David Grann on the making of “The Yankee Comandante”
From the moment David Grann’s “The Yankee Comandante” appeared in the New Yorker last week, readers have been talking about it, hailing the tale of political intrigue, passion and heartbreak as unforgettable, as a masterpiece. Grann, of course, is known for memorable long-form narratives such as “Trial by Fire” and “A Murder Foretold” and for his nonfiction books, the best-selling Lost City of Z and The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, which contain deeply reported stories of obsession, of people driven to extremes. “The Yankee Comandante” is the story of William Morgan, a restless American who fought in the Cuban revolution, married a rebel named Olga Rodriguez and was executed by Fidel Castro, his onetime ally.
We named the piece our latest Notable Narrative because it’s such a fine example of the marriage of deep reporting and literary quality. Grann spoke to us a few days ago by phone from his office at the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 2003.
This was a few years ago. I think I heard about the story maybe in 2010. I looked into it some and then had other projects I was working on. I just kind of filed this away. I also then began to send out FOIA’s to all the government institutions. William Morgan, who had fought in the Cuban revolution and got caught up in all that, had become a focus of interest of the CIA, the FBI, the Secret Service, so I began that process and those documents began coming in over a span of six months to a year. And then I really turned to the story seriously about a year ago.
You’ve jumped into something that I wanted to ask you about, which is the FOIA process for this particular project. The Army dossier and the other declassified documents – they dribbled in over that time span, so you had the luxury of time.
Yes. I was working on another story when I did a lot of those requests, so when the documents came in I just kind of put them away; in fact, I didn’t even really read through them. I just let them stack up, and when I felt like I’d gotten everything and when I’d finished my other project I sat down and went through them, and at that point I said, “You know what, this is a wonderful story and there’s just so much great material in here.” It was really at that point when I said I wanted to go ahead with it. At that point I began to track down people who knew William and also to try to persuade William’s widow to cooperate since it’s a love story as much as anything else. It’s about a man who both fell in love with a cause and kind of found himself, and a man who had this great, passionate romance during the revolution and fell in love with a Cuban woman. She was still alive. She’s a wonderful lady, incredibly spirited woman; she’s in her 70s now and still as spirited as ever but it took a little while for her to feel comfortable, to want to cooperate. When she did, I knew I had a great story.
It must have taken a tremendous amount of self-discipline not to immediately dig into those records.
Yeah, to some extent, but when I’m working on something I’m so focused on the thing I’m working on, it’s actually not so hard. In a weird way by not having looked through them I didn’t know how great the material was, and that probably made it easier.
What were you working on at the time?
I did a story about Guatemala, “A Murder Foretold,” about a lawyer who was found assassinated on the side of the street and who had released a video alleging that the president and the first lady had assassinated him or were behind his death. That turned out to be a bizarre conspiracy, a byzantine story. I was pretty absorbed in that at the time. And often when I know that there’s going to be a time lag in terms of collecting documents I get that process started and let them come in while I’m working on something else.
The Americano, a biography of William Morgan, by Aran Shetterly, came out in 2007. How does your piece differ from the material in that book?
The Americano is a terrific book and Aran Shetterly is a wonderful researcher. As I said to him, I really see these works as complementary. In many ways Aran gives a broader historical portrait. When you’re doing a magazine piece you don’t do as much context. Aran did a wonderful job placing Morgan in historical context and giving an understanding of the forces behind the Cuban revolution. I focused much more on Morgan and Olga. Inevitably in doing research you come across different things, and one of the advantages I had was that Olga participated in the story. I was able to get a deeper understanding through her of the love story.
And she had never talked to anyone before?
She talked to a terrific reporter named Michael Sallah who was then at the Toledo Blade. But she had generally been hesitant. And she really helped me dig deeper into the story. There were other wonderful discoveries. One was, for example, this oral history by Leo Cherne, who was close to the CIA. I don’t think details of Cherne’s encounter with Morgan had ever been made public before. Inevitably when you report you uncover different things, and I also think that you end up just telling stories differently (from other writers) because of the perspective you bring, or the kind of interest you bring to it. I was intrigued by the love story and the murky paranoia and the CIA stuff and the Cherne recruitment.
You had a couple of amazing source documents here, including the oral history. How did you come across that?
Cherne’s name had popped up in the CIA records, and so I began to research him. He had done an authorized biography and I noticed in the endnotes – I always look at endnotes to see what kind of archives existed – and saw that at one point he’d done some sort of oral history. I was able to find the oral history, and it turned out it there was this amazing section on William Morgan.
How did you find the oral history?
I called the person who did the biography and he was very nice and he pointed me in a different direction where he thought I might be able to find it. And he even sent me pieces of it as well.
