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“Narrative Sweat & Flow,” Part 2: Lane DeGregory and David Finkel
by Simina Mistreanu | December 5, 2013
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 piece on the challenges and importance of longform narrative — go here for the setup. Today and Friday, we’re running her interviews with some of the writers, lightly edited for length and clarity, with the final set of interviews to run Tuesday. In them, you’ll learn what drives the narrative journalists, and how they approach their reporting and writing. First up: Lane DeGregory, of the Tampa Bay Times, and David Finkel, of the Washington Post.
Lane DeGregory won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, for her “moving, richly detailed story of a neglected little girl, found in a roach-infested room, unable to talk or feed herself, who was adopted by a new family committed to her nurturing.”
Mistreanu: First of all, how do you choose the stories you write?
DeGregory: We have a meeting every Monday where we sit around the table and pitch ideas. In probably like 75 to 80 percent of the cases, I come up with the idea rather than being assigned to me.
What kind of stories do you choose? What makes something become interesting to you?
I’ve been doing this for 25 years now, so I want to do something that I’ve never heard of before or at least a way of doing something that’s not been done. I’m really particular about not wanting to rehash the same story that people have read before, and I try to find a different way to do it. I’m definitely drawn to narrative; I want something that is going to happen as I follow it rather than recreate something that happened completely in the past. If there’s something that I can be there to witness or some kind of a turning point in a life, then I want to be able to be there if that happens, not to just have somebody describe it as it already happened. My editor pointed out, and I hadn’t really realized this, but I’m really drawn to stories of women and girls. More than half of my stories, I tend to be drawn to stories of motherhood or sisterhood or girlhood, or some kind of theme stories about murder and poverty. I tend to write through women’s eyes.
Interesting. And that was something you were not aware of?
No, I didn’t intend to do that. I didn’t really even think about the fact that I did that. It’s certainly not exclusively female, but (my editor) said to me last year, “I’m going to enter your Pulitzer packet this year as a story with women and girls.” And I was like, “What?” He said, “I’ve noticed this really nice theme in your work, your stories have some emotional connection to feminine characters.” And I was like, “Really?” Like I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but then I went back and looked at my work. It was true, I mean there was an imbalance to the gender that I covered.
I noticed in the short presentation you have on the Tampa Bay Times website, that you said you write about people who aren’t in the spotlight very often. Is that something you made a point out of doing?
Yes, that’s definitely true. The two stories I’m working on now are about these really prominent, famous women. One woman who’s about to run for governor and the other one is a woman who is the chair of the journalism department. They are the first two people of any kind of public figure that I’ve written about in a long time. I usually don’t find myself stories about people who are already in the news. I like to find people that are in the shadows, and that have been maybe been overlooked by the rest of the media or the community.
Why do you feel it’s important to write about the people in the shadows?
Because they are a lot of the ones who are being affected by a lot of our social programs, and reporters do a really good job about covering, okay, X-number more people went on welfare this year, or X-number of people are on food stamps this year, or X-number of people left their children because of poverty this year. So I let them look for numbers and trends like that. Who are those people who are being affected by these programs that we’re making? So when we had a news story about how many more people were getting food stamps for the first time, I went out and found a young mother who was signing up for food stamps for the first time. When there was an issue in Miami where they had all these people that had been convicted sex offenders. And actually these were men, not women. But the sex offenders had served their time, they were let out on probation, they were living under a bridge because the city had issued this ordinance that they couldn’t live within 200 yards of a school or a playground or a library, and because the community was so densely urbanized there was no place like that for them to live. So I heard this news story on NPR about there’s this bridge now where all these people are living, and I went down with a photographer, and we spent three days under the bridge living with them, writing about what that was like. I’ve made some calls today to try to find some Syrian refugees, but they’re being relocated by Catholic Charities. Sort of the people who are in these news events. You know, you hear numbers or trends or whatever, but I like to see the people that are being affected by that, and give them a voice.
So your purpose, basically with these stories is to give them a voice.
Give them a voice and put a face on whatever data-driven policy, law, debate they’re having. Give a voice to the people that are being affected.
When did you start doing these types of stories?
I came here in 2000. And I had been at the Virginian-Pilot for 10 years before that. I did some of these when I was at the Pilot, but I was mostly a news reporter there. I worked from a bureau for my first seven years, so I was covering, you know, two, three, four stories a day, and two towns and a school board and the court system, and all that other stuff you have to do as a news reporter. I became a feature writer in 1998, and for two years at the Virginian-Pilot I kind of learned how to do that. I kind of learned how to go from being a news writer to a feature writer. But my stories at the Pilot were a little more soft. They weren’t as issue-driven. They were more like, “Oh, I met an interesting person,” or there was a cool profile. You know, I wasn’t seeking out issues or necessarily trying to highlight anything that was going on; I just was looking for interesting stories. In 2000, I came here; I’ve had the same editor since I came here; I love him. But the way the paper operates has changed in the last 13 years; when I came we had a daily feature section. So every day there would be four or five feature stories. Then we went to one day a week. And now one day a month, we have a magazine. So there’s a lot less room to do sort of the traditional here’s a good story, or here’s a human interest story, and a lot more emphasis on enterprise. So, make it mean something, find a bigger context for this, or more of a connection to an issue.
So they have to be more newsy or more related to the news even if they’re human stories.
Yeah. That’s not always true; there are still stories that don’t have anything to do with news at all, but I think in terms of what we’re looking at bigger-picture wise, it’s definitely something more newsier.
What are your favorite parts about your work? What do you enjoy the most about your work?
