David Grann is an award-winning journalist and staff writer at The New Yorker. His fascinating long-form investigative pieces on crime, obsession and mystery have won him legions of fans around the world. In August he will be in Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival’s New Yorker program, but before he heads to our shores, James Douglas had a chance to talk with him about his labourious and meticulous approach to writing and research, and why you have to learn to live without all the answers.
James Douglas: I’m interested in learning a bit about the process that goes into writing your pieces for The New Yorker. I noticed there’s about a ten to twelve month gap between some of your pieces, is that that standard for New Yorker articles? I know a lot of research must go into your pieces.
David Grann: I think in the last few years it’s been a little bit more like that. I would say when I first came to The New Yorker for a long time I would do three to four pieces a year. In the last few years, for various reasons, they’ve been a little bit further apart. Part of that has been they’ve been more investigative.
A story like Cameron Todd Willingham—who was executed in Texas—took me about ten months. I was trying to find informants—people off the grid—and track down documents. So some of the stories take longer. But I have done stories for The New Yorker—like on Ricky Henderson—which I probably did in six weeks or something like that. And I did a [story] on John McCain in the presidential campaign, and I probably spent about a month on that.
But for various reasons they’ve taken a bit longer, of late. Or maybe I’m getting slower, I’m not sure.
JD: You must spend months on months researching these pieces. I was wondering if you could talk about the effort that goes into that. You must do a lot of travelling to speak with people. Is there also a lot of looking into archives and things like that?
DG:Yes, sometimes. I’m here right now in Texas going through archives.
Each story is different, so it’s hard to speak in general. But a lot of the stories I do often have an historical backdrop or an historical context, and in that case I’ll go through archives. Or often they involve tracking down legal documents from court records—like the story on the Aryan Brotherhood, for example. That involved trying to find both people who were in prison and who would be willing to talk, and then trying to find court records from various cases, or attorneys who might have depositions or affidavits. In that case it was a very secretive group that you’re trying to crack open and learn about. So each story presents different obstacles.
The story I did most recently for The New Yorker—‘The Yankee Comandante’—[was] about this ne'er-do-well American who had dropped out of highschool and had a troubled youth, then got caught up in the Cuban Revolution, and became a great hero, fell in love, and was then ultimately executed by Castro.
In that case it involved trying to find people who were still alive (I really was capturing a generation right at the very end of their lives, and in fact, even as I was reporting some of the people I had spoken with earlier passed away), people who knew Morgan, and actually fought with Morgan, or were friends with Morgan in Cuba. I spoke to many members who were in his brigade, in his rebel group, and most of them were in their seventies or eighties. In fact I also spoke with Morgan’s widow —the woman he fell in love with in Cuba.
So that part was tracking down the people, and then the other element involved also archival research; trying to find oral histories from people who were no longer alive and who knew Morgan and maybe gave accounts. In that case I found an oral history by a man who was connected to the CIA and active as a spotter and trying to kind of recruit Morgan. And it was incredibly detailed.
And that [story]—just to be specific, to speak to different stories, because each story, again, what it requires is different—also involved many Freedom of Information Act requests, in which I FOI’d almost every government agency that might have had any dealings with Morgan. And some of those records were in national archives, and some of them weren’t. Getting all those records is one reason why that story took a long time, because the Government moves at its own pace.
So each story has its own bits. And the story dictates what you can do. While I was doing a story about Ricky Henderson—the baseball player—I spent most of my time just with Ricky Henderson. I hung out with the team he was on, and spoke with people he knew but the reporting was more one on one, or observational. In many ways that is much easier and takes less time.
But, for me, the goal is always to learn as much as possible about a subject. I never, never answer all the questions I want answered—because I’m human, and there’s time constraints, and some things are gone in the ether and there’s no way to find them. My goal is to get as close to the essence of the story, and the truth of the story as I possibly can. So, wherever that takes me I usually go. If its archives I’ll go to the archives, if it’s a prison I’ll go to a prison, if it’s chasing giant squid I’ll go chase a giant squid.
JD: Do you have a strong idea of when enough is enough? Can you usually tell when it’s time to start writing?
DG: I think you can. I think you get to a point where you’re about ninety-five or ninety-six percent there, and the four percent you probably could spend years [on], and you’re not sure if you will get them. At that point what you want to be missing are the small details, details that might make a scene more colourful, or more vivid. But you have all the elements of the story, and so the reader is not going to be left confounded, or baffled, just as you’re no longer baffled.
