by Elise Spenner
Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine and the Truman Capote Fellow in Law and Creative Writing at Yale Law School. She is the co-host of Slate’s “Political Gabfest” podcast, where she spent nine years as a writer and editor before joining The Times. She has written two books, Charged: The Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration and Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. She also wrote and edited for Legal Affairs magazine, and served as a clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. She works at the intersection of legal reporting and narrative journalism, and I took the opportunity to pepper her with questions about writing, editing, universal ethical dilemmas, and the role of social media in shaping our discourse.
What were you like in high school?
I was super nerdy. So shocking. I bet that’s true for a lot of your guests. I was interested in my friends and in school, and I did some sports, but I also took Latin for five years, which I actually really loved, reading the Aeneid in high school was like a huge highlight of high school for me.
I know that you had some lawyers and judges in your family. Was law something that you always knew you wanted to pursue in some way? Was law a dinner table conversation?
It was definitely a dinner table conversation. My grandfather was Judge and he was a judge from I think 1948 until the early 1980s, and I was born in 1971. So when I was little I remember him talking sometimes about his cases, and he had this very funny question he would ask me and my sisters, ‘Whether we were ticklish or Jewish,” and we had to pick one or the other and he was very stern that we had to choose in the kind of judge-like manner. But, of course, we were both ticklish and Jewish, so that was a hard choice. And my father is also a lawyer in Philadelphia, so I definitely grew up around lots of discussion of law and politics and policy around the dinner table and just kind of all the time. I didn’t really have an idea that I wanted to go to law school or practice law when I was growing up, but I was definitely exposed to all of that kind of thinking.
At college, what did you see your path as being, at least initially? I also know that you did the Directed Studies program at Yale — how did that experience ground you?
Yeah, I loved the Directed Studies program at Yale, which is kind of a classic Western civilization, it’s a lot like Columbia’s Core Curriculum, very humanities focused. For me, it was very grounding and meant that I read Aristotle and Plato and Virginia Woolf and whoever else. In my future studies, I didn’t do much of that kind of classic Western canon education, but I liked having that base.
And I did magazine journalism in college; I worked for a yellow publication called the New Journal, wrote stories for them, became an editor there and that was really when I started doing journalism, and I loved it. I loved being out asking questions. I think for me the sort of continuing miracle of journalism is that you ask people questions, and they actually answer, which always seems amazing to me that they do that.
You’ve talked about studying under Fred Strebeigh at Yale. What attracted you to narrative and long form journalism? And then what do you think he taught you that was really helpful?
Fred is a beloved and very well-known presence among Yale undergrads who are interested in long-form writing, although I don’t even think we call it that then. And he is an amazingly energetic, generous, rigorous teacher, and he teaches a narrative journalism class that I loved. And I think doing that sort of magazine writing is like a challenge and a puzzle every time. You have all these different interviews, research you’ve done, all these different ingredients. And you have to figure out how to make a different kind of dish each time. That’s sometimes what it feels like. And sometimes it’s really hard to figure out what the recipe is, like how to put the ingredients together in a way that will be compelling and really pull your readers through. And so I think, for me, the challenge of storytelling, especially about ideas, is just a constant draw and still takes all of my brain power, and that’s what I enjoyed working on in college as well, with Fred.
Did you ever think you were going to be a daily news reporter who was covering breaking news or even doing week-long stories?
I always had a sense of insecurity about being one of a number of reporters in a pack. I never understood the value of me in that situation. I just always thought, “Well, if there are a bunch of other people here, why aren’t they going to do a better job? Why do I need to be here?” So I never did any kind of breaking news reporting or any news reporting in college. And actually, I think that was a mistake, because I think the training you get from that kind of work is very valuable, no matter what you want to do next in journalism.
And I did end up as a news reporter at a small newspaper in California after college, and that was actually really important. I just learned to write about all kinds of different topics, covered school board meetings, covered the police department in a suburb in California. And you have to pick up the phone, you have to talk to all different kinds of people, you have to throw yourself into things and write on deadline. And I think it was really good for me to do that, and I really recommend that young journalists do that, no matter where their careers are heading. So I sort of feel like my path was kind of backwards.
