The Book Slog Blues (Part II)

Furniture departments were segregated in Southern factories until the 1970s. This is Stanley Furniture's rub room in the late '20s or early '30s. Photo courtesy of Coy Young.

Furniture departments were segregated in Southern factories until the 1970s. This is Stanley Furniture’s rub room in the late ’20s or early ’30s. Photo courtesy of Coy Young.

The more I learn for my book-in-progress, the more I am humbled by how stupid I was when I wrote my proposal for “Factory Man.” I actually told my editor at Little, Brown & Company that I was halfway through my reporting, when in fact that figure was probably closer to 5 percent.

I wasn’t lying when I said it. I had just forgotten the central tenet of good writing: It’s all about great reporting. The more you learn, the more you realize you didn’t know anything before.

What do I wish I’d known before I started writing my book five months ago, after 20-some years of pining to land a book contract?

The connection-making mind needs frequent breaks. It needs mid-afternoon walks up Mill Mountain and breaks to make chili verde, and it craves any help and inspiration it can unearth along the way.

So I tape things to my computer, and atop the notebooks I carry with me on interviews. I write down nice things my book writer pals say to me, such as these aptly incongruent affirmations from Roland Lazenby: “You’re fucking fearless” and “Don’t be scared.”

I read and reread things like this partial paragraph from a profile of hip-hop pioneer Ahmir Khalib (Questlove) Thompson, written by New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger:

 . . . He had an unending appetite for pop culture, a prodigious memory for dates, and a compulsion for cross-referencing them. He can tell you, for instance, that Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE headquarters on May 13, 1985; that Tony Orlando guest-starred on “Cosby” that month, and that “Soul Train” was a rerun that week.

Stand back and look at the contextual heavy-lifting accomplished in just two sentences. Marvel at the astonished, easy tone. Count the status-defining details — where the subject lived, what he watched, who he listened to and what it meant to live inside his brain in the spring of 1985.

John Updike once said we like characters like Becky Sharp and Mr. Quilp because “what we like is life — and if the character is alive, we don’t apply any other criteria.” That’s another inspiration I’ve clipped, with thanks to Martin Amis, who recalled it in an interview with Vanity Fair writer John Heilpern.

The deeper you dig into a subject’s history, the tougher the material-culling will be. I’ve never spent this much reporting time focusing on one industry through one person and, the truth is, we might both be suffering from interview fatigue.

In a one- or two-shot interview, you save the tough questions for the end. But what do you do when the interviews are spread over more than a year? You spread the tough stuff out and hope for the best.

I’m not writing a hagiography, I remind my main character. I’m not writing a biography. So let’s put an end to the embedding jokes about Paula Broadwell and General Petraeus right now!

I’m writing a book about globalization in which he is a heroic main subject but he’s not a saint because, let’s face it, he’s colorful, he’s clever, and he seems to genuinely care about the plight of his factory workers. But he ain’t a saint.

When I worry that maybe I’m stirring up stuff that should remain hidden in history’s dusty archives, I turn to the new U.S. poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, who said this in a recent interview:

It is better if we grapple with [history]. Openly and honestly. And include parts that are difficult. … When the Birmingham church bombing convictions came down, people on the radio were saying, why open old wounds? The problem with that thinking is assuming those wounds had healed. Some bones broken will forever be weak. They will ache and cause pain. The best we can hope for is acknowledgment. What drives me crazy is when people don’t want to acknowledge!

I try to keep central in my mind: I may be writing about wealthy CEOs, but I’m also writing about their impact on tens of thousands of displaced factory workers whose stories are too rarely told.

“Factory Man” contains both history and current events, encompassing a decade of double-digit unemployment in Martinsville, Va., the recent sweatshop fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and what life was like for a bunch of hardscrabble sawmillers in 1902. The subject is as deep as it is wide and meandering, and that’s what keeps me awake so many nights because I know that finding exactly the right narrative, and the right tone to tell it in, are crucial.

So I write and, like the old sawmillers-turned-furniture men, I try to cull the good wood from the bad. I talk to people on the phone and I visit people, and then I talk to them again on the phone. I’ve driven from nursing homes to trailers to communities so exclusive that they purposely don’t show up on GPS.

I read through court transcripts, annual reports and simplistic old newspaper clippings.

I love, love, love the librarians and the curators, especially Pat Ross at the Bassett Historical Center, and Bill Bishop, the genius at the International Trade Commission who returns my late-night emails — by 6:45 a.m. And people like Bassett barber Coy Young, who just happened to have a stack of archival photos from Stanley Furniture during the Depression.

I really love, love, love my across-the-street neighbors Scott and Jean, who just yesterday brought me a mixed CD and homemade chicken soup to cure my strep.

My husband, Tom, is so patient with all my non-cooking and non-hygiene, he’s the real saint of my book. My son Will comes into my office at the end of his school day and still, at age 14, beams, “Hey mom, how was your day?”

Same as it ever was. I practice Ass In Chair and, for several hours a day, I try as I type to weave story from facts. I rarely take showers or leave the house, except to walk the dog up the mountain. I haven’t seen my hairdresser in six months and it shows.

I worry because I know what Robert Caro says is true:

There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts, and the more facts you manage to obtain, the closer you will come to whatever truth there is.

 I was lucky to stumble into coffee not long ago with Internet journalism guru Clay Shirky, whose parents live in Roanoke and who very kindly offered to read my draft and give feedback. Just as I’m lucky to call on writers like Roland, Annie Jacobsen, Bret Witter and Andrea Pitzer, who advised me to “start recruiting readers now!” — among many other useful things.

Such has been the ongoing lesson I’ve learned from this project, this career, this life: The more exceptional the individual, the more generous they tend to be in sharing what they know.

It had been awhile since Shirky’s heralded book, “Here Comes Everybody,” was published by Penguin, and initially Clay said he had no advice to offer. Then he remembered a tip, a nuts-and-bolts editing suggestion that is applicable to both writing and life.

When the publisher’s copy editor sends his or her edits, simply click “ACCEPT ALL.” It saves time in the long run, and if you stumble on a change you don’t like as you’re reading, you still have time to make that sentence sing.

I’m not sure my ego will let me ACCEPT ALL blindly without previewing the changes first, but if it gets my butt out of this chair a moment sooner, it could be just the thing.

What do Elvis, Louis Philippe dressers and Dalian, China have in common? They're all featured in this maze of scribbles that is my whiteboard outline for chapter 17.

What do Elvis, Louis Philippe dressers and Dalian, China have in common? They’re all featured in this maze of scribbles that is my whiteboard outline for chapter 17.

A** in Chair, Audra and Advice from the Other Side of Publication (Part I of II)

ImageMy friend Audra Ang came to visit recently. She’s a former Beijing correspondent for the Associated Press, and a fellow Nieman who is as committed to eating good food as she is to getting the story exactly right. We were happy those two things converged when she came here to read from her brand-new book, “To the People, Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China” (Lyons Press, 2012).

