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Adam Hochschild on narrative nonfiction, history and finding the next story

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Adam Hochschild arrived at the narrative journalism conference at Boston University last weekend feeling liberated after an intense six-year relationship.

But soon this writer will be looking to fall in love again. If he doesn’t, he will get anxious.

“Sometimes I am able to stay off the streets and out of trouble by writing magazine pieces or doing a bit of teaching, “ the San Francisco-based journalist said during a Sunday breakfast interview after the conference. “But I am always looking for something to fall in love with again.”

Adam Hochschild at 2010 BU narrative conference (Melissa Jay, Boston University)

The “something”? His next writing project. The intense relationship? His involvement with the characters who shaped his latest book, whose subject is the First World War.

Four days before the conference, Hochschild turned in the final draft, with the working title To End All Wars. Slated for publication next March, it will be Hochschild’s seventh book.

“When I have spent a long time on a project, like this one, it becomes part of my life. In my books, everything is structured around a group of people. I have to fall in love with these subjects, think about them all the time.”

Right now, Hochschild, who teaches a writing class at the University of California in Berkeley, has no idea what his next big project will be. “I can coast for a while. I have various talks to give and shorter articles to write in the next month, and also long-postponed repairs to do on my house. But at some point, a couple of months down the road, panic will hit and I’ll feel that I will never find a group to fall in love with again. It causes me a lot of anxiety.”

This angst is what Hochschild calls “subject matter block”. “I don’t get writer’s block, I have never experienced that. Once I find the subject, there is no block. Then I can write anywhere – on airplanes, in the early morning.”

Hochschild says the hardest part is simply making himself sit down and write the first draft, which took about 18 months for his latest book. “There the discipline is trying, not always successfully, to stop myself from doing additional research–it is so much easier to go to the library and archives and lose myself, than to actually write the draft.”

Hochschild is a nonfiction storyteller whose aim is not to rewrite history but to make people sit up and take notice through the power of dramatic narrative. He writes about oppression, injustice, human suffering and cruelty, issues he was awakened to in his youth. A defining moment came during a trip to Africa as a teenager. “My father was an executive of an American company that had shares in mines in parts of Africa, principally the copper belt in what is now Zambia. He made the terrible mistake of taking me on business trip to Africa, where I realized that my education was being paid for by the labor of African miners.”

The following year, Hochschild went to apartheid South Africa during his university break where he met gutsy liberal activist Pat Duncan, a “revolutionary aristocrat” whose moral insight had a profound effect on his political views.

These two experiences in Africa provided material for two works, Half the Way Home—a Memoir of Father and Son, and an essay in Finding the Trapdoor: Essays, Portraits, Travels.

Hochschild often writes about under-reported regions and issues that Americans care little about, yet people can’t wait to turn the page. His book on the Belgium king’s brutal plunder of the Congo in the 19th century, King Leopold’s Ghost, has sold half a million copies.

“You always have to think about how to make a story accessible to your audience … It’s about how you tell the story,” said Hochschild.

It was not an easy sell to get King Leopold’s Ghost—his fourth book—published in 1998. Hochschild’s agent sent his proposal to 10 publishers. Nine turned it down. “I still have the letters—‘Nobody is interested in African history’, ‘There is no African history shelf in bookstores’…

“But the 10th editor didn’t think in categories. He saw that this is a story about heroes and villains, vast suffering, an extraordinary, greedy man [King Leopold] and people who tried to stop him from what he was doing.”

Hochschild never travelled to the Congo when researching his book. Instead, he described the scenery through the eyes of his characters—explorers, missionaries, memoirs by people who lived there—as detailed in diaries, transcripts and letters from the period.

Last year, he got the opportunity to visit the eastern Congo for 11 days. The result was a series of gut-wrenching articles (in The New York Review of Books, Mother Jones and The Atlantic) about the continued turmoil and conflict in the country this century.

“I was struck again and again by how many things that you see today that are repeats of what was happening back then—people being turned into forced laborers for the army, the rapes, the violence.”

Whether he is writing a memoir about his relationship with his father, or character-based histories about gypsies, slavery, King Leopold’s greed or resisters during the First World War, he focuses on three key elements used by imaginative writers: suspense, scenes and character. He injects hope into his narratives by writing about heroic characters who stand up against injustice in extraordinary ways—rebel leaders, whistleblowers, humanitarians, abolitionists, and war resisters.

Asked to interpret the BU narrative journalism conference slogan ‘Timeless Art in an Urgent Age,’ Hochschild said, that “People have been telling stories and trying to make other people listen to them telling stories for thousands of years.”

The urgency is that the information is coming at us in so many strange ways. “When you see people walk in the street with things plugged into their ears, you don’t know if they are talking to somebody on the phone or listening to the news. Information comes at us so fast and from so many directions, I don’t think it erodes the basic desire people have for narrative … But it clutters up our lives with other things.”

Hochschild can’t imagine reading online for pleasure. “When I am working on a computer screen all day and I want to take reading to bed or the bath tub, it will be old-fashioned paper. I like the smell and how it feels.

“I am an addict of the printed newspaper. I spend 45 minutes to and hour with The New York Times every day. If I’m away from home, I get withdrawal symptoms. I tried The New York Times online, where you get the whole paper every day, but it doesn’t quite do it for me. Wherever I am—the Congo, South Africa, Russia—I am always looking for the printed paper.”

Like many of the delegates at the conference, Hochschild felt upbeat about the overall tone and message neatly summed up by New York Times executive editor Bill Keller in his keynote address: that the death of narrative journalism has been grossly exaggerated.

The digital age has opened up a gap for narrative journalists to fill, agreed Hochschild, who was a panelist at the conference. “We already know the news from Blackberries and mobile phones and computer screen logon in the morning, so the people who are trying to make us read newspapers and magazines are going to have to do so more and more through good writing. You can see it in the transformation of magazines like Time and Newsweek. They are no longer giving the week’s news. They assume you know it already. There are more in-depth articles, profiles, features, etc.”

He suggested that Keller’s address was a vote of confidence for narrative journalism: “Having the editor of The New York Times there is almost an imprimatur that narrative does have a place.”

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Janet Heard is a 2010 Nieman Fellow for Journalism at Harvard University. You can read her blog at http://www.janetheard.blogspot.com/. She is based at Independent Newspapers in Cape Town, South Africa.




3 trackbacks

  1. [...] Europe for The Wall Street Journal, and it morphed into something else. My models were books like Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, stories that are history but written in a narrative [...]

  2. by China in Africa – Part 1/2 « iLook China on November 28, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    [...] this is a topic that interests you, I suggest you read Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild for a balance and [...]

  3. [...] TBA. Last year’s group included New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, Gay Talese and Adam Hochschild, among other [...]

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