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Notes for New Editors: An Interview with Adam Hochschild

A companion to "The Art of Moral History: An Interview with Adam Hochschild," in dislocate #6.

by J. Lee Morsell

Adam Hochschild--image by Spark MediaAdam Hochschild is the author of six books. His latest, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, was a finalist for the 2005 National Book Award. King Leopold's Ghost: a Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa was a finalist for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award.

He has been a reporter for the
San Francisco Chronicle, a commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," and an editor at Mother Jones and Ramparts magazines. He is currently working on a book about World War I. We interviewed Adam Hochschild in November 2009 for the upcoming dislocate #6, and discussed topics ranging from politics and literature to the joys and perils of research. In the following excerpt, we discussed globalization, the impact of the Internet on journalism, and what he has learned as an editor.

dislocate: You have written that, when you were a young writer in the 1960s, you wanted to live in a pivotal place and time, as Paris had been in the 1920s, and you chose the San Francisco Bay Area. How did the Bay Area influence the sort of writer you became?

Adam Hochschild: Probably less than one would think. It was an extraordinary place to live. How did it affect me as a writer? Hard to say. The 1960s were an extraordinary time wherever you were in the country. I got to California just two months before the Free Speech Movement happened at Berkeley. I was actually there as a reporter on the day they made what was, at least up to that point, the largest mass arrest in American history. I knew a lot of those people. San Francisco was very much a center of a struggle around the world, but so were many places around the country at that time. I was lucky being there in that I stumbled into Ramparts magazine, which was a very interesting and sort of bizarre place to work for a time.

dislocate: You have worked as an editor at Ramparts and at Mother Jones. How did being an editor affect your own writing?

leopold.jpgAH: It was a big help, more so than I realized at the time. I often felt frustrated, because it was a struggle, especially during the first years of Mother Jones, which were very high pressure, to find enough time to do stories of my own. I really managed only one longer piece of reporting a year on average. But looking back on it, I realize that being an editor taught me a lot, because you're always trying to judge what is going to interest readers. Does this story deserve to be one page in the magazine or eight pages? If the story has some good ingredients but doesn't really sing, what's going to make it sing? If the structure sags, how do we work on it? It forces you, day after day, to make critical judgments about other people's writing, and that is good for learning to do the same with your own writing. You do surveys of readers all the time, so you have some sense of how writing is impacting the audience, a very important thing for a writer. At Mother Jones in particular, I also learned from the process, because we were a collegial place edited by what was, in effect, a committee. Somebody would be assigned to be the editor responsible for a given piece. You would show it to everybody else, they would mark it up, make suggestions. We'd do that with the pieces that we wrote, as well. There's nothing that's a better process than taking a piece of your own writing and having it go through two, three, four rounds of being marked up by a group of colleagues who are really good at this stuff. I try to do that when I teach, and I try to do that in my own writing by badgering friends into reading my manuscripts.

dislocate: Do you feel that today the Bay Area is a pivotal location in any way analogous to how it may have been in the 1960s?

AH: The more I see of the world, the more I realize that the differences between San Francisco and Minneapolis, New York, Boston, or wherever, are just so miniscule when you compare them with the differences between the world's north and south. I spent a couple weeks in eastern Congo this summer, and it was just a reminder of how differently people in most of the rest of the world live. This all looks like paradise to them.

dislocate: From your travels, do you have a sense that there are more nodes of culture now than there used to be? Is it a more complex social landscape?

AH: Certainly what's apparent is that cultural images, or bits and pieces of culture, fly across borders electronically in ways that they didn't use to. In Africa, I've seen people in a dirt-floored courtyard outside dirt-floored huts built of adobe watching a French soap opera on a battery-powered TV. So some kind of culture is traveling there one way or another in much the same way that we're exposed to African music or Indian music or South American indigenous music. This wasn't possible one hundred years ago. But what travels most easily in either direction is not necessarily the best that a culture has to offer. Often it's very superficial images, phrases, commercial names, or habits of consumption, rather than ways of thinking. So I'm not sure that the globalization of information and ideas is entirely a good thing, although I think there are aspects of it that are very good.

dislocate: Speaking of ways the world is changing, you helped to found Mother Jones in the 1970s. If you were founding a new magazine today, would you do things differently?

AH: Well, I sort of have the answer in what's happened to Mother Jones since then. It now publishes bimonthly, but it has a website that changes not just daily, but sometimes hourly, with several people who write mainly for the website; and all of the material that's in the magazine eventually appears on the website without great delay. I'm delighted that there are nonetheless more than two hundred thousand people who are still willing to pay for subscriptions or buy the magazine on newsstands because they still prefer to read it in print. How long is this situation going to last? I don't know. I'm still very attached to print on paper, but I realize we live in a world where it's expensive and it does require cutting down trees. Eventually, I suppose people will get accustomed to reading books on electronic readers, and it may be that at some point not too far from now, that is how most publications and most books will be read. I feel sad about that, but it's probably inevitable.

dislocate: As journalism increasingly shifts online, will the main difference be merely in the physical experience of reading off a screen versus reading off a page, or do you think that the Internet actually changes the way that journalism is done, the way that stories are written?

AH: If you are really interested in a particular story, it's great to be able to read an intelligent narrative, and then to go on and look at a gallery of pictures, to hear voices of people who appear in the story, to see some video that relates to the story. I love the chance to do all that. There are interesting kinds of interactive journalism that open up that way. There's a nice feature on the Mother Jones website of the Iraq war timeline called "Lie By Lie." In this timeline, you can look at all the references to a particular person or a particular kind of event, every one of these thousand-odd lies that are tabulated--there's a link that takes you to the statement by the government official, and the document that disproves what he said. The Internet allows you to do that in a marvelous way. At its best, it's that. At its worst, I think, it makes us into skimmers, into people who have very short attention spans who hop from one thing to another, turn away from the computer screen to get the latest Twitter feed, turn away from that to deal with text messages, and so on. I worry about that eroding the kind of patience and concentration required to read a longer narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction. I really do feel that to go deeply into a subject, whether it's history--which is what I write--or to evoke a whole world in a way that a novelist does, you have to be able to do extended narratives, and you have to be able to count on people having the attention span and the time and the willingness to read them.

In the rest of the interview, Adam Hochschild discusses character in nonfiction, the power of literature to nurture empathy, and how to shape raw research into a story. For all this and more, pick up a copy of dislocate #6, The Contaminated Issue, due out in May 2010!