When you did daily reporting, did you feel like “This is just something I’m going to do for a little while, and then I’m going to get back to narrative journalism”?
I didn’t love it. No, it did not pull me in. I mean, for the same reasons I was talking about. I never wanted to be the congressional reporter or the person covering the city or even covering the Supreme Court, as someone who would be there every day. Honestly, I never wanted to do any of those jobs. I enjoyed aspects of it when I was on a story. One summer, I was an intern at the Washington Post, and I covered a trial for a week, and I enjoyed doing that for a week because it wasn’t getting very much coverage, and I was the person there doing that. So it’s not that I’ve never done that. And actually, it’s funny, today I have a news story I’m hoping to write, so sometimes it’s totally a fun thing to do.
I love deadline journalism, but it was never my strength. Honestly, it really has to do with my insecurity about competition. It’s super overcrowded. There are lots of people there. My tiny experiences of covering campaigns have always felt overwhelming to me in that sense. So both what I like doing the best and what I think I do well is to go find something that other people are not covering and try to explain why it’s significant, why there’s a compelling human story to tell, why there’s some conflict going on that you might not know about or think you should care about, but I want to try to draw you into.
You got back into narrative journalism, but you also went to law school to have a base of knowledge when writing about the law. I’ve interviewed lots of other legal journalists, and they’re relatively split on the value of law school. Do you think it was worth your time?
Yes. For me, law school was very valuable. It gave me much more confidence, like you said, which, I think for me, was sort of inflected with gender. In college, at one point, I was helping to run what was then the Yale Women’s Center with some other women, and someone from the Yale Daily News came and said, “We don’t have enough female columnists. Would one of you like to do a column?” And I was like, “Why would anyone care about my opinion? Like who, what, why should I sound off about something?” I actually think that’s a perfectly healthy impulse to have to ask yourself, “Why should other people listen to me?” But at some point, if you go into this field, you have to have a little more faith in yourself. You don’t have to be an opinion journalist. But you have to have some sense that what you’re pursuing is worthwhile. And for me, law school was very helpful for that.
I also just really loved school and was happy to be back in school. And when I went, I was feeling kind of stuck as a journalist. I had been at the small newspaper, and as we were talking about, I didn’t really want to go work for a bigger newspaper that much. I couldn’t really figure out the path back to magazine work. And so I thought, “Okay, well, I’ll go to law school and maybe I’ll be a lawyer, maybe it’d be better to do things as opposed to writing about other people doing things.” And I really enjoyed law school and felt like the ideas in that world were very animating to me. So then what ended up happening was I didn’t want to practice law. I figured that out pretty quickly. But I stuck with it. I was really enjoying being in school. I had a baby toward the end, and that timing for me, actually, was good. I did a little bit of freelancing on the side while I was in law school, and so then after I clerked, I went back into magazine journalism.
Do you think having that legal background gave you a unique niche in magazine writing or at least an ability to be like, “I know about this, and I have the authority to cover it”?
I do think that for me, it was really helpful. Both confidence building and actually as a base. I don’t think it’s necessary. I always want to say that to people. Even if you know you want to cover law, you can teach yourself all about the law. Nobody remembers all the generalist things they learn in law school or any school along the way. And some of the best legal journalists never went to law school, and their work has not at all suffered for it. And so I always want to make that clear. But, for me, given my own combination of characteristics, it was great, and I have no regrets about it and feel like I was really lucky to get to go.
You went to work at Legal Affairs after law school. What was that magazine doing that didn’t really exist at the time in legal journalism and narrative journalism?
So Link Kaplan started that magazine. He was a former New Yorker writer and US News and World Report editor, and he had come to law school to teach, but for the project of starting a publication, and the idea was that it was going to be at the intersection of law and life and have ideas-driven stories, but also very much human-driven stories in it, and that it would appeal to lots of people who follow courts and legal coverage, in and outside of the legal profession. And so when I found out that Link was at Yale Law School, where I was a student, I knocked on his door and said, “I would love to be a research assistant.” And so, thus began what for me has been an incredibly beneficial mentoring relationship, where I took a class that Link taught and then I came back and worked for him on Legal Affairs with an enormously talented group of young journalists. I mean, really, an amazing group that’s gone off to be stars in many ways. And it was really fun. We created this new publication that we just had a great time working on.
