Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | July 2018 | 18 minutes (4,817 words)
I am slightly embarrassed to admit that for a long time I thought of writing in its strictest, most cinematic sense: as the act of sitting before the proverbial blank screen and conjuring meaning word by word, occasionally pounding a fist on the desk for emphasis or stretching to pet the cat. In grad school, I took the maxim that She Who Wrote the Most Became the Best Writer very literally, churning out pages upon pages that yellowed and blew around my apartment. I remember sitting down with one of my advisors for a thesis meeting and expressing some frustration about how research or the logic puzzle of structuring was eating into my writing time. He looked at me a little like how everyone in the Amelia Bedelia books always looked at Amelia. “But that is writing,” he said. I was flummoxed. “It is?” That seemed like cheating. Writing in my mind was only a mystical, pure struggle of sentence-conjuring; everything else was superfluous, a stretch before the race.
As my career has advanced and I’ve published an actual book and written for various magazines and cobbled together a living as a freelancer, my notion of writing has finally expanded to encompass my professor’s definition. In nonfiction, I’ve come to see writing as the whole process of bringing a piece to life and all of its component parts: the interview preparation, the interviews themselves, the transcriptions, the reinterviews, the careful chiseling and combining and rearranging of all this material. Writing is the broad research and the winnowing of broad research into narrower channels and tangents; the notes scribbled in reporting; the random quotes encountered in poetry or everyday life; the highlighting and mapping and organizing; then, finally, the actual word-by-word construction of sentences into story, which is more akin to building a nest from a thousand disparate twigs than conjuring a vision straight from one’s genius literary brain. It is all, in summary, much more humbling than it seemed at the outset.
Last year, I embarked on a project of new depth and scope: a book which entails a great deal of research and interviewing, and whose backbone is reconstructed narrative. As I delved full-time into the work, I realized I was as interested in the particular skills and techniques required to get and shape the material as I was in the material itself. I had focused for so long on the importance of the meaning of the sentence that I hadn’t thought about the art behind the rest of nonfiction writing. Part of the goal of this column, then, is to shine a light on some of those aspects of writing — interviewing, research, structuring, and more — that could be defined as “craft” and are often hidden behind the actual prose.
To tackle this column, I took the standard approach I’ve developed over my early career as a writer: look to the women. Women writers still face entrenched stereotypes and biases, underrepresentation in reviews, and a significant byline gap in publishing. I have found that one silver lining to this discrimination can be women writers’ commitment to helping one another out, supporting one another’s work, and navigating what often feels like an inscrutable insiders’ network together. With that spirit in mind, for this first column on the subject of interviewing, I looked to three women writers whose work I deeply admire: Lauren Markham, Sarah Smarsh, and Jennifer Percy. I read and reread their remarkable books, then spoke with each of them about the skill, art, and technique of the interview.
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One reason I chose these three women’s work was because each of their books leans heavily on reconstructed narrative: scenes from characters’ pasts that the writer didn’t witness and that need to be put together in vivid detail from interviews. Much of my work as a journalist has relied on reconstructed narrative, and I am fascinated by the puzzle of interviewing the same subject over and over again in order to flesh out the shape and texture of their life. It is not a linear process. It does not proceed like: Tell me about the day you did X. How did that feel? What did it look like? What happened next? Now tell me about the day you did Y. For me, it often involves getting a big gush of information in the first interview, then going through it to highlight areas of particular interest or ambiguity, then going back and asking more about those areas, then repeating this process ad infinitum until the information becomes a story.
Lauren Markham spent two years reporting The Far Away Brothers, a beautiful, devastating nonfiction epic that follows twin brothers Ernesto and Raul Flores (not their real names: Markham used pseudonyms to protect their identities) from El Salvador as they embark on a perilous journey across Central America and Mexico to the United States, fight their way through immigration limbo, and struggle to build a new life for themselves so far from home. Markham described her interviewing process as “entering through the side door.” She gave an example from the powerful opening scene in her book: her main characters, the young Salvadoran twin brothers, are in a car en route to a court appointment in downtown San Francisco. They are late, and they are stressed: If they miss this court date they could ultimately be deported. They are driving around in circles with their older brother. First Markham got the information about the times, the streets, the weather, the basics of how they were feeling. But the details that give the scene the poignancy necessary to open a book about American immigration came through the side door: Long after her initial interviews for the car scene, she and the twins were chatting about something else when one mentioned casually that he’d always thought of the United States as a land of skyscrapers, these big beautiful buildings, but once he was here, he realized it wasn’t really like that. Markham asked him how he felt under the skyscrapers in San Francisco that morning, and out of that conversation arose this passage:
At seventeen, the twins have never been to a city before — unless you count San Salvador, which they’d been to only a few times to visit relatives, or Mexico City, where they were practically shackled to their coyote, hunkered down in the spectral underbelly of the pass-throughs. San Francisco looms like no other place they’ve ever seen. Raul used to picture these buildings in the quiet night back home, rising upward like ladders, like possibilities. But now that he’s under them, they’re just endless, indistinguishable boxes. They make him feel, as most things in the United States of America so far do, small and out of place.
