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Julian Rubinstein's literary debut, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, tells the incredible but true story of Attila Ambrus, a professional Hungarian ice hockey player turned bank robber whose alcohol-soaked exploits earned him the respect and adulation of his adopted country but who remained a relative unknown in America—until now. By Rubinstein's account, Ambrus is the most charming criminal this side of John Dillinger: He is a romantic and a crook; a dashing "gentleman bandit" who was known to proffer roses to his female victims; a bank robber who pulled off nearly 30 heists (though that loose appellation does a certain disservice to the travel agencies and post offices Ambrus held up); a disenfranchised orphan of the Eastern bloc trying to make good on the promises of capitalism; and by turns a church painter, a grave digger, a door-to-door pen salesman, a janitor, a Zamboni driver, a lunatic third-string goalie affectionately referred to as Chicky Panther by his teammates, a pelt smuggler, a drunk, a womanizer, a gambler, and, many times over, a fugitive. It's an exuberant narrative, but as zany and twisted as the story itself is, the story behind the story—that of actually putting the caper to paper—demands almost as much parsing.
Rubinstein, a former sports writer at the Washington Post and Sports Illustrated, had only been freelancing fulltime for a year and a half when he first encountered Attila Ambrus, who was, by all accounts, the perfect protagonist for an author in search of a subject—and the best part was, Ambrus was real. In a recent interview with mediabistro.com, Rubinstein recounted his own narrative—that of navigating the fickle world of publishing. It's a familiar tale of magazines folding, interview subjects caving, and dealing with the terrifying possibility that lightning may strike only once.
Birthdate: December 27, 1968
Hometown: Born in the Bronx, grew up in Denver
First section of the Sunday Times: "It depends on what's going on in the world. Either the front section, the magazine, or the Book Review.
You frequently mark time in the book by referring to what was going on in America simultaneously—much of the story unfolds during the Clinton era. Most Americans didn't know what was going on in Hungary at the time, much less had they heard of Attila Ambrus. How did you ever come across this story in the first place?
In the summer of 1999, I read a short item in the Scorecard section of Sports Illustrated, where I had previously worked, that said there was a professional hockey goalie [in Budapest] who had just escaped from the city jail on a bedsheet after having spent the last seven years living a double life as a wildly popular bank robber—and he was now the center of this international manhunt and being lionized as this folk hero and supported by most of the country. I was totally stunned and taken by the story and immediately wanted to do a magazine piece on it. It was a hell of a long path to actually get the story assigned—the piece didn't appear until the spring of 2001 in Details. It had first been assigned at Talk and then Talk folded and I never even got to go to Hungary to report on it, because three separate editors who were working on it all left the magazine. So I finally finagled it back and was able to repitch it to Details.
Between 1999 and 2001, what sort of research did you do? What made it into the Details piece, and then at what point did you say, "Actually, this has got to be a book"?
I spent a lot of that time trying to line up the access to Attila himself, and that involved a lot of leg work—which I understand and I'm used to doing—but in this case it was even harder. At first, he was on the loose and no one even knew where he was. Then he was finally recaptured, and his lawyer, in exchange for an interview with his celebrity client, demanded from me a Hollywood movie deal. And it was great. A lot of the things [the lawyer] did I first found so outlandish but realized that he was doing it because from their perspective, that's the way things worked in America. But he finally relented and I convinced him that just giving me access would give his client a better chance of getting a movie deal and more exposure in America.
I spent maybe three weeks over in Hungary reporting on the story. But it wasn't until I actually did touch down that I realized this was a book. I knew it was a great magazine story, but what it took was when I got there and I saw that the characters—this lawyer, these small-time crooks, the Keystone Cop-like police guys, the hockey players—were better than fiction characters, across the board. Attila was from Transylvania, he was making a living smuggling animal pelts, his first job with the hockey team was driving the Zamboni—all these crazy details that you could never make up. I was like "Wow, this is way bigger than a magazine story."
Did you know the language going into this? How did you manage once you got to Hungary?
Well, it was tough. Had I never done foreign reporting before, I would have been completely screwed, but I knew I had to rely on a really good fixer and interpreter. I'm always really careful to choose that person because it makes such a big difference. They're really your representatives—if your subjects don't like that person, you're in trouble. So I did that, I got an apartment, I was over there in three main two-month stints. And I knew that everything was going to take three, four, five times as long as it would if I were working on a story anywhere in the U.S.
How did they feel about cooperating with you? Attila, in some ways, seems a bit like a media whore—was he happy to talk?
Not at first. He was interested to talk to me because it was intriguing to him that someone from the U.S. wanted to talk to him, but one thing that's reflected throughout the book when you get to know him as a character—he actually is an incredibly humble and smart guy. But by the end, when this whole thing became a total circus, he said he didn't want any publicity, he was tired of being a showman. More than anything, he had some shame about whether or not he should be considered a hero for what he'd done. Also, by the time he was re-arrested, he was so isolated that he wasn't really sure how the outside world was seeing him; he only had heard misinformation that was put out there by the officials and the police to make him out to be some really awful criminal, and a violent one at that, which he was not.
He was great to deal with because he was certainly a captive audience. When we spoke, one of the best things was that he would have all day. On probably 13 different occasions, I spent the entire day with him.
Over that time, did you befriend him? It's a very sympathetic portrait.