What do you think was the biggest or most important thing you learned from that experience of starting small and doing it yourself, while also working under a more experienced journalist?
What I feel so lucky about was that I both got to edit and write. So I learned how to be an editor, which is a more marketable skill, and which got me my next job at Slate. I went to Slate as an editor, not as a writer, but then I also got to do some long-form work. I wrote about the Israeli Supreme Court, the South African Constitutional Court, and various other stories along the way. And because Link is such a good editor and thinker, I kind of absorbed what he had to teach me. And then I have this amazing group of colleagues. I mean, really. I think magazine journalism is kind of mercurial and difficult — figuring out how to pull from writers their best work, how to structure stories, how to think about it — and we had each other as colleagues to figure all that out.
Did you like editing? What skills as a writer transferred over to being an editor and what was totally foreign to you?
I do like editing. It’s hard. What I like about it is that it’s like a puzzle. It’s sort of like someone else has given you the building blocks for something, and you have some distance from the material. And so in some ways, I actually found it easier. It was a little more abstract. When I’m the one doing the reporting, I get very caught up in my relationships with the people I’m writing about. I think about their feelings. I get really invested in making sure that other people are going to want to read about them. The emotions just run much hotter. And editing, I can do with a cooler head.
I didn’t want to keep doing it forever. And I haven’t been an editor now for like nine years, since I went to the Times Magazine, but I teach writing at Yale Law School, with Link, actually, and that is still really I think an editing job. Most of the value of the class we teach is in the comments that we give to students, and when I’m working on their pieces, I really think of it as like the way that I used to edit at Legal Affairs, where I edited short and long pieces, and also at Slate, where I really did short pieces.
You talked before about the insecurity regarding whether people will actually care about the things you write, whether it’s a column or a magazine piece. How do you overcome that fear?
That’s a great question that I think many of us struggle with — or at least, we probably should struggle with it, because the biggest challenge is getting someone to stick with you on the page. I think some of it has to do with the idea you come up with in the beginning: How good of an idea is it? And then, what story do you find to tell? So, maybe there’s a subject you want to explore, but that’s really just like having a topic for a paper as opposed to a story to tell.
The way I think about it is that if you’re an ideal long form writer, you have three strengths: You have a really compelling idea, you have amazing reporting skills, and then you have a lot of narrative storytelling power. And I think most of us have, if we’re lucky, two of those three things as very well-developed muscles, and then one of the legs of the stool is a little weaker. And then you have to try to compensate for that third part. And often, in terms of really getting people to respond to your work, it is the storytelling part that counts the most. So I try to be very aware of that when I’m putting together pieces, so that there’s a character, someone that readers can either identify with, whether they love them or hate them, that’s going to fascinate them enough to take them through what for me often turns out to be very dense material. Legal issues are dense and tricky, and they can be alienating to readers, because it’s just complicated. So you have to explain things very clearly, I think that’s part of the trick, and then you have to pull a thread through the material that they really want to follow.
What are your two strengths, and what’s your weaker leg?
I’m a better reporter and a better analyst-thinker than I am a storyteller. So I’m always thinking about the storytelling part. And the material that I choose, as I was just saying, tends to be heavier, so then that puts more burden on the storytelling, and in my most successful stories, I think I have found a character, a narrative that tells itself to some degree as opposed to having to force the drama into the piece, which sometimes is a challenge.
And obviously, if you’re doing something short and analytical about a Supreme Court case, you don’t need the same kind of strengths. But I think anything that’s over, I don’t know, 2500 words, usually needs something that is more than just the ideas and the research and reporting you’ve done.
You talked about trying too hard to jam a heavy legal topic into a narrative story that isn’t exactly aligned with it — do you sometimes feel like you’re abusing someone’s narrative as a tool to tell a legal story? Should we feel bad about that, or is that merely “focusing on the human angle” of the story?
