The journalist on the “strange, extractive” process of interviewing; second-, third-, and fourth-act stories; and coming to reporting as “a real, whole person.”
Photo credit: Alan Chin.
For the past four years, New Yorker staff writer Sarah Stillman has reported a stunning series of what she calls “act two” stories—profiles of people or communities at the margins of issues that have already received coverage so seemingly exhaustive that readers may feel there is little left to know, and little that can be done. Her combination of patience and doggedness has reframed policy debates, and reignited public interest in subjects that may have grown distant or unrelatable.
Since beginning at the magazine, Stillman has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the unexpected perspective of foreign workers at some of the largest American bases’ hair salons and fast-food restaurants, uncovering sexual assault, riots, and human trafficking. In Texas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, she gauged the human cost of the police seizure of property from people who would never be charged with a crime. Recently, she profiled a New Jersey family whose children were kidnapped as they crossed from Mexico to the US, then held for ransom in one of the “stash houses” on the American side of the border.
The communities Stillman sheds light on are not always popular subjects with mainstream magazines. As a freelancer, she spent time shopping the idea that eventually became “The Invisible Army,” the piece on the abuses faced by foreign workers at US military bases. One editor responded by saying he’d need to see the “Hollywood movie version,” and to know which of the women she interviewed could be played by Julia Roberts.
I spoke with the writer at Guernica’s offices in New York, and later on the phone from Washington, DC, about how she brings readers to topics she believes are worthy of renewed attention, how the pressures of the journalism industry—real or perceived—can change a piece after the reporting is already complete, and how, for her, a subject becomes a story.
—Alex Carp for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve said it was hard to find a magazine that would run “The Invisible Army,” and that when you were pitching the story as a freelancer, an editor asked you to see the “Hollywood movie version.” Like a lot of your reporting, that piece surfaces previously untold or little-known stories about exploitation and class, which are not often the easiest sell. How do you bring readers to the stories you think are worth telling?
Sarah Stillman: The tremendous challenge of narrative journalism about subjects that are underreported is, how do you make people care about something they think they already know about, or think they don’t need to know about? And you do that through finding compelling human characters people can relate to. That editor’s advice actually turned out to be very helpful, insofar as it made me sit down and think about that.
It’s such obvious advice, but it caused me to go back through my notes and, instead of asking myself, “What were the ten most egregious examples of abuse I found in Iraq and Afghanistan,” actually step back and ask, “Who are the characters I can really get readers to invest in?” I reexamined all of my notes through that lens and found three Fijian women whom I’d come to know, who were working in this beauty salon on a US base in Iraq, who’d been lied to about where they were going and wound up in a war zone.
They thought they were going to be styling hair in a fancy salon in Dubai. They actually didn’t have the most egregious story compared to some of the Nepalese or Indian workers I’d spoken to, who’d been trafficked in a much more conventional sense, but I could tell their stories from A to B to C to Z. I could follow them on a journey from their very first moment of recruitment in Fiji to their winding up in Dubai and all the way to their time in Iraq—being defrauded, and one being sexually assaulted—then back home, which is where they were at the point when I wrote the story, so they were actually safe and able to talk. Thinking through how you find that intersection between individual, compelling human narratives and structural, systemic injustices—that’s the place that’s most interesting to me as a reporter.
Workers are actually being starved on the largest military base in Baghdad, and women are being raped with impunity—and because it doesn’t fit into a Hollywood context it’s not going to fly.
Guernica: That’s an incredibly diplomatic answer, and I do see the power of that realization. But the pitch that got that response is, I imagine, the same one that ended up getting accepted and that you turned into that story, right?
Sarah Stillman: I guess I should add that I was working out of my office at NYU when I got the “Hollywood movie” rejection—the editor had come to visit our building—and so I think the first thing I did was disappear into a bathroom stall and, like, cry. Because I’d spent a year or maybe more of my life on the project at that point, and NYU—which had given me a reporting grant to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan—was waiting on a published manuscript. I thought I was completely doomed.
