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August 23 2012

14:17

August 17 2012

14:42

Jeneen Interlandi on “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind”

We’ve chosen Jeneen Interlandi’s recent New York Times magazine cover story about her father’s mental illness as our latest Notable Narrative. “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind” follows a sobering episode in the bipolar history of Joseph Interlandi, revealing flaws in the nation’s mental health and criminal justice system. We caught up with Interlandi by email as she was preparing to transition from her native New Jersey to Cambridge, to begin her fellowship year at our mother ship, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

How did you decide to write this story?

Interlandi

Very impulsively! When the Arizona shooting happened, and the news broke that people who knew the gunman Jared Loughner had suspected he was seriously mentally ill, my family was in the middle of navigating our own situation. I remember being so frustrated by all the conversations taking place about how somebody should have taken the initiative and gotten (Loughner) committed to a psychiatric hospital, etc. One day, as both these stories were unfolding, I sent my editor a pitch memo, out of sheer indignation. Then when it came time to actually do the story, I panicked – like “Oh no, what have I gotten myself into?”

How did you report it? You used at least one court transcript from one of your father’s court hearings, and what else?

I tried to be as methodical as possible. I’d never written a first-person piece before and was very concerned about relying too much on my own memories, or letting my emotions overwhelm the larger points that I wanted to make.

So I started with the documents: several court transcripts – from the commitment hearing, the restraining order hearing, and the sentencing hearing; a dozen or so police reports, from all the various incidents; hundreds of pages of medical records; my own email exchanges with various social workers, etc.; and last but not least, both of my parents’ journals. From all of those I constructed a detailed timeline of what happened when, and what the doctors, police officers, psychiatrists, etc. were saying at each point along the way. Then I tracked down the other families. I talked to about 30 families in all. Some I found through this one nonprofit that advocates for stronger involuntary commitment statutes across the country. Others I found from newspaper archives and from congressional hearings where families like mine had testified in support of, or opposition to, various involuntary commitment laws that were being proposed in one state or another.

One of Joe's sketches. (courtesy Jeneen Interlandi)

After I had all of that, I looked into the research on involuntary commitment: talked to the academics and public health folks who were focused on the issues surrounding community mental health, mental illness and violence, etc. I saved the folks who worked directly with my father – the representatives of the specific agencies that we came into contact with – for last. I wanted to make sure I had all my ducks in a row before confronting them with anything. I also didn’t want the story to be overly focused on my parents’ hometown. I wanted it to be clear that these problems are national in scope. Also, I interviewed my parents, several times, throughout the reporting. And checked in with my siblings and with one childhood friend, to verify certain details against my own memory.

Hold on. How did you get your parents to let you read their journals?

I asked them, or rather told them, when they first agreed to do the story: “Hey, I will need all of your journals, both of you. Also, pop has to sign all these forms granting me access to all of his medical records.” (Also, “You won’t get to see what I write about you until the story is out in print. So you’ll just have to trust me until then.”) They didn’t even flinch. Of course, it helped that I am their daughter. It also helped that I had done this story on minimal consciousness a few months earlier that they both read. That piece had also come out of a personal experience with someone very close to me, and to my parents (not the person I focused on in the story). My parents knew from that piece what kind of story I was looking to write, and understood how it could maybe help other people to know about what we went through. So they were pretty fearless.

How did you choose not to include material from the journals, particularly your father’s?

I thought at first that I would. There is this big huge stack of them and even just looking at the writing, without reading the words, you can tell that it’s manic. But as I read through them, I found that they didn’t add any essential details. I wanted the reader to understand that my father was very sick at the time that the story takes place. But I didn’t want to, like, beat them over the head with it, or add a ton of gratuitous details just because I had access to them. Because ultimately this story is about the mental health system more than it’s about any one person’s particular psychosis. (I also admit to being protective of my father here. I think it’s enough to say that he was paranoid and delusional—that he hit my mother, and tried to jump out of a moving car, and threatened to kill himself. To include more than that felt exploitative).

How did your family ultimately feel about the piece and your decision to write it?

They were incredibly supportive. My mother especially, felt very strongly that other people should know what families like ours are going through. She said over and over that the story would help other families feel less alone, and that maybe it would trigger some changes in the way things are done (she’s an optimist!).  My father and siblings just trusted me implicitly to do right by them. I think I asked my parents every week, for like six months straight, “Are you sure you’re okay with this?” and every time they said, “Yes. We’re sure. Stop asking.” I didn’t show it to any of them before it closed, so I was super nervous when it finally went live. But they all had the same reaction: They laughed, they cried, they were proud. My father said, “You hit the nail on the nail!” Which is about as good as it gets.

What didn’t make it into the story?

The journals, for the reasons I just mentioned; and all but a small handful of the many families I spoke with whose experiences were so eerily similar to mine and to one another’s; and a whole article’s worth of anecdotes and descriptive details about my parents as characters (which I will resist the urge to include here).

Maybe just one?

We were teenagers, playing ball in the street in front of the house. And the ball goes into the neighbor’s yard. And the neighbor, who is like totally obsessed with his lawn, comes out and starts screaming at my brother,  calls him a racial epithet (remember we are Colombian, and my brother is pretty dark). My dad is standing nearby, and doesn’t really say anything. Just tells us to go inside or go play somewhere else, and lets it go. (Which is not like him at all). Late that night − like 2 a.m. − I happen to look out my bedroom window, and I see my dad sitting at the edge of our yard, in a lawn chair, facing the neighbor’s house. He’s drinking a beer, got a cigarette dangling from his lip, and a Super Soaker (one of those high-powered water guns that were so popular in the ’90s) sitting in his lap. And every couple minutes he pumps the thing up and sprays it all over the neighbor’s yard, and just sniggers to himself like a kid. It turned out he’d put bleach in the thing, and he was like destroying this guy’s precious lawn. The next morning it was all streaks of brown and yellow. I still can’t tell if that’s only funny to people that know my dad, but it cracks me up to think about, even to this day.

What was the writing process like? How do you organize? How do you work?

The overall workflow was the same as it usually is for me. I organize all my interviews and notes in an order that vaguely reflects the structure I’ve envisioned, then have them bound into a spiral book at the print shop (this one was something like 75 pages, which is about average). Then I read through it like a book and highlight what I am going to transfer into the outline (that will eventually become the first draft). By the time I’m done with that, I usually know how I want the story to start, and what the key contextual sections need to consist of. I did have many more throat-clearing drafts for this piece than I’ve had with any previous pieces. By that I mean, I wrote pages and pages – that my editor never even saw – describing my parents as parents, and going through all the anecdotes and incidents that have loomed so large in my mind for so many years. Then I walked away from it for like a week. And then came back and forced myself to whittle that section down from 2,000 words to like 500. I was very worried about being gratuitous in my descriptions; obviously I know these people so well that I could really weigh the piece down with all the details in my head. I was also worried about being too defensive, i.e., I tell you some unpleasant things about my dad, and to compensate, I want to tell you like 10 times as many good things. It took some time to get over that.

