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April 2, 2001

Writer of the People

By Michael Terrazas


Gary Pomerantz is not long for this town. Two years into his first teaching stint as a professor in Emory’s journalism program, he will soon pack up and move to San Francisco to accommodate the career of his wife, Carrie, who works for Charles Schwab & Co., and to live closer to their families.

Pomerantz is a writer by craft and, as he observes, it is a highly portable profession, one capable of being transplanted virtually anywhere. In fact, he has already picked it up and carried it to several cities in his still-young but accomplished career: Pomerantz is the author of Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn, a history of Atlanta told through the families of two of the city’s highest-profile mayors, and the soon-to-be-published Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds, about Atlantic Southeast Airlines commuter flight 529, which crashed near Carrollton, Ga., in August 1995. And then there are his previous reporting jobs with The Washington Post and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, not to mention the fellowship year he spent at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

A portable profession, indeed. But for a few weeks this spring, Pomerantz is watching others do the heavy lifting.

Peachtree is one of eight pieces being developed in Theater Emory’s biennial Brave New Works playwriting project. Playwrights Valetta Anderson and Peter Hardy are both working on treatments of the book for the stage; indeed, much more so than any of the other BNW plays, Peachtree is literally in progress, with rewritten scenes showing up at most rehearsals.

“I am filled with curiosity and hope,” Pomerantz said of the process. “The book was deeply personal to me, but I think it belongs to Atlanta now. It’s Atlanta’s story, and to me, theater is the purest form of storytelling. Certainly it’s the original form.”

Condensing 150 years of history into a single, faithful and manageable performance is a daunting—perhaps impossible—task, but the playwrights at least have the freedom to use artistic license in translating the drama. Pomerantz, in recreating conversations that took place decades before he was born, had no such latitude when he was writing the book, which he considers a hybrid of journalism and history.

“Journalism, after all, is nothing more than the history of yesterday,” said Pomerantz, who earned a bachelor’s in history in 1982 from the University of California at Berkeley. “As a journalist, you’re out there in the field, studying people and places as they are. But somewhere along the course of the study, you’ve got to say, How did it begin? How did we get to this point?

He answered this question for himself through literally hundreds of interviews—Pomerantz spent five years working on Peachtree—with individuals who could recall the days when the families of Ivan Allen Jr. and Maynard Jackson played integral, daily roles in the drama of Atlanta. A “big believer” in oral history, Pomerantz feels the most revealing way to assess a subject, especially a public figure, is to study their actions away from the spotlight, in private moments, with family and friends, moments that often tell more about their true character.

Indeed, interviewing is so crucial to journalism that Pomerantz feels the practice is given short shrift in most journalism schools, and he drives it home to his own students. Pomerantz admits he loved teaching much more than he ever could have imagined, and he tries to drive home the importance and value of people—not just in the students’ careers as journalists, but in their own lives.

One of Pomerantz’s favorite assignments for his students is to write a paper on the genealogy of their own families; they are required to talk to at least one member of every living generation to divine who the family is and how it became so.

“One of the highlights for me here at Emory has been those days when the students come in and present these papers,” he said. “It’s this very informal setting—we’re in a circle, there are 15 of us, and we just talk. The students are telling family stories about the Holocaust, slavery and everything in between. They’re writing about distant places and places close. These stories are deeply personal—some students have cried. They all come away with a deeper understanding of who they are.

“Some papers are more honest than others, but I think, for the students who really emotionally invest themselves in their papers, that it becomes the most important paper they’ll do in their years at Emory. It’s a paper everyone should write at some point in their lives. It’s a very challenging task to write that paper honestly.”

Challenging, but rewarding and even cathartic, which, as Pomerantz teaches, can be another prize of a well-conducted interview. His work on his latest book proved this indisputably.

“In August of 1995, a plane crashed,” Pomerantz said. “At 18,000 feet one of the propeller blades on the left wing of this twin-engine turbo-prop shattered; the plane shuddered and fell.”

Not straight down, however. In fact, the book is named for the length of time from the moment the propeller blew to the moment of impact: Nine minutes, 20 seconds. Incredibly, 19 of the 29 people aboard ASA 529 survived, and theirs is a central part of the larger story Pomerantz is looking to tell.

“I fly all the time,” said the man who’s written a book about a plane crash. “So I contacted not only all 19 survivors, but also the 10 families who lost someone in the crash. Some of the survivors responded immediately; some took a few weeks; some took a few months; a couple took more than two years. One still hasn’t responded. I’ve been to Alaska and Texas and Maine—nine different states for these interviews. And, ironically, the one who has chosen not to talk to me lives 40 miles from here, up in Woodstock.

“It’s been a real test for me as an interviewer,” Pomerantz said. Many of the survivors found the interviews therapeutic, he added, and so did the young mechanic who worked for the company that manufactured the propellers and who performed a sanding procedure without realizing that he had masked a fatigue crack deeper in the blade. The National Transportation Safety Board found the mechanic not at fault; he did as he was instructed, but improper training and deficient tools resulted in a faulty propeller being returned to service. That propeller, Pomerantz said, was in the air for 11 months and helped carry tens of thousands of people before the crash.

Ultimately, the book is about the nobility and heroism of ordinary people in a country addicted to celebrity, about how everyday people could, as they are rushing out of a burning plane, stop to help someone else and risk their own lives, as several on ASA 529 did.

“Now, when I fly, I find myself as never before studying people in the seats around me, wondering about their biographies,” Pomerantz said. “If it happens, are they going to be there for me? And, more importantly, am I going to be there for them? Of course, I’d like to tell you the answer is yes, but I don’t think any of us can know until the moment comes.”


Back to Emory Report April 2, 2001