An Interview with John Dunning, author of Two
O'Clock Eastern Wartime
story behind Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime?
It's a novel I've
wanted to write for years -- to show what it was like to work in radio when it
was the top entertainment medium in the country. Even movies took a back seat to
radio in the Thirties and Forties, especially in the Thirties. The country was
in the middle of a depression and people couldn't afford to go out. It cost a
dime or a quarter to see Eddie Cantor on the screen -- you got him free on the
radio, and it was all live, that was the excitement and magic of it, it was
happening right then as you were listening to it. There was no phony laugh
track, a comic lived or died by his material, and there were a dozen ways a
dramatic show could fall apart. But when it worked, ah, man!...there were some
great shows, some almost perfect pieces of air. Radio was a wonderfully creative
business then, but everything you read and see plays it as high camp, as if the
entire radio era was directed by Woody Allen. It wasn't like that, not to the
actors who did fifteen shows a week, not to the writers who created what went on
the air. To them it was the stuff of life. And at its best it approached high
art. That's what my book is about. The lost art of radio.
At the same
time, this is a mystery, right? How did you come up with a mystery for radio?
difficulty. Nobody likes to hear how hard a writer's job is, so I'll spare you
most of it. Let's just say that, as far as the writing goes, this was my
ultimate seek-and-hope-to-find book. I probably wrote 5,000 pages on the various
drafts of this book, and most of it was groping through a wilderness, trying to
find something I could only feel and couldn't adequately define.
Now I look back at it and I see why so many ideas were fully written out and
then rejected. I needed a plot that enhanced the notion of radio as a medium of
the mind, not a story that merely stated that or played on it. The reader has to
see it, step into it, become part of it, or it doesn't work. I didn't want a
hint of nostalgia in this book, I wanted it to be as real as a man pouring a cup
of coffee in the morning. That's what Jack Webb said about his goals for Dragnet
50 years ago, and that's how I felt about this.
On the face of it, the mystery story is a great way to get into something. But
in a traditional mystery the puzzle takes top billing over everything. That's a
rule as old as mystery writing itself, and it's almost impossible to break it.
That was the main problem with the writing of this book, how to be true to the
mystery and still keep the radio story on an equal level.
How did you do
I can tell you
how I tried to do it. For months I groped around and wrote hundreds of pages,
looking for away into it. I must have tried a dozen different plot ideas before
I realized that the book's only chance was for the mystery and radio stories to
become one. Radio would not be a simple backdrop, it demanded to be at the heart
of it. And that set up more problems than I ever imagined because I wanted the
hero, Jack, to come to it cold. I wanted him to get his radio experience from
the ground up, as a novice, as any reader might if he stepped back in time to
1942, when the novel is set, and found himself at that radio station. Hopefully,
it then becomes a voyage of discovery for both the character and the reader. In
the beginning he's not only an outsider, he has a rather negative opinion of
broadcasting. Radio is frivolous in his mind, it's not a forum for serious
dramatic expression. Jack is a novelist who never would have gone into radio on
his own. It's the mystery that forced him there. The mystery involves his old
flame, Holly, and it's her trouble that pulls Jack all the way across the
country to this noisy little beach town in New Jersey, and to work at the radio
station where Holly sings with a small band every Saturday night.
It sounds like
the mysteries of the flesh play a fairly large part in it.
That's true in
everything I write. There's always an erotic foundation, some male-female
business at the heart of it. The thing between Holly and Jack had to be strong
stuff in my mind or I couldn't have written it.
Where do you
get your characters?
mostly. This doesn't mean that I am literally anybody in the book, but I am
certainly as much Holly as I am Jack. There are people who get inside your
heart, and parts of them swirl together and come out when you need a Holly or a
Jack. She is a mix of women who have come my way. Sometimes it's somebody you
barely knew, sometimes it's someone as close as your father. My dad was a big
man like Jack, and like Jack he was from South Carolina: he was a cabinetmaker
like Jack's father, but he is certainly not Jack, and Holly bears no resemblance
to anybody in my family.
What was it
about radio that got you going? Why did you turn away from your Cliff Janeway
book hunter series just when they were perhaps on the verge of real success?
In some ways this
is a lot like the book world, it's a big part of my life. And I'm not just
talking about the 20-odd years I spent doing a radio show. I grew up with radio
drama, I can remember so well the incredible involvement the listener had with
those radio shows. That stays with you, it's something you never really forget.