These moments, Markham suggests, are not ones you can necessarily ask about directly. “If you say to any of us,” she told me, “‘What are some of the most foundational memories from your childhood?’ we’re like, ‘wahhhhh?’” But if you’re willing to make the investment of time, you eventually find a way in through the side door.
Another day, Markham went on a bike ride with the twins and they told her a story about how when they were little in El Salvador they’d stolen corn and used it to buy a bike; it was such a perfect memory to encapsulate their childhood. To elicit this type of early experience in particular, Markham relied much more on the coefficient of time spent with her subjects than on the expertly crafted interview question. She told me, “I think building real, honest, genuine relationships from your heart with whomever you’re interviewing makes for better journalism and more humane journalism. And of course there have to be boundaries and there has to be the clarity of OK we’re not friends and I’m still a journalist, but you can still be operating from a place of deep compassion and connection with someone.”
Writing about immigrants who attended the high school where Markham works in Oakland, California, posed an ethical dilemma that terrified her initially. She did not want the twins to feel obligated to participate in her project; she did not want to seem like she was taking advantage of her position; she didn’t want to blend her role coordinating services and programs at the school with her role as a journalist. She agonized over this with her boss at work until finally she told her, “Listen, we let journalists in here all the time to connect with immigrant communities, and we are constantly making a calculation of do we feel this person is trustworthy and do we feel that we trust them enough to connect them with students or families. Of all the people I’d want to write this story, it’d be you.” Markham was still uncertain about putting an undue burden on the twins until finally, she told me, she realized, “I was so freaked out about these young people’s ‘inability’ to make a decision and understand the kind of nuances of my dual role, that in fact I was infantilizing them. They walked from El Salvador to the United States, and I was sort of projecting on them this inability for them to understand or to make a decision on their own.” She sat down with them, explained her project, and told them they didn’t have to make a decision right away. By this point, they were no longer students and were 18 years old. She was surprised when they immediately agreed. They wanted to tell their stories. They wanted to be heard.
Throughout the entire writing process Markham was hyper-aware of the clichés inherent in writing about immigrants: painting them as the perfect, sad heroes, as one-dimensional victims. She wanted to include all the complications of their lives, their shitty decisions, their adolescence. They were teenagers, after all, living by themselves in a foreign country. “Showing them in their roundness was a way to crack open the trope of immigration,” she told me.
Her commitment to showing her characters’ full, complex humanity comes through in so many details of daily life and personality: the way the twins’ faces form “matching masks of dread” when they are late for an appointment; the bright red the Mexican snack food Takis stains their lips; the comfort they feel as they cuddle in a pilled blanket with their brother’s girlfriend’s chihuahua; the movies they watch (Finding Nemo) contrasted with their Facebook posts (tough-guy proclamations and shirtless pics); the way each holds a baby (Ernesto, “cautiously, like a bowl filled with water,” and Raul comfortably, “his face soften[ing] into an old expression something like innocence or wonder”). The most potent information, Markham said, came from just talking to and observing them, but it should also be said that her interview process was extensive and methodical. She had a regular interview schedule with the twins and over the course of years developed a “crazy mosaic” of information: details related to the car and the court date, to the journey northward from El Salvador, to the desert, to their time in an immigrant detention center. She knew that the power of the narrative would ride on detail, and whatever she didn’t glean from observation over time, she tried to ask about: What color was the sofa? What about so-and-so’s shirt? Maybe they didn’t remember the sofa or the shirt, but they did recall the wallpaper, and she’d write that down.
The technique Markham relied on most was asking the same question over and over: Tell me again about this.
The technique Markham relied on most was asking the same question over and over: Tell me again about this. “We already told you!” the twins would say, but they would tell it again, and when a detail changed she’d ask about it. She learned this in a workshop with Rebecca Skloot, who said that if you only have the testimony of one person and can’t corroborate, interview that person over and over and see where there are discrepancies. These discrepancies, Markham told me, are often “portals into more complex questions and realities of the story.”
