Search Results for: interview

Those Limits Were Not Hindrances: An Interview with Megan Pugh

Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

During his 40-year career, Leon Redbone was a musician for whom the past was never past and the persona was as important as the music. But what about his real name? And where did he come from? “That’s a memoir question,” he told one journalist. “I don’t answer memoir questions.” For the Oxford American, poet and prose writer Megan Pugh spoke to Redbone’s family and acquaintances to paint the most robust, reliable portrait we have of this compelling musical mystery. The story, “Vessel of Antiquity,” came out in the Spring 2019 issue with tragically fitting timing. Redbone died on May 30th, just a few months later.

While “Vessel” solves certain mysteries, it deepens the more important ones. While tryiing to understand what drew this expatriated Armenian to America’s musical past, the author captures the essence of the person — hilarious, kind, driven to live as his authentic self — and captures the sound and meaning of the music as only the best writers can. With incredible narrative skill and poetic sensibility, the story seeks the truth without taking the fun out of Redbone’s painstakingly constructed identity; more proof that poets often make the best prose writers. Pugh spoke with me about writing and Redbone via email.


How did this story start for you? Were you a fan of Redbone’s?

I wanted to understand why Leon Redbone’s live performances were so astonishingly good, and so moving. I saw him play in San Francisco in 2008 and 2011, and after both shows, I emailed a dear friend — a historian living across the country — about how urgently we needed to discuss the wondrous things Leon Redbone was doing with time: not just playing the old tunes, but also talking about long-dead musicians as though they were alive, whistling along to recordings, noting the presence of an onstage trashcan that seemed vaguely like the dustbin of history. (In hindsight, “discuss” probably meant “listen to me be very excited while I repeat all the details I can remember.”)

Years passed, Redbone retired, and no one had published the kind of serious, career retrospective he deserved, something that did justice to his art. When I reached out to Redbone’s publicist, Jim Della Croce, in 2017, he encouraged me to write one. Over a series of phone calls, Jim also told me wonderful stories about spending time with Leon. The piece began in fandom, with plenty of solitary research, but it moved along because so many people who knew Leon Redbone — friends, band members, family — were so generous with their memories.

Some of the best music stories start with that sort of passionate fandom, the urge to understand and honor someone wondrous. But part of Redbone’s legacy is the mystery he creates about himself. Did the people you talked to put limits on what they’d say about his origins?

Yes. Redbone was a very private person, and his friends were loyal— as friends should be. When I asked the blues singer Paul Geremia if Redbone had ever talked about his family’s history, for example, Geremia simply replied: “That’s personal.” Other folks, even if they’d known Redbone for years, understood that they weren’t supposed to ask about his life before he’d become Leon Redbone — or that if they got close to asking, he’d avoid the topic. Dan Levinson, who played clarinet with Redbone, remembered asking “something like ‘Are you fluent in any other languages,'” to which Redbone would reply, “‘Yes, all languages.'” Those limits never struck me as hindrances — they were information. And I was interested in other information, too: how Redbone worked, what it was like to be out on the road with him or in the recording studio, whether my developing sense of him seemed right to people who’d know.

I should be clear that by the time I became a Redbone fan, it was pretty easy to find his birthplace and given name (Nicosia, Cyprus, and Dickran Gobalian): George Gamester had written about them in the Toronto Star back in 1986. Those details led me to others. But as I learned more about the Gobalian family’s history — Redbone’s father survived the Armenian genocide, and “Leon” was the name of the last king of Armenia — I worried about what to include. Should I follow the example of the pianist Tom Roberts, who told me that when people tried to talk with him about Redbone’s origins, he’d just plug his ears and sing? So many people had been careful not to violate Redbone’s privacy, and I wanted to be careful too. I sought advice from friends — one a professional philosopher, another a longtime journalist. They told me that this information would not harm anyone; that I was going to share it in a respectful context; that it might generate interest, knowledge, and understanding; that I’d talked about this history with Redbone’s wife, Beryl Handler, and younger daughter, Ashley; that this is how profiles work. But I ran the details by the family one more time anyway, just to be sure.

It’s interesting that you sought a philosopher’s counsel, because a project like this presents the clear ethical issues you describe, but it also begs other questions about how sharing this personal information influences listeners. If his identity and performance were, as your story says, as important as his music, does knowing Redbone’s other identity change the experience of his music?

That’s a tough one, and I wouldn’t want to presume to answer it for other people. I’m still moved by Redbone’s work for the same reasons I’ve always loved him — his sly panache, that voice, the way he breaks the rules of time — but research and writing have deepened my experience and helped me understand it. Yet there’s so much about Redbone I don’t know, including how appropriate it is to think of his life before he was publicly Leon Redbone as an “other identity.” I like that uncertainty. I like that he kept audiences focused on his art.

His death, though, and the poor health that preceded it, have changed what I hear. On some level, his records were already raising the dead, but I wish this didn’t now include him. I never met him, but it felt oddly intimate to have so many long and sometimes heartfelt conversations with people who cared about him enough to try to help some woman they’d never met write an article. I suppose that process amplified the feelings of simultaneous closeness and distance that I love in his work — the past brought back, the past you’ll never quite get. But also, I’ve just been thinking about these people — who know him not just as an artist, but as a person whom they’ve lost — a lot.

You also mention how no one had published a serious career retrospective before. Was the limited number of secondary sources a challenge?

I don’t want to imply that there was a lack of writing about Redbone. There’s quite a bit, and I found it incredibly helpful to read many, many profiles, record reviews, and interviews from the 1970s on — especially since, by the time I began working on the piece, Redbone’s health was too poor to allow for an interview. What I read didn’t do what I wanted to do, but that was okay — it meant that there was room. And though no one else was writing about Redbone’s career at length when he retired, the folks at Riddle Films premiered a wonderful documentary short, Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone, last year, with stories about Redbone’s emergence on the Toronto scene and some beautiful, more recent footage.

Some of my favorite prose writers are poets, including Hanif Abdurraqib and Denis Johnson, and after seeing the way you articulate ideas and use language — I had to read this with a pencil to mark the margins of the pages — I wasn’t surprised to learn that you are, too. How do your poetry and prose inform each other? What challenges does writing in two forms present? 

That’s nice to hear, thank you! Both genres, for me, involve a kind of obsessive attention. Both come from a desire to find a language for something at times when that language might not be immediately evident. Whatever I’m writing, I tend to enjoy thinking about the ways that — to borrow from Kenneth Koch — one train may hide another, or one experience may haunt another. I tend to feel very attached to the sentence, as a form, and the kind of wonderful fragmentary play at which many poets I admire excel never comes easily to me. But I’m mostly okay with that. I like sentences.

Reimagining Harper Lee’s Lost True Crime Novel: An Interview with Casey Cep

Ben Martin / HarperCollins

Adam Morgan  | Longreads | May 2019 | 14 minutes (3,793 words)


Four years ago, when the news broke that a second Harper Lee novel had been discovered fifty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, the literary world was shocked. Some readers were thrilled by the prospect of returning to the world of Scout, Atticus Finch, and Boo Radley. Others were concerned the 88-year-old Lee might have been pressured to publish an unfinished draft. But Casey Cep, an investigative reporter for the New Yorker and the New York Times, drove down to Alabama to get to the bottom of it. And what she found wasn’t a publishing conspiracy, but another lost book Lee had attempted to write for more than a decade, but never finished.

The book was called The Reverend. It would have been a true-crime novel like In Cold Blood (a book Lee helped Truman Capote research, write, and edit, despite his failure to give her any credit). The Reverend would have told the story of Willie Maxwell, a black preacher who murdered five members of his own family in the 1970s in order to collect life insurance money. It would have touched on voodoo, racial politics in post-industrial Alabama, and a courtroom setpiece that rivaled To Kill a Mockingbird for drama. But Harper Lee never finished writing The Reverend, and now, thanks to Casey Cep, we know why.

Cep’s debut, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, is fascinating, addicting, and unbearably suspenseful. Cep actually tells three concentric stories: the crimes of Willie Maxwell, the trials of his lawyer Tom Radney, and Harper Lee’s failed attempt to write about them. When I called Cep from “a Southern phone number” on an unseasonably hot spring afternoon, she initially thought I was one of her sources calling with a “some bombshell thing they want to show me, far too late to help with the book.”


