Mitchell Zuckoff, a Boston University professor of journalism, can’t resist a great story, as long as he knows it’s true. An award- winning narrative journalist and author, Zuckoff does his research the old-fashioned way, with skepticism and shoe leather. Devoting scores of personal interviews to each project, he fleshes out page-turning tales from verifiable documents and testimonies, historic and contemporary.
His latest book, the World War II survival tale Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II, is an embarrassment of narrative riches, a platter heaped high with heroism, history, human pathos and pluck, and nail-biting adventure. The book, published in April 2011, chronicles the May 1945 crash of the Gremlin Special, a plane carrying 15 U.S. servicemen and 9 members of the Women’s Army Corps on an R&R sightseeing flight over a valley frozen in time in the wilds of New Guinea. Three wounded survivors were stranded among an isolated tribe, unable to gauge the potential dangers they faced.
A former Boston Globe reporter and author of several books, including Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend, Zuckoff ventured deep in the equatorial rain forest to report the Gremlin story, which was widely covered at the time, but largely forgotten in the ensuing decades. The book draws on a trove of sources, from the recollections of a living survivor to a declassified U.S. Army report to a diary scrawled in secretarial shorthand.
What makes a good story?
ZUCKOFF: For me, there has to be a human connection. All my books have been really different from each other, from different eras. But I think that the one thing they have in common is they expose different elements of the human condition.
What makes a story a good book idea as opposed to just a good story?
ZUCKOFF: I think for it to be a good book idea it has to have critical mass. And by critical mass I mean, first, there has to be enough material behind it to sustain 100,000 words versus a 5,000-word magazine piece. The stakes have to be high enough. Plus there has to be this sort of emotional mass of this person or these problems or this set of circumstances—are they significant enough to carry readers’ interest for all those hours? You wouldn’t watch a 10-hour-long movie. But you are asking that of book readers. So if it has that, if it has the human element, that makes me say, “Okay, I’m willing to take a look at this as a book-length project.”
The element of suspense is part of what keeps readers turning pages, and your books do that, which is odd because these are historic events. We already know what happens. Tell me a little bit about how you pull that off.
ZUCKOFF: I think that’s the key to narrative. You have to make people willing to have that suspension of disbelief. You know, Lost in Shangri-La has “The Most Incredible Rescue Mission” in the subtitle. So you know where it’s going the second you buy it. It’s not called “The Most Horrible Disaster.” Suspense and narrative go hand-in-hand. I don’t know how to write a book like this without both.
Does your decision to go full steam ahead with a book-length narrative depend on what’s out there? For example, for Shangri-La you drew on the diary of the lone woman survivor, Margaret; for the Ponzi book you had his autobiography. Has it happened that you’ve had to quash an idea because there aren’t the sources out there to deliver the story? How much does that figure into it?
ZUCKOFF: It drives everything. I can’t tell you how many good ideas I’ve had or thought I had, and I simply walked away because there wasn’t a Margaret’s diary or a Ponzi’s autobiography. There’s a project I’m working on now, and I wasn’t willing to commit to it until I was sure I had that critical mass of material. I don’t know if we want to quantify it—but you accept, maybe, a 20-percent gap in a story. You can’t accept 50-to-60-percent gaps.
“I can’t tell you how many good ideas I’ve had or thought I had, and I simply walked away because there wasn’t a Margaret’s diary or a Ponzi’s autobiography.”
Do you think young writers understand how much legwork professional writers do, which they often must abandon or set aside? Do you think that they have a sense of how much work you have to do before you do the real work?
ZUCKOFF: I hate to overgeneralize, but certainly a lot of them don’t really get it. Some of them think, Professor Zuckoff sits down and says, “Okay, now I will write this book.” And 100,000 words later, it’s done and it gets published. And, as you know, that’s ridiculous. I’m not sure there is an appreciation for what it takes, and in fairness, I’m not sure I fully got it either when I was 20 years old. But the smart ones will look at the 30 pages of footnotes in my books, or any book, and say, “Whoa, he endnoted 500 sources in there,” and that kind of wakes them up to the idea there was a lot of work involved.
