An Interview with David Grann

This interview originally appeared on the Meanjin website.

David Grann is an award-winning journalist and staff writer at The New Yorker. His fascinating long-form investigative pieces on crime, obsession and mystery have won him legions of fans around the world. In August he will be in Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival’s New Yorker program, but before he heads to our shores, James Douglas had a chance to talk with him about his labourious and meticulous approach to writing and research, and why you have to learn to live without all the answers.

James Douglas: I’m interested in learning a bit about the process that goes into writing your pieces for The New Yorker. I noticed there’s about a ten to twelve month gap between some of your pieces, is that that standard for New Yorker articles? I know a lot of research must go into your pieces.

David Grann: I think in the last few years it’s been a little bit more like that. I would say when I first came to The New Yorker for a long time I would do three to four pieces a year. In the last few years, for various reasons, they’ve been a little bit further apart. Part of that has been they’ve been more investigative.

A story like Cameron Todd Willingham—who was executed in Texas—took me about ten months. I was trying to find informants—people off the grid—and track down documents. So some of the stories take longer. But I have done stories for The New Yorker—like on Ricky Henderson—which I probably did in six weeks or something like that. And I did a [story] on John McCain in the presidential campaign, and I probably spent about a month on that.

But for various reasons they’ve taken a bit longer, of late. Or maybe I’m getting slower, I’m not sure.

JD: You must spend months on months researching these pieces. I was wondering if you could talk about the effort that goes into that. You must do a lot of travelling to speak with people. Is there also a lot of looking into archives and things like that?

DG:Yes, sometimes. I’m here right now in Texas going through archives.

Each story is different, so it’s hard to speak in general. But a lot of the stories I do often have an historical backdrop or an historical context, and in that case I’ll go through archives. Or often they involve tracking down legal documents from court records—like the story on the Aryan Brotherhood, for example. That involved trying to find both people who were in prison and who would be willing to talk, and then trying to find court records from various cases, or attorneys who might have depositions or affidavits. In that case it was a very secretive group that you’re trying to crack open and learn about. So each story presents different obstacles.

The story I did most recently for The New Yorker—‘The Yankee Comandante’—[was] about this ne’er-do-well American who had dropped out of highschool and had a troubled youth, then got caught up in the Cuban Revolution, and became a great hero, fell in love, and was then ultimately executed by Castro.

In that case it involved trying to find people who were still alive (I really was capturing a generation right at the very end of their lives, and in fact, even as I was reporting some of the people I had spoken with earlier passed away), people who knew Morgan, and actually fought with Morgan, or were friends with Morgan in Cuba. I spoke to many members who were in his brigade, in his rebel group, and most of them were in their seventies or eighties. In fact I also spoke with Morgan’s widow —the woman he fell in love with in Cuba.

So that part was tracking down the people, and then the other element involved also archival research; trying to find oral histories from people who were no longer alive and who knew Morgan and maybe gave accounts. In that case I found an oral history by a man who was connected to the CIA and active as a spotter and trying to kind of recruit Morgan. And it was incredibly detailed.

And that [story]—just to be specific, to speak to different stories, because each story, again, what it requires is different—also involved many Freedom of Information Act requests, in which I FOI’d almost every government agency that might have had any dealings with Morgan. And some of those records were in national archives, and some of them weren’t. Getting all those records is one reason why that story took a long time, because the Government moves at its own pace.

So each story has its own bits. And the story dictates what you can do. While I was doing a story about Ricky Henderson—the baseball player—I spent most of my time just with Ricky Henderson. I hung out with the team he was on, and spoke with people he knew but the reporting was more one on one, or observational. In many ways that is much easier and takes less time.

But, for me, the goal is always to learn as much as possible about a subject. I never, never answer all the questions I want answered—because I’m human, and there’s time constraints, and some things are gone in the ether and there’s no way to find them. My goal is to get as close to the essence of the story, and the truth of the story as I possibly can. So, wherever that takes me I usually go. If its archives I’ll go to the archives, if it’s a prison I’ll go to a prison, if it’s chasing giant squid I’ll go chase a giant squid.

JD: Do you have a strong idea of when enough is enough? Can you usually tell when it’s time to start writing?

