Bestselling author Mitchell Zuckoff teaches other writers how to fill their notebooks and find their stories

By Lara Ehrlich

As he fought to gain purchase on the rain-greased log bridging a ravine, Mitchell Zuckoff tried not to think about the jagged rocks 15 feet below.

He’d find out later that his guide for the trek through New Guinea’s isolated Shangri-La valley had a local pilot on standby in case they needed an emergency evacuation.

Jaw clenched, wet hands gripping his guide’s, he inched across the log and into the relative safety of the jungle vines. Zuckoff took note of his heartbeat, accelerated by exercise and anticipation. He’d journeyed from Boston across the world to get here, and he was determined to capture every detail. He tuned his senses to the pressure of the moist air, the squelch of mud under his rubber-soled hiking boots, the “ripe smells” of the rain forest like “an overheated funeral parlor”; impressions he’d later jot down in his notebook and use in a Boston Globe essay.

Wading through dense ferns, he skirted a steep drop and came at last upon the scene he’d traveled all this way to find: a mangled propeller, a camouflaged wing consumed by vines, a torn-apart, rusted-out fuselage. These were the remnants of a C-47 Skytrain US military transport plane that had crashed during World War II in May 1945, killing 21 of its passengers.

Two airmen and one member of the Women’s Army Corps had survived, aided by members of the cannibalistic Dani tribe who, until then, had never come into contact with the outside world, and a squad of paratroopers who devised an ambitious rescue plan. The American public had devoured the news reports—until the bombing of Hiroshima had overtaken the front page. The story was lost to history in the advent of the Atomic Age.

Zuckoff recounted the extraordinary rescue in his book, Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II (HarperCollins Publishers, 2011). He’d been an investigative reporter for the Boston Globe for two decades, published in magazines like the New Yorker and Fortune, and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize—but Lost in Shangri-La turned Zuckoff from a successful author into a New York Times–bestselling one.

His seven other critically acclaimed books have taken him from Greenland to Malta, and closer to home in search of what he calls the “understory,” the universal truth animating every great narrative. Notable among them, 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi (Hachette Book Group, 2014) narrates the security contractors’ divisive account of what happened when Islamic militants attacked their American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, and was adapted into the Oscar-nominated film, 13 Hours (Paramount Pictures, 2016). His forthcoming book, Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 (Harper, 2019), tells the stories of the people impacted by the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

We talked with Zuckoff, the Sumner M. Redstone Professor of Narrative Studies, about storytelling and the college’s annual Power of Narrative Conference, a three-day series of talks, panels and networking opportunities at which journalists from throughout the world gather at BU to learn from industry giants like Norman Mailer, Nora Ephron, Ken Burns and Susan Orlean. Widely considered a leading proponent of narrative nonfiction, Zuckoff also shares how he’s helping position COM at the vanguard of the field.

What distinguishes narrative nonfiction from other forms of nonfiction?

Mitchell Zuckoff: Other forms of nonfiction aren’t so focused on the story; they’re focused on getting information. If your goal is to write a textbook and convey information, you’re not writing a scene. Narrative nonfiction—I’m not limiting it to writing—occurs in scenes. That three-dimensionality is central to what we do.

Why did you need to visit New Guinea to write Lost in Shangri-La?

Listening to people who’ve been there could never quite give me the feeling of those little details that I hope the reader feels too: the humidity and the heat and the jungle scraping against their face.

Why is that kind of reporting integral to narrative nonfiction?

Reporting is everything. If you’re really serious about this work, you know you can’t fudge it. You’re creating a “you are there” experience for your readers, and you can’t do that without an overstuffed notebook.

You’re not using everything in your notebook. You’re using some small percentage of it. If you’ve done the reporting, you can pick the right detail that will stay with your audience and bring the narrative to life.

That’s surface-level reporting—and then there’s the next-level reporting, which is getting inside someone, where you can say with confidence what they were feeling and thinking, what they believe. Your narratives are credible if they are deeply, honestly, thoroughly reported.

Can you talk about how you decide which of your interview subjects to feature as “characters” in your narratives?

