Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest, New York Times best-selling author and television producer, Keith Elliot Greenberg. Keith has been a professional writer and television producer for more than 30 years, covering a wide range of topics from social issues to professional wrestling to true crime.
In addition to authoring more than 30 non-fiction children’s books, he has written a number of true crime books and biographies, including the national bestseller December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died (Backbeat Books), To Be the Man, Erik is Homeless, and Zack’s Story.
He has written articles for Playboy, Men’s Journal, The Huffington Post, Maxim, the New York Observer, US Weekly and The Village Voice. Keith has also worked on several popular programs, including America’s Most Wanted. Currently, he works full-time at NBC News, primarily producing hour-long documentaries for networks like MSNBC, TLC, Lifetime, the History Channel and Discovery ID.
Keith’s latest book, TOO FAST TO LIVE, TOO YOUNG TO DIE: James Dean’s Final Hours will be published in time for September 30, 2015 – the 60th anniversary of James Dean’s death.
Norm: Good day Keith and thanks for participating in our interview.
When did you first consider yourself a writer and what is the most difficult thing for you about being a writer? As a follow up, what was the first piece you ever wrote? What was your reaction?
Keith: I think I became a writer by accident. I used to draw and create comic strips as a kid, and I always thought I’d end up as some type of artist. But I didn’t have the discipline to draw things to scale, and writing seemed easier. I’d always followed crime stories and political intrigues, and found that I had the prior knowledge necessary to enter the news business.
I started getting published when I was 19 years old, and I didn’t have any qualms about where my stories ran. I’d write an article for a local weekly about the mayor holding a town hall meeting, then crank out a bunch of letters for a porn magazine. I was getting paid to write, and that meant I wouldn’t have to take a civil service test, work in sales or, even worse, consider an option as dehumanizing as law school.
Norm: Why have you been drawn to writing about wrestling and true crime?
Keith: I’m a third generation wrestling fan, and always appreciated wrestling for its athletics, its entertainment aspect and its underground appeal. If you liked wrestling, you were often scorned by sports purists, and I felt comfortable in that outsider category.
In terms of crime, I was always intrigued by people who couldn’t exercise impulse control. Everybody probably fantasizes about killing someone, pulling off the perfect robbery, living as a fugitive, but most of us will never do it. And that’s good. When I became a reporter, I also met victims and became sympathetic to their stories. You’re an average person one day, and then horrendous events just overtake your life. Then, there are detectives who find that one flaw in the execution of a crime, and they put people behind bars. In the meantime, though, they’re fighting against a system that sometimes seems to be working against them.
Norm: Many writers want to be published, but not everyone is cut out for a writer’s life. What are some signs that perhaps someone is not cut out to be a writer and should try to do something else for a living?
Keith: If you want safety, financial security, predictability, this isn’t the life for you. It’s not a profession, it’s a lifestyle.
Norm: Does your writing career ever conflict with your career as a producer?
Keith: It’s not a conflict. The two enhance each other. As a producer, I can tell a story visually – using imagery to convey a message. As a writer, I paint the entire landscape in words.
Norm: Do your books have a broader mission than simply entertaining or storytelling? If so, can you talk more about that mission and what you hope readers will take away from reading your books?
Keith: I primarily view myself as a storyteller. I didn’t pursue this out of idealism. I don’t expect the world to become a better place. I’m intrigued by man’s worst impulses. At the same time, I meet interview subjects – generally, innocent victims either of crime or injustice — who I personally like, and I root for them, and feel as though I’m advocating for them. You can’t help it.
Norm: Can you explain some of your research techniques, and how you found sources for your books?
Keith: There’s nothing better than having a face-to-face conversation or confrontation with somebody. Email is fine and useful, but you miss the body language, the facial expressions. I feel that I can use whatever charisma I might possess – my New York accent, my sense of humor, my ability to listen and not talk over people – to draw people out, make them comfortable, have them introduce me to other people. Plus, I need to observe the things I describe. I could read dozens of articles about James Dean’s home town. But I couldn’t have written this book if I didn’t walk around the farm where he grew up.
Norm: What is your philosophy of life?
Keith: Everyone’s an individual. Everyone has motives for the things he or she does. Everyone has a rationale for the way he or she thinks. I may not approve, but I want to listen enough to understand. And, of course, then I want to put it in writing.
Norm: What motivated you to write TOO FAST TO LIVE, TOO YOUNG TO DIE: James Dean’s Final Hours.
Keith: I had written December 8, 1980: The Day John Lennon Died for the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. With the 60th anniversary of James Dean’s death approaching, Hal Leonard Publishing wanted to see if I could do something similar. I wasn’t sure I could – until I arrived in Fairmount, Indiana, and saw the way James Dean’s family, friends and fans loved him. Once I experienced that passion, I felt I was beginning to understand the sub-culture of James Dean, and I wanted to know more.
Norm: Could you tell our audience a little about the book and what would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read it?
Keith: I work full-time in Rockefeller Center and pass a framed portrait of James Dean in one of the stores every day. Why is that? Why does someone still excite the public 60 years after his death? When I talk to people about James Dean, they know he died in a car accident, but generally know little about the details. More often than not, they’re not even talking about the Indiana kid his friends and family called “Jimmy.” They’re talking about Jim Stark, Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause.
Certainly, James Dean incorporated a great deal of his personality into that role. But he was James Byron Dean, not Jim Stark. This book explores James Dean as an individual, the circumstances of his early and heartbreaking demise, the effect it had on the people who knew and cared about him, and the cult surrounding his death.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your latest book?
Keith: The book can be purchased pretty much anywhere. Hal Leonard does a pretty thorough job with distribution. And if you want to find out more about me, just Google my name. Because I’ve written so much about professional wrestling, that’s the stuff that generally comes up first. But I’ve been knocking around a long time, so there’s no shortage of material with my name attached to it. And if you’re really curious, just wander around New York after midnight some time. You’ll probably see me somewhere.
Norm; What is next for Keith Elliot Greenberg?
Keith: I never know. I’m working on a true crime book about a really strange and heartbreaking murder in southern California. But with every book, I always become obsessed with a peripheral character. In this case, it was Rolf Wutterich, James Dean’s German-born passenger during his final ride. Rolf suffered brain damage, went back to Germany, stabbed his wife, did some time in a mental health facility, corresponded with obsessive, teenage James Dean fans and eventually died in his own car accident. Maybe I’ll write a book about him sometime.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Keith: I think we’ve covered a lot. Thanks.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
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