DG: I think you can. I think you get to a point where you’re about ninety-five or ninety-six percent there, and the four percent you probably could spend years [on], and you’re not sure if you will get them. At that point what you want to be missing are the small details, details that might make a scene more colourful, or more vivid. But you have all the elements of the story, and so the reader is not going to be left confounded, or baffled, just as you’re no longer baffled.

So you’ve accumulated enough information where in your own mind you’ve resolved the essential questions that you’re exploring in the story, or the essential questions about the character, and you have enough material to be able to narrate it. At a certain point—chasing that last four percent—you have to eventually give up, or you’ll never get paid and have any food on your dinner table.

JD: You mentioned that for ‘The Yankee Comandante’ piece you tracked down Morgan’s widow and old friends. What’s it like dropping into these people’s’ lives and asking them to speak about people they’ve known? I’ve often wondered how I would react if a journalist dropped in and asked me to speak about old friends…

DG: Yeah, it’s interesting. I’m always surprised at most people’s willingness to talk. I’m actually very private, and kind of shy, and a little bit discomforted about talking about myself. So I’m always surprised.

I think, again, each story is different. Some people are showmen, and they really welcome you in, and there really aren’t a lot of hurdles. We’ve gotten kind of used to reality TV where people expose so much about themselves. But the thing that I try to do is just spend enough time with people, so they feel comfortable. I am actually not a person who always likes to ask a lot of questions. I like to observe people in their everyday life as much as possible. Sometimes with an investigative story there are elements of direct questions. But for many of the stories I do, to understand a subject—if they’re living and I’m trying to do portrait of them—all I really want to do is disappear, and to have the person forget that I’m there. So that they’re comfortable, and so that the consciousness, and the self-consciousness, of the reporter-subject dissipates, and the person resumes their normal activity and you get to see them, the way they really are.

I try to be pretty sympathetic and generous in understanding people. I want to understand people. So hopefully there’s an element of comfort. I guess the thing I always tell people is that I can’t guarantee the way stories will turn out, but I can guarantee them that I will be extremely serious and thoughtful and will be rigorous in my reporting and in trying to understand them.

JD: The New Yorker has a reputation for having a pretty rigorous fact-checking department. Is that a particularly complicated process for your stories?

DG: You know, it’s really one of the great things about the magazine. If the goal of reporting is to get things right, and to get to the truth as best you can, and to learn as much as you can, then having the fact-checking process is just another element of that.

I tend to do a lot of my own fact-checking. I am one of those rare reporters who [tends] to go over stuff with the subjects before I go to print. I always tell people that I won’t just change things because they now wish they hadn’t said something. But I want them to be aware of what’s in the story, and also I want to make sure if there’s something that’s factually wrong, or maybe they want to make an additional point.

So I tend to go over things, and in fact do a lot of my own fact-checking, and then the fact-checkers come in and do it again. It’s burdensome in the sense that when you’re doing a big historical piece and you’re like ‘Ah, gosh, where is that one document buried in the four thousand’, and it’s Wednesday, and you’re getting ready, and you have to find that one document. So it can be a pain, but it’s a real luxury.

And sometimes things come out of the fact checking process, too. When I did the story on the ‘Yankee Comandante’, and I went over stuff with the widow, she sometimes remembered a detail in the scene. I was reading her back the scene of her wedding, and she suddenly remembered that Morgan didn’t have a ring with him, and so he reached up and pulled a leaf off the tree and wrapped it around her finger. And it was such a beautiful, lovely detail. For me, fact-checking is really just another layer of reporting. It’s just making sure that what you already reported was correct, and then it’s also just another layer, both to make sure you’re accurate and hopefully also to deepen what you’ve already done.

JD: Your pieces have this strong narrative framework, almost like importing the architecture of a fiction piece into the journalism form. I was wondering how you established that style. Is that something you’ve always instinctively done? Or is it a decision that had to be reached at some point during your career?

DG: I think that it was a very gradual process. I started out writing very straight news stories, and slowly moved towards more narrative, and then grander narratives and more ambitious narratives.

