Mark Bowden Style: Truth is Stranger than Fiction

by WBM and Lumina News writers
June 2012

Bestselling author of "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War," "Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the Worlds Greatest Outlaw," "Worm: The First Digital World War" and "Guests of The Ayatollah."
National correspondent for The Atlantic. Contributing editor forVanity Fair.

Growing up in St. Louis, Chicago, Long Island and the burbs of Baltimore, Mark Bowden watched his father dress up in a suit every day to sell concrete, and he knew he wanted to do something different.

His first loves were drawing and comic books. At 10, he wrote a letter to D.C. Comics asking if he could create a comic book for them. They sent a letter back saying, "Absolutely."

While he never ended up doing that comic book, he did end up writing for Loyola Universitys school newspaper. And then the Baltimore Sun. And then the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Before long, he was buying his weight in khat (an indigenous plant-based stimulant) to fly into war-torn Somalia on a drug smugglers plane to get the biggest story of his life at that point "Black Hawk Down."

He is now a national correspondent for The Atlantic, as well as a contributing editor for Vanity Fair and has written several best-selling works of nonfiction.

Today, he lives in Amish country outside of Philadelphia, is married with five children and two grandchildren. Hes a huge fan of Philadelphia sports teams, premium television programming and Lyle Lovett. He loves the beach and the change of seasons as they fall upon the Northeast.

When hes not writing, hes reading, and he has, in fact, even Googled himself. Daniel Bowden


WBM What are you working on now?

MB One is a murder story that happened in Los Angeles, and its been widely reported, about a LAPD detective named Stephanie Lazarus, who was a very prominent detective in the department, who was recently convicted of first-degree murder for killing a romantic rival of hers 26 years ago. Stephanie Lazarus is working in the LAPD headquarters; shes a prominent, successful woman in the department, and two detectives come up to her in the morning. She was the head of their art theft division. They tell her, "Weve got this guy downstairs who wants to talk about a stolen painting, if you could come help us." She comes downstairs into the interrogation room expecting to interrogate this guy, and suddenly shes asked to sit down and shes under interrogation. Over the course of that hour, they interrogated Stephanie, and Stephanie doesnt know how much they know. Of course, she knows the whole story, because she killed the woman, but shes thinking, "Well, maybe this is just like a fishing expedition." They tell her initially, "Oh your name just popped up in this file, so we wanted to talk to you." In the course of that hour, she has to adopt a number of fallback positions. It ends up with them handcuffing her and putting her under arrest and leaving the room.

She enters helping her buddies in the department and leaves in handcuffs, muttering to herself, "I need a lawyer." Because that was all videotaped and it was leaked to me, I could tell the whole story through that dialogue, which to me was just a fascinating way of telling it. Thatll come out in Vanity Fair. I think its in the July issue.

WBM How did you prepare to interview the President of the United States?

MB As far as interviewing the president the concern there is that you have a limited amount of time. I knew what the most important questions were I needed to ask him. I get them up front. You have the things you want to make sure you dont forget to ask about, and then if youre lucky enough to explore things a little further where are you going to go with that? So I had that all in my mind. My worry about interviewing Obama was that hes a talker, and that he would begin digressing. And how do you say to the President of the United States, "Could you get back on point?"

WBM How much time did you have?

MB About an hour and 15 minutes. He was very generous. He was great. He understood clearly the limited amount of time we had, what it was I was trying to accomplish. While he gave very thoughtful and full answers, he speaks in perfect sentences. He would wrap things up really nicely. I really am grateful to him because I would ask him a question, sometimes, might say the question about what concerns does he have about just wielding this much power, and he really worked to think about the answer in a thoughtful way.

My tape recorder quit on me the only time in my entire life as a reporter that that happened. I have one of those digital recorders and its always worked like a charm. I put it down right next to me and ordinarily in an interview Ill check it, once or twice, just to make sure its still functioning. I was pretty riveted so I wasnt checking it. I got up at the end of the hour and 15 minutes thrilled with what a great interview it was, looked down and my recorder was dead. I didnt know when it had cut off; Im on my way out of the office thanking Obama, and his national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, is there and I said, "Ben, my recorder quit!" He says, "Ahh, no problem. Well get you a transcript before you leave." It was a great transcript, too.

WBM You travel great distances for long periods of time working for Vanity Fair or The Atlantic. What kind of budget do you have for one of these stories?

MB Unlimited. Ive never had an editor say to me, "No, you cant do that because it costs money." Its just wonderful. I can remember one of my more notorious stories: I traveled all over Africa and wrote a story about the threatening extinction of the black rhino, and I literally was chartering planes off into the bush of Zambia and going on anti-poaching patrols.

