AdForum's James Thompson recently caught up with Alex Newman, co-author of the memoir All Out and art director at JWT, to discuss the themes and experiences addressed in his new book written in collaboration with his father.
AdForum: Writing a book is an incredibly difficult endeavor; however, that endeavor becomes even more complicated when you are attempting to tell the story of two people. How difficult was it for you and your father to collaborate in the creative process of writing All Out – and what were the high and low points?
Alex Newman: We actually wrote it isolated from each other. We each wrote half the book alone. Dad was writing about his life and me, and I was writing about my life and him. It wasn’t until the end – we had an extremely talented editor – that we were able to weave our stories together. In the process we actually discovered a lot of new things about ourselves – realizing that there were so many missed moments in our lives – even when we were experiencing the same problems. We learned that if we had just opened up and talked to each other we could have overcome those problems easily. It took this book – and ten years – to come to know who my dad really is as a person.
The highs were being able to remember the good moments from the past – to go back and touch moments and relive them. My dad wasn’t around very often. I think the advertising community can relate to this – being people in crazy hectic jobs. My dad is in journalism. I’m in advertising. So I know people in advertising struggle to find a balance between work and life. In All Out we address those challenges.
The low, honestly, was telling my parents that I had contemplated suicide. To go back to that point in my life was extremely difficult. I’d sequester myself away, write a whole bunch, and then I wouldn’t be the same for the rest of the day. I’d come down and my partner would ask, “What’s wrong? You look like you’ve been hit with a sledgehammer.” Reliving those moments and transcribing them into black and white on a page made it very real.
AdForum: Your father described All Out as “a book about what it means to be a modern man.” What does that mean to you as an individual, and how do you think modern times have changed the identity of manhood and masculinity?
Alex Newman: Masculinity is the key word there. One of the themes that my dad and I wrestled with while writing the book – and didn’t communicate about before in our lives – was that he was struggling with masculinity, too. While he was co-hosting Good Morning America in New York there were attempts to remake his image, saying he had to act more like a quarterback on the air. So they went through this rigorous focus testing, telling him how he needed to project more strength, which ended up undercutting his confidence and challenging his masculinity.
And then years later I was struggling with what masculinity meant for me. I wasn’t sports oriented like the other boys, like my dad wanted me to be. I was bullied. In the book I describe an issue I had with reading comprehension when I was younger. I had a teacher’s aide which didn’t help. Today I think that masculinity is self-defined. Masculinity, I think, is still evolving. It’s still changing. For me, I had to define what masculinity stood for – for me. And so did my father writing his part of the book. It was like coming out – and not in a gay sense, but in a sense of being truthful to who you are.
AdForum: Memoirs require authors to analyze and interpret their own lives with an almost inhuman sense of objectivity and honesty. How difficult was it to be candid and forthright about the most painful and challenging parts of your lives?
Alex Newman: The truth here began with my coming out itself. To come out a person has to be absolutely honest with themselves and the people around them. It’s never an easy discussion to have. I feel like that was actually the hard part – more so than the writing about it. It was liberating knowing that I’d past that difficult time in my life.
But for my father it’s different. Just before the book launched he called me up and said, “I’m nervous. I’m afraid I was too honest in writing the book.” He was very transparent about his job, the things he was struggling with, and was very worried about what people would think. Then I had the strangest revelation that – in a sense – that my dad was coming out! He had the exact same worries that I had as a teenager. I just said to him, trying to console him, “Listen, everything is going to be alright. But everything is going to change.” And now everything is changing, including our relationship, which is totally different.
AdForum: How has your relationship with your father changed as a result of writing All Out together? Did it bring you closer together, and if so, how?
Alex Newman: Our relationship is completely different from when we started the book to when we completed it. When I started the book, I thought I had the right story. I thought I knew everything about our family. Thank goodness we wrote separately because I learned so much more about my dad. Every action that he made since he was very young – whether it was perceived by others as either positive or negative – was to protect family. And as an adult my dad did everything to make sure our family had a proper upbringing. But that came at a cost. From writing the book I learned that half of the jobs that my dad had, he was fired from. This became a major theme of the book: failure.
My dad kept his professional failures from us, his kids. When we moved to the States so he could be on Good Morning America, I didn’t know that he’d been fired from his job before. And when he left Good Morning America, I didn’t know he was fired from that show until a couple of years after we were living in Vancouver. My dad didn’t want to expose his kids to these troubled moments, to these crises in the family. So I wasn’t sure how to fail, myself. I didn’t know how or what to say to my dad about my failures, because to me he was perfect. I never knew – whether it was academic or eventually coming out – how to communicate “failure” to my father. Because of that it created this completely disjointed relationship.
Now, having written the book – our relationship has completely changed from the point of having not exchanged manuscripts to having read each other’s completed chapters – I see my dad as a sensitive man, very much like myself. I’m surprised there is so much of him, in me.
AdForum: What inspired this book, and other than you and your father, who else has been impacted by All Out among your friends and family? And how what lessons do you want people to take from this memoir?
Alex Newman: My dad was doing a documentary piece in Canada about a gay hockey player who was in high school and came out on YouTube. By this point our relationship was still fractured. As he was interviewing this boy’s father my dad realized that the questions he was asking he hadn’t even asked his own son. That documentary piece got a crazy response on social media, and my dad and I ended up on Canada AM together. It made us realize that dads were never really a part of the conversation regarding their son’s coming out, or having anything to do with homosexuality, really. But in the gay community dads represent a huge barrier to coming out for most gay men because they are terrified of rejection. It was my dad’s idea to put this book together.
Coming out itself impacted my entire family. But the impact of the book will affect the people my father works with – some people are mentioned in the book – my girlfriend. Yes, I sent her an advanced copy and told her “just so you know – haha – you’re in this thing.” But we pulled these stories from our lives, so the people who touched our lives are going to be reflecting on those situations. I hope they find it meaningful.
As for the general public, we don’t know how it is going to be received in the market. Having only been recently released the reviews aren’t in yet, but I’m hoping the book impacts a lot of people. We’re hoping it starts conversations that should have been started a long time ago, and that our missteps will help people take the right steps forward in their lives – especially regarding the theme of failure. Failure should be embraced as a learning experience and not frowned upon because that is what caused the breakdown in our relationship.
Everybody is going to take something different from this story. But for people like us in the advertising world, the theme of establishing a work-life balance is important – but different for everyone. In my dad’s case, he couldn’t find that balance. But it is important to push through those challenging times in life when there is no balance until you find a clearing. And when that times passes, make sure your reconnect with the people you’ve lost touch with. It’s up to you to make your loved ones a priority.
For more information about Alex and Kevin Newman, learn about the story behind All Out.