This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Jessa CrispinBack to OpinionJessa Crispin

A writer leaves journalism to find truth in fiction

Novelist Lorraine Adams had another life as a journalist. A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The Washington Post, she left the newspaper after 11 years and published her first and widely acclaimed novel, “Harbor,” in 2004. She brought her knowledge of the hot-button issues of our day — illegal immigration, terrorism, panic about terrorism — and expanded them into a fully realized, rich narratives. Stereotypes became characters, headlines became real stories.

With her latest book “The Room and the Chair,” Adams starts with an incident that might be given a 200-word spot in a newspaper’s B-section — an F-16 doing a routine patrol of Washington, D.C. airspace met with technical difficulties and crashed into the Potomac, no serious injuries to pilot or anyone on the ground — and weaves the story through a newsroom, Afghanistan, Iran, the White House and a dinner party. The choices the newspaper makes about what to do with the story and the unanswered questions impacts lives and policy in unexpected and very human ways. I sat down with Lorraine Adams in Berlin to discuss the state of journalism, what “truth” means in fiction and why she left the newspaper world behind.

You recently gave an interview to the BBC wherein you stated you left journalism for fiction so that you could write the truth. Could you explain what you meant?

This is a wholly imagined [book], so this is as far from the truth as you can possibly get. And of course, they’re right. This is not the truth in terms of a witnessable, observable scene. But what I would argue is that no reporter is ever allowed to see these things. What happens is we read the accounts of embedded journalists who follow soldiers. Those accounts by those embedded reporters stand in for the truth: They are observed scenes, they are witnessable scenes. But there is a privacy that no journalist ever pierces. That is where the truth resides. Because we live in a culture that believes we must not waste any time on works of the imagination, that we must only be hardworking, very serious people who only read facts, we assume that these nonfiction accounts are the whole truth. In fact, they are as much as a partial truth, for different reasons, as fiction.

Can you explain a little about the role the newspaper plays in this book?

What the book tries to show you is what is being reported, and what’s going on underneath all of the reporting. Not doing it in a — God help me — “Pelican Brief” John Grisham-type way. Please, God no. [But] in a way that is meant to probe character and motive in ways that are not expected and cliched. The newsroom is a place where Mary comes into that consciousness because there is a plane crash at the beginning, and she is the pilot. She crashes into the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. The journalists in the newsroom write some perfunctory stories about it, they accept what the White House says about it and then we move on. Then another reporter, a reporter who is a cub reporter, decides because of her editor that they want to try to look deeper into it. Because this story about who Mary is and what the crash really meant doesn’t get published, she ends up going to Bagram and ultimately to Iran, where some very bad things happen to her.

The general narrative about what’s happened to America’s newspapers is that the Internet killed them off, killed the classified ad revenue and then killed our ability to read long-form journalism. In your book and in interviews, you have a different angle on that.

One thing I just want to say, is that when the media interviews me, they’re doing to me what I used to do to people. So what you’re hearing in these interviews, what you read is the butchering of a very complicated set of thoughts and feelings that I have. And really, I don’t believe that the Internet has affected anything about human nature at all. I think what I talk about in the book as being wrongheaded and sad really is a constant in journalism, and it was a constant a hundred years ago and will be in the next hundred years when the news moves to the Internet.

Any time you go out as a reporter, and I’ll use the example of the elephant, there’s a dark room with an elephant and a bunch of reporters. They’re allowed three seconds with the elephant, and one says, “Well, this is a trunk,” the other says, “This is a tail,” the other says, “This is a big fat leg,” and the other says, “This is a wrinkly surface.” The novelist turns on the light in the room and sees the elephant in its totality. If you’re an investigative reporter, which is what I was, you spend months and months with the elephant without ever turning on the light. You have a better idea what the elephant is, but then you have to shrink down this description to an almost unrecognizable facsimile of the elephant.

