WRITERS ONLINE MAGAZINE
Volume 16, Number 1
Interview with Colson Whitehead from October 2002
Colson Whitehead visited the Writers Institute on October 17, 2002, in between the publication of his second novel John Henry Days (2001) and The Colossus of New York (2003), a collection of lyrical essays about New York City. During an interview and afternoon seminar he answered questions on a number of issues including the impact of New York City on his writing; writing after 9/11; the writing process and his work habits; the differences in writing journalism, fiction and essays; and on the critical and reader reception of his work. Below are excerpts from his comments.
Question: When did you start getting the sense of self-searching to start taking real risks in fiction?
Whitehead: I think I stopped doing as much journalism as I used to do because I’d kind of done it. I’d written my hundred book reviews, my sixty music reviews, and I didn’t have that much more to say, I think. I felt like I’d said what I had to say, so, I wanted to do something different, and I had always thought of myself as a fiction writer, even if I wasn’t actually writing any fiction. It seemed to be time to actually start doing it. … My first attempt at a novel was very pop-culture heavy, kind of a hipster, twenty-something novel, and no one wanted to publish it. But, it seemed like— “I’m not going to learn a real trade. I’m not going to become a vet or a lawyer. Nothing else is going to make me happy; nothing else gives my day some sense of purpose, so I have to start the next book.” It was a book about elevator inspectors, and it seemed like definitely no one would like that, but, there was sort of no choice. It was the book that I had to do and get out of my system, and maybe I would write something that people would care about. So, I think, at the end of the day, when you are working on something it’s just you and your computer, and whether you’ve gotten some good reviews or bad reviews that week, they’re not going to help you get the next couple words out. I mean, it’s really the sort of essential situation of you trying to fill the page.
Question: How has New York [City] affected your life? There’s something that happens to some people, and they can make use of it— something about New York that just does something good for people.
Whitehead: I’m a New Yorker, I love the City. I’ve tried to live other places and it doesn’t really work out. I know there are some people who say “I can’t work, it’s too noisy,” but I play loud music when I work, so it’s always noisy. I get creeped out when I’m out in the woods and there is actually no noise, no street lights, no horrible illumination coming through the window, and no loud garbage trucks parading down the Avenue. You know, the City feeds me, I think. … I’d say it’s my inspiration. I’ve worked on a series of essays about New York, and I’m sad that I’m done, because I’m not actually done with the City. I thought I could go on to something else, but now I’m trying to think up other topics of the City that I can work on next.
Question: September 11 marked a watershed of something I think not enough people understand in terms of the work of an artist. Other writers ended up saying that they didn’t know what to say any more, that kind of thing. Was that in part something you dealt with?
Whitehead: Yes, it was an incredibly horrible time. I am from New York. The buildings have always been there for me and I guess there is always that question of where were you that actual minute it happened. I sleep late, I get up around noon when possible. My phone kept ringing at nine in the morning and I was getting very angry because I got about four phone calls around nine and it seemed unconstitutional. I finally got up to see what kind of person was waking me up and my friend was like, “Dude, you better turn on the TV.” It was just an absurd sight. It was something the mind cannot actually comprehend so it seems like a very surreal thing. My wife and I live in an apartment that overlooks Manhattan so we went to see for ourselves and as we were watching, the towers came down. That started three months of depression for me. I couldn’t work on the book. There is a melodramatic question you ask yourself as an artist: “What’s the role of writing in a world where something like this happens? What can I do? What’s the point? How can you even lift your dainty hand to put the pen on paper?” Then you have to figure out actually how do you work and how do you assimilate these experiences into your life and into your work. For me, it was making this loose collection of essays into a cohesive book [The Colossus of New York].
Question: I wonder if you have any set way that you can describe how you work.
Whitehead: Each book has been very different in terms of the process and research. With The Intuitionist, since I was trying to create this elevator world of made-up lore and actual lore, I did all my research before I started so that I had the terminology. I knew where I was going. I would just refer back to the research periodically. Actually more than periodically.
