An Interview with Storied East End Author, Thomas Clavin

Photo: Thomas Martinsen

Ah, the Interview Issue seems like forever ago. But you know what? Good conversation is good conversation. What’s even more is great conversation. Great conversation is timeless. And that’s what we found out when we received the following interview conducted by Whalebone Founder Jesse Joeckel with celebrated author and East End resident, Thomas Clavin.

Sir Clavin has penned books covering a wide range of subjects, not limited to the Yankees, tales of wars and fabled stories that took place close to home. He also #never started a knockoff clothing brand called Clavin Klein, which would have significantly easier than real authorship, and potentially much more lucrative. No, Sir Clavin stuck to a much tougher and longer-lasting venture—writing, and writing well.

You have such a wide variety of topics you write about—legendary sports figures, heroic war stories, even tragedies off the coast of our own Montauk shores. What is the connection you have with all these topics?

One connection is that many of the stories that interest me involve ordinary people who are in extraordinary circumstances. I could not write about superheroes and have little interest in fantasy. In Dark Noon, for example, Eddie Carroll was just another Montauk boat captain who found himself and 64 passengers on the Pelican in an extraordinary weather event. In The Last Stand of Fox Company, there was a company of Marines who a few months earlier had been Stateside now finding themselves in a freezing mountain pass fending off 10,000 enemy soldiers.

These stories you write must require digging through years and years of old papers and at times, recently declassified government documents. That’s some serious detective work. Would you consider that the most exciting part of writing a book? Would you consider a career change to work with the CIA?

I couldn’t work for the CIA because most, if not all of what you dig up would be kept secret, and a writer does the opposite. I do enjoy putting on an imaginary fedora and being a literary detective, to first finding stories that should be told and second gathering details about those stories that make them go from interesting to compelling.

You grew up in The Bronx and you’ve written two books on Yankee heroes. I’m assuming it’s safe to say you’re a fan. Of all the Yankee greats, why did you chose Maris and DiMaggio?

About a decade ago when I introduced my son to Yogi Berra, I could say he was a fourth-generation Yankee fan. It’s in the Clavin DNA. One reason to choose Roger Maris as the subject of a biography is unlike with Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, etc., Maris had received little biographical attention. Then it was fun to discover what a fascinating, in some ways tragic figure he was. With The DiMaggios, my aim was to tell a story about an immigrant family reaching for the American Dream, and for three of the nine children baseball was the road to it. And come to think of it, Joe and Vince were tragic figures, while Dominic DiMaggio achieved that dream.

You write about the past, what era would you have liked to live in the most if we let you borrow our time machine and why?

I am where and when I am, and trying to make the best of it. My imagination doesn’t stretch far enough to conceive of living in another place and time. However, if I did have a time machine, I would go back to when I could become Mark Zuckerberg’s college roommate and soon-to-be best friend, happy to be the first investor in the “social network” concept.

You were a publicist and proofreader at one point in your life for The Guinness Book of World Records, what is the most unbelievable or completely out-there record you ever came across?

Mostly what I remember about my Guinness experience was encountering the people who showed up at the offices in Manhattan to demonstrate why they belonged in the book. One guy showed us how he could play 11 musical instruments at once. My favorite was the woman who dragged me into the publisher’s bathroom—which I was shocked to discover was decorated with Japanese erotica wallpaper—to have me watch her potty-trained iguanas.

If you were able to set a Guinness World Record for something, what would it be?

A record I’d love to own is most money given to charity.

You live in Sag Harbor, I imagine the life of a writer there consists of sitting on a dock overlooking the water punching away on an old school typewriter, maybe even a pipe hanging out of the side of your mouth. I’m kidding, but how much of this is true? What is the life of an author like?

Just addressing what the author’s life is like for me now, as opposed to decades of struggle: I have the privileges of being immersed only in projects I care very much about and I pretty much set my own schedule. Now, having said that, my schedule is rather strict. I work a lot, whether it be researching, writing articles, getting what I can get written every day on a book project, work-related reading, work-related travel which can include promoting a book, etc.

This past August 7 was the first time I went to the bay two blocks away and went swimming. I don’t go boating, I don’t hang out at the American Hotel, and I don’t smoke or have a manual typewriter. It’s great that my commute to work is down the hallway to my office, but otherwise, there is no punching out at the same time every day, no paid sick or vacation days, no pension, etc. I’m at my desk by 7:30 a.m. every morning (10 a.m. on Sundays), and if enough has not been accomplished during the day, I could be at my desk at 7:30 in the evening.

One of many reasons why I miss my children being young is I don’t have that competing pleasure getting me out from behind the computer. No doubt contributing to my not getting out and about much is not having a favorite watering hole since Nichols in East Hampton closed a few years ago.

How is your golf game?

My golf game died of natural causes five years ago. Every year, I intend to resuscitate it. I don’t understand how years ago I had less money and played more golf.

What are some of the most interesting or surprising facts you learned about Montauk while doing research for Dark Noon? Tell us your secrets!

One was learning how robust the Montauk fishing industry was from the 1930s on, compared to today when there are so many scarcities. Being about to separate the fact from the legend about the future shark hunter Frank Mundus during his first year in Montauk was fun. So was learning about the cannonball trains that brought thousands of anglers out to Montauk every summer during the boom years after World War II. And little things like the Pelican tragedy in 1951 led to the founding of the Montauk Ambulance. Another joy was how Robin Strong and others at the Montauk Library were so generous to me, and how priceless the local history archives there are.

The Heart of Everything that Is, is a story about Red Cloud who was the only American Indian in history to defeat the United States Army in a war. For the majority of Americans, I’m sure this was the first time hearing that this actually happened. It’s not exactly something we were all taught in school, did you receive any backlash after releasing this book from some non-believers?

Quite the opposite. Much of the reaction to Heart was surprise because the genocide of the American Indian is, shall we say, “under-reported” in the U.S. education system. Another reaction was gratitude that the story of Red Cloud and the Plains Indians was being told as objectively as possible, meaning not solely through the eyes of the white conquerors. White explorers and fur traders and eventually prospectors and settlers encountered a fascinating way of life—much of it not pretty or romantic—on the other side of the Missouri River in the 1800s, and for most of us, the little information we have about it came from Hollywood portrayals, which could be wildly wrong. I am glad to report that responding from demand from education circles and parent groups, a version of Heart for readers up to 12 years old will be published next February.

Anything in the works our readers should know about?

My next collaboration with Bob Drury, our first since Heart, will be published by Simon & Schuster this October. Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission is about a B-17 bomber’s exploits in the Pacific Theater in 1943, which led to the most decorated crew of the war. My next solo book will be published by St. Martin’s next February, and the title pretty much explains it: Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town In the American West. Reach for the sky, podna!