Finding that kind of source material would send most reporters over the moon and back. How does it affect you?
I find the thrills of reporting kind of vary. There are thrills of reporting where you interview people and you have that thrill of witnessing something or meeting someone. Meeting Olga was just such a thrill, and hearing her story and hearing her passion, and seeing that this woman still felt incredible love for this man from decades ago. As a reporter, you just have a visceral response. And then there is the different kind of thrill you experience when you’re doing historical research and you come across key documents. When you’re trying to reconstruct history it’s a real challenge. One of the things I want to try to do with history is to make it feel as vivid as if you were there. That process is often hard because people aren’t alive or you weren’t a witness yourself, so the hunt for those kinds of materials can be kind of exasperating and exhausting. Then suddenly you stumble across something like Cherne’s oral history, which was so detailed and so wonderful. It not only provides you facts but also helps you bring to life what happened.
Many things. One is you’re getting someone else’s insights into Morgan. You’re getting another point of view on the character you’re writing about, so that’s enormously important. How did he view this man? How did he interact with him? You’re getting enormous insights into this question of was Morgan a CIA operative or not. Was he ever recruited? You’re getting light cast on this question that hovers over this story. And then the other thing you get in that particular oral history was: Cherne narrates their interaction as a scene, so he paints the scene and helps the reader, or the listener, picture it. So those details were helpful because they allow you to construct a narrative.
So much of what’s wonderful are those details, from the $250 white suit to the fact that Morgan was “rarely without a cigarette.” Also the details on his body that “offered clues to a violent past?” Are those the kinds of details that came from the oral history or from a range of sources?
I have thousands of pages and I spent a year researching the story, and often when you paint the scene you have multiple (perspectives). For example, in the battle scenes I would have multiple sources from the people who were there and I would crosscheck people’s memories. You have to really drill down on these and make sure you’re getting conformation on people’s memories since it took place a while ago. For the battle scene fortunately there are multiple people who are alive who were there, including the head of the unit. Every source you mine, you look for details. So for example you mention the scars on his body. I got all his prison records, and in his Army intelligence dossier, when they were recruiting him, they had many physical details – all the tattoos, all the markings on his body. One of the things I found which I don’t think had been found before, or I had not seen it, was this statement that Morgan’s mother had given to the Red Cross in which she narrates all about her son’s youth. Again, that gave me another point of view on the character and amazing insights into this chapter of his life, his very rebellious, wild youth, from the vantage point of his mother. It went on for many, many pages. So each section, you find documents or sources that help illuminate a different element of him. While I was researching the biography section, I found out that the woman he had met on the train and briefly married was still alive. She’s 87 and blind, and she was lovely and still remembered Morgan vividly. They met on a train, got married in Reno, spent two nights there in Nevada and pretty much never saw each other again.
Insane. Just when you think his story can’t get any stranger it does. You remind us of that on Page 61 – we’re deep into this story when you give us, “As Hoover confronted the gaps in his knowledge he became more and more obsessed with Morgan. A former fire-eater at the circus!” There’s that little echo of how crazy his story is.
It’s an unbelievable story in the sense that here was a guy who was a ne’er-do-well, dishonorably discharged from the Army, a mafia hanger-on, and he had reinvented himself in this deeply classic American sense and, incredibly, not just reinvented himself and found a sense of purpose but kind of catapulted himself into this historical stage and then further catapulted himself to become a figure seeming to tilt or affect the balance of world power.
Is the oral history different from “the unpublished account of a close friend” that you cited?
Yes, those are two different documents. Two totally different documents.
Can you say more about “the unpublished account of a close friend” and how you found that?
The nice thing about this was, these men – they were mostly men, the people who were in Morgan’s rebel unit – they were all very close, and a good number of them are still alive. Usually when you find one they lead you to the other, and this was the case, where I basically bounced from one to the other and was able to both mine their memories orally and then also to collect any written documents or letters and whatnot, anything they might have.
Was the unpublished account in English?
No, it was in Spanish.
That was just one of the many different kinds of sources you used for this piece. You’ve got the FOIA documents, the oral history, the personal account, radio, television, including a five-hour Castro broadcast.
You know, I have here old video that I don’t think anyone’s seen. I was able to actually find old B-roll video of Morgan when he came down from the mountain, even an interview with him and Olga. So I have several of these old jittery black and white clips that I was able to find in archives. The good thing about the Cuban revolution: It was a big deal and it wasn’t so long ago, so the technology was better. When you skip back to earlier periods in history, like the 1920s, things just get a lot more difficult in terms of preservation. So both the magnitude of this event and the fact that it was at a time when government agencies, police records, news media – all were using technology and mediums that were better preserved. If you search long enough you find wonderful things. At some point I would like to put some of it up on the New Yorker website.