That’s a great question to ask. I think that when you’re telling stories of people who are not paid to talk to you — in other words, it’s not their job, they’re not regular subjects, they’re not politicians running for office, when you’re in that situation with regular people — I think it’s important to find people who want their stories told. Unless there’s a really good reason why you need to have them there. And that can happen, but mostly you want to find someone for whom there’s something empowering about having their story out there.
And then I think that creates a different dynamic, right? Because you’re always using the story in some way, and it’s important to remember that you’re not the person’s friend; you’re a journalist, you have your own agenda, and you’re serving the interests of the reader, not the subject. At the same time, if someone wants to have their story told, particularly if something difficult has happened to them, or there’s some reason why they’re vulnerable, that’s just an easier position to be in, ethically and morally, I think.
And then I think another question you have to ask yourself is whether you’re telling the story because it’s unusual, or whether you’re telling the story because it represents some larger phenomenon that you’re writing about. And those are both totally acceptable answers, but it’s important to be clear, and to make clear to the reader which purpose the story is functioning in. So that’s part of how I think about this very interesting, continuing, core ethical dilemma of journalism: Why are we taking other people’s stories, and what are we doing with them?
What is a story you’ve written where you’ve done that really well, or that’s worked out well?
I did a story a bunch of years ago about two young women who had been victims in a really terrible, harrowing way of child, non-consensual sexual images. So when they were little girls, people had taken pictures and videos of them that went rampant on the internet in a way that was illegal for people to circulate; we used to call this child pornography. And that was very damaging to them because when they grew up, they found out that their images were everywhere, that people they met on the street could have seen them as kids being raped. And so it was a really hard story to tell, it was very dark what had happened to them. But they were going to court to seek restitution from men who had abused them and seen their pictures. And that was really important to them as a story to tell and as a way of taking control over their lives.
It was a case that I think I read like a paragraph about somewhere, but nobody had really gone into depth about this whole fight for restitution. They had not been approached by journalists before, and they really wanted to do the story, though they didn’t want their names in the piece, for kind of obvious reasons, they were trying to go on with their adult lives. The story was dark, but I think had a very, very compelling thread because they were amazingly thoughtful about their experiences, and then it had these interesting ideas in it as well about the rule of law in this kind of situation. And so I feel proud of that story.
You’ve talked about when your writing has a super clear and direct impact — someone is exonerated, or receives citizenship. Are you attached to creating change through your reporting?
I’m not attached. Usually, nothing happens. It’s really hard to be able to trace direct impact to a story. I’ve had that experience, and it can be incredibly rewarding to feel like you’ve pointed out an injustice, and someone tried to correct it, or anything of that dimension. But honestly, what I really hope when I write is that I’m going to grab people’s attention enough that they’ll think about what I was trying to get them to think about. And maybe there will be some indirect consequence of that that I can’t see that’s down the line. Maybe some policymaker will bring the story to their boss, and that will make some change in the world, or give voice to people who lacked that voice before. Or maybe people will vote in some way that they were enlightened by my piece and that informs their choices. So all of those aspects of citizenship are what I’m driving at, and I very rarely have any other particular result in mind.
So it’s an added bonus, not something you can expect.
Yes, especially if you write about dense legal topics.
Because you write about such dense and serious — and sometimes controversial — legal topics, what are your strategies for dealing with negative feedback and reception?
I try really hard to take seriously and think about criticism that seems like it’s in good faith and is really engaging with the work I’ve done. And then I try to be tougher about criticism that seems like it’s not necessarily people who have read the whole story that I’ve witten; that happens a lot, that people react to headlines or they react to what other people have said that a story contains. So when I see that kind of criticism, I try to figure out how to deflect it and withstand it. Because especially in our world of social media where a minority of loud voices can be very influential and they can kind of colonize the brains of journalists, it can be kind of paralyzing.