Read more…

Keeping the Focus on the People: An Interview with Joe Kloc

Photo of the anchor-outs Therese Jahnson.

In his memorable Harper’s feature “Lost at Sea,” journalist Joe Kloc captures the struggles of the approximately one hundred people who live on salvagd boats off-shore from affluent Sausalito, California. Theirs isn’t a subversive lifestyle choice. It isn’t alternative living. The people known as “the anchor-outs” are essentially homeless and have found a way to survive on the water, instead of on land.

Thanks to the second tech boom, San Francisco has forced many residents to leave the Bay Area in search of affordable living. Yet the anchor-outs live in view of the famously expensive city’s famous skyline, and new residents arrive regularly, buying discarded ramshackle boats and becoming part of a tight-knit floating community who survive on their wits, salvaged materials, shared resources, and food grown on deck and gathered on-shore. On calm sunny days, they call their life outside Sausalito “Shangri-lito.” During a bad storm, they struggle to stay afloat. Death hangs over this aquatic community as much as poverty. Kloc illuminates their lives with great care and nuance. He spoke with me about his story and this community by email.


As your article mentions, you first started talking with the anchor-outs in a Sausalito park in 2015. Was your entry into their world pure happenstance, or had you heard of this community before?

It wasn’t happenstance. I first heard of the anchor-outs in 2010 or ’11, from a friend who grew up in Marin County. I tried at the time to write a pitch for the story, but failed. I could never figure out what it would be about, what the arc would be. That was a blessing. Twenty-four-year-old me would not have been a good fit for the job. I would have romanticized the anchor-outs and their troubles. When I returned to the idea years later, after having spent some time on Richardson Bay, I realized that the situation was more complicated. Time passed harshly on the water, and luck changed quickly, but the anchor-outs found meaning and friendship in their lives despite it all. That became what I wanted to write about: how people trapped in poverty lead beautiful and complex lives. Hopefully that came across.

Yes, the beauty of their social ties came through clearly. One of the things that moved me was that sense of community, how they share resources, time, and loyalty. Did they treat you, an outsider, with suspicion? As a journalist, how did you develop enough trust to be allowed so deeply into peoples’ worlds and then walk that line between reporter and friendly acquaintance?

The man named Innate Thought was very helpful in bringing me into the fold. That is just who he is. But it also didn’t hurt that a year before we spoke face to face, I had found his email on a YouTube video that he had posted, of anchor-outs meeting with Sausalito city officials. I sent him a message, and though was too busy to talk at the time, when we eventually met in 2015, that bit of history gave him the sense that I was invested in his story. Once we spent a few days together, he began making a lot of introductions for me. I recall him saying to Larry Moyer something like, “He’s a reporter, but don’t worry, he isn’t looking for a scoop.” What exactly that meant I’m not sure, but it appeared to put people at ease. Then I just stuck around long enough that I sort of became furniture in their lives. That’s a great place to be, in terms of access. But like you said, that’s where the line between reporter and friend becomes difficult to navigate. I was sharing their food and talking about the hardships in their lives. A bond did form. There were times when we’d argue about politics, or mourn the death of an anchor-out that we all knew. I tried my best to build the trust in our relationships around me being fair to their stories. I think all that most people want is a fair shake. They never asked for anything more.

People living in poverty are harassed in so many ways, from restrictive local ordinances to aggressive law enforcement. It is often motivated by false assumptions that dehumanize and isolate struggling people, cutting them off from the world.

From your first 2015 park encounter with them, it took you four years to report and publish this story, but really it took about eight or nine. How does a writer stick with a story that long?

For one thing, Innate and Melissa would occasionally call me on the phone, sometimes just to say hello. That gave the project a momentum of its own in my life. But more to your question, once I settled on the idea that the passage of time would drive the story, it was harder for me to stop reporting it than to keep going. The longer it went on the more complete it felt, and the more confidence I gained that I could fairly portray the people and circumstances involved, though I’m still nervous about having gotten those things right. Eventually, I did feel I’d reached an endpoint. Many of the anchor-outs I knew had either passed away or left the anchorage or fallen out of touch. I knew I was very lucky to have had this window into their lives, and I felt obligated to keep up my end of the bargain.

