John Nagy—hobbit, Carthusian, Baltimore Oriole wannabe—responds wonderfully to the UMag questionnaire.
How long have you been a writer?
I won a statewide high school essay writing contest and was so disturbed by the sense that I’d said all I had to say at age 17 that I put my pen down (it was blue felt-tip and a yellow legal pad in those days, see #4) and didn’t pick it up again until life required it 10 years later. That was the day I got three job offers and went home to learn that my wife was pregnant with our first child. The writing job, covering transportation policy and the environment for Stateline.org in Washington, D.C., was the one that offered comprehensive health insurance. Game on.
Of all the things you have to do to produce a story in the magazine, what do you enjoy the most?
The day after the agony that is getting started, trying to transform days, weeks, or months of reporting into something true that will snag minds and hearts. From then on, it’s shaping, crafting, clarifying, and making those connections that had been stuck upstairs for so long and now are down on the floor where I can play with them.
What has proven to be your biggest challenge?
Introversion and institutional politics. I’m a hobbit—give me an adventure, but hold the dragons. For a guy who dislikes conflict and tension as much as I do, I picked an odd profession.
For interviews, notepad or recorder? For writing, legal pad, typewriter, or computer?
Once upon a time I read guitar magazines where they’d get the rockers to talk about their equipment. Like, Geddy Lee plays a Rickenbacker 4001 bass through a pair of Ampeg SVTs? Cool! I should, too, and then maybe I will rock like Geddy! I’ve never comparison-shopped for the tools of my own work and no one has ever even joked that they’d like to write like me, but what I’ve fallen into is a both/and on Notepad v. Recorder and a choice between the desktop in my cube or my laptop at South Bend’s fine Main Street Coffee House for the writing. The Mennonites who own and run that place put something in the icing on the carrot cake that really opens the mind.
What do you wish you were better at?
Getting off my chair, cultivating sources, listening, asking good follow-ups, abstract reasoning, poetry, public speaking, distinguishing inside voices from outside voices, comedic timing, zingers, photography, multitasking, novel writing, hardball, and making a persuasive case to Kerry Temple to let me open a Virgin Islands bureau of Notre Dame Magazine.
What story are you proudest to have written?
My inner Carthusian, which sternly disapproves of my byline, is having a hard time with this question. I know the stories that so many of us did about the Haiti earthquake triggered some ethical introspection. In our case, I felt no qualms writing about a research program and staff whose 17-year, on-the-ground commitment combating an awful parasitic disease, lymphatic filariasis, put them in an extraordinary position to provide aid, comfort, and medical care to their city. The stories—we did two, one from campus and one from Leogane and Port-au-Prince—connected with readers and was a small part of an impressive followup effort that has faculty and alumni involved in Haiti in novel ways to this day. I’m proud just to know those people.
Who among writers have been your exemplars?
Ray Bradbury, Richard Russo. Flannery O’Connor. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Henry Taylor. We have published several pieces by an essayist named Mark Phillips who nails my heart to a tree in Western New York every single time. And then, Douglas Adams. Dave Barry. Life and death; absurdist humor.
If you weren’t a writer, what would your dream job be?
Dead heat among restoration architect, brewmaster, globe trekker, slugging, Gold Glove, career first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, and lead timpanist at the Olympics. Who doesn’t want to be that guy?