I admired the sectional cliffhangers, like this one:

We considered our options. We could lift the restraining order and bring him home. But if he spun out of control, we would have no way to protect our mother. Friends and relatives suggested that we offer no assistance and let him “hit rock bottom.” But it was now early January, and we could not bring ourselves to leave him with nothing in the biting cold. So we fashioned something of a compromise. We kept the restraining order but dropped off some money and a suitcase full of clean clothes at the front desk of the short-term facility. We crossed our fingers and waited. 

How did you arrive at the story’s structure?

I think this is the only piece I’ve done so far where the structure wasn’t a huge challenge and didn’t change much from first draft to last. It really came straight out of the timeline that I constructed from the documents. On one hand, there was all this monotony of, “He went to the hospital. Then he went to jail. Then he went to the hospital again,” and on and on. But on the other hand, there were a couple of really dramatic moments, like the commitment hearing, and when he called my mother threatening to kill himself. It was clear just from the timeline that those elements needed to balance each other out. And that if you wrote it any other way than chronologically, it would be unnecessarily confusing, because there was just so much to-ing and fro-ing.

How did you choose this particular episode to write about?

This particular episode happened to coincide with this horrible incident – the shooting in Arizona by Jared Loughner, who was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia – that had sparked a wave of national interest in the issues surrounding involuntary commitment. It also happened when I was in the process of leaving my staff writer job at Newsweek to freelance and to pursue longer-form narratives. More importantly, though, it was the first episode that I really saw up close (that we recognized as an episode, anyway). When my father was first diagnosed as bipolar, back in 2005, he went through a very similar cycle of repeated hospitalizations. But I was in the Arctic Circle, on Alaska’s North Slope, at the time, and so didn’t really grasp the forces that were shaping those events. I remember thinking that if only I had been there and had been proactive – made phone calls, sent out emails, confronted doctors and judges – things would have gone more smoothly. As it turns out, I was totally wrong.

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered about the mental health system?

That my family’s experience was not even remotely exceptional. Before I started digging around, I really thought that we were somehow missing something (by) not contacting the right agencies, or not providing the right information to the right people. But after not very much time, it became clear that this was the norm, not just in New Jersey where my parents live but all across the country.

I found the ending to be exactly right for the subject matter, and full of tension. Did others agree? Did you or your editor worry that it was too open-ended?

That ending took a bit of work. Originally it was much more discreet. I just said, basically, “My dad is all better, we played cards, we forgave each other and that’s the end of it.” But fortunately, my editor, Vera Titunik, pushed me to rethink it. She kept saying, “You’re missing something here.” And she was right. Because bipolar disorder is obviously a lifelong condition, I think we actually wanted it to be more ope- ended. That’s the reality of it: You don’t know when or where another episode might occur, and beyond medication and therapy there is nothing to do with that uncertainty but live with it. For my parents, that means putting their characteristic spin on things: “Here is one more wacky misadventure for our personal archives. Now let’s eat some lasagna.”

How’s your dad?

He is great! Really back to himself right now, which means that my parents are back to themselves – growing old together and enjoying their grandkids and counting their blessings.

Jeneen Interlandi is a New Jersey-based health and science journalist who writes about biomedical research, public health and environmental science. She has written for the New York Times magazine and Scientific American, and spent four years as a staff writer at Newsweek. In 2009, she received a Kaiser Foundation Fellowship for global health reporting and traveled to Europe and Asia to cover outbreaks of drug-resistant tuberculosis. She has worked as a research assistant at Harvard Medical School and studied climate change in Alaska. She holds master’s degrees in environmental science and journalism, both from Columbia University, and is an incoming Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

May 03 2012

13:35

April 19 2012

14:26

Narrative gold: Eli Sanders and his Pulitzer-winning crime saga

“The prosecutor wanted to know about window coverings. He asked: Which windows in the house on South Rose Street, the house where you woke up to him standing over you with a knife that night – which windows had curtains that blocked out the rest of the world and which did not?”

So begins Eli Sanders’ story “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” which this week won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The category usually offers up an unforgettable narrative and this year gave us a story – and an exciting writer – that we otherwise might have missed.

Sanders’ elegantly tense portrayal of a home invasion, double rape and murder appeared last June in The Stranger, a Seattle weekly, but Sanders’ coverage of suspect Isaiah Kalebu started long before that. In “The Mind of Kalebu,” which ran in the fall of 2009, Sanders examined loopholes in the criminal justice system’s treatment of mentally unstable suspects. His reporting ultimately led us into the courtroom, as murder victim Teresa Butz’s partner testified:

The attacks became more sadistic. Things began to happen that were beyond the worst imagining of Butz’s partner. She felt like she was going to be ripped in half. She thought: “He’s not going to kill me with a knife, but he’s going to kill me this way.”

Then she heard Butz say: “Why are you cutting me? Why are you cutting me?”

The man said to Butz: “Shut up, or I’m going to kill your girlfriend.”

He took the women into another room in the house, where he pulled another knife out of a pair of jeans he’d left on a guest bed.

The story he had been telling them, the story Butz’s partner had been telling her- self, the story that he just wanted sex and was not going to hurt them, now completely shattered. “In that moment I just knew he was going to kill us,” Butz’s partner told the court. “I just knew. There was something different in his gaze. There was this kind of looking. I didn’t feel fear from him, I didn’t feel anger from him, I just felt this nothing.”

We asked four Pulitzer winners, a Pulitzer judge and a legendary contributor to the craft of narrative journalism what they thought made the story special. Here’s what they said:

I’ve never read a court story like “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” – never in 28 years of journalism. I don’t know that anyone has read a trial story containing such painstaking detail and emotion; containing so many elements of the human instinct to survive in the face of the near inevitability of death.

“The Bravest Woman in Seattle” has all the elements of a work of fiction until the reader quickly reaches the chilling realization that this case was real. This was not some made-up crime novel. The people who were the subjects of this story, the heroes of it, too, were human beings, though savagely treated.