With John Henry, I started doing research into the John Henry legend and got the bare bones of the plot, but the book is not very linear. There is a central story, which is the story of a weekend in 1996, and then there are character situations and historical parts that intrude on the narrative, coming in and out. These required a separate amount of research so the one chapter with the railroad baron required my railroad research and the chapter with the postage stamp collector made me go check out some books on stamp collecting. I wrote The Intuitionist in a big rush, pretty much straight through. With John Henry I had it mapped out but it was a much bigger book and I think what helped me keep my sanity was picking up things and putting them down again. I would follow the character of J. Sutter for 30 or 50 pages and then get sick of J. Sutter and I could do a ten-page chapter on the stamp collector or I could do a 15-page chapter on the blues musician. If I got tired of 1996 I could go into the 1930s or the 1870s and I think that’s a way, at least for me, of not dreading the daily trip to the computer because you are being constantly challenged in a new way. I had a fix on a character—J. Sutter was a principal character—and I knew who he was pretty early on. I didn’t know who the stamp collector was. I didn’t know the man who makes the John Henry museum. I didn’t know who he was. Sometimes you want to start that chapter but you have to actually know who he is. You put it on the back burner for six months and then you get around to it.
Question: Are there differences in your approach to writing journalism, fiction, and essay and which genre do you feel more comfortable writing?
Whitehead: I make my essays very fictiony as I said so I definitely see a difference between the two. Being my own boss for so many years, I have a hard time dealing with the bureaucracy of journalism. You have an editor that you deal with, then they have an editor that they answer to, and then there is a top editor, so you hand a piece in and they say it’s great, then number two will say, “But will you say this because this is more of a pop culture magazine. Can you make it more pop culturey?” Then it goes up and down the chain. After being my own boss for the last couple of years, I find it really irritating. Already, you are in this bankrupt position of it not being your work. It will go through a lot of changes. So, I think the answer would be the made-up stuff I find a lot easier and I become a cannibal to a set of guidelines of a perceived demographic or a perceived profile, I think.
Question: You are one of the few people that I have encountered who plays music while he writes. What kind of stuff do you play? A lot of people say, “Oh, I can’t deal with music in my head, it’ll distract me.”
Whitehead: Well, I think I like noise. I came from a family where you kept the TV on to keep from talking to each other so there is always noise in the background. Each book has it’s own sort of soundtrack and it is fun to pull out records that are really tied into different books. The constant is always “Purple Rain.” I always put on Purple Rain when I’m on the last page. I played Radiohead’s, “The Bends” a lot during The Intuitionist. Somehow I feel that is in there. In John Henry, the advent of the electronic big beat music, so I put slamming, loud, beat box music on. I just quit smoking but when you’re smoking and there is loud music and you’re writing, it’s really fun. The time goes.
Question: Talk about your writing mechanics. Do you work on a computer, or work from notes?
Whitehead: I write a lot of stuff long hand. With the essays, which are very impressionistic, hit and run stuff, I had various notebooks that I would walk around with for the last couple of years and would jot things down. Eventually, they do or don’t make their way into various chapters. I take a lot of notes when I am planning a book. Who are the characters? What is the story? I start with these constructs and the work is how do you actually make them into stories. How do you get characters out of elevator inspectors solving a crime? I do a lot of stuff long hand. I feel like I am not really writing unless I am at the computer so I could actually have a chapter that I have written long hand but it’s not really written until it’s in the computer. I am not sure where that arbitrary division comes in. Maybe because paper seems like it would blow away or I’ll spill coffee on it or my cats will whiz on it or something so I think it’s good on a computer and permanent.
Question: Where do you get your ideas from for your work?
