It's usually not a good thing when an interview ends in bloodshed, but an exception will be made for Ward Just, who was still nursing his wounds from a battle with a wicker basket when this reporter left his West Tisbury home one morning this week.
The 1960s war correspondent-turned-novelist had been explaining his routine of tossing about 20 pages from the typewriter into the waste paper basket for every one page he keeps. As it turns out, the waste paper basket is a bona fide basket - a big round wicker one - and paper is indeed the only waste that goes into it.
"A big basket of mine's like an Etruscan civilization," Mr. Just said, leaning back in his deck chair, and chuckling at the analogy as he tapped the ash of his unfiltered Camel. "I think at the bottom of that are probably pages from 10 novels."
Mr. Just, considered one of the best writers of political fiction in the country, will be signing and discussing his 15th and most recent novel, Forgetfulness, tonight at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore. He estimates he's been signing books there for 20 years.
The assertion of just how many books past are in the basket gets him wondering, and moments later Mr. Just is back inside his house, in the study where he works, lifting a basket onto a straight-back chair positioned in front of his typewriter, a giant red ashtray and a window with a distant view of Vineyard Sound. In addition to 15 novels, Mr. Just has written three books of short stories, two nonfiction works and a play.
Cursing under his breath while he digs, his hands make their way through thousands of pages with corners lodged in the wicker, almost to the bottom. With difficulty and some puncturing of skin, he pulled two pages from deep in the stack. After a half a minute, Mr. Just still can't tell which book they are from, so he goes digging for more. The next pull is more fruitful.
"Ah, okay . . . well, wait a minute," he says, holding the pages and walking across the room to where framed covers of each of his books hang in chronological order over a window. "Jack Gance!" he exclaims , and counted back from right to left until he hits the 1989 novel Jack Gance, about a Chicago boy who grows up to be a U.S. senator.
"I said 10 and it's 10," Mr. Just said. It's been 10 books and 17 years since he's emptied that basket - outrageous, but less than half of his fiction-writing career.
In 1969, at 34 years old, Mr. Just resigned from the Washington Post and a promising journalism career when his editor wouldn't allow him to take another leave of absence to write his second novel. He has been publishing a novel every two or three years since.
Mr. Just had always wanted to be a fiction writer; he had been sending his short stories to magazines since high school. If it weren't stolen, he would still have the shoebox full of rejection letters he accumulated over the years.
Once he started publishing novels, his book sales were often disappointing. But he never doubted himself or considered another career path.
"No, I wasn't discouraged," he said. "It's a hard business and you have to keep knocking. The secret is to want it badly enough."
His 1987 novel The American Ambassador was the first to receive serious attention and acclaim. His last book, An Unfinished Season, won the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Award and was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Mr. Just first became a reporter at 14.
"I could do that because my father owned the newspaper," said Mr. Just, whose father and grandfather were publishers of a newspaper north of Chicago. He started on the crime beat, but always in the shadow of the senior reporter. "The sort of thing that I would get is the D&D and the DD&O - drunk and disorderly and drunk down and out," Mr. Just said. He'd take the data from the police station - name, age, birthplace, address, circumstances of the arrest - and write it up in a paragraph.
"Then it occurred to me, you had these facts that really didn't tell you anything at all about the guy or the situation," Mr. Just said. "What brought John to Upton Park at 3 a.m. with a bottle of gin that he drank until he passed out?" The answer to that would require a long interview, and the real story may never be ascertained.
"You looked at these bare facts and have no idea of the truth of the matter," Mr. Just said. "The significance of all that was not very apparent to me at 14, but the more of these things I wrote, the more I became interested in the truth behind the facts - but that's not the providence of a newspaper."
He took his first leave of absence from the Post to write fiction two years after coming back from covering the war in Vietnam in 1967, which left him disillusioned with the so-called facts and still pulling shrapnel out of his back from a grenade blast. His journalism career was on the fast track; he was on the editorial board of the Post.
"I'm a storyteller," Mr. Just explained. "If you're a storyteller and you want to tell stories, you write fiction."
He took certain things with him when he left the newsroom: discipline, chain smoking and a preference for typewriters.
"I like the sound of it," Mr. Just said of the typewriter. "I've never gotten any friend of mine to explain to me how a word processor could help you writing fiction."
Chain smoking and typewriters are no longer the signature of a newsroom though.
"I am here to tell you that when I started out in the business, everybody smoked - and you had to drink heavily too," Mr. Just said. "It's amusing for me to think now that that was the culture."
He also remembers shrieks of laughter filling the newsroom. "Newsrooms used to be a cacophony of sound!" Mr. Just said. "Now it's quiet as a bank - it's weird."
Mr. Just describes fiction writing as a mysterious process. The story line is rarely formed in his mind when he starts writing a book. His first inspiration for his latest novel, Forgiveness, was the image of a town he came across 15 years ago on a walking trip in the Pyrenees with his wife, Sarah Catchpole.
He labored over the recreation of that town on the page, but once he was able to capture it, the story came together quickly.
"In the case of this novel, it's almost entirely an imaginary process," he said. "This is probably the most remote from my own life."
As usual, Mr. Just is already working on something new.
"I've got a guy in a room in an unnamed foreign country and it's an apartment and I'm saying, ‘What the hell is he doing there?' " Mr. Just said. It occurred to him the man is an Army general and he had been in the country as a young captain at the embassy. "When I had that, I had the scene," he said. "I knew why he was there, I knew what he was going to start to think about."
Asked which came first, the guy or the room, Mr. Just answered immediately: "Room."
"Maybe your mind is like a stage and it's like a bare set," Mr. Just said. "Characters kind of show up and poke their heads in whether you want them to or not."
Does that ever make you feel a little bit crazy?
His answer is again confident, but this time he smiles. "Yeah."
A talk by Ward Just, followed by a question and answer session and a signing of his latest novel Forgiveness, will begin at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven.