David Finkel on winning the MacArthur “genius” grant
David Finkel of The Washington Post won a MacArthur “genius” grant this week for his body of long-form narrative journalism, particularly his coverage of the war in Iraq. In awarding him the coveted $500,000 prize, the MacArthur Foundation singled out his 2009 book The Good Soldiers, which recounts nearly a year in the life of a U.S. Army battalion stationed in a particularly rough part of Baghdad. (“I mean, war happened to them,” Finkel says in his MacArthur video.) He is now at work on a sequel, which follows some of the soldiers home. In supporting Finkel, the MacArthur grant also validates the journalistic form that he practices and that we at the Nieman Foundation have celebrated and explored since our earliest narrative website, Narrative Digest. “As newspapers continue to contract and move away from immersion-based, long-form reporting, Finkel remains committed to crafting sustained narratives with an uncommon candor that brings poorly understood events and ordeals into public consciousness,” the MacArthur committee wrote. Finkel called the honor “encouragement of a type of work that I very much believe in, and have always been affected by.”
When the MacArthur news broke, something kind of cool happened in the Post newsroom: Staffers started emailing around their favorite Finkel stories. Josh duLac chose “Serial Number A301256: The story of a gun.” Here’s the lede:
The gun is useless now. It is tucked into a dirty plastic bag, which is stuffed inside a cardboard box, which is stored in the basement of the Prince George’s County Courthouse in Upper Marlboro. It is in the courthouse’s evidence vault, which used to be a jail cell, locked away. The room is musty. The door is solid. There are no windows and only one weak overhead light. But even in the dimness, it’s obvious the gun has been through a lot.
Anne Hull chose pieces including “Group Portrait with Television,” about a family that watches TV. The lede:
The first TV to come on is the one in the master bedroom, a 13-inch Hitachi. The time is 8:20 a.m. The alarm clock goes off, and Bonnie Delmar opens her eyes and immediately reaches over to the night stand for the remote. Her husband, Steve, has already left for work. The children are still asleep. The house is quiet. On comes CBS because Bonnie was watching the David Letterman show when she drifted off the night before. She watches “This Morning” for a few minutes, catching up on what has happened in the last seven hours in the world beyond her Gaithersburg home, and then she switches to NBC in time for the weather and Willard Scott. Later in the day, she will tell about a dream she once had. “I dreamt I was married to Willard Scott,” she will say. “I was going to my 10th high school reunion, and I was excited that everyone was going to see that I was married to a celebrity, but then I wasn’t excited because it was Willard Scott. You know?”
Joel Achenbach chose “Exodus: One Woman’s Choice,” about a Kosovar refugee who must decide whether to defy her father and marry, and leave the country. (As it happens, we were just discussing this piece in our Nieman Narrative Writing class; check back soon for Storyboard coverage of the story.) From Finkel’s opening:
SKOPJE, Macedonia – She awakens one more time, in a tent on a patch of land that is surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed police. Tent 37A, Stenkovic II Refugee Camp. That’s her address. To find it, look for the 23-year-old woman with the dark blue dress and the bright blond hair who three weeks ago kissed a man for the first time in her life and now is sadder than even she believed she could ever be.
“I don’t know what to do,” Vjosa Maliqi is saying.
Because the man she kissed, and then kissed again, and then told she loves, has arranged to get her out of this place by bringing her to his home in France. To marry her.
And her father, whom she also loves, and whom she has never disobeyed, is telling her she cannot go. That her place is with her family. Here.
“If I decide to go, I’m afraid I’ll lose my family,” she says.
“If I don’t go, I’m afraid I’ll never meet him again.”
The plane leaves tomorrow.
“Family or him.”
Finkel last spoke with Storyboard in the spring of 2010, as The Good Soldiers won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, awarded by the Nieman Foundation and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for literary excellence in nonfiction writing on a serious subject. He made time to speak with us again on Wednesday, from his home in Maryland, where the phones hadn’t stopped ringing. We picked up where our last chat, about The Good Soldiers, left off, and worked in a bit about editing, story ideas and craft. The conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
What was yesterday like, for you – your first day as an official genius?
Yesterday was so good that even I couldn’t diminish it. Lots of calls, lots of emails and, a new wrinkle: lots of Facebook messages. That was a real pickle. How do you respond to them?
What did you do?
All the emails – there were a couple hundred of them. I was happy to have them, and I answered them all, one by one. The Facebook thing, I just kind of put up a message and thanked people and directed them to other work, done by this year’s other MacArthur awardees, that takes on the subject of the past 10 years of war.
You don’t tweet, do you?
