Writing The Book by Nieman Foundation for Journalism (Harvard University)


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Writing The Book by Nieman Foundation for Journalism (Harvard University)

WINTER 2011 Edition - Topics:

Compelling Story, Unflappable Belief, and Digital Teamwork By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Feeling It’s a Book, Then Pausing to Wonder If It Is By Mitchell Zuckoff
On the Road to Writing Books: Blazing New Trails By William Wheeler
Brief Story, Book Proposal, a Longer Feature, Then a Book By Amy Ellis Nutt
Writing a Life, Living a Writer’s Life By Gaiutra Bahadur
A Year of Reinvention By Alfredo Corchado
Starting as a Journalist, Ending as a Memoirist By Lucette Lagnado
Journalists and Memoir: Reporting + Memory By Michele Weldon
Tips for Journalists Writing Memoirs By Michele Weldon
Newsroom to Classroom: Books as a Thread of Connection By Brooke Kroeger
Narrative Writing: Craft to Ethics, Theme to Characters By Beth Macy
A Literary Exploration of How Power Corrupts By Thrity Umrigar
Novels Win Out Over Journalism By William Dietrich
Will I Ever Write the Book? Why Not? By Bret Schulte
Leapfrogging the Book: A Newspaper Story Jumps to Film By Paul Lieberman
Dealing With Hollywood By Paul Lieberman
Journalism: Done The Atavist Way By David Wolman
It’s a Long Article. It’s a Short Book. No, It’s a Byliner E-Book. By John Tayman
The Writing Life: Examined in a Digital Minibook E-Book Excerpt by Ann Patchett
Transformation in Publishing and Optimism About Books Conversation with Peter Osnos
Sooner Sounds Better By Philip Meyer
Telling Political Stories in Closer to Real-Time Books By John F. Harris
E-Books as a Business Strategy By Federica Cocco
Visual Intensity of Words By Len Edgerly
Out of Print, a Book Reappears—And Earns Its Author Money By Dan Kennedy
Journalist to Marketer—With a Book In-Between By Rochelle Lefkowitz
Making a Book—Digital and Print—From Scratch By Elizabeth Castro
Learning the Inner Workings of an E-Book File By Elizabeth Castro
Powerful People and a Book They Almost Stopped By Marites Dañguilan Vitug
Books Take Over Where Daily Journalism Can’t Go By Andrew Meldrum
Transit: An Assignment and an Idea—Now a Book, Exhibit and Website
An Essay in Words and Photographs by Espen Rasmussen
A Photography Book—Absorbed in Print and on the iPad By Boris Muñoz

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Writing The Book by Nieman Foundation for Journalism (Harvard University)

  1. 1. Nieman ReportsTHE NIEMAN FOUNDATION FOR JOURNALISM AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY VOL. 65 NO. 4 WINTER 2011 E • LEN • STYL G TH I CE • O A V U D • IE T EP N CE NC • P CO L AT F O R M • way fo r the ese rism tes t h ya pho pera M go . Any lishin b ooks ow." pub ood m. N ys is "G t the da u wa n y yo SE wa os Osn –P eter F L - PU B LI SH G IN G • MARKE TIN
  2. 2. ‘to promote and elevate the standards of journalism’ Agnes Wahl Nieman the benefactor of the Nieman FoundationVol. 65 No. 4 Winter 2011Nieman ReportsThe Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard UniversityAnn Marie Lipinski | PublisherMelissa Ludtke | EditorJan Gardner | Assistant EditorJonathan Seitz | Editorial AssistantDiane Novetsky | Design EditorNieman Reports (USPS #430-650) is published Editorialin March, June, September and December Telephone: 617-496-6308by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, E-mail Address:One Francis Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138-2098. nreditor@harvard.eduSubscriptions/Business Internet Address:Telephone: 617-496-6299 www.niemanreports.orgE-mail Address:nreports@harvard.edu Copyright 2011 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.Subscription $25 a year, $40 for two years; add $10per year for foreign airmail. Single copies $7.50. Periodicals postage paid at Boston,Back copies are available from the Nieman office. Massachusetts and additional entries.Please address all subscription correspondence to POSTMASTER:One Francis Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02138-2098 Send address changes toand change of address information to Nieman ReportsP.O. Box 4951, Manchester, NH 03108. P.O. Box 4951ISSN Number 0028-9817 Manchester, NH 03108
  3. 3. Nieman Reports THE NIEMAN FOUNDATION FOR JOURNALISM AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY VOL. 65 NO. 4 WINTER 2011 Writing the Book Concept to Content 4 Compelling Story, Unflappable Belief, and Digital Teamwork | By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon 6 Feeling It’s a Book, Then Pausing to Wonder If It Is | By Mitchell Zuckoff 9 On the Road to Writing Books: Blazing New Trails | By William Wheeler 11 Brief Story, Book Proposal, a Longer Feature, Then a Book | By Amy Ellis Nutt 13 Writing a Life, Living a Writer’s Life | By Gaiutra Bahadur 14 A Year of Reinvention | By Alfredo Corchado 17 Starting as a Journalist, Ending as a Memoirist | By Lucette Lagnado20 Journalists and Memoir: Reporting + Memory | By Michele Weldon22 Tips for Journalists Writing Memoirs | By Michele Weldon24 Newsroom to Classroom: Books as a Thread of Connection | By Brooke Kroeger26 Narrative Writing: Craft to Ethics, Theme to Characters | By Beth Macy28 A Literary Exploration of How Power Corrupts | By Thrity Umrigar29 Novels Win Out Over Journalism | By William Dietrich 31 Will I Ever Write the Book? Why Not? | By Bret Schulte 33 Leapfrogging the Book: A Newspaper Story Jumps to Film | By Paul Lieberman 35 Dealing With Hollywood | By Paul Lieberman Platform to Audience36 Journalism: Done The Atavist Way | By David Wolman38 It’s a Long Article. It’s a Short Book. No, It’s a Byliner E-Book. | By John Tayman39 The Writing Life: Examined in a Digital Minibook | E-Book Excerpt by Ann Patchett 41 Transformation in Publishing and Optimism About Books | Conversation with Peter Osnos42 Sooner Sounds Better | By Philip Meyer45 Telling Political Stories in Closer to Real-Time Books | By John F. Harris46 E-Books as a Business Strategy | By Federica Cocco48 Visual Intensity of Words | By Len EdgerlyCover Design: Diane Novetsky | Nova Design
  4. 4. 50 Out of Print, a Book Reappears—And Earns Its Author Money | By Dan Kennedy 52 Journalist to Marketer—With a Book In-Between | By Rochelle Lefkowitz 54 Making a Book—Digital and Print—From Scratch | By Elizabeth Castro 55 Learning the Inner Workings of an E-Book File | By Elizabeth Castro Voice to Visual 56 Powerful People and a Book They Almost Stopped | By Marites Dañguilan Vitug 58 Books Take Over Where Daily Journalism Can’t Go | By Andrew Meldrum 61 Transit: An Assignment and an Idea—Now a Book, Exhibit and Website | An Essay in Words and Photographs by Espen Rasmussen 68 A Photography Book—Absorbed in Print and on the iPad | By Boris Muñoz 3 Editor’s Corner: Guided By a Simple Vision | By Melissa Ludtke 71 Nieman Notes | Compiled by Jan Gardner 71 Trying to Make a Difference | By Annmarie Timmins 73 Class Notes 82 End Note: A Way to Understand the World | An Essay in Words and Photographs by Eli Reed NiemanReports.org • Discover compelling stories. • Absorb ongoing work by fellows and contributors. • Get the latest Nieman Notes. • Explore past articles and see what still resonates. • Go to Professor’s Corner and use our content in the classroom.2 Nieman Reports | Winter 2011
  5. 5. E DITOR ’S C ORNERGuided By a Simple Vision Not far from the Nieman Foundation’s Greek Revival house on Francis Avenue, the future dimensions of media are being explored in the modernistic glass-walled zones of the Massa- chusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. On a recent morning I visited it with Nieman Fellows, and our tour began with Hiroshi Ishii, its associate director and a Nieman affiliate (as the husband of 2012 fellow Akiko Sugaya), orienting us to what’s happening there. High-tech projects—Ping-Pong tables on which fish images swim, bottles that sing when their caps are removed—perplexed and dazzled. Still, what stuck with me is Hiroshi’s PowerPoint image of an inverted triangle. [See image, below.] Here’s why: Sparse with words and numbers, it conveyed a convincing message—one I transposed from his rumina- tions about media to mine about journalism. I was riveted by its clarity. While vision ripples for a century, how we apply tech- nology has the staying power of a decade, and technology’s tools come and go in a year or so. This image helped me to visualize ideas of endur- ance and transience, notions that until then I’d not seen so clearly. I realized then how these ideas informed the way Nieman Reports has tried to tell the stories of journalism in our digital times. During my 13 years as editor of Nieman Reports—a job I depart with this issue—waves of digital media have washed through journalism as disruptive forces and invigorating insti- gators of change. Newsrooms, too slow to adapt in the minds of many, are prodded now by the pioneering efforts of entrepreneurial entities. No certain business model has been found, though lessons in sustainability are emerging even from the failures of experimentation. As technology’s tools and gadgets, apps and platforms push us to reinvent how we do our work, Nieman Reports has kept its core focus on the journalism produced, as told by those who do it best. We ask “how” and describe “why,” as we wonder about “what” and think about “where.” All the while we adhere to the Nieman Foundation’s mission of elevating the standards of journalism. Technologically driven inventions like those being conceived at the Media Lab carve visionary paths that, in turn, will open up new possibilities for journalists; yet technology won’t determine our ethical framework or reinforce our standards, inform our judgment or strengthen our practices that set high-quality journalism apart from other sources of information. This we must do, and that belief has guided my work as the editor of Nieman Reports. —Melissa Ludtke Nieman Reports | Winter 2011 3
