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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

Photo illustration 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…

Falling in Love with Chicago at Night: An Interview with Jessica Hopper

University of Texas Press / Author photo by David Sampson

Ashley Naftule | Longreads | September 2018 | 9 minutes (2,464 words)

It takes a writer of considerable talent to gear-shift from meditations on mortality to goofy stoner daydreams (and not give the reader whiplash while she’s doing it). It’s a tonal trick Jessica Hopper pulls off over and over again in Night Moves, a poignant (and often hilarious) memoir of her time in Chicago in the early aughts. On one page, Hopper is solemnly reflecting, “You make peace with death’s swift manners and it raises you up”; on another, she’s wondering what it’d be like to run over a great poet with a dune buggy. Ruminations on aging, community, love, and friendships stand shoulder-to-shoulder with sharp, madcap anecdotes, like when a stranger at a nightclub says Hopper resembles “a kabuki donkey” on the dancefloor, or when a pair of socialites at a music festival are aghast at how she’s eating an apple directly off the core. The poetry and absurdity of existence are constant companions in the pages of Night Moves.

The veteran author’s easy grace with the written word comes as no surprise when you take her long career into account. Starting off as a D.I.Y. zine writer, Hopper quickly rose through the ranks to become a freelancer and contributor to publications like SPIN, Grand Royal, Rolling Stone, GQ, Punk Planet, and The Chicago Reader. She’s been an editor at Pitchfork, Rookie, MTV News, and the University of Texas Press. Her knack for juggling incisive cultural criticism with personal reflections and wry humor can be seen in her 2015 collection of music writing, The First Collection of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic.

While music comes up often in Night Moves (“Loving the Smiths is one thing, but loving Morrissey is another thing entirely,” Hopper writes), it’s a book that’s more concerned with what happens just outside of and right next to the rituals of listening to records and going to shows. It’s a book about long bike rides to venues, the sadness of watching friends get blitzed on cocaine at dance nights, the joys of holing up in an apartment and reading back issues of The New Yorker while the city freezes outside. Hopper’s book is a testament to the pleasures of bumming around, the ecstasy of slowing down and enjoying the neighborhood and your friends before career and family and all the other milestones of adulthood start accelerating your timeline. Read more…

An Interview with Sarah Smarsh, Author of ‘Heartland’

ImagineGolf / Getty

Angela Chen | Longreads | September 2018 | 14 minutes (3,488 words)

“I was born a fifth-generation Kansas farmer,” writes Sarah Smarsh, “roots so deep in the country where I was raised that I rode tractors on the same land where my ancestors rode wagons.”

In her memoir Heartland, Smarsh tells the story of four generations of that Kansas family. The book reaches back to a great-grandmother working multiple jobs and beaten by her husband, but is addressed to a future generation that will never be: Smarsh’s unborn daughter August.

Smarsh, the daughter of a teenage mother who is the daughter of a teenage mother, “was on a mission toward a life unlike the one I was handed.” August is a theoretical child born during Smarsh’s teenage years, whose very existence would have continued the line of teenage motherhood and derailed Smarsh’s mission. August is at once a guiding principle (“what would I tell my daughter to do?”) and a symbol of the poverty Smarsh worked to escape.

Heartland is the story of a family and the story of a class in America, an explanation to August of all she would have inherited and lost. I spoke to Smarsh by phone between New York and Kansas, where she lives. We discussed the invisibility of class, how “the country” has become a clichéd set of imagery, and how politicians on the left can reach alienated voters. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read more…