I don’t. No. I like reading them but no, I’ve not tweeted. I think I got all that out of my system when I was growing up and wrote so much bad haiku.
Just not going there then.
No. I was bad then and I’d be bad now.
The grant will support your new book, the one that has grown out of The Good Soldiers and follows some of your earlier story subjects home from war. Tell us a bit more.
Right. So the first book was a ground-level book of immersion journalism, about a deployment, during the (2007) surge, of a U.S. combat infantry battalion. It was a reported book, an observed book, about what happened to these guys during their deployment. They had a tough time. The book came out and was a critical success, and it did okay commercially, and I guess that could’ve been the end of it, but it seemed like there was an obvious sequel to do, which is what happens to these people once they hit American soil, after their war is over. So I’m in the midst of the next book, Volume 2 of the story: They came home and here’s what happened next. It’s a couple of soldiers from the first book and some others as well. Some widows, some family members, some wives. I hope it fills out the rest of the story and brings it to some kind of conclusion.
What have you found?
Many came back physically wounded and many came back mentally wounded. This concentrates on the ones who are mentally wounded, and their families. There’s a cluster in central Kansas; they all sort of know each other. And it’s the same thing, you just follow along and see where the story takes you in each of these cases. Several have been through different treatment programs, and all different programs. One ended up in Colorado, one ended up in Kansas, one ended up in California. It’s just seeing what happened to them as they try to get better.
Did you embed in those communities as you did in Baghdad or are you going back and forth?
Going back and forth. The reporting is done, and I’m about two-thirds of the way through the writing. I’ve been on this project for a couple of years now, and I hope to be done with the manuscript by the end of the year. The book will be out next fall, I hope.
How do you work?
I’m pretty methodical. I’ve been doing this for years and years – all stories, all lengths. It’s a matter of reporting by starting with a question and keeping at it until I think I have something authentic to tell, and then taking all of my notebooks and indexing them. I used to do it on legal sheets of paper and tack them up in front of me; now I do it on the computer, so things are searchable. I come up with some kind of outline. The outline for this book was very, very detailed. It’s chapter by chapter, the things included in each chapter, and then straight through to the end. I know the ending of the book, and it’s just a matter of getting there.
What do you do when you get stuck? Or don’t you get stuck?
Sure I do. I mean, I don’t find this easy. I wish I were a writer who could start in the middle of things and just kind of keep going and then backtrack, but I kind of assemble this thing one line at a time, and I’m not ready for the next line until I’m somewhat satisfied. I can’t just plow through and have a really rough draft and then go back at it again. Mine is a style of constant revision, sentence by sentence. When I hit the end, I’m pretty well done, but it’s a long road, to get to the end.
Your friend Anne Hull, a fellow Pulitzer-winning reporter at the Post, has said, “he has lived and breathed ‘for’ the story of the Iraq war for five years. That’s a long time to stay inside such a painful story. Year after year, he has buried himself in the reporting and writing, with a fury that goes beyond dedication. As a friend, you can tell the story is always with him and the toll it has taken on him.” What toll has the story taken?
I wondered about that last part. I mean, I don’t want to disagree with Anne – we’re close friends and we hang out every day – maybe she’s aware of something that I’m not. (laughter) But it’s true that since I first came upon this story in January 2007 it’s been front and center in my mind every day, first in Iraq and then in the writing of the Iraq part, and then moving on to this (new) book. So yeah, I’ve been with it for a long time and I guess that’s the way it goes with stories, right? It’s just there. It’s just present. It doesn’t mean I don’t have other parts of my life – I do – but I really want to get this right. I want to tell it well.
What will you do afterward?
The second book came out of the first one, as a sort of a daisy chain that pushed the story forward. I’m hoping that by the time I finish this one something will have come from it that opens the door to a third volume. I’ve done all kinds of things in my time in journalism but nothing has taken hold of me like this story. I’m glad to be one of the people telling it, and I want to stick with it if I can.
How did your reporting or writing strategy change from The Good Soldiers to this project? Or at this point do you stick with the same narrative techniques that have brought you this far?
I only know one trick and I just keep doing it over and over. This type of observed immersion reporting is where I’m comfortable now. If the Post were to ask me to cover something for the next day’s paper I could do it but I would have a hard time. I so admire a daily news story – not a narrative but a really well done news story. I’ll look at them; I’ll marvel at them. I’ll look at the lede and think, “Okay, so what’s the second paragraph?” I’m not sure what it should be, and the kind of writing I do, I know what the second paragraph should be.
What effect might the MacArthur recognition have on long-form journalism, or what effect do you hope it will have?