In the spring of 2010, I witnessed the moment when the idea for the book first floated from her mouth, at a brainstorming session that was part of a book publishing conference organized by our narrative writing teacher, Connie Hale, at Harvard’s Lippman House. (Connie wrote a wonderful post about her own book tour trials here.) So it was fitting that Tom and I hosted Audra’s first reading, a gathering that probed everything from the wonders of hotpot to the paranoia of reporting in a society where the press isn’t exactly free.

The audience was rapt, especially when she read about covering the earthquake.

The audience was rapt, especially when she read about covering the earthquake.

A Western-educated Singaporean of Chinese descent, Audra is someone who makes everything look easy, from her “dude”-peppered speech to her Michelle Obama arms. It’s also one of the wonders of reading her book, which flows seamlessly from scenes of her walking over earthquake rubble in Sichuan, knowing that dead bodies lie beneath her, to choking up as she shares a meal with earthquake survivors. For people who don’t know much about the world’s most populous nation and its next superpower, her book is a fantastic introduction to all things Chinese.

Now halfway through my own book project, I had hoped to suction some lessons from my Nieman pal since she’s a year ahead of me in the process. What did she wish she had known in the beginning that she only came to learn through 12 tactile months of Ass in Chair days that usually began when she awoke at 2 in the afternoon and went to sleep at 8 the next morning, with food and yoga/kickboxing breaks in between?

“Dude, writing a book aged me,” she said. Hauling around seven years of notebooks on multiple trips between the Bay Area and Singapore didn’t help her back, either.

Then came the worst news of all from the Other Side of Publication. Audra suggested I back up my material up on multiple spare hard drives as well as in the cloud. (Yep.) Keep copious track of my copious notes. (Yep, I was doing that already, too.) And find early readers who are brutally honest about what works and what doesn’t. (I’m  jealous that she had Ted Anthony, AP’s feature writing guru, to call on for help — though I’m grateful that journalist-writer friends including Clay Shirky, Andrea Pitzer and Leigh Anne Kelley have already volunteered their red pens.)

It was my worst fear realized. There are really no real magic bullets beyond sitting my ass in my chair, followed by more Ass In Chair, interlaced with copious amounts of hand-wringing and back spasms. And remember the way the old-fashioned typewriter used to sound when you dinged the carriage that final time on an article? (For you young folks, you know, like the secretary babes do on Mad Men?)

Duuuude, it’ll be a year before you even get to imagine hearing that sound. (I’m not sure what Audra did for her sore back, but I recommend those peel-off icy/hot pack stickers and, if you have one, a nightly hot tub accompanied by a book that has nothing to do with what you’re writing about so you won’t find yourself dreaming about, in my case, legal transcripts from the International Trade Commission.)

I read on a hand-me-down Nook my aunt gave me, which is backlit — great for night-tubbing — and mostly impervious to steam, as long as you hold it an inch or so above your head. Sadly, this does not take the place of a daily shower. There was a week not long ago when I wore the same sweaty yoga pants for four days.

Writing her book on the heels of a rigorous six-year reporting stint in China wiped Audra out so much that she’s happily taking a break from journalism, working as a senior development writer at Duke University — and still eating unseemly amounts of food in a single setting, though the potstickers and pork belly have given way to buttermilk biscuits and Cajun-infused deep-fried turkeys.

She's not joking when she says she eats unseemly portions in a single sitting. Where does it go?

She’s not joking when she says she eats unseemly portions in a single sitting. Where does it go?

We had the privilege of introducing our foodie pal to our favorite restaurant in the world, a hillbilly-Asian place that is a tiny speck of funk in the rolling hills of Tazewell County. Cuz’s Uptown BBQ co-owner Yvonne Thompson took us on a serious food bender that included Rappahannock oysters, crab cakes with chili hollandiase, Thai seafood curry, plate-sized prime rib and coconut crème brulee — and that’s literally only about half of what we ate. When we left our Cuz cabin the next morning, we carried baggies of leftover country ham.

Dude, welcome to the South!

Audra claims she’s stuck a fork in her storytelling career. This, from a reporter who once offered to cut off her arm in exchange for a tour of an illegal noodle-making operation. But that’s her story right now, and she’s sticking to it.

(I’ll post Part II of my Advice from the Other Side of Publication — featuring more advice I’ve been collecting from  writers — in a few days. Meantime, if you have your own book-writing tips to share, please chime in.)

They made, we ate: Portugal is an untapped gem, rich with community and culinary delight

ERICEIRA, PORTUGAL — They cooked on charcoal grills in restaurant entranceways and, in one typically narrow street, in the hallway behind the kitchen — inside the restaurant. At home, they cooked outside on grills and indoors on cooktops and ovens.

For a week straight, they made, we ate. They made, we ate. It was a small gathering of Nieman fellows from our 2010 class — nine in all, including four teenagers — but it was a hungry one and, true to form, a thirsty one, too.

The fish went by the names of salted cod, sardines and a buttery wonder called dourada. There were shellfish  too — clams, mussels and mango-sized prawns served in a garlicky sauce that was worthy of all those calories, especially when sopped with crusty Portuguese bread.

At a seaside restaurant called Furnas, named for the rocky shoals outside the restaurant, we ate a crustacean

Percebes from the Ericeira restaurant Furnas. “It tastes just like the sea.”

the Portuguese revere — a creature called percebes that looks like something out of “Alien” but tastes exactly as our marvelous hostess, Joana Gorjão Henriques, promised it would: “just like the sea.”

Because no seaside eating adventure is complete without a contribution from our surfer pal

Isabel, minding the chicken for me — and translating Celsius to Fahrenheit.

Spike, one night I made Steve Pike’s lemon chicken with the help of Joana’s sister, Isabel, a fabulous cook. We melded the flavors of South Africa and Portugal (though, I think the recipe originated with a Brit), which seemed apt for our international group.

But mostly we noshed on seafood and pork — the Portuguese are serious about their chourico and linguica — all of it locally sourced. Isabel treated us to her octopus rice, starting with a pressure cooker (sign of a very serious cook), two octopi and one half of an onion unchopped. “Believe it or not, no water,” she said. It was delicious and, like the mystery crustacean, it tasted exactly like the sea.

Dinner with Luis at his remarkable home near Ericeira.exactly like the sea.

Portuguese food is amazing, including the prices. We bought sausage and chicken from the butcher who broke the meat down in front of us, and I paid less than one euro for a dozen yellow plums at a farmer’s market. Portugal may have the third highest unemployment in Europe, behind Greece and Spain, but we saw very few signs of it, even in the inner city. At an old printing factory turned entrepreneurial center in Lisbon, a shoemaker and designer (think Danskos but funkier) told me her business was going great guns and gave me an interview about why she refuses to offshore her product for my book.