A couple years later, before Jesse Jackson formally announced his first campaign for president, I was traveling around to write a magazine story for the [Philadelphia] Inquirer about Jesse Jackson, and it was just myself and a reporter from the Chicago Tribune named Mitch Rosen. Jackson would make an appearance somewhere, and he would get in a car, and he always has a police escort, and they would rip across the Texas countryside at like 120 miles per hour. Mitch and I are in this little rented Avis car trying to keep up. Well, one time we went to an event, and Jackson left and he rips out with his motorcade and goes to a little airport and gets on a plane and flies off. Mitch was beside himself because he felt he was going to get in trouble for losing Jesse Jackson; hes supposed to be following him. Jackson made no accommodations for us. We were just basically told, "If you want to follow him, go on. See what you can do." So anyway, I said to Mitch, "not a problem," and I went and hired a pilot. And I got to say the famous words I thought I would never say: "Follow that plane."

WBM Do you ever fear for your safety?

MB I have, from time to time. I try to avoid it. Im not a terrifically brave person. But I went to Somalia when I wrote "Black Hawk Down." That was probably the most frightened Id ever been for a sustained period of time. I feel very fortunate that I was able to get in and out without anything bad happening.

WBM What were the scariest moments in Somalia and Columbia?

MB In Somalia I was just terrified pretty much the whole time. Theres fighting going on everywhere and theres 10-year olds with AK-47s. The clan that I was supposed to be received by as a guest told me to leave. I hired my own gunmen to protect me from them. I was just feeling my way into it. I knew it was a dangerous situation. And also, everyone is speaking another language. Youre relying on people who you dont really know. Id gone a long way to get there, and I was determined not to leave unless someone actually did something to me. I had been threatened, but no one actually shot at me that Im aware of. Part of it was just stubbornness. Courage is partly stupidity, so I was right there. Im not a very brave person, so I must have been really incredibly stupid.

In Columbia, I was working on a book about Pablo Escobar. This was back in a time when the FARC [The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia] and ELN [The National Liberation Army] were kidnapping Americans, in the mountains especially. So when we had to go up to a mountain village, or someplace off in the hills, we would always try to get back to Bogot before sunset. I was sometimes looking out the car window when the sun was going down and were still winding through these roads thinking, "I hope we get out of here before it turns dark." Literally, the guerrillas would set up road blocks to stop every car. If you were an American then they would take you.

WBM What was it like to have "Black Hawk Down" adapted into a movie?

MB Well, I have yet to see the downside. It was one of the best experiences of my life. First of all, its a windfall for Hollywood to purchase the rights, then promptly make a million dollar movie and have it become a hugely successful movie and win an Academy Award [Best Film Editing and Best Sound, 2002]. So that was something that I never imagined would happen with anything Ive ever done. It was fun. I remember I flew out to Hollywood, actually to Santa Monica to meet Jerry Bruckheimer [the producer] when he bought the rights, and sat in his office with him. He said to me that this movie, which at that point was just a concept, he wanted to be different than other moves that he made. He wanted to make something very true to the book Id written, and have a kind of documentary feel to it. He said he wanted me to be involved in it from the beginning to end. I just remember thinking, "Yeah, right. This is what they tell the writer when they fly out." But he was absolutely honest throughout. I wrote the first draft of the screenplay for that movie, which sucked. They gave it to Ken Nolan, a really good screenwriter who turned it into a screenplay. I worked with Ken on that, learned a lot about screenplay writing and have since written nine more.

I was involved in helping to select locations for shooting. I was on the set in Morocco for a couple weeks. They were there for three months, but I went over for a couple of weeks, which was really fascinating to see. It was literally a cast of thousands, and when I was there I would plug into all the meetings about story discussions and dealing with how to stage scenes and whatnot.

Ridley Scott, who is just an amazing director, is a very inclusive person. Hes not arrogant at all, although he has every right to be as one of the great directors of our time. He literally will grab anybody around him and say, "What do you think about this?"

When the movie came out, not just in L.A., which we all went out for, my mom too "Hollywoody," we call her and there were premieres at Army bases all over the country, and then in London and Paris and Madrid, Rome, traveling in private jets with Jerry Bruckheimer and Ridley Scott to these gala premieres. I left them after Rome, because I had work to do.

I was working on this piece for The Atlantic about Saddam Hussein and I was really into it. I needed to get back to work, and also I needed to be home. So, I just said, "Im leaving." They were all like, "How can you leave?" They went on to Prague, Moscow and Tokyo and Hong Kong and New Zealand premieres all over the world.

I remember coming home and getting back to work and pulling the garbage can up the driveway one morning and thinking, "Man, the carriage just turned back into a pumpkin."