You know, I don’t know. It was a good day for me yesterday, and it was a good day to be at the newspaper. People were really encouraged by this and glad to see it. It’s not because of me specifically, but this is really an out-of-the-box thing for a journalist to get. (Clarion-Ledger reporter Jerry Mitchell won in 2009 for his civil rights investigations, and Katherine Boo won in 2002 for her coverage of poverty.) And the fact that it’s for this type of journalism in a newsroom that still endorses it and practices it, I think it does have meaning. But I would take it a step farther. Who knows how they make their decisions, the MacArthur folks, but when I think about it I think several things. No. 1, there was something about my work that appealed to them specifically; No. 2, there was something about this type of journalism that they wanted to endorse – long-form, fact-based, observed immersion journalism; and then I think the third thing, and I don’t want to minimize this, I think the subject matter is something they wanted not just to honor but to make their own statement about. When you go through the 23 (winners), three of the awardees are doing work that have to do with the last 10 years of history, especially with wars and their cascading effects. So that’s something, that three of the 23 are people whose work is devoted to interpreting this time.
You describe immersion journalism as the kind “in which you stay long enough to tell the story.” What kind of newsroom culture is required to support long-form narrative, and in this huge transitional moment for newspapers do you have to keep fighting for it?
I don’t have to fight for it. I’m writing this book part time, and I’m part time at the Post – I think my title is national enterprise editor. What it means is, I have a small team of reporters I edit who are trying to do their own versions of this work. They’re really good and they’re getting better. The newsroom culture is the culture that’s been there as far as I’m concerned since I got there in 1990. I mean the paper’s changed, and we’re all aware of what’s happening in the business of journalism, but the Post hasn’t retreated from having long-form journalism at its core. And they have great people. Anne Hull is as good as you get. Eli Saslow, I love editing him; he’s like half my age and he has moves that I envy. Stephanie McCrummen, she’s a great reporter. Wil Haygood – I mean I could go down the list. It’s a really good team, and they’re all very interested in this kind of journalism. The paper makes room for it and keeps running it. I can’t say the same for other papers, but that’s not to say other papers aren’t doing it. I do know that not as many people seem interested in this kind of journalism, and that bothers me because it’s a great form.
When did you move into an editing role? Had you ever edited?
I had done a year of editing at the Washington Post magazine and I was okay at it but not great at it. I think I made the common mistake that new editors make, of trying to edit other people into myself. I’m sure I was guilty of that. When I finished the book and was going back to the paper they asked if I was interested in taking this job running this team. I was happy to do it. I was pretty burned out from writing and I was happy to have a break from it, and to concentrate on looking at other people’s writing and helping them out. I like doing it.
What’s the biggest mistake you see young narrative writers make?
The same mistakes I’ve made and try not to make anymore. They’ll often rely on their ability to write to get around a hole in the story rather than just report as deeply as they ought to. I mean the people I admire the most are the ones who I see reporting in every sentence of their stories, and they understand the reporting has to come first in this type of journalism. Some writers, they’re very good but they seem intent on having the reader think, “That’s a good writer” rather than, “That’s a good story.” I’ve been guilty of that, too, but there are a lot of show-off moves; instead of doing what needs to be done, which is to transport the reader into the heart of the story, they’re actually distracting. You find yourself thinking about the writer. I learned (to avoid that) two ways: one, from having a succession of great editors, the very best in the business, people like Steve Coll, who’s about the most brilliant journalist going at the moment, and Phil Bennett – I mean these guys are great. And they were encouraging. They understood that their obligation was to the story, not to me. And they weren’t tender with me. If something was bad they let me know it. The other way I learned it was by reading all the time and trying to figure out why others were good. Oh,and there’s a third way too – by thinking I had done something well and then reading it and being thoroughly embarrassed by what I thought was so good. It’s a pretty great way to learn.
A sort of clarity that comes once the story’s out in the world.
Yeah, I mean sometimes – this’ll just sound ridiculous, but every once in a while what I like to do is pick up the book I wrote and flip it open to a random page and shut my eyes and point to a sentence and then read it. There’s always something that could be better about the sentence.
You mentioned inspirational reading. For instance?
I don’t think that’s for me to say. People need to find their own. If they read something and respond to it, it’s up to them to reread it not just for enjoyment but analytically, and try to find out what’s going on in that piece in terms of word choices, sequencing, organization, pacing, everything that made it seem so good. I talk about this sometimes when I teach. If they start a story that they think is good and then they lose interest, I think it’s real important to try to figure out what happened in that moment that they lost interest. There’s a great lesson in that moment. It’s individual; things that’ll drive me away other people really find engaging. I’m not trying to shrug this off, I’m just saying it’s best if (writers) figure it out for themselves.