It often happens organically in the reporting. With my book 13 Hours, I began to naturally build things around Navy SEAL Jack Silva because he was a wonderful proxy for the audience. He’s a husband and father who’s shedding his old life, quite literally. When he told me the story of removing his wedding ring on the plane on the way to Benghazi, I knew intuitively that Jack was going to be central. I’ve done this long enough that I listen to that quiet moment of, “What’s the story I’m here to tell?” [Editor’s note: Zuckoff used the alias “Jack Silva” to protect the Navy SEAL’s identity.]

That was, of course, the story of Benghazi on September 11, 2012—but it’s also the story of these guys nobody was coming for, who could rely only on each other. So, the understory—the story underneath that big action story—was, “Who are these guys?”

If there isn’t that story within the story—the idea that animates it—the narrative won’t work. The narratives that really stay with us have something underneath.

Mitchell Zuckoff’s bestselling book 13 Hours was adapted into a film of the same name. YouTube Movies/Paramount

Could you offer an example of a narrative made memorable by its understory?

What immediately comes to mind is Seabiscuit. Just think about how Laura Hillenbrand focuses on these three men—the trainer, the jockey and the owner—each of whom has something animating them. If you don’t understand that it’s about underdogs in the Depression and how people held on to hope during a decade-long unraveling of everything that people held dear in America, then I would argue that you missed the point. The undersized horse was an amazing vehicle to tell a story about the Great Depression.

We often hear how social media has shortened our attention spans and caused media outlets to abandon long-form narrative in favor of clickbait. What does this mean for the future of narrative?

I’m more optimistic and excited about narrative now than I’ve ever been. iPhones can accommodate any kind of narrative; you can watch a documentary film, listen to a podcast, read a book. We can deliver narrative in every imaginable form, at every length, in every medium, on one device. People are consuming more, and they can consume wherever they are, so we have to reach them with quality. We’ve got an amazing opportunity.

How is COM positioned to take advantage of this opportunity?

I use this phrase a lot: “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” We recognize that whatever the story is and whatever the best way to tell it is, we need to teach our students to pull the right tool out of that toolbox and not have them thinking, “Oh no, I’m a writer; the photography department is over there.”

We’ve built a faculty of storytellers in all genres: Michael Holley is teaching students how to write sports with a storyteller’s mind-set. We just hired Jennifer Redfearn, a documentarian and Academy Award nominee. Public radio producer and editor Anne Donohue is teaching podcasting. We’re building up COM’s strength—and the journalism department’s strength, in particular—to continue to be a leader in nonfiction narrative.

At the 2011 Power of Narrative Conference, author Susan Orlean said that this may be the most ideal time for storytellers.

How does the Power of Narrative Conference play into that mission?

It’s a way to celebrate narrative on a global scale, bringing some of the greatest practitioners to BU. We’re not just attracting people who are giants in the field; we also have people who are writing fiction, creating podcasts, learning from our side of the craft. We’re saying, “A lot of the same qualities that make a great book or a great long-form magazine piece are applicable because they’re elements of reporting.” Those apply across platforms, across media. So, this idea of establishing a place where every one of us, from every imaginable area, can talk to each other is central to COM’s idea that we’re going to create it here, teach it here and then we’re going to find ways to collaborate with the world.

How will the conference continue to evolve?

In October 2018, we held our first pop-up Power of Narrative event in collaboration with The Marshall Project. They have this wonderful project called “We Are Witnesses,” a collection of 19 videos from people telling personal stories from different areas of the criminal justice system. We brought them to COM for a screening and panel discussion. We hope to do more pop-up events.

At the conference, we hope to do more collaborations across media. We’re not just going to put three people who write for magazines on a panel; I want to see more panelists approaching issues like immigration, for example, who are telling the story on radio, on a news website and in a documentary film.

What can narrative journalism achieve that other types of journalism can’t?

Narrative journalism gives the audience the “you are there” feeling we all crave. You can be at your kitchen table, on the T or on a plane, and if you are surrounded by characters, setting and motive—all these elements formed into scenes, because scenes are the core of narrative—you are transported. You are there, completely, and the story almost melds into memory, as though you experienced it. I don’t know anything more powerful in storytelling than that.

This interview originally appeared in COM/365, an annual publication from COM. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Hiding in Plain Sight: Finding and Telling True Stories that Other Writers Overlook

In a talk at Brown University, Mitchell Zuckoff explains how writers can adopt and apply a story-hunting mind-set to identify great narrative possibilities.

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