Author Interview with David Woods: The Road Not Taken
I had the pleasure of interviewing author David Woods about his incredible life and recent book, The Road Not Taken: The Fascinating Life of an International Journalist (Story Sanctum, 2023). David has spent most of his career in the field of journalism and still considers himself a "guardian of rigorous English usage." He shares the highs and lows of his well travelled and well lived life.
I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did. If you'd like to order a copy of the book, you can do so here.
Why did you choose the Robert Frost poem as a metaphor for your own journey?
Life’s journey presents one with a series of choices. There were several points in my life where it became important to make the right decision although sometimes I succumbed to making the wrong one. The saying “it seemed like a good idea at the time” is so true. But sometimes with hindsight one wonders if the good idea was not so good after all.
You end up in journalism, but not before taking a lot of twists and turns. What vocation did you think you would pursue when you were younger and how different or similar was it from where you ended?
I think that ties into my answer to your first question. At an early age I wanted to be a bus driver. Initially, I wanted to become a teacher; then later perhaps because of my father, I felt that I should pursue a military career. But then I decided that the army would be better off without me, and I'd be better off without the army.
Along the way, however, and perhaps because of my military-type schooling in Germany and my stint as a member of the Outward Bound course, I did think for a while that a career in politics might have been the most appropriate. The first was that I always had an interest in military history, and the second was because at King Alfred School in Germany I'd shown some early flair for speaking and debating. Later on, I wondered if I had pursued that line I would have wound up as a miserable major or a happy general, or possibly even a Prime Minister.
You talk about your dad being taken as a POW and then coming back not fully the same. How much did that whole experience affect you as you were growing up?
I think the main factor was that my parents’ house was one in which we were treading on eggshells, afraid to speak or to have opinions on anything in deference to my father's post prisoner of war sensibilities. The house was one in which its inhabitants were moving around in trepidation and in which there was a pervasive non communication, but my mother seemed to handle the situation better than I did. She was always looking at the road that could be offensive to my father. That led to my going my own way, forging my own existence and shuffling off my home life as soon as that became an option.
You attended a school in Germany that had formerly been Hitler’s Submarine Officer Training School during World War II. Can you talk about what it was like being a student there?
Absolutely, I think that that school was really a pivotal point in my life's journey, first, it was diametrically opposed to the school I had attended in England. Instead of the frugal mealtime fare, there was magnificent food served by chefs from the former Hamburg America line and served by white jacketed waiters from the same line. Another difference was that at King Alfred School (KAS) there were girls, who even in that pre-emancipation age, were absolutely on a par with the boys. Not only that, but under their war hero headmaster Sir Frederick Spencer Chapman the school was completely classless, having students from every social stratum and every level of ability. Unlike my Catholic school in England with its rigid religiosity, KAS was a broad spectrum of various denominations and origins. Being situated in the immediate post war period, there was also the opportunity to witness the effects, particularly the devastation of how the war had affected the German psyche and political structure, leading to a demoralized and defeated citizenry.
On balance, we the supposed victors of the war actually forged amiable relationships with many of the Germans of our age group. This sometimes resulted in highly competitive soccer matches in which we went all out to win. My memory of them was of blonde, heel clicking, mannered locals, -- the complete opposite to our ragtag group of players.
You lived in many places. Born in England, childhood in Wales, went to school in Germany, Ireland, England. Worked in Canada and the U.S. What was it like living in so many different places? What perspective did that give you? How were you shaped by the places you lived?
I think overall that a variegated and mixed society and experience gave me a broader overview of different nations and societies compared with the one that I had left in England. I think it gave me a more tolerant and balanced view of my fellow creatures.
I have certainly spent much more of my life in Canada and the US than I ever did in Britain; but my UK homeland has created an indelible impact on my thinking and my personality that is still a part of me today.
But in some senses, I'm a mongrel because even though I'm now an American citizen I have some difficulty in shuffling off my affinity for scatological or Monty Python type humor as well as my residual British accent which I have described as being a couple of miles east of Bermuda. I often think that if I had been around in the 1700s, I would almost certainly have become a rebel along with the other Philadelphia patriots.
Also, I think there's a certain diffidence that comes with British character and writing. For instance, Malcolm Muggeridge, arguably among the most feted English language writers of the 20th century, called his memoir “Chronicles of Wasted Time” and what novelist Graham Greene called “A Sort of Life” or as the prolific biographer AN Wilson titled this own memoir “A Life of Failed Promises.”
You were a teacher for a while, then considered politics. How did you end up in journalism?