The power of this story is in the incredible writing, which made me care deeply for two women who were strangers to me, who were living normal lives before a knife-wielding man sexually assaulted and tormented them. “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” leaves readers clinging to hope that all ends well. The readers pray for the victims’ survival and that the bad guy gets caught. It is a challenge of human will to stay with this story. There is the temptation to leave for fear it will rip at your own emotions. Once the mind wraps itself around the facts in the case (although it is impossible to comprehend how one human could be so cruel to another), the reader is left to draw her own conclusions about whether the convicted man got what he deserved.

Ronnie Agnew is a four-time Pulitzer Prize judge and sat on this year’s feature writing jury. He is the executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting and the former executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson, Miss. He has worked as a reporter and editor in Ohio, Alabama and Mississippi.

***

As the Pulitzer board noted this week, Eli Sanders’ “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is “a haunting story of a woman who survived a brutal attack that took the life of her partner.” It is also the story of the woman telling that story: The citation commends Sanders’ use of her courtroom testimony to “construct a moving narrative.”

But it is also the story of Sanders, a reporter, responding to the woman’s telling of that haunting story. And that extra level of narrative, I think, is the source of the story’s riveting power.

Sanders calls the survivor “the bravest woman in Seattle.’’ Maybe that is true. But what matters is that we feel the rawness of his admiration for her courage, and of his rage on her behalf. It takes journalistic bravery to expose yourself, as well as your subject, to the reader. And it takes a rare skill to do it, as Sanders does, almost entirely with telling details, structure and intensity of tone. Seeking to transport us into the head of the woman whose story he is telling, Sanders places us at the same time into his own. He quotes her as well as her thoughts, channeling her with an authority born of his observation, of his participation as a reporter covering the emotionally charged event: “I am not scared,’’ he imagines her thinking. “I have nothing to hide here. Not anymore. Not for something as important as this, the opportunity to put him away.’’

You risk credibility when you do this, even in a story where no one can fault you for sympathizing with the woman on the stand. Maybe especially in a story like this, reporters bend over backward to be fair, to maintain a safe distance. But Sanders’ understated honesty makes us trust him. The reporter next to him cried, he says. “I cried.’’

How much of the graphic information about the rapes and murder, we hear Sanders wondering, about his role in this drama, is right to include? “Some of her testimony from this day is not going to be recounted in this story,’’ he decides.

One of my favorite passages comes when Sanders observes the mother of Teresa Butz, the partner who was murdered:

She is a small woman, just like her daughter. If this woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before a jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter – can view the bloody crime scene photographs, can listen to the 911 call from a neighbor leaning over her blood-soaked daughter and screaming, “Ma’am, please wake up! Please wake up!” (while, to the 911 operator pleading, “Please hurry, please hurry”), can hear the testimony about DNA evidence and what orifices it was recovered from – then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.

Here, Sanders transports us to all three levels of the story at once. We are in the moment of the attack, we are listening to the horrifying details unfold in the courtroom, and we are in Sanders’ own head, flinching from those details yet increasingly convinced that there is a moral imperative in relaying them.

Amy Harmon is a two-time Pulitzer winner and a New York Times national correspondent who covers the impact of science and technology on American life. Her series “The DNA Age” won the 2008 Pulitzer for explanatory reporting, and in 2001 she shared the prize for national reporting, for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.”

***

“Maybe he could use that love against them.”

In Eli Sanders’ searing narrative about the rapes of two women and the murder of one of them, that single sentence reveals the writer’s mastery of his subject. In the midst of all the horror, we are reminded of the victims’ love for one another and experience an excruciating clash of emotions.

With his command of pace, rhythm, vivid description and multiple perspectives, Sanders switches between courtroom and crime, and from the victims’ point of view to the narrator’s, always taking care to be honest without being sensational.

The tension in the story comes as much from what is not said as what is. Instead of detailing every grim act, we get the reactions to the survivor’s descriptions of those acts – from the bailiff, the court reporter, the prosecutor, even another reporter. By the end, we are reminded that violence is not ordinary, nor are the victims of violence.

If ever a story was three-dimensional, “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is it. The story lives not only in time and space, but in consciousness. A testament to its power and truthfulness is that the survivor, who asked not to be named by Sanders, was moved to identify herself after the story’s publication.

Amy Ellis Nutt won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2011 for “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” and was a finalist in 2008 for “The Accidental Artist.” A reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger, she’s also an adjunct professor in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

***

The writing is rhythmic, concise. Every sentence does what it should in narrative: reveals more about character or moves the action forward. And while the details are beyond grisly, Sanders frames them in a way that forces – obligates – readers to withstand them.

Raquel Rutledge won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 2010 for her Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series “Cashing in on Kids.” An investigative reporter on the Watchdog Team, she is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

***

Sometimes details are nitroglycerin. As a kid, I knew about nitroglycerin only from Road Runner cartoons – this stuff is incredibly explosive yet there was always plenty of it, and the characters always seemed destined to drop it. Back then, I didn’t know that in tiny doses, in heart medication, it can save a life. As reporters entrusted with powerful details, we sometimes wind up like the coyote trying desperately to cradle them before the ground falls away.

Not here. I was continually impressed with the way Sanders blended the horrific details with a strong instinct for story and, most importantly, care. It’s a crucial combination, as I think he sets this up as more of a campfire story than a courtroom story. He starts off with a scene, then tells us that he’s going to tell us a story. He actually allows us a chance to smile. He lets Teresa Butz’s partner lay the foundation for how honest this story is going to be. He foreshadows some of it, knowing that won’t make it easier when we get there, but at least we know to prepare. Then he tells us we’ve seen enough. Then he immerses us again.

The scenes in this story will join so many others in the feature writing category that haunt and teach through searing detail and restraint, among them one particular child in a car in Gene Weingarten’s “Fatal Distraction,” a little girl’s room/closet in Lane DeGregory’s “The Girl in the Window,” and the description of the dead boy in the snow in Barry Siegel’s “A Father’s Pain….”

In “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” Sanders also finds that balance between the explicit and delicate, guaranteeing that though readers may pause, brace themselves or close their eyes they’ll keep going. We have to continue, because Sanders has allowed Butz’s partner to take us by the hand and show us why we must. By building elements of the story’s framework on the details that make us cringe, Sanders demands that we read until the last word – actually the last nine words – so that by the time we reach that scream, it has been transformed into pure strength.

Jim Sheeler won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2006, for a Rocky Mountain News story that chronicled nearly a year in the life of a U.S. Marine casualty notification officer and the families he touched. His subsequent book, “Final Salute,” was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.  He holds the Shirley Wormser Professorship in Journalism and Media Writing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

***

The story is admirable in a similar (though of course less profound and courageous) way as its subject is admirable. Throughout, Sanders stresses the survivor’s reasons for going through the ordeal of testifying, writing early on:

This happened to me. You must listen. This happened to us. You must hear who was lost. You must hear what he did. You must hear how Teresa fought him. You must hear what I loved about her. You must know what he took from us. This happened.