You mentor younger reporters, I’ve heard. Is that outside your scope as an editor?
It’s a pretty collaborative newsroom, so if people come up asking for help, I’m happy to help them. Sometimes I get it and know what to do, and sometimes I don’t. As an editor, I think I’m better with people who are at a certain level. If they’re just trying to find their way into this kind of writing – it’s a skill that I need to learn, how to be a more patient editor.
What’s your editing approach?
A lot of front-end talk. The more you can conceptualize a story or at least the possibilities for a story, it’s easier when a reporter goes out. Just to give somebody a broad idea and say, “Go out and figure it out and turn in a draft” — I don’t think that serves anybody well. So there’s a lot of talking before they go out, and how much depends on the particular reporter. I always insist on at least some discussion before they head out.
What kinds of narratives make it into the paper these days and what kind do you encourage?
I encourage ones that have something to say, that don’t follow the pack, and that are not particularly easy. I’m always affected by illness stories when I read them, things like that, but we have so few opportunities in the paper, I really don’t want my reporters doing those kinds of narratives. The examples that I’m thinking of are all in the works right now, and I probably shouldn’t talk about work that’s under way. We have some really great stories coming up. They’re good and they’re original. They’re not following the formula.
Where do good and original ideas come from?
Generally, I think there are two ways to do it. One is, there’s something going on and you find a corner of it, and you go really deep into that corner. I can argue that the book I wrote is a version of that because the war was under way and nobody had done the part of the story that was just watching the far end of policy, watching these troops. And another way is, it doesn’t begin with something going on but it begins more thematically. The series that I got the Pulitzer for is an example of that. Phil Bennett was helping to run the paper and he came up to me and asked me to find a way to write about George W. Bush’s main thrust of foreign policy, which had to do with democracy promotion. He said, “We write about that in broad ways, but find a way to tell that story.” Again, it’s methodology: How do you take a broad idea and turn it into an idea that’s actually a story? Step one: He suggested the theme. From there, I thought: Okay, if it’s democracy promotion, let me go find a democracy promotion program and follow it from beginning to end and see what happens. Okay, well, where do I want to do that? Probably the Middle East because that’s all tied up with terrorist concerns and is a little more vital to what’s going on at this point rather than somewhere where terrorism is not a concern. So then I’m looking at a map and now, instead of looking at the whole world, at least I’ve got a region and some countries. Then I have to choose a country so I can see what programs might be going on in that particular place. I got all kinds of advice from the newsroom. One person said, “You’ve gotta go to Egypt because everything is Egypt,” and that made some sense, but I thought: Let me go somewhere where the stakes are a little higher. So we came up with Yemen. So now I’ve gone from Phil’s idea about democracy promotion to having a country in mind to a list of all the programs under way, and in the list one stood out as something that had a lot of possibilities. And that was it. I was ready to go. And off I went, to see what happened. By the time I got out of my chair, the only thing I had to wonder about was how the story would work out. But I knew I had enough direction, enough things in mind, to want to get out of the chair and get going.
Where do you write?
I have a pretty good setup at my house. It’s an old desk – that’s where I’m writing the book. Nice backyard to look at. I’m surrounded by photographs, and that’s obviously deliberate. The photographs in front of me are of all the people I’m writing about, and then behind me and all around my little office are photographs taken by a guy I’ve been around the world with, Lucian Perkins. Some are from Kosovo and some are from Yemen. There’s a gorgeous picture by Andrea Bruce out of Afghanistan. I like having those photographs around because I like watching photographers work, because I learn so much about reporting from watching a great photographer. When I went over to Iraq, the photo editor of the Post gave me a camera and he said, “So this has a zoom lens, and just keep it as wide as possible because it’s gonna force you to get as close to the subject as you can, to take a picture. That’s where intimacy is.” And that’s a perfect way to describe my approach. I’m at wide angle and I’m trying to get as close as possible and stay as long as I can. I don’t want to email, I don’t want to telephone. I think it’s valuable to look at something from far away and up and down, just like a photographer moves around, and in the end to get as close as possible. The photographer I’ve traveled with the most, and learned the most from, is a guy named Lucian Perkins. This goes back to just before 9/11, when he and I were doing a story in western Afghanistan, and we were driving along – obviously nowhere at all, just way out there. He asked the driver to stop. I couldn’t figure out why. He said, “No, stop, I need to take a picture.” Got out of the car, walked forward maybe five or six steps, stopped and took a picture. I got out and stood with him, trying to figure out what he had in mind. As soon as I stood next to him, I got it. He just knew. He just knew where to be, where to stand, how to see something. That’s a great thing to know, and a great thing to try to learn.