I was not actually a very good straight newspaper reporter, because almost instinctively I want to tell a story the way you would sit down to tell someone a story. In a newspaper story—where you’re supposed to have the inverted pyramid—by the third paragraph the reader is supposed to know all the basic facts on what the story is about. [That] was always kind of anathema to me, and went against my natural instincts, and I was never very good at it. Editors were always taking my last paragraph and moving it up to my third paragraph.

The more you do it the more you learn, and you start to think about structure, and you think about stories. I want the structure of a story to hopefully reflect the truths you’re trying to get at in the story, or to let people see the way stories really unfold.

People sometimes say, ‘Oh, with your stories, you think one thing and then suddenly you think another, and you’re surprised’. But what I’m really doing in those cases is hopefully unfolding the story the way it really unfolded, or the way it was really perceived. For example, with the Cameron Todd Willingham story — where everybody thought he was guilty—I spent, I think, seven thousand words basically laying out the case against him, and why he was found guilty and executed. You have the arson sleuths come in, and they find all the clues. I just reported that out, and then slowly I deconstructed that evidence. In a weird way that structure is reflecting the way things happened —that was the way people perceived the truth, and then gradually our new understandings of science, and arson evidence, and the way arsons are studied, came to light, and all the mistakes and flaws in the trial came to light. Until, by the very end, almost all the things you thought turn out to be wrong, or mistaken, or misperceived, or at least much more complicated.

JD: You mentioned earlier that you try to structure the stories in a way that reflects the truth about how events unfold. Is narrative non-fiction ever a difficult territory to navigate? It strikes me that it must be tempting for some journalists to over-narrativise events in a way that ends up misrepresenting how things happened.

DG: I think your goal both in your reporting and your structure should be the same: which is to get to the essence of the story. As long as you keep that in mind it’s really not that hard. You always want to be rigorous with yourself. And that’s why you revise stories multiple times, and you keep going back over them. I’ll go over stories, and paragraphs, and sections, and I’ll throw sections out and I will finally take a long time because you do want to make sure.

Once a story has been all reported out, there’s a certain omniscience. [When] we look back on stories, or on history, we have the benefit of hindsight and we have almost a god-like omniscience. But real stories don’t unfold that way, and real people don’t have all those powers of perception. So the thing I try to show in my stories is actually in a weird way, the opposite of over-narrativising — it’s actually the muddle, or the misperception, the way we think we see something and then we don’t really see it correctly. And that’s the way the world is.

I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes in my youth, and I read a lot of detective fiction, but the real characters I write about never have those immaculate powers, and the stories are never fairy tales. That’s the thing you want to guard against. What you want to do is be able to show the messiness of life, and the messiness of perception, and also allow open-endedness. You don’t always have all the answers, you get as close as you can, and you show what you know.

I did the story about the world’s greatest Sherlock Holmes expert—who was found garroted in his apartment—and there was this question of was he murdered, or did he commit suicide and did he stage it? There was a quote that his sister gave me at the very end, and I don’t remember it precisely, but the paraphrase was something like ‘We have to live without all the answers’. And I think that’s true, and I think that’s true for the stories you report. You have to be able to accept the complexity of life. And if you don’t, that’s when you get into trouble.

JD: Have you ever dropped a piece once you’ve started?

DG: Yeah, I do, a lot. It’s usually in the early stages. The part I’m most ruthless on is the first two to three weeks, before I’ve fully embarked on a story. In that period I’ll often drop stories, or I’ll be juggling three stories at once, trying to figure out which is the one that makes the most sense, or is the most interesting, or won’t work out. I try to avoid getting six months into a story and having to drop it. [So] in that first month I’m pretty ruthless.

What you don’t want to do is get locked in. You don’t want to presume you know what the story is and are simply reporting out that vision. You want to be open to the possibilities. Sometimes I go into a story and I think it’s one thing, and I start to report it, and it’s not actually that at all. Sometimes that’s more interesting, and it’s worth doing the story. And sometimes you think that’s really not such an interesting story after all, because the element that you thought made it most interesting really doesn’t exist.