  6. 6. WRITING THE BOOK | Concept to Content Compelling Story, Unflappable Belief, and Digital Teamwork ‘What I knew was that everyone who said there was no audience for this story was wrong. Not because I saw the future, but because I understood the present.’ BY GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON W hat do you do when the have lost power, then who are my book “The Dressmaker of gatekeepers tell you it the new ones? Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One can’t be done? The answer: You. Remarkable Family, and the The answer: Go around them. When I began pitching the Woman Who Risked Everything And if the old gatekeepers story of what would become to Keep Them Safe,” I met a slew Barred from teaching after the Taliban took over Kabul, Afghanistan, Kamila Sidiqi, right, found another way to support her sisters. She is the subject of Gayle Tzemach Lemmon’s “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.” Photo courtesy of Mercy Corps.4 Nieman Reports | Winter 2011
  7. 7. Concept to Contentof unmoved listeners. One New York and to girls on college campuses and I got in touch with former newsroomliterary agent luminary told me that if in high school, I saw their excitement colleagues and friends at ABC News,he had found “anything at all” in the at hearing the story—and it inspired who helped secure media bookings.story of an Afghan teenage woman— me to keep fighting. I kept every dis- Tina Brown and The Daily Beast,teacher-turned-entrepreneur—whose couraging e-mail as fuel. I knew that for whom I reported from Afghani-dressmaking business supported if I could just get the story to women, stan, scheduled an excerpt. I called,women across her neighborhood under they would find themselves in this e-mailed and tweeted within as manythe Taliban, he would tell me to pursue story of resilience, faith and family. different networks as I could think ofthe book idea. Not long before the book’s publica- that would be natural audiences and Unfortunately, he said, he did not. tion I met a senior publishing executive allies for the book. Still, we wantedI swallowed, felt sorry for myself, who told me rather politely that it was to reach out to more groups. Soonand went to bed. And the next day I “not like” “The Dressmaker of Khair I was connecting with women in 85began again. Khana” would be a bestseller so I Broads, the business network, and to should enjoy the process of publishing development nonprofits such as BpeaceBelieving in Your Story my first book. Hearing that made me and Dining for Women. I got in touch more determined than ever to make with Harvard Business School, whereWhat fascinated me as the pitch ses- it succeed. I began my reporting for this booksions continued was that men of a during my studies for a master’s incertain age would nearly always give business administration. We receivedme the same, certain reaction when I support from Goldman Sachs’s 10,000shared my idea: a bored yawn. Women Women, which reaches worldwide toof nearly any age would almost always serve underserved female entrepre-ask me to tell them more. neurs with business education, and the I believed in the power of the International Center for Research ondressmaker’s story from the start. Women. And I reconnected with theThe tale of women who became Thunderbird School of Global Manage-breadwinners during years in which ment, which I mention in the book.they were banned from their streets Meanwhile, Drucker pitched non-was only one extraordinary narrative stop to radio and TV for interviews,I had encountered in my reporting, to book bloggers and mom bloggersyet it stood for so many others. When for posts about the book, and Juliamen go off to fight, women battle built a network of women leadersfor survival at home and make sure who felt strongly that the dressmaker’sthere is a place to return to when story should be told. They becameconflict ends. Their stories of daring, our champions, and soon, with themadventure and survival nearly always reaching their friends and contacts,are ignored in a war narrative focused our circles of influence expanded.entirely on men. When book bloggers wrote about Women go unseen and underesti- “The Dressmaker,” I’d find out and replymated, and I sensed women had had quickly to let them know that I wouldenough of both. Telling the dress- gladly do a Q. and A. for their sites.maker’s story could change that. It Self-Marketing Push When the online SITSGirls offered tocould do its small part to honor brave make “The Dressmaker” their bookand quiet heroes who dare to make In the run-up to publication of “The club selection, we leapt at the chance.things better, every day, in all corners Dressmaker of Khair Khana,” my edi- HarperCollins offered a book giveawayof the world, without waiting for help tor, Julia Cheiffetz, at HarperCollins, to the hip fashion site Modcloth, andand against great odds. I could not the book’s publicist, Heather Drucker, Cheiffetz reached out to the onlineknow then that a deepening global and I became rogue digital market- crafting powerhouse Etsy, where werecession would make the story of the ing agents, with assistance from Lisa hosted a Twitter discussion about thepower of one to create change even Sharkey, who helped me bring the power of women entrepreneurs tomore resonant for many. book to the publisher. Working as create change. And when I met the What I knew was that everyone who a team—combining the strength of very gracious (and wildly successful)said there was no audience for this our individual arenas of contacts and author Deepak Chopra in a CNBCstory was wrong. Not because I saw expertise—our strategy was to draw green room, Cheiffetz followed up bythe future, but because I understood wide attention through mass media writing to see whether, given his beliefthe present. When I talked with women outlets and simultaneously target niche in the power of women to change theon airplanes and in shopping malls audiences of interest and influence. world, he would be willing to tweet Nieman Reports | Winter 2011 5
  8. 8. Writing the Bookabout “The Dressmaker.” He was. And pretzel entrepreneur in Chicago wrote stories are war stories, too. Thesewe were on our way. to me on my website about how the were people who knew stories like this Glittering reviews in places such as book taught her that if a girl could one excite and inspire. Our army ofPeople and O Magazine were incredibly start a business under the Taliban, she champions—underestimated by many,powerful, and so were readers who could surely work around obstacles she connected by technology, and eager tofound out about the book online. Twit- faced in her enterprise. Dads in Alaska be heard—enabled my book to succeed.ter was a potent engine for spreading posted on Facebook about how they And its success became theirs, too.the word and so were bloggers. My hoped their daughters would sharebook was one of the first nonfiction the dressmaker’s values. And women Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author ofbestsellers at HarperCollins in which booksellers would stop me at book “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana:the e-book outsold the hardcover. events to say, “My boss was surely Five Sisters, One Remarkable By using social media effectively, surprised you were a bestseller. I was Family, and the Woman Who Riskedthe power was ours to quickly and thrilled to put your book on the shelf Everything to Keep Them Safe,” isdirectly connect with people as they’d and show him he was wrong.” a contributing editor at large athear about “The Dressmaker” on radio This was the right moment for a Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Sheinterviews or Facebook, for example. little story that could about an entre- is a fellow at the Council on ForeignHomeschooling moms tweeted about preneur who never believed she could Relations, where she serves as deputythe book, and I wrote back to let not. But that didn’t alone guarantee director of its Women and Foreignthem know that their support made a its success. My job as its author was Policy program. More of her workdifference—something that may have to keep in touch with the audience is at www.gaylelemmon.com and onbeen a new experience for them and that had propelled us forward, the one Facebook; she tweets @gaylelemmon.others who posted words about it. A who knew, as we did, that women’s Feeling It’s a Book, Then Pausing to Wonder If It Is ‘Does the fact that this story hasn’t been told mean that there’s not enough to tell it?’ BY MITCHELL ZUCKOFFT he great director Robert Altman thought might be a World War II had a stock line whenever people story that could sustain a book (and asked him for advice: “Don’t take my interest) by indulging in one ofadvice.” With that in mind, I come my favorite research activities: readinghesitantly to the task of giving writ- newspaper archives. There’s no bettering advice, knowing that every writer way I know to immerse myself in ais unique and brings different tools particular place or time that isn’t myto the job. What I can do, however, own. From the placement and toneis describe some of the experiences I of stories and photos to the priceshad while researching and writing my in the ads, newspapers are to writersrecent book, “Lost in Shangri-La: A of historical nonfiction what tar pitsTrue Story of Survival, Adventure, and are to archaeologists. Even if I thinkthe Most Incredible Rescue Mission of I know what I’m looking for, I engageWorld War II,” in the hope that other in what seems like the time-wastingwriters might find them useful, or at activity of letting my eyes wander overleast satisfyingly familiar. random headlines, down columns of To state the obvious, there’s no book agate-type classified ads, throughwithout a book-worthy idea. “Lost in impassioned editorials about issuesShangri-La” began for me with a happy of fleetingly momentous importance.accident. I was researching what I When I’m doubting a project, usually6 Nieman Reports | Winter 2011
  9. 9. Concept to Contentbecause I’m bored or disappointed by it,I find myself spending unbroken hoursfeeding my historic newspaper habit. That was the case with my origi-nal World War II idea, which I hadbegun to realize would make a decentmagazine-length story but couldn’tpossibly sustain a book, at least nothow I was then envisioning it. Tome, a book requires not just a greatstory, but also a theme that fuels thenarrative engine. In my oversimpli-fied explanation, my books have beenabout, respectively, life, death, money,art and war. (I only half-jokingly saythat I’m working my way up to sex.)Rather than force myself back to it, Iaimlessly scanned through microfilmof dozens of Chicago Tribunes from1945 when I came upon a headlinethat read: “Clouds Defeat HiddenValley Rescue Effort: Glider SnatchWaits on Good Weather.” Margaret Hastings was one of three survivors of a plane crash in Dutch New Guinea in Huh? The story described how this World War II. She held the rank of corporal but she is wearing a jacket with sergeant’svalley on the island of Dutch New stripes that was dropped in. Photo by C. Earl Walter, Jr.Guinea, nicknamed “Shangri-La” byUnited States Army airmen and warcorrespondents, had become a tem- the fact that this story hasn’t been “Shangri-La.”porary home to three survivors of a told mean that there’s not enough to One thing led to another, and soonplane crash, one a beautiful woman, tell it? I’ve walked away from more I found myself in the Tioga Countyand a team of paratroopers who’d potential ideas than I care to think Historical Society building in Owego,volunteered to protect them from the about because there wasn’t a “critical New York, where local historian EmmaStone Age natives who lived there. It mass” of sources—documentary and, Sedore had meticulously maintained anfurther explained that the military’s if recent enough, human—to sustain archive of materials about hometownrescue plan involved dropping huge a nonfiction narrative of something gal Margaret Hastings, the femalegliders to the valley floor, where, if like 100,000 words. survivor. Sedore provided me with aeverything went well, they’d await low- trove of letters, photos, scrapbooksflying planes that would snatch them Starting With Earl and—miracle of miracles—a typed copyback into the air—with the survivors of the 20,000-word diary Hastingsand paratroopers aboard. In this case, after the disappointment kept in the valley. How, I wondered, was this possible? of learning that the three survivors Over the months to come, I’d findNot just the gliders and the Stone Age had since died, I had the incredible additional photos, scrapbooks, letters,tribesmen, but the very existence of good fortune of finding the leader of declassified military documents, andwhat seemed like an amazing, untold the paratrooper rescue team, C. Earl lots more, but at that moment I knewstory of World War II. It seemed too Walter, Jr., living quietly with his this would be a book.good to be true, and having already memories firmly intact in a retirement One quick aside: Not everyonewritten a book about the original home in Oregon. Knowing that he was agreed.Ponzi scheme, I was especially wary of in his late 80’s, I flew from Boston When I first began to pursue aanything that fit that description. Yet within days of that discovery. contract for “Lost in Shangri-La,” Iwith a little digging, it became clear During the three days we spent was already committed to write a muchthat with the exception of a collec- together, Walter and I developed the different book. It was a good idea fortion of reprinted documents, profile beginnings of a friendship and he the right person, which wasn’t me. Assketches, and short essays, the story gained enough trust to give me a copy I wrote in the acknowledgments tohad remained virtually unknown and of the three-inch-thick scrapbook his “Lost in Shangri-La,” my daughtersuntold at book length. late wife had made of this adventure, could tell from my lack of energy and The next question reflects the deeply and even better, the daily journal he excitement that I was struggling to dragheld skepticism of all reporters: Does kept during the six weeks he spent in myself to my computer, a telltale sign Nieman Reports | Winter 2011 7
  10. 10. Writing the Bookof a terrible fit. Without going into too suavely: Tell her to preempt at will Sometimes that will mean leaving outmany uncomfortable details, the idea and I’ll consider it. In fact, I probably something altogether, while other timeshad come from an editor for whom slobbered something like, “Oh, thank it will mean keeping faith with readersI have great respect and affection. I God, I’m not ruined.” by making it unmistakably clear whenasked him if I could switch ideas but From there, I went happily on what supposition is all I have to go on.was told that his publishing house I like to call “my nonfiction scavenger The way I figure it, as a journalistwasn’t interested. Knowing that it hunt,” making long wish lists of people I long ago accepted that omnisciencewould mean an end to a professional and documents I knew that, if found, was the province of novelists. Therelationship I cherished, I held my would help me tell this story in all its best I could hope for was a relentlessbreath and dove into the new idea. glory. When I make these lists, I know pursuit of the truth and transparency First, though, I dug into savings and that I won’t be able to find everything. about where I succeeded and wherereturned the largely spent advance for In fact, if I ever found everything I I fell short.the never-to-be-written-by-me book was looking for when writing a work There’s a lot more to say about how(plus my agent’s 15 percent fee; I was of narrative history, I’d know my list I approach research and writing booksthe one backing out of a contract, not wasn’t ambitious or audacious enough. as a journalist-turned-author, but thathim). Soon after, a second editor I liked By shooting for the moon, I might might risk sounding as though I amalso passed on a proposal I wrote for reach the sky. Knowing in advance giving advice.my new idea, which at the time I was that I won’t find everything also helpscalling simply “Shangri-La.” I confess to keep my blood pressure in check. Mitchell Zuckoff is a professor ofto unsightly sweat stains at this point. As a believer in strict nonfiction, in journalism at Boston University andThen my agent called and told me which the work is backed up by exhaus- the author of five nonfiction books,he had a perfect fit: Claire Wachtel tive endnotes—they are my favorite 40 including The New York Times best-at HarperCollins loved the idea and pages of “Lost in Shangri-La”—I have selling “Lost in Shangri-La: A Truewanted to make a preemptive offer to make peace with the fact that not Story of Survival, Adventure and thebefore it went to auction. In my selec- every question, theory or desire I have Most Incredible Rescue Mission oftive, self-serving memory, I answered will be answered, proved or fulfilled. World War II.” On his visit to “Shangri-La,” Mitchell Zuckoff found wreckage from the plane crash that stranded three members of the American military in a remote valley of Dutch New Guinea. Photo by Buzz Maxey.8 Nieman Reports | Winter 2011
