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Writers Talk About Writing

Literary Journalism

Sometimes you read a journalist's account of a place, person or situation that draws you in so deep you forget you're reading "news." They're more than just stories: The real-life scenes immerse you in a way that not only sticks, sometimes forever, but gives you meaning. To your humble editor, the absolute lion of this kind of journalism -- literary journalism -- was a legendary Polish reporter named Ryszard Kapuscinski, who sadly passed away last month. He was a hero, too, to a Canadian journalist named Deborah Campbell. Besides writing about the Middle East, Cuba and Russia and other places for leading publications, Deborah teaches literary journalism at the University of British Columbia. We had a fascinating conversation with her about this genre:

VT: First, let's talk a minute about Ryszard Kapuscinski. We both deeply admired his four decades of journalism, but he's not well known in the U.S.A. and Canada.

Deborah: Kapuscinski was one of the great masters. He gave so much to literary journalism by bringing anthropology, politics, history and poetic language together in the genre. Perhaps, coming from Poland, he was not restricted by some of the boxes we place around literary forms in the West. What he did so well was to bring the "big picture" into the small picture of daily life. He allowed you to pull something out of his stories that you could apply to understanding the world around you. So his writing wasn't only site specific. Kapuscinski's work allowed you to understand different cultures, but also to understand your own culture and the world in which we live. [See this week's "Dog Eared" section for Deborah's selection of Kapuscinski's books. -- Ed]

VT: Tell us what you mean by "literary journalism?"

Deborah: There are many terms for this genre, like "New Journalism," "creative non-fiction," "narrative non-fiction," "life writing," "immersion journalism," and "participatory journalism." Even "gonzo journalism" -- God bless Hunter Thompson. Given all the terms it can be rather confusing for those not initiated to really understand what it consists of.

I like the term "literary journalism" simply because it highlights the two main components of this genre, the literary side and the journalistic side. On the literary side it incorporates the techniques of fiction-though we're talking about reality here, not about making things up-including storytelling, scene setting, dialogue, voice, characterization and so forth. On the journalism side it includes research, interviewing and up-close experience. Kapuscinski called it "literature by foot," sharing the experience of being inside a situation, of living it.

VT: How is this different from what we typically think of as "journalism?"

Deborah: Literary journalism goes beyond the "hard news" journalism that we're used to, which often favors official sources and isn't really telling a story. Hard news tends to have very little voice, and it leaves out a lot of the most telling details of a story, as well as the smaller players, the ordinary people who are living "the news."

Literary journalism gives us the opportunity to bring the details to life. It goes into the everyday as well as to the official sources. It looks at a situation up close from a different angle than we typically see in the A-section of the newspaper.

VT: Did you apply the techniques of literary journalism to your book, This Heated Place, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Deborah: That was exactly my approach. I have a background in Middle Eastern studies and had lived in the region, but the kind of news reporting we were getting was very black and white. It was very framed and mainly drew from a few official sources. Unfortunately, most of the reporters spent very little time with the people actually affected by the conflict. My goal was to observe the people living the conflict from many different angles, to put forward their points of view and experience for myself, to the extent I could, how they were living. As one of the people I spoke to told me, "What you see depends on where you are standing." And that is very true in this conflict.

VT: How did you get that close?

Deborah: I had a base at the very center of the old city of Jerusalem, which is divided into four quarters, Armenian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. It was a tiny apartment with a goat living in the courtyard, but it was a good base because it was in the center of things. Ancient cartographers used to believe Jerusalem was the center of the universe, and I was at the center of the center. From there, I could go into the West Bank, Gaza, everywhere else. I was interested in taking a filmmaker's approach to the subject and being, essentially, a camera lens. I was taking snapshots of the reality I observed and trying to draw meaning from it, to construct a more complex picture than we typically see.

VT: What do you mean?

Deborah: Hard news typically parachutes their reporters in, they stay in nice hotels and have a few days to figure out the story. A lot of my work is very scene based and narrative. I try to immerse myself in the places and cultures I cover. To even begin to write about Iran, where I spent six months during and after the presidential election, I had to spend months learning Farsi, and lived entirely with locals while there. Where a hard news story might skirt over the changing demographics of Iran, where 70 percent of the population is under thirty, I would tell the story of the youth culture through the conversations I had at the nightspots in Tehran, and reveal the way Iran is secularizing from within during its current baby boom, which is much like the American post-war baby boom. Reporters from press agencies complained to me that they were restricted to writing about the nuclear issue and spent all their time at press conferences, while I went straight into the nuclear plant compound in Bushehr. I managed to find my way past the soldiers and the anti-aircraft batteries on a public bus, but I was able to put in the time and effort to do that.

When I was writing This Heated Place I wanted to present the reality to the reader through showing rather than telling because I feel that so much reporting on the Israel-Palestine conflict, like the reporting on Iran, is very editorial. It's infused with the sense that we already know the story. I felt that, actually, most of the story we don't know. By "we" I mean the mainstream audience in the West.

VT: When you talk about narrative and capturing dialogue instead of quotes, does literary journalism give a writer any license to shape those quotes?

Deborah: I don't think that in this day and age when you're writing about heated political topics you have the right to change the facts. Perhaps that was permissible in the past, like some early New Yorker writers who used composite characters, for instance. Even Kapuscinski has been accused of being less concerned with the facts than with his interpretation of them. We don't have that license any more, or we shouldn't. We live in a very literal age, and I think we have to respect that as writers.

But at the same time, I think it's fine to incorporate entire scenes with dialogue and details rather than just being dryly informative, so long as that's how it took place. I think this augments the view of what's going on. Sometimes, for example, if you're quoting someone and leave out their body language, leave out the backdrop, you're only getting half the picture. In fact, you may be giving the opposite impression of what is actually being expressed at that moment. How much better, when reporting that someone is telling you that everything is under control, to note that a volley of gunfire is going off outside the door and the walls are rattling and the person's assistant has developed an uncontrollable twitch.

So being able to present issues through scenes can show us how a story is really playing out. It also makes for compelling reading. But I don't think that we can go beyond the bounds of non-fiction, particularly in dealing with political issues. That's so important. Of course, every non-fiction writer chooses which quotes they use, which individuals they quote -- this goes for hard news, too.

VT: And what order they're putting the quotes.

Deborah: And what questions they ask to elicit those responses, how they frame a story. I think in many ways literary journalism has advantages in the realm of truth because it gives writers the opportunity to reveal their point of view, which you don't see in the "third person hard news" variety of journalism. You don't necessarily know, when you're reading hard news, what was that journalist's perspective and what was left on the cutting room floor. Who are they and how are they looking at the world? In literary journalism we have the opportunity to find that out directly from the writer. I think this gives us an advantage as readers in terms of making up our own minds about how we perceive the story they're telling.

VT: It sounds like literary journalism also lets you, as a writer, really express yourself.

Deborah: I think literary journalism breaks the mold of that very disinterested "hard news" voice. There are no barriers. You can be Hunter S. Thompson if that's your style, or you can take language wherever you want if you're Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion. I think literary journalism allows the writers' idiosyncrasies to inspire and pervade their writing. That's the poetic, literary side of it. It also reveals something of the writer's character -- and of course, makes for a better read.

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