The anchor-out Larry Moyer lived on Shel Silverstein’s old boat. Now that Moyer has died, what’s happened to that boat?

There is no easy answer to any question about boat ownership, but here goes. First off, when Larry was living on Shel’s boat, he was not anchored-out, as Shel’s boat, the Evil Eye, is docked along the shore. I’m not sure who lives on the boat now. The last I heard, not long after Larry died, Larry’s wife, Diane, moved out of the Evil Eye and onto the boat where Innate and Melissa had been living when I first met them. That boat was known as Larry’s boat, as it was the boat Larry had lived on before he moved onto the Evil Eye. When Diane moved to Larry’s boat, Innate and Melissa moved to a shrimp boat. Innate told me they were very happy with the arrangement. It was always stable when a storm came through.

‘Many [people] assume that a person who looks broken must be shattered, when in fact he is trying to fix himself as best he can.’ That was the story I tried to tell.

Your story touched gently on the tensions between the anchor-outs and the people who live on shore — the landlubbers’ claims of increased crime rates, the bar patron’s comments about them being homeless — but were there layers to these tensions you decided not to include? You mention “efforts to remove them.”

I want to note that there are many people in the area who aren’t opposed to anchor-outs, who have a lot of affection for them. Several churches organize hot meals, and locals bring food to the park. That said, the efforts to remove and regulate the anchor-outs are both real and complicated. Some people advocate for a mooring field in the anchorage, and others believe no one should be allowed to live out there at all. Had I far more space, I would have gone into detail. But I think, in a story of this length, the day-to-day lives of the anchor-outs would have gotten lost in discussions of local politics. This may be wrongheaded, but I felt that, for what I was hoping to accomplish, it was more important to keep the focus on them. People living in poverty are harassed in so many ways, from restrictive local ordinances to aggressive law enforcement. It is often motivated by false assumptions that dehumanize and isolate struggling people, cutting them off from the world. While I was reporting, I thought about the book Sidewalk, by Mitchell Duneier, who spent years following the lives of booksellers on the sidewalks of Greenwich Village. He wrote, “Many [people] assume that a person who looks broken must be shattered, when in fact he is trying to fix himself as best he can.” That was the story I tried to tell.

United States of Conspiracy: An Interview with Anna Merlan

Mike Rosiana / Getty

Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | April 2019 | 17 minutes (4,461 words)


On March 13, 2019, a twenty-four year old construction worker named Anthony Comello drove to Staten Island and backed his pickup into a Cadillac owned by the head of the Gambino crime family, Frank Cali. When Cali came to the door, Comello shot him. Comello was arrested a few days later in Brick, New Jersey, and upon his appearance in court, it became clear that he was a believer in the confusing and ever-shifting conspiracy theory, QAnon — whose adherents believe President Trump is locked in a mortal battle with a “deep state,” which they contend is running child sex trafficking rings (among other things). A photo from the arraignment shows that Comello had written the letter “Q” on his hand, along with “MAGA FOREVER” and “United We Stand.”

A mob boss, a cadillac, a murder, a town called Brick, New Jersey — all of those things make sense when itemized and grouped together. In 2019 it’s not even that surprising that a member of QAnon was involved. But, barring new information, what is surprising is the simplicity of the actual motive — Comello wanted to date Cali’s niece and Cali disapproved.

“Life is so much more random than we would like it to be,” Anna Merlan told me over the phone, when we were talking about Cali’s murder. “Everything is so much weirder and less meaningful than we would like it to be and I constantly see people that I talk to grappling with that idea — that maybe there isn’t a grand narrative under the surface animating everything.” Read more…

‘Imagine Us, Because We’re Here’: An Interview with Mira Jacob

Mira Jacob / One World

Naomi Elias | Longreads | March 2019 | 18 minutes (4,793 words)

Nearly five years after the release of her award-winning debut novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, Mira Jacob returns with a graphic memoir, Good Talk: A Memoir In Conversations (One World, 2019). Jacob tells the story of her life in a series of conversations between illustrated figures of the author and her constant companion, her son, who is six-years-old at the beginning of the book and is referred to as Z throughout. Z’s hyper-observant nature leads him to ask complicated questions about race and politics the likes of which Jacob first illustrated for BuzzFeed in a 2015 graphic article entitled “37 Difficult Questions From My Mixed Race Son” that quickly went viral. The resulting memoir is a stunning achievement — it’s already being developed into a TV series — that offers a look at America through the eyes of three generations of Jacob’s family: herself, her Syrian Christian immigrant parents, and her mixed race son whom she is raising in Brooklyn with her husband Jed Rothstein, a white Jewish documentary filmmaker.