  11. 11. Concept to Content On the Road to Writing Books: Blazing New Trails ‘What transforms journalists into nonfiction authors is the heft of their voice, the narrative arc of their idea, and its marketability. These aren’t lessons that tend to be reinforced on the way up the newspaper ladder.’ BY WILLIAM WHEELERI begin writing this essay in my room in a nearly empty hotel in Tripoli, Libya where I sit trying to ignorethe incessant gunfire rattling fromevery corner of the city. Rebels areshooting anti-aircraft guns into thesky to celebrate the reported captureof one of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s sons.The skyline looks like London in WorldWar II as bright arcs of tracer fire cutacross the dark. Occasionally I hear theweirdly silent flutter of bullets fallingfrom the sky, striking glass or brick,even clanging into the spiral staircaseof the fire escape outside my window. I work for low pay, without assur-ance my work will ever see the lightof day, and zero gratitude. I am afreelancer—by choice. When I started With political unrest a near constant, the city of Tripoli can be a dangerous place to be ain journalism seven years ago I knew freelance reporter. Photo by Abdel Magid al-Fergany/The Associated Press.I wanted to write nonfiction books,serious and gripping ones aboutwhat is happening in the world. My magazine pieces. prevent that fate. This meant formermetabolism never felt quite right for A friend who is a staff writer at a employees were scrambling to findthe daily news grind. But then a mentor major national magazine soon recom- writing work and calling in old favorsreminded me that journalist/authors mended that I read a story in the from friends and colleagues. For alike Jon Lee Anderson climbed their New York Observer about how the newcomer, it was hard to break in. Butway through the ranks of newspapers well-worn path to writing books is no with will and desperation, I perseveredand magazines, learning the pains- longer a reliable one to follow. David as I branched out into multimedia,taking craft of reporting before they Hirshey, executive editor of Harper- newspapers and finally found a footholdembarked on book-length projects. Collins and a former deputy editor of in the magazine world. So I put in my time at a weekly Esquire magazine, was quoted at the Through the years, as a freelancer,newspaper in California. In decades beginning of the piece: “Thirty years I have filed reports from Lebanon,past I might have hopped from ago, you worked at a newspaper, you Thailand, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan,paper to paper, paper to wire service, moved to a magazine, and then you Bangladesh, Denmark and Haiti,befriending the foreign editor and wrote books or screenplays,” Hirshey often with funding from the Pulitzerwaiting until I could get a position as said. “Today you can be a blogger who Center on Crisis Reporting. I signeda foreign correspondent. But this was writes books or you can be a stripper on with a book agent with the idea ofnot then, and with the implosion of who wins an Academy Award for Best writing a book about political crisesthe industry’s business model nothing Screenplay.” with roots in environmental problems.like a career ladder existed any longer. I soon learned how hard it was This concept was not unlike JaredSo I went to Columbia University to to break into writing for magazines, Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societiesstudy journalism and international especially when the global recession Choose to Fail or Succeed,” but mineaffairs, and after graduation I set hit. Magazines were either dying or would be told in real time. For monthsout on the road and started pitching paring down their in-house staff to I worked on writing a book proposal, Nieman Reports | Winter 2011 9
  12. 12. Writing the Bookfocusing chapters on topics such as: magazine articles.” that tend to be reinforced on the way • “I worried about breaking his nar- up the newspaper ladder. This also• How the loss of wetlands along rative out in the crowded environ- turns out to be a cautionary tale for the Louisiana coast was making mental category.” old newshands trying to make the New Orleans more vulnerable to transition to writing books. hurricanes Soon an earthquake in Haiti would Marketing the idea—and selling• How a century of greedy irrigation kill an estimated 300,000 people, you as its author—is everything in practices in Australia paved the way leaving hundreds of thousands home- getting to write a book. Long gone to more drought-induced firestorms less amid mounting civil unrest. Oil are the days when an editor can go and flash floods would gush for 86 days and seep into with her gut, putting trust in a writer’s• How a booming population in Egypt remaining Gulf Coast wetlands, and potential and in her ability to coax had gobbled up all the arable land biblical floods would ravage Australia. out a product that will sell. Now, an and the next spike in global grain And the surging price of grain would editor’s instinct must be confirmed prices was likely to ignite unrest be an instigating factor in the Arab by marketing data. (I’ve heard that• How deforestation in Haiti had uprisings. Feelings of disappointment major studios use computer formulas exacerbated floods, driving peasant turned into dismay as each of these to decide which films are marketable farmers into the shantytowns of events transpired and I realized that enough to produce.) Still, it can be slum-infested Port-au-Prince. if my book had not been rejected I’d to my advantage that I’m a first-time be in these places, weaving the stories writer. “You have no numbers,” a Haiti had been plagued in journalism professor told merecent years by coups and riots enviously. Since book sales datarelated to the deforestation are so readily available, a writerand flooding. On the heels of must sell a lot of books or earnfour devastating storms and critical acclaim with prior bookshurricanes in winter 2008, so as not to suffer diminishingthe International Crisis Group returns on subsequent advances.warned, “a new natural disaster A few months ago I had somein 2009 in an overpopulated disheartening conversationscity such as Port-au-Prince with friends as we lamented thecould easily transform the writer’s life. I decided to giveconsiderable opposition to the up on journalism and e-mailed[current] administration again friends declaring that I was leav-into violent conflict.” ing the game. The next day a We circulated the proposal, big magazine commission cameand publishers responded by through, and a few weeks latersaying that while they liked the I got another. While reportingidea they felt the marketplace in Libya, I came across yetwas too crowded with books another story about the coverton environmental subjects. In operations to liberate Tripolishort, publishers expressed from within, and I sold theuncertainty about what the final idea to Byliner, a start-up Webproduct would be and how it publisher that sells long-formwould stand out from what was journalism e-books. [See Johnalready in bookstores. Here is The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was among a string Tayman’s story about Byliner ona representative sample of the of environmental disasters in 2010. Photo by Gerald page 38.] So I’m back, trying toreasons given for passing on Herbert/The Associated Press. find my footing in an evolvingmy book: marketplace and still trusting that a market will always exist• “This is a Catch-22 for journalists, together as my book’s core narrative. for irresistible ideas and compelling I realize, but it’s just hard to take I learned, too, in this process that storytelling. the leap, knowing that the narrative my early mentor’s advice was wrong. will be what distinguishes the book A captivating, well-reported story can William Wheeler is a freelance jour- from ‘Collapse’ and all the other be the right place to start out. What nalist. His recent New York Times eco-crisis books in the works.” transforms journalists into nonfiction story about Libya, “After Liberation,• “This is fascinating … But I couldn’t authors is the heft of their voice, the Nowhere to Run,” was supported get myself to see this as something narrative arc of their idea, and its by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis more than a series of interconnected marketability. These aren’t lessons Reporting.10 Nieman Reports | Winter 2011