Later, he says that the mother of the murder victim, Teresa Butz, was in court and observes: “If a woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter…. then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.”

The accumulation of such comments begins to suggest, in a subtle way, that Sanders and we (the readers) are also participating in the very painful but also brave and important act of taking in this testimony. Later in the story he writes that in the aftermath of the crime, “civilization, which did not stop this from happening, which did not even know this was happening, slowly returned.” The persuasive suggestion is that this article is a part of that slow return: listening to the woman bear witness, without turning away, is the least we can do.

I’ll add, in passing, something I might have asked Sanders if I had been his editor. It strikes me that the bravest woman in Seattle, maybe the bravest woman in the history of Seattle, may have been Teresa Butz, whose actions, as described in the story, ultimately saved her partner’s life even as she was losing her own. Do you think it might make sense to put a little more emphasis on Butz? Just asking.

Ben Yagoda has written about language, writing and other topics for Slate, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times magazine, The American Scholar, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and many others. He’s a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made” and “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.” His “The Art of Fact,” coauthored with Kevin Kerrane, is a staple of narrative journalism classrooms. His forthcoming book is “How to Not Write Bad.”

 ***

This year’s two features finalists were also rivetingly memorable, and each ran with compelling multimedia components. In “A Chance in Hell,” Corinne Reilly of the Virginian-Pilot told the story of two weeks in a NATO hospital in Afghanistan. A glimpse:

A few minutes later the soldier is in the operating room. He’s writhing now more than shaking. Through the moans, he’s mumbling three words over and over.

“This is bad. This is bad. This is bad.”

He keeps lifting his head, trying to get a look.

On the end of the bed, the last right boot he ever put on is lying at an angle that’s all wrong, a sweaty foot still inside. The calf above it is a shredded mess of uniform, flesh, dirt and grass. Nothing about it looks real.

Above that there is no discernible knee, just a thin stretch of filthy skin barely hanging onto what’s left of a thigh, which looks a lot like the mangled calf, except for one thing: Among the blood and mud, there is a little white inchworm, scrunching and straightening, slowly making its way across a bit of dying muscle.

Somehow it survived an explosion the soldier may not.

Around him, a dozen people are preparing for surgery. The room smells like damp earth, rubbing alcohol and blood.

“Hang in there one more minute, bud,” the anesthesiologist says, trying uselessly to soothe his patient. “Everything’s gonna be OK in just a minute.”

A nurse walks in. Next to the boot, she sets down a medical form.

It says the soldier’s name is Eddie Ward.

It says he is 19 years old.

And in “Punched Out,” John Branch of The New York Times told the story of the life and death of hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard:

Boogaard, with a backlog of frustrations, wanted to quit during training camp in 2000. He was 18. He called his father to tell him. He told his teammates he had a plane ticket home. Tobin ultimately persuaded him to stay.

And, suddenly, Boogaard started to win fights.

“His first year in the W.H.L., I think, it was mostly adjusting to his frame, not knowing how to use his reach,” Ryan Boogaard said. “I think he felt more comfortable with that frame in his second year in the W.H.L., and he did a lot better.”

He quickly  avenged his broken-jaw loss to Mike Lee.  He beat Mat Sommerfeld, a rival who had torn Boogaard’s name from the back of his uniform and  held it over his head after an earlier conquest. One Web site put Boogaard’s record at 18-4-4 in fights that season. One poll named him the toughest player in the W.H.L.’s Western Conference.

When Boogaard took the ice, a buzz rippled through Prince George’s arena, which routinely had capacity crowds of 5,995. One side of the arena would shout “Boo!” and the other would shout “Gaard!”

He scored only once in 61 games for Prince George in 2000-1. He recorded 245 penalty minutes, ranking eighth in the W.H.L. He was, finally, an enforcer, appreciated by one team, feared by all others.

This continues Pulitzer Week on Storyboard. On Tuesday, Anna Griffin looked at Walt Harrington’s story about Pulitzer-winning poet Rita Dove’s writing process in our “Why’s this so good?” series. On Friday, we’ll post a video, transcript and interactive index of Pulitzer-winning novelist Paul Harding’s recent standing-room-only appearance at the Nieman Foundation.

In the meantime, you’ll find the citations, works and biographies for all of this year’s Pulitzer winners here.

April 12 2012

14:43

The best magazine features of 2011: an ASME sampler

National Magazine Award judges have a tough job this year as they choose a winner in the features category. There’s the sobering story about a corporate attorney’s mysterious death in Guatemala; the bizarre tale of a pair of young international arms dealers; the moving account of two dozen strangers braving a massive tornado; a fable-like piece about a man who rode out the Japanese tsunami on the roof of his house; and a high-larious (pardon us) story about a darker side of Disney World.

The American Society of Magazine Editors will announce the winner on May 3, but until then here’s a sampling from those five fine finalists, written by some of the top names in narrative:

Luke Dittrich* of Esquire. From “Heavenly Father!…”:

Tinkerbell is squirming and twisting in Michaela’s arms, trying to look up at the widening holes in the roof. The tornado, unlike the storm clouds that shrouded it and concealed its approach, is not entirely dense and black. Dim, green, aquatic light, like the light scuba divers see, brightens the cooler a bit even as the cooler is being torn apart.

The tornado stretches twenty thousand feet into the sky. It is three quarters of a mile wide. It is not empty.

It is carrying two-by-fours and drywall and automobiles.

It is carrying baseball cards, laptop computers, family photo albums.

It is carrying people, as naked as newborns, their clothes stripped away like tissue paper.

It is carrying fragments of the Walmart where Carl and Jennifer met, of the church where Donna worships, of three of the nursing homes where Lacey works.

It has traveled six miles through the city, and now it is carrying a great deal of the city within itself.

Michaela pushes Tinkerbell’s head down, but she can feel her squirrelly little neck straining against her hand, wanting to look up, wanting to see.

David Grann of The New Yorker. From “A Murder Foretold”:

Initially, Rosenberg spoke slowly and stiffly, but then his hands began to rise and fall, along with his eyebrows, the power of his voice growing—a voice from the grave. “I don’t have a hero complex,” he said. “I don’t have any desire to die. I have four divine children, the best brother life could have given me, marvellous friends.” He continued, “The last thing I wanted was to deliver this message…But I hope my death helps get the country started down a new path.” He urged Vice-President Espada whom he described as “not a thief or an assassin” − to assume the Presidency and insure that the guilty parties wound up in jail. “This is not about seeking revenge, which only makes us like them,” Rosenberg said. “It is about justice.” He predicted that the Guatemalan government would try to cover up the truth, by smearing the Musas and inventing plots. “But the only reality that counts is this: if you saw and heard this message, it is because I was killed by Álvaro Colom and Sandra de Colom, with the help of Gustavo Alejos.” He concluded, “Guatemalans, the time has come. Please it is time. Good afternoon.”

