What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation


What F. Scott Fitzgerald Got Wrong About America

Writer Jack Hitt Is a Pilgrim and a Procrastinator

October 30, 2015

Jack Hitt writes for The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine and is a regular contributor to This American Life. He is the author most recently of Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, and last year he toured the country with a one-man show, Making Up the Truth. Before moderating a discussion of the American art of risk-taking, he sold us on two cult novels and offered up the most surprising thing about performing solo onstage in the What It Means to Be American green room.

Q: What do you wake up to?
Silence, usually.

Q: Where do you write?
I have a studio that I built in the back on my property. It’s a sliver of my garage. It’s this very tiny space. I like to be enclosed when I’m writing.

Q: What’s the last great book you read?
Stoner, this novel from the ’60s about a guy named Stoner. It has nothing to do with marijuana. The author’s name is John Williams. Stoner was great, really fantastic. I’m a big fan of Norwood by Charles Portis, and it’s another one of those obscure books that has a little cult following. And it is in fact great.

Q: Where would you like to make a pilgrimage to next?
Well I’ve done the road to Santiago in Spain three times. So I’d like to try one of the sacred pilgrimages in India.

Q: What’s your worst habit?
(A long pause.) Procrastination.

Q: What surprised you most about performing a one-man show?
That it’s a two-way exchange. That the audience is performing for you as much as you are performing for them. And that the difference between a bad performance and a good one is when you acknowledge that their reaction is a kind of performance, and you have to give space in your work to let them reply and respond to what you’re doing.

Q: What’s the ugliest tie you own?
My mother once gave my brother and me each a yellow-and-teal-striped enormous tie. We both cherish our possession of them even though they are never worn.

Q: If you had to go pro in anything—other than writing, obviously—what field would you choose?
Silicon Valley startup.

Q: What’s the last thing that made you laugh?
Probably this morning’s newspaper.

Q: What does it mean to be American?
I think it’s the opposite of what F. Scott Fitzgerald said, when he said that there are no second acts in America. I think he got it entirely wrong. I think there’s nothing but second acts in America, and I guess I’d say that being an American is that kind of unending faith that there’s yet one more incarnation to make manifest.

*Photos by Abram Eric Landes.