Mark Bowden knows his stuff.
Mark is the author of 13 books, including Black Hawk Down, Hue 1968, and the upcoming The Last Stone (due out in 2019). He's spent his career writing true stories about real people. He has a world of knowledge (literally! he's covered stories all over the globe) to share with us life story writers. Listen to my conversation with Mark as we discuss the craft of researching, reporting, and writing.
Links and stuff:
Tales of the Tyrant, profile of Saddam Hussein
See all of Mark's articles in The Atlantic here
A few of Mark Bowden's books:
From the interview with Mark Bowden:
Mark Bowden: I started writing while I was still in college. I, among other interests, I liked to write and kind of by a fluke became editor of my college newspaper, which involves doing a lot of writing. I had a professor in college who really encouraged me as a writer and so I made up my mind as a student at Loyola College back in the early 1970s that I was going to make a living as a writer—or die trying.
Amy: I read a story about whee you were talking about a formative experience when you were a new news reporter, I think in Maryland, and you were invited to join a sting operation, and the type of article that you were expected to write was not the kind that you wanted to write. And it sounds like maybe that was kind of a breakthrough for you in learning what kind of journalism you wanted to practice. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Mark Bowden: It was an important moment. I had a degree in English and a love of great fiction and I was particularly enamored by the new journalists of the 1960s and early 1970s, who applied a lot of the techniques of fiction writing to writing true stories. And I'd gotten a job at a newspaper which had no interest, that I could see, in that kind of writing. And at the time the writing was very formulaic for newspapers. You wrote a first paragraph with a who, what, when, where, how, and why, developing the story with a sort of a pyramid structure. And I had gone out on this drug raid, which to make a long story short, included things like the police getting drunk before going out on the raid, and claiming that they had rounded up the top drug dealers in the county, when in fact they'd raided a housing project and rounded up a lot of people and grabbed their petty personal stashes of drugs. And then they held a press conference where they laid out all these paltry seizings and because of my recent graduation from college, I was much younger than most of the reporters there. I could look at what they offered and saw that it was really not very significant and yet they pumped up the value. So there was really no way for me to honestly write the story by telling the public what the police was trying to sell. It was clearly false. And I also sort of lacked the gumption to be honest and construct a story that began by saying basically, the county police perpetrated a fraud on the public. That probably would have raised alarms at my newspaper.
So the alternative, it seemed to me, the only answer to the dilemma was just to write a narrative about being with the police on the drug raid, which included an account of their drinking and a description of the place that they rated and the kind of things that they gathered. It was all true, and the newspaper loved it, and readers loved it. And so that was really a door opening for me to the realization that within the newsroom of the newspaper, I had an opportunity to do creative writing. That to me just felt like a more honest way of telling a story, than the formulaic approach that most of the other reporters were using
Amy: Did it dry up your sources within the police department?
Mark Bowden: Well, Captain Lindsay, the the police officer who was responsible for inviting me on the raid, was very unhappy with the story, but he couldn't really complain because he knew it was all true. And he's the one who had invited me to go along with them. I will say that I was never invited on another drug raid again.
But I think Captain Lindsay had a kind of respect for the fact that I was accurate and that I had written a story that everyone enjoyed reading so much. It was a little bit embarrassing, but he was a good guy. And I think he understood my role.
Amy: A lot of times new clients will say, what if somebody in my family doesn't see things the way that I see it, or they don't come across well? And the funny thing is ,often when somebody is saying something that sounds negative about somebody else, maybe it's a sister that they didn't get along with or something, that person sometimes doesn't take offense at all. They're just happy to be written about it. It's a funny little glitch in human psychology. It's almost like, okay, our moment of fame, seeing ourselves in black and white in a book, that overrides the fact that maybe it's not the best portrayal.