Guy Lawson of Rolling Stone. From “Arms and the Dudes”:

To get into the game, Diveroli knew he would have to deal with some of the world’s shadiest operators – the war criminals, soldiers of fortune, crooked diplomats and small-time thugs who keep militaries and mercenaries loaded with arms. The vast aftermarket in arms had grown exponentially after the end of the Cold War. For decades, weapons had been stockpiled in warehouses throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe for the threat of war against the West, but now arms dealers were selling them off to the highest bidder. The Pentagon needed access to this new aftermarket to arm the militias it was creating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The trouble was, it couldn’t go into such a murky underworld on its own. It needed proxies to do its dirty work – companies like AEY. The result was a new era of lawlessness. According to a report by Amnesty International, “Tens of millions of rounds of ammunition from the Balkans were reportedly shipped – clandestinely and without public oversight – to Iraq by a chain of private brokers and transport contractors under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense.”

This was the “gray market” that Diveroli wanted to penetrate. Still a teenager, he rented a room in a house owned by a Hispanic family in Miami and went to work on his laptop.

Michael Paterniti of GQ. From “The Man Who Sailed His House”:

This force is greater than the force of memory, or regret, or fear. It’s the force of an impersonal death, delivered by thousands of pounds of freezing water that slam you into a dark underworld, the one in which you now find yourself hooded, beaten, pinned deeper. The sensation is one of having been lowered into a spinning, womblike grave. If you could see anything in the grip of this monster, fifteen feet down, you’d see your neighbors tumbling by, as if part of the same circus. You’d see huge pieces of house – chimneys and doors, stairs and walls – crashing into each other, fusing, becoming part of one solid, deadly wave. You’d see shards of glass and splintered swords of wood. Or a car moving like a submarine. You’d see your thirty pigeons revolving in their cage. Or your wife within an arm’s reach, then vacuumed away like a small fish. You frantically flail. Is this up or down? Something is burning inside now, not desperation but blood depleted of oxygen. What you illogically desire more than anything is to open your mouth wide and gulp. You scissor your legs. In some eternity, the water turns from black to gray, and gray to dirty green, as you reach up over your head one last time and whip your arms down, shooting for the light.

John Jeremiah Sullivan of the New York Times magazine. From “You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!”:

“I always figured you were doing brownies,” I said.

“I do do brownies,” he said. “I have brownies. But, you know. . . .”

I did. Edibles are good, and wise heads move toward them over time, to save their lungs, but there’s something about the combination of oxygen-deprivation and intense THC-flush that comes with smoking and in particular from smoking joints. There’s no real substitute, for the abuser. A brownie can alter your mood over hours, but a joint swings a psychic broom around you – it clears an instant space.

“I actually saw this thing on the Internet,” Trevor said, “where people were talking about getting high in the park.”

“At Disney World!” I said, as if I hadn’t been listening.

He led me back inside and quietly cracked open his laptop on the kitchen counter. “Check this out,” he whispered. Only the two of us were awake.

I dropped into one of the swivel stools in front of the bright screen. I was reading before I knew what I was reading, but it was like a chat room. Or a forum. “Forum” is the better term. A motif of cannabis leaves and naked women holding glittery buds ran down the left margin: a pothead forum. Trevor scrolled it down to a posting, the subject of which read, “Re: Hello from Disney World.”

An anonymous person, evidently the veteran of a staggering number of weed-smoking experiences in the park, had done a solid for the community and laid out his or her knowledge in a systematic way. It was nothing less than a fiend’s guide to Disney World. It pinpointed the safest places for burning the proverbial rope, telling what in particular to watch for at each spot. Isolated footpaths that didn’t see much traffic, conventional smoking areas with good hedge cover, places where you could hide under a bridge by a little artificial river – those were its points of interest. The number of views suggested that the list had helped a lot of desperate people.

In other finalist categories you’ll find equally terrific pieces, including Mark Bowden’s “Echoes from a Distant Battlefield” (Vanity Fair), Natasha Gardner’s “Direct Fail” (5280) and Mike Kessler’s “What Happened to Mitrice Richardson?” (Los Angeles).

Enjoy!


*Coming Friday: Dittrich recently visited the Nieman Narrative Writing class, where he took us behind the scenes of reporting and writing the Joplin, Mo.,
tornado story. Check back tomorrow for that conversation.

February 28 2012

14:51

“Why’s this so good?” No. 32: Darcy Frey on the brink

It’s been 16 years since I first read Darcy Frey’s piece about the overwhelming, stressful job of being an air traffic controller – 16 years since I first swore never to fly into Newark. Frey’s powerful narrative scarred me for life.

Something’s Got To Give” ran in The New York Times Magazine in 1996, 15 years after President Ronald Reagan broke the PATCO union and fired more than 11,000 controllers. Frey made it clear that things had not recovered. He concentrated on Newark, the busiest air traffic control room in the country, where he found aging, unreliable computers; mandatory overtime to the point of exhaustion; steadily increasing air traffic; and so much stress that controllers sometimes went bonkers. It happened so often that they had a term for it: “going down the pipes.” The driving theme of the piece is staving off disaster.

I re-read the story this week, and even if the facts no longer hold up (I have no idea how much has changed in the industry), the power of the piece certainly does. I got scared all over again and have renewed my vow to stay out of New Jersey.

How did he do it?

It’s all about control. Frey has control over his material, his tone, his voice, his characters and his structure. As you read the piece – which follows a couple of men managing a whole lot of airplanes on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the busiest air travel day of the year – you know instantly that you are in capable hands.

In this piece, as in others of his that I have read (“Does Anyone Here Think This Baby Can Live?” and his book, “The Last Shot”), Frey is a master at what some writers call the pivot and some call the swoop and at least one (Alex Tizon) calls “blobs.” That is, he gets you going down the line of the story until you are so captivated you can’t turn away, and then he turns away, away from the narrative line and into facts and background and information (blobs) that you need to know in order to understand what is going on. And you do not get impatient with him because he tells it so cleanly and engagingly, and because he knows exactly the moment at which you will get annoyed or impatient, and it is right before then that he pivots (or swoops) back into the story.