We wondered why more people don’t vacation in this largely untapped European gem. Other than the couple from Northern Virginia I met in the airport, we saw no other visiting Americans the entire week.

These are Fontinhas (translation: small fountains) from a cute little cafe called Aroma a cha in Ericeira. They look like Pastel De Natas, but owner Maria Gracio told me they were a happy invention she and her partner made by accident one day when they were missing two ingredients. “All the people said it has almonds in it or cheese, but it doesn’t,” she said, carefully leaving out what it does have in it.

You can buy a top-notch espresso and the country’s ubiquitous pastry, the custard-filled pastel de nata — for less than two euros combined. The nine of us regularly ate out for less than 10 euros each, even at A Velha Senhora, the trendy tapas restaurant in a funky Lisbon neighborhood, where we’re told a decent two-bedroom apartment rents for around 600 euros a month. (Anthony Bourdain waxed his usual profane and poetic about eating his way through Lisbon here.)

But the thing that most struck me about the Portuguese was their inclusion of family in nearly everything they do. Friday night dinners involve multiple generations of children, copious amounts of wine and, rare for our own family of four, total immersion togetherness with no cellphones or text messages mucking up the scene. In the beach village of Ericeira, where Joana’s family has summered since she was a child, kids roam the tiled, café-dotted streets at night amid a multigenerational backdrop that feels safe, secure and vibrant in an almost-big city way.

We ended up spending more time with Max, our own 18-year-old who’s soon to leave for

Max in the monastery, Mafra.

college, than we had in months, probably years. (That may have had a little bit to do with Joana’s gorgeous teenage nieces, who gathered with us most nights.)

There was also the matter of the drinking age in Portugal, where Max was legal and enjoyed more than his share of Joana’s mohitos, which she begins by crushing sliced limes with sugar in a pitcher using only a wooden spoon (a long process that explains why her biceps are tougher than squid). Her father Luis shared his ginginha, a special family-recipe liqueur he makes with morello cherries. It doesn’t taste like the sea, but sipping from the bottle he kindly sent home with us will remind me of it and his modern, architectural wonder of a home, designed by Isabel’s husband, Zé Mateus.

While we cooked and ate for hours each night, we walked it off during touring centuries-old castles and cathedrals. (Lisbon is known as the city with seven hills, and navigating its ceramic-tiled sidewalks requires total attention and sure feet.) At  a monastery in Mafra, I lit a candle in memory of a young man I’m writing about at the request of his grieving mother. In Évora, we toured the creepy but oddly comforting Capela dos Ossos, with walls covered and decorated with human skulls and bones. Life is fleeting, the bone chapel reminds us with a welcome that

Dem bones, dem bones at the Capela dos Ossos, Evora.

translates to: “We, the bones that are here, await yours.” People actually travel from abroad to get married there.

We followed the surfers to the beach, where the breeze masked a sun that turned Max lobster pink, with thanks to Martha, our Boston traveling pal, for concocting him a black tea sunburn tonic. She also ventured out with 14-year-old Will at midnight to gather fallen lemons from Luis’s neighbor’s garden. When life gives Martha lemons, she stays up half the night making lemonade. (She also took three of the four kids off to Spain for a day while the rest of us played on another beach.)

Then there’s our other Boston traveler, Lisa, who could not leave “The World” (a program she co-anchors) behind, interviewing half the people we met — even the sardine

The sardine who gave his yummy life for us had no comment, despite Lisa’s persistent questioning.

bones on our plates. (They had no comment.) She spent the better part of a week in mythic search of the village fish lady, culminating with a foot quest on our final day in Romeirão with instructions that we should pick her up mid-morning in the village crossroads, which had us all shaking our heads, worried we’d never find her. But sure enough, there she was as we crested the hill, waiting for us next to the statue of a saint. (The fish lady was not available for comment, either, though word had spread across the tiny village that the American reporter with fabulous hair was looking for her.)

Joana with her mother and sister, Lisbon.

Teresa’s cookbook — and, yep, I’ve already asked for the beet salad recipe.

In Lisbon our last night, the trip ended with a dinner lovingly prepared by Joana’s mother, Teresa Fiadeiro, who consulted her handmade family cookbook to prepare Bacalhau à Gomes de Sá, a dish featuring codfish, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes and black olives, along with a remarkable salad of apples and beets.

They made, we ate, and the tasty memories kept coming, just like the sea.

The gang at A Velha Senhora, a tapas restaurant in a Lisbon neighborhood so cool (and reasonably priced) that it hasn’t made the tourist destination lists — yet.

Prologue to the prologue: The agony of organization

I’m sure I’ve written 90,000 words before in my career, but never all in one contiguous line. I’ve just signed my name to a legal contract with Little, Brown & Co. swearing to deliver nine-ty freak-in’ THOU-sand words by  June 3, 2013. Lord help me.

I feel like I did when I returned from cholera riots in Haiti in November 2010 and could not stop obsessing over my three notebooks full of interviews. If I didn’t type them up immediately in my sleep-deprived state, the house might burn down and I would lose them. (As if I wouldn’t then have a slightly bigger problem at hand.)

All my life I’ve wanted to write a book. It took me two decades to find the right big subject — globalization of the furniture industry — and the right main character, John Bassett III, the man from the storied furniture-making family who fought to keep his Galax workers employed.

If all goes well, “Factory Man” will have historical heft and contemporary relevance. Heroes will appear, and villains, too, along with my usual cast of underdogs — barbers, librarians and filling-station attendants; men and women who toiled in finishing rooms, glue stations and a place furniture folk call the “rough end.”

My book will come to a rough end if I don’t figure out how to manage the growing stacks of archival pictures and interviews and clippings I’m amassing by the day. Before I wrote my first word, I felt exactly like I did post-Haiti: freaked out about my material — how to keep it safe and manageable, how to remember what it is I already know.

Like most anxiety episodes, this one made little sense but did serve a purpose. Fretting over how to organize my stuff gave me pre-writing focus, something beyond, holy crap Batman, how am I going to write 90,000 words?

Luckily, my editor, John Parsley, suggested I call another of his journalist/authors, Annie Jacobsen, for tactical advice. Annie’s writing her second book, on the heels of her bestselling “Area 51,” and she didn’t answer my strategy questions so much as she intuited exactly what I needed to hear, beginning with: “You’ve got tons of time!” and “Take a deep breath!” and “Trust me, you’ve got the absolute best editor in the world.”

Organizing the material would come to me organically, she promised, and it was OK if I didn’t take the time to transcribe every word of every interview I recorded (but it’s good to notate my handwritten notes with recording time stamps for fact-checking later ).