  13. 13. Concept to Content Brief Story, Book Proposal, a Longer Feature, Then a Book ‘… it would be a while before people would say, “Hey, this is a book.” ’ BY AMY ELLIS NUTTT here is nothing normal about controversial operation with a brain my journalism career—I landed surgeon in Pittsburgh. Sarkin did, my first newspaper job at 42—or but within hours of the operation hemy book-writing career. In a former suffered a massive stroke.long-ago life as a sports reporter, I Weeks later, when he came outcoauthored a golf book/memoir for a of his semi-coma, Sarkin was awoman on the professional tour and different man both physically andit hit the remainder bin faster than psychologically. The greatest changea two-foot gimme hits the bottom was in his personality. A calm, evenof the cup. So after a 13-year hiatus shy, serious medical professional wasand a move from Sports Illustrated suddenly loud, abrasive and com-to The Star-Ledger of Newark, New pletely uninhibited. Whatever was onJersey—you get the upside-down idea, his mind came out his mouth. Afterright?—I had some trepidation about rehabilitation, when he learned toembarking on a second book. walk, talk and dress himself again, As it does for most newspaper Sarkin went home. That’s when thereporters who write books, my unantici- drawing started—spontaneously andpated journey started with an article. prodigiously. He drew on magazines,Back in 2003 I’d met Jon Sarkin, the on scraps of paper, on the basementsubject of “Shadows Bright as Glass: walls, even on his cane. And the moreThe Remarkable Story of One Man’s he drew, the more obsessed he becameJourney From Brain Trauma to Artistic stroke patients who have suffered iden- with creating art. Primitive drawingsTriumph.” Actually, first I met his art. tity disorders. Sarkin asked Feinberg if of cartoonish figures eventually becameI was in New York City interview- he could somehow explain what had dense, complex art pieces, and heing neurologist Todd Feinberg for a happened to him. expanded from impulsive drawing tomajor story I was writing on science’s In 1988, Sarkin was a successful large-scale portraits, collages and evensearch for the origin of consciousness. young chiropractor. On a crisp autumn abstract landscapes.Questions about identity and mind day in October, he was standing on the When I learned that Sarkin was ahave always interested me and, in eighth tee of a golf course not far from native of New Jersey and was aboutfact, prompted me to go to graduate his home in Gloucester, Massachusetts to have his first major New York Cityschool in philosophy. (It was escaping when something shifted inside his art show at the Diane von Furstenbergthe PhD dissertation that sent me on brain. The experience wasn’t painful, Studio, I knew I had to write aboutmy circuitous route to journalism.) but it was terrifying and within days him for The Star-Ledger. We hit it On the wall of Feinberg’s office Sarkin began experiencing tinnitus, off, and I wrote what was little moreI noticed a fascinating and colorful a ringing in the ear. It steadily grew than a biographical sketch for thepicture and asked him about it. The worse, and then every sound became newspaper’s features section.abstract drawing of a series of 1950’s magnified until even the crackling ofCadillac tailfins was clever and deeply eggs in a frying pan was enough to send Short Feature to Bookintriguing. So the doctor then told me him cowering under the bedcovers. He Proposalthe tale of Sarkin, a man who had went to every doctor, every specialist,contacted Feinberg by phone a year he could find, including chiroprac- Sarkin and I kept in touch, and itearlier after hearing him interviewed tors, audiologists, psychiatrists and would be a while before people wouldon NPR. At the time, Feinberg had neurologists. The best advice anyone say, “Hey, this is a book.” Eventuallyjust written his first book, “Altered could offer was that he use a white- we realized they were right. But thereEgos: How the Brain Creates the Self,” noise machine. One doctor, however, was a problem. He’d already sold thein which he chronicled his work with suggested he might want to try a rights to his life story to Tom Cruise Nieman Reports | Winter 2011 11
  14. 14. Writing the Book People would think enormously challenging. In fact, I I was writing about found nothing was harder than trying art, they argued. The to mesh these two stories. When I way I saw things, this handed the first draft in to my editor—a is what a subtitle month early—I felt pretty good about is for. Despite my what I had written, but not great. I’d best efforts (through actually handed in just 50,000 words Loose) to convince and would have another 30,000 to them otherwise, my write, although I naively didn’t realize backup, “Shadows it at the time. Bright as Glass,” a Turns out I was about to encounter line from poet Wal- the hurdles of length and style and lace Stevens, emerged voice that lots of reporters-turned- as the book’s title. book writers trip over the first time (Its subtitle is “The around the track. My editor pointed“What I Am” by Jon Sarkin, whose transformation from Remarkable Story of me toward places where I needed tomild-mannered chiropractor to frenetic artist Amy Ellis Nutt One Man’s Journey add or extend scenes. Good advice,chronicled in her 2011 book. From Brain Trauma relatively easy to execute. Getting my to Artistic Triumph.”) writer’s voice to work well was harder. Nearly everyone I My reporter’s training had put me inand Paula Wagner, then at Paramount asked agreed that “The Accidental an objective frame of mind so I wasPictures. As it turned out, the book Artist” was better. using quotes and selecting words inrights were tied in with the film ways that made my book’s storytellingrights and it took close to five years Making a Book sound stilted and formal.of on-again, off-again efforts to clarify That needed to be fixed, and oncethat contract before the green light The Star-Ledger’s series of stories, again, my editor offered guidance bywas given. which consisted of a number of key reminding me that I had to insert Finally, in 2008, when I was writing scenes from Sarkin’s life, was very myself more into the book, not aswhat would become a 40-page book different from the book proposal. My a character, but as an interpreter ofproposal, I realized so much had hap- book agent, Wendy Strothman, kept events and people. And loosen up aspened to Sarkin since I’d first written urging me to expand the story beyond a writer, she counseled me. Be moreabout him that I should do a longer the tale of one man’s unusual brain expansive—even philosophical. Thispiece for the newspaper. My editors trauma. The wider the story’s scope, hint turned out to be what I neededat The Star-Ledger agreed. So this is the larger its prospective audience to stitch chapters together seamlessly,how my short feature—after a break and the greater the chance would be though not easily. All of this was partof a few years—got transformed into of selling the book—to the publisher of creating a “narrative arc,” the twoa book proposal, then re-reported as a and then to readers. words that most terrify journalists whonewspaper series, and finally became Easier said than done, and doing this decide to become authors.a book. By the time the series, “The meant thinking differently. How could I After thousands of hours and hun-Accidental Artist,” was published connect Sarkin’s experience to a larger dreds of pages of drafts, I embracedin the paper, I had a book contract theme? What could I contribute—that my fear, even if I still haven’t embracedfrom Free Press. For that series, I hadn’t been said already—about this my book’s title.was named a finalist for the Pulitzer theme? Ideas percolated, as my agentPrize in Feature Writing in 2009. I pushed me away from straight biog- Amy Ellis Nutt, a 2005 Niemandidn’t win, but being a finalist helped raphy and tugged me toward telling Fellow, is a writer with The Star-to solidify support at the publisher, a parallel stories about a man’s search Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. Shedivision of Simon & Schuster. for himself and the story of science’s was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize During the next year I worked with search for the self. for Feature Writing for her “deeplya marvelous editor there, Emily Loose. This became a book I wanted to probing story”—“The Wreck of theAlthough I had very little contact with write, and it seemed like one that Lady Mary”—about the sinking of aher during the writing itself, she was wouldn’t be too hard to figure out how commercial fishing boat. On the daya terrific hands-on word editor after I to write. I was correct about the first the Pulitzers were announced, herhanded in the manuscript. I didn’t dis- assumption, and way off on the second. book “Shadow Bright as Glass” hadagree with a single suggestion. My only Trying to weave together two diver- just been published and Terry Gross’sdisagreement was with the publisher’s gent strands—the narrative of a man’s interview on “Fresh Air” with hermarketing department, which didn’t life with details of science writing and and Jon Sarkin was broadcast thatlike the title, “The Accidental Artist.” history about brain research—proved afternoon.12 Nieman Reports | Winter 2011