In this piece, Frey writes in the language of the people he is writing about. He doesn’t lapse into jargon or techno speak, but look at the word choice in the lead:

All the way down the bank of radar scopes, the air traffic controllers have that savage, bug-eyed look, like men on the verge of drowning, as they watch the computer blips proliferate and speak in frantic bursts of techno-chatter to the pilots: “Continental 1528, turn right heading 280 immediately! Traffic at your 12 o’clock!” A tightly wound Tom Zaccheo, one of the control-room veterans, sinks his teeth into his cuticles and turns, glowering, to the controller by his side: “Hey, watch your goddamned planes – you’re in my airspace!” Two scopes away, the normally unflappable Jim Hunter, his right leg pumping like a pneumatic drill, sucks down coffee and squints as blips representing 747’s with 200 passengers on board simply vanish from his radar screen. “If the F.A.A. doesn’t fix this goddamned equipment,” he fumes, retrieving the blips with his key pad, “it’s only a matter of time before there’s a catastrophe.” And Joe Jorge, a new trainee, scrambling to keep his jets safely separated in the crowded sky, is actually panting down at the end as he orders pilots to turn, climb, descend, speed up, slow down and look out the cockpit window, captain!

“Savage, bug-eyed.” “Frantic bursts of techno-chatter.” “Sucks down coffee.” Casual words, carefully chosen to set a particular scene and a particular jittery mood. Throughout the piece, controllers don’t eat; they “take chow.” They aren’t startled or worried or annoyed – the machines “mess with their heads.” These men look like they’re on the verge of drowning. Their legs pump like pneumatic drills. They fume and squint and scramble and pant. It makes me anxious just to read about them.

Frey’s verbs are powerful and carefully chosen: Huge, passenger-packed jumbo jets barrel up the river and streak across the sky, nervous controllers curse and twitch. They don’t just bite their nails; they “sink their teeth” into their cuticles.

Frey is a great observer, and he spends his day well, watching these poor guys intently as they deal not only with the stress of heavy air traffic and long, long hours (one guy has had two days off in a row only seven times over the last year), but also with the frustrations of rickety equipment: ancient computer screens that suddenly go dark when they are guiding a dozen planes, or radios that fritz out. He watches as they perform rituals that they hope will ward off disaster – rituals that I’m willing to bet these traffic controllers don’t even realize they do:

One controller stands and paces in tight circles while issuing commands; one drops to his knee, his nose touching the glass; one taps the scope with a finger; one holds himself together by singing out loud.

Frey’s voice is so calm, so authoritative, that we do not miss direct quotes. He uses them sparingly – this is narrative, but he has a lot to say, and he doesn’t want the piece to get bogged down. The quotes he uses are spice, not the main ingredient, and yet he chooses them so well you get an instant, strong flavor of the person speaking. For example:

Tom Zaccheo: “I’m gonna come over there, and then I’m gonna rip your lungs out!” and later: “They made a rule you can’t threaten another controller on the job,” he says, bringing his fingers to his enormous chest. “Somebody like me, I had to change my operating way.”

That might be all you need to know about Tom Zaccheo.

What drives this piece is pure tension – the tension in the room, the tension that underlies all the jokes and bravado, the tension that infects the reader. We are all waiting for a crash, waiting for a disaster, waiting for the computers to fall dark, the radio to short out, the controllers to go down the pipes and the planes to smash together in midair.

He keeps this tension going by sprinkling the narrative with reminders of how terrible things are. He doesn’t clump it all together in one blob, but every few paragraphs, every few scenes, he rolls out another reminder that everything could fall apart in an instant. A controller named Jughead finishes an “Iron Man” shift and finds himself at home without recalling how he got there. On a busy Sunday afternoon, controllers with “headset wires wrapped around their ankles” pace and scream like “short-order cooks on speed.” Some of the fired controllers are brought back years later, but they are unable to keep up with a pace that has only become more frantic in their absence.

Nervous yet?

I am. I am never flying into Newark, or, maybe anywhere, ever again.

Frey writes about one traffic controller whose amazing skill is also his downfall; they rely on him so heavily he can’t get any time off and can’t get reassigned and so is slowly going nuts. He writes about how hard it is to learn the job (half of the trainees wash out); he writes about another controller who panicked and deleted all the planes from his screen while they were still in the sky:

Then he turned to his supervisor and announced: “No more planes. Time to get off.” He, too, was sent to counseling, and after a couple of months tried to return, but he could never bring himself to work traffic again. A new nickname entered the lexicon: Dr. Freeze.

And then, just when you feel like you can’t take it anymore, the story hits its climax: the pilots stop responding to commands from the controllers, and after a few terrifying minutes they figure out that the radio isn’t working, so they switch to the backup radio – which also isn’t working.

Man, if that last scene doesn’t keep you out of Newark, then the ending of the piece will. These overworked, jittery men have managed to stave off disaster for that whole terrible day, but it’s not over. That’s the thing about their job: It’s never over. And Frey makes sure their jitters rattle you long after you finish reading.

Laurie Hertzel (@stribbooks) is senior editor for books and special projects at the Star Tribune, and the author of “News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every wee

May 18 2011

19:26

What we’re watching: musical fracking, award-winning photojournalism, and documentaries from Cannes

From a groovy explainer to a broken contortionist, here are some visual experiences worth a look.

My Water’s on Fire Tonight (The Fracking Song),” by David Holmes, Andrew Bean, Niel Bekker, Adam Sakellarides and Lisa Rucker from @Studio2oNYU in collaboration with ProPublica. The most entertaining (and catchy!) explainer we’ve seen in a long time. It recalls the clarity of 2008’s “The Crisis of Credit Visualized by Jonathan Jarvis.

The Amazing Amy,” by Espen Rasmussen, Finn Ryan, Terje Bringedal and Torsten Kjellstrand working with MediaStorm. A 56-year-old performer battered by the world invites viewers into her life – not a comfortable place to be.

Dogs in the News,” curated by The Boston Globe’s The Big Picture earlier this month. Dogs working, sometimes in surprising occupations. Not your everyday LOLdogs pics.

Symmetry,” a @madebyeverynone video produced by Brendan Lynch (via @koci). Not narrative, but a beautifully crafted conceptual video that can help beginners and pros alike ponder themes and echoes in visual storytelling. See the whole “Everynone” series for additional inspiration.

The Shrine Down the Hall,” by from The New York Times Magazine. Winner of the 2011 Ellie for News and Documentary Photography. Ashley Gilbertson’s photos (accompanied by Dexter Filkins’ essay) create a visual record of the forever empty bedrooms of grown children lost in war.