I remember when I was writing a lot of magazine pieces, I had this casual rule for myself that my research was done when I started hearing sources say the same things over and over again. When do you feel like you’re done with a book?
ZUCKOFF: I like that rule. But in my experience with books, I want three people, at least, to say the same thing to me. And then I start feeling like maybe I’m getting it. Like I’ve really triangulated this, where every person who could have seen something at this moment who’s still alive or who still may have left some papers behind—they’re all saying it the same way or close enough, then I’ve got that scene. And I write in scenes, of course, as a narrative writer.
Is your style of narrative writing a way to avoid what’s sometimes called “the notebook dump?” There must be a powerful impulse to use everything you’ve got.
ZUCKOFF: Yes. That’s why you do a second and third draft. You know, Lost in Shangri-La could have been twice as long. There were details that I may have fallen in love with, but you have to discipline yourself to say, “I know this does not really advance the story.” Though I do like digressions in the narrative. I like where we suddenly learn about the Dani tribe or we learn the background of the Filipino paratroopers. And these are little digressions from the narrative arc, but when I first wrote, for instance, that section about the Filipino paratroopers it was four times as long because I fell in love with them. I was fascinated by this little moment in history that I knew nothing about. Then I realized that is not the story I’m telling here. And so the notebook dump comes down a lot.
That’s not easy to do.
ZUCKOFF: Oh, it’s brutal. You’re killing your darlings. You really have to be brutally disciplined.
This is something that’s very hard to do for a young journalist starting out. How do you teach that? And when you teach it by example, who are the kind of writers who get it?
ZUCKOFF: I go right to John McPhee. I find his stuff is so on point. I mean, if you’re reading about oranges or you’re reading about the bark canoe . . . I’ve never seen a more elegant short book than Levels of the Game. Reading that book you can almost hear the tennis ball going back and forth across the net. And that book could have been five times as long.
Do you ever hire assistants to help you with research?
ZUCKOFF: Never for primary source research, but yes, I hire BU graduate students for other research tasks.
How do you feel about nonfiction writers who hire researchers?
ZUCKOFF: Well, this is just the old reporter in me, but if I don’t do that shoe leather myself, I’ll miss something. And I’ll never fully appreciate the little moment, the little touch, the little detail.
Let’s talk about shoe leather. And life before Google. You had to go to firsthand sources. You could smell and touch the real thing.
ZUCKOFF: Yes. Because those of us who didn’t have [the Internet] to begin with don’t see it as the first and last source. If you use it with discretion, it’s fantastic. It’s like a map—okay, I found this guy online who knows everything about New Guinea. Fantastic. Now let me call him up and say I need to come to North Carolina to spend a day with you, picking your brain about the Dani tribe. That’s what you have to teach students, that it’s a gateway, not the destination. It’s a dead thing. It’s somebody else’s work. And so if you treat it as though, “Oh, I know the answer,” well, then you’re not creating anything original for yourself. But I also tell them that this is the fun stuff, when I get to go and meet somebody and talk to them about something they’re really passionate about. And I’m getting paid to do this.
Say you’re someplace like the wilds of New Guinea for a set period of time and you’ve got to bring home the story. Is that a lot of pressure?
ZUCKOFF: In the field I am really focused. I spend so much time trying to eliminate possible things that could go wrong beforehand. I set up all kinds of belt and suspender systems. I knew, for instance, in New Guinea if I didn’t have a translator I’d get nothing done. I have all kinds of backup systems, and so all of that is done in advance. And that is one way to relieve some of my anxiety when I’m out in the field with only a one-shot deal; I can only go there once. It never goes perfectly. You never get everything you dream of. You make a wish list. And if you hit 75 percent of those items, declare victory and go home. If you ever got 100 percent of those items, then your list wasn’t ambitious enough. You learn over time that it’s never going to be perfect and you don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
What do you love about being in the field, reporting?
ZUCKOFF: Why do I love it? I’m in the most remote place on earth and I’m talking to people who have never met an American before. And I’m seeing things and smelling things and doing things. This is the most exciting work.