  15. 15. Concept to Content Writing a Life, Living a Writer’s Life ‘At one point, my mother, a woman who is anything but acid, told me: “Get a job, and get a life.” She said this out of love and concern because all I ever did—all I ever do—is work, seven days a week, practically every waking hour.’ BY GAIUTRA BAHADUR“ In exile, the only house is that decided that instead of re-entering an servants, semi-forced laborers who of writing.” Theodor Adorno, the industry in serious upheaval I would replaced slaves on sugar estates. Talk German philosopher and critic, pursue a book project. With half of about exile. These women knew exile.conceived that metaphor. I encoun- my Nieman stipend saved, I set offtered it in a book I was reviewing, and for England to dig in archives for a Getting StartedI decided to use the words, translated story I wasn’t sure I would find wellfrom German, as a tagline for my documented enough to tell. The journey I was about to embark onwebsite. Full disclosure: except for the I wanted to write nonfiction explor- was nowhere close to theirs in daringnine words that begin this essay, I have ing the mystery of my great-grand- or sacrifice.never read any Adorno. I hear his prose mother, who left Calcutta, pregnant During my Nieman winter break, Iis difficult. Yet these particular words and without a husband, to work on had made some forays into the Britishof his made perfect, intuitive sense to a Guyanese plantation in 1903. The Colonial Office archives in London andme. I know I can’t really compare his details of her exit from India, with then to India to ensure the story wasexile, that of a Jewish merchant’s son their hint of trauma or scandal, were substantial enough to take a risk. Itfrom Nazi Germany in the 1930’s, to not unique. Her story was the story was. I didn’t, however, realize how greatthe rootlessness I was feeling at the of hundreds of thousands of Indian the risk would seem to the publishingtime. Still, I identified, deeply. women who ended up in British industry, then facing its own crisis. What am I an exile from? I come colonies worldwide as indentured It took more than a year for myfrom an immigrant family, twice over.But immigration is not the same thingas exile. As any Cuban will tell you,exile involves a dream of return to yourhomeland—one you were forced toleave. It’s a matter for debate whethermy family had to leave Guyana in1981. I didn’t have a say, in any case.I was only 6. But when I left The PhiladelphiaInquirer in 2007, I truly had nochoice, being one reporter among manydozens laid off by a new corporateowner. Suddenly I was an exile froma newsroom, part of an early wavereplenished many times over as theentire newspaper industry enteredcrisis mode. I was among the fortunate few. A fewmonths after my layoff, I was selectedas a Nieman Fellow. For a time, thisgave me shelter, a nice one as far asshelters go—warm, well stocked, evenkind of glamorous, and the compan-ionship of fellow travelers. But like allshelters, it was temporary. As spring Gaiutra Bahadur’s great-grandmother sailed to Guyana on this ship called “The Clyde.”arrived, I surveyed the job market, then Photo is from the 1935 book “Coolie Ships and Oil Sailors” by Basil Lubbock. Nieman Reports | Winter 2011 13
  16. 16. Writing the Bookbook proposal to sell. Five editors at We ultimately felt that, while an “difficult” subjects. I’m not sayingfive houses liked the proposal well engaging, global and beautifully that my proposal was perfect or thatenough to pitch it to acquisition boards. written memoir, the audience for all rejections were as kind or gentlyOthers said they liked it, but didn’t this would be small and difficult written as the ones I’ve quoted. I’mbother to pitch. The consensus seemed to reach … We all loved her writ- saying it cuts to hear that the storyto be that the story wasn’t commercial ing, though … and would love to of your people is not “big,” even whenenough for anyone to take a chance on see her pursue a bigger story or worthy and well written—and it disap-during what turned out to be the start subject in the future. points to hear that “big” seems to meanof publishing’s crisis years. An editor mainstream and marketable, even toat a major trade house complimented When my proposal was on the publishers whose mission statementsme and the subject matter, saying market in 2009 and 2010, publish- declared otherwise.it was “a story well worth telling, a ing was purging its own employees, This is about when Adorno’s wordsstory well worth hearing.” But she enlarging a parallel community of struck such a chord. I had put every-concluded: “I’m sad to say I found exiles. Established writers and books thing into the pursuit of a story that novery few problems with the proposal on more mainstream topics were one seemed to want. To top it off, theand the story itself—my only worry is still being contracted, of course. But United Kingdom border control officemore on our end, how we’d bring this there didn’t seem to be great room for denied me a one-year business visato a big enough audience.” new voices or for risk—for first-time because, it said, book research didn’t Another rejection letter read: authors, like me, wanting to take on constitute a valid business purpose. A Year of Reinvention By Alfredo Corchado Ours was a year of uncertainty, we were not convinced especially after reverberations from that book publish- September’s economic crash worked ing was much better their way through the global economy. off than newspapers, It was the fall of 2008, and my Nie- hard times galvanized man year was beginning. As our class us to feel a sense of came together, we sensed that more urgency to move in newsroom jobs would be evaporating. some direction. A new What was supposed to be our year of one seemed inviting. retreat, reflection and reinvigoration The Nieman Foun- turned into a time when we kept a dation introduced us close watch on events in the industry to excellent writing as we looked for ways to reinvent teachers and men- ourselves. tors—Anne Bernays Books written by Nieman Fellows fill—and in some cases Some of us retreated to bars and Rose Moss for more than fill—the shelves at Lippmann House. Photo to reflect, of course, while others fiction and Constance by Jonathan Seitz. imagined writing a book as a way to Hale, who goes by reinvigorate our careers. Some of us Connie, for nonfic- combined the two. The idea of writ- tion narrative. I took Connie’s class, of our writing class has had her book ing a book offered an escape, if only which by midyear had morphed into published and at least two others temporary. It was a place to turn as a wonderful support group. We went have books in progress, including we followed our wandering hearts. to the spring narrative journalism me. In October, Nieman affiliate Writing books is certainly not conference that she put together. She Karin Grundberg had her book, a rarity for Nieman Fellows; the helped us to network as we headed “Dying Dandy: A Biography of Art bookshelves at Lippmann House are out into the world of agents, authors Collector Fredrik Roos,” published in packed with the abundant product of and publishers. Stockholm, Sweden. She remembers many Nieman authors. Even though Now, a few years later, one member the class as being “instrumental for14 Nieman Reports | Winter 2011