Jennifer Percy also relied on this technique during the three years she spent reporting and writing Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, the harrowing story of a soldier who, after a traumatic event in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of his best friend, returns home to the United States with PTSD and attempts to cure himself and other suffering vets using exorcism in small town Georgia. Percy found herself asking for the same story over and over, trying to break down the heroic version she initially heard. She needed to get through that stiffness of the rehearsed narrative to something rougher and more authentic. She was not after the same kind of authenticity as Markham; where Markham wanted to convey in precise detail the nature of her subjects’ journey northward, Percy wanted to illustrate the emotional and psychological power of war stories, the way they are constructed, the way they can be unreliable, the complex questions that unreliability poses.
Percy was heavily influenced by James Agee’s Let Us All Praise Famous Men and by the notion that nonfiction will always operate with limitations and will never be able to represent the world as it is. These limitations are some of the central tensions of her book; she portrays herself as the writer, the interviewer, struggling to understand across a gulf that is also the gulf between the average American and the soldier returning from war with PTSD. In the parts of the book in which she herself is present as a character, actually depicted interviewing on the page, the reader interviews through her in a way, struggling to make sense of experiences that in the end are impossible to untangle by everyday reasoning. “I asked him all those questions you’re not supposed to ask, about how many you killed, and death and destruction, and I asked him about morals,” she writes. The sense of the terrifying foreignness of both the questions and the answers is palpable. Percy is not acting here as the hidden expert deciphering this world for us, but instead as a novice we can identify with and relate to the characters through. “It didn’t really feel like I was trying to be an expert on the subject,” she told me, “but rather going into it as a question, with questions. That was what was driving the book.” Here the awkwardness of the interview is the story itself: How does someone who has never been to war understand war, and how does someone who has been to war make it comprehensible?
Percy is not acting here as the hidden expert deciphering this world for us, but instead as a novice we can identify with and relate to the characters through.
Percy obtained many concrete details — the height the aircraft at the heart of the narrative was flying when it crashed, its position, its specs — from sources other than her main subject, Caleb. With him, she focused predominantly on how he was struggling to make sense of an extremely traumatic experience.
This meant learning when to stay silent and when to push back. At first, she told me, her tendency was to react to these stories of trauma in the way she would react to a friend who was grieving: to respond empathetically, to ask sensitive questions, to tread very carefully, until she realized that this wasn’t actually what her subjects needed. They wanted her to listen, so she grew quiet and listened.
She eventually became less nervous about asking difficult questions, and as her relationship with Caleb evolved over years and he increasingly insisted on bringing her in line with his vision of the world, she pushed back a little harder against it. This delicate line in interviewing between privileging a subject’s view of the world, trying to comprehend it with as much nuance as possible, and challenging some of the improbable or biased or ethically dubious aspects of that view is one that Percy navigates masterfully. The narrative is tense with interactions like the following, in which Percy gestures to the gulf between her experience and her narrator’s, and to her own doubt, and at the same time gives credence to the necessity and fullness of his convictions. In this scene, she challenges Caleb and he challenges her back, and in the interplay between them lies the trauma.
“I tell him gently how sometimes when people convert to new religions they project their faith backward, using religion to explain difficult situations.”
“That’s all very interesting,” Caleb says,” but I have no doubt that this thing has been after me my whole life. I know you think this all sounds crazy, and don’t get me wrong, so do I.”
He crosses his arms and presses his lips together like a beak.
“What exactly would be the point of me going through deliverance?” I ask. He keeps telling me to consider it.
“Let’s say you did. What do you think it might have?”
I don’t say anything.
Then a few breaths later in that same scene, Percy asks:
“Did you feel anything after deliverance?”
“White noise,” he says. “All this white noise. I didn’t even know it was there and suddenly it was gone.”