Whitehead: Everywhere. With The Intuitionist, I had been watching a thing on escalator inspectors. I happened to be reading detective novels in a short time span and happened to be bummed out about where my work was going and had to try different things with voice and character. With John Henry, I always thought I wanted to write about John Henry. For many years it was in that pretentious way like, “One day I am going to write the great novel about John Henry.” I thought about this even before I was writing fiction. Then one day I thought that it was time to actually do it. John Henry, I always thought the myth was very intriguing. As I did more research and thought about it more I realized the story of his challenge of the steam drill wasn’t as cut and dry as I remembered it from my childhood recollection. Doing research fed the book.
I have been very fortunate in the reception of my books, well the two books that are published. There is one that no one really cares about and I think the same person who gets patted on the back is the same person that gets ignored. Am I talking about myself in the third person? (Laughs) I think I am the writer at the table and when I am there I am alone and I am going to write some books that critics won’t like and maybe readers won’t like and some books visa versa. Some books I will finish and probably won’t be very fond of, some books I will find more creatively satisfying than others and I think that is just the way things shake out. I think you have to just keep working and not coast when you get a lot of praise, not stall out when you get too much negative reinforcement, and just keep going. I guess my Ezra Pound quote is, “Make it new,” so I think I am trying to keep it fresh from book to book and I think I am bound to fail sometimes. Some people like The Intuitionist a lot and don’t like John Henry. Some people like John Henry a lot and don’t like The Intuitionist so even within this sort of realm of books that are more or less critically successful, there is a whole range of reader reception. So, I am glad people like what I have done so far, it is encouraging. I try to keep going and take it despite my negativity. I try to keep going with the good reinforcement for as far as that will take me.
With the New York essays it is really me interacting with my hometown. What is it like when you pass the place where you lived for five years and someone else lives behind the windows? In this tradition of being this native son in exile in the same kind of instance. The type of conflicting emotions. What is the Brooklyn Bridge? There is a chapter in the essays that is about the Brooklyn Bridge and one time when I was working on The Intuitionist I thought, “I’m gonna finish this book and show Manhattan that I really got it!” I actually shook my fist at the skyline and so at that moment I put it in the book. There is a way that I am connected to all these different parts of the city at different times in my life—when I am a young kid, when I’m a teenager, when I’m an adult. Looking up at them, looking head on at them, looking down on them in different ways, in different neighborhoods, different blocks. These three books are all very different and I think everything you do feeds your work in different ways. There is something that happens to you when you are ten that might come up in your book when you are 50 and that is what it means to be a child. Something that is concrete and vivid for you will pop up as the essence of childhood and I think only you know where these things come from. …
Excerpts from seminar at the New York State Writers Institute October 17, 1996
On remembering a conversation with Larry Levis, a friend and former student, who died at the age of 49:
When you look at [his] poems they are very small, perfect, delicate, gorgeous poems. And he so boxed himself into this perfection – and I kept saying, Why don’t you write in a longer line? Why don’t you open it up? Why don’t you put garbage cans, waitresses, and paratroopers, and skunks and chipmunks and sparrows and Buicks, and refrigerators. Why don’t you get America into your poetry? Why does it always have to be dawn and three guys out waiting for ducks to land and it’s you and you’re 12 years old and it’s you and your uncles. Why is it always where you’re in a room with the light coming through and there’s a beautiful dark-haired woman and pretty soon something interesting is going to happen between the two of you but the poem will end before it happens. Why is it always such a pure world? Why can’t it be the messy one we live in? And he says, that’s the world you write about, Phil. And I said, yea, but it’s also the one you live in. He said, Yea, but I don’t like living in it. I want to live in that other one. Ok. …
On Detroit and Fresno:
Question: Can I ask you what— I think I should know—brought you from Detroit, where a lot of your poetry is oriented and based, to Fresno, and how you felt about living in what I would assume is a pretty significantly different environment?
Levine: Well, first thing, it isn’t significantly different. It looks different, the landscape is different. It’s Central California, there are mountains to the east of it— The Sierra Nevadas, huge mountains— and then there are the coastal mountains, which we refer to as hills, because they are only three or four thousand feet high... That’s California. But in another way, it was very familiar. It is a universe of exploited people with not the least chance of entering the class which exploits them. I mean, it is a society which is rigidly fixed, just as Detroit was. Here were people who worked in factories, they had children, and their children worked in factories. That’s when there were factories, when it was a booming industrial place. And, here were people who lived in a place called Grosse Pointe. John Dos Passos calls it, in U.S.A., the richest suburb in America. They ran the show, and it was frozen. Fresno, in that sense, although it was agricultural— it was/is the center of “agribusiness” in America— farms so large they have airports on them. When I was younger I used to love riding motorcycles, off-road bikes. I used to go to those coastal hills and ride there, and I would ride half an hour through a single farm to get into the foothills, where I could maim myself and destroy nature.
It was a stupid thing to be doing, but I was giving myself the adolescence that I had been deprived of, because I didn’t have any money as a kid, and neither did my mother. My father died when I was very young. So, in my late 30s and early 40s I said “Well, if I’m ever going to be an adolescent it’s going to be now.” And I took my chances, got myself one of these motorcycles, and went out and maimed myself. So in that sense, it was very similar, and it was familiar. The students who came to the school at which I taught— California State University at Fresno— were very much like the young people I had gone to school with at Wayne University in Detroit, as it was called when I went. It’s now called Wayne State, but it wasn’t a state university, it was then the City University of Detroit. So, I felt a great sympathy for my students. I went out there originally from the University of Iowa, where I taught technical writing and the Bible as literature, because my second son had asthma, and the doctors said, you know, “You’ve got to get out of this ferocious winter” which Iowa City, Iowa contained. So I went west. …
… Then I went down to Fresno, I looked for a job, and I was offered two jobs— one from Los Angeles State, and one from Fresno State— and at first, I decided on Los Angeles State, and then they said to me “But, you’re going to have to teach technical writing,” which I had taught at the University of Iowa, and I said “No, no, I did that for two years, I don’t ever want to do that again, I disliked it.” It seemed like a dead end, and I saw myself being type-cast as the guy who teaches technical writing. The other school said “Creative Writing?”— there was no one there teaching it— “Give it a try, see what happens,” and I thought “Great.” So I went there, and I liked my students enormously, and as the years passed— I was only 31 when I went there— some of them became my best friends, and I think it is friendship that has kept me there. In fact, my wife doesn’t want to stay there, and I may finally leave. She may finally persuade me. It has changed. It has gotten uglier, in any event, the way all of California has changed. The city’s population was 125,000 when I went there, and is over 400,000 now. There’s a lot of pollution, both of the water and the air— I mean, all of the chemicals from these agribusinesses leach into the soil and eventually make their way into the water, and there are just too many automobiles for a place which is essentially in a bowl— and there’s a lot of crime, too, a lot of drug-sponsored crime.
On writing teachers, Yvor Winters, John Sinclair, Robert Lowell and John Berryman:
I got a writing grant at Stanford for a year I was studying a real crusty old poet and critic, Yvor Winters. I say “crusty old poet,” I love my use of the word “old.” When I studied with him he was twelve years younger than I am now. [Laughs] But, he talked incessantly about the fact that he was about to die, and it seemed an enormous effort for him, for example, to get up from a chair like this and go open a window. It was… I don’t know, back then people got older a lot quicker, or so it seemed. For one thing, everybody smoked, as he did, and as I did then, too. So that brought me west, and I spent a year with him, studying with him. He didn’t much like my poetry, which was OK by me, because I didn’t much like the poetry that he did like. For example, he preferred Thomas Sturge Moore— a poet you’ve never heard of, and don’t need to hear of— to W.B. Yeats. I thought that was an insane judgment. You know, I sat down with him more aggravated. I read him, and I… well, for Winters, Moore was a more moral man. Forget the fact that he couldn’t make three words happy in the same sentence, you know, just throw that away. [Laughs] I mean, Yeats is glorious, he’s an extraordinary poet. I mean, I don’t like his politics, and I probably wouldn’t have liked him. The only two people that I ever met who met him, didn’t like him, but by that time he was W.B Yeats the Nobel Prize winner, so he didn’t give a damn if anybody liked him, or not. At any rate, Winters was an odd cat, but I enjoyed working with him. I enjoyed it because there was a great need in him to be a true teacher, and if you asked him a serious question— he was a very serious man— like, “What’s so good about 19th century French poetry?” he would sit there with you for hours going over that work and constantly turning to you and saying “Do you see it now, do you see it now?” If you had question about Ben Jonson, who I love, or Donne, or a Hopkins— the poets he took to— then he was enormously useful. He had a class of two students. It started out with three, but he insulted one, so he left. Both of us were on grants, so without these fellowships he would have been the loneliest man in Christendom, except he was an atheist….
[I remember one of my first literary teachers.] It was in my second semester at college. I took a course in essay writing and the poetry was something I did secretly. The first essay I remember was a scholarly foot-noted paper. I don’t remember what the subject was. We were supposed to write two long papers, each one typewritten. And the second one was a personal or informal essay and mine was kind of anarchist vision of what the world should be, a world without jails, a world without a natural wall of people following their own natural goodness. I was very naïve perhaps or idealist, I don’t know how to describe it. At any rate these were things I believed in. And I handed it in and my teacher asked me to stay after class – his name was John Sinclair – and after class he said to me, he was holding the paper and I didn’t know what he was going to say about it, and I saw there were little red marks, the way he would make little corrections with his pen. And I thought uh, oh. And he said to me, we were sitting in this temporary building, it looked like a barracks where they would put up all the post-war students who were coming back to college – and he said to me, Mr. Levine, you should become a writer. And I said, You really think so? He said, Oh, yea, you should become a writer. You write much better than I do. I said, I write better than you do? What are all those red marks? And he said, Oh they’re nothing, there just you misspelled that word, you put a comma instead of a semi-colon. That’s stuff you’ll learn, you’re learning already. That’s nothing. But you have a gift here. He said by the way, I hate your ideas, politically I’m a Republican, I’m very conservative. I hate these ideas, they really disgust me in a way. But you state them so beautifully. And he began reading passages to me. I can’t tell you how intoxicated I was by this praise. Somebody was authenticating a deep belief that I did have something to say.
And then I suppose the second person who mattered in that same way was John Berryman. I was 18 the first time and at age 26 I went to the University of Iowa and I took two poetry writing classes – I’d never taken a class in poetry writing. They weren’t offered at Wayne. I took a class first with Robert Lowell who was on the threshold of a terrible nervous breakdown, so he didn’t really have the attention to our work He just sort of drifted through the classes, vaguely drifting probably thinking, Why don’t I cut my throat. Who the hell knows what he was thinking. It would have been horrifying to know what he was thinking. If it could have been like a cartoon and there would have been a bubble over his head, it would have been awful, poor man, because a month or so after, he was in a mental institution. So little wonder that he paid very little attention to us. And then Berryman came and for some reason he just took a terrific – I had been fairly ambivalent to my poetry – Berryman just took this incredible liking to what I was writing. He just thought it was terrific. And that was all I needed. I mean I needed more. I got it from my friends, I got it from my equals. One of the good things about Berryman was, at the end of the semester he made it very clear that the semester was over. One more time, in a year and a half or so, I want you to send me 4 or 5 of your lousy poems and I want to see – the letter he wrote back is displayed by the way in the New York Public Library. It begins something like, It’s nice to see you’re selling your lousy poems to stupid editors – something like that. But it’s the only way he knew how to praise. And then he talks about how he’s going to get ready physically for a visit from me. We had had our difficulties. Mix the drinks and we had a great time. It never happened unfortunately. But that too authenticated me. The thing was I sent him the poems, and he sent them back and it was over. He wasn’t going to be my teacher anymore. And what he was also saying was, you don’t need a teacher anymore. You had one hell of a teacher, me. That’s what he was saying. You couldn’t get a better one. He was right. He was the best teacher I have ever seen. He was a fabulous teacher. He was inspiring, he was demanding, he was tough, he was fair. And he was resourceful. I don’t know what else you could ask. He was at times even tender. At times he wasn’t, he could be harsh. But we were pretty tough.
On writing discipline and personal habits:
Question: As time has gone by, have any of your writing processes changed?
Question: … do you sit down?
Levine: Yea, I do sit down. I was recently in Robinson Jeffers house and I was told that he didn’t sit down to write poetry, that he paced, and that there was this certain trail in this room that he wrote in, and in fact that his wife would be downstairs and when she didn’t hear him walking –there was also a cot there that he would lie down on—and she would take a broom and whack it – go back to work. I sit down. I would say from the age of about 26 to the age of 50 I tried to write every day. There were some years where I couldn’t, where the kind of work I had to do interfered. But when the work didn’t interfere with it, that’s when I would write. I mean I would write every day. Usually I would try to write in the morning from about 6, 6:30 to about noon. And finally at Fresno State I got my schedule so I never taught before say one o’clock, so I had my mornings free. Also the very process itself changed. When I was young, not very young but somewhere in my middle twenties, having falling in love with the poetry of Dylan Thomas and W. B. Yeats and then Robert Lowell, I decided I would work with traditional forms. And I wanted to master formal poetry, rhyme, metrical poetry, from Chaucer to Robert Lowell. And I embarked on a study of all this poetry. I wrote it for – exclusively, that kind of poetry – for 5 or 6 years. And that kind of poetry came almost line by line. Once I had written a poem that I couldn’t see any mistakes in, it seemed to me, not a large or grand or great poem, but done so well that I wouldn’t change it-- isn’t that a great poem – I got bored . Now that I learned how to do this, then I began experimenting with other forms. There was such chaos in my life that it was comforting to have such a formal determination before me, you know what I mean? I’m a very sloppy person, I mean if you saw my desk, just heaped with unanswered letters and stuff… but then the poems were just so – at a certain point I wanted to relax the thing so I went to a more experimental forms, syllabic poetry, still in rhyme, I still needed rhyme. My first book is mainly metrical, my second book was mainly syllabic. Then I began to say – one of the things I discovered was that nobody heard the syllables – you hear beats. You can hear the metrical poetry, but you don’t hear the syllables. They were there for me, the rhyming was so muted that nobody heard it. I muted it, soft on the rhyme. Then I thought, well maybe I’ll venture out into the great chaos of free verse. So then I started to do that. Now I write in all the forms. I mean I write free verses, still write syllabics, still write metrical poetry. It depends on how I feel and how the poem seems to be taking shape. But I was in no hurry. Don’t forget this was in the 1950s when I was doing my stuff and America was so indifferent to poetry that the idea of rushing it along seemed utterly wasteful.
Question: What about revision?
Levine: Now and then I write a poem that I don’t revise very much. I recently saw the manuscript for this thing called “The Hand of the Poet” in the New York Public Library, and I went to see it, and there was some stuff of mine and there was a manuscript of a poem I had written – first written by hand, then typed with changes. And I saw reading the manuscript that the changes were not radical, I mean I cut off the beginning, I mean I had a false start to the poem and then I got into the poem and then I wrote to the end. And both the beginning and the end pretty much stayed the same and then there were all sorts of what I would call “local” changes – you know another word or maybe a sentence changes. But what I’m more used to is writing something and looking at the first draft and seeing that in it are 6 or 8 lines maybe that are interesting and then throwing all the rest away, and following where those might lead. Sometimes they lead right to the waste basket and sometimes they lead to what I think is a poem. I think I’ve gotten much more efficient. I will revise the poem 6 or 7 times in one day – radical revisions. I’ve become much more efficient in the way I work. My energy isn’t so high, nor does it seem to me that my emotions are quite as intense, but I work with much greater efficiency. Those early rhyme poems came line by line and then the syllabic poems came really in passages. I would get a passage. When I really got into free verse in about 1976, I remember for example writing 12 pages on a legal pad in one morning or one poem. And then I remember writing in two days 900 lines of another poem and then two days later I reduced the 900 to 300. That was the revision to carve this narrative out that worked. I had too many characters, they started to blend in. It’s a poem called “A Walk with Tom Jefferson.” It’s about 650 lines long and I stalled it, at one particular point I just stopped half way through and a year and a half later I was talking to somebody about something and I remembered a little piece of what a man had said to me and it just stimulated the rest of the poem and I wrote the other 340 lines the next day. So I mean I did other things during that year and a half, I mean I ate, I dressed, I showered and wrote other poems. So what I found is that it’s important to stay at that desk or wherever it is that you write because if you don’t you may lose touch with the way the poems are going to come to you. If you go wandering off being a celebrity or whatever it is you might think you are, it may be that the whole process will change. And I’ve seen this happen to people, that they really lost touch with their poetry and never found it again. I think there is a reward for just that loyalty to the call, to the process.
Casey Seiler introduction of Eliza Griswold 9/27/2011
Of all the literary hybrids afoot in the world, the journalist-poet might be the most misunderstood, mainly due to the pernicious effects of stereotyping. For poets, that would be the post-Beat image of the artist as the sensitive seer with antennae too finely tuned to pick up the news of the day, whether from near or far. For journalists, that would be the post-Watergate image of the reporter as nothing more than a canny collector and distributor of facts, secret or otherwise, for whom too much attention to language and imagery seems almost suspect.
It didn¹t always used to be this way. During the Civil War, Walt Whitman both edited and contributed to a number of newspapers, and his prose works such as Specimen Days have the immediacy and brevity that in the modern age we might associate with very, very good blog posts. Syracuse University’s Dale Nelson recently wrote a book called Gin Before Breakfast: The Dilemma of the Poet in the Newsroom, that mentions Whitman as well as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Hart Crane and Carl Sandburg among these rare beasts.
Put Eliza Griswold in their company. Although her career is just beginning, consider her first two books: the poetry collection Wideawake Field and her nonfiction account The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, in which Griswold moves eastward along the line of latitude 700 miles north of the equator, where she finds ample between religions--specifically, Christianity and Islam--but often more thorny conflicts within them, with attention paid to the way economic strife, political and environmental change are in many cases exacerbating
For those who have never been to Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia,
Malaysian and the Phillipines, The Tenth Parallel offers the widescreen as well as achingly specific and intimate moments and images. It is the work of a poet with her boots on the ground, a journalist with her antenna tuned to the absolute right frequencies.
In honoring The Tenth Parallel with the 2010 J Anthony Lukas Prize for nonfiction, the judges called Griswold’s book “a brilliantly original construct for examining one of the most important perhaps the most important conflicts in the world today.” Griswold’s work has appeared in Newsweek and its digital sibling the Daily Beast, as well as the New York Times, New York Magazine, the Guardian, Atlantic, Harper’s and the New Yorker.
For her poetry, Griswold won the 2010 Rome Prize from The American Academy in Rome, and she is currently a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She was also a 2007 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, in a class that included the foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins, whose book The Forever War brought him to this stage a few years ago. Lucky for me, another Nieman fellow that year was my friend Craig Welch, an environmental reporter for the Seattle Times.
I emailed Craig earlier today for his impressions of Griswold, and her’s what he said:
“She’s brilliant. She probably understands more about what keeps the world together and what drives the world apart than most world leaders do. She’s spent so many years thinking like a poet that it doesn't just inform her journalism. It is her journalism. It’s as if Robert Johnson lived in the 21st century and became a war correspondent. She witnesses incredible moments (mostly sad) that offer real clues about what it means to be human. Embedded in those moments are these amazing insights -- many of which the
rest of us would probably miss even if we were present to see them, too. It’s journalism as The Blues.”