I even got to go to the Academy Awards, which is the one event in life that will cure you of any desire you have to meet or hang out with a celebrity, because literally every celebrity in the world is right in this room. I was in the foyer of the theater where they have the Academy Awards, and everybody was crowded in. Everywhere you looked it was George Clooney, or Julia Roberts, or Tom Hanks. Im butting elbows with someone short, so I turn around to sort of apologize and it was Paul McCartney.

WBM Whats that emotional swing like? What was the journey like going from fearing for your life in Somalia, writing the book, to going to all these premieres?

MB One I would do again gladly and the other I wouldnt; I mean, it was great. The book was so successful that it far exceeded any expectations I had for anything that I would ever write. That was a book that was on the New York Times Best Seller list for a long time, and was nominated for a National Book Award. It had about as much success that it could have with a book if youre not Stephen King or writing for mass audiences.

WBM Is there a story that you regret that you havent done yet?

MB I still want to write a story about building the tallest building in the world, and Vanity Fair was actually on board. I was going to write about the Freedom Tower. I wanted to write it just because I love science stories. I love stories about infrastructure, how things actually are built. There was so much political wrangling and stuff in New York over who was going to build it whether or not it was going to be built that it eventually got to be such a tangle that I walked away from it. But now that its almost done, I look at that thing and go, "Oh thats a story that I couldve written that I wouldve really liked to do." I could probably come up with 10 more I think of things all the time that would make fascinating stories that Ive never had a chance to write.

WBM Someone told us you have an interest in comic books, comic book characters?

MB I love comic books. Ive devoured them. At one point my dad banned them. Then he read somewhere that it was a bad idea to discourage our kids from reading. I remember reading those comic books and thinking, "These would just make such amazing movies." And Im sure George Lucas had the same idea. Look where he is, just because they were fantastic stories.

WBM When you interview people is there a surprising moment, the thing the person said that you werent expecting that surprised you?

MB Yes. In fact, I would say that one of the essential elements of journalism is that you are surprised. If you already understood the world, if you already understood the story that you were about to do, then youre never going to find out anything that surprises you. Likewise, when you start working on a story and everything just seems to be flowing according to a script, youre not doing enough work. Youve got to find something thats new to you. That kind of defines what journalism is.

Im thinking right now of going to Hawaii and interviewing the father of that lieutenant that gets killed [Vanity Fair, December 2011, "Echoes From a Distant Battlefield"]. He was telling me how when his son came home to visit from Afghanistan he was, as he talked to him, unaware of what was going on. He was kind of mortified by what he was finding out. I asked, "What mortified you?" He said, "Well, we had seen these pictures that he emailed to us and Id seen Sebastian Jungers documentary, Restrepo, and there was this one picture I remember seeing that really just shocked me. It kind of crystallized a problem that I had." I said, "Really, what picture was that?" He found it for me and showed me the picture. I could see exactly: It was a picture of his son in a meeting with all these village elders. His son is 23 years old. Hes got his high-and-tight haircut and hes wearing his fashionable sunglasses, and his camp gear, six months out of ROTC. Hes sitting down with these guys who are the same age as Colonel Brostrom, who are in their 50s and 60s, who have lived in this place their entire life, these wizened old figures. And this is his kid. Now, anybody whos a parent sees their kid, grown up as they are, theyre still kids. Its like that great commercial on TV where the guy is giving his keys to his teenage daughter, only he sees her as three years old. As a father hes looking at his son and hes thinking, "This is Johnny, and Johnny is negotiating with these guys. These guys are going to take him for all hes worth. Hes out of his element here totally out of his element." And that image really conveyed a lot to me of understanding how he felt and why he felt the way he did and also the circumstances his son found himself in.

WBM What do you enjoy most about your work?

MB Well, as you see I enjoy all of it. I like writing best. As much as I enjoy the reporting and traveling, to me the most fun always is when you sit down and start to write a story. That was the original motivation for me, anyway, was to be a writer. Composing and telling a story, figuring out how to tell it in a compelling way, working on the writing, trying to make my writing better, thats what I like. I can see, now that Im getting older, getting out of the reporting and writing fiction, just because I love to write. Im kind of getting tired of constantly gathering information.

WBM Do you already have fiction book ideas?

MB Im trying to write a novel about an incident that happened in Pennsylvania in the 18th century, which has always been interesting to me. I love historical fiction, so its kind of an interesting transition for me. I just cant go interview the participants.

WBM Whats the most outrageous thing youve ever had to do to get the story?