Yeah, over time I did really grow to like him. But the one thing I'll say about my writing, in this book, and in my magazine work, is that you can see that I have a sympathetic eye and take on most characters that I write about. The key, I think, in writing literary nonfiction is to get yourself in the actual shoes of the people you're writing about. In most cases when you do that you're going to have some sympathy for the people. For example, the archnemesis in this story is this Colonel Lajos Varju, the robbery chief, who haplessly chases this guy like Inspector Javert for seven years. In Hungary, he was considered a buffoon, but he also had like no training, no resources, little staff, no support. I find in journalism today there is far too little sympathy. I dislike when pieces are sort of snarky about the way they're treating their subjects. It's not my style.
You mention Javert, and Attila has been compared to everyone from Butch Cassidy to Robin Hood. Did you have other books or stories in mind? It seems like there are shades of everything from Newsies to Steven Soderbergh movies.
Well, one of the first things that came to mind was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. We're talking about a crime story that takes place in an unfamiliar place to most readers, but rich with history and full of colorful and unique and odd characters. And you mentioned movies—you know, those of us writing today are inevitably heavily influenced by film. And sometimes, earlier on, I would fight the idea of seeing things visually, but actually I think it's really useful. And it might sound strange, but one movie that struck me about this story was Life is Beautiful. The reason I say it is that one of the things I loved most about the story was that on the surface it was a comedy; it was this hilarious caper. But beneath the surface it was this heartbreaking story, the classic, archetypal, underdog struggle to survive and be somebody. And I saw an opportunity. No one had really looked at this story as a comedy before. It was obviously written about and covered heavily in Hungary, but it was just a crime story. No one in Hungary had reported that he was a Zamboni driver; no one had talked about his pelt smuggling.
The other person I thought of is Elmore Leonard. I had the instinct that this was not a story to be dealt with straightforwardly, I wanted to look at it just slightly askance. What happened was too crazy to be played totally straight.
The book really does read like a novel because of the level of detail, like how Attila and his accomplices are always growing out their mustaches and shaving them with saliva and disposable Gillettes as they are running away from the crime scenes. Besides conducting all those interviews, how did you manage to recreate everything so closely?
I wanted it to read like a novel, I wanted to do it in the real tradition of literary journalism that I always aspired to back at graduate school at Columbia, these nonfiction literary journalists, and the new journalism of Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion and Mark Singer, who is still doing it at The New Yorker today. What you have to do is over report and know everything—and that's my attitude in every piece I do, because if you want to be able to write great detail and great description and great scenes, you have to know everything. Court files and police files are always key if they're available, or public records.
And what I did here, of course, was that much harder, because you're talking about documents in another language. I spent five weeks in the Hungarian Supreme Court building with an interpreter on either side, two laptops open, typing in details that they would pick out. I was swiveling back and forth. There was great detail from witnesses from various crime scenes. I also went to the immigration office and was able to get Attila's immigration documents. He made this unbelievably dramatic escape into Hungary underneath a train before the fall of communism, and there were details in those documents supporting the stories that he'd been telling for years. And the other thing is interview everyone you can interview, and go everywhere you can go. I visited almost every site of every robbery he made, I visited the hockey rinks. I went to Transylvania and went all over the place where he grew up and interviewed everyone I could find who was related to him.
And this is another very key thing: The difference between interviewing someone once or twice, and interviewing them four, five, six, seven times. It's so different. You start to get such a fuller picture and sense of things if you interview people over and over. That's what I did. It served me nicely in a certain sense. I was going there for two-month stints, and I'd at least make my rounds of everyone twice, then leave and come back and do another two interviews with everyone. You start to put together scenes in your head—what you know and what you can picture—so you know what details are missing and what questions you have to ask.
Once you had all this information floating around, how did you coalesce that into your narrative?
To me, this was the greatest story I'd ever heard in my life and I was in position to do a book on it, so I went all out. When I came home, I got a studio apartment in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where for a year I went into this meditative process. I storyboarded the whole book. I knew that there was this narrative, but I didn't realize right away that I could get into this back and forth with the police. But once I was putting everything together, I realized, well, that's a great way to have it so the reader knows what Attila is thinking and doing, and what the police are thinking and doing, but neither of them know—there's this built-in tension. You know they're going to cross at some point but you don't know when, and in this case there were so many near misses and you had the Hungarian news media playing this funny role in the middle, so it really worked. I literally had a dry-erase board, and I storyboarded and I had note cards where I did scenes. And I think that was absolutely crucial for making the story work like this. Because in some ways it's a thriller, and I wanted it to have a real driving, narrative force.
You really stumbled upon a once-in-a-lifetime story—for your next book, do you plan or do you wait for lighting to strike again?
I do have a couple of things I'm thinking about. The good and bad with finding a story like this is that it makes you worry if you'll ever find another story this good and almost makes you gun-shy about what you're going to do next. Everything seems to pale in comparison. But I'm actually very much looking for the next book. I mean once you do it, it's an amazing process and, in general, more satisfying than magazine work. You have so much room to tell a story. Even if you're writing features, you need to develop the story and develop the characters, and it's really tough to do that even in five, six thousand words sometimes. So I'm definitely on the hunt.
Jill Singer is the deputy editor of mediabistro.com. Photo credit: Michael Parmelee. You can learn more about the book on Rubinstein's website, and you can buy Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts at Amazon.com.