I don't care how many special effects movies or TV develop, after a while even
the destruction of the universe is just another explosion, something to watch
from a distance. But radio came from inside you. Of course when you're a kid you
don't realize that -it wasn't until many years later that I came to know how
great some of the shows really were. I'm not talking about The Shadow
now, or The Lone Ranger. Most of the shows that were great are virtually
What were some
You could start
with the lesser-known Norman Corwin shows -- not the patriotic stuff, which was
great in its own way but was produced for a specific purpose -- I'm thinking
more of Corwin's one-shot stories, running from heavy drama to whimsy. Then
there was Vic and Sade -- Paul Rhymer, who wrote that series, was compared to
Mark Twain as a great American humorist. It was John O'Hara I believe who made
that comparison, and I second it. Or how about Destination Freedom,
Richard Durham's courageous and powerful 1948 series about the struggles of the
black race in a Jim Crow world? I used that series as a model for my own black
show in Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime. I wanted to illustrate what could be done
in a crusading way with radio drama under an eccentric but sympathetic station
owner. Even series shows, thriller dramas like Suspense, westerns like Gunsmoke
and Frontier Gentlemen, had their high spots that stand out in the mind.
But maybe my favorite radio show was On Stage with Cathy and Elliott
Lewis, which ran on CBS in1953-54. Each week they did one self-contained short
story with a strong male-female conflict. It was just superb, and the recordings
that survive today prove that radio should never have been discarded for TV. As
a medium radio deserved better. It was the perfect vehicle for short story
dramatization, the ideal partner for the printed word. You should hear what NBC
Presents Short Story (another great series) did with Shirley Jackson's
horror classic, The Lottery.
I hate to use this line because it's overworked, but it's true: by requiring you
to use your imagination, radio had a far greater canvas than TV can ever hope to
have. I think it was Stan Freberg who said, "I like radio because the
pictures are better."
A project like
this must have involved years of research.
Yeah, but it was
ongoing, so that -- like the background for books in the Janeway novels -- I
absorbed it over a period of years. We were very lucky with radio, in that the
technology for preserving the shows was available from at least the early 1930s
on. Most of network radio was done live, but engineers had the capability to
make airchecks of what was heard: recordings of live radio shows as they were
happening. These airchecks were saved by the thousands -- by tens of thousands
-- and by 1969 I had become aware that many of these programs had been
transferred from their cumbersome acetate discs onto recording tape. It was
fascinating to hear these things again, not only the shows I had heard as a kid
but the whole range of radio broadcasting -- band remotes, newscasts, comedy,
drama, you name it. I began to collect this stuff, and then one day in 1972 a
local station heard about me and my radio shows and asked me to do a program. I
did it for years on various stations in Denver. At KADX, the late great jazz
station, they gave me the whole Sunday afternoon to play with. I would play a
few shows, always in their entirety, always uninterrupted with all the original
commercials and announcements, and then I'd play old music -- some jazz, some
schmaltz, whatever fit the theme. And for a couple of years I conducted live
interviews by telephone with some of the stars, sound effects people, writers,
producers, from the old days. Most of them were in their seventies then. I had
to do some real detective work to track them down, then I'd call them up and I'd
interview them for an hour or more. And I picked up a lot of folklore doing
that. Most of the people I interviewed then are dead now, but I recorded our
talks and they are on file at the Broadcast Pioneers Library.
Who are some of
these people you talked to?
Oh, God, let me
see...I did at least 125 of these interviews, and I had a great sponsor, the
Public Service Company of Colorado, which was satisfied to have its message
aired around the edges of the programs, so I never had to interrupt anything.
They sponsored me for something like ten years, and I could do long continuous
live interviews with anybody I could get on. I had Corwin on twice, and Elliott
Lewis three times. Richard Durham came on and told me how they'd done Destination
Freedom in Chicago. That was such a strong series. They had no budget and
they were tucked away on Sunday morning, but Durham's writing was so strong that
a group of white supremacists came out and picketed his station. And I had
Howard Duff, who played Sam Spade on the air, and on one show I had Janet Waldo
and Sam Edwards, who were Corliss and Dexter, long ago on Meet Corliss Archer.
I had Jim Jordan, who played Fibber McGee, but he was just as cantankerous as
his character and he spent the whole time arguing with me and my assumptions.
And Phil Harris and Dennis Day from The Jack Benny Program, and George
Balzer, who was one of Benny's writers, and Frank Nelson, who was such a
memorable stooge -- Frank told me his whole purpose was just to "annoy the
hell out of Jack Benny" every week. For one show I found a BBC engineer who
used to go up on the rooftops with Murrow in London during the blitz -- I found
him living in Minnesota, and he came on and was great. I remember him telling me
about Murrow standing on the edge of the building when a German bomb fell in the
streets a block or two away. "If it just got a little closer," Murrow
said, "we could pick it up on mike." But the BBC guy said that was
plenty close enough for him.