Those books I’m reading and Post-It noting to death? It’s OK if I don’t type up every underlined word. Annie spends 12 hours a day in a room with Nazis — the subject of her current book — who appear to her in marked-up books, inside file folders of declassified military documents and on a screen full of digital rectangles. As with my project, some of her material is in computer files (she raves about Lion, the new Imac search engine), and some of it’s in the swarm of papers surrounding her desk. Among her tips:

• Footnote the hell out of your material as you write — whether you plan on keeping them in the final product or not — so you remember from whence every fact came.

• Break down the number of words you need to write weekly and assign yourself mini-deadlines, leaving a full month pre-deadline to edit and rewrite.

• By the time you get to chapter 18, you’ve been writing for so long that “all that typing pays off and you’re writing really well, and all your experience catches up with you, and it’s a gift from the heavens,” she told me. “In that regard, the rewriting and editing becomes actually really joyful.” Oh, how I hope.

Most importantly, she said: The more you write, the more you know where you’re going. The more irresistibly original facts you uncover, the better the bones of the book. “I’m constantly charging through my material looking for the single detail that’s going to make my chapter. Then I reverse-engineer from that.”

Upon Annie’s advice, I stopped reporting and started writing, after spending a fruitful couple of weeks in Bassett, mostly at the fabulous Bassett Historical Center, where librarian Pat Ross is  my new best friend. (Who else would know that the large building on the right of this picture is the old Riverside Hotel, and that innkeeper Miss Mattie Smith used to sell bag lunches for the train passengers when they stopped at the Bassett station?)

I also took time to set up a chapter-by-chapter filing system for notes, sources and text, suggested by my Nieman Fellow pal Shankar Vedantam, who wrote “The Hidden Brain.” I owe Shankar a huge debt for suggesting a work strategy I have come to think of as “Shankar Five Years From Now” during one of our Nieman seminars in 2010. It involves waking up at 5 every morning to work on personal projects before you go to your day job — the idea being that, if you work very hard, the personal projects will become your day job. That method echoed loudly last fall when my Roanoke Times colleague Ralph Berrier (“If Trouble Don’t Kill Me”) baited me into writing the proposal for this book, explaining that he’d written his while working full-time and with a newborn baby in the house. “Write the damn thing, Macy. Just do it!” (We Midwesterners are mightily swayed by guilt.)

I’m only halfway through my second chapter. Not that I’m counting or anything, but I’ve written and rewritten 4,000 words. Many of them will get deleted and reworked, I know, and there’s a good chance I’ll get to the end before I realize that the beginning is glaringly wrong. E.L. Doctorow once said that book-writing is “like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

In other words, focus only on what’s in front of you, do that, then do the next little bit.

My groovy financial planner Tom Nasta e-mailed a version of the same advice last week. When we bought our first-ever new car last year, Quaker Tom reassured me the money was well-spent: “It’s OK. Jesus would have driven a Subaru!” Tom’s latest nugget is a quote from the writer R.H. Blyth: “Think of Zen, of the Void, of Good and Evil, and you are bound hand and foot. Think only and entirely and completely of what you are doing in the moment and you are free as a bird.”

Now that I’ve stopped fretting over where to put stuff, I’m actually writing my book. The recipe is sure to change, but for now it’s deep breath followed by juicy detail followed by deep breath. Repeat 90,000 times.

Digital Guru Clay Shirky on a Newspaper Plan B

Image

First, the bad news: Print newspapers are in “mechanical hospice,” with 2011 revenues on a par with earnings from the last quarter of 2006.

Then, the, um,  good news (sort of):

It’s Plan B time.

Time for some come-to-Jesus innovation. Those of us who still believe in the power of newspapers to bring people together, enlighten and entertain need to face the fact that right now we have nowhere to go but up. Read the full post »

View from poet Donald Hall’s window: on ageism, writer’s block and the wonder of Andro-Gel

Poet Donald Hall next to the window of his Wilmot, N.H., home. Photo by Gary Knight

Poet Don Hall’s essay about the irrelevance of old people is the best argument against that wrongheaded notion. Published in the Jan. 23 New Yorker, “Out the Window” catalogs the indignities of old age as Hall views it, from being ignored by a grandchild’s teenaged friend, to a run-in with a condescending security guard at the National Gallery of Art — his girlfriend, Linda, pushing him in a wheelchair and stopping before a Henry Moore carving, whereupon the guard approaches to explain just who the sculptor is.

Hall, 83, is probably the world’s authority on the artist, having not only known him well but also written a heralded biography of the man.

But he and Linda say nothing and nod politely, only to be stopped again as they’re exiting the cafeteria by the same dunderheaded guard who bends down to ask Hall: “Did we have a nice din-din?”

Back in his creaky New England farmhouse, Hall takes his quiet rage out on a yellow legal pad, as he is wont to do. He writes with a cheap Bic pen. Then he has an assistant — aka “my friend down the road” — type the essay up, after which he edits it by hand and the ritual continues, noting each new draft with a number at the top. He writes only essays now and takes pleasure in the task, as he writes in the magazine:

New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor, and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at fifty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.

• • •

In the spring of 2010, Cambridge, Mass.-based photographer and fellow Nieman Gary Knight and I drove up to see Hall in his New Hampshire farmhouse. We talked mostly about ageism as he sees it,  from the blue armchair where he spends winters watching juncos and chickadees, and worrying about the weight of the snow on the roof of the barn.

Our introduction to the legendary poet had taken place earlier that year when he lumbered onto Harvard’s Walter Lippman House stage looking like Walt Whitman fresh off a bender, his khakis wrinkled and his hair and beard unkempt.
“Poetry is like oral sex!” he bellowed at the start of his talk, which veered from dead metaphors, to a prolonged and recent writer’s block, to the sweet-sad memories of his poet-wife, Jane Kenyon.

An example of a dead metaphor Hall finds hideous: Never write that someone or thing “darted across a room” — better to say “moved quickly” and move on. Hall shared his all-time favorite line of poetry, written by Thomas Hardy, which he recited with bravado, his tongue drilling the consonants like a baseball on wood: “Down their carved names the raindrop plows. . . ”

After an hour and 15 minutes, he stood up abruptly and announced that he was sorry; he needed urgently to get up and go pee.

We loved it. Of all the eccentric geniuses we heard from at Harvard, Hall was the the one who seemed most genuinely himself. He spoke lustily of language —  a tonic for a room of middle-aged journalists who were being encouraged to write in 140-character exchanges and HTML.

Gary and I arranged a follow-up interview through a series of old-fashioned letters; Hall detests the phone. He dictated his notes and directions through his assistant, while I wrote back  on my laptop but mailed my notes  in envelopes made from recycled maps that I imagined he’d enjoy. On his personal stationary, the assistant typed that any Tuesday in May would be fine but mornings were best. “Mid-day I get comatose,” he explained.