Jacob’s tracing of her family’s history in this country — from the start of her parents’ immigration story, to meeting and falling for her husband, to the present day where she is raising a brown son in Trump’s America — is a resonant testimony to how difficult but necessary it is to find and fight for your place in the world. In a heartfelt address delivered to her son in Good Talk, Jacob neatly condenses the existential dilemma that is the crux of the memoir: “I can’t protect you from spending a lifetime caught between the beautiful dream of a diverse nation and the complicated reality of one.”

While framed by Jacob’s conversations with her son, the book spans several different pivotal periods in the Indian-American author’s life. Jacob takes us time-traveling through her early years growing up in New Mexico as the daughter of immigrant parents, invites us to relive her dating foibles, walks us through the highs and lows of her early career as a writer in New York, and lets us overhear intimate conversations she’s had with her husband about how to nurture and protect their interracial family. Each period we revisit is filled with revealing snapshots — sometimes literally when Jacob shares actual family photos — of the type of life she lived and the people and experiences that shaped who she has become. Like any good conversation, the book is generously punctuated by humor, has an effortless flow, and is more concerned with thoughtfully exploring questions than in arriving at definitive answers. Read more…

Forming Relationships with the Road: An Interview with Tom Zoellner

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Reading Tom Zoellner‘s Tucson Weekly piece “Interstate 10: A Personal History,” about the road between Phoenix and Tucson, I knew immediately I was meeting a native desert rat who knew my home turf. I grew up in Phoenix and went to college in Tucson, so I’ve driven that same stretch of interstate countless times. During my drives, I used to sketch ideas for ways to write about it, about the dry land it travels through and all the active roadside businesses and decaying relics of yesteryear. I never got past the note-taking stage, which is partly why I am so excited to see someone else write such a worthy homage to what Zoellner calls the state’s “most reviled” stretch of road.

People loathe it and do it on auto-pilot. By paying close attention, Zoellner functions as a tour guide in a place you’d never expect to want a tour, narrating all the interesting, ugly, and odd points along the way, as well as his connections to it. Ultimately, his piece is as much about the land as it is about learning to see past our own boredom and prejudices, to cast the familiar anew. When I read the word “caliche” on the last page, it made me homesick. Only a desert rat knows what caliche means, and seeing it in print warmed my red-chilé-colored heart. Zoellner talked with me about writing this piece and the nature of placed-based writing.

* * *

You lived in Phoenix but grew up in Tucson. When did you get the idea to write about this stretch of desert highway?

I suspect every commuter has a funny ongoing relationship with the buildings and objects outside the window on their regular drive — little physical mysteries. Who lives in that house? How did that ugly sculpture get there? Does anyone really feel socially elevated after going to “Elite Car Wash?” These musings, often pointless, are the background noise of real thought, like a radio station playing a song of which you’re barely cognizant, and I realized with a jolt while on I-10 that the essential spool of these half-awake thoughts had not substantially changed since I was 12 years old. Nor had the highway, really — it was just as uninviting and shabby-looking as ever. And it occurred to me that this was Arizona’s most unloved highway, but it was also the one most traveled by a statistically overwhelming margin. That became the central paradox of the story, and pretty much everyone who lived in Arizona would get that instinctually, and likely have a similar interior relationship with this road.

Had you made other attempts to write about it? I ask because I did — I sketched notes for a piece about it for years while driving it — and I’m excited to see that you succeeded where I failed.

