Some might know Hamill, 77, for his books, including Snow in August and Tabloid City. Bob Dylan aficionados recognize his name as the journalist who won a 1975 Grammy for penning the liner notes for Dylan's classic Blood on the Tracks album. Still others will recognize Hamill for his work at the New York Post, New York Daily News, Rolling Stone and the New Yorker. We caught up with Hamill, whose latest is The Christmas Kid: And Other Brooklyn Stories, by phone from his home in New York City on Nov. 8. The lifelong New Yorker described the experience of staying in his home in Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy knocked out the power: "It was eerie, yet some sort of beautiful, reminding us what the world was like without electricity, and in Manhattan, that was a long time ago. So in a way I felt like I vanished into the 19th century for four days.'' Hamill is currently a distinguished writer in residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU.
What's on your nightstand?
What I finished during the power blackout, by flashlight, was Vengeance by Benjamin Black. I had bought it in Ireland. With the aid of the flashlight, I felt 11 again, in my family's tenement. He is a wonderful writer. Also, I'm reading a new novel by Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds. It's one of the first novels to come out of the war (in Iraq). It's just amazing. It's full of dazzle, light, heat and emptiness. It was almost a perfect world to enter during the storm. I'm also reading a collection of short stories by an Irish writer, Claire Keegan, called Walk the Blue Fields. It's a wonderful book. I also try to read one poem before I snooze. I find when I do that, the music gets going in my head while I sleep, and I wake up to write and I have something more than a woe is me. So, I've got a collection of poems by Derek Mahon. He is from the North of Ireland. And finally, I'm beginning to read Antonio Tabucchi's Requiem. I had read a previous book of his.
Why are you coming back to him?
In the book I read of his (Pereira Maintains), the novel took place in Portugal around 1938 when the Salazar dictatorships were taking over and while Franco was beginning to win in Spain. The main character is a book editor of a newspaper, and his boss, like so many, tries to blur out any of his work that might be considered taking a political position. The way Tabucchi handles the characters was like hearing a great saxophone player.
How long did it take you to write the liner notes for Blood on the Tracks?
To begin with, when I started writing, the tracks were different. I was present the night they changed. It was at a studio in Midtown, and Mick Jagger came in at some point. He was listening to Dylan record one of the tunes. I think it was Shelter From the Storm. Dylan was recording vocal and Jagger was over on the side. I saw Jagger talking, and Dylan nodding.... Jagger left. I asked Dylan, who I had known a little bit, what Jagger said. He told me that Jagger said, "The lyrics are great but the tracks stink." So there are actually two versions of Blood on the Tracks, and I'm sure some bootlegger is peddling them around, but it was interesting to see the process. Great musicians listening to other great musicians.
But I wrote them in two days. I wrote a fast first draft, and at some points I wrote in longhand. Writing in longhand sometimes helps get the beginning of rhythm in my head, and then I'd go to the typewriter; of course, those days we didn't go to a computer.