Mark Bowden: There's no guarantee with that. And you're right, it does happen. And it happens more often than you might think, but it is dangerous. I think when you write candidly about people who are close to you, you can hurt feelings and you can create anger and divisions. But I've always found in my dealings with my own family, that it has been a benefit to me to be honest with them, when I disagree with them or when I'm unhappy with something. And I think that a reputation for being straightforward and being honest is ultimately more valuable than any kind of false good feeling that you get by always saying nice things.
Amy: I agree. Yeah. And, and for the type of work that life story writers do, ywe don't want hagiography, we don't want just the praise and the bright spots in somebody's life. I mean, it should never be a platform for getting even with anybody or willfully hurting somebody. But yeah, there has to be some honesty there and some truth-telling for it to be a compelling story.
Mark Bowden: Well, my role has always been to be honest, but be kind.
Amy: That's perfect. I know you you're not a memoir writer, but have you ever written about yourself or your family?
Mark Bowden: Very little and not very frequently. It's an area that, for reasons that I'm sure you're well aware, is difficult. There are risks involved that I would prefer not to take. And I think that for me, the avenue to write about other people, other stories is wide open and I love doing it, so I've never really felt particularly inclined to dive into my own family stories. I show up now and then over the years in stories and I always try to be very truthful and kind. Can I do it? But it's uncomfortable for me.
Amy: I have a very vivid recollection of the first thing of yours that I read. It was an article that you wrote about Saddam Hussein. It was a profile. I was doing research for a client who had taken part, who was one of the commanders on the mission to rescue the hostages in Iran. And I guess because you had written about that somehow through the magic of the Internet, I landed on this other profile that you had written about Saddam Hussein. And it just bowled me over. I think partly because the prose is just beautiful. I love your style and I'm always trying to look for examples that I can study, to copy from and get ideas on how to build profiles of the people that I'm doing the books about. So I love it when I come across somebody who does it really beautifully and that's what you did. I think it's called Tales of the Tyrant. I would love to hear you talk about the kind of reporting and research you did and the writing about that piece. For anybody who has not read it, you can learn so much from it and it's just a joy to read. You had a really interesting character, Saddam Hussein, interesting in a horrific way. So I'm sure it's incredibly well researched. So you've got, you've got facts about him, you've got observations, I'm assuming people that you interviewed had personally observed him in different situations, but then you extrapolate you kind of get into his psychology and I think that's so interesting. So I want to talk about that, but I'd like to hear a little bit about how you did the research and reporting on that piece.
Mark Bowden: Okay. The big challenge of course in writing about Saddam Hussein was that I would never get a chance to talk to him. And I think probably wrongly, the first thing that pops into people's minds when they think about profiling someone is the meeting that person and talking to them. And I've found in my work that it's nice when that can happen, but it's not the most important part of writing a profile. I find that the perceptions that those who are close to your subject have are more valuable. And part of the reason for that is that at the heart of any sort of perception you have of another person is an anecdote. I mean, if you believe someone is funny or if someone is a morose character, ultimately you've arrived at that perception of them because of some experience you've had with them or some observation that you've made a watching them.
And I think as a writer, you know, my goal is always to get to those stories, to get to those anecdotes which illustrate the character, as opposed to my pontificating or listing qualities or traits. You want to be able to show a what a person is like. So for the case of Saddam Hussein—and even though I did write a letter to the Iraqi government and requested an interview, I never got a response—I set out to find people who had interacted with Saddam personally and was given wonderful resources by the Atlantic, basically to travel through the Middle East and Europe. Finding people who were living in exile from Iraq, who had at various points in their lives interacted directly with Saddam. And I sought their stories, their observations, their insights, and those were the things that informed that story for the most part.
The last thing you mentioned was analysis of him and his character. And one of the things that I had going for me was the fact that he fancied himself a writer and he had written a great deal. And that's something I know how to do. I can read something that someone has written and I can analyze it and come up with insights into the motivations of that person. And then, you know, one of the things that's so wonderful about modern times is that very often the people that I write about had been videotaped either giving a speech or attending a public event, which gives me an opportunity to observe that person in video. So all those were tools that went into crafting that piece on Saddam.