• • •

“I used to have solid thighs,” Hall tells us by way of greeting, the morning we arrive at Eagle Pond Farm. His hands are bony, too, with veins like a topographical map. He smiles wryly and points to the Band-Aid on his arm. “It tears for no reason at all; they call it ‘thin skin.’ I kinda like that,” he says. “But getting old is just a series of losses.”

Photo by Gary Knight

When his poet-wife Jane Kenyon died of leukemia in 1995 at the age of 47, Hall said he had so many words gushing from him that some days he couldn’t write fast enough. He wrote memoirs (“The Best Day, The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon”). He wrote poetry collections (“Without,” “The Painted Bed.”)
He talked about her to anybody who’d listen. “If I was at the counter of a diner and someone said, ‘Can you pass the salt?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, my wife used to like a lot of salt.’ ”

For a solid year, he wrote her a letter every day. He couldn’t fill his tank up with gas without driving to her grave. “She would have turned 64 this year, and that’s unbelievable to me,” he says. “I still think about her every day.”

But he also tells us about his girlfriend, Linda Kunhardt, a teacher nearly 30 years his junior. And she’s definitely not the first.

Just two weeks after Kenyon died, Hall bought himself a box of condoms, desperately searching out affairs. They were, he wrote in one poem:

As distracting as Red Sox baseball

And even more subject to failure.

He holds up a recent copy of Poetry magazine to show off Linda’s first published work, called “The Slaying.” It’s a five-stanza poem with a refrain that goes: I find executives in my pants.

Hall giggles and says: “I have no idea what it means.” But he loves that she’s as off-beat as he is and, he adds, “She’s messy, too. She loves my hair.”

• • •

Photo by Gary Knight

In 2007, Hall thought he had written his last. “What came first, the depression or the writer’s block, I don’t know,” he explains. Having just finished his yearlong stint as Poet Laureate of the United States, he found himself pacing from one end of his Civil War-era farmhouse to the other. For the first time in his life, he could not commit words to paper.

He lost 60 pounds.

His son was so worried that he removed his pistol from the house.

He took him to a doctor, who found a pharmaceutical fix. And before long, he picked up his legal pad.

The New Yorker published “Meatloaf” in July 2010, an ode to baseball, grief and poetry, written in nine stanzas of nine lines of nine syllables.

I live alone with baseball each night
but without poems. One of my friends
called “Baseball” almost poetry. No
more vowels carrying images
leap suddenly from my excited
unwitting mind and purple Bic pen.

With any luck, Hall told us he figured he had one last book left in him, his 39th. And true to word, “The Back Chamber” was released a year later in September 2011. As an L.A. Times reviewer noted rapturously: “Eros and the particulars of skin-on-skin are found on nearly every page.”

A poem generally takes him a year to write, so he had been happy to unearth some abandoned ones from “back from when I was writing a good deal every day and writing a lot of crap.” He saved a dozen of 83 pages and threw the rest away.
During our meeting, one of the recent poems, titled “The Last Stage,” was in its 130th draft and counting. It contained references to Kenyon, dead Red Sox players and anxiety about his house burning down. He read it aloud to us, and it was electrifying.

He said his kids would never want to live at Eagle Pond Farm, and it pains him to consider what will come of his family collections — not the deKoonings and the Warhols as much as the seashells and stones, the tiny lead baseball players he played with as a kid, the statue of an Egyptian ruler he can longer name.
How does he want to be remembered? I asked.

“I’ve lived to see people with three Pulitzers die and be totally forgotten; that might happen to me. But I’d like to think I’ll survive in my work. ”

• • •

In a letter he mailed after our interview, Hall divulged how exactly he’d conquered writer’s block. A pharmaceutical testosterone called Andro-Gel renewed his appetite for … everything.

“Shortly after taking it, my beard grew larger, I felt horny, and I started some new poems. The new book should be dedicated to Andro-Gel! I think this book will be my last. I don’t think I will write any more poems. I am not depressed. I can write prose.”

He may feel peripheral at times, but the New Yorker piece is vintage Hall: elegant and full of gratitude, gumption and candor. I’d love to know how how many drafts he took to compose this thrilling, sweeping sentence:

Decades followed each other — thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty extended the bliss and then came my cancers, Jane’s death, and over the years I traveled to another universe.

One dash, five commas, and the anguish of adulthood nailed in just 44 words.

Donald Hall sees the world quite well from his worn chair and, hell yes, he can still write prose.

When he extracted a Kent from its box — he still smokes a pack a day — his hands shook and so did his bushy beard. Photo by Gary Knight

Alzheimer’s deserves to be on the front page

Skip and Meg Curtis, New Hampshire innkeepers, one year after he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's.

Meg Curtis read my recent story about Alzheimer’s in PARADE magazine, and she wasn’t happy. Why was her story, painstakingly told to me in an hourlong interview and several followup e-mails, reduced to a simple, two-graph blurb? Why didn’t we include the photograph of her husband, Skip, robbed of his personality by early-onset dementia at the age of 59, so readers could see how shockingly young he was?

“First of all..this is NATIONAL ALZHEIMER’S MONTH!!!!” she wrote in an e-mail last Sunday when the story disappeared. “What appears on the cover is a pie and most of the magazine is devoted to pies! This disease is reaching epidemic proportions, and every one of us will be affected in some way with this disease. Even Medicare could be bankrupted by the Baby Boomer generation.”

Meg was right. Alzheimer’s deserves much more attention than it gets. The struggles she and Skip faced deserve to be told in all their complexities and glories: Her gut-hollowing realization that she had a whale of a bigger problem than a foreclosure notice when her husband finally admitted he hadn’t paid their mortgage in six months — because he could no longer figure out how.

Dealing with an ill-equipped medical establishment (one doctor had difficulty even uttering the name of the disease). Her efforts to keep her beloved husband at home until the end. How little hope she was given beyond Skip’s participation in clinical trials.

An activist now trying to keep the message alive, Meg made a promise to her husband before his death last year  that she would dedicate the rest of her life to fighting “the monster,” as she calls it.

The federal government spends $3 billion annually on research to combat HIV/AIDS, a disease that kills about 10,000 a year, Meg explains. Which is well and good, but it only spends $450 million towards research for Alzheimer’s, a disease that kills 80,000 Americans a year. That’s the message Meg wants to push: To slay the monster, we’ve all got to step up because there’s not an American alive who won’t personally be affected somehow by this disease.

I knew the facts and figures already before undertaking this freelance assignment, having spent a year reporting on caregiving issues and studying long-term care at the Harvard School of Public Health. I also knew, after meeting with several book agents in the throes of my research, that as one put it: “People don’t want to read about dementia — it’s too depressing, and there’s nothing they can do about it to make it better.”

Writing this brief, 600-word PARADE story taught me a powerful lesson about dealing with grieving families. It’s a notion I heard repeatedly during my recent Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma Ochberg fellowship: As journalists who regularly interview traumatized or marginalized people, we owe it to our subjects to explain exactly what we’re trying to do before we interview them.