Let's see, who else? -- I had both Parley Baer and Georgia Ellis on one show.
Parley had played Chester and Georgia was Kitty on the radio Gunsmoke. I
tried to get William Conrad, who was Matt Dillon, but he was a tough man to pin
down and I never did get him. I did have Paul Frees, who was one of Conrad's
best friends and with Conrad was one of the two lead voices on the great CBS
adventure series, Escape. And I had Berne Surrey, the CBS sound effects
man, who did all the early versions of Sorry, Wrong Number with Agnes
Moorehead on Suspense. Then there were the newsmen, Charles Collingwood
and Eric Sevaried and Larry Lesueur. Collingwood was a great guy -- I later met
him in Denver and he told me that when he was covering the war in North Africa
he was known as the only man in the press corps who knew where to get his pants
pressed. Sevareid didn't want to come on at first, but I dubbed off a piece of
tape I had of his coverage on the Italian front around 1944, and I sent it to
him at CBS. He told me his wife was reduced to tears when she heard it, and he
agreed to come on for a few minutes. He stayed the whole hour. And Larry Lesueur
was one of my favorite shows -- he was also one of "Murrow's boys" in
London. He and Sevareid roomed together in 1940, when the blitz was at its
worst. I started the show by playing an actuality with Lesueur from that summer.
It was a wonderful piece in great sound, and just as he began his report the air
raid sirens cut loose. I tell you, there is no other sound on earth like that.
Are any of
these people actually in the book?
No, they are just
part of my own past, of my gradual enlightenment and understanding of how radio
was done. I never intended to write what they call a roman-a-clef, or one of
those books where real celebrities of the past do walk-ons and help the hero
solve the mystery. Fred Allen Solves the Murder -- that's not my thing.
No, this is a story about one man and how he comes from nowhere to work in a
medium he couldn't care less about, how he discovers his true calling in that
world, and how it finally comes to mean everything to him. There are very few
real shows even mentioned in the book. When it opens Jack is sitting in a jail
cell listening to The Charlie McCarthy Show, and later to Walter Winchell,
on the deputy's radio. But this is just background. At some point one of the
characters mentions her own favorite shows, Vic and Sade and One Man's
Family, and Jack himself is aware of the station's network schedule. He
knows when band shows like Jimmy Dorsey or Lionel Hampton come on: he knows
about the soap operas, John's Other Wife, and Amanda of Honeymoon Hill.
But in the main this is Jack's story. In a way it's a coming-of-age piece, this
is the beginning of his radio journey, and it doesn't matter if he's 32 years
old or any age.
actual library research? -- you still, must have had to do a lot of that.
Oh yeah. Not
specifically for this book, but there's a lot of digging through old radio
schedules, poring over old Radio Guide and Radio Life magazines,
in my past. All through the early and mid-Nineties I was writing a nonfiction
book on radio (On the Air, for Oxford University Press). I really had to
knuckle down and do some hard research for that. It took five or six years all
told. By the time I was ready to start Two O'Clock Eastern Wartime, I was
pretty well grounded in radio. So though I really didn't do any specific
research for this novel, in another sense I had been researching it forever.
Does this book
have series possibilities?
likely, given the way it ends. And I have never believed in long-running series
characters anyway. You write a book and use up all your energy, and very seldom
can you go back and recapture that spark that got you into it. I can't imagine
writing a book a year for 20 years with the same character. The longer you go,
the staler you get. There's a good reason why Raymond Chandler is still
considered a mystery icon after 60 years. He only wrote half a dozen novels. If
he had written 20 Marlowe books, would we still care as much? I believe that in
series novels, fewer is always better than more, and these books should never be
written to contract, with a schedule that must be met.
Does this mean
we have seen the last of Janeway?
In fact, I do
have a Janeway idea cooking, but God knows, given the way I write, when it will
come to pass. I didn't intend to turn away from Janeway, I only wanted to give
him a rest and let his bookman's cup fill up again. But the last thing I wanted
to do with Janeway was beat him into the ground with a long run of
book-of-the-year problems. I'd rather use the Chandler model of six books max.
I'd like to tell the story of the book trade as I know it in four, five, six
Janeway books, whatever it turns out to be. In that span I want to tell about
all the craziness in the book world today. At the heart of each is a book or a
book theme that illustrates some different aspect of that world, some new thing
Now this is going to be more difficult than I imagined. The book world has
changed so much even since The Bookman's Wake came out in 1995. I can't
just have Janeway operating in that old world before computers took us over, and
at the same time I don't want him to age too fast. It's amazing, isn't it? -- if
I write about the book world as it was just ten years ago, it's a period piece.