And from the Cannes Film Festival, we’ve gathered a few trailers for documentaries being screened this month. They include “Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told,” about India’s film industry; “Unlawful Killing,” a film on the death of Princess Diana underwritten by the family of Dodi Fayed; “Leadersheep,” the story of a decadelong battle between a group of French farmers and their government (trailer in French); and “At Night, They Dance,” a look at a family of belly dancers in Cairo.

May 03 2011

12:50

Eliza Griswold on religion, reporting and violence

We spoke last week with Eliza Griswold, winner of the 2011 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize for “The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam.” In addition to winning the Lukas Prize, which is co-administered by Columbia University and the Nieman Foundation, Griswold has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s and The New Republic. She was awarded a 2010 Rome Prize from The American Academy in Rome and has also published a book of poetry, “Wideawake Field.” In these excerpts from our conversation, she talks about managing a stable of characters, what she hopes readers will get from the book, and what she would do differently if she were starting the book today.

For anyone in our audience who hasn’t read your book, how would you describe the origins of the title, “The Tenth Parallel”?

The 10th parallel is a line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator. But as the title of the book, it really defines the space between the equator and that line of latitude that marks the encounter between Christianity and Islam in much of Africa and Asia. That’s a geographic encounter.

I started the book with the single statistic that 4 out of 5 of the world’s Muslims live outside of the Middle East. They’re not Arabs. So what we think of as Islam and what actually functions on the ground as Islam are two very different things, and the same is true of Christianity. And along the 10th parallel sit the borderlands of both Christianity and Islam. I wanted to travel to where those two borders overlapped, to see what happens in floods, in droughts, in political elections, in fights over everything, really, from water to chocolate – what happens when those two religions come into contact and conflict on the ground.

At what point did you know you wanted to tell this story?

I came to this story traveling in Sudan in 2003 with Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and head of a half-billion-dollar evangelical empire. And although he’s worked in the south, in southern Sudan, for more than 20 years now, Franklin was going for the first time in history to meet with President [Omar al] Bashir, who is still Sudan’s sitting president, even though he’s been indicted now for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Franklin was going to meet with this man whom he had called just as evil as Saddam Hussein, if not more so.

Franklin was very much in the news at the time because he had called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion” just after Sept. 11. So I wanted to go with him to see what happens when a conservative American evangelical leader with close ties to – at that time – the Bush administration, actually sat down with his sworn enemy face to face.

You have a tremendous cast of characters in the book. Reading it, I was thinking you must have spent a lot of time figuring out how to navigate that cast. How did you decide who belonged and who didn’t and what size each person’s role would be?

It was probably more intuitive than anything else. It took seven years to write it for a reason. It’s six countries and 9,000 miles and two continents. It just really was a much larger undertaking than I understood when I began. When I started the book, I thought I would essentially write a series of narrative travelogues and that this fault line was largely metaphoric. It wasn’t until I got on the ground and started traveling that I saw how real the demographics and geography of Christians and Muslims meeting on the ground really was.

I had to write the book in layers. I started with the narratives and then, with my editor’s help, came to understand that the travelogue was not going to be enough, that there were much larger forces at play: geography and history and weather and centuries of human migration; and that the book, to be what it needed to be, was going to have to take all those factors into account as well. So it was really a process of layering, of going through and writing and rewriting.

The narratives came first, and then came the issue of “what are the larger ideas here?” One of the things that I loved about doing the reporting this way was that I didn’t start with any conclusions. I didn’t start with trying to prove, or even disprove, the clash of civilizations. That was a great luxury. I could just travel along this line and see what was actually happening on the ground.

But at the end of the reporting, I needed to begin to draw some conclusions about what I had seen, so that was another layer of writing through it. And then I had to write it again to make sure it did follow through, to make sure it would make sense beginning to end. It is a lot of characters. I would not recommend to anyone else to have so many characters.

You also have a number of key points in time to address – stretching from antiquity though imperial colonization and missionaries into today’s world.

That was intuitive, too. I had to find my way through the story, geographically, historically and narratively. And essentially what I need to do, once I’d done that, was to trace how I did it, and then trace my thinking for the reader.

I’m super-compelled by some of the early stories that the book just touches on. For example, I didn’t know until I went to Ethiopia – or just before when I was researching – that before there was Islam, this collection of a dozen of Mohammed’s followers had gone to the court of a Christian in Ethiopia, which was then Abyssinia, and asked for safe haven. They told the king the story of the Virgin Mary from the Quran to prove that they were related to one another.

That kind of story become so important to my understanding of place, and what is important for us to understand how interlinked we are. But then that becomes an element that I had to bring to the reader. I didn’t set out saying,“Knowing what I know about Ethiopia, I’m going to report the story the following way.” It was a lot of bumping into things: ideas, people and events as they unfolded.

You grew up the child of an Episcopalian bishop?

Yes.

How useful or how much of an impediment was that background in doing this book?

I definitely wouldn’t have written this book if I wasn’t who I am, and I am who I am by virtue of how I grew up, largely. So the questions of faith and intellect and how those two coexist are questions I grew up asking myself and also seeing asked around me, and from my earliest memories sitting around the kitchen table with the crock pot stew, hearing discussions of the inter-linkages of how God and the mind do or don’t fit together. That definitely had a lot to do with it. My dad, beyond all, was a kind of a mystic, so I definitely I did not grow up with any kind of exclusive understanding of God, that anyone had the exclusive claim on truth or heaven or anything.

So I was writing about religion and human rights. I was writing about honor killings before Sept. 11 and how early Islamic law, when Muhammad set down the codes that he did that now look so oppressive to us and out-of-date, that actually those were the most progressive of their time in terms of giving women property rights and outlawing the right to kill your female baby.

I was intrigued with that stuff, but it’s definitely after we started to see Christianity and Islam as these opposed ideologies, these exclusive understandings, that I felt called to explore the question of whether exclusive faith leads to violence.

That’s how I came to it: what’s the relationship between religion and violence? That’s not what I grew up with, a faith that posits black and white, salvation and damnation, but I was interested to see how that grafted onto contemporary political and economic and resource struggles.

You said that you didn’t go into it with any conclusions, that a lot of it unfolded in front of you. There’s a sense coming out of the book as a reader that I know a lot more than I did going in. But at the end of the book, you don’t give any simple conclusions. Did you always know it would be that open at the end?

I wanted to see what was true and articulate, and so if I had thought there were clear conclusions, I would have drawn them. But there was no easy truth, so there were no final conclusions to draw. I would hope that readers take from the book the understanding that the most important religious fights are those taking place inside of religions not between them. It’s really those fights between Christian and Christian and Muslim and Muslim that shape each religion’s relationship with the other.