That story sought to penetrate a lot of misinformation about Saddam. He had been presented by the media and by other governments as such a villain and such a horrible person. And in many cases there were perfectly legitimate reasons for seeing him that way. But my goal was to understand how he saw himself and I didn't believe that he woke up in the morning and looked in the mirror and said, “I'm the most terrible person in the world.” Rather, I suspected that he had a rationale which justified in his mind all of the terrible things that he had done. And so my goal was to try to get at that. I wanted to be able to present Saddam as he saw himself.
Amy: And you did it so well. It's exactly what fiction writers are taught to do. You don't want to create a villain, an antagonist who's just one dimensional, who's all evil. You want to create somebody that we can understand. So that's exactly what you did with Saddam Hussein and you did it brilliantly. And I loved that interplay of, you know, all of his advisors who were terrified of being tortured or put to death or kicked out of the country, they were all terrified of him. So they were feeding him bad information. They were feeding into his delusions. You said that, he became more isolated the greater the power that he had, and more delusional because of his isolation. But then, you know, you take it a step further and you. That's where just the beauty of it comes in for me. So you're taking this collection of things of people that people have said about him, but you are then go further and kind of tell us what they mean and what that shows us about him. So I think that was just so well done.
Mark Bowden: Thank you amy. I appreciate it. It's nice to be appreciated.
Amy: Well, okay. I'm going to just so that. So that we can ground this a little bit in an example: This comes up towards the beginning of your profile. And the reason I'm going on about this is because you know, as life story writers, our goal is to not just have a collection of facts about somebody's life, even not just a collection of anecdotes, right? Because even if the storyteller isn't particularly reflective and isn't particularly astute at seeing how things all hang together, that's what the reader is going to want when. So, you know, were this conduit, we have the words that the storyteller tells us and then they go through us, they pass through us and then it comes out on the other end as a book or, or some other kind of project. And it’s up to us, I think, to do a little bit of that analysis like you're talking about with this profile of Saddam Hussein. And the great thing is, you know, our storytellers are always the last and final editor. So if we get something wrong, they can cross it out. But so often, if we have the gumption to take something that they've told us and just push it out a little bit further, often people will say, “Oh my gosh, you got it. Exactly right. That's exactly how it was, that's exactly what I thought.”
That's the reason why I really wanted to dive into this with you.
I'm going to give people a little example that I just really liked. It comes towards the beginning of your profile where you write Saddam likes to watch TV and then you say, “He enjoys movies, particularly those involving intrigue, assassination and conspiracy.” And then you give a few examples: The Day of the Jackal, The Conversation. And then you say, “Because he has not traveled extensively, such movies inform his ideas about the world and feed his inclination to believe broad conspiracy theories. The world is a puzzle that only fools accept at face value.” And that last sentence, that just drives it home.
IThose kinds of insights, do they come to you as you're doing the writing or do they come to you because you're thinking about a project when you're in the research phase of it? How does that part work?
Mark Bowden: Well, it's what I call “making something of the material” and, you know, if someone tells me an anecdote about another person that I'm writing about, I won't just repeat the anecdote. I think about it and I think what does this tell me about the person? When I started as a writer, I was too timid to draw inferences and essentially tell the reader what I think about this thing that I've just written. As I've gotten older and more confident as a writer, I do that much more readily. I think it's one of the most valuable things that you as the writer can do for the reader: not just empty the notebook of all the facts and stories that you've gathered about someone, but to really think about it and ask yourself questions like, “What is my impression of this person? How do I feel about this person? Why do I feel the way that I feel?”