You’re not writing for the people who tend to have the strongest reaction to your work; you’re writing for a bigger audience. And often the larger audience is quite appreciative and more neutral or wrestling with the ideas, but you haven’t necessarily served the agenda of the people who cared the most about the issue, whether you’re on the right or left. And they’ll let you know that very loudly, especially in our age of Twitter. And I don’t think that’s good for journalism, or journalists. I think we need to stay on this path of serving a broader readership.
What is the difference between legitimizing “both sides” of a story and actually honoring every perspective in a story?
This is another great question, and it’s not a dilemma that we’re ever going to solve. Because in a lot of ways, it just depends on the particular story or issue you’re covering. And you always have to remain open to different modes of telling a story. So here’s one way I think about this lately. There are a few questions that are really settled, and there are not two sides to them. So: Is global warming happening, and is human influence a major reason why it’s happening? Yeah, there’s a scientific consensus about that. There’s not a scientific consensus about what to do about that, because that’s not even really a science question, it’s a policy question that has to do with people’s priorities and values and how to think about the future when climate change could really be devastating versus the present and the claims of people, particularly people in developing countries, who, if we pull back on carbon consumption, might not have their standards rise to the degree that Americans, who’ve caused so much global warming, have already experienced. So if I was writing about climate change, I would treat the causal scientific question as settled, and I would not feel as if I had to include the perspective of climate change deniers. But it wouldn’t be that interesting to write a piece right now that was just like “Climate change is happening and humans are causing it.” So I would probably be drawn to a more nuanced, unsettled question, and then I would want to include a lot of different perspectives on it, or at least the perspectives that seemed valuable to me after I had done a lot of reporting and actually and a sense of how the field shakes out.
So I think that’s what journalists have to offer. It’s that spirit of open inquiry and then some sense of context, so that you’re putting your story, which is usually a small slice of some larger issue, within the historical and scientific and maybe legal context, and making that clear to readers. So they understand what the people you quote are doing in the piece. Even if the person is saying something really offensive or wrong in your view or against someone’s human rights, you may still need to include that perspective so people understand that that is still a view that has some political power. But at the same time, I think usually you want to figure out some way to signal that that person is doing something in the piece that represents a point of view, not necessarily the correct point of view. But that’s hard, because when you’re covering anything that’s politically controversial, you also want to just let people speak without telling readers what to think about it. I sometimes think we don’t give readers enough credit. The whole idea is to present different points of view and let people make up their minds, and so you don’t want to be super heavy-handed often.
Do you think social media, like Twitter, is a net positive? It obviously democratizes access to information, but it also promotes extremism and allows people to take stories out of context.
I think that it’s a net-negative at this point. I’m all for the democratizing part of social media; I think that’s great. But when you look at what it’s done to the discourse, and also the ties to ethnic violence and anti-democratic campaigns and autocratic regimes, when you look worldwide, it often has a really malevolent influence on the politics of countries. And it’s become a real tool for spreading disinformation in a way that I’ve written about and feel quite concerned about. So there were moments of real optimism — the moment of the Arab Spring, I felt like, ‘Oh my god, people are using social media to organize against these autocratic regimes, and they’re going to succeed and the government’s are clumsy and flat-footed and can’t figure out how to fight back.” But I think actually, those governments have figured out how to fight back, and that often disinformation and the way that rumors that someone of a different religion killed someone else, and then you have revenge and violence, I think those things are really, really troubling on social media. Really, I’m talking about things to some degree in the United States, but also in other parts of the world.
And then I think, for our discourse that the way in which social media distorts debates, and can become a tool for wielding disinformation for revenge campaigns against people, for trolling, for mobbing, I think that at this point, it’s doing more harm than good. Personally.
I think most people probably would agree with you. But obviously, there’s still a lot of people on Twitter.
Totally. I mean, what’s happening to Twitter is sad, and it’s not like it’s all bad. There’s certainly loss for people for whom it’s been empowering, and who found an audience. And for kids in rural parts of the world who are alienated from their peers, especially kids from the LGBTQ+ community, it can be awesome. So it’s not like I don’t see any benefit. There’s totally a benefit. I just think at this point, the bad probably outweighs the good.