I was just talking to my husband last night. He’s got a new job, and he’s not used to it yet. And I said, one of the things that I love about my job is the dichotomy. Some days you’re out there talking to strangers and in a situation where you’re in a public place or you’re at an event or something’s happening. And you have to suck up everything around you and be 100 percent on call while you’re out there doing that. And convince this person to let you in and trust you and share this intimate stuff. But the other half of the job, you know, I’m sitting in my T-shirt in my house with no makeup on looking out the window writing by myself with my computer. And that’s kind of hard, too. You know, it’s a very public but also a very private profession. And I like that there’s both ends of that. I feel the dread, and I’m afraid, I still get nervous, and I have butterflies in my stomach before I have to go meet somebody. I get that adrenaline, and I’m worried — what am I going to say? and how is this going to go? And then I get to my car and go home and be by myself and turn the radio off and just think for that whole drive, “What just happened?” “How do I process this?” I turn everything off, I try to be in my cave to make a sense of what it was that I just witnessed. But then I’m home, and the next day I write almost entirely at home. I have a little, tiny office with a big window. I love that. I love that I get to go home and be at the total opposite end. The dread and the fear of looking at the computer and being alone with your thoughts and in your head. I like the opposite ends of the profession that allows you both to be as public and as private as you could possibly be.
So you are still nervous and excited about interviews, after more than two decades of doing this?
Oh, yeah. When I went to interview a woman the other day who’s a doctor and running for governor, I was about to throw up, I was so nervous. And I was thinking, why, why am I nervous?
You’re a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Yeah, and I think that maybe part of it is that, oh, I’m supposed to be at a certain level now. What if I can’t always live up to that, you know? And the other kind of concern is the one I had when I was your age: Am I worthy to tell people’s stories? That’s a huge responsibility to get someone to open up to you and trust you to tell a story about them to thousands of strangers. And I always have that: Am I worthy? Am I good enough to do this? Gosh, they gave me this amazing access or insight or whatever; I don’t know if I’m magician enough to pull off this trick. You know?
What do you try to do to make sure you live up to this responsibility?
I try to think about myself in their shoes. I try to put my head where I think their head is, and how would I see the world if I was that person. I think when I was younger, I felt people through others; you know, if I was going to do a story, I’d interview other people around you and that shaped who I decided you were. But I think now I try much harder to get to know that person and inhabit their mind and their life before I let other people weigh in.
Is that what you’re trying to do with your stories as well, help readers see the world through your characters’ eyes?
Definitely. That’s my intention always. And maybe that’s one reason I like to write about people that are sort of, I don’t know, controversial, or maybe that’s not even the right word. People that other people might look down at, you know. So that you can say, look, I’d love to be able to share an ordinary part of extraordinary people, or the extraordinary part of ordinary people. I think humanizing a bad guy or vilifying a good guy is so important because it’s not ever black and white. You know what I mean?
How would you describe your objectivity toward your sources? Do you consider yourself objective?
Every journalist is going to say that they try to be objective, but I don’t really think there is such a thing in people stories. You can’t help whether you like somebody or you don’t like somebody. It happens even if you try not to. You know, I just try to find the other side of that. Sometimes that person helps; even the most egregious people that I write about, if I can find something human or something that makes that connection with the readers, I think that’s important. My editor is really good about it, too. I’m a lot more sappy than he is. I fall in love with my people I write about more easily. I’m a lot less cynical than most journalists. So he always says his hardest job is to “un-Hallmark me.” I think that’s a good balance. Emotionally he and I are at different places in our personalities, so it helps to have him sort of weed stuff out that might be too, I don’t know, emotive.
I mentioned that I’ve been looking at the concept of flow. Creative people, when they work, they sometimes get into this zone where they lose track of time, they are completely absorbed by their work, the work becomes the main purpose of their actions more than anything else. Do you ever experience that while reporting or writing?
All the time. All the time, especially when I’m writing. I think it’s a blessing and a curse in a way that I can’t turn it off. Like if I’m in the middle of a story, I’ll go to a baseball game with my husband, and all I could think about was how the ending was going to go. You know, we’re watching the baseball game, our team is about to go to the playoffs, and I’m like, should I end it over here, or should I end it over there? And do I need to call this person? “Are you there, hello?!” I’m checked out. I’m trying to adapt. I have two teenage boys, and they’ll be talking to me about, you know, whatever football game or band concert, or whatever they’re doing, and I realize I’m really not listening. I’m thinking about my lede, or I’m thinking about how I’m going to transition from the big idea back into the narrative. I shut them out sometimes, you know, and those aren’t purposeful. When I’m home and I’m writing, I want to put myself in that zone, and sometimes I can’t get there. I only write after I’ve already done my laundry and washed my dishes and got my house in order. You know, some people can get out of bed and start writing. I have to shower, I have to, you know, do something. Usually the laundry and the dishes are the physical thing that I want to do between the time I take a shower and the time I start writing so that I’m kind of getting my house together doing these minor tasks. I’m thinking in my head about my story. You know, rather than sitting at the computer, looking at a blank screen, thinking, Oh my God, what am I going to do, I find a great satisfaction out of getting my house in order at the same time I’m getting my head in order. But I have to go into the office and write without my notes. I leave my notes in my car or in my kitchen. I leave my phone, I won’t turn on Facebook or Twitter, I just write in a Word document because I don’t want anyone messaging me from the office. So, yeah, I very much go into this cave when I’m actually doing the writing part of it, where everything has got to be shut off.
Do you get into the zone when certain conditions are met?
