Community November 5, 2008

Writing With No Limits

John Hockenberry does nothing half way

Writer John Hockenberry saw more action in the first half of his life than most people will see in a lifetime. And he was in a wheelchair most of that time. He wrote a best-selling memoir about his early successes in Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs and Declarations of Independence in 1995. In the years since, he married, had two sets of twins, earned Emmy and Peabody prizes and became an activist for the disabled and a Distinguished Fellow at MIT. Now, he’s about to come to Sun Valley to oversee his latest project: the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference.

An intellectual giant who has often revealed an ego and a temper to match, his addition to the scene here this summer should be interesting, to say the least. He has a penchant for saying what he thinks, sometimes when it can do him harm, what he calls “a career-ending moment.” But, happily, he was the universal choice of the Sun Valley Writer’s Conference leaders who hired him after a nationwide search.

Hockenberry has never shrunk from a challenge, reporting from his wheelchair for NPR when Mount St. Helens erupted and in the Middle East during the first Gulf War. He was a serious candidate to be the first journalist in space, before that program was scrubbed. Later, he would be a correspondent for ABC and NBC.
A self-described “science nerd,” at the University of Chicago, he was paralyzed below the chest in an auto accident at age 19. With the support of family and his own strength, he turned his wheelchair into his mode of transportation, not his burden.
He returned to school, but had to fight to arrange classes in wheelchair-accessible classrooms. Eventually, he left, worked a while, then went to the University of Oregon. While working at a small alternative radio station, he inherited the coverage of Mount St. Helens. His career was launched.

In the riveting first chapter of his memoir, he describes how he rode a donkey along a perilous trail to get the story on the Kurds fleeing Iraq into Turkey. With only the strength of his arms to hold him on the animal, his legs slapping the sides of the donkey “like denim-lined saddlebags,” he combines the story of that harrowing journey and manages a thorough explanation of the Kurds’ dilemma.

The book is colored not only by high adventure, but by instances of his not inexplicable but highly unpredictable anger. He gets mad at people who insult him by being sympathetic, at people who impose help he doesn’t want, and at policemen, a lot. That would include a park officer who dragged him and two fellow wheelchair “crips” out of the tide after they had struggled to get themselves that far on the beach. They were testing limits, but to the cop, they were potential suicides. Hockenberry was furious, as he often was, not missing an insult or a slight. And he would not have pity.
When he made his move to NPR headquarters in Chicago, he found there was no wheelchair-accessible bathroom in the building. He had to wheel himself three blocks to another building with a wheelchair-accessible restroom. He turned it into an opportunity to build his strength, racing through the Chicago cold. After a year, he entered the Chicago marathon.

There were great assignments—lots of them. And lovers—lots of them. He approaches all subjects with the same peculiar blend of hard-headedness and humor. By the end of one chapter, he’s trapped under the bed of his ex-girlfriend (he went there to get some of his things) while she entertains a new lover. As in life, Hockenberry covers all the ground.

Always, he nails the story both personal and public. Here, he explains the flaws in the then-new Americans with Disabilities Act: “Lawyers worry about whether the restaurant at the top of the Empire State Building is accessible, while people forget about the corner grocery. The former is a news story and a place that a person in a wheelchair might visit once . . . But a corner grocery is somewhere a crip might visit again and again. We tacitly accept that things around us cannot or will not change.” And, he notes, no one in his family has a wheelchair-accessible house.

This summer you might cross his path in Sun Valley as he takes on his newest assignment.

A word of advice: Don’t offer to push his chair.

Sun Valley Magazine interviewed him via e-mail.

Q: In preparation for this interview I read your memoir Moving Violations and then read about your career as you moved from radio to TV, wrote a novel and acted in a one-man play (“Spokeman”). Since the memoir you have also married and had two sets of twins. So when is the next memoir to come out?
A: I am contemplating a sequel to Moving Violations but haven’t had much time to think about it. The thing I worry most about is writing about my kids in a detailed way. My 9-year-old Zoe insists that it’s “my story, too, Dad!” Something has got to happen on that front, though. I have a long piece in the MIT Technology Review about my experience in television. I think a memoir would combine family, disability and career.