That’s a devastating feeling, not only that you care deeply about something, but like every cell in your body is telling you the circumstances over there are deeply wrong. Workers are actually being starved on the largest military base in Baghdad, and women are being raped with impunity—and because it doesn’t fit into a Hollywood context it’s not going to fly, and readers have too much Iraq fatigue or Afghanistan fatigue to even give a shit about that? That disturbed me, and I was—I think “bummed” would definitely be putting it too softly. Only later did I realize there’s a germ of something useful in that comment, about getting beyond “eat your vegetables” journalism.
And I don’t think his comment was an uncommon one, if you know what I mean—his was the most helpful of the different versions of that that I heard, and it forced me to think about the hundreds of workers I’d met in Iraq and Afghanistan, and which ones could really carry a feature-length story. A more common rejection from editors was just that people don’t care about or want to read about Iraq or Afghanistan right now, especially not about this extra layer of foreignness.
And as it turned out, I didn’t actually sell the story based on a pitch. After being roundly rejected, I sat down and said, you know what, I’m going to write the Platonic ideal of the story I want to write, and write it long, and I was very, very lucky to send it first to someone at The New Yorker who was actually generous enough to read it and take me up on the process of working with me on it. So, yeah, I actually wasn’t able to sell it on the pitch alone. Which I think had a lot to do with being young and untested as well.
Guernica: How early in the reporting and research process are you looking for relatable characters, and how does that inform your first few steps when you have a topic you want to explore?
Sarah Stillman: I think the daily challenge for a lot of beat reporters is, how do you get past the regurgitated sound bites of powerful people or evasion masters who are so used to this routine—the theatricality of press conferences and stage-managed interviews and teams of handlers? But with the kind of investigative work I do, which tends to focus on people who’ve been largely excluded from power, the challenge is radically different. Often, my central challenge is figuring out how do I build trust, how do I acquaint people who’ve just endured some terrible event—losing their child to murder, say, or being sexually assaulted—with the bizarre and sometimes invasive nature of in-depth interviews that aren’t just a quick list of ten questions?
Often, I’m spending months with a person in a very intimate context, getting to know the ins and outs of what they ate for breakfast, not to mention dredging up the most traumatic experiences of their lives, digging through their documents and photographs from difficult times, all of that. And that process, I think, can be extraordinarily strange for subjects who’ve never been interviewed before, especially if you don’t acquaint them from the get-go with what you’re trying to do, what it entails, and why you care. Even a simple ethical concept, like “informed consent,” can be complicated in that sort of context.
Usually, when I start out, I’m talking to academics and area experts and public officials, too, and each of those types of interviews requires a different skill set. In the beginning, I try to cast a really wide net—using conversations, court documents, in-person observation, records requests, every tool at my disposal—and often it’s from there that I start narrowing my material down to think in terms of protagonists and—I sort of hate this term, in a nonfiction context—“characters.”
Maybe I’ve changed how I pitch the stories—because I used to think, with the pitch, that you just had to just throw all of your wildest facts out there. Mostly, my pitches were based on a litany of facts or mini-scoops I’d tracked down. Now, I try to focus on finding where my four or five most interesting, or staggering, or bizarre facts map onto the most compelling or important characters, the real people who will carry the story.
I wanted to think about ways to get an American readership concerned with what is happening in Mexico, but also to reframe it as a problem Americans share.
Guernica: In your recent story on the kidnappings and ransom of children trying to cross the border into the US, you mention a bus ride you took that must have been in 2012 or 2013, and the last event you report on takes place at the end of 2014. How does the early reporting take shape for you, and how do you go about pulling a narrative from such a mass of reporting and research?
Sarah Stillman: The process is sort of embarrassingly long. But one thing I’ve discovered is that if you remain in contact with people, if you build longitudinal relationships, if you invest in sources who seem at first like they’re uncomfortable or unwilling to talk, if you keep in touch with them, a year later that might yield something much more powerful. One thing I’ve discovered is that I never think of something that didn’t work out as just “something that didn’t work out.” I think so often with investigative work, things that initially look like failures wind up leading to your biggest stories.