I got to set it up. And I write at night a lot. My kids, you know, they go to bed at 10 or 11, and my husband is a drummer, and he doesn’t get home until 2 or 3 in the morning, so a lot of the writing that I do is between 10 at night and 2 in the morning, when the house is quiet and dark, and the kids and the dog are asleep and my husband is gone. And then he comes home, and we’ll have a glass of wine at 3 in the morning, or something, and how was your day? How was your day? The timing is weird. And I think some of that is carried over from college and grad school because I was the editor of both my high school and my college paper, and we would finish the paper at midnight, that was the deadline, and then I’d have to go to the library and do my homework and write my papers. So a lot of the writerly piece of my life has always been late, late at night.
Have you ever thought about doing something other than journalism?
No. I mean I knew I wanted to be a reporter since I was 5 years old. I grew up in Washington, D.C., during Watergate, and I thought that was the coolest thing. My dad read the Washington Post while we ate cereal every morning. He would read the paper out loud to me and my sister. I just thought that was the coolest thing ever. My mom was an English teacher and a frustrated novelist, and my dad was just one of these totally gregarious, you know, he’ll talk to every waitress, like “What’s your dream, honey?” He just wants to know everybody’s story. And I think the combination of my parents and growing up during Watergate, during the height of D.C. journalism — other than babysitting I never had a job that wasn’t journalism. I sold car ads, I took classified ads over the phone, I pasted up pages, I designed pages, anything you can think of that has anything to do with journalism, I did since I was about 15 years old.
What did you father do for a living?
He’s a nuclear physicist. He works for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
So you never had a moment where you felt like the profession has let you down.
Yeah. I’ve certainly lost a lot of my friends in this profession. I would say at least half of my friends that started out after grad school with me are now doing something else. Of course I’ve thought about trying to sustain myself. I’m 46 years old; I need 20 more years, you know? And I’m tired. In the last couple of years, I’ve been writing more stories off the news, meeting more deadlines, less time to take your time with writing. So did I think at this age that I would be making this little money and working as hard for it? But is there anything else I want to do? Not really. I’m going to teach. This spring semester I’m going to teach a class at the University of South Florida. I’m trying to get a book done; I’m working on an anthology with a publisher. Some things like that on the side, but in terms of having another profession, no. Every time I think (that) what to do is teach journalism, I think I’d rather keep doing journalism for now. As tiring as it is, and as much as — like, right before you called I found out that I’ll work on Sunday. You know, crap like that still happens. I’m making 5 percent less money than I did when I won the Pulitzer Prize. In these four years we got our salary cut, and they stopped paying our 401(k), and they stopped paying our insurance. So I told you my husband had a new job; he had to go get another job. Our kids are about to go to college, you know, and we’re broke. And that sucks, to feel like I’ve made it to a certain level of my profession where I aspired to be, and still not be able to put a full tank of gas in your car sucks. But the satisfaction and the joy of still getting to meet all these really interesting people and be a part of all these walks of life, and be in the middle of a group of smart colleagues, and, you know, then seeing my name in the paper and having 300,000 people read it — I’m not willing to give all that up just because I’m broke.
So mainly the enthusiasm has been maintained by the people you get to write about, by the stories, the colleagues?
All of the above. I can’t think of another profession where you get paid to just explore the world. And almost anything I’m interested in, if I can find a way to tell a story, they’re like, “Okay, go.” I get to learn what it’s like to be transgender or to be a teenager whose mom is dying. You get to (explore the world) and get paid for it. And, you know, would I like to write a book? Yeah, I’d love to write a book. But I also love the instant gratification of I wrote the story today, it appeared in the paper tomorrow, I go to the grocery store and I see 17 people that have read it and want to talk to me about it. Then another 700 people email me or Twitter me or whatever. Cool! That’s a lot more instant gratification than when you put a book out there and you hope someone buys it.
Do you ever worry that this interest will run out?
I hope it doesn’t. There have definitely been times in the last couple of years, when I’ve been like, “What am I doing?” and my husband was like, “You should go make so much more money doing…” My friend who is the spokesperson for the hospital, or one of the reporters who is the spokesperson for the airport, they make three times as much money as I do. But if I had to get up every morning and be over there, writing press releases for the airport, I’d be so dissatisfied. So I think if it does come a point in time when I’m either too tired or to burned out by following these stories, I think that would be a time for me to be an editor. Because really, I do like coaching other people. I like working with young reporters; I feel like I can see a story and help it, but I’m not willing to give up my authority to just be out of the office three or four days a week and write at home. I don’t want to sit in meetings, I don’t want to have to be tied down to somebody else’s messed-up story when I can still be doing my own, for right now.
What’s your favorite story that you’ve ever written?
Two actually, and for very different reasons. I mean, “The Girl in the Window,” that won the Pulitzer Prize, that was probably the best story that I ever happened upon. Forget how I executed it, but just to be given that opportunity and that tip to tell that journey of that girl was amazing. And, of course, the aftermath was life-changing for me in terms of affirmation. “The Girl in the Window” made a really big difference. It had a 33 percent increase in the number of calls to the child abuse hotline. I know at least three kids who got adopted because of that story; and I know that family had a trust fund set up through the website that someone created after seeing my story for donations that are going to help keep that little girl at home and cared for. That’s hugely gratifying. That’s a really tangible difference that that story made that I’m very, very proud of. But my other favorite story didn’t do anything except for marrying my two favorite jobs, which are being a mom and being a reporter. It was my first first-person story that I’d written. It was called “I brake for Bo-Bo.” You can look it up if you want; it’s not very long, but it was the first time I wrote a first-person story about my little boy. When he was 4, he dropped his stuffed elephant out the window, and I come into work the next morning and told all my friends at our Monday morning (meeting), like “Oh my God, you can’t believe what my kid did yesterday. And I drove all around looking for this stuffed elephant.” Everybody in the room was like, “Oh, my kid’s teddy bear,” “Oh, when I was…” Everybody had a story about some kind of doll or animal that got lost. So my editor was like, “Lane, go write that story.” And I was like, What story? It never occurred to me that it was a story to write for the newspaper. But other than “The Girl in the Window,” it got more hits and comments than anything I had written. I never thought of my own life (as) having anything interesting enough; it never seemed like it was important or interesting enough as the people I write about. And that was the first time he gave me permission to kind of say, no, this is a universal story that happens to a lot of people. Go write your take on it. I was like, really?