I could have been clearer about my intentions and limitations with Meg and more honest with myself about the heavy-handed summarizing that a short piece in a general-audience magazine requires. But as someone who routinely writes 3,000-word narratives, I can’t help but want to know the whole story.

This story was just a sliver of a piece of the long slog that families grappling with Alzheimer’s face. It focused on the warning signs of Alzheimer’s: The moment a woman progresses beyond simply forgetting where she put her keys to becoming lost and confused driving around her own neighborhood; the moment a man tells his wife in all seriousness and apropos of nothing, “An airplane has just landed on the roof.”

Perhaps that’s as much as I should have talked to Meg about in our interview. But as I explained to her last weekend, my future stories on caregiving will very much be informed by the whole of her story. In a talk I’m giving to the American Medical Directors Association in March, I plan to drive many of her suggestions home.

“Don’t sit back in your rocking chair and just wait to die,” Meg advises other families. Join clinic trials through the Alzheimer’s Association. Get a second opinion from a memory-care expert, especially if your family doctor is uncomfortable talking about the disease. Know your limits, and don’t forget to take care of you.

Skip Curtis died last year at 63, four years after he was diagnosed — but not before helping researchers identify the disease in a clinical trial involving spinal fluid. “It gave us a purpose,” Meg told me. “And he felt that he was helping mankind, which was his main purpose all along in life.”

His story has contributed in other ways, too. The PARADE piece alone generated so much response that the national Alzheimer’s office in Washington told me their helplines were jammed the day after the story ran. More than 32 million sets of eyeballs read PARADE, and that’s another statistic that can’t be ignored in these days of dwindling print-media consumption.

People still read, and they still crave stories that reflect their fears and concerns, even short how-to articles that are buried alongside cover stories on Thanksgiving pie.

Journalism Ethics: Mystery desserts, midnight karma and the best story I never wrote

Historical clippings, pictures and interview notes for the juiciest story I never wrote.

I’m not an ethics expert, I confessed to the room full of students and faculty members attending Engaging Ethics, a Hollins University conference held earlier this week. I  tend to do my best reporting when I go with my gut. What else do you fall back on when you’re alone with a subject and have to make split-second decisions about how to handle sticky material, or ask a painful question or negotiate whether you’ll write the story at all?

It was obvious from the questions lobbed at me and veteran television anchor reporter Keith Humphry that people in our audience believed that ethical standards have dimmed in this age of 24/7 media.

This may sound corny, but  most professional journalists I know believe we’re trying to serve the greater good, whether that means helping a community heal from a tragedy like the Virginia Tech shootings or helping readers understand the signs of PTSD in returning veterans. I touched briefly on three scenarios I regularly face in the field and on the fly before presenting a case study from 2002.

• First lesson: How you treat people matters.

I seriously considered quitting my job the day after the Virginia Tech shootings. That’s how much I didn’t want to call grieving families on the phone. When more than 500 reporters from across the globe converged on Blacksburg, I wanted to flee screaming from the scene. Grieving people were sick of us, and some of my reporting brethren made me sick, too. One guy faked a broken arm so he could interview the wounded at the hospital.

But I was proud of how The Roanoke Times handled the coverage, realizing that the big media would leave and we’d still be here. We may not have gotten every story first, but we didn’t camp out in grieving family’s yards or photograph them sneaking into funeral home offices. In the long run, we ended up with deeper stories built on the most important element in journalism: trust.

Lesson two: Objectivity is a worthy goal. But there are times when you can’t NOT get involved.

Picture a hospital in northern Haiti decimated with cholera. Pre-election riots are about to break out, trapping the medical team you’re covering inside a hospital compound. The doctors are hemmed in by the very people they’ve been sent to help.

Messages are lost in translation with no interpreters available. You’re surrounded by dying people, tired hospital staffers and grieving family members — including a mother who’d left her dead husband by the roadside so she could save her mother and child.

What do you do when a man asks you for money to help bury his son? How about  when a doctor you’re writing about who hasn’t slept in two days asks you to fetch supplies from the office, or mix up baby formula, or how to say “please return in eight days” in Creole?

You do the right thing. Be a person first.

• Lesson three: Give a guy a break but (gently) persevere.  Not long ago an editor and I debated the merits of sharing a prepublication story with a veteran suffering from serious PTSD. Ken, a 52-year-old former Guardsman now on full disability, had backed out of a profile I was working on about him early in the spring. His hands trembled during our first two-hour interview, and his wife told me later that recounting his story to me had left him an emotional wreck. Anticipating this, I’d researched how to interview with people with PTSD ahead of time, but none of my strategizing seemed to help. War was hell, and so was coming home and spilling it out to a newspaper reporter, no matter how empathetic she seemed.

But I kept in touch with Ken over the next several months. By May he was training dogs as part of his therapy. By September I detected the first whisper of optimism in his voice as he recounted a fishing trip to Florida. Seven months after our initial meeting, I asked if he’d reconsider letting use a part of his story, as well as some wonderful photos our photographer had taken before he backed out, and he agreed. He’d be a small piece of a larger story on treatment that a colleague was putting together. I read him the section I prepared, explaining that she would pull from it. Then he asked: Can I read the whole thing? I could tell he wasn’t trying to play me to manipulate the story. But he desperately needed to understand how we were presenting him, in context with the rest of the series.

In general, that answer is: Sorry, no. For myriad reasons. If we allowed subjects to preview every story, we’d never get anything done. People would try to take paint themselves in the best possible light, retract juicy bits, pitch holy hell about every piddling detail. That’s the fear.

There are strong policies against this practice at many news organizations. But Walt Harrington, one of my journalism gurus, gave a group of disciples his blessing to ignore those rules. At a conference a few years back, he shared that he usually reads lengthy narratives to his subjects as a kind of last interview. Ideally, you’ve spent so much time with them by this point that there are rarely any surprises, and there are times when a subject does correct errors of fact and/or interpretation.

I don’t fall back on Walt’s Rule often — maybe twice a year, and usually only on long narratives in which I’ve summarized mightily, putting my own spin on what I’ve observed and felt and gathered over the course of many interviews. Never has a subject surprised me by freaking out over my draft, for we’ve discussed the material at length many times before. Usually, the story gets better because the person finally figures out exactly what I’m trying to do.

Sometimes during the read-through I learn that I have a date, or color, or the fact of some random matter wrong. I remember the lawyer/marathon runner with stage-four cancer correcting me, gently pointing me toward a deeper understanding: No, it wasn’t the sleepless nights that got to her; it was the dreaming. “I was swimming across the ocean and had to reach the other side because there were children who needed me or they would die,” she said as I read her my draft.

Still, most old-school newspapers editors recoil at the idea of sharing stories before publication. But if bending our policy to help someone with a serious anxiety disorder feel calmer about seeing his name and face in print, I don’t see the harm.

