Among Murderers, literary journalism

Good Prose

‎In the last few days I have begun to send copies of my book to some of my subjects. Naturally, I wonder what they think about the book. Will they recognize themselves? Will they like or dislike “their characters” and my treatment of the subject matter? These questions made me revisit some of the (accidental) qualities of the relationships between a writer and her subjects.

I was exuberant when I stumbled across Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, about the literary friendship between author Tracy Kidder and his editor at The Atlantic, Richard Todd. The whole book reads like an important manifesto: WE THE NONFICTION WRITERS BELIEVE! Kidder and Todd’s observations resonated deeply.

Below are some of the remarkable quotes about writers and their subjects.

“To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them—by imagining for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself.”

“For immediacy of effect, writers can’t compete with popular music or action movies, cable network news or the multiplying forms of instant messaging. We think that writers shouldn’t try, that there’s no need to try. Writing remains the best route we know toward clarity of thought and feeling.”

“I sat gazing out the window, listening, I swear it, to the book I wanted to write.”

“Every story has to be discovered twice, first in the world and then in the author’s study. (…) One discovers a story the second time by constructing it. In nonfiction the materials are factual, but the construction itself is something different from fact.”

“At the extreme, of course, the author’s gradual understanding of the subject becomes the heart of the narrative.”

“We want to understand characters in a story better than we understand ourselves.” Continue reading

Among Murderers, literary journalism, rehabilitation

The first chapter of Among Murderers is up online!

The first chapter of Among Murderers is up online!

My publisher University of California Press has posted the first chapter of my forthcoming book Among Murderers: Life After Prison online. Click here and go to “Read Chapter 1” (link on the upper right corner).

Among Murderers, literary journalism, rehabilitation

How my book Among Murderers came about

I was born and raised in Germany and immigrated to New York two months before 9/11. I was ready, but New York was not. I chose New York because it was known for its determination, industriousness, and speed, (and, of course, its neuroticism). I was practically raised by Woody Allen and share these qualities. But now that I had “come home,” New York lay in ashes. Unlike most New Yorkers, I had a hard time dusting myself off and picking myself back up. For a long time I remained paralyzed. I half-heartedly applied for jobs I didn’t want, and because I couldn’t find work I started to take pictures of people sleeping in public places. The city was a carousel that seemed to spin faster each day, and I envied those sleepers who had allowed themselves to check out. I wanted to sleep and never wake up.

When I finally did find work, it wasn’t what I had hoped for. For three years I taught poor inner city students to write and take photographs. Few of them appreciated my two-hour commute to New York’s and Newark’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods. The children had bigger problems. It seemed that the sense of social defeat passed on to them by previous generations was so intense that it was impossible to shed within a single lifetime. More often than not my students were raised by their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, or in foster families; their fathers were mostly absent, many of them in prison. The few hours I would see my students each week did not allow me to break through to them.

Having written for German newspapers in the past but lacking a solid knowledge of American journalism, I decided to go to school. Robert Boynton, the director of NYU’s magazine journalism program, had just come out with The New New Journalism. Boynton had interviewed 19 literary journalists about their craft, among them Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Susan Orlean, Alex Kotlowitz, and Jon Krakauer. These writers, along with their forebears Joseph Mitchell, George Orwell, Marvel Cooke, Susan Sheehan, and Truman Capote, became my heroes. Proposing to write about New York’s unemployed, I applied to Boynton’s honors class and was accepted.

In late 2005 I set out to learn what New Yorkers who don’t work do with their time. This marked the beginning of my descent into the Byzantine system of New York’s job readiness programs. Over the course of the next several years I talked to the clients and staff of organizations with Pollyanna-ish names like STRIVE (Support and Training Results in Valuable Employees), CEO (Center for Employment Opportunities), and the Fortune Society. Most clients of the Fortune Society, STRIVE, and CEO were people with extensive rap sheets—and most were out of luck. Few had ever learned to strive for anything, and it is safe to assume that neither will they ever become CEOs.

Continue reading