You do so many kinds of narrative: You’re a journalist and a poet. How do you think about storytelling? What are you looking for a story to do?

I’m looking for a story and a poem to do the same thing – to unfold on two levels at once. I want it to be successful on a very daily level of “here’s a satisfying beginning, middle and end.” But I’m looking for it to work on another level as well, to serve as an allegory of a larger truth. It’s better if I don’t have that truth defined, because if I’m driving that story to a certain calculated end, chances are I’m trying to control what I saw. But as a narrative writer, I can feel the heat around those stories, where they tell a larger truth, and that is what interests me.

As for the small stories, I realized pretty early on I wasn’t going to be able to explain anyone’s faith away. Although that had not been my intention, I had thought I’d be able to have a better sense of, “Oh, this one’s a true believer, and this one’s not.” Wrong. Pretty early on I realized that was going to be beyond my skill, because everything was so subjective. So the best I could do was to own my own subjectivity and bring these stories back whole cloth, and let the reader draw the conclusion of what they meant on those two levels.

A lot of great stories rise out of the open approach that you’re taking, but in reporting nowadays, there’s much more of a sense of editors wanting writers to go out and get a predefined particular story, which can make it tough. Do you have any advice for those who would like to do the kind of thing you’re doing?

It’s a fine line, right? And how did I pay for this?

I’m sure our readers would like to know.

I’m a freelance magazine writer who’s never been on staff anywhere – that’s partly due to the era in which I’ve come of age and the changing media model. My editors knew what I was doing. They knew I was working on this book while I was writing for them. I would go somewhere and do a story that might be related, but the best times they were unrelated stories. I would cover one issue and then be able to stay in that respective country and do what I needed to do for the book.

I deliberately assigned myself stories in the countries that I needed to go to for work, which always meant they were not A1 kind of stories. These are stories at the edges of places. So for journalists there’s a big trade-off: What matters most to you? Does it matter most to you to be with the pack, covering the story that’s moving in largest font in the day, in the boldest type? If that’s what matters most to you, which I totally understand and think is extraordinarily valuable to the world, then this is not something you would want to try.

If you’re curious about the edges of places, and you prefer to exist in marginal spaces a little bit off the grid, then that’s kind of the model that I came out of.

What were you hoping the book might accomplish?

I hope it helps people understand their own religion a little bit better. I know that, especially in this country, given the understanding that Islam is more explicitly linked with violence than Christianity is worldwide, I certainly hope it dispels some of that stereotyping.

What it has done that never occurred to me is that some of the Somali doctors in the book got to meet Hillary Clinton a few weeks ago. The book brought some attention to them and has made a difference in their ability to do their own work in Somalia. I never would have imagined that.

Has anything about the reception of “The Tenth Parallel” surprised you?

It never occurred to me that it would be so widely read. It never occurred to me that it would be a New York Times bestseller. I thought I was writing a well-written narrative travelogue that would go its own quiet way. The interest in it has surprised me a lot – the hunger for information, people’s questions when I go places. Those have really surprised me.

I think there are flaws in the book. My editor always says, “You learn how to write a book by writing a book,” and that’s certainly true. I think you also learn how to report a book by reporting a book. I know that there are narrative devices I used at the time that I would change.

Such as?

One thing I did – this is advice for fellow reporters. Because I like sitting down and talking to people, a lot of the reported scenes of the book is my sitting down and talking to people as opposed to watching them live their own lives. I think there’s a great capacity for just simply watching people live their own lives. That’s something that maybe I didn’t do enough of.

Any other tips about what you’d do differently if you were starting today?

I think I would push myself harder to reconstruct more narrative, as opposed to using the interviews as their own narrative forms. I don’t know how I would have done that in some cases…

Sometimes that’s a question of what material is actually available.

Exactly. And I was going for these very specific stories, most of which were cast in the past.

Another thing: sometimes I get readers who say, “You should be in there more.” I did not do that, because it makes my skin crawl, the “bearing witness” aspect of American journalists where they’re actually heroicizing themselves when they pretend to be telling a story. There are a lot of things that happened, a couple of super-dangerous things that I thought were so distracting from other people’s lives that I couldn’t write about them without fearing that it would come across like derring-do.

But I think there’s another way to be in the story as a first-person character, which is to come in more with observation, and even if those observations prove to be wrong in the long term, or inaccurate, then you have something to push back against. In that way, I think there is a huge capacity for being present in a book in an interesting way.

Bringing the reader in through your eyes as opposed to having them watch you do something.

Exactly. Also, I was very cautious with this material, because a lot of it is so sensational. It is religion and violence. I wanted to be super, super careful that in talking about this stuff that I wasn’t in fact reigniting problems. You can see what happens when someone threatens to burn the Quran and people die in another country. I was very aware that if this book were to reverberate in the wrong way, it could lead to trouble along those lines. Thank God it hasn’t, but if I could err on the side of telling a dramatic story in a little more complicated way, with more context, which was sometimes a little more boring, in order to get a more complicated truth out there, I definitely tried to do that.

We often talk about how, as long as we tell the truth, to tell the most exciting, dynamic story possible. But you wanted to pull back from that.

I never saw a conflict that didn’t have some kind of secular or worldly trigger. One thing about our colleagues, especially in the secular press: we tend to discount religious ideas or faith as something that can be explained away, as something that is a factor of poverty or disenfranchisement. “Of course, people in the developing world think about God in that way,” we say. “They don’t have anything.”

All over the middle belt in Nigeria, where Muslims and Christians are killing each other right now, there is a propensity on the part of reporters to say, “Well, this isn’t about religion, this is about ethnicity.” Maybe somebody in a wire report position has to say Christians and Muslims. And then somebody who has a little more time, coming from a human rights angle, is going to say, “This is all about ethnicity and has nothing to do with religion.” But what if the truth is somewhere between the two? What if those who are there, they say that it is about religion? They say they are killing each other because of rival faiths. Where does their voice go?

That’s true, too. Both are true at the same time. The situation I frequently faced was that “OK, this has to do with being an indigenous citizen, ethnicity, money, lack of access to clean water and good roads” – getting all of that down in an accurate way without discounting the role of religion. Because [discounting religion] is super easy to do, too. That’s as much of a position as anything else.

Wouldn’t it be easy to say, “This has nothing to do with religion”? That would be easy, and people would like to hear it. And it’s not true. So I’m constantly trying to keep one foot in both of those worlds.

Photo of Eliza Griswold by Antonin Kratochvil.

January 17 2011

15:27
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