My prep school career was something right out of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. For example, there's the math master who smoked so much that instead of letting the cigarette ash fall into the wastebasket he would keep the cigarette in his mouth and simply flick it until the ash fell to the floor. The history teacher was a World War II shell shocked veteran who had one pair of pants that bore traces of urine and who washed, he said, “up as far as possible on Monday, down as far as possible on Tuesday, and if possible on Wednesday.” He actually had a pound of foul-smelling tobacco delivered from Scotland each month. In his room adjoining the master's common room there lived a former naval officer who would make seafaring noises and would tell his colleagues that he was “just going astern old boy.” Then there was among the more junior staff a competition to see who could provide the best description of the very portly headmaster’s enormous crotch and how they could invent a vehicle to propel its owner with the best possible conveyance which we variously described as a testicle tricycle or a Bollock cart
As with many roads taken or not taken, ending up in journalism it was very much a question of serendipity-being in the right place at the right time. For example, when, just landed in Canada, I had applied to become an editor at National Business Publications whose titles were Canadian Fishermen, Canadian Pit and Quarry and Monetary Times, but it so happened that the one I joined was called Canadian Doctor which was really the start of my connection to medical journalism. Just think how I would have had a totally different career if I had become editor of Canadian Fishermen or Canadian Pit and Quarry. The road not taken, indeed.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I am proud of my applying a broad knowledge of and passion for the English language but also pursuing the upward mobility that was necessary to moving into increasingly senior positions in the medical publishing field. I am proud of the various experiences and challenges undertaken without much external help or overt credentials and left to my own resources to sample a cross section of society. I am especially proud of my elevation to Fellowship in The College of Physicians, and of acquiring a PhD in Health Policy from my alma mater, Ulster University.
You write about the tragic death of your 19-year-old son. That was a road you would have rather not taken. What have you learned about grief and loss on the road not taken?
The tragic death of my son at the age of 19 certainly provided a counterbalance to the jaunty and freewheeling period that preceded it. After being diagnosed with Friedreichs Ataxia and being told that Patrick would be in a wheelchair at 15 and dead at 19 was a serious blow not only to me, his mother and my younger son but also to any kind of faith that I might have had at that time in the medical profession where the diagnosis was delivered by an unfeeling practitioner who had conveyed the diagnosis with no empathy. But this experience, too, gave me a sensibility to the feelings of less fortunate folk. Later, I had the opportunity of working for the Philadelphia-based Friedreichs Ataxia Association, writing stories of their brave patients and dedicated therapists.
I love the way you met your current wife. Can you share the story of how you met?
I'd always been somewhat skeptical about advertising for a companion. However, I had just emerged from unsatisfactory dating relationship, and I felt I could try out the idea of advertising for a new companion and a new start. Thus, I placed an ad that turned out to be the most consequential writing event of my career. It read:
“Executive, DWM, late 40s, prolific author, presentable, articulate, amusing, seeks dynamic, bright, educated, mannered, whimsical, feminine lady, 33 to 43 for cerebral dalliance initially -- then?
Coincidentally, Shelly had also just emerged from an unsatisfactory dating relationship and was casually perusing the personal ads in the back of the Philadelphia Magazine and couldn’t resist a person who said he was looking for “a cerebral dalliance and then?” And so we met for drinks, then dinner, then six weeks later a trip to Mexico and the rest is history.
You share some of the passions of your life. Looking back, what are the moments, places, or people you most cherish from your journey?
Some of my bosses such as Dr. Donald Rice, executive director of the College of Family Physicians, who hired me as its journal’s editor and some years later invited me to write The History of the College of Family Physicians which is actually my first book, and Dr. D. Laurence Wilson, President of the Canadian Medical Association who appointed me as Editor of the CMA Journal because he said that the existing staff was presiding over a journal that was awash in staff disaffection and red ink. Dr. Wilson, upon his retirement, told me that when he retired, he wanted to “take up writing,” I rather cheekily responded, that I upon my retirement, would “take up neurosurgery.”
And then there was Keith Jones who weaned me from such conservative newspapers such as The Times to the more left-leaning Guardian. Jones, and his wife and I would gather in the local pub where my memory is of the bar tender who would not allow us to say we would have “the same again” and chided us that that was impossible, and we had to say “similar.” And then there was the 33 year old Oxford classicist and fellow teacher who introduced me to the joys of thoroughbred horseracing. And Michael Minhall, a great sportsman, wit and mimic whom I met at KAS and with whom I shared a flat in London after we had left KAS.
Moments? Moving to Philly, marrying Shelly and taking part ownership of several great – and not so great – racehorses. The notion of interviewing several prominent and interesting personalities such as Edwin Newman, Malcolm Muggeridge, William F Buckley, and Norman Cousins.
Moving in with Shelly and her three daughters and inheriting her vast extended family–and later becoming a grandfather to them well as to son Andrew’s daughter, Cerys.
What advice would you give to young people considering a career in journalism?
See the world as your oyster and keep notes if only in your head about of all the experiences and people and places that you have seen along the way. Have an inquisitive curiosity about the world and its inhabitants and a willingness to share it with readers. My headmaster at King Alfred School, Plon, Sir Frederick Spencer Chapman, an intrepid wartime adventurer who had worked behind enemy lines in Malaysia had described our school in Germany as the first successful co-educational boarding school in the world. He said, notably, “Do not forget that it is not brilliance and cleverness that get you to the top in the world, but reliability, steadiness, goodness, kindness, all that we call character.”
What are you hoping people will remember about your incredible life and career?
If I left any kind of a mark, it would probably be a sense of unquenchable optimism and boundless curiosity. If you believe in yourself, you can achieve beyond expectations.
Thank you for sharing your life and story with us, David!
If you'd like to order a copy of David Woods' new book, The Road Not Taken, it's available now.