Interview with G. Wayne Miller

by Claire E. White

G. Wayne Miller grew up in a suburb of Boston where he attended St. John's Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts, spending most of his time on the ice playing hockey. After graduating from Harvard in 1976 and doing what he refers to as "the obligatory living-abroad find-yourself thing" for several months, he landed a job as a reporter at The Transcript, a small daily newspaper in North Adams, Mass. where he learned the journalistic ropes, and, in less than a year, took a staff writer position at the larger Cape Cod Times in Hyannis. Two and a half years later, he went to The Providence Journal, which has a reputation as a "writer's paper" and has won several Pulitzer Prizes; he is still there. He has been chairman of the paper's writing committee, has received numerous awards (including an American Society of Newspaper Editors prize for feature writing), and for many years has specialized in long-term projects and series involving immersion reporting -- a process similar to a cop going undercover in an organization to gather information, only in immersion reporting everyone knows who the reporter is. His love of early Stephen King inspired him to begin seriously writing fiction and he has had several horror/mystery stories published in magazines and hardcover and paperback collections, and, in 1989, sold his first novel, Thunder Rise, to William Morrow.
G. Wayne Miller
His next book was The Work of Human Hands, a profile of Hardy Hendren, chief of surgery at Boston's Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School professor, received excellent reviews and led to a book contract with Random House for two more titles: Coming of Age (1995), a fast-moving tale set inside a seemingly ordinary American public high school and his most recent work, Toy Wars, the first inside look at the harshly competitive world of children's toys. When he's not writing, Miller can be found spending time with his wife and three children in the 100 year old farmhouse in Rhode Island in which they live, puttering around in his garden, building things, surfing the Net or engaging in an ongoing battle with the squirrels which are determined to take over his bird feeder. Wayne spoke with us about his life as a journalist, his love for both fiction and nonfiction and what it was like to go behind the scenes of the viciously competitive toy industry for his new book Toy Wars.

How did you get your start as a journalist?

I free-lanced, first for tiny little publications, then two pieces for The Boston Globe. Encouraged, I began applying for full-time employment -- and was turned down by more places than I care to remember. Finally, my first mentor in the business, a tough but brilliant city editor for a small daily newspaper in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, took a shot on me. When I left, some nine months later for a larger paper, I'd learned all the basics from this guy.

Do you work at the office or at home? Do you telecommute?

I work both at the Providence Journal, where I've been on staff for 16 years, and at my study at home, where (being paranoid about such things) I keep my most valuable documents. I've written all of my books from home. I telecommute only in the sense that I'm linked electronically to the Journal, can send and fetch files, but I no longer write daily or deadline stories, only longer pieces and series.

How did Toy Wars come about?

I was inspired in part by Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine, in which he chronicled the creation of a computer. I thought it would be interesting to watch the birth of a mass-produced toy, with the interplay of design, marketing, advertising and promotion. What was then the largest toy company on earth, Hasbro, is headquartered here in Rhode Island so it wasn't hard to decide what door to knock on first.

How did you manage to get such free and unfettered access to the behind the scenes workings of Hasbro?

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I knew Alan Hassenfeld, chairman and CEO, from coverage of an ethics reform movement he chaired. He was an unconventional CEO, to say the least: He preferred jeans and collar-less shirts; he wore rubber bands as bracelets, rumor had it in memory of a long-dead friend; his hair was always a mess; and he'd been a creative writing major in college and still had great respect for the written word. The idea of a book appealed to him on a very non-corporate level. Also, Alan knew me and my work. He believed that whatever else came of it, I would be honest and try my best to tell a good story. What's amazing is the level of trust that was established from the very start. Although I was allowed to attend meetings of my choice -- could roam freely within the company -- even had my own card key -- I never signed any papers.

What was the most disturbing aspect of what your research uncovered?

How rarely children, the ostensible raison d'etre for the industry, were ever seen. Except for focus groups and related research, they were invisible. Most of the big companies even have an official policy banning children from American International Toy Fair, the industry's largest trade show!

What was the most surprising fact you found out from your time at Hasbro?

How incredibly brutal the business is. Here I'd imagined this fun-filled Santa's Workshop, all the happy little elves joyously making next Christmas's toys -- and what I found was insane competition, both within toy companies and between them. While there were certainly zany moments, for the most part this is a rough-and-tumble business where billions of dollars are at stake and careers can rise and fall virtually overnight. And it was surprising the extent to which Wall Street dictates performance. This really was Barbies At The Gate, as several insiders began to call the bloodshed that developed when Mattel tried to take over Hasbro.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is that of the Hassenfeld brothers. How did they manage to keep CEO Stephen Hassenfeld's homosexuality and the fact that he had AIDS a secret?