So you’ve accumulated enough information where in your own mind you’ve resolved the essential questions that you’re exploring in the story, or the essential questions about the character, and you have enough material to be able to narrate it. At a certain point—chasing that last four percent—you have to eventually give up, or you’ll never get paid and have any food on your dinner table.
JD: You mentioned that for ‘The Yankee Comandante’ piece you tracked down Morgan’s widow and old friends. What’s it like dropping into these people's’ lives and asking them to speak about people they’ve known? I’ve often wondered how I would react if a journalist dropped in and asked me to speak about old friends…
DG: Yeah, it’s interesting. I’m always surprised at most people’s willingness to talk. I’m actually very private, and kind of shy, and a little bit discomforted about talking about myself. So I’m always surprised.
I think, again, each story is different. Some people are showmen, and they really welcome you in, and there really aren’t a lot of hurdles. We’ve gotten kind of used to reality TV where people expose so much about themselves. But the thing that I try to do is just spend enough time with people, so they feel comfortable. I am actually not a person who always likes to ask a lot of questions. I like to observe people in their everyday life as much as possible. Sometimes with an investigative story there are elements of direct questions. But for many of the stories I do, to understand a subject—if they’re living and I’m trying to do portrait of them—all I really want to do is disappear, and to have the person forget that I’m there. So that they’re comfortable, and so that the consciousness, and the self-consciousness, of the reporter-subject dissipates, and the person resumes their normal activity and you get to see them, the way they really are.
I try to be pretty sympathetic and generous in understanding people. I want to understand people. So hopefully there’s an element of comfort. I guess the thing I always tell people is that I can’t guarantee the way stories will turn out, but I can guarantee them that I will be extremely serious and thoughtful and will be rigorous in my reporting and in trying to understand them.
JD: The New Yorker has a reputation for having a pretty rigorous fact-checking department. Is that a particularly complicated process for your stories?
DG: You know, it’s really one of the great things about the magazine. If the goal of reporting is to get things right, and to get to the truth as best you can, and to learn as much as you can, then having the fact-checking process is just another element of that.
I tend to do a lot of my own fact-checking. I am one of those rare reporters who [tends] to go over stuff with the subjects before I go to print. I always tell people that I won’t just change things because they now wish they hadn’t said something. But I want them to be aware of what’s in the story, and also I want to make sure if there’s something that’s factually wrong, or maybe they want to make an additional point.
So I tend to go over things, and in fact do a lot of my own fact-checking, and then the fact-checkers come in and do it again. It’s burdensome in the sense that when you’re doing a big historical piece and you’re like ‘Ah, gosh, where is that one document buried in the four thousand’, and it’s Wednesday, and you’re getting ready, and you have to find that one document. So it can be a pain, but it’s a real luxury.
And sometimes things come out of the fact checking process, too. When I did the story on the ‘Yankee Comandante’, and I went over stuff with the widow, she sometimes remembered a detail in the scene. I was reading her back the scene of her wedding, and she suddenly remembered that Morgan didn’t have a ring with him, and so he reached up and pulled a leaf off the tree and wrapped it around her finger. And it was such a beautiful, lovely detail. For me, fact-checking is really just another layer of reporting. It’s just making sure that what you already reported was correct, and then it’s also just another layer, both to make sure you’re accurate and hopefully also to deepen what you’ve already done.
JD: Your pieces have this strong narrative framework, almost like importing the architecture of a fiction piece into the journalism form. I was wondering how you established that style. Is that something you’ve always instinctively done? Or is it a decision that had to be reached at some point during your career?
DG: I think that it was a very gradual process. I started out writing very straight news stories, and slowly moved towards more narrative, and then grander narratives and more ambitious narratives.
I was not actually a very good straight newspaper reporter, because almost instinctively I want to tell a story the way you would sit down to tell someone a story. In a newspaper story—where you’re supposed to have the inverted pyramid—by the third paragraph the reader is supposed to know all the basic facts on what the story is about. [That] was always kind of anathema to me, and went against my natural instincts, and I was never very good at it. Editors were always taking my last paragraph and moving it up to my third paragraph.
The more you do it the more you learn, and you start to think about structure, and you think about stories. I want the structure of a story to hopefully reflect the truths you’re trying to get at in the story, or to let people see the way stories really unfold.