My first trip to Iraq was in 2008, and I found a lot of disturbing stuff about workers being starved. I actually met the Fijian women on that first trip. But at that point I was so new to reporting that I really didn’t know how to get the level of granular detail you would need to tell a real story that would work for a magazine. Also, most of the workers I met were terrified to talk, and I’d initially been reporting the story for radio—so, going around the base wielding a giant microphone wasn’t working so well.
I could have thought of it as a total failure. I came back home; I kind of moved on with life in some ways. I had all that reporting stored up. But I knew I wanted to go back at some point. I kept in touch with a guy who was a manager of a Cinnabon on the base—he was in this intermediary zone where he was both a third-country national and also an employer of third-country nationals, so he had some degree of authority in the power structure but was also experiencing some of the worst traumas of it. He had been very reluctant to speak with me when I was there on my first trip, and had basically shooed me off. But we kept in touch over email and Facebook, and when he saw that I’d actually come back and that I’d spent more than a year of my life obsessing about this, he suddenly opened up and became my gatekeeper to dozens of other workers—giving me introductions, helping me win trust, and even translating for me in four different languages. That really transformed the whole reporting experience, when I had this insider who was both a third-country national himself but also a boss and an employer of trafficked workers.
It was similar with the Mexico trip—I traveled across Mexico with these Central American mothers whose kids or husbands had disappeared trying to get to the US, and it turned out for various reasons that a story about that wasn’t able to come to fruition at The New Yorker. We went 3,000 miles by bus, from the Guatemala border all the way north and back down, and along the way we were sleeping in migrant shelters and seeing the kids who were traveling by themselves there, and I started wondering what happens to them when they get to the other side.
I found it really astonishing that undocumented migrants were kidnapped so routinely, that it was such a commonplace part of the journey for people trying to reach the US, and that we hear almost nothing about it here. Part of what I learned on the bus trip is that so many of the people who are held and kidnapped in these stash houses in Mexico are being extorted, and it’s their families in the US who are actually receiving the ransom phone calls. And so it raised the question for me: Why don’t we also think of that as a US story? While this is a Mexican crisis, it’s also an American crisis, if you think of undocumented people living in the US as people who are deserving of our concern, which we obviously should. I wanted to think about ways to get an American readership concerned with what is happening in Mexico, but also to reframe it as a problem Americans share.
By the time I was working on the kidnapping story, I was really entering at stage two of what had become a national conversation about the child migrant crisis. By July and August of last year, everyone had turned their attention to this massive surge of kids who had been showing up at the border—the same kids who’d already been appearing in the shelters during my trip across Mexico in 2012. I got the assignment just as the media was suddenly exploding with migrant-children coverage and I was thinking, “Okay, how am I going to approach something that is now so thoroughly over-covered?” I ended up feeling really lucky to be able to look at “act two” for the kids, which is when they’re suddenly entering the most high-stakes part of the legal process, where it would be determined if they would be deported or not. By that time, the topic had fallen back off the map.
I tend to gravitate toward the “act two,” or “act three,” or “act four” stories—either things that are underreported, where we think we already know the common narrative, or things that are at the margins of an over-reported story, where we’re all so focused in one direction that we’re missing something crucial that’s unfolding off to the side. You know, when everyone’s focused on the conventional parts of war—doing infantry imbeds or chasing IEDs—you look at the thing that seems not that interesting to people, like the circumstances of logistics workers cooking the troops’ food or cleaning their latrines. Or when everyone’s talking about child migrants at the border, and you look at the kidnapping phenomenon that’s impacting undocumented families all across the US.
There is space for a different kind of investigative reporting that’s about immersion and obsessive attention to detail and deep listening.
Guernica: Did you always know you wanted to pursue these issues through investigative reporting?