“You learn over time that it’s never going to be perfect and you don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”
I read once that Truman Capote never took notes, he just went back to his hotel room and wrote like crazy. How do you take notes, and what’s your safeguard against losing notes or tapes?
ZUCKOFF: Again, it’s that belt and suspenders. I always have a tape recorder. And I’m always taking notes. And, as quickly as possible, I transcribe those notes at night. Especially when I’m on the road; I don’t sleep a lot. I’ll spend that time, and then I’ll email the notes to myself or to my IBackup account so they’re in “the cloud.” So the most I can ever possibly lose is one day of work. Because if you lose the whole trip, I mean, think about it. The idea of losing all those tapes? I couldn’t deal with it. In New Guinea, I left it on a thumb drive with my translator—if everything else went wrong, he could send it to me.
Let’s talk about work habits. When you’re working on a book, do you give yourself a day off?
ZUCKOFF: I don’t. I’m not healthy that way. When I’m working and I have that momentum and hear the voice in the pages, I want to keep it going. The most I’ll ever take off is one day.
Do you dream about the books you’re working on?
ZUCKOFF: I wish I dreamed about them. I’m usually just awake. Dreaming would imply that I’m sleeping, so usually when I’m working on a book I’m up at four in the morning thinking that last passage I wrote is clunky and doesn’t really explain how an amphibious plane actually works. I just lie there obsessing.
When and how do you go from the reporting to the actual writing?
ZUCKOFF: What I do is—and it’s ludicrous—I sneak up on myself. I tell myself I’m not really starting to write yet, I’m just playing around. I’m really still in research mode, but, you know, if I were writing, this book could really start this way. But I’m not really writing. I’m just playing around. And I’ll do that for weeks. It becomes kind of a blended transition. It’s silly, but it works.
Do you allow yourself a respite in between books?
ZUCKOFF: I should. And I keep telling myself I will, but I haven’t yet. Someone once said that an author between books is like a torture victim with nothing to confess. And that’s how I feel, where the torture just continues, and I have nowhere to put it. I have nowhere to put the energy. The book I’m writing now will be my sixth book in 12 years. So I really haven’t taken a break. I think I will after this next one, but I always say that.
How do you feel about having to promote your books? Is it satisfying or is it just taking time away from the work that you do?
ZUCKOFF: It’s somewhere in between. I like talking about the book. I gave a talk at the Harvard Travellers Club, and it was a wonderful crowd. They were really smart, so I enjoyed that.
How does teaching fit in with your writing life?
ZUCKOFF: It keeps me sane. I really love teaching. And the dean here and my chairman have been really good about helping me work out a schedule that allows me to have time when I’m really doing my writing. Teaching energizes me. If I were only writing, I would be too deeply inside my head. I need to get outside and talk to students; it’s a nice mix.
Should young people be encouraged to pursue journalism? And if the answer’s yes, why, how, and where?
ZUCKOFF: I answer that a little differently than with a pure yes or no. They shouldn’t be encouraged to pursue journalism unless they have to. I mean, I don’t want to tell everyone it’s the greatest thing in the world. I really think you have to have a passion for doing this work. Because it’s not easy. And it’s never been easy. And when I started in the 1980s as a journalist, it wasn’t easy to get a job, it wasn’t easy to do the work, and it wasn’t easy to pay your rent. Sure, we’ve had other kinds of things happen to the business side of journalism, but if you are passionate about it, of course you should do this. There are more places to publish today than there were when I started. There are more opportunities for you to explore different kinds of writing because of the Web. I mean, it’s as if somebody took an ax and said, “We’re going to destroy all these printing presses. And in their place, we’re going to give everybody a printing press called a MacBook Pro.”
Is this something you always wanted to do?
ZUCKOFF: I was definitely part of the post-Watergate generation where I thought those were the coolest guys in the world. And so as soon as I got to college, I said, “Journalism.”
Darrell Kotton talks about pulmonary medicine, stem cells, and building a lab to conduct research.
Jim Collins and Kyle Allison chat about combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria with sugar.
Merav Opher discusses space physics, the edge of the universe, and women in science.