Anyone who’s ever been written about in the media — you probably have, Jessa — you don’t recognize yourself when you’re described … Have we witnessed every moment of Jessa’s life? No, but we’re probably going to try to profile her, or mention her in some way, and we’re going to miss her. Any man who has been her lover, any woman who has longed for her, any mother who has been her mother, is going to say, oh my goodness gracious. That’s the last thing, the immutable problem with journalism. I don’t think it has anything to do with the technological progress of human beings.

That sort of overall problem of journalism is different from the problem of journalism now, or at least where journalism was under the Bush administration. We used this word earlier, but the sort of Bambi response of wide-eyed innocence.

I think there have been periods in American history where the newspapers have been recumbent. This happens when America is attacked, and September 11th was the first time America been attacked on American soil since 1812. Basically, we felt as journalists — I wasn’t in the newsroom then, praise Jesus — that the feeling, and if you look at the history of war reporting, that journalists are unable to divorce themselves from the country they’re from. Even Martha Gelhorn can’t do it. Or Ernie Pyle during World War II. It’s not possible. I think what’s going on now — is there criticism of Obama? Frankly, I think the coverage of Afghanistan has been on par with coverage of Iraq before the invasion.

What made you decide to add a character based on Bob Woodward? I mean, there’s no use pretending it’s not him, there are references to his books, and to his reputation of having brought down Nixon.

I think if you’re a student of American journalism, Bob Woodward is an undeniably potent figure. I felt that if I was going to write about [Beltway] journalism, to not have him in it would be ridiculous … I thought adding a wife that was so obviously not his real wife added a little lightness, and Mabel helps us get at Woodward’s practice. Most people in Washington don’t talk about it. Joan Didion talked about it in the New York Review of Books, but it’s obvious she didn’t know him. I worked with him in passing at the newsroom, actually I worked with him on a few stories so I knew him better than that. I think he practices access journalism, which is different from what I did at the Post. [I] would talk to the people who have no power and who are affected by the people in power, and that gives a much more useful picture of the way policy affects the human soul. Woodward, who started as a reporter who did that, who knocked on doors and talked to people on the ground, became a celebrity. In becoming a celebrity, he invariably saw it as a much better deal for him, in terms of making money, to talk to other celebrities inside Washington: presidents, their chiefs of staff, vice presidents, their chiefs of staff. We have learned that Deep Throat was an FBI official, not an agent, an official. He was on, what we call, the 7th Floor. I think Woodward’s capitulation to interviewing people in limousines, as opposed to people on the subway, is something I feel is partly responsible for the fact that we ended up in Iraq. Because so many reporters, Judith Miller is the most egregious of them, spoke to Scooter Libby and some other higher officials, and never spoke to intelligence people on the ground. They swallowed wholesale Colin Powell at the U.N., and [ultimately] their limousine reporting meant that 100,000 Iraqis lost their lives. I don’t think anything can be so neatly drawn, but I think in this case it can be neatly drawn.

How do you see this book in relation to your first book, “Harbor”?

“Harbor” is about a bunch of losers. These are young men who are stowaways, they are coming from a country in North Africa called Algeria, which has been so long off the mainstream media’s radar. I think the last time Algeria was important was when Camus wrote about it in the revolution against French Colonial rule, and that was in the ’50s and ’60s. These men were stowaways during the second Civil War in the ’90s, which was a brutal fight between Islamists and Muslims who were not Islamists. These young men stowed away and were accused of being terrorists because they were Muslim. It’s a book that is based on my reporting when I was at the Post and was assigned to look into this terrorist plot. Instead of concluding that a lot of these people were terrorists, I concluded a lot of them weren’t terrorists. I felt like their stories were so moving to me that I couldn’t stop talking to them or thinking about them, I couldn’t continue practicing journalism given what I knew about them. That was a breaking point for me. I actually knew the young men I wrote about, these young men really affected my life, made me quit journalism and changed everything for me.