Do you do all of your own research?
Yeah, for the most part. When I did my book The Lost City of Z I had a very smart researcher, Susan Lee, help me at times, but generally I’m on my own.
How did you decide to use a mostly chronological structure for this story?
To some extent this was the most obvious way to tell the story. There were two elements. One was, I knew this was a big history story, and I knew it was about something that most people had not heard of. And I knew this wasn’t front-page headlines in our papers today, so I needed to kind of bring the reader in. I know there’s a different kind of burden on a story like that, where you’re asking someone to read a 21,000-word story on somebody you haven’t heard of before and it’s about a part of history that may or may not interest you. So beginning with the execution scene I knew was a way to say: Okay, how can I hook the reader enough that they’ll come with me on a very long journey? I began with the execution because it had inherent drama – you don’t yet know whether he’s going to be executed. The story is then allowed to unfold more or less chronologically while trying to show and preserve the sense of mystery that existed around Morgan for the people who saw him at the time. Here’s this man who shows up in the mountains and nobody knows why he’s there, who he is. It was important to let the story unfold not just chronologically but also in the way people were seeing it at the time, with their confusion, sometimes with their blinders, sometimes with their mistakes; to let history unfold the way history really unfolds, which is not omnisciently, not always with the benefit of hindsight. I thought that was the truest way to tell the story.
You worked on this piece for a year. The writing itself – are we talking about a few months? A few weeks? Or were you writing all along?
I would work on things in sections. Sometimes once I knew what the section was – so if I was focusing on his biography section or a battle scene I’d create an outline and at that point I’d try to draw all the information from all the documents and start to fill in the outline. The outlines are often 200 or 300 pages for a story like this. Because I’ll include all the quotes from newspapers or details from documents and try to have that information organized more or less toward the sections that I’m writing. That way I don’t need to go looking through stacks of FOIA documents to find a detail − it’s all there in my outline. So I would usually work on a section and a section would take me a few weeks to write. Once I start to write a section I’d realize where there were holes. Often while I was writing sections I was doing multiple phone calls, kind of re-reporting to get more details. So if I was writing a battle scene and see in my notes that the rebels hid themselves but then realize, “Oh wait, I don’t know where they hid,” I would start to call people and say, “Were you hiding behind trees? Were you hiding behind rocks?” And I’d get that detail to flesh out the scene.
That reminds me of the detail about the rebels crouching behind the stones, “feeling the warmth of the earth against their bodies, holding their rifles steady against their cheeks.”
The nice thing was, on these battle scenes I interviewed at least five people who were actual direct participants, including (Eloy Gutiérre) Menoyo, who oversaw it, and including the wonderful source Roger Redondo, who was a rebel and who in a weird way was the unit’s historian. Once I’ve written up the scene I actually read it back to the people and make sure that everything’s accurate. Sometimes it’s nice because not only do they correct you but they often add something. For example, I was going over the facts with Olga for the sections she’d helped me with and when we were going over the scene of her and Morgan getting married she mentioned that they didn’t have rings and so he “took a leaf and put it around my finger.” I said, “Wow, that’s just such a wonderful detail.” So that detail emerged through going back over the scene. Often I will go back over a scene with someone to the point where they’re probably exasperated with me, but that’s how I get the accumulation of detail.
So interesting. A lot of reporters are sort of programmed not to share anything about what we’re doing with the people we’re writing about.
I always say, “I won’t change something because you suddenly wish you hadn’t said that – because you did.” But I’ll go over things with people because I want to make sure I got everything right.
So how much Hemingway did you read while you were writing this?
I re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls. Obviously that became – once I heard that Morgan was this Hemingwayesque character and that (the New York Times reporter) Herbert Matthews was writing to Hemingway, I had to read it.
How did re-reading it inform your story?
I knew that this was something that was in their imagination. I knew Morgan in some ways saw himself as a Hemingwayesque character, and Matthews also was writing to Hemingway at the time. And I knew people were drawn to the Cuban revolution because it had the whiff of the Spanish civil war; that was very prevalent in people’s minds. I feel like if that’s what they were reading or thinking, I want to read it and think about it.
It gave you a quote but also, maybe, a sensibility. Or no?
I think with each story you want to find a voice for that story and I suppose that maybe helped to some degree. I think these processes, though, are often not so conscious. I’ll try to read as much as I can about a subject or about a milieu or about a sensibility and just kind of let – I don’t always consciously think about it, like, “How am I gonna use this?” or, “Why would this be helpful?” Just unconsciously I think it impacts the way you tell a story.
Tell us about Olga.