So these stories that have had very different effects on people. One has caused tangible changes, and the other just resonated with people. What do you hope your stories accomplish? Do you hope that they will bring changes to the system, or is it enough when they help people empathize with other people?
I think all of the above. There’s definitely stories that I write that I think, “Oh, this is going to help this person, and maybe it will change something,” or I want to make policymakers think about something in a different way by having to invade these people’s lives for a little bit, you know? But some stories I just want people to think about themselves a little bit. Or to see the world in a different way. Just talking about it makes a big difference to me, people talking about my story. I did a story a couple of weeks ago about a 99-year-old man who goes to work at a fish factory every day. Nothing happened in that story, though. There was nothing at stake, there was no movement, but everybody was talking about that story. And that was so cool that just this little slice of life made people stop and be grateful for another day, or look at an old person differently, whatever it was in their own lives that they didn’t have it as hard as this guy. I think Mr. Newton helped influence a lot of people, and I hadn’t expected that kind of reaction.
All of the men I’ve interviewed have said they are grateful to their wives for taking care of everything while they were writing that awesome book or story … not a great dad or husband. How do you do this as a woman?
I am so glad you asked me that question. That is such a great question. It is something that my female friends and I talk about here a lot because, if you look around our newsroom, most of the editors and most of the other men at the level of what we’re doing, not only are they married, but they have stay-at-home wives, or they have wives that work part-time, or they have wives that work at home. So that they do, they have their backs all the time. My editor, his wife packs his lunch every day for him. He comes in with these beautiful lunches in a little lavender box. And I’m like what? I maybe have a carrot in my refrigerator today. My house hardly ever has food in the refrigerator, we eat out, we do carry-out a lot. I am not the cook and Betty Crocker mom, wife that I wish I was. That’s definitely something that had to go out the window. I told you I do my housework right before I write my stories, and I think I had to incorporate that somehow or I would have never washed my dishes. Do you know what I mean? But my husband, he was on the road for two years. He was on the road with his band for the last two years, and I was completely alone. … He’s going to pick up the kids right now. He wasn’t around to do that. Thank goodness my editor was understanding about letting me work at home, and knows that I work late hours because a lot of that schedule is so that I can be there to get the kids after school, or get the kids to baseball practice, or get the kids to play practice or whatever it is that they’re doing. I usually have a chink of my day between 3 and 6 o’clock that I’m not very productive because I’m driving them back and forth trying to take care of their life. Which is why I can’t resent it if I’m working sometimes until 2 in the morning because I just need those four hours later at night. I think my boys have grown up knowing a lot more about the way the world works than most kids because they went with me to Miami when I went to stay under the bridge with the sex offenders. They went with me to the Heart Gallery where all the foster kids’ faces were hung. They met a transgender person that I was writing about. They went to the jail with me when I had to interview a guy. They’ve been to these places and seen these things, and I think they’re more worldly than other kids, I hope. But I also know that I’ve missed my older son’s first date. I got sent on a shooting that I had to go cover in Orlando, and I was supposed to take him on his first date, and the little girl’s mom took him instead. And he was texting me pictures but I wasn’t there. Do you know what I mean? So, yeah, it’s a huge balance sheet. It’s pros and cons on both sides for sure. But neither one of them has any interest in being a journalist, by the way.
Have you felt like you’ve missed out on anything, either in your profession, that you could have done things that you didn’t do because you had a family…
I think both, of course. Professionally, I would never have signed myself up to go embed with the war, to do foreign correspondent work; I would have never wanted to be gone that long. And then … fellowships or things like that. I would have loved to go be a fellow at Nieman for a year or to apply for a fellowship at Michigan or somewhere. But I didn’t want to uproot them from their school and their friends, and I didn’t want to be gone from them for a year. So I never even tried to pursue any of those sort of upper-echelon awards in the profession, or fellowships or travel. I’ve gotten to take them on some travel stories, which has been cool, the paper paid for us to go to Costa Rica, and they paid for us to go to Outer Banks, North Carolina.
So you asked the paper to allow you to take the kids with you.
Well, they paid my ride. Then I paid for the kids’ ride. But I got a week off of work to go report a travel story, and they got to come with me. They had a bonus and perks from that as well. But, yeah, I’ve missed my wedding anniversary, I missed the kid’s first date, I’ve missed birthdays, not the kids’ birthdays, but my husband’s birthday, we had to do it another day because I had to work or something; my own birthday party one year. I got to my own party two hours late because I was writing a story on deadline, and all my friends were already drunk when I got there. And I got there, and I’m like Hey! You know, you definitely miss things; you definitely get called to lose some things, and I guess that’s just part of the price you have to pay. I’ve thought about, oh … it would be so much easier to own my own time. But that’s not true; because you call on all the people that are working for you…
Do you feel like you have advantages as a writer and as a journalist from being a mother?