And the answer to the why is right in the material, it’s in the notes that I've got and the facts and stories that I've been told. And so making that connection in my mind between my perception of the person and what created that perception helps to shape my presentation of the material. I hope that makes sense. But it can happen at any time. I mean, very often, one of the things people ask me is how long it takes me to write something and what the process is. And I tell them that in the beginning it's 99 percent reporting and research and one percent writing. And the one percent is me sitting down with a notebook. I'm just jotting down ideas that I have, either for questions that I want answers to or what my thoughts are about what I've learned already. Some of that eventually finds its way into the work, but by the end of the process, it’s 99 percent writing and one percent research and reporting, and that's where I think you are in the process of thinking something through.
That's what to me writing is. I mean, writing a profile, writing a story is essentially thinking of things through from beginning to end. You're taking a reader and you're leading them down a path and I think until you do it, until you write a first draft, you've not thought it through completely yourself and that process of thinking of things through for the first time, which is your first draft, it leads you to insights that you didn't have when you start it, because it's not a natural thing to do. I mean your mind is all over the place. If it's anything like mine, until you sit down to write, where you’ve disciplined your thought process to actually rigorously think of things through from beginning to end, that leads you to insights and so you need to be attentive to what you learn in that process. And so all those things add up to what I might begin with, which was making something of the material.
Take a lot of my students: They write something down and then they think they're done and I tell them, look, you know, this is your first step. You've written something. Now you've thought it through. What have you learned by thinking it through? What is the story about, what are you trying to convey? And you don't really know the answers to those questions very often until you've written that first draft and that insight is then what ought to inform what ultimately will be the final draft of what you're writing.
Amy: Do you think differently about something after you've written that first draft?
Mark Bowden: Yes. And I think if you don't feel that way, you haven't done enough work. When I start working on something, by definition I don't know anything about it or what I do know about it is probably wrong. I mean, that was true of the Saddam Hussein story. What did I know about Saddam Hussein? What I'd seen and what I'd read—and I know enough about the world to know that much of what I see, what I hear, is probably not true or is distorted in some way. And so the process of the reporting and writing is one where you arrive at your own understanding of something. I think just the process of working invariably leads you to surprises about people. People are inherently surprising. You'd think you know them and then you discover something about them that you had never heard before. That's called reporting.
Amy: That's absolutely true. One of the perks of, of doing what I do for a living—and I'm sure all of the other life story professionals out there have the same experience—as soon as I tell somebody what I do, then they start telling me these really interesting stories about themselves. Things that you would have never guessed just from the outside. Last week I was at a coffee shop doing some work and I ended up talking to this older gentleman and it turns out that he once spent a week with John Wayne. And he told me apparently John Wayne was terrified of horses, that he had one horse that he insisted on having in like I think 22 out of the movies that he made. Really fun things that people don't generally talk about when you're just meeting them. And, and I'm sure as you know, as a writer, as a reporter and a journalist and a nonfiction writer, I'm sure that you get that a lot too. And it's nice because it makes life interesting, right?
Mark Bowden: It should also make you more humble, because anyone who works as a reporter or writer knows that when they actually go to work on something, you discover so much more and it changes your whole way of thinking often about whatever it is you're writing about. What that leads you to understand is that in most cases, your understanding of things is very shallow and probably wrong. I always tell people that if you walked through life admitting that you don't know anything or that you might be wrong about something, very often you'll be right.
Amy: Exactly right. And just that whole being open to new interpretations and not feeling like, things that you don't know anything about. Okay. And this is a little bit of a side thing. Today happens to be my birthday and I love my birthday. And before I got on the phone I was feeling nervous and I thought, well, that's okay. It's your birthday. So if you sound like a fumbling idiot who's very ignorant about everything having to do with anything writing, that's okay because it's your birthday. You get a free pass today.
Mark Bowden: But I think that that's essential. And I always say, I begin a story with an acknowledgement of my own ignorance. And, if you don't, you foreclose a lot of opportunity to arrive at an original insight. If you already think you know what you need to know, then what good is it? It gets in the way.