  17. 17. Concept to ContentThe officer in Edinburgh who detained with a housesitting arrangement. I a life.” She said this out of love andme when I tried to enter on a tour- rented rooms cheaply from friends, concern because all I ever did—all Iist visa instead told me frankly that friends of friends, mothers of friends, ever do—is work, seven days a week,the meager state of my bank account and strangers who looked kindly on practically every waking hour. Andprobably accounted for the rejection. starving artists, and acquaintances who who can blame her for thinking that“Plenty of people come here to hole believed in what I was trying to do. a woman in her mid-30’s should notup in nice houses on the Isle of Skye In my year and a half there, I lived in be living with her parents? Who canand write,” she said. eight different flats in London. blame her for thinking her amply and By then my Nieman stash was gone. When I wasn’t working on the expensively educated daughter shouldI hadn’t put it into health insurance. I book, I was working on freelance book maybe have a place of her own? Orhadn’t put it into the bric-a-brac of a reviews or magazine articles or pitches that she should have the time to domiddle-class life: evenings out, eating for them or fellowship applications or things other than work (like, ahem,out. I didn’t even put it into an apart- teaching Saturday morning English get married and procreate somethingment or a house. Everything I had went classes to 13-year-olds who didn’t want other than a book)?into research for the book, mostly at to be there, all to replenish the bank I’m not sharing the sordid detailsarchives in the United Kingdom and account that the border control lady to make you feel pity. Don’t. I chosethe West Indies. I had no lease, no had found so distressing. At one point, this life. It is exactly what I want tomortgage, no permanent address. I my mother, a woman who is anything do, and on most days I am thrilledlodged or, once or twice, lucked out but acid, told me: “Get a job, and get to be doing it. I feel blessed. I haveme.” As she wrote to me, “I made is not my strong point,” she added. a book that goes beyond tragedy orfriendships that boosted my book Support happened outside of class, sensationalism but is an attempt toidea and gave important and con- too. We were fortunate to have two weave together the search for evil—structive feedback … Connie gave fearless Argentineans, Nieman Fel- political and criminal—in Mexicogood homework, such as capturing low Graciela Mochkofsky and her and in the United States with mya person or place.” husband, Gabriel Pasquini, among own search for home and belonging Another fellow, Julie Reynolds, us. Everyone needs an Argentinean to as a Mexican American. To believewas introduced to her book agent be pushed to a higher level, and they in a curse is to believe in the cure.at the Nieman conference. Julie had instilled in us courage and confidence I find it comforting—and remark-joined our class in the spring when in our ability to take what we knew able—that in writing my book I relyshe was in the process of crafting a as journalists and believe we could on just about the exact outline Ibook about Hispanic gangs, a topic put to work as authors. Each was a developed with help from Conniefamiliar to her because of the crime veteran author in Buenos Aires, and and my classmates, including Gabriel,beat she covered at The Monterey with them we created an underground Graciela, Karin and Julie. A splendidCounty (Calif.) Herald. The class writer’s club, aptly named El Club side benefit of writing this book ishelped her to “give the thing a narra- de los Secretos (“The Secrecy Club”). recalling the lasting gift we gave eachtive shape,” she recalls. She named her They introduced some of us to the another in the friendship cementedbook “The Cause,” after “the doctrine glamorous, turbulent world of New in our writing class—a place wherethe kids believe they’re fighting for,” York agents, editors and publishers. our true reinvention happened.she told me. She describes her book I considered myself the mostas a “nonfiction soap opera about unlikely among us to emerge as an Alfredo Corchado, a 2009 Niemantheir loves and delusions, with this author. Yet Penguin Group has me Fellow, is bureau chief for Thebackdrop of crime in rural America.” under contract and I am writing my Dallas Morning News based in She’s written her book, but it has first nonfiction book; the working title Mexico City and is completing hisnot yet been sold. “Of course the is “Midnight in Mexico: The Curse.” book, “Midnight in Mexico: Thebook industry is also going through In it I try to describe the violence and Curse,” scheduled to be published instrange times. Let’s just say timing corruption tearing Mexico apart. It’s late 2012. Nieman Reports | Winter 2011 15
  18. 18. Writing the Book Photographs of indentured laborers imported by sugar The author began her research with this plantation owners, as the author’s great-grandmother emigration pass, issued to her great- was, were sold as postcards. Photo is from the Michael grandmother, when she went to a Guyanese Goldberg Collection, The Alma Jordan Library, The Uni- plantation in 1903. Courtesy of The Walter versity of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad. Rodney Archives, Georgetown, Guyana.supportive friends and family and col- And it takes being blessed. It’s not house that Google Earth can locate,leagues. I have co-publishers I respect something to undertake just because but I know exactly where to find it.and trust: University of Chicago Press you think books might be a better bet I make words there every day, wordsand Hurst, an independent press based than newspapers right now. that I believe in, words that I hope willin London. And somehow I still have When I was on staff in a newsroom, make a contribution, words that haveenough money to pay for five more I was a workaholic. What I did was a reality well beyond the imaginarymonths of rent at a writer’s studio in who I was. And so I made the mistake homeland of a newsroom.Manhattan and subway and train fare of identifying my job with a hometo get there. country. It wasn’t. It’s still true to Gaiutra Bahadur, a 2008 Nieman I’m writing this so you know this say that what I do is who I am. But Fellow, is writing her first book,is the hardest thing I have ever tried now I know that this transcends any “Coolie Woman,” which is scheduledto do. It takes soul-risking hustle and particular employer, as compelling to be published in 2012. An excerptsoul-exposing humility, a combina- as health insurance and a biweekly appeared in the Spring 2011 issue oftion that comes from being rejected paycheck can sometimes seem. Writing The Virginia Quarterly Review andrepeatedly yet somehow still believing is not a job. It’s a vocation, a calling. was reprinted in the Indian maga-that the ultimate goal is bigger than If you’re lucky, it can be a house, zine The Caravan and can be readyou or your bruised ego. It takes too—the thing that shelters you in in full at http://caravanmagazine.in/passion—a downright obsessive love seasons of transition and constant Story/1058/Her-Middle-Passage.html.for your subject and belief in its value. address changes. It’s not the kind of16 Nieman Reports | Winter 2011
  19. 19. Concept to Content Starting as a Journalist, Ending as a Memoirist ‘I have come to realize that my obsessive precision—a great virtue in a reporter—wasn’t necessarily the greatest quality in a would-be memoirist.’ BY LUCETTE LAGNADOI took a leave from The Wall Street a century, beginning with my father’s Digging for Details Journal to work on two family mem- arrival in Cairo from his native Syria oirs, but in a way I never left—and as an infant in 1901 to his courtship I was sure that all those great habitsthe pesky habits, methods, techniques, of my mother in 1940’s Cairo, from cultivated as a journalist would helpeven the mindset I’d always adopted as my family’s forced exile to America me with my undertaking, and at firstan investigative reporter stayed with all the way to my parents’ passing in they did. I set about my book withme. For better and for worse. the 1990’s. I was going to document the same fervor and diligence that I’d My work had made me a stickler the rise and fall of my family through approach my Page One lead stories. Ifor accuracy and precision, with a these decades and, in the process, made frantic phone calls and contactedfear bordering on phobia of making a recreate this vanished world that had sources around the world and poredmistake. Practically speaking, I knew haunted me so—a time when and a through old documents I retrievedas did my editors that my stories place where Jews lived peaceably with by filing the equivalent of Freedomwere likely to be read over carefully, Muslims and Christians in a magical of Information Act requests. Evenwith the people I exposed poised to Arab city called Cairo. before formally working on my book,attack, so that I had to be I’d approached the Hebrewexcruciatingly careful. I Immigrant Aid Societymastered habits peculiar to (HIAS) that had resettledthe culture of investigative us and requested our familyreporting such as “bullet- files. It took a while but toproofing”—as in, “you have my amazement, the agencyto bulletproof your story,” found them—scores of let-to make sure no one could ters documenting our sadpoke holes in it. efforts to find a home after Deadlines were invari- leaving Egypt. There, in theably terrifying events, when midst of the thick dossier,I walked around the news- was the single most com-room with a copy of my pelling document I’d find2,000-word story, reading about my family: The ledgerit over and over again, showing my dad’s paymentsafraid I’d gotten so much in $10 and $15 incrementsas a comma wrong. Then, for our passage to Americasuddenly, here I was with a on the Queen Mary.contract to write a 100,000- In approaching thisword book about my Egyp- project as a journalist, Itian-Jewish father who had thought, why not try forpassed away years earlier, other immigration files? Iso that I couldn’t even turn recalled that another agencyto him to verify facts and called the New York Asso-run by rumors. ciation for New Americans I secretly dubbed my (NYANA), now defunct,book, “100 Years of Levan- had helped in our resettle-tine Solitude.” And that ment, so I demanded ourwas in fact my grand files from there as well.ambition—to chronicle These proved to be evenwhat happened to my Lucette Lagnado, whose family called her Loulou, with her father. more jarring—especiallyfamily over the course of Photo courtesy of Lagnado family archives. the pages of case notes from Nieman Reports | Winter 2011 17