In the first third of Demon Camp, which is written like fiction — a lyrical, haunting story of a vet growing up, going to war, and experiencing its horrors — Percy wanted to convey Caleb’s point of view. She taped many conversations and appropriated his language and rhythms directly from those transcripts. She also prepared him for interviews by saying, “I’m going to ask a lot of questions that seem really irrelevant. Can you spend a lot more time talking about this random object in the corner of the room?” She would tell him, “Slow time down to where you’re going to take me an hour to describe ten minutes.” What emerges from this is an almost embodied nonfiction, where Percy is in a way channeling her character. Of the night Caleb lost his virginity, Percy writes, “She showed him what to do in the way a mother might show her child how to fold a napkin.” Of his eagerness to believe in deliverance at a conference in Rhode Island where people came to be rid of PTSD, she writes, “He was born into a family who spoke of God at warm meals.” Percy gives me faith that, with enough time and observation, it is possible to use powerful, lyric prose to convey the experience of another person. She does, however, attribute the particularly lyric style of Demon Camp to the fact that it was her first experience of reporting, and she came into it “without any baggage in that realm.” I, too, feel that I now have too much baggage as a reporter to write as freely as I want, and I find Demon Camp exciting in how it breaks convention with much of standard literary journalism. It illustrates the possibility of being rigorous with interviewing and reporting while still writing a haunting, transporting work, harking back to the writing of earlier literary journalists like Didion and Wolfe.
Percy gives me faith that, with enough time and observation, it is possible to use powerful, lyric prose to convey the experience of another person.
In her highly anticipated debut, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, Sarah Smarsh also wanted to illustrate the imperfections and limitations of nonfiction, and the fact that the stories she is telling are not the ultimate, absolute truth but rather the subjective recollections of individual human beings. She wanted to emphasize the wit, insight, and personality of her characters — her family, blue collar workers who have so often been depicted mainly in demeaning stereotypes, or denied a voice at all in American culture. At first, Smarsh intended to immerse the reader in a narrative that read like fiction, a seamless recounting that made her interviewing invisible. But then, she told me, she realized that “for me, the family members who I was interviewing, who are dynamic characters in the book, are so original and funny and vibrant in their own words that I found however much I honed a narrative based on the things they told me, it was leaving one of the greatest strengths of the story on the table if I didn’t let them do some speaking for themselves.” This was also, she explained, “a subtle way of reminding the reader … (a) I’m not making this shit up, and (b) it’s not all about me. I’m building this from hopefully empathic conversations with people whose stories go back further from my own.” This tactic of forgoing the unbroken enchantment of a narrative that reads like fiction for a sense of real people telling stories allows Smarsh to pull off a remarkable feat: Although her book is a memoir, her voice and presence feel secondary to that of her family, and her consciousness, though it is actually writing and constructing the story, does not feel as though it is what drives the book.
Take, for example, Smarsh’s description of her grandmother Betty’s move from Wichita to Smarsh’s grandfather Arnie’s wheat farm:
Betty peeled untold pounds of potatoes, baked pies, fried meat, and stewed vegetables that grew outside the front door. She learned the isolation of rural life through a batch of cookies — she had everything she needed but the brown sugar. What was she supposed to do, drive ten miles west to Kingman just to get one damn ingredient?
“It wasn’t like when you lived in town, you’d bebop down to the QuikTrip,” she told me years later.
She learned to keep the basement overstocked with discount canned food, the deep-freeze packed with every cut of meat, the cupboards filled with double-coupon deals.
Heartland is driven by Smarsh’s memories and framed by her childhood, but in the end the book is not really so much about her — that is, her interior self and struggle — nor is it propelled by her voice in the MFA-ish sense of “voice.” I was amazed by this when I read the book, and it speaks in large part to the power of her interviewing. In an author’s note that prefaces the book, Smarsh notes that she researched and wrote the book over the course of 15 years, conducting “uncounted hours of interviews.” The resulting narrative demonstrates not only the extent of these interviews, but also Smarsh’s particular understanding of this world and these people and the empathy she has for them. While much of the uniqueness and insight of Percy’s book came from positioning herself as an outsider, trying to figure this world out — she told me that she doesn’t think the book would have had the same resonance had she come into it as a seasoned war reporter — Smarsh’s book derives its empathetic power from her belonging, her intuitive sense of this place. Much of the narrative, and of the conversations in the book, revolve around the tangibles of places, houses, jobs: the emotion is implied and pulses subtly and largely unstated beneath these facts. She was not asking her grandmother, “What did you feel? What did you think?”
Smarsh’s book derives its empathetic power from her belonging, her intuitive sense of this place.