But a good example of that would be the Squid Hunter story. Sometimes you have this narrative in your mind, and in that case [when] I sold the story to the New Yorker, I said, ‘I’m going to go out with this giant squid hunter and we’re going to be the first people to capture a live giant squid and he’s going to grow it’ [the squid]. And I said ‘I’m going on this great expedition with him, so fly me to New Zealand’, so they flew me to New Zealand. And it turns out there’s a typhoon, and we’re out on this little boat, and everything basically that could ever go wrong goes wrong on that expedition. To the point where we capture it—this little baby giant squid—and as we’re trying to transfer it into another container we lose it. And I remember when that happened, at the time I just thought ‘What am I going to do? I’m dead. There goes the whole story’. I’d been holed up in New Zealand for a month, and spent all this money and time, and here we had this baby giant squid and we lost it. What kind of story is that? There’s no ending. It was only over time that I realised that was actually an incredibly emotive, much more truthful, much more original story. And a truer story than the story I had conceived of, which was this Hollywood ending. It was about this man who had pursued this squid and bankrupted himself and had it and then lost it, if he ever even had it. And in a way, that was what the story was supposed to be. But it took me a moment—or it took me more than a moment, it took me at least twenty-four hours—to realise there was something there.


David Grann is a guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival as part of The New Yorker program of events. The festival runs from the 23rd of August to the 2nd of September. See the full program here.


A Correspondence with Sofi Basseghi

This interview originally appeared on the Meanjin blog on March 14 2013

Sofi Basseghi is an Iranian/Australian multimedia artist. After growing up in Tehran, she moved with her family to Australia in 1998, and now resides in Melbourne. She has completed a Masters of Fine Arts at RMIT, and pursued graduate study in directing at the VCA.

Her short film Sealed Lips began as an installation for her RMIT Honours class, exhibited at the 69 Smith Street Gallery, in 2005. It has since been screened at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, as part of the 2012 Iranian Film Festival Australia, and will shortly be travelling to Italy, to the Palazzo Delle Esposizioni.

Sealed Lips is a spin on the traditional One Thousand and One Nights tale. The wily storyteller Shahrezad, now old and bent, awakes in a desolate factory. Wheeling herself around in a chair, she travels from room to room, where she observes—and narrates to us— a number of delicately observed scenes, each representing struggles faced by women today. Basseghi presents each scene to us as a diptych or triptych—two or three discrete panels clustered together, articulating the story in miniature.

I recently corresponded with Basseghi about the inspirations behind her work, the differences in exhibiting in Melbourne and Tehran, and the international reception of Iranian film.

James Douglas: In your artist’s biography you write that your work evinces a desire to “cross inflicted boundaries and question cultural and traditional mores”. Sealed Lips certainly seems to engage with these themes in the context of Persian heritage and culture, but do you see this heritage as being important in the rest of your art?

Sofi Basseghi: Persian culture is embedded in me and will always be part of me. Consequently it always seems to appear in my art, and although at times I try to consciously keep this heritage away from my artistic practice, it somehow creeps its way back into my work.

However, now that I consider myself Australian as well, my work is somehow also taking on a different identity, born of my Iranian/German/English heritage and my adopted Australian culture.

JD: I’m wondering how the content of each episode in Sealed Lips was developed. Some of them I take to be drawn primarily from imagination and allegory, but other seem inspired by something more particular. I was especially struck by the scene where Shahrazad observes the woman obsessively peeling eggplants, and relates to us the prohibition on objects of that shape in Iranian prisons. This struck me as amazing enough to be true.

SB: Each scene was developed through my own imagination, dreams, and experiences, but drawn from stories told by friends, and from international news articles I had read. So they’re a combination of fact and fiction. The layout, however, is influenced by the structure of Persian miniature paintings where the whole story is being told in a single frame with a flat perspective.

With regards to the ‘eggplant scene’—this was true seven years ago, but I’m not sure about today. I could actually give other jaw dropping culinary examples, but watch this space.

JD: You have participated in several exhibitions in Tehran—at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, in 2004, and the 2012 Crucifixion show at the Shirin Gallery. At the risk of sounding culturally ignorant, I’m wondering how that experience compares to exhibiting in Melbourne. If I were to speak about the ‘art scene’ in Melbourne most readers would have a pretty good image of what I’m talking about. Is the Tehran ‘art scene’ substantially different in any way?