Q: You are a “Distinguished Fellow” at MIT. Where do you live?
A: We live mostly in Brooklyn, New York. My main gig is host of a morning daily news radio program on Public Radio based in Manhattan. We have a weekend place in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.

Q: Could you explain how you got involved with the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference?
A: Most of my work as PD involves contacting writers and thinking about how the presentations will work at the conference. I will spend a few weeks with my family out in Idaho during each conference. Once things get into a solid routine, I expect we will be out in winter as well.

Q: In Sun Valley, they do a program for wounded and/or disabled vets from the state to get them back into what they probably loved to do before, such as skiing or snowboarding. Have you gotten into those snow sports things?
A: I am very interested in adaptive sports of all kinds. For me, and for being able to do activities with the whole family. Sun Valley has a really exciting adaptive sports program for all seasons. There are lots of resources and I expect to be all over that.

Q: After reading your book, in which you described how infuriating people can be toward people in wheelchairs (you vividly describe taking out the cab of a driver who declined to put your chair in his trunk), I’ve been leery of asking some questions. Have you personally mellowed?
A: The story of people who are different encountering ignorance and intolerance in America and elsewhere is an old story. As for me, I can’t imagine acting the same in my fifties as I did in my early thirties.

Q: I noticed in photos on your blog what might be your parents. Was that them and are they still living?
A: Parents Jack and Nancy are in their mid-seventies and live in southern Minnesota.

Q: What are your marching orders on the writer’s conference? It has been a somewhat elitest event, not accessible to the general public. Are there any plans to change that?
A: I have heard a lot of worry that the conference is “elitist” but have yet to find any broad community concerns that cannot easily be addressed. This conference has suffered from its own success and an inability to expand to reach the very large and hungry audience for thoughtful content that I have joyfully found in Idaho. I think attempts to keep the conference manageable have been interpreted wrongly as a country club attitude. This year we have new facilities (the fabulous amphitheatre) and many new ideas. Involving the Sun Valley community in all its diversity is the main attraction for me in directing a writers conference here. No one has ever called me “elitist.” If anything, I may be run out of town as a dangerous populist insurgent. There’s a lot of history of that in the Rockies, you know.

Q: What do you like to read? Who are your favorite writers?
A: Tolstoy, Alan Furst, Dostoyevsky, Zola, Chernow, Caro, Ellis, Dickens, Melville, Rimbeau, Tony Morrison, Alice Munro, Doctorow, Iris Murdoch, Eugene O’Neill, Graham Greene… blah blah blah. Cookbooks… blah blah blah. Anything about Iraq. Physics and Math blah blah blah… Calvin Trillin… the bloody Anderson brothers. My love of books and authors is best summed up by a little work by Gloria Emerson called Loving Graham Greene. [The New York Times review: “Among its deeper themes, Loving Graham Greene is a meditation on the powerlessness of those who simply want to do good in the world.”]

Q: You have stunning reports in your memoir of covering the Gulf War. Have you been to Iraq during the current war there?
A: No

Q: You faced many dangerous situations in the Middle East. Would you do that now?
A: Yes, if it was journalistically responsible. The most important reporting about the war came either from soldiers in combat or journalists far from the front investigating the motives of the administration.

Q: In watching an MIT program you hosted where Dean Kamen showed off the iBot and Hugh Herr talked about his bionic feet, I wondered why you haven’t upgraded (with the exception of adding colored lights to your chair). I think I saw you on a Segway in one web clip.
A: No need. I’m healthy and able to push myself. The Segway is just fun.

Q: One thing that’s made the issue of dealing with lost limbs so urgent is the terrible injuries inflicted on the young people returning from the Iraq war. Back in 1987 you said you never expected to get out of your chair, or to walk again. Now do you think there IS a possibility that could happen? In the same piece (your interview with Ryan Martin, a 13-year-old recently confined to a wheelchair), you said you really wanted to have children one day. You got that, in doubles. What about restoration of your physical body?
A: My physical body is fine. There is no therapy on even the distant horizon to “restore” my nerve function. If I could go back to being 19, maybe.

This article appears in the Summer 2008 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.