Olga is wonderful. I met her in Florida and chatted with her. She’s this incredibly spirited woman who has been through stuff I can barely imagine, and she also has very vivid and precise memories. I guess that makes sense because it was such a transformative part of her life. She would help me drill down on things. Like I said, she had described for me the wedding scene initially but she hadn’t mentioned the leaf. So when I was checking the wedding scene with her, she then recalled about the leaf. And I said, “Wow, this is almost like a Garcia Marquez image.” We have kind of remained close since the story came out. I probably told her some things about her former husband that she might not have known all about. She knew he had different wives, I don’t know if she knew all the details. You know, this was a story that involved a lot of pain. There are few people who suffered the way Olga suffered. This was a woman who lost her husband, was separated from her children, spent a decade in jail; what she went through in jail I only touch on. She’s unbowed and a fierce spirit.
Did you speak in English or Spanish?
Through a translator?
I speak Spanish. When I first interviewed her I brought a translator with me just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Then when I would go over things with her I’d often go over them with somebody who spoke Spanish, just to make sure. My Spanish is pretty good so we could definitely communicate, and her English is good.
Have you ever been to Cuba? You didn’t go for this piece, right?
No, I’ve never been to Cuba. I tried many times, but they would not give me a visa. They did not want to talk about William Morgan.
I tried for about a year to get a visa, or six months, and they would not give me the visa. I would’ve liked to interview Fidel. Or Raul. I put in those requests but they were denied.
You spend such an extraordinary amount of time on each piece. What do you look for in a story, to make sure it’s the right way to spend your time?
The stories I write are extremely different, but often they begin with something that’s just tantalizing. So an American who fought in the Cuban revolution who became a hero and was executed by Castro, that, to me, is tantalizing. Then usually I spend a period of time looking into a story, to see if it really is as interesting as it may seem on the surface. I usually spend a real intensive pre-reporting period, where I’m just trying to figure out if it’s a story worth telling and researching for a long span of time, whether it be three months or a year or, in the case of a book, three years. So I’m getting a sense of (a) is the character really interesting; (b) if it’s a historical story are the people alive and are the documents available that would actually let you tell the story? There are probably a million wonderful stories that sometimes you just can’t tell because the materials don’t exist to know precisely what happened or to get the details. I mean you could write a paragraph but not a story. So part of the process was knowing that materials existed – finding the Cherne oral history, Olga deciding to cooperate. All of these things give you confidence that you can tell the story. In that pre-reporting stage, you either get more excited or you lose your excitement, and when you get more excited, when you feel like the questions are increasing exponentially and the things to discover are widening out before you, that’s when you know you’re onto something. If those things aren’t happening, then I’m usually pretty ruthless about ditching it. I just don’t want to be six months into something and go, “What am I doing? Why did I do this?”
Whom do you read? Who inspires you, either in the nonfiction or fiction world?
It’s such a wide swath of things. I read a lot of fiction, a lot of detective novels and things like that, which probably have some impact on the way I tell stories. There are people who influenced me in that I began to realize you could tell nonfiction stories in different ways. I think they’re familiar names but they’re familiar for a reason. Gay Talese’s stories – his piece on DiMaggio and his piece called “The Loser” – and Slouching Towards Bethlehem (by Joan Didion), they’re just arresting. And then there are the contemporary writers I love – I don’t think Michael Lewis has ever written a dull sentence in his life. I don’t know how he does it. He finds ways into stories that I find amazing. Like his way into The Big Short – he took this enormously complicated, massive event that was going on, that the whole world was covering and he found a fresh way in. And there are people – some of them have been my editors and have become mentors to me, like David Remnick and the way he writes a profile. I read his collection of profiles The Devil Problem even before I came to the New Yorker. I suppose I was drawn to work for someone like that because I deeply admire his work. Mike Kelly, who passed away covering the Iraq war, was a mentor to me when I was young, as he was to many other reporters, and he’s had a lasting impact. Sometimes when I write stories I often wish I could show him, and get his thoughts.
On a lighter note, you’re tweeting now. Why?
You know, I don’t know why.
The thing about me, I love new technologies once I use them, but I’m a technophobe. So I start things late. I was so late to email. I’m very late to things but then I love them. I’m not quite sure how I’ll use Twitter, but I like the sharing of articles and the community of recommending things. I like that people draw me to stories that I might miss. But you have only so much time. It’s less of an issue of: Do I like something or not like something? Because the truth is, usually I like it. I’m a slow writer and reporter, and I have a family, and those two things take up so much of my time. So part of it is just trying to figure out how to work in other (activities) without giving up the one thing that is most important to you.
*Grann photo, story spread and FBI memo courtesy of the New Yorker