Writing can take place in the mind long before your fingers ever hit the keyboard. Stephen King has a wonderful simile about writers as paleontologists who are not so much creating material from scratch but merely excavating fossils that have existed in the subconscious for a long time. In that sense, I’ve been writing this piece since I was a sixth grader with no awareness that anything was being created. And so one day, while making my umpteenth Phoenix-Tucson drive for unrelated reasons, I just scribbled a note on every “old friend” that I saw out the window, as well as the same brief and entirely-predictable thing I always thought when I spotted it. The actual piece took less than two hours to spit out once I sat down. It had already been “written.”

What did your Tucson Weekly editor think of this idea at first? Were they like, “Why would anybody write about that boring drive?”

This was first pitched to Arizona Highways, the legendarily well-illustrated publication of the state highway department that has been touting the visual glories of the state since 1925. I thought they might enjoy a counterintuitive take: “You’ve seen enough of Monument Valley. Now here’s what you didn’t know about the state’s most butt-ugly road!” Suffice to say, this wasn’t for them. I’ve been friends for two decades with Tucson Weekly editor Jim Nintzel, probably the state’s most astute political reporter. He was good enough to give it a try.

Have you read or been influenced by other road stories, a genre that might be called roadside journalism or highway literature? 

One of my favorite books is U.S. 40: Cross Section of the United States of America, a collection of essays and photography published in 1953 by the under-appreciated American writer George Rippey Stewart, and then brilliantly updated by Thomas Vale in 1983 in a book called U.S. 40 Today: Thirty Years of Landscape Change in America.

Picacho Trading Post, demolished. Photo by Aaron Gilbreath

What’s it like writing for an alt-weekly right now? Some still seem unpredictable, fun, and adventurous.

When I was a daily newspaper reporter, I wished for the kind of length and freedom enjoyed by alt-weekly writers. I’ve been lucky these last few years to occasionally freelance an article for a few of them.

As you say in the essay, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) razed most of the town of Picacho, which had been there since the 1880s, and no media outlets wrote about it. Did you discover that while writing this, and is this essay sort of your way to correct that?

Yes on both questions. Picacho deserved a much better civic obituary than I could give it, or that it ever got. ADOT couldn’t tell me much of anything about the decision to virtually eliminate it for the widening of the SR 87 interchange. It was a vanishing whose paper trail seemed thin enough to have been anchored in the 19th century rather than the 21st. Highway villages have an odd relationship with history — built to serve people who are going someplace else, who never stay and who barely give it a close look or remember it.

What are your ideas about the way we relate to physical locations, and about writing about a personal relationship with place?

It’s extremely hard. You could write a ten-volume set about a small place, and still feel like you didn’t capture its real essence. The center will always retreat from your grasp. Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to motion seen behind windows.

‘In a Marriage, You Grow Around Each Other’: An Interview with Tessa Hadley

Corbis Historical, HarperCollins

Sarah Boon | Longreads | January 2019 | 16 minutes (4,272 words)


Tessa Hadley is a late-bloomer in UK fiction, despite having wanted to be a writer since she was a child. “It chose me rather than me choosing it,” she says about writing. Hadley published her first novel at the age of 46. Since then, she’s been an unstoppable force, publishing five additional novels, two short story collections, and contributing regularly to The New Yorker. Her new novel, Late in the Day, delves into the institution of marriage, particularly long marriages. She explores how couples grow around each other, like trees, and how the sudden death of a partner can send life into a tailspin. Read more…

The Fault in Our Stars: On Fake Celebrity Interviews

Collage by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | November 2018 | 11 minutes (2,670 words)

“I play with my breasts, not to show off but to demonstrate a kind of revulsion. I simply transform myself into a voice for all the tormented souls of this world.”

That’s Courtney Love in 1996 in SZ, the magazine belonging to one of the largest newspapers in Germany, Süddeutsche Zeitung. It sounds a little crazy, but then, she’s a little crazy. And anyway, Tom Kummer, the Swiss journalist who attempted to style himself after Hunter S. Thompson, always filed outlandish exclusives and cover stories like this from Los Angeles — Pamela Anderson on her aching implants, Mike Tyson on eating cockroaches, Bruce Willis on immorality. From the mid-nineties to 2000, he was kind of a celebrity himself. Beloved by editors, he also wrote for the German magazines Der Spiegel and Stern and Switzerland’s Die Weltwoche. In fact, it was in the latter that, roughly two years before the Love interview, he wrote, funnily enough: “She plays with her breasts not to show off but to demonstrate revulsion. She wants to embody the voice of all tormented souls in the world.”