It’s not like I’m breaking an actual law. That is, I’m not smoking hash with my subject, as was the case in a rapport-building reporting scenario described by Pulitzer-winning writer Gene Weingarten in a recent ethics session at the Mayborn literary nonfiction conference that was as hilarious as it was thought-provoking. Sure, I’ve had a beer or two with a subject when the occasion merits. On my beat, which tends to focus on immigrants and other underdogs, I’m more likely to be offered things like vegetables that have been washed in a fish pond (in rural Mexico), orange Fanta (by myriad Roanoke refugees who don’t know I’m borderline diabetic) or mystery desserts (one gooey concoction was made of gelatin, sugar and peanuts) or celebratory lamb that I’ve just watched a toddler walk through on the floor. (True stories, and the lamb was quite tasty!)

I’d rather get sick than offend a subject by refusing their homemade, hard-earned food. But relationship-building decisions are always are case by case, and it’s hard to understand — especially far away, from a news editor’s desk — how far a reporter should go to earn an important subject’s trust.

The best editors trust their people in the field. I’ll never forget going to managing editor Rich Martin in tears about a story I’d spent weeks researching. It was a juicy historical piece about the most sensational murder to hit Roanoke: In 1949 a 16-year-old Eagle Scout killed a beautiful Jefferson High School cheerleader in the basement of a prominent church. It made the covers of pulp magazines and commandeered our paper’s front page for months on end. People from their graduating class and others in the community still wonder what happened to the murderer after he got out of prison.

With the help of our savvy news researcher, Belinda Harris, I learned that he’d led a productive second life several states away, becoming a civic leader, church elder and businessman. He died without his children ever realizing his crime. I presume they’re still unaware.

“This story won’t help anybody; it’ll just injure us,” his sobbing widow told me in one of two brief conversations we had at the end of my reporting. “If you print this, you’ll have another obituary on your hands. Maybe more.”

It felt exactly like I’d made my 84-year-old mother cry.

I still have the lede and outline, myriad interviews with relatives from both families, recollections from people who worked the case and  schoolmates who recall what they wore to her funeral. Every now and then someone calls out of the blue wanting to write a book or a screenplay about the tale, asking me to reveal the story’s end, or tell them how I found it. I don’t.

It was the best story I never wrote — an epic tale of violence and redemption. The end of innocence.

Someone else may very well finish the tale one day. But it won’t be me.

But don’t the man’s children have a right to know what he did? the students at the ethics conference wanted to know. What if an unsolved murder in his faraway state turns out to have involved him? How’d  the victim’s family react to the prisoner’s early release?

Another student answered for me. “Was it a matter of ‘First, do no harm?’ ” she offered.

Yep, and knowing my own particular brand of midnight karma. If the story isn’t serving some sort of greater good, I won’t sleep well having told it.

Will it nag at you in the middle of the night? Will you make your mama cry? Those are the real ethical questions to ask.

Eating, roll-overing and laughing our way to the Karoo and back

Intrepid braaier, biker and surfer dude Steve Pike, aka "Spike." With the lamb potjie on the fire, he left for a mountain-bike ride at dusk — and didn't come back till well past dark.

CAPE TOWN — Like the African honey badger — and you really must watch this video to understand the full context of this phrase — Steve Pike don’t give a sh*t.

Except when it comes to feeding people and showing them a great time.

Which explains why the South African surfer dude quickly emerged as one of everyone’s favorite pals during our stay in Cambridge during our fellowship year. Better known for surf-forecasting than sauteing, the 47-year-old Capetonian ended up becoming the go-to foodie for our entire Nieman class.

Catering a party for 60? Spike’s the guy to call.

Lamb chops for Janet's birthday on our last night (sniff sniff).

“Braai” was one of the first things he introduced us to when he demonstrated that a fire isn’t really hot enough to grill over unless you can hold your hand just above it and count to just 10 — any more than that, and you’ll get burnt. Braai is an Afrikaans word that refers to the practice of grilling meat over a wood fire while about 10 of your mates stand clutching beers and telling you what to do.

I watched a whole lot of braai-ing during our recent two-week vacation to visit Steve and his wife, Janet Heard, and my foodie pals are clamoring for some food porn — i.e., what I ate and what I learned about along the way:

 • Mix sweet and savory a la Malay cooking — just don’t forget the mustard seed. We had the best beef of our lives during our four-day stay in the Karoo. Sorry I don’t have a photo to show you here — this is actually a lamb stew on the left here. Apparently we were too busy devouring it to photograph it.

Steve prepared the fillet first by rubbing the entire thing in olive oil, whole mustard seeds and cracked black pepper, then searing it to create a crunchy coating. Then he braaied it to medium-rare in a pan set atop another blazing wood fire. At the same time in a separate pan, he carmellized a pan of onions in olive oil, red wine and about a third of a jar of apricot jam, which seemed to be featured in every meal he made. More jam was then slathered over the meat just before its final cooking atop the onion mixture.

And then: Lekker! (South African for “awesome.”)

• Embrace the potjie, which is essentially any kind of stew cooked for a minimum of two hours inside in a Dutch oven or potjie pot (pronounced “poiky”). Midway through our stay in the remote Karoo, about five hours northeast of Cape Town, Steve slow-cooked a lamb potjie this way, stewing the meat with butternut squash, onions, carrots and tomatoes and copious amounts of crushed coriander seed and — of course — apricot jam.

• Road food, African photojournalist style, is not the same as fast food. On our way to the Karoo,  Janet taught us how to make what she calls a “rollover.” She’d developed the lunch years earlier during a working road-trip with Richard Shorey, now a news photographer in KwaZulu-Natel. Leave it to the photogs to figure out a new way to consume chips, bread and meat.

The tension was palpable as our 13-year-old, Will, couldn’t wait for Janet to reveal the mystery of the rollover, which my husband, Tom, documented here on video:

What you end up with is a panini-like concoction, minus the butter and grill marks. (Back in Roanoke last night, Will asked me to make him one in our driveway, which was fun but not quite the same, although the Subaru’s tire print did make a lasting impression.)

A marketing gimmick, Ronnies Sex Shop is really just a pub out in the middle of nowhere.

• Sex sells, even if all you’re really serving is beer. During our journey to the Karoo, we also happened upon an attraction begun 13 years ago by a gray-braided hippie named Ronnie Price, who had the notion that he could actually lure tourists to his bar in the middle of nowhere if he named it “Ronnies Sex Shop.” (No apostrophe necessary.)

No sex toys, either, thankfully. Just beer. But as Ronnie put it: “Sex sells, you know.”

• Food tastes better outdoors. We four three glorious electricity- and cellphone-free days hiking and biking and eating many kinds of braai-cooked meat in the

Cottage caretaker Anne Reid embraces solace in the mountains — but loves company too.

Karoo, where I interviewed Anne Reid, the 63-year-old hearty soul who runs the lodge at Gamkapoort Dam and who joined us for supper most nights. The Karoo is a rugged, almost lunar landscape full of succulent plants, craggy rocks and thorn trees. It’s as ecologically diverse and as beautiful as anywhere I’ve ever been. When she’s not ferrying tourists and their bikes to the top of windy dirt passes, she uses her Land Cruiser battery to charge her computer, and when she needs to check e-mail, she drives an hour away to the top of another ridge. “You learn to do without,” she says. She gave me a start of the plentiful spekboom succulent, a lime-colored cactuslike plant that she swears will be the saving grace of the world. It’s known for reducing blood pressure, and for its amazing capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions.

The honey badger eats whatever he wants — and never gains weight. If he wants to, he can even eat an eight-pound ostrich egg after stumbling onto it during a bike ride and subsequently toting it home to Cape Town, where he fixed an omelette with a portion of it the next morning for breakfast.

That’s right: The homemade meals just kept coming, even as our trip sadly came to a close. On our last night, we were treated to a potluck to celebrate Janet’s birthday — with Janet’s mom’s boyfriend, Mike, bringing his to-die-for mussels that he’d collected himself and baked in a homemade cream sauce. (Mike did not, however, care much for the honey badger video, which became the joke of our trip. “Why’d they pick an American to do the narration?” he asked, of the campy voiceover that made the standard nature video so funny — at least to the 11.9 million folks who’ve watched the video so far.)

Vicki, Janet’s sister, chipped in delicious meat pies — which are as ubiquitous in South African as hot dogs are here. And Janet made one of her trademark salads that’s become my new very favorite thing: cooked-but-still-crunchy green beans with veggies (whatever you fancy), chunks of feta and a scattering of nuts, dressed in a lemon vinaigrette. With all the dieting I need to do now, I should eat this and only this at every meal and, luckily, it’s good enough that I can.

"To Hell 'N Gone" -- before our bike ride down the dirt road to Gamkapoort Dam.

I don’t know how many pounds we gained, but it was fewer than we would have had Steve not also been pushing us to take nine-hour hikes on Table Mountain and mountain bike rides in the Karoo and Tokai Forest Reserve.

Long live the real African honey badger, whose outdoor bonafides are as badass as any creature of the night. Steve challenges his houseguests, but I’m happy to report: He feeds them faaaaabulously well.

Best hosts ever, Janet Heard and master braaier Steve Pike. We missing you!

Notes from a South African newsroom

CAPE TOWN — They giggled when I mentioned relying on our news researcher Belinda Harris, who helps Roanoke Times reporters research background and hard-to-find cellphone numbers. Come again? — the South African reporters wanted to know.

When I talked about working on projects for six, sometimes eight or more months at a time (usually amid other quicker-hit stories), there was a similar rumble of indignation.

The nine reporters who fill the 50,000-circulation, five-times-a-week Cape Times newspaper were hungry to learn more about sniffing out stories that lend themselves to narrative writing, I learned during my July 5 talk at the Irish-owned South African paper. About 20 employees of the Times, along with their sister publications (the Cape Argus, Weekend Argus, The Voice and Cape Community Newspapers) sat in on my presentation, which I gave halfway through my 12-day family vacation to visit our Nieman pals Janet Heard and Steve Pike with their kids, Tyler and Ella.

The Cape Times reporters had just covered Michelle Obama’s visit and are more accustomed to reporting on crime, trauma and marginalized communities than I am. About 15 million South Africans live on less than 15 rand a day — the equivalent of $2 U.S. dollars — and two of three children go to bed without a meal.

As we learned on our earlier tour of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned most of his 27 years, the unofficial unemployment rate in the nation is 43 percent. Which explains why one former prisoner still spends day in and day out there: Not because he wants to relive the horror and drudgery but because he needs the tour-guide job. (Janet wrote an excellent piece about our visit to the World Heritage Site, explaining why Robben Island is due more praise than it has gotten in the recent past.)

At a rugby party on one of our first nights in South Africa, freelance journalist Tanya Farber recounted heartbreaking stories that she’s written in recent years, including a lid-popper about “corrective rape” — the township practice of raping lesbian women to “correct” them of their ways. Farber even managed to interview one of the perpetrators of the crime.

Most South African journalists seem to be so busy covering the plethora of breaking news stories, many of them routinely working 12 hours a day and reporting in three different languages, that they don’t have the luxury to write very many narratives — though their communities are teeming with juicy, heart-rending and heart-pounding stories to tell.

They’d also reported recently on the four Table Mountain muggings over the past two weeks — something Steve and Janet neglected to tell us about until we were well on our way up the eight-hour, 3,000-feet ascent up and around Platteklip Gorge — in the midst of a raging southeaster.

Janet, who is head of news at the Cape Times, said she found this point the most pertinent among those in my presentation:  If you’re bored at work, maybe you’re boring. Because face it, there are great stories around us EVERYWHERE if only we bother to look — and to listen, with pure intention and genuine curiosity.

It’s even OK to fall in love with your subjects, sort of, I told them — as long as you heed New Yorker writer Katherine Boo’s advice: “I’m not writing you a love letter. I’m trying to create a portrait of you that your sister would recognize.”

I talked about the need to follow up with subjects and develop relationships on your beat: the reluctant father of the soldier with PTSD who finally decides he’s up for being interviewed three years after his son’s death; the retired copy editor (“sub editor,” in South Africa parlance) who asks me to tell her story before dementia destroys her ability to remember it; the routine Mother’s Day feature on a missionary who ends up inviting me to report on a team of doctors treating cholera in Haiti — during the November 2010 riots.

You never know where a subject will lead you.  Jonathan Ancer, the narrative writing guru and group trainer for Independent Newspapers who hosted my talk, is about to publish a riveting five-part serial tracing the journey of his checkbook after it was stolen from him in a burglary earlier this year.

Reporters in South Africa face different challenges than we do. But they stand up at noon to cluster around the TV, checking out the competition, just like we do. They struggle mightily with limited resources, just like we do (maybe even more so, actually). But their biggest challenge isn’t just the Internet; only 10.8 percent of the country has Internet access. It’s also illiteracy, combined with new and very serious government threats to press freedom.

Yet in Cape Town alone, there are about five daily newspapers, more including the tabloids. Two of the broadsheets are written in Afrikaans.

And every day reporters at the Cape Times work doggedly to ferret out stories of corruption, filing multiple stories and speaking multiple languages and knowing in their hearts that if they don’t write it, nobody will. Their tenacity was downright inspiring.

Hours after my talk, a young Capetonian e-mailed me asking me to read and offer feedback on several of her stories. “I am open to criticism,” she wrote. “It is important for growth.”

Trainer Jonathan Ancer, Editor Alide Dasnois, Head of News Janet Heard and me.