Actually, both facts were widely rumored but never confirmed because on the few occasions when someone asked, Stephen denied. Bear in mind, too, that Stephen was charismatic -- a man people genuinely loved. Whatever was cool with him was cool with everyone around him, the people who worked for him at least. And he made gobs of money, raising this shlocky little toy company his penniless immigrant grandfather had founded into a Fortune 500 firm. Who cared about his personal life? He had the golden touch!

How did you juggle your journalism job with your time spent at Hasbro? What was your typical schedule during the 5 years you spent at Hasbro?

One of the wonderful things about my job is that Joel Rawson, executive editor of the Journal and probably the best story editor in newspapers
"...children...were [rarely] ever seen. Except for focus groups and related research, they were invisible. Most of the big companies even have an official policy banning children from American International Toy Fair, the industry's largest trade show!"
anywhere today, has let me tackle big projects that become a series for the paper and later a book for Random House, where I've also been blessed with a great editor: Jon Karp. I've done three projects like this and am now deeply into my fourth. So my "job," in essence, has been only projects. My typical schedule for the reporting part of that five years was about four days a week at Hasbro (or in L.A., New York or any of the many other places my story took me) and the fifth -- and often a sixth -- day organizing, transcribing, and outlining. I took a leave of nearly a year from the Journal for the actual writing.

Toy Wars contains an amazing amount of information, including thumbnail sketches of numerous personalities, yet it reads more like a novel than a nonfiction work. How did you decide upon the format for Toy Wars?

I am a meticulous outliner; without structure, I am lost. From the very start of a project, I am seeking the form that will emerge from this mountain of facts, and I have a fairly complicated system of transcribing, brainstorming, cross-referencing and weeding-out that makes the actual writing in some ways the least challenging part of the process. I knew early on that I wanted classic structure for Toy Wars: a protagonist (hero) facing a great challenge and fighting toward a resolution. Alan Hassenfeld clearly was the protagonist: a creative writing major who never wanted to run the world's largest toy company suddenly handed the reins when his brilliant big brother dies of AIDS, a disease he'd never acknowledged. I mean, could it be any better than that? Alan's greatest challenge, fending off Mattel, the denouement of the book, was pure blind luck: It came at the very end of the reporting, when I was set to write, in fact. Thank God for luck.

What is the most disturbing trend that you see in the toy business?

The rush toward brands, almost to the exclusion of anything else. If it isn't Barbie or Star Wars or the like, it barely has a ghost of a chance in the marketplace. This means that the great little toy by the unknown inventor from Vermont is less and less likely to ever get into our kids' hands.

How has the Toy Wars experience changed how you handle toy buying and/or recreational activities for your own children?

I guess I'm a little more careful, but frankly, my wife and I have always tried to be thoughtful about what toys our kids have. I think all good parents are. Some brand-name stuff is OK, but we like to emphasize creative toys. We're big on kitchen-table activities, such as old-fashioned scissors and construction paper. And we're big on reading and outdoors play: sandbox, garden, playhouse, etc. We also try to monitor and limit TV, although I must admit that as a babysitter, TV has no equal.

Has the rise of the Internet, DVDs, laser discs and other multimedia taken away children's development of their own imaginations by letting electronics do all their thinking and entertaining for them?

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I think this is a very real threat. Let me give you an example. Our four-year-old son loves computers and computer games (Hasbro has some great titles, I would note). If we let him, Cal would sit in front of a screen for hours on end -- silent, eventually bleary-eyed, completely mesmerized the whole time. Some of this play feeds the imagination, but past a certain point can't; by the very nature of the beast every choice is dictated by the machine, leaving no room for open-ended creativity. And computers, being so beguiling, suck hours away from what I would call real-life discovery: exploring the woods, for example, or interacting with people. Remember people?

In the book you touch upon the numerous moral issues that face toymakers. Can you give us an example of a major moral issue Hasbro faced? Do you agree with its decision?

Hasbro had to decide whether to make the toys from Mortal Kombat, a video game that is offensively violent. Alan decided to go ahead. His decision was based on sound business thinking, and he demanded reassurances that the Mortal Kombat movie would not be overly graphic, but I still believe he made the wrong decision.

Let's talk about immersion reporting. What was your first job which involved immersion reporting?

