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Mitchell Zuckoff Is Inaugural Redstone Professor in Narrative Studies

COM professor will promote storytelling in new post

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Best-selling author and journalist Mitchell Zuckoff has made a living writing page-turning books based on real-life events like harrowing plane crashes and a minute-by-minute account of the 2012 Islamic militant attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Critics have pointed to the former Boston Globe writer and Pulitzer Prize finalist’s work as first-rate examples of narrative nonfiction.

Zuckoff, a College of Communication professor of journalism since 2003, will now be imparting his narrative storytelling skills to future journalists as the inaugural Sumner M. Redstone Professor in Narrative Studies. The new professorship, made possible by a $2.5 million gift from Viacom and CBS chair Sumner Redstone (Hon.’94), a former School of Law faculty member and longtime BU benefactor, is endowed in perpetuity to support a senior COM faculty member with scholarly and teaching expertise in the field of narrative studies.

Thomas Fiedler, dean of COM, says that when reviewing potential candidates for the position, Zuckoff jumped out immediately to both him and the rest of the COM leadership team. “Not only is he an excellent teacher, with great reviews every year, but he is someone who really demonstrates the craft of narrative storytelling,” Fiedler (COM’71) says. “He has established himself as one of the best practitioners of this genre and is known widely for his talent. Read any of his books, and what you will see is just such an excellent example of what narrative nonfiction is—techniques like how scenes are set and how dialogue is used, and at the same time, it’s journalistically rigorous.”

Zuckoff says he is “truly honored” and excited about taking on this new role, which will involve teaching courses that explore the power of storytelling in communicating ideas, producing narrative works and studies, and organizing gatherings of other journalists. One such gathering, BU’s annual Power of Narrative conference, has hosted writers and authors like former New York Times editor Jill Abramson, best-selling author Gay Talese, and Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Tracy Kidder.

One of Zuckoff’s goals as the first Redstone Professor is to “be a proselytizer for narrative,” he says, and one way he hopes to accomplish this is by developing a class that will explore different kinds of storytelling. “The hope is to have COM collaborate with almost anyone, from an individual in the College of Arts & Sciences history department to a visual storyteller at the College of Fine Arts,” he says. “My mind is spinning with ideas. I want to think about narrative broadly, because that’s what Sumner Redstone has done. As he famously said, ‘Content is king.’”

Zuckoff is the author of the New York Times best sellers 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi (2013) (being made into a feature film), Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II (2013), and Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II (2011), winner of the Lawrence and Thomas Winship PEN/New England Award for Nonfiction. His other books, all narrative nonfiction, have explored such subjects as 1920s con man Charles Ponzi (Ponzi’s Scheme), Hollywood director Robert Altman (Robert Altman: The Oral Biography), a pair of teenage murderers (Judgment Ridge), and a couple deciding whether to raise a child with Down syndrome (Choosing Naia). As a Boston Globe reporter, Zuckoff was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting and winner of an American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award, a Livingston Award for International Reporting, and a Heywood Broun Memorial Award, among other national honors. He has also written for The New Yorker, Fortune, and Salon.

Writing narrative nonfiction requires more work than most readers may realize, Zuckoff says. A fiction writer, for instance, can create characters and conversations. But narrative nonfiction writers must interview eyewitnesses and wade through newspaper clippings, police reports, and numerous other sources to make sure the story they are telling is factually accurate.

For example, a single interview for 13 Hours ran 600 pages. In researching Frozen in Time, Zuckoff joined an arctic expedition in Greenland to try to find the remnants of the tragic plane crash he was writing about, and for Lost in Shangri-La ventured into New Guinea’s equatorial rain forest.

“Readers think about the end product when they think about narrative,” Zuckoff says. “But it’s all about the reporting. For every word that makes it into the book, I’ve done 100 words of reporting. One metaphor I like to use: it’s like cooking. You have to constantly reduce the sauce for hours so the most flavor comes out.”

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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