Editor’s note: The Oregonian’s Simina Mistreanu spoke to seven narrative journalists for her University of Missouri master’s project on longform. On Tuesday, we ran her setup, a piece on the challenges and importance of longform narrative. Thursday, we published her conversations with Pulitzer winners Lane DeGregory and David Finkel. The series ends next week with The Oregonian‘s Tom Hallman Jr. and Esquire‘s Chris Jones. Up today, lightly edited for clarity and length, the New York Times‘ Amy Harmon and the Washington Post‘s Anne Hull.
Amy Harmon won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting, for her “striking examination of the dilemmas and ethical issues that accompany DNA testing, using human stories to sharpen her reports.” She’s the author of Asperger Love, an ebook published by Byliner and the New York Times.
Mistreanu: How do you choose the stories you work on?
Harmon: It kind of depends. My first narrative story, really, was the story that I did that was part of the project at the Times, a big project called “How Race is Lived in America.” That was in 2000. So for that particular story, the editors had chosen a format. They were interested in the relationships between individuals of different races, kind of in everyday life, but in a variety of settings. At the time I was writing about the technology and the Internet. I was doing news and feature stories. I really hadn’t kind of discovered narrative form. For that one it was a little bit set. I did find my characters. So I mean, I had to find my characters and I needed to make sure I had a good setting, but that one was all of it preordained by the editors. The next set of stories that I did, that had more narrative, was the series called “The DNA Age,” which was the series that won the Pulitzer. In that, I really drew a little bit from my own experience. I got interested in the subject because I had just had a baby, and I had been offered genetic testing, and I didn’t know what genetic testing was, so I kept it in the back of my mind that when I came back from maternity leave I would look into what other kind of genetic testing was available. I try to do stories that illuminate some intersection of science and society. And within that, I try to find trends, like maybe something that’s new that’s affecting people’s lives, and then I try to find a narrative vehicle through which to tell the bigger story of the conflict that it’s causing in people’s lives, and in society. So all of those things need to kind of be satisfied, I guess.
Like, for example, the recent story that I did following the development of a genetically modified orange, which might be the first genetically modified fruit, mainstream fruit, that Americans will be able to consume or not consume. There’s sort of a big debate going on about GMO, genetically-modified organisms, are they good, are they bad, are they part of an evil attempt by Monsanto to take over the world, or will they help feed the world? It’s a scientific development, the ability to create genetically modified organisms, genetically modified crops, so I wanted to write about that. But I really only wanted to write about it in a narrative form because it’s been written a lot about already in terms of here’s what Monsanto does, here’s what the other side says. So I was thinking the way to shed light on this would be to find the right vehicle to tell it, and then I stumbled upon a mention of the possibility that orange growers might need to try to develop a genetically modified orange because of a disease that was affecting the orange crop, and I thought, wow, if I can get an orange grower who is trying to do this to talk to me and give me the access that I would need to make a narrative out of this, and follow his journey and the obstacles that he’s facing that would be a contribution to the broader conversation over the social and scientific conflict around it. So I did it. But had I not found that vehicle, I might have just chosen an entirely different subject to write about.
So how important is this, social issues, in your stories? Why is it important for your stories to cover social issues rather than be simple technology or science stories?
It is essential. The sort of social conflict is essential. That is what I’m drawn to write about. And I think because it’s life, science is important. It does affect people’s lives, and often I think science especially more so than issues of policy, or politics, or poverty, or war, which are sort of in our faces a little bit more. It’s hard to avoid them. I think science kind of gets generalized, and it’s in the science section, and we read about it and we write about it in terms of this new development. It’s a news story: This new development happened. We don’t really (look) into how it’s affecting our lives. I am interested in kind of the double-edged nature of what a scientific advance is. It can benefit us, and yet it often poses new problems for us.
What are your favorite parts in this whole process?
My favorite part is definitely the reporting. There are parts of the writing that I love, like at the end. The reporting, because I try to do these narratives that are really observed, they’re kind of like fly-on-the-wall. They’re a different kind of narrative, too, I guess we should say. They’re more explanatory. The narratives that I do really tend to be kind of immersion narratives, story narratives, where it’s all show and very little tell. So I like just being an observer in people’s lives, and getting them to trust me, and writing stuff that’s kind of intimate and trying to understand how these science issues are playing out in people’s lives, up close.
It’s basically the openness you get from people and being able to talk to them and be part of their lives.
Yeah, I guess, I should say over time. That’s a really crucial element in stories that I do, that they take place often over a year, sometimes over two years, or even sometimes I’m reconstructing things that happened 10 years ago, 20 years ago, but often I’m in their lives for at least a year. It’s not like the only thing I’m doing, but that aspect of it, the ability to follow them and kind of get to know them (out of) their lives is the kind of input and the kind of trust and intimacy that you can’t really get when you’re doing a one or two-week story just gathering anecdotes for a little more standard feature story.
Is that more rewarding to you than figuring out the science? You write stories that are narrative, but they also have a strong explanatory part, where you break science apart and then explain it.
Well, that’s true. And I love learning about the science, too. It’s a hard question; it would be hard to separate those two things. Yeah, because my stories do bring together these two different elements, I try to. It’s the people in whose lives the science is playing out. And I really like getting close to the people and getting the whole picture of their lives. But I also spend a lot of time talking to scientists that are not really necessarily involved in the particular story, life story that I’m writing about. Just to make sure that I understand the background. And that’s what I love, too. The parts that I don’t love, there’s always a pressure, a time pressure, and a feeling like editors are breathing down my neck. “What exactly are you spending all of this time on?” So as long as I can kind of block that out. I mean, I also love the reactions. I love when stories get a reaction. It’s very gratifying, especially given all the pressure.
Do you ever get absorbed by your work to the point where you feel like it’s important in itself, you experience time differently, you’re “in the zone”?
Well, yeah. I guess I would say that could happen in two different ways. One is because I’m really part of these other people’s lives for some time. To some extent I’m taken out of my own life. That can be good and bad. It goes with the reporting, and it is in a way enjoyable. It can be disruptive to my own family life because when you’re doing this type of story, you know, things happen on weekends, often families are involved, so you want to be like at a family event, but that means you’re not necessarily at your own family event. But yes, in that sense I do get hooked up in the reporting. I get deeply into the science reporting, too. I keep realizing how much more I need to understand. That happened with this genetically modified food story. I didn’t know anything at the beginning, and I didn’t totally understand what genetic engineering was, and then I had to understand genetic engineering in different contexts. I’m looking at genetic engineering in agriculture, but I wanted to make sure I understood it in medicine and so — yeah, I always have 10 more people I really want to call. So there’s that. That is very pleasurable. Except for the constant feeling like “uh-oh, this is taking way too long.” The writing can be a pleasure. You get to sit down with all of your notes and you try to figure out how to make a story out of them. And then certain parts of writing the story, when the writing is going well — it’s not exactly that I lose sense of time; it’s just that I want to be doing it all the time. I feel like I have something important to say; it’s very hard to figure out how to say it right and how to say it in a way that’s emotionally gripping and that will affect people, but I just want to be doing that all the time.
What do you think makes the difference between when that happens during writing and when it doesn’t happen?
I wish I knew. I wish I could always have the first kind.
Like does it happen when the reporting went particularly well? Is there usually a set of conditions that will make writing enjoyable?