People sometimes say, ‘Oh, with your stories, you think one thing and then suddenly you think another, and you’re surprised’. But what I’m really doing in those cases is hopefully unfolding the story the way it really unfolded, or the way it was really perceived. For example, with the Cameron Todd Willingham story — where everybody thought he was guilty—I spent, I think, seven thousand words basically laying out the case against him, and why he was found guilty and executed. You have the arson sleuths come in, and they find all the clues. I just reported that out, and then slowly I deconstructed that evidence. In a weird way that structure is reflecting the way things happened —that was the way people perceived the truth, and then gradually our new understandings of science, and arson evidence, and the way arsons are studied, came to light, and all the mistakes and flaws in the trial came to light. Until, by the very end, almost all the things you thought turn out to be wrong, or mistaken, or misperceived, or at least much more complicated.
JD: You mentioned earlier that you try to structure the stories in a way that reflects the truth about how events unfold. Is narrative non-fiction ever a difficult territory to navigate? It strikes me that it must be tempting for some journalists to over-narrativise events in a way that ends up misrepresenting how things happened.
DG: I think your goal both in your reporting and your structure should be the same: which is to get to the essence of the story. As long as you keep that in mind it’s really not that hard. You always want to be rigorous with yourself. And that’s why you revise stories multiple times, and you keep going back over them. I’ll go over stories, and paragraphs, and sections, and I’ll throw sections out and I will finally take a long time because you do want to make sure.
Once a story has been all reported out, there’s a certain omniscience. [When] we look back on stories, or on history, we have the benefit of hindsight and we have almost a god-like omniscience. But real stories don’t unfold that way, and real people don’t have all those powers of perception. So the thing I try to show in my stories is actually in a weird way, the opposite of over-narrativising — it’s actually the muddle, or the misperception, the way we think we see something and then we don’t really see it correctly. And that’s the way the world is.
I read a lot of Sherlock Holmes in my youth, and I read a lot of detective fiction, but the real characters I write about never have those immaculate powers, and the stories are never fairy tales. That’s the thing you want to guard against. What you want to do is be able to show the messiness of life, and the messiness of perception, and also allow open-endedness. You don’t always have all the answers, you get as close as you can, and you show what you know.
I did the story about the world’s greatest Sherlock Holmes expert—who was found garroted in his apartment—and there was this question of was he murdered, or did he commit suicide and did he stage it? There was a quote that his sister gave me at the very end, and I don’t remember it precisely, but the paraphrase was something like ‘We have to live without all the answers’. And I think that’s true, and I think that’s true for the stories you report. You have to be able to accept the complexity of life. And if you don’t, that’s when you get into trouble.
JD: Have you ever dropped a piece once you’ve started?
DG: Yeah, I do, a lot. It’s usually in the early stages. The part I’m most ruthless on is the first two to three weeks, before I’ve fully embarked on a story. In that period I’ll often drop stories, or I’ll be juggling three stories at once, trying to figure out which is the one that makes the most sense, or is the most interesting, or won’t work out. I try to avoid getting six months into a story and having to drop it. [So] in that first month I’m pretty ruthless.
What you don’t want to do is get locked in. You don’t want to presume you know what the story is and are simply reporting out that vision. You want to be open to the possibilities. Sometimes I go into a story and I think it’s one thing, and I start to report it, and it’s not actually that at all. Sometimes that’s more interesting, and it’s worth doing the story. And sometimes you think that’s really not such an interesting story after all, because the element that you thought made it most interesting really doesn’t exist.
But a good example of that would be the Squid Hunter story. Sometimes you have this narrative in your mind, and in that case [when] I sold the story to the New Yorker, I said, ‘I’m going to go out with this giant squid hunter and we’re going to be the first people to capture a live giant squid and he’s going to grow it’ [the squid]. And I said ‘I’m going on this great expedition with him, so fly me to New Zealand’, so they flew me to New Zealand. And it turns out there’s a typhoon, and we’re out on this little boat, and everything basically that could ever go wrong goes wrong on that expedition. To the point where we capture it—this little baby giant squid—and as we’re trying to transfer it into another container we lose it. And I remember when that happened, at the time I just thought ‘What am I going to do? I’m dead. There goes the whole story’. I’d been holed up in New Zealand for a month, and spent all this money and time, and here we had this baby giant squid and we lost it. What kind of story is that? There’s no ending. It was only over time that I realised that was actually an incredibly emotive, much more truthful, much more original story. And a truer story than the story I had conceived of, which was this Hollywood ending. It was about this man who had pursued this squid and bankrupted himself and had it and then lost it, if he ever even had it. And in a way, that was what the story was supposed to be. But it took me a moment—or it took me more than a moment, it took me at least twenty-four hours—to realise there was something there.