Sarah Stillman: I feel like I partly came to writing through being in college during the start of the Iraq war, and knowing that those issues mattered lot to me, and wanting to go see for myself. I always knew I wanted to write, but I didn’t know that I would want to do investigative reporting—in part because it seemed so ill-suited for my personality, or I thought it was ill-suited for my personality, insofar as I’m not very aggressive, and I’m not confrontational.
So much of our cultural representation of what an investigative journalist looks like, in movies and pop culture, is about this really testosterone-filled dude screaming, “Give me what you got!” I didn’t see myself as someone who would be good at or comfortable with that. But I realized from reading people like Katherine Boo and Barbara Demick and Anne Hull that there is space for a different kind of investigative reporting that’s about immersion and obsessive attention to detail and deep listening.
I don’t mean to make this sound so gendered. David Finkel and David Grann—they’ve also given me models of what this sort of coverage looks like. For me, the part of reporting that’s the most rewarding and energizing is just hearing directly from people whose voices haven’t often been heard, or incorporated into mainstream media. That stuff is really, really gratifying, and so to realize that you could make a career of that part of it, that appealed to me.
Guernica: You mentioned feeling, early on, like you didn’t have the tools to relate the level of detail that these stories required. What are you able to see now that you perhaps weren’t when you were in Iraq in 2008?
Sarah Stillman: I learned a lot, investigative methodology–wise, from litigators—watching their process. In the case of the Fijian trafficking victims, I got to be a fly on the wall when one of the women, Vinnie, went through something akin to a deposition. I watched as the attorneys questioned Vinnie about the full arc of her experience in a way that was hyper-detailed and incredibly granular but also deeply thoughtful.
You often hear a phrase in investigative journalism classrooms, and I think Sy Hersh was the one to coin it—“do the chron.” Do the chronology. Watching that method be implemented by lawyers, actually asking Vinnie, “Where exactly were you on that very first day when the recruiters came to get you? What were they wearing? What did they say?” Walking her all the way through—I learned a lot from that.
As someone who had thought a lot about methods for interviewing people who had gone through traumatic situations, I was actually very cautious in a way that I later came to think of as somewhat patronizing. I think I’d been so worried about either scaring them off or making them uncomfortable that I wasn’t respecting the full nature of their experience. I wasn’t fully willing to ask the difficult questions and let the women make choices about what they did and didn’t want to talk about. I was almost preemptively censoring them.
I try to come to my reporting as a real, whole person, not an automaton.
Guernica: Do you start from an observation that something is underreported, or do you work with a strong sense of personal connection to the stories you’re reporting as well?
Sarah Stillman: It’s a little bit of both. I mean, I do have an almost physiological test when I’m reading through documents or speaking to people—not to sound too metaphysical about it, but: Does it give me some tingly sense that this is something I would want to spend the next many months pursuing? Because when you’re working on pieces that aren’t just in-and-out jobs, but entail staying reporting over months—and when you actually have to invest labor and resources into finding out if the story exists at all—I think you really want to feel a wholehearted sense of intellectual and emotional investment. At least, I hope to. But that’s not always something you can tell at the start.
I think when I was doing my very first interviews, I probably brought a notepad and did ask people my first fifteen questions while sitting in a Starbucks or something horrible like that. And I found that, oftentimes, the most important thing at the very first interview is just establishing a personal connection and developing some sort of rapport so that I can go back to them again, and then maybe again, and maybe again after that.
In a sense I privilege that over almost anything, even getting the first bits of information that I need. I try to come to my reporting as a real, whole person, not an automaton. And it’s always one of the strange discomforts of the job, that you’re in this very intense moment in someone’s life—you’re engaging with them nonstop—and then suddenly your piece is out and that’s done. It always reminds me that the journalist’s job isn’t to be someone’s friend, or their psychologist, or anything other than what we actually are. And at the end of the day, that can definitely seem like such a strange, extractive relationship. Janet Malcolm writes about that dynamic better than anyone.
It’s been nice, actually, to keep in touch with a lot of the people and families that I’ve written about. Like with the kids I was just writing about from Guatemala, who survived being kidnapped and fleeing violence, it was nice to just sit down in their living room and play bingo with them, go to dinner with the family. And sometimes not thinking about it in such a mechanistic “I am now coming to report and get what I need” way, but just spending time, helps you see a more natural version of who they are too.