I'm having new experiences, a new perception. So it's actually a zen concept. You know, you empty your mind, you have what they call beginner mind, which is when you sit down to write, you should sort of purge your mind of everything you think you know about writing, and that gives you an opportunity to be creative, to do things differently. If you're not always doing that, you're never going to get better.
Amy: That's great advice. Okay. Something else, and this is getting kind of into the nitty gritty of your work process, but something else that I read that you do is that when you're in the research phase and doing the reporting for a story that you're going to be writing, that you're constantly doing outlines, so sketching out outlines and they change and morph as you acquire more information and insights. Do I have that right? Is that what you do?
Mark Bowden: Yes, exactly. And that grew out of my experience as a young reporter. When I'd start working on a story—and these were stories that I researched and wrote in a day—and you're calling around interviewing people on the phone or going to see people and you never know whether anybody else is going to talk to you. And you're going to have to write the story at the end of the day. So what I would always do is sketch out for myself a little outline of what the story looks like right now. If I have to write the story right now and no one else talks to me and I learned nothing more, what have I got? And so I would sketch out a little outline. And what I discovered as I began working on more and more complex stories is that having that working model in your mind of what the story looks like now informs your reporting.
You never lose sight conceptually of the story that you intend to write. And that model or that outline changes constantly. Because I mean, I'm sure, Amy, you've had this experience where you think you know what you're going to write and then you get another interview or you learn something new and it completely upends what you thought the story was. And that that's disconcerting initially, but if you redraw your outline very quickly, think it through, inevitably you will know a better story because you've been forced to think about it a little harder. You've learned something new. The story has developed a different structure. If you aren't doing that, you run the risk of getting lost in the reporting and in the research where you just end up with boxes and boxes of information and have no idea what to do with it. So that discipline, which I learned very early, it's become more and more valuable. It's valuable to me as I take on larger and more ambitious project.
Amy: Now that you're writing these these long, just amazing books: Was that a skill that you had to work up to?
Mark Bowden: Yep. It's a gradual evolution for me. I mean, there are wonderful writers who sort of, I think are hatched with a brilliant talent and you know, at age 21 or 22 are writing glorious stories and novels. I'm not one of them. I'm someone who learned how to do what I do over a very long period of time. My students would sometimes say to me, kind of jokingly, I want your job, I want to do what you do. And I'd tell them, well, you know, that's like the American tourists in London who admire the beautiful lawn on an ancestral estate. So they asked the gardener, how do you get such a beautiful lawn? And he says, it's really not hard. You just water it and roll it every morning for two thousand years.
Amy: So as a young cub reporter, could you have imagined where you're at now? Was this something that you always wanted to do? Take on these really big epic battles and epic personalities and write about them?
Mark Bowden: Yes. I mean, this was my fantasy. This is the thing that drove me. And I often have said that I entered the newspaper world, I'm a little bit before, but right about the time of Watergate and Woodward and Bernstein and I think most of my colleagues and friends who got in the business at around the same time wanted to be investigative reporters and wanted to uncover malfeasance and, you know, make the world a better place. And those are all wonderful reasons to become a journalist.
I didn't start that way. I started wanting to be a writer and wanting to be a creative writer and wanting to write the books that Truman Capote and Joan Didion and Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe were writing. And I of course didn't know how to do that, but I had that as a dream and it was a driving force throughout my career.
And I was very lucky to land with editors and publications like the Philadelphia Inquirer where they encouraged the kind of reporting and writing that I wanted to do. And that was unusual. I mean, back in the 1970s and ‘80s, to have editors that were really interested in long creative, well-written stories was not common, I mean, most of these papers did not have that motivation. So I landed partly by design, partly by luck at the Philadelphia Inquirer, which I think was the premier learning ground for young creative nonfiction writers in the country and I had some of the best editors and colleagues. Many of them have gone on to their own remarkable careers. And I just feel extremely fortunate that I grew up in that environment.
Amy: Do you have any advice for people who are brand new to either the interviewing or the writing?