SB: Having the opportunity to exhibit in The Tehran Museum of Contemporary art was a fantastic experience, especially as I was only 20 years old at the time and I was being offered the opportunity to work on the collaborative group project. Our work was exhibited alongside internationally recognized artists and filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami and Shirin Neshat. I think an opportunity like that would have been quite rare in Australia, as I was a third year student at the time.

In regards to the curated 2012 Crucifixion exhibition, although there was a strong group of artists selected to be part of the show, in comparison to curated exhibitions in Australia I found that there was a lack of professional support. I think that in the arts courses at Australian universities students are trained well in professionalism in comparison to Iranian universities, where there seems to be a vacuum in this area. I specifically mean a lack of attention to detail in the exhibition setup and in the exhibition catalogue—for example errors in artists’ details.

However, I need to be fair here. It is important to note that both artists and curators alike need to battle censorship in all its many different and complicated forms in Iran. This means that, in most cases, by the time the exhibition is opening, they are frazzled out from constantly having to be challenged with this. The type of problems they face over there in setting up a simple exhibition are unheard of in Australia, and I know for a fact that struggling with censorship is very draining, both physically and emotionally. I need to also point out that I haven’t lived in Iran for so long that it is not my place anymore to be overly critical, as people are going through very hard times.

I do find, however, that the Iranian art community and general public, especially prior to the recent economic crisis, are very supportive of buying works of young and emerging artists. Here it seems to be much more difficult to make a living solely out of ones artwork, without having jobs on the side.

JD: I’m personally interested, as film buff, in how the Iranian film industry has seemed to be flourishing over the past few years, at least in respect of those works which have been distributed to Australia, or to Western festivals. Do you think the recent spate of film exports has much significance to Iranians living outside Iran, like yourself?

SB: do have some interest in Iranian cinema but I am definitely not an expert. I am interested in World movies, not just Iranian films. I agree that the international audience has taken a great interest in Iranian cinema. This could be due to the fact that, in the time since the revolution of 1979, there have been such drastic political, cultural and, now, grave economical changes. For years Iran was, to an extent, largely isolated from the international arena. Subsequently, when directors such as Kiarostami unveiled their films, the international scene was instantly curious. The recent spate of films definitely does have an effect on Iranians abroad. An obvious example was last year when A Separation won so many international awards as well as an Oscar. This was of immense national pride to Iranians living abroad, much like the sense of pride that the Taiwanese feel over The Life of Pi.

JD: It seems to me that Iranian art, at least in my experience of Iranian cinema, appears to obliquely confront the social and political issues facing Iran today, without necessarily being forthrightly critical. I see Sealed Lips as belonging to this tradition, but I was wondering whether this is something you consciously engaged in during its development? Or perhaps you’d prefer to situate your piece in some other tradition?

SB: I think in the case of Sealed Lips it does belong to that particular tradition. I originally made it as a video installation that was exhibited at 69 Smith Street Gallery in 2005 as part of my Honours project. There were nine television monitors placed in 1950s travel trunks, with each monitor telling a story about the situation of women in Iran and the Middle East at the time. After I completed my course at the VCA, I re-edited the installation into a short film.

As I travel to the Middle East at least once a year, I find that even in 2012 women still face those very problems that I wanted to talk about in 2005, and I wanted to project these stories to a wider audience. I narrated over the video telling the story in a similar way to Shahrzad from a Thousand and One Nights Tales, all the stories being true to the current social situation.

I am pleased to have made this change as Sealed Lips is currently being exhibited internationally, and so my goal of reaching a much larger audience has been met to some extent. I feel that in order for a problem to be solved, confronting as it may be, it needs to be talked about no matter where you are.

Chris Mead Interview

This interview originally appeared on the Meanjin blog on July 6 2012

‘Does anyone want to tell stories, and do you want to tell them in this particular way? Well we’ve got expertise, and we can show you how to do it.’

Chris Mead is one of three new appointees to the Melbourne Theatre Company, along with Sam Strong and Leticia Cáceres; a new ‘brains trust’, as Mead puts it, to assist the incoming Artistic Director Brett Sheehy.

What is a Literary Director, you ask? Well I asked first, and in fact overcame my natural fear of appearing ignorant to ask Mead himself over the phone. Part of his job, as I now understand it and perhaps also extrapolate romantically upon, is to be a repository of theatre lore and expertise, a keeper of the flame, the bearer of ‘the heavy hand of history’, as Mead put it.

