By Annette Hinkle
As a writer, Tom Clavin is typically focused on telling the real life stories of notable characters. A New York Times bestselling author, his many non-fiction titles have revisited the high and low points of some of this country’s most notable historic figures — from Wild West legend Wyatt Earp and founding father George Washington, to baseball heroes such as Roger Maris and Joe DiMaggio.
But in his newest book, “Promise,” the subject Clavin delves into most is Clavin himself.
“Usually, I’m speaking almost through the mouths and eyes of other historical characters. You can always wear their mask. There’s no mask here, other than my own,” Clavin said. “It’s funny how this collection makes such a liar out of me. Years ago, I insisted I’d never be a columnist and would never write a memoir. But this book is the combination of those two things.”
More specifically, “Promise” is a selection of Clavin’s essays culled from his “Farther East” column which ran in The Southampton Press and all The Press News Group publications for a decade and a half.
“I wrote weekly for 15 years. I never missed a week, though some readers may beg to differ,” Clavin said. “So when I stopped writing it — 2018 was the last column — I missed it, but also thought I was done with it and moving on.”
Despite his long commitment to the column, “Farther East” was initially an endeavor that Clavin embarked on with a bit of reluctance. It was Press News Group Executive Editor Joseph P. Shaw who first asked Clavin if he’d consider taking on a weekly column. This was back in 2003 or so, and Clavin, who had worked as editor at other East End weeklies, admits that it was something he feared would quickly become a burden to sustain.
So a deal was struck and a trial period set — Clavin agreed to give it a go for three months as a test run. At the end of that time, he’d either end it or keep on writing.
“The three months turned into 15 years,” he said. “That’s one thing the collection represents is that sustained effort of speaking to an audience through a column for 15 years.”
Though “Farther East” was technically labeled a news column, Clavin often took the opportunity to use the space to share memories of his childhood as the son of a proud Irish family living in the Bronx.
“I got feedback from people that they really liked when I wrote about more personal things,” Clavin said. “That stuck in my mind in the months after I stopped writing the column, and I encountered people who said ‘I miss your column.’”
While the accolade of those fans didn’t persuade Clavin to revive the weekly column, it did make him think that perhaps it would be an interesting project to assemble a selection of columns from those 15 years into a book of sorts — and dare we say it — a memoir?
“The initial cut were of a lot of different topics, and then I started to think about the more personal writing. On the next cut, I just isolated those to see how it read,” Clavin said. “That was a big leap of faith, to contemplate when I put something out there exclusively from a personal point of view and that as a memoir writer, not a reporter.
“That was a real turning point.”
Another reason that Clavin leaned more toward the personal writings in “Promise” is that the topics tended to have more universal appeal with a true sense of timelessness, “as opposed to a 2008 column that discusses bike lanes in Springs, or what the Southampton Town Board was wrestling with in 2010,” he jokes.
“The only audience I was thinking about when I put this together were people who read the column and maybe wanted to revisit it,” he said. “Otherwise, this was never intended for any other audience. The reading public I normally try to appeal to is not this group.”
But many of the memories Clavin shares in “Promise,” like those from his earliest years at Catholic school or frank talks shared on the roof of his apartment building with a tough talking uncle, are likely to strike a chord with readers who grew up in the New York City metro area. His experience mirrors that of countless sons and daughters of European immigrants and Clavin explains that his family was part of the mid-20th century white flight exodus from New York City — the Irish, Italian and German families that emptied out of the Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn, bound for the greener pastures of Long Island.
“It was reverse manifest destiny to head east, not west, and pull up the bridges behind them,” Clavin said. “That’s what they did for decades.”
In working through the decision-making process about which columns to ultimately include in “Promise,” Clavin turned to a trusted source — Springs author Randye Lordon, author of the Sydney Sloane mystery series — who acted as his editor.
“There were two very important things she brought to the project. She urged me — at the time forced me — to go with the more personal approach, and she also suggested the idea of placing the essays in chronological order so it does start early in life and goes to present,” Clavin said.
Lordon also helped Clavin work through what was, for him, perhaps the most difficult part of the project — writing the last two essays in the book, which are new pieces.
“One is reporting, the other is very personal and inspired by the death of my mother while pulling this collection together,” he said. “In writing these brand new essays, I had someone I trusted I could show them to who would be tough with me and give feedback.”
In the end, Clavin notes that the final essay in “Promise” does take everything full circle and in a way, transports his audience back to the very beginning of the book, and for him, that’s a big reason to do it.
“It provided the opportunity to take a reader on a full journey that begins on the first day of school — then she passes away. So much is reexamined and remembered in literally the last paragraphs,” said Clavin, who admits that one of his biggest fears with this book was that the project would feel self-indulgent.
“I wanted to make it readable and resonate. That was very important,” he said. “I think the collection shows, or can reflect, the tradition of columnists The Press has had. When you pick it up every week, there are a variety of columns of differing points of views.
“I had the tremendous privilege of 15 years on that soap box,” Clavin said. “To me, that collection is a tribute to the newspaper columns in general and The Press in particular.”
And so now that he’s delved into those past writings, is Clavin at all considering the idea of possibly returning to the paper as a regular columnist?
“There’s been no people demonstrating in the streets about that,” he admitted.