Hot Air: Reportage

Katherine Boo wrote the bestseller, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. She’s won a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur genius award, and a National Book Award for Nonfiction. She has a rep for illuminating and explaining important issues while at the same time telling a good, tight story. She gave a talk the other day at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, sponsored by the journalism school of the University of North Texas. In it, she laid out her 15 rules for narrative nonfiction. They’re a must-read not only for journalists, writers, filmmakers, and radio people but for all those who consume the nonfiction works produced by them. (I’ve purposely neglected to mention TV “news” people because, frankly, I don’t give a good goddamn about them. Few, if any, of these rules would be acceptable in that medium, so there’s that too.)

Katherine Boo

[Image: Outlook India]

Anyway, here are the rules:

1) It’s not enough to tell the stories of victims. I also need to investigate perps.

2) I let what I hate give me wing.

3) I’m not the sum of my best or most difficult circumstances, and neither are the people I report on.

4) When I’m first settling into a place, I tell myself that strong presumptions will make me miss what’s happening.

5) Memory sucks.

6) I ask myself: “What would really get lost if this story never ran?”

7) Don’t be a whiner.

8) I don’t try to find simple characters.

9) I try never to forget that my “subjects” are really my co-investigators.

10) Though I seek out the public record maniacally, I don’t assume that it’s accurate.

11) To calibrate my compass as a writer, I share my work widely and not only with journalists.

12) I often tell myself that editors and publishers don’t know what’s going to sell.

13) Even if I’m telling urgent stories, I can still experiment with form and make it a creative process.

14) When after a lot of effort I can’t pin something down, I force myself to put that uncertainty on the page.

15) If my work is successful, I don’t go and get high on my own supply.

Want to read more about these rules? Go here. Thanks to Chip Berlet for pointing this out.


Scoot down your radio dial to 91.3 FM today at 5pm for WFHB‘s Daily Local News. Today, as every Thursday, is Big Talk day. My guest this week is none other than Spyridon Stratigos — Strats!


If you don’t know who he is it’s imperative you listen. Strats is more Bloomington than Letters to the Editor, the Trojan Horse, and all the horking college kids outside Kilroy’s put together.

As always, I’ll post links to the podcast as well as the uncut original interview with Strats here tomorrow.

Next week, we’re planning a live Big Talk with Liz Watson, another of the Democratic candidates for US Congress from Indiana’s 9th District.

Home Runs

Oh, hey, remember how deliriously happy I was last Nov. when my beloved Cubs won their first World Series since proto-humans descended from the trees in the African savanna? An objective observer might have described my mood as well…, orgasmic. Now we learn I wasn’t the only one.

Acc’d’g to hospital sources, there’s a baby boom happening in the Chi. area as we speak — nine months after the climactic event.


[h/t to Pencillista Chris Paputsas]

The Nature Of Nature

[Yet another in an occasional series of pontifications and screeds about words.]

Nature. That edenic place. Birds flutter, butterflies flit, brooks babble, the sun shines, and all is well under god’s loving, watchful eye.

I love nature. I assume you do too. Who doesn’t? The other day, when I arrived at Charlotte Zietlow’s house for our regular weekly book writing session, as I stood on her back porch waiting for her to unlock the door, I noticed a brightly colored bug, maybe an inch long, with the huge hind legs of a cricket or a grasshopper, limbs built to propel it yards downfield, perhaps when it senses it’s being eyed by a red-winged blackbird who’s clearly salivating — or whatever it is birds do when they’re famished. It was a gorgeous bug, its green so rich, nearly neon, that it could have been an artist’s conception. Its antennae were longer, relatively, than any I’d ever seen on another bug, two or two and a half times the length of its body.

I bent over to peer closely at it. It waggled those antennae in my direction as if to say, Watch it, buddy, I’ve got my palps on you.

I do that kind of thing every day. I scan the foliage for those telltale three-leaf red stems, their leaves notched symmetrically, that signify poison ivy. In the process, I take note of all the other kinds of leaves, greens of every shade, long and short, broad and narrow, succulent and dull. When The Loved One and I drive through Brown County State Park, I stop the car in the middle of the road and just listen for the symphony of birds, frogs, and insects. It would be so easy not to hear them, to ignore them, but they’re always there, creating a music the likes of which humans have yet to be able to replicate.

I stop, every chance I get, in other words, to sniff the Rosae synstylae.

In this year of somebody’s lord, 2017, the lucid among us acknowledge that our human industry, our jones for consumption, is doing real, measurable damage. Op/eds, websites, advocacy groups, grid-fleers, and anybody else similarly concerned with the continued health [don’t say wellness] of this mad planet’s flora and fauna extol, like me, the wonders of nature and shake their collective finger at ourselves, the dopes who are doing our level best to eff it up.

But are we effing it up?

We view the world as if it’s home to two competing, irreconcilable forces: nature and humanity. Humans, a lot of us seem to hold, are interlopers on this globe. We’re intruders, second-story guys jimmying the windows and invading the heretofore safe and comfy home of, well, nature.

Only that’s not quite true. In fact, it’s not true at all. We belong here. It’s not, after all, like we came here in so many spaceships from Xenu’s doomed planet, infecting the Earth with our presence.

We are, in fact, nature. We’ve evolved from the same unicellular wrigglers that occupied the warm oceans some four billion years ago that the toad and the red rose have.

In a perverse sense, our despoiling of the environment is, in itself, natural. That’s what we were meant to do. All of our actions — the obsessive burning of fossil fuels, the packaging of anything and everything in plastic, the mowing down of rainforests, the robbery of our fellow critters’ habitats, and more — were the result of our  our wants and needs as natural beings. We couldn’t have acted any other way because, naturally, that’s who we were.

Now we’re faced with a choice. Stop the burning, knock off the plastics, save the trees, let the critters roam, or keep going the way we’ve been since the first Homo erectus applied for separate species designation. Now we understand, we’ve got a choice. But whichever path we choose, it will be natural. As George Carlin reminded us, “The planet is fine; people are fucked…. The planet has been through worse than us. Been though earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drifts, solar flares, sunspots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles, hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages, and we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere; we are! We’re goin’ away. Pack your shit, folks.”

It just may be in our nature to commit suicide. And the Earth, naturally, will go on without us.



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