Mark Bowden: Well, yeah, I mean some of that advice is already been sort of included, incorporated in what I've been saying about process, but, you know, I think it's important to start with the understanding that you don't know. I think for instance, when you interview someone, a common mistake is for a person to arrive with a list of questions that they want answers to and then adhere sort of rigidly to that list. And I think it is important to have a list of the things that you want to make sure you cover. But the important thing to know is that very often the best question you'll ask or the best answers you'll get are to things that you would never think to ask before you begin the process. It's important to have a roadmap, but you need to leave the roadmap to the side because when you start listening to someone, there are things you're going to learn about them that you never would think to ask about.
And a good example is if you ever listened to Terry Gross on Fresh Air, the wonderful interview program on NPR. And what makes Terry Gross such a wonderful interviewer is that she—and I've been interviewed by her many times and I know she arrives fully prepared—but she listens so carefully to what you're saying and if you say anything to Terry that interests her, you know, that raises a question in her mind or piques her curiosity, even if it's far afield from whatever the subject matter is that you're talking about, she'll ask you about it. She ends up taking her subjects into territory that you never imagined, you know, that you wouldn't end up. I think that's what makes her such an extraordinary interviewer and their programs so interesting to listen to. And I've been on that show where other people have interviewed me and they're not as good at it. You know, they have a rigid series of questions that they want to ask and they're very, very focused on whatever the narrow subject matter is that you are ostensibly there to talk about. That's why I love listening to Terry, because you never know where it's going to end up. So those are some good lessons to learn.
Amy: Thank you. Yeah, that's perfect. I always feel a little bit like we're detectives, you know, when we're trying to find out about somebody's life story because they don't necessarily notice the things that are going to be remarkable to other people, and wouldn't necessarily think to be telling those stories because we all have sort of a stash of stories that we tell over and over again. It's leading people down those other pathways that can be so much fun and so rewarding and can open up whole areas that they have not thought about for years.
Mark Bowden: I love to hear most from someone I'm interviewing, “Oh, nobody's ever asked me that question!” Or, “I've never really thought about that very hard.” And now you're getting into some interesting territory because you're getting somebody to think creatively about themselves and know that's where you've, I think it really rich material.
Amy: Exactly. Yeah. Well, what we do is sort of small stage writing and what you do is big stage writing, but there is just so much overlap. And again, for the listeners, I would highly recommend reading some of your stuff because we can learn so much from it. So. Okay. I know we're getting kind of close to the end of the time, but can you share what you're working on now?
Mark Bowden: Yes. I've just finished writing a book which will be published in the springtime. It's going to be called The Last Stone and it goes back to the first big story I ever covered as a reporter when I was 23 years old at the Baltimore News American. And it's a terrible story. It's the story of two little girls, Katherine and Sheila Lyon, who vanished from a mall in the suburbs of Washington DC in 1975. And that case was never solved. I covered it. I'm getting to know the family, the detectives who were working on it for several weeks, and then of course it faded off the pages of the newspaper, but I never forgot it. A couple years ago—actually, while I was writing Hue 1968, I saw an item in the Washington Post saying that the Montgomery County, Maryland police had figured out who took the Lyon sisters and what happened to them. And so I went. I dropped everything and went, drove down there and introduced myself and said, “This story has haunted me my whole life.” And I ended up with a remarkable story. What I think is a remarkable story which I've just finished writing and as I said, will be published in the spring.
Amy: Well, I look forward to reading that. Mark, thank you so much for sharing everything with us today. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
Mark Bowden: It was my pleasure, Amy. Happy Birthday. I really, more than anything, I enjoy talking about reporting and writing. Very often, as someone who writes true stories, when I'm interviewed, it's about the subject matter of whatever book it is that I've just finished. And I'm happy to talk about that, but what really interests me, understandably I think, is the work I do. And so an interview like this one with you is a lot more fun for me than most.