Oh, yeah. Most definitely. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that sort of my career has just become from covering news to doing more features and human interest about the time I had my kids, you know? That transition I don’t think was coincidental. I was fortunate that I think I was definitely feeling that emotionally I could connect with people more than I was able to do that as a news reporter. But also kind of seeing the side of life and what mattered. … I didn’t get the satisfaction out of bringing people down as much as I did before. And I also think it really humanized me in a sense that before that I was a news reporter, I covered only the beat, and I was Lane the reporter; I wasn’t Lane mom or Lane, 30-year-old woman. When I was pregnant … I had a belly, and I was throwing up on the water, and all the fishermen laughing at me, and there was no hiding or pretending that I wasn’t a pregnant woman. So all of a sudden, we were talking about my baby and my husband and my life, and I had to connect with them as a person, not just a journalist. And I think that was a huge turning point for me because people … who wouldn’t be nice to a pregnant woman, right? Everybody was really nice to me, and it kind of gave me the permission to go. … I don’t have to cut off and the idea of what I think of as a reporter. I can just be me, and it’s OK. And it became a whole lot easier.
What do you think gives you energy to do both things so well?
Diet Coke. I drink about five to six Diet Cokes a day, I swear. I don’t drink coffee, which is unusual for a journalist, you know. I came into the profession after the era of flasks in the door, cigarette smoking in the newsroom, but I have a little refrigerator full of Diet Coke cans. I don’t know, that’s a good question, too. I laugh because I feel so tired all the time, you know. I never feel like I have enough time to like exercise, or paint or walk the dogs. My life is really my boys and my work. I kind of wonder how that will change. My older son is a junior in high school. … I really only have three, 2 1/2 years until they’re gone, and I think about that a lot, like what will I do with that extra half of my life.
What do you think you’ll do?
I think if I was going to write a story about me as a third person, I would say that I would do a lot more journalism, but I hope that’s not the case. I think right now I would rather tell myself I’m going to get in shape, I’m going to start riding my bike again, I’m going to read a whole lot more than I ever get to read right now because I want to read not only the stuff I have to read for work, research. I want to travel; I’d like to do a lot more travel stories for the paper. That gets me back to journalism again, you know? (laughs) Be able to be gone and not feel like I’m leaving the kids alone would be a huge difference. Probably the types of stories that I’d do. I don’t want to do stories about war right now because I don’t want to be gone that long. But I think I’ll be looking for a bit more national-type stories and things like that.
David Finkel won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting, for his “ambitious, clear-eyed case study of the United States government’s attempt to bring democracy to Yemen,” and is a 2012 MacArthur “genius” grant winner. He is the author of two books on the Iraq war, The Good Soldiers and, just out, Thank You for Your Service. He edits the Post’s stellar narrative unit, which includes the writers Eli Saslow, Stephanie McCrummen and Anne Hull (whose interview in this series is coming up Friday).
Mistreanu: How do you choose the stories you’ll write?
Finkel: It’s a great question. I don’t know what the answer is. I’ve been doing this a long time, and at the beginning I’d do everything that I was assigned to do. And over time I developed I guess a specialty in narrative reporting and writing. The stories usually came not as assignments, but out of conversations with whoever my editor was. An example was an editor came to me at one point and said she wanted me to think about doing some kind of story or a series of stories about when George Bush was president, his primary foreign doctrine, which was democracy promotion, and she said, just think about how to turn that into a narrative, a storytelling thing. So that became a series of stories I did out of Yemen in 2005 or 2006, in which I told the story of a U.S.-funded project to bring democracy to Yemen: Here were the intentions, and here’s what happens. So that’s an example of how, at some point, instead of just getting assignments, this came out of conversations with editors: What would be an interesting thing to pursue? What’s an important theme, and then how do you turn that theme into a story that would engage a reader?
How did The Good Soldiers come about?
That came out of one of these conversations. I was still writing at the Post then; now I’m editing. My editor said: “There’s this thing happening with this new attempt in Iraq, why don’t you write a piece about the soldiers heading into it?” Fort Riley, Kansas, I went out to do a newspaper story on them; I spent probably a couple of weeks with them as they got ready to leave and go overseas, and at one point, the guy that is leading the group, the battalion commander, said to me —
Kauzlarich, yeah. He said to me, “It’s interesting you’re doing this story, but you oughta come visit us halfway through and see how we’re doing, and maybe at the end even consider writing another piece when we come home because I don’t know how, but this experience is probably going to change us.” And I thought that was fascinating. So instead of doing two more newspaper stories, I published the story in the Post and then I got in touch with Kauzlarich, said I wanted to do a book, he said, “Come along,” so I went. I went not knowing what would happen to us. You’ve read the book, so you know that it turned into a story, but this is a type of journalism where you don’t know the ending when you go — you only have a question. In this case, the question was, what would become of these young men? And then it took me, the journalism I do, of just going and staying and staying and staying and watching as the story unfolds until there’s a story to tell.
In this case, the focus was on the soldiers rather than the policy or the surge.
Yes, it was not a policy book; it was the far-end of policy, the effects of policy. This wasn’t a book about strategy, about what was being decided or funded or thought of in Washington, but what happens at the far end. I’ve talked about this before, but this was four or five years into the war, and policy books had been written about the war, and memoirs were coming out, but no one had done a journalistic, observed journalistic look at what’s happening on the ground. So that was the idea — what’s happening? What will happen for them? We’ll see. So I went.
How was this process for you, being there?
Well, this is a little different. It was the first book I had done. This thing I was describing earlier in Yemen involved being in Yemen for four months, but this was different. I wasn’t prepared for it, and it was hard. It was physically frightening. But at the same time I was guided by the thought that this is a consequential war in my lifetime and for whatever reason, I’ve been given a good seat to observe it and to write about it, to add to the archives of the war. So don’t complain, don’t screw it up. Just go do the work.
When you’re reporting, when you’re out, you usually try to figure out what scenes to pay attention to, what people to talk to. How did the reporting process change when you were there with people dying around you?
Well, I didn’t know in the beginning. I knew that Kauzlarich would be one of the people I would be writing about. Beyond that, I didn’t have any clear characters or clear ideas. And you know from your own work, in reporting, when you’re trying to figure something out, you’re just trying to absorb everything and write it down and pay attention to everything, and it can be a little wearing and frustrating because you don’t know what the story is yet. You’re just kind of going along, trying to feel your way and learn your way until you reach the point of having some confidence that you have a story to tell. So the people I ended up writing about and the things I ended up describing weren’t evident at first. They were things that unfolded organically as my time there continued. Certain events would happen, and they were worth writing about and exploring. You know, for all the 12 things I did write about there were a thousand things I didn’t write about. That’s the choices a writer makes, right?
How would you describe this professional experience now, of being there and working on this story?
In 30 years of doing this in various forms, I consider this the crucial work of my writing time. It mattered to me more than anything else I had done.
Well, first of all, the particular kind of journalism I like to do and I respond to isn’t pack journalism, it’s the work of the journalist who goes to a place that matters and also the place where others aren’t. There are plenty of people coming to war, of course, doing extraordinary work, but no one up to that point had done this kind of reporting where you stay and stay and stay and then write the full story. It wasn’t using these people to write about war. How do I explain it? I wasn’t trying to write a war book. I was using the war to try to write something more intimate about what becomes of someone who’s sent into something of consequence, and what is perceived to be the lost moment. What happens to them. And that was a rare place to be. It was frightening, it never lost its sense of importance to me, it could feel overwhelming at times. In my mind, what these soldiers were going through mattered, and I got to be there. That’s a profound thing.
How was this different from when you covered the Kosovo conflicts?
Well, because I tried hard in my coverage of Kosovo, but when I compare the two, Kosovo I felt like I visited. This story I felt like I stayed long enough to inhabit. It’s not to diminish that work or to come across as boastful about this work. I don’t mean it that way. What am I comparing? I did as well as I could on Kosovo. But this, it was almost like, this seems silly, but the previous 30 years had led me to this assignment, this place, this moment, this chance to write a big story.
Do you think you were aware of that while you were there?
No, I don’t think so. I knew it was a consequential war and as the months went on, I saw what was happening, I knew I had something, a story to tell in my hands, but as I’m sure you know from your own reporting, when you’re in it you’re just in it. You’re not removing yourself and thinking about whether this is big or small or anything else. You’re just trying to get the thing done. You’re just trying to get through it.
Who used to be on your mind while you were reporting? Were you thinking about the soldiers or the readers?
All of it, right? I mean, of course I was trying to pay attention to what the soldiers were going through. I was trying to make sure that what I would end up writing would have emotion to it, that it wasn’t my naïve emotion I was writing about, but it was a true representation of what the soldiers were feeling. That requires, I think, again, not visiting a story, but being willing to stay there for a long time until you know that you’re not telling your story but you’re telling a true story about them.
Was there anything else you were doing to make sure the emotion you were conveying was true and was theirs besides spending a lot of time?
Well, spending a lot of time, listening, talking to people, going out, just observing. All the usual stuff we do as journalists. I mean, who knows? I didn’t really know until the book came out and then people responding to it, soldiers of all stripes, that what I hoped for was working out. That I had done something that to them described their own experiences. Again, I’ve mentioned this many times to many folks, but the emails continue to interest me. I’ve gotten so many emails from soldiers saying a version of, “I came home, I didn’t want to talk about it, I can’t talk about it, I’ve read your book, now I give your book to people and say, ‘Read this, and you’ll know how it was like and why I can’t talk about it.’” If I had gotten that email once it would be nice, but I’ve gotten a version of that email hundreds and hundreds of times. That helps me think that I did get to their story, I did get to a version of their story, I did get that part right.
This might sound strange, especially considering the subject of your story, but did you get enjoyment at any point working on this? Was it exciting?
No, it wasn’t. No. It changes from day to day. Some days were unbearably sad, some days were infuriating in many different ways. Some days were just nothing at all, they were just days with funny moments. I’m not going to answer that question well, and it’s not because it’s a bad question. It’s just that I don’t have a good answer.
I also wanted to ask you about the tone of the book, the way in which it seamlessly moves from very difficult moments to lighter moments. It’s funny at some points.
It is funny at times. I mean, there were incredibly boring moments over there, there were moments that were as funny as anything I had come across, and then again, there were these moments that were off-the-chart sad and angry.
Were you intentional with the tone in which you were writing the story?
Well, yeah. I mean, it’s not just turning on a recorder and then transcribing what’s on the tape and that becomes a book. It was a 15-month deployment, so at the end of it I had basically a 15-month chronology of what had gone on. And that’s when the writing begins. You, first of all, want to tell a true story. But you also want to tell something that reads like a story. And that involves — it can’t be a one-note thing. If this is something unbearably sad, you can’t continue just to have that one note playing again and again, of sadness. That would be unbearable for the reader and also probably pretty boring. There’s pacing, there’s a different tone — I mean, you want a reader to read it. So, yes. Again, not a good answer. I spent nine or 10 months writing the book. Which is to say I had nine or 10 months to take this lump of chronology and fashion it into a narrative. To turn chronology into something more than chronology, into a story that’s all the arc of storytelling, from the beginning through a journey to an ending.
What were you hoping the story would do to the people who read it?
Get their attention, affect them, give them specific people to think about whenever they would go on from the book to read in general ways about that war or Afghanistan or any war to come. To understand, for instance, if they happened to come across a headline in the paper that says something like, “Three people killed from roadside bomb in Iraq or Afghanistan,” that they would have a fuller, deeper understanding of what that headline actually means. These wars have not been paid attention to by many people, and I had no idea if anybody was going to read it, but if they did read it, I wanted them to walk away with a fuller understanding of what was going on. And I don’t mean just in terms of a war, but in terms of the transformation of these young, eager men into the men they became by the time this was over with.