I want to ask you a couple questions just about your long-form writing strategies. How do you capture the personalities of people when you’re writing, while also trying to clarify a legal issue as much as you can?
When I’m working on something that’s longer term, sustaining relationships with people is really, really important. So in my book, there are two main characters, both people who’ve been caught up in the criminal justice system, and those relationships were years-long relationships because I wanted to follow those characters over time. And so I think in a lot of ways, the big thing — I don’t know if it’s a tactic — is just honestly calling someone back a million times. And getting them to stay in your life too, right? Because people have other things to do than to talk to journalists.
Sometimes I feel like when I meet someone, and I know I want to write about them, it’s like they think they’re on a date, and I think that we’re about to get married and be together for many years. And I’m afraid to come on too strong because if you say to someone on a first date, “Hey, I want to get a long term relationship with you. I’m not going anywhere; I’m going to be calling and texting you for forever,” they might be pretty freaked out. So figuring out how to maintain those journalist-source relationships is important to me.
And then I think there’s an act of translation with complicated issues, and for me, complicated legal issues. What I find is that the first time I try to explain something complicated, I think that I’ve done it clearly, but it’s not as clear as it can be. And that what you want in magazine writing is to get to something that eventually is crystal clear and often has as few words as possible. And so that’s the goal, but I’ve gotten a little more patient with myself to realize that my first crack at it, as hard as I’m trying, is probably not going to be the finished product. And that’s also where editors are really important, and your friend.
Because you’re still very caught up in all the legal issues yourself and very absorbed in it, so it might look clear to you. But for someone that has no background in it, it does not.
Totally. And often, you think you have to explain something with more complicated parts to it than you actually have to. You need to understand it, but you don’t need to say it all. And then you have to figure that out.
In that long-term relationship, how do you make sure that you’re not getting super attached to a person’s story in a way that compromises it or is unethical? And I know this is another universal journalism dilemma.
Well, it’s funny that you said close with your story instead of close with your subject. Because I actually think it’s great to be close with your story, you want to live and breathe the story, but you’re totally right that there are risks of being too close to your sources because you can’t put their interests ahead of the readers interest in the end, and also because you don’t want to fool them. And sometimes what happens when you stay in someone’s life is that they start thinking of you as a friend or even a source of support because you’re there, you’re always going to pick up the phone, you’re always interested, you’re always listening.
And now I’m going to switch to the first person: I am always happy to listen, but I am not trained in psychology in the slightest. I’m not a social worker, I’m not really going to help in some professional sense. And so I think I try to gently remind people that I am not their friend. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about them and don’t feel affection for them or look forward to being friends with them when the story’s over and the journalistic relationship is over, but in the moment, I’m not their friend. I think you actually have to remind them of that, in some ways. It’s not just obnoxious. And that’s a little awkward and difficult sometimes.
This is a social media thing, but when I started writing about teenagers, Facebook was really big. And what you do to follow someone on Facebook, obviously, is you “friend” them. And that’s a weird thing to do as a journalist, and so sometimes I just wouldn’t do it. I would try to figure out a different way to check their page, but if I did “friend” them because they had invited me to, and it’s just an easy way of keeping track with someone, I would say to them, “Don’t forget, I’m not your friend.” Even though that, as I said, can come off as sort of rude.
I think it’s a hard line that we all navigate. And you have to just remind yourself all the time that there’s another human being and that your interest in them is partly because you’re just interested in them, but really partly because you are serving the interests of your readers, and you try to always keep that in mind while being as fair and compassionate as you can be.
You cannot in good faith be a friend to them, because your position is compromised by the fact that you’re writing at the same time.
Yeah. And you’re getting paid, and they’re not. And there’s nothing fair about that from their point of view, particularly. There are lots of good reasons for it, from our point of view, but there’s nothing that’s just about that.
When you’re writing a long-form story, do you know when you’ve found the person you’re going to spend the rest of the piece writing about or that key narrative that’s going to drive it?
It’s much better if you know. It’s exciting when you think you know, because then you feel like you have really good material, and then you’re invested. And then, of course, you get nervous about whether the person is going to dump you along the way. This is like the Janet Malcolm Journalist and the Murder insecurity and anxiety, which I think journalists, who do long-form work really have. But when you have something that feels to you like the story you want to tell, it’s incredibly exciting.
