Interview: Larry Tye, Author of “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero”

Larry Tye – a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1993-94 – has been a professional writer and journalist for close to three decades. He was been a reporter...

Larry Tye – a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1993-94 – has been a professional writer and journalist for close to three decades. He was been a reporter for the Boston Globe, where he specialized on medical issues. He now runs the Boston-based Health Coverage Fellowship, which is designed to help the media better cover critical health care issues. He has written several books, including The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations and Home Lands: Portraits of the New Jewish Diaspora.

Tye has also written a biography of the longest-lived American hero: Superman. You can pre-order Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero from its Amazon page here, its Random House page here, and you can learn more about Larry Tye from his homepage here and his facebook profile.

Nicholas Yanes: You have probably met hundreds, if not thousands of people, who want to make careers out of writing. What do you feel you did right, that others overlook?

Larry Tye: I stuck with it, and that’s a critical and often overlooked part of making a go of writing.

I knew nothing about writing or reporting when I got my first job at a newspaper, back in 1980. I had been working in Washington and deferring law school, and decided to take one more year off to see the country. I visiting 10 papers in 10 days and talked them into hiring me at a great little paper in the middle of Alabama. Six months there, I thought, and then on to law school and my real career.

I had gotten the bug, however, and stayed in journalism for 20 years with another 10 since then writing books.

During those 30 years, I have been learning how to write and report. It’s partly about loving to listen, and partly about putting the painstaking time into inserting yourself into the shoes of readers to think what will make them pay attention and keep reading. It’s also about sticking with it, as I said above, until you get it as close as you can to right.

Yanes: This has nothing to do with Superman, but you try to educate people in the media about medical issues so that they can better inform the public. What are some of the medical issues reporters tend to be inaccurate about the most?

Tye: Reporters tend to cover each new study as if it’s the breakthrough the authors claim, forgetting that the study they covered last week offered up contradictory advice. What reporters get wrong more than anything isn’t basic facts but context, which makes things even more confusing to readers. These days that is especially important since consumers can go online for the facts; what newspapers and other media need to do is give some sense of perspective and context and, ideally, wisdom.

Yanes: You’ve written about serious topics for most of your career. Why did you decide to discuss the history of Superman (a topic that many would consider to be frivolous)?

Tye: Because in addition to being endless fun, Superman is serious. As America’s longest-lasting hero of the last century, he offers a lens into why we embrace the heroes we do. As a huge success in all of our media — from radio and TV to movies, cartoons, novels and graphic novels — he lets us look at the divergent takes those media offer in telling stories and attracting fans. He is all that we aspire to, and therefore says a lot about our aspirations, inspirations, and motivations. He is, at bottom, as all-American a story as there is.

Yanes: There have been lots of books specifically on Superman or that have gone into depth about the Man of Steel even if he was not the focus of the text. What’s unique perspective on the character do you take in Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero?

Tye: I try to pull it together in a way that explains Superman’s appeal to people who never really paid attention and offers new insights to those who have been paying attention for 75 years. I treat the Man of Steel as a serious subject worthy of a full-fledged biography, which he is and which few if any books have done before. I try to let my readers have as much fun reading this book as I had writing it. Whether I succeed, you and your readers will have to judge.

Yanes: Also, given that there has been so much written on him, what’s a cool fact you discovered about the character that you think will surprise readers?

Tye: He is Jewish, although everyone from Christians to Buddhists and agnostics make compelling claims to him.

He grew up not on faraway Krypton but in a gritty precinct of pre-war Cleveland. He was at moments a classic liberal icon and New Dealer, and at others, a Reaganite. Coolest of all is following him as Jerry and Joe passed him on to George Reeves and Christopher Reeve and all the rest of his careful and loving handlers over the decades.

Yanes: After learning so much about Superman, are there any other superhero characters you’d like to explore?

Tye: Yes, but I’ll keep that to myself until my publisher signs on. In the meantime, I am writing a bio for Random House of a more Earthly hero of mine when I was growing up, Robert F. Kennedy.

Yanes: Finally, what is your favorite film/television adaptation of Superman? And are you looking forward to The Man of Steel film?

Tye: Can’t wait for The Man of Steel. And can’t get enough of Reeve and Reeves.

Remember, you can pre-order Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero from its Amazon page here and its Random House page here.

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