Tom Kummer had been flagged for fabrication before, but it wasn’t until an exposé in Focus magazine in 2000 that it was confirmed: he had never interviewed Love, or Brad Pitt or Sharon Stone or Kim Basinger, or anyone really. SZ followed with a breakdown of his deceit, like The New York Times would with Jayson Blair in 2003; it published an apology for the “falsified” stories and fired editors Christian Kämmerling and Ulf Poschardt. You would think Kummer would at least nod at contrition — like Janet Cooke in 1982, like Stephen Glass in 1998 — but he took the Jonah Lehrer route instead and talked boundaries. He even had a name for his approach: borderline journalism. “I wrote impressionistic, creative, literary descriptions of the life of stars in the form of so-called interviews,” he told The Guardian in 2011, adding, “Everybody loved my stuff and I guess they were addicted to some kind of illusion that stars should talk like I made them talk.” He claimed he was never asked for proof, that his editors had approved of his methods. As Stern’s publisher told the Times, they — Kummer and his editors — “appeared to have a different idea of journalism.” Read more…

‘I’ve Always Been Either Praised or Accused of Ambition’: An Interview with Barbara Kingsolver

Getty Images / HarperCollins Publishers


Sarah Boon | Longreads | October 2018 | 14 minutes (3,686 words)


Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, The Bean Trees, was published in 1988, on the same day that her first daughter was born. Since then, Kingsolver has published eight more novels, two books of essays, a book of poetry, and three nonfiction books — including the popular Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about growing all of her family’s food on their farm. Her eighth and latest novel, Unsheltered, follows the parallel lives of characters in both 2016 and 1871 as they live and love in the same house at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland, New Jersey.

Kingsolver has received numerous writing awards, including the James Beard Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Orange Prize for Fiction. She has also been shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize and a PEN/Faulkner Award. Kingsolver has also established The Bellwether Prize for Fiction, an award to support writers who cover topics around social change.

I spoke with Kingsolver three days after Hurricane Florence made landfall on the east coast of the US, and the same day Florence was downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone, though it continued to bombard the region with strong winds and heavy rain. Kingsolver noted that she lives in the mountainous region of Virginia, farther from the storm. She wasn’t too worried about the rain, but was concerned about her downstream neighbors who were likely to be inundated. It was a perfect play on the title of Unsheltered. Read more…

‘I Didn’t Have the Language to Call It Racism’: An Interview with Nicole Chung

Catapult Books / author photo by Erica B. Tappis

Victoria Namkung | Longreads | October 2018 | 11 minutes (3,020 words)

Since the early 1950s, parents in the United States have adopted more than a half-million children from other countries, with the vast majority of them coming from orphanages in Asia, South America, and, more recently, Africa. South Koreans are the largest group of transracial adoptees in the U.S., and by some estimates, make up 10 percent of the nation’s Korean American population.

Nicole Chung, however, was born prematurely and placed for adoption by her Korean immigrant parents in Seattle, and raised in a sheltered Oregon town five hours outside of Portland. Adopted by religious and loving white parents, she grew up as an only child who always felt a bit out of place. The narrative she was always told — that her biological parents made the ultimate sacrifice to give her a better life — comforted Chung as a child, but as she came of age, experiencing racism and finding her own identity as an Asian American and a writer, she began to question the “prepackaged myth” of her adoption. After getting married and becoming pregnant with her first child, a daughter, she went in search of her lost roots.

All You Can Ever Know, her memoir of this search, confronts the ways in which traditional adoption narratives rarely tell the whole story and shows how idealistic and well-intentioned white adoptive parents are often wildly unprepared for raising children of color in a society that is nowhere near the post-racial future of many Americans’ imaginations. She writes: “It feels like my duty as my white family’s de facto Asian ambassador to remind them that I am not white, that we do experience this country in different ways because of it, that many people still know oppression far more insidious and harmful than anything I’ve ever faced. Every time I do this, I am breaking the sacred pact of our family, our once-shared belief that my race is irrelevant in the presence of their love.”   Read more…