  20. 20. Writing the Bookour old social worker, railing tantalizing story but how toagainst my dad for being confirm? Om Kalsoum wastoo old-fashioned, too sexist long dead, and in terms of theand patriarchal. Between people around her, who onthe HIAS and the NYANA earth could have confirmedpapers, I felt I had a sound that once upon a time anbasis for reconstructing our imam’s daughter turnedearly days getting out of chanteuse had a relationshipEgypt and of our emigration with a tall handsome Jewishto America. Emboldened by man about town who favoredthe results of my quest, I white sharkskin suits?flew to Paris and retrieved As I weighed what tomy family dossier from our do, I realized the story wastime as refugees living in a consistent with other storiesfleabag hotel for nearly a I’d heard about Dad andyear in the 1960’s. Before leaving Egypt, Leon and Edith had this portrait taken rang true. But I owed it to With aspects of our lives with their 6-year-old daughter Loulou and her brother Isaac. the reader to state explicitlythat documents didn’t cover, Photo courtesy of César Lagnado, Lagnado family archives. that it was still in the realmI searched for sources, exactly of mythology, albeit a mythas I would with a story. For I happened to believe.chapters on my father as a single man to me, exactly as a reluctant source This section remains one of myin 1940’s Cairo, I flew to Milan and would have, “Are you through now?” My favorites. I had begun exploring ithuddled with an elderly cousin who oldest brother was a bit more lenient. using traditional reporting, contact-had lived with him before his marriage An accountant by profession, he had ing people in Egypt, finding long-lostto my Mom. He vividly remembered a special interest in documenting the relatives who might have known aboutwatching as my Dad (before he was past. I found that over the years he my father and Om Kalsoum. I couldn’tmy dad) went out night after night, had kept an extraordinary array of really confirm it but rather than adherenot returning till the early dawn. Dad’s papers—cancelled checks going to the journalistic law of “if in doubtMy cousin left it to my imagination back to the 1980’s, business cards from leave it out,” I decided that the mereto figure out where “the man in the Cairo in the 1950’s. fact such a story could have circulatedwhite sharkskin suit”—a description Occasionally it occurred to me about my dad revealed worlds aboutof him that I made the title of my to wonder why he had preserved so his character and reputation.first book—went every night. (Think: much. Was he expecting an audit of The greatest impediment of all toWomen, bars, casinos, cabarets—the our father’s life? Was that, in effect, these memoirs turned out to be me—mytypical Cairo nightlife, once upon a what I was doing?time.) But he also stressed that Dad Ultimately, no matter what I did,was always back by dawn—a stickler there were still gaps—areas whereabout attending morning services at reporting basically no longer worked,the local synagogue, no matter what where I had reached the limits of itshis nocturnal adventures had been. usefulness. Even with my trove of docu- I searched for any other relatives ments, my ability to find good sourcesor friends who knew my father. Most and persuade them to cooperate, I wasof them were in their 80’s, even their missing pieces of the story. Key rela-90’s, and that was great, because to my tives had died or there remained nomind the older they were, the greater written record of what I was seeking.the chance they would have significant What to do?remembrances—assuming their ownmemory was still intact. Letting Memories Flow I perfected the art of reportedmemory. When my own memory failed I guess that is when I was forced tome, I turned to family members and learn my new craft—as I transitionedmy older siblings with questions about from journalist to memoirist. I hadfamily incidents. Once again my years heard, for example, that my father hadas a reporter came to my aid. Indeed, a dalliance with a legendary EgyptianI was so relentless in the way I ques- singer named Om Kalsoum, possiblytioned my older sister that she seemed the greatest Egyptian performer, idol-to dread our encounters and would say ized in the Middle East. It was such a18 Nieman Reports | Winter 2011
  21. 21. Concept to Contentown memory, the memory of someone country is now underwho had left Egypt as a small child. a military dictatorshipAt the tender age of 6, I had become that doesn’t want Jewsa refugee and undertaken a journey or foreigners. But shemost adults would find daunting, does feel—intensely—from Egypt to France to America. My the events around her.memories of that period were nothing She simply experienceslike those of my siblings; they were them under her terms.a little girl’s memories, marked by Suddenly my under-the longings of a child who suddenly taking made perfectfinds herself having lost all that she sense. No, I wouldn’ttreasures—her school, her home, her be able to write astreet, her cat, her favorite patisserie memoir about the fallwhere her dad takes her as a treat of King Farouk andeach afternoon. the rise of Colonel They were hardly enough to turn Gamal Abdel Nasser,into a memoir of a lost Egypt, and I but I would be ablewas at a loss as to what to do until I to tell the story of anremembered a cardinal rule I’d learned elegant Swiss patis-at the Journal—what we dubbed “jiu serie named Groppi’sjitsu.” That was the art of turning a where I—or youngweakness into strength, to transform Loulou, rather—lovedeven a flaw in a story into an asset. to go and sit in aThat is when I realized that I had to pebbled garden andtell the story—this seemingly adult spoon out freshly-memoir of exile and loss—in the made chantilly crème.voice and through the eyes of a child, I would be able toof the little girl me, a girl named recall once upon a timeLoulou, who watches bewildered as attending a Frenchher world changes because of massive lycée in the heart of Lucette Lagnado, whose family called her Loulou, with herpolitical and social altercations. Loulou Cairo and wearing a mother at the beach in Brooklyn in 1968. Photo courtesy ofdoesn’t understand the politics—she dashing uniform with Lagnado family archives.has no sense that a revolution has a crest. I would conjuretaken place in Egypt and that the up my home, and my little cat Pouspous who I loved above ultimately served me well. I took less all others, and turn her into a major poetic license, I believe, than some of character. And of course I would write my fellow memoirists and became a about my home, but in the way that I true believer in the power and potential had known it—as large and graceful, of reported memory. with balconies facing both a boulevard and an alleyway, and the constant Lucette Lagnado is the author of two vendors stopped by selling marvelous memoirs about her Egyptian-Jewish treats: fresh figs, apricots, fish, and family, “The Man in the White occasionally, baskets of rose petals my Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Mom used to make rose petal jam. Exodus From Old Cairo to the New The memories flowed, as did the World,” published by Ecco in 2007, emotions, and if I needed to “fact and more recently, with the same check,” well, I would turn to an older publisher, “The Arrogant Years: One sibling and run some incident by them. Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, I have come to realize that my From Cairo to Brooklyn.” She is a obsessive precision—a great virtue reporter at The Wall Street Journal. in a reporter—wasn’t necessarily the greatest quality in a would-be memoir- ist. Imagination, the ability to recall and bring to life lost people and lost worlds, are far more valuable. Yet I suppose that my reporter’s mindset Nieman Reports | Winter 2011 19