Guernica: What’s the role of your editor in all of this?
Sarah Stillman: I’ll propose a few different stories, and my editor has good instincts about which of those to move forward on. I work with an incredible editor, Henry Finder, who has been very patient when I turn in enormously long drafts. I’ve tended to have a process where I try to put down what I feel is the most integral stuff on the page, and then whittle it down from there, and my editor has been really helpful in shaping what belongs versus what can be dropped. I think most of us, as writers, have had experiences where you get edited and it doesn’t feel like your voice at all. And so it’s been nice to go through the experience of having a lot wind up on the cutting-room floor, and yet still feel that your voice is being—not purified, but made more yourself. I think that’s a very rare thing.
Guernica: Do you say that because there have been times in the past when you’ve seen the piece sort of get away from you in editing?
Sarah Stillman: I think more interesting to me has been watching my own self-censorship, especially when I was freelancing and needing to find homes for pieces—certainly when I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thinking that editors or readers would only care about some things and not necessarily others, and not always trusting my instincts on that. Watching the way your own imagination can collapse when you envision the censorship of editors or readers that hasn’t even happened yet.
More recently, I’ve been learning a lot from reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, because I think he’s someone who has found a way to be really honest about what he’s seeing in the world. I think so often if you want to do both reportage and investigative work, and also some of the commentary stuff, it can be a tough line to walk, knowing where you need to pull back and be thoughtful and measured. And he’s someone whom I think of as not being invested in this project of false objectivity—choosing, instead, to respect the intelligence of readers and his own integrity in encountering what he’s seeing, and to be transparent about that. Self-censorship has almost been as real to me in the past as an editor saying, “Go this way,” or “Go that way.” I mean, I’ve had a few examples of editing not working out as I would’ve hoped, too—that was a pretty regular part of the freelance life.
Guernica: Do you work on a number of stories, or potential stories, at once, keeping them on the table and seeing where things develop?
Sarah Stillman: I think it really depends, but I tend to only be able to obsess about one thing at once, and become fully engaged in and only interested in that thing. But in the longer term, a lot of my stories also give birth to other stories.
I was working on this piece about young people who are used as confidential informants in the war on drugs. In the course of reporting, I was sitting in the murder trial of this young woman, a teenaged informant who had been killed in Detroit. In the trial it came out that the guy who had killed her, the guy who was called back to the scene and whom she had allegedly kind of informed on, had several thousand dollars that he’d brought back to the scene, which the cops had just taken from him. And I was like, “Oh, that’s pretty interesting—so the police can just take money from someone even when they’re not convicted of a crime?” And I started talking to lawyers about that, and they were telling me about civil asset forfeiture, which I’d heard a little bit about, but I found even most lawyers didn’t know about it at that point in time.
I began a more national search to see how systemic it was, started talking to people around the country and hearing that this is actually a huge problem. People are sometimes losing their homes before being convicted of a crime, or their cash or their cars. So I was full steam ahead on the informant story, but at the same time I was planting the seeds for my next piece, which later became an investigative feature on civil forfeiture abuses around the country.
Guernica: Do you hear from a lot of people after the piece has come out who are in similar situations but whom you didn’t talk to during your reporting?
Sarah Stillman: It was actually really disturbing how many people I heard from after the confidential informant piece, saying, you know, “I’m in this situation,” or, “My brother’s in this situation.”
Guernica: How many was it, roughly?
Sarah Stillman: Definitely dozens, and probably way more. Sometimes, with forfeiture, it’s like, “Help me get my car back”—things that I’m just not equipped to do.
But other times people want to reach out because they’ve been isolated with the pain of their experience. Or they just want to have an affirmation of what their families have been through, and they’re seeking it wherever they can find it. What this kind of journalism does is create a language or open up a space where someone can say, “Oh, this happened to me, too.”
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