Or, as he explained quite patiently to me, a ‘Literary Director is someone who advises on the repertoire. Somebody with the knowledge dating back to the Greeks, and the Romans, and Caroline plays and Restoration plays and Shakespeare, of course, and 19th century German plays and everything that exists. And also someone who keeps abreast of what’s happening in all the key theatre centres around the world, London, New York, across Europe and South America, right through Asia.’

Mead’s particular expertise is in working with playwrights to develop new works (he was the recipient of the inaugural Dramaturgy Fellowship from the Australia Council for the Arts in 2004). In bringing his knowledge of theatre history and form to bear on developing works, Mead is, as he says, ‘there to give (writers) the tools to solve their kind of story problem. It might be a character thing, it might be a structural question. Writing a play is a very difficult proposition. It’s a very difficult art-form to get right. You’re trying to entertain real people in real time, with lots of complex competing voices. You’re trying to get the right role for actors, and you want to get the tone right. There’s lots of things that can go wrong.’

The other side of the role, the more semi-political and less wise-old-mentor side, is that a Literary Director, as the conduit through which developing works will pass, is in a special position to have their say on the kinds of theatre that can and will be produced. Which is not to say that Mead sees himself as a gatekeeper (‘One has to be very catholic in this role, to the extent that you’re all embracing’, he says). But he is conscious of the effort that must be made to ensure that the theatre is properly culturally representative and inclusive. Mead is also the Artistic Director of PlayWriting Australia, a national body with the explicit goal of developing and promoting new Australian works. He sees the relative paucity of new Australian plays under production by the major Australian companies as disparity in need of attention. ‘Overall, across Australia it somewhere between 15-20% of new Australian works in the repertoire. And it’s almost criminal that it’s such a low figure.’

But the issue is not only the under-representation of Australian culture per se, but the under-representation of the diversity of that culture:

‘There are two fault lines in theatre at the moment. One is about gender disparity. And just how it is that so many more men than women are programmed at the major theatre companies. That’s the key area of interest. The other one is to look at whether or not the theatre we’re making reflects the kind of people that you meet as you walk down the street. It’s fairly clear from the statistics that we’ve done over a couple of years at Playwriting Australia that it doesn’t reflect at all the kind of diversity that exists in the community. And it’s incumbent on us, people working in industry, to make sure we’re giving the tools over to anyone who wants to write plays.’

‘And we’ve been working, at Playwriting Australia, in the west of Sydney and the west of Melbourne, and up in Broome, in looking to find writers. We’re not trying to be social workers, not trying to be do-gooders at all, but just saying, “Does anyone want to tell stories, and do you want to tell them in this particular way?. Well we’ve got expertise, and we can show you how to do it.” And of course they absolutely transform the form itself.’

‘As fantastic evidence of that, with the writers we’ve been working with up in Broome, we showed those plays, or excerpts, recently in Melbourne at the Malthouse. We bring international producers to Australia to see the works, because often people don’t necessarily think of Australia as a cultural exporter of new play texts. But we do what we can. We had the Literary Director of the National, as well as the Head of Audio Drama for the BBC, and the plays they adored were the plays we had from Broome. Because it gave them a completely new insight into Australia. Not simply just the descriptions of place, but the way of viewing the world, and the kind of voices that it generates.’

‘So Australian work is good and I’d like to see more on our stages, and I think it’s very possible. Part of the work is pedagogical. It’s about an audience trusting us that we’re going to put on work that is of quality, and intriguing, and thrilling, and very good. But it’s also about bringing artists across to different stages, so that they’re getting used to and familiar with that audience. And about the conversations that happens between an audience, a writer, and the actors who are performing it.’

The notion of a Literary Director is a role that seems like a miraculous synthesis of a whole bunch of nebulous stuff that would usually be dispersed over any number of other managerial roles in some other organisation. It is comforting to know that there are professional positions outside of universities whose key selection criteria may include “Candidate must be knowledgeable about Art and Culture, and be able to impart said knowledge”. Any job that sounds like a combination of manager, editor and Tribal Elder is a job which any right-thinking person can appeciate.