life and remember what is great about it. And so this seemed like just another opportunity to, you know, have had people experience that in in a medium that I, you know, I've been a podcast guest, and that's about the extent to which I know that that I know podcast. So to see just today, again, I'm just one of one participant in it. You'll hear my voice in it a lot, but also many other people or people that some people who were primary sources for the book who are giving new interviews, people that I maybe missed the first time around, or other people who have important connections to Robin, who have slightly different stories to share that maybe weren't right for a biography, but it will still illuminate him and his life also participating. And, you know, I get to just also be a kind of fan of it and discover how the podcast turns out. And, you know, and still get to go home to my wife and my son at the end of the day and not have to stress about it.

MIGNON: And what's it going to be called?

DAVE: It’s going to be called "Knowing Robin Williams" and is going to be great. Thank you.

MIGNON: Oh, nice. That’s gonna be great. 

DAVE: Thank you.

MIGNON: So that'll come out really soon, and it might be available now. 

DAVE: Anything’s possible. The Internet is a crazy place. 

MIGNON: Right, we can't predict. 

DAVE: That’s right. 

MIGNON: Knowing Robin Williams. 

DAVE: Yes. 

MIGNON: Wonderful. Well, thank you for being here with me today. It was wonderful to hear about your process in writing this book. Where's the best place for people find you online?

DAVE: Right. I am usually on Twitter at @ditzkoff and you can read me in The New York Times.

MIGNON: Right. Thanks so much.

DAVE: Thank you.

MIGNON: Okay.

DAVE: Bye. Take care. 

MIGNON: Thank you so much for listening today. I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. You can find a transcript of this podcast and all the other great Quick and Dirty Tips podcasters at QuickAndDirtyTips.com.

And, if you’re looking for a fun holiday gift—I know, I’m sorry it’s that time of year already—you might want to check out my card game: Peeve Wars. I hardly ever mention it, but it’s a fun, family-friendly game you can play in about 20 minutes. People love it. The cards are all cartoon pet peeves, and goal is to amass an army of peeves and annoy your opponents to death. It’s sold through a company called Game Crafter, and you can find it by doing a Google search for Grammar Girl Peeve Wars. 

Thanks to my producer, Nathan Semes. And that’s all. Thanks for listening.

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