How did you stay strong while reporting this story? How did you make sure you wouldn’t get overwhelmed with what was going on?
Well, I mean, the luxury I had over there, unlike the soldiers, was when it got to me, when I could feel myself not being a very good reporter, not listening as closely as I needed to listen, when I felt myself getting a little tired, I could take a break. I could arrange for transportation away from there either into the city of Baghdad, where I could stay for a few days recharging my batteries at the Washington Post bureau, or back to the States to do some reporting here. And that’s a luxury the soldiers didn’t have. I’m quite aware of that. Every three, four, five, six weeks I could take a break. They could not. Except for 18 days of home leave, they were in it for the duration.
Did you ever feel like a dad?
A dad? No, I didn’t. It’s complicated enough feeling like a reporter. It was important for me to maintain some distance. I mean, I wasn’t there to be a social worker. I wasn’t there to be a friend. I wasn’t there to be a comrade or a leader. I was there to get as close as I could to what was going on but never forgetting and never letting them forget that my role there was not as friend or personal confidant, but as journalist who was going to possibly take everything they were saying and use some of it or all of it or none of it in a book that was going to be read by all kinds of people who didn’t know them. There was always some signal when I was talking to guys to remind them not only that I wasn’t a soldier but that I was a journalist performing and producing journalism. A recorder would be out or a notebook or just some signal of what the relationship was. I wanted them to be aware of that at all times.
Were you hoping for higher changes? Were you hoping that officials and people in Washington would act in the future based on the book?
No, no, nothing like that. I would like them to read the book, but as far as a book like this producing changes, no. Maybe policy books can do this or that, but this wasn’t the type of book that would. The most it could do was remind people, too, whether they’re people in charge of the war, people with no connection to the war, that the war is, and all wars are, filled with people like the ones they were reading about. That’s the best I can hope for. That they would be able to think specifically about the population inside the war rather than abstractly. I mean, look, again. I said this to you because I think it’s true: There’s no breaking news in this book. There are no headlines. Everybody knows that war is scary, it’s dangerous. To some people it can feel exhilarating, but it’s a lousy — it’s a horrible fact, to be inside a war. It’s a horrible place. That’s not exclusive to this war or this book. That’s been written about again and again through history. So in this case it was just I’m telling an old story that’s been told before, but I’m telling it I guess in a modern moment: this war, these people.
One of the powerful contrasts I found in the book was overlapping what was going on in Washington, the kind of discourse people were having, with what was going on in Iraq.
Right. But this is not to say one was right and one was wrong. It was just to point out that any war is so many wars. And so the little quotes from Bush at the beginning of each chapter. The intention there wasn’t to make fun of Bush. It’s not up to him what’s going on in 2-16 on a particular day. It’s to show, again, one war is 90 wars. Like that day in September when Bush was in Australia saying, “We’re kicking ass.” To him, that’s the truth of his war on that day. And I don’t quarrel with that. That’s what he thought. Now in this unit, it so happens that day was the day that a roadside bomb went off and three guys were killed on the spot, the fourth lost his legs, and the fifth … nearly killed him. Same day, same war, totally different experiences, and to the people involved each is as legitimate as the other.
What are some of the reasons why you do this type of work?
Let’s see. I think it’s because I’ve always liked writing. I went to school, and I ended up in journalism school in Florida in the mid- to late 1970s, which happened to be a time when newspapers were on the ascent, and they were fat with profits, and they were fat with people trying to figure out how to do narrative journalism. And so being in Florida, I would read these stories in the St. Pete Times and the Miami Herald and think, “I want to do that.” And then it was just a matter of figuring out how to do it. But I’ve always responded to this kind of storytelling when it’s done well. And so I started to set out; that’s what I want to do.
What’s attractive or important?
Oh, well, I guess I grew up reading a lot, I like hearing stories, being told stories and telling stories. It’s just a different move. Now I’m at the Washington Post, and there are reporters who can’t write terribly well, but they can report in ways I wish I could, and they’re just great, great reporters and investigative reporters, and then there are other people here who like reporting, but they like writing as well. I just sort of fall into the second category. One thing I like to think is that underneath every sentence in that book is not just flimsy writing, but there’s a piece of reporting. Above all, it’s a reporting book and the writing is secondary. I consider the book an act of reporting first and foremost. But why I like to do it? I don’t know. That’s a great question. I just sort of always wanted to do it, I kind of like doing it. At this point, it’s the only move I have left, right?
What kept you doing it for such a long time?
I feel very lucky. I mean, I can’t say what my life would have been like if I had done something else. I can’t know that. But I do know that by doing this I’ve traveled to five continents, and I’ve seen people at their very best and their very worst and their very middling trying to figure life out, and almost every day, it’s caused me to lead a life that feels very engaged — not perfunctory, not going through the motions. It’s led to an interesting life.
Engaged in what way?
Thinking. Making sense of things. Not feeling mechanical about what’s happening in a giving day. It’s pretty damn luxurious to be able to live a life that feels full of being able to consider things, think through things, see things, ask questions, see life unfolding, with pretty limitless, go places, go pretty much where I’ve wanted to go and stay as long as I can and figure stories out and then tell stories. I mean that seems like a pretty good deal.
What has kept you from falling into a somewhat monotonous way of seeing journalism?
Again, a pretty rare luxurious position here where I don’t face the same time constraints and the daily demands that a lot of other reporters have. So I have time on my side. I used to love being a daily reporter. But could I be doing daily reporting after 30 years? Probably not. Someone once said — and I didn’t quite understand —that a good life is a felt life. I get it now.