Have you ever been in a situation where you get really excited about a source or a story and then they drop you or just stop wanting to work with you?
I’m sure that has happened to me. I mean, it’s happened to all of us. I think the reason I can’t think of an example right now is that you try to just move on and block it out. Those are the stories you didn’t get to tell.
Part of it for me is that I almost always am interested in the stories of regular people. And so, for example, in my book, I needed people who’d had interesting, dramatic, harrowing experiences in the criminal justice system. There are millions of people who have had such experiences. And so I could have pursued someone who wasn’t interested in talking to me, and I probably did, but then I found the people who were interested in talking to me whose stories I wanted to tell, and I got to tell those stories, and they’re the people who are memorable to me.
Nora Jackson is one of the characters in my book, and I also wrote about her for the Times magazine. I learned about her story from reading about it. I was actually really interested in writing about the District Attorney’s Office in Memphis that had prosecuted her. But when I first wrote to her, she didn’t want to talk to me. And I put like 10 months into correspondence: She was in jail, I was corresponding with her, I was trying to talk to her on the phone, she’d had negative experiences with other journalists, and she had lots of reasons to be weary, not of me, particularly, but just generally. And when I went to Memphis to first go talk to her in jail, I wasn’t sure if she was going to agree to see me. And she actually almost didn’t, and so that was probably the closest I’ve come to losing a story I really wanted to tell. But in the end, she is someone with whom I am still close, many years after having written about her.
I almost feel like I’ve done better journalism if I’m writing about someone who didn’t want to talk to me in the first place. And then I coax them into doing it. But it seems perfectly valid to talk to someone if they want to talk to you; in fact, that should be better.
Interesting. I think you should get over that, probably. Sometimes, it’s true. I mean, sometimes there are people who are elusive, and the reason they’re elusive makes them super interesting, And sometimes the people who are most eager to tell their stories, that fact about them makes them not representative, or self-promoting in a way that feels false. And then you do want to stay away from those people; I actually think that’s really true. But I also think that there’s some kind of Goldilocks in the middle, sweet spot you want to find. At some point they have to want to do it, that’s all.
Last question. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you teach both creative writing and law at Yale Law School. How does that work together? How do you convince people that those things go hand in hand?
Well, you’re saying that because I have this funny title at Yale, I’m the Truman Capote fellow for law and creative writing. This is true. I didn’t come up with that title, and I’ve never objected to it because creative writing is such a funny phrase to use at a law school. It’s something you almost think of more from elementary school, and I kind of like that about it. What I actually do is teach students how to do opinion writing and book reviews and essays for a general interest audience. The idea is that there are a lot of law students who are interested in that kind of communication, maybe because of the work they want to do, maybe because they were journalists in college or fiction writers, and they want to keep writing for personal reasons. Maybe they have public policy positions they want to be able to express in an op-ed. And so that’s the kind of writing that we work on in class, and it’s pretty creative. Like they write first-person essays, and they’re fun and light and go in all kinds of directions. And some of it’s much more like, “This is an 800-word standard op-ed, and I’m going to talk you through this.”
Okay, one more question. That seems like the perfect kind of niche for you — maybe a class that you would have taken when you were in law school. What is the most rewarding part of getting to work with those students on a regular basis?
Oh, well, I mean, seeing people’s work develop. They often come with exciting learning, maybe they’re in a clinic, and they’re helping to represent clients, or they’re learning about a particular corner of veterans affairs, or they have some academic research they’re working on and they want to reach a broader audience, but they need the tools to learn how to do that. And so it’s totally rewarding. And also, students are great. Students are like you; they’re young, they’re smarter than I am. They’re open to the world in different ways. They make me see things differently. So I love all those things. And also, I teach a seminar, generally, and when the class discussion goes well, and you feel like people’s brains are really engaged and they’re being honest, and they’re challenging each other and making each other think, that’s a reward too. Just that atmosphere in the classroom.