In 1984, after my promotion from a bureau to the city room, I began a series on deinstitutionalization in Rhode Island: moving mentally ill and retarded people back into the community. I spent the better part of a year inside the community system and also one of the state's institutions. It was a dramatic lesson in how leaving the office and spending time -- lots of time -- is really the only way to begin to get at the truth. Quick jump-and-run stories are superficial, and often miss the point, although I understand why we in the media have to do them.

What do you enjoy most about immersion reporting? Are there any pitfalls to involving yourself in this kind of reporting?

My favorite thing is spending lots of time inside worlds I would never have seen or perhaps even have known about if I had chosen another profession. I have spent months and months inside the operating room of
"As meticulous as I am factually in my non-fiction, I like the freedom pure make-believe provides. Of course, the best fiction approaches truth in ways non-fiction not always can... "
the chief of surgery at Boston's Children's Hospital (The Work of Human Hands), a suburban high school (Coming of Age), and now a toy company and its partners in Hollywood. The excitement is in the discovery. The biggest pitfall is detaching myself from subjective judgments and zeroing in on the truth, or as close as we ever get to it, when writing. I will not spend years of my life with people I do not like on some level (that would be masochistic) and so I must consciously divorce intellect from emotion when putting pen to paper. I'm not sure if I, or others who practice immersion reporting, every entirely succeed. Nor am I sure that we should. There's room for a slice of our opinions in our work, and I don't mean only in the author's notes.

You have won awards for your journalism and have written three popular nonfiction books, yet you still write fiction as well. What's the allure of fiction writing to you?

The great, wide-open field of imagination through which fiction writers stroll. As meticulous as I am factually in my non-fiction, I like the freedom pure make-believe provides. Of course, the best fiction approaches truth in ways non-fiction not always can, but that's another discussion... Suffice it to say that I love creating characters and situations purely from ether.

Do you find fiction easier or harder to write than your nonfiction work?

Cover of Human Hands by G. Wayne Miller Tough question. Non-fiction requires a discipline of accuracy and fairness that is time-consuming and burdensome, albeit necessary; on the other hand, it presents ready-made characters and situations, and the writer's job is simply (not always so simply!) to find meaning. Fiction places no restrictions on character or place; a short story or book need be true only to itself, and its writer's ideas. Creating credible characters entirely from the imagination, however, is vastly more difficult than capturing a flesh-and-blood person on the page. At least for me. I guess that's a convoluted way of saying fiction is harder for me, and also more rewarding.

What is the biggest change you have seen in the news industry since you started work as a journalist?

Two earth-shattering changes: the rapid switch to everything electronic, from the way we gather news to how we publish it; and the enormous importance today of marketing, a word that was obscene in news circles as recently as a decade ago. The first change I welcome, although we must be careful in how we use these new tools. The second change is more problematic for me. I concede the need to market ourselves in the late '90s, but urge intelligence in how we do it.

How much do you use the Internet in your work? Do you use it for anything else besides work?

I use the Internet daily in my work, as a great reference tool and a marvelous way to communicate with peers (e-mail). Non-work uses include keeping in touch with friends (e-mail) and, increasingly, shopping -- at this point, mainly for books and catalogues. I read a few Internet journals, including yours, both for work and pleasure. I also have a website (who doesn't?):

What is your advice to aspiring journalists hoping to make it in the Net-savvy nineties?

The same old advice that's worked for writers for centuries. Be endlessly inquisitive. Be smart. Be sharply intolerant and greatly understanding. Find a mentor and listen well. Read the greats and not-so-greats. And write, write, write. All the rest is accessory. If my four-year-old son can be nimble on a computer, anyone can. What's new about the Net-savvy nineties is only the technology, and it's easily mastered. Good writing, in whatever form, remains the same, however it's published.

Tell us about Eggemoggin.

Alas, our plans to open a writing center in Maine this summer are on hold. It's a long story, but the property we had planned to buy -- had signed a purchase-and-sales agreement, in fact -- turns out not to be the place we thought it was. We're not buying it, but we're actively looking elsewhere. When it finally opens, Eggemoggin will be a resource for the writing and reading public -- a place to celebrate and learn good writing, and have a few lobster bakes.

What projects are you working on now?

I am deeply into another Journal series and fourth Random House book about a pioneering band of surgeons in the 1950s who turned the medical community on its head. It's a great true-adventure story with an extraordinary cast of characters and I like to think of it as The Right Stuff of surgery. It's also a departure for me, in that it's not an immersion project. Not having witnessed any of the events, I will, like Tony Lukas and Common Ground, have to reconstruct everything. But it's great fun and my goal, as in Toy Wars, is to tell the story like a novel.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my work. It's been fun!

It was my pleasure!

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