Jonathan Mahler, by Scott Hudson

Last semester my Manhattanville students ended the semester by writing profiles. One of my best students Scott Hudson, wrote this piece on the excellent Jonathan Mahler. Enjoy …

As a writer for the New York Times, he had seen his name in the public eye before but never to this extent, this was different. It was right in front of him, the accumulation of hard-work and ambition, exhibited over the 357 pages, was merely feet away in the hands of a stranger.

The innovative cover featuring an iconic black and white photo of illustrious baseball great, Reggie Jackson, seemed to stare at him from across the subway car. The captivating photo shows Jackson eluding rapturous fans while heading for safety at the conclusion of the Yankees’ 1977 Championship season. Above the picture, A red silhouette of the New York skyline shares the top of the front page with a striking, bolded black title reading, Ladies and Gentleman, The Bronx is Burning. He took in the scene and smiled proudly. It had always been his goal, but for author Jonathan Mahler, to finally see his aspirations embodied in print was reassurance that his time and effort had not been misspent: Mahler had found the right story.

Although, the largely successful 2004 book has sold more then 70,000 copies Mahler had his doubts.  From Newspaper to paper back, Mahler was not originally optimistic regarding  his transition into books. “There is a time in the early process of writing a book where you don’t really know what your doing” admits Mahler, ” You don’t really know exactly what your story is going to be and how your going to tell it.”

The story of Jonathan Mahler the author began after his 1990 graduation from Northwestern University.  Mahler went to school with the intentions of majoring in journalism but also considered teaching. Growing up, the native of New York had a keen enthusiasm for the written word and had always been interested in the business, so he decided to try his hand at writing. Fresh out of school, Mahler began his career at the News Hour with Jim Lehrer before moving to the Dow Jones News Service to report on the financial wire. Mahler enjoyed his time at the wire service but felt restricted. His interest in story telling and aspirations to write longer pieces inspired a move onwards. Starting in 1996, Mahler honed his skills writing for Forward, a weekly Jewish newspaper in New York, before a 1999 move to Talk magazine. Mahler’s abilities were quickly recognized by his peers. Former co-worker at Talk and friend Tom Watson was impressed.  “ He was a terrific colleague. A superb writer and a great editor”  remembers Watson, “Mahler was full of ideas”

Ideas which, until Danielle Mattoon came along, were usually bounced off of Watson.

“I remember him coming back into the office space we shared, and waxing rhapsodic about what a thoughtful editor she was. I was jealous!” said Watson, “What’s she got that i don’t have I wondered?” Watson’s questions were soon answer and it became apparent, “ An office romance was blooming”. Mahler and Mattoon are now living  happily married in the city with two kids, Gus 6, and Nora 4. As for Mahler no longer utilizing his help for editing and his feelings of jealousy, “ I didn’t feel so bad” joked Watson.

Life was good for Mahler and the staff until shortly after September 2001 when Talk magazine went out of business. Mahler then returned to newspapers industry in the way of a job writing for the New York Times. But Mahler still had a desire to expand his stories beyond the restrictions of a word limit and felt bound by the limitations of a newspaper. “My career had been moving towards longer form narrative journalism” said Mahler, “I started writing books because thats an even longer form”.

Mahler was confident in his writing but books brought a whole new set of challenges.

He was now faced with the daunting task of finding his story and figuring out how to tell it.  Mahler didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Despite being uprooted and moved across the country as a child, Mahler retained a strong connection to his place of birth.

Mahler began his foray into books with a distinctive proposal regarding the city that made a strong impression on him as a youth. The finished product involves sports, with the cultural and political troubles plaguing New York City during the mid 70’s but the original proposal for his first book,” frankly, wasn’t all that clear”,  he admitted.

As for writing the book, “I really didn’t know what I was doing.”  recalled the first time author.  “ It was my first book and I struggled with it.”

Mahler worked through his problems with confidence in his abilities, hard-work and a willingness to write.   “I kind of figured out how to do it.”  said Mahler. “I found my story and figured out how to tell it”

Ladies and Gentlemen the Bronx is Burning was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Mahler’s first book also made quite the impression on fellow author Seth Mnookin.

Having both formerly written for the Foreword, albeit at separate times,  Mahler and Mnookin had only been acquainted in a professional capacity but Mahler’s success was an inspiration for Mnookin.

“He was someone who had also gone from starting out with newspaper length stories, to magazine stories and then books. Seeing how skillfully he was able to do that made me realize that it was possible” said the author of Hard News. “He is an incredible writer and a great reporter so I didn’t think just anyone can do it that it gave me faith. It could be done. You could make the transition from working on a magazine length story to something that was much bigger and much more comprehensive”

Mahler went from author to mentor and helped out Mnookin on his second book,  Feeding the Monster. The pair developed a strong friendship while working on Mnookin’s book about the Boston Redsox.

“He read parts and gave advice as i was working on it. Mahler helped me with some plotting, tempo and pace issues. He was an enormous help and that is one of the ways in which our friendship has had a big impact and influence on me professionally”

Through his experiences Mahler has learned a few tricks about writing books.  “The challenge of writing a book is organizing,” reflected  Mahler, who rents his Brooklyn office from an architecture firm. “It is really difficult and can seem overwhelming”.

Now an author of two books, Mahler insists that writing is not a linear process and believes the hardest part of writing is putting ideas to paper. The quality of Mahler’s work however, exceeds paper. Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning , was adapted into a mini series on ESPN in 2007, while his second effort, The Challenge: Hamden v Rumsfield and the fight over Presidential Power, impressed George Clooney whose putting together an upcoming film based on the book.

Mahler met with Clooney, and helped the cinematic icon out as a consultant for the movie. After catching a glimpse into the life of a hollywood, Mahler is admittedly content with the quite life of a family man and the anonymity of writing. Although being a successful self employed author has its benefits, Clooney like affluence is not one of them.  “You don’t make as much money as a celebrity, thats for sure” joked Mahler.

Dreams of prosperity aside, Mahler has his hands full as a father and is loving it. Gus 6, and Nora 4, keep the author quite busy. “It is a wonder he gets any writing done at all with Gus’s insanely demanding soccer schedule” joked his friend Tom Watson.

When he does manage to sneak in some time to write and find his next book idea, don’t be surprised if you look across the subway car and see someone engaged in reading his work. Jonathan Mahler knows how to find and tell the right stories.

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