When your own society hasn’t cared about you for decades, she told me, “those truths are experienced at some strata that is below words and articulation.” The lack of articulation of these truths in fact drove her to become a journalist in an attempt to articulate them. What makes her book so singular is the fact that she is able to convey this repressed or buried emotion in the language and the worldview of her characters. She doesn’t try to speak for them in what she calls “fancy English.” (She told me she speaks two forms of English: country and fancy.) She uses her understanding of this place and this worldview not to translate it but to convey it, with the skills and ethics of what she describes as “an old-fashioned hard-ass twentieth-century newspaper training.” We chatted briefly about Katherine Boo, whose work shares much in common with hers, and she remarked that Boo’s writing is exceptional because Boo doesn’t impose “her own inevitably socialized way of seeing reality” onto the people she’s writing about. The same could be said of Smarsh.
Like Percy, Smarsh emphasized the importance of being comfortable with silence. She described the interview as a forced, staged, artificial reproduction of what we do every day: talk to people and elicit interesting stories and information. “It’s sort of like if someone is just naturally hilarious and whenever you sit around and drink beers they crack everybody up, but if you put a microphone in front of that person and you’re like, ‘Be funny!’ they kind of shut down,” she said. This is the awkwardness the interview can generate for writers.
Smarsh told me she hates awkwardness and she has a “crushingly high empathy default setting,” but she’s learned to pause, to leave space for her subject to fill in. The most powerful and true answer might need that space, even if it makes the interviewer squirm.
I asked Smarsh about how interviewing family differed for her from interviewing strangers and if she employed any unique techniques. Her response was that actually approaching family interviews as a journalist — a professional working in a field with specific demands and protocols — made it easier for them to tell her their stories. This approach, she told me, “allowed my family to say, This is just work. I’m a journalist, I’m just doing my job, and if there’s anything my family respects, it’s someone just doing their damn work.” The interviews were not a touchy-feely let’s-all-understand-one-another session or, as Smarsh put it, her family saying in gushing tones, “Let’s support darling Sarah’s work!” Rather, she said, they were “basically the writing version of sharpening some tools in the shed.”
Smarsh told me she hates awkwardness and she has a “crushingly high empathy default setting,” but she’s learned to pause, to leave space for her subject to fill in. The most powerful and true answer might need that space, even if it makes the interviewer squirm.
I, too, have played this I’m-the-journalist role with my family: in particular, with my younger brother, when he went on a soul-searching road trip one summer and I begged to accompany him, as if he were the budding musician and I the rookie reporter for Rolling Stone. I have found it fascinating how much I could not know — and could come to understand — about someone I’ve known my whole life. The space that opens up between family members with that journalistic distance, with the curiosity and novelty of that role, can reveal objects hidden in plain sight. Smarsh describes writing about her family in this way, as a journalist, as “the most transformative process I’ve had as a human being”; in understanding the social, cultural, ground-level factors that made her mother in particular who she was, Smarsh was able to forgive her.
Smarsh described herself at one point as a “journalist of everyday life,” a phrase that seems at once intuitive and uncanny. I’ve come to latch onto it as a guiding principle; I love both its sweep and its specificity. In many ways, the art of interviewing, and of reconstructing the narratives of “regular” people — that is, not celebrities or public figures — is the art of making everyday life exceptional and fascinating, of seeing what we either take for granted, miss, or cast only a passing glance at in our narrow worlds. In the case of all three of these writers, everyday life contained significant traumas that would be foreign to many readers, but it also contained infinite small moments of tenderness, heartbreak, and connection, and the brilliance of their work is the ability to convey both: to map out the forces that shape a life and also all the quirks of individual strength and personality that define it.
The interview can feel like an act of transgression or, at worst, of violation, and at the same time like the ultimate veneration, a low bow before the infinitely layered experience of another human being. It is a unique intimacy, uncomfortable and pleasurable, awkward and at times transcendent, a spark of meaning that flashes between two often very different people. As Smarsh put it, “You are being given a gift.” And as with any gift, the giving and the receiving are complicated: How to reciprocate? How to honor? How to achieve balance? And is that even possible, or the point?
To look at the interview is to understand writing not as the solitary endeavor of the genius performing her sorcery but as relationship, as negotiation, in which a writer is trying to simultaneously remove herself entirely from a story — to in fact scribble out her assumptions and readings — and to purposefully tell that story with all her skill, will, and vision. The interview acts as a prism illuming the ultimate goal of any writing: to use one’s language and self and brain as a way of getting beyond self and language and brain into a larger realm, a shared one, a more universal one built of the most microscopic blocks: And what did the river feel like? Tell me about the wallpaper.
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Sarah Menkedick is the author of Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm (Pantheon, 2017), which was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her second book, about an epidemic of anxiety in American motherhood, is forthcoming from Pantheon. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, Oxford American, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere.