“A Strange Enigma Is Man!”

David Grann is staff writer for the New Yorker whose  stories are concerned, broadly, with the mysteries that populate  life.  Most recently, he’s written about Peter Paul Brio, who confounded the art world by attributing obscure works to master artists. He was awarded the prestigious George Polk prize for magazine reporting in 2009 after exposing the wrongful execution of an innocent man in Texas.

Earlier this year, David released a collection of narrative journalism that you should go read: “The Devil and Sherlock Homes: Tales of Murder, Mystery and Obsession.” I obtained a review copy, gobbled it down in a weekend, and the book soon made its way through my housemates, to rave reviews.  In particular, the haunting story “Which Way Did He Run?”, about a fireman’s experience with amnesia and post-traumatic stress after 9/11,  stuck in mind. I e-mailed David to express my appreciation for the book, and he was kind enough to answer my banal questions and let me publish his responses here.

So I’m curious how you stumbled onto this beat — crime, I guess, in a broad sense, “murder, madness and obsession,” as your coverline puts it — in the first place. You started off at The Hill  — how did you go from day-to-day congressional coverage to long features on people who live at the fringes of society?

I started off at The Hill when it was just starting up. I was desperate for a job in journalism, and that was the one that came along. I really enjoyed those years in Washington, first at The Hill and then at The New Republic, covering Congress and campaigns, but I was never a political junkie and more and more I found myself wandering from my beat, writing about prison gangs and squid hunters and stick up men and Haitian dead squad leaders. I think that is probably closer to where my true interest lied, and it was simply finding a way to write about these characters and stories.

I’m always interested in where reporters find their story ideas. How did you come across, say, the story of The Brand or the Sherlock Holmes murder? I imagine it’s just a newspaper story that piques your interest, but what about those stories makes you stop and say, ‘this is something I should look into’?

The story about the brutal prison gang, the Brand, came about from reading a two-sentence news brief in a regional newspaper about how a prosecutor had arrested several leaders of the gang. The story didn’t say much more than that, but it piqued my interest: why are people already in prison being arrested? And as much I knew prison gangs existed I didn’t think I had ever read anything that detailed the forensics of how these groups actually operate and literally control prisons. Most of my stories usually begin with a similar tantalizing hint—from a newspaper brief or a tip from somebody. In general, I try to read a ton of newspapers, not just American ones but foreign ones as well, and I keep a notebook filled with potential ideas I hear from people, and often will write something down and not actually look into it for a year or more.

How do you prepare yourself to interview and spend time with people who range from strange to dangerous? When you’re talking to them, do you try to empathize, or remain objective?

In general, I try not to ask a lot of questions or have a formal sit down interview, unless it’s necessary. I prefer much more to spend time with someone (unless they’re truly dangerous), and see them as they go about their daily lives. For me, the most successful interview is often when the subject has forgotten I’m even present.

Do you try to take notes as you spend time with the people in your stories? I can imagine it can be both a barrier to the kind of seamless immersion you’re seeking and also a tad tricky, as with your squid hunting trip. How do you manage the famously skeptical factchecking process at TNY?

Sometimes I will take notes, and sometimes I will use a tape recorder so I don’t have to focus on catching every word and I can be more attentive to character traits and other details. Even with stories like the squid hunter or trekking through the Amazon I always keep my notebook in hand (or a pocket) and take down as many notes and impressions as I can, so I won’t miss anything; and if it’s to hard to write I will keep a tape recorder handy to pick up sounds and conversation.

You’ve also had a book, The Lost City of Z, recently published. How did you go about turning a piece of narrative journalism into a fully-fleshed out book? What was it about that particular idea that made it compelling enough for that treatment?

That was the first time that I had ever finished a magazine piece and I felt like there were so many more narrative lines to pursue, still more to know and to tell. For the book, one of the things I wanted to focus on were the historical elements of the story—including the biography of the British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett and the Victorian world that he came out of—which you can only do with months, and even years, of research.

You mentioned that when you first stumbled upon the Brand story, you had never read anything that described the real specifics of how prison gangs work. Is that often an impetus for your stories — you want to write something you’ve never read before? Do you have an ideal reader in mind when you write?

As a writer, I think you always want to try to write about a subject that hasn’t been over exposed, or to take a more familiar subject and explore it in a new way. Most of my stories begin with some sort of wonder or curiosity. I want to learn more about a subject or how the world works (or doesn’t). I don’t think I have an ideal reader in mind, though I try to be conscious of the reader at all times—that I have explained things clearly or not lost the reader’s attention. I really believe stories, even ones that are grim, should pull a reader in, and not let go.

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[This post’s title is a quote from Sherlock Holmes that serves as the epigraph to a section of Grann’s book.]

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