Did you think at any point about doing something else?
Sure. Every day.
And why didn’t you?
I don’t know. Lack of imagination maybe.
Have the types of stories you’re drawn to changed with time?
Yeah. They’ve, I think, gotten harder. And this is an interesting point now because I wrote that book, I’ve just finished this next book, which was basically a book about what happened to some of these folks after they got home: grief, mental wounds, and again and again. It’s volume II of a story that’s been told a bunch: People go to war, people come home from war. But I wanted to finish the story, and now I finished it, and this is an interesting period where I have to figure out what to do next. And it’s not that I lack ideas, but every idea I’ve come up with so far seems a little frivolous. Maybe that’s natural. I’ve been embedded in this story every day for more than six years. As much as anything, it’s defined the last six years of my life, and like a lot of reporters I know, I’m fairly obsessive, so I’ve obsessed on this thing, and now I’ve got to decide what’s the next story to do. I just don’t know.
What would the project that you would want to start now look like?
I really, honestly don’t know. I understand the flaws of my works. I can pick any page in that book and pick a sentence at random and wince a bit at the way it was written. Life is a process of constant rewriting, I guess. And so it is with most of the work I’ve done, and most of the work I’ve done, I never want to see it again. I don’t want to. But this work, despite its flaws, which I can see, unlike the other stuff I’ve done, I’m proud of this. So if I didn’t write another thing, then I think I can be content with that because I’ve written something that matters to me, that I’m proud of. On the other hand, if I didn’t write again, it gets back to your earlier question: What am I going to do? Beats me. So it’s an interesting moment.
To me it’s very obvious why this work is phenomenal, but what makes it special to you?
What makes it special to me? That it was hard and it mattered and I went there and I stayed and I got it and I did it.
How did the writing work? Were you just working on this book when you were writing it?
Yes. Every day. I’m very slow. So I was getting up every day for like, I guess, 10 months, and writing my way from one sentence to the next to the next until I eventually got to the end.
How many hours did you work a day?
It depends on the day. Some days I would start at 6 in the morning, and I would still be there at midnight. And I wasn’t a lot of fun, according to my family. But I’m probably not that much fun anyway.
How exposed were you to danger when you were there?
Because I couldn’t tell in some situations whether the scenes were reconstructed from interviewing or whether you were there.
Some that I wasn’t there for I reconstructed. But I was there for most of it and I mean most of the book is based on observed reporting, not recollections. Not being told what happened, but being present for what happened. It was not the worst place in the world, but it was a bad place. And if you’re on the base itself, a lot of mortars, a lot of rockets, then when you’re out in the convoy, every road had roadside bombs waiting for you.
Did you ever think that you might die?
And was it still worth it?
Yeah. But I can say that because I know the ending: I didn’t die. I think of people I know who have died covering wars and was it worth it for them? I have no idea. But I sure wouldn’t have wanted to die.
Again, I’m sorry if I keep repeating the same questions —
Because you’re trying to get an answer.
I’m trying to picture myself in that situation —
Yeah. But you can’t picture yourself in it until you’re in it. If I had known what was going to happen, would I have gone in the first place? I’m not sure, but I didn’t know what was going to happen, and once you’re there, you’re a reporter. And as I said in the book, underneath everything I felt fortunate to be there. If I’m going to be a journalist and I’m going to be a storyteller, well, this is the great story, so, you know, shut up and tell it.
That makes perfect sense.
It makes sense when you don’t know what you’re getting into. That old, bad story, what was it, frogs and boiling water or something, they don’t realize what’s going on because they’re in the water and then slowly, incrementally, it’s getting hotter and hotter until at some point they’re no longer a living frog? It’s not like they’re jumping into boiling water; they’re starting up out of a pleasant pool, and then incrementally it keeps changing. It’s a bad analogy.
Is your main duty to tell the story, or to tell the story of those people, to do justice to their lives or experiences, what is it?
For me, the obligation was to tell a true story. It was their story. Not my opinion, not to declare something good or bad, won or lost, to remain as invisible as possible and to watch them. You know, when I’ve given talks about this to people, there’s always a question about why didn’t I write the book first person. I’ve read first-person books that have blown me away; there’s been great first-person work done. But in this case, this book, who cares what I went through? The point was to write about what they were going through, these soldiers, and they were doing their jobs, and I was doing my job. My job was to write about what they were going through. So of course it had to be a third-person book. I would like to think that anybody who reads that book would come away not knowing very much about me. But I thought about it. I mean obviously, like anybody, I was emotional at times and angry at times. But I don’t think you know very much about me when you finish that book. You do know something about what it’s like to be a soldier.
So in this continual process of figuring out life, do you have any conclusions?
I think the conclusions, the best conclusions, are what the people who are in it think. That’s not a deflection. It’s true. On the other hand, in this particular battalion there were 800 soldiers, 800 different opinions. Some people came home thinking it was worth it, some people came home thinking it was a waste of time. And most of them were in the great gray middle, where they weren’t thinking in these grand terms, they were more like, pardon my French here, but what the fuck just happened? And as I learned in the second book, they’re still thinking about that, and they’ll get to think about that for a long time.
Coming Friday: Part 3, conversations with the New York Times‘ Amy Harmon and the Washington Post‘s Anne Hull. Coming Tuesday: Part 4, conversations with The Oregonian‘s Tom Hallman Jr. and Esquire‘s Chris Jones.
Simina Mistreanu just got her masters in journalism from the University of Missouri. She grew up in Romania and worked as a journalist there for five years before coming to the United States, in August 2011, on a Fulbright scholarship. She is now a resident at The Oregonian and is working on a year-long project writing stories about Roma. She loves Portland, especially for its zippy Argentine tango scene.
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