Photo courtesy Preston Merchant
Amitava Kumar’s editor says he is the “tongue of narrative.” Fitting then that he’s leading the workshop on long-form writing at this year’s 2011 SAJA convention. The workshop will take place on Saturday afternoon in Lerner Hall. He spoke with SAJAforum's Sabrina Buckwalter about his workshop, strip clubs, and accidental terrorists.
SF: The last time you gave this workshop was in 2009. What will be covered in this one and what will be different?
AK: I’ll be doing an exercise where I have journalists look at excerpts from “The Forever War” by Dexter Filkins and “The Good Soldiers” by David Finkel. Both journalists are writing about war in places like Iraq, but one is really visceral and personal, while the other just wants to be a fly on the wall. What Filkins is doing is risky but he is truly exemplary. Why write if you don’t court risks?
We’ll also look at New York Times reporter Barry Bearak and his story, “A Kashmiri Mystery,” in the New York Times Magazine. It is a remarkable piece. Bearak told me that in his usual long newspaper pieces, he strives for an Olympian storytelling tone. But in this piece, he makes himself and his reporting characters in the story. He inserted himself as ‘the stumbling ambivalent person most of us are.’ I loved that. I want to ask people to consider writing that doesn’t spring from some position of false objectivity.
I also want to discuss interviewing techniques, like what does Suketu Mehta do when he asks, ‘What does a man look like when he’s on fire?’ and how do you get yourself into a situation where you can ask questions like that (referring to Mehta’s book, “Maximum City”). Or what was Truman Capote doing when he spent those months interviewing people in Kansas during the writing of “In Cold Blood?” These are writers who have worked out the algebra that turns journalism into deep narrative. When discussing practical matters, I’ll mention this article from Poynter— “Six Ways to Craft Scenes” —but what I really want to do is have folks confront the challenge of putting together reports as if they were writing a page in a novel. How does one go in search of a voice?
SF: In your latest non-fiction book, “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb,” there is this thread of being at the wrong place at the wrong time that connects the stories. These people are, as you say, “hapless victims of entrapment.” Tell me about going to the strip club, Teasers, in Springfield, Mo., after meeting an imprisoned Hemant Lakhani (a man who was accused of selling a missile to an F.B.I. informant who was later said to have been part of a government “plot” to lure him to that sale.)
AK: I came out of the prison and saw it. It was right across the street and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’ll go there,’ I wasn’t embarrassed to go. I saw it and thought there’s a story there. I’ll wait for the jail guards to drink their beer and spill all the stories from prison. When the New York Times piece came out about the book, and that Teasers bit was in it, I heard from Lakhani. He said he liked it and was very happy to see it, but he says to me, if I came back, ‘Please promise me you won’t go to Teasers again.’ And I thought here is this man that had been accused by governments and law enforcement of not having not morality, telling me this. Here he is, feeling he has the privilege and right to advise me on morality. And on the other hand, here is this character. No one is just one thing. No one is just a journalist, no one is just this or that. This is the contradictory complexity that one calls character. So, at Teasers, I go in and sit in front of this girl. She tells me her name is Ivory, but says that’s just her stage name. She goes on to tell me her real name, but I didn’t want to know her name. She asks me where I’m from and when I tell her India, she tells me how she’s been wanting to go. Here is this plain, Midwestern girl who wants to go to India. And when I ask her why she says, ‘Architecture.’ She says she wants to see the Taj Mahal.
SF: In your article, “How To Write a Novel,” in The Hindu, you write how you went two weeks trying to open your novel, “Home Products,” without any success. How do you work with a problem like writer’s block?
AK: Jennifer Egan, who has just won the Pulitzer for fiction, explained that writer’s block is just another name for people who don’t want to do bad writing, that they want it to come out perfect the first time. Ernest Hemingway said that, ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ I do a shitty eighth draft, so I think we need to get rid of this need to produce pristine prose; you really have to prepare yourself for the muck, to wade into it.
SF: What are you working on currently?
AK: A novel. Like my last one, this started with my desire to interview a man that I had read about in the papers. But he was dead. So I met his widow and another woman who was his co-accused in a crime.
Amitava Kumar is a writer, journalist, and professor of English at Vassar College. His most recent book, “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb,” was described in The New York Times as a "perceptive and soulful ... meditation on the global war on terror and its cultural and