MB I was on an anti-poaching patrol in Zambia one time this is probably the only time that Ive ever voluntarily put myself in a potentially dangerous situation and it was because, again, Id gone so far. Id gone out on this anti-poaching patrol and these anti poachers would sometimes get in gunfights with poachers. My photographer chickened out. He left. And the great thing about being a writer is you dont actually have to get right in the middle of things; you can reconstruct. But photographers, they have to be there. So he gave me his camera and he went home. Im not a really great photographer, but they cornered what they thought were a group of poachers at the top of this knoll and they all had their weapons out and theyre going to rush this hill. Ordinarily, I would stay right here behind this rock and ask them all about it when they were done, but now Ive got a camera; Ive got to go to get pictures! So I ran up the hill with these guys knowing there were known poachers. I know Im not an abject coward because I did go.

WBM Is there a favorite character out there, person, small or large, real or fiction, that sticks in your head?

MB In my own work theres just so many. I just find people to be endlessly fascinating. Joey Coyle has long been a favorite character of mine. He was the unemployed longshoreman that found a million dollars in a sack lying by the side of the road that had fallen off the back of an armored car. I wrote a book called "Finders Keepers" about it. This guy did everything wrong; if you find a million dollars and you want to keep it, dont tell anybody. Joey told everybody. He just could not contain himself. To me, he was hilarious, but also a tragic character so it was very interesting.

Randall Cunningham is one of my favorite characters of all time the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles because he was such a complete dimwit. When youre in his position people are always trying to get you to talk, and Randall loved to talk, but he never thought. He would just go on and on and on, and he would very frequently say one thing and then contradict himself in the same sentence. It would be a long involved sentence.

Say you want to ask Randall a simple question like, "Does your knee still hurt?" You could come away from your interview with Randall with, "Yes, my knee is crippling. Im crippled with pain," and, "No, it feels 100 percent," all in the course of the same conversation because Randall was just sort of free associating. If you ever read my book "Bringing the Heat," I try to capture Randall, because I interviewed him many times, and I have recordings of Randall going on and on.

My description of Randalls wedding in that book, he ultimately said, "The one thing that you can say about my wedding is that it was very tasteful," with the most over-the-top extravaganza in the history of Las Vegas, complete with smoke that his wife emerged from. It was just the most ridiculously over-the-top wedding. Randall ends up saying that he was convinced that it was really tasteful. I love em. You cant invent characters like these."

WBM Who are you reading now?

MB Ive kind of rediscovered John Updike. I read years ago the Rabbit books when they came out, loved them. The Library of America published all four Rabbit novels in one big fat book. I decided, I guess two summers ago, that I was going to read that. It was so much better the second time through. My appreciation for Updikes skill just went way up.

The other thing that was so fascinating about those books is that he wrote them in 10-year intervals. He would pick up the story of Rabbit Angstrom, the main character 10 years later. The first book is in his 20s; the second book is Rabbit in his 40s, and the next book is Rabbit in his 50s, and then his 60s, and in the last book he dies. So you would see his progression as a writer but also the life of his character picked up in 10-year intervals. I think its one of the greatest accomplishments in American literature. I love that. I also love David Foster Wallaces nonfiction.


Extended, unpublished interview

WBM Its been said that you pursue stories with potential. What inspires you and what moves you from topic to topic?

MB I often talk about this with my students. I tell them, if you want to be a journalist, you have to have a professional curiosity. Everyones curious about things, and everyone goes through everyday things they either hear or see in their own life, or what they read or hear, and it raises questions in their minds. Most people dont get paid to answer those questions. As a young reporter writing often, I had a list in my head. I had a good store of things I was ready to go look at. Ive never been at a loss, and I know reporters, even some really good ones, who cant, or need to be given assignments or who cant seem to generate stories on their own. Ive never had that problem.

WBM Do you have a certain criteria for which articles you choose to pitch to publishers?

MB I have relationships now with Vanity Fair and The Atlantic and editors who I work with regularly. Well sit down once or twice a year over dinner or lunch, kick around ideas, and I always come to sessions with stuff that I want to do, and they have stuff sometimes that they want to do. Sometimes I grab one of their ideas; sometimes they grab one of mine. Years ago, if it was a story I really wanted to work on, I would look for a venue that would accommodate that. With me its always been primarily story driven. If I have a story that I really want to do, I look for a way of doing that. And often that means where it might end up.

WBM How do you remain objective when you have a strong emotion for a subject?

MB Im not terrifically emotional about my work. I do make a very sincere effort to understand the people Im writing about. I think that takes a kind of deliberate approach, but I find it really interesting as an intellectual challenge to understand why this person thinks the way they do, and I try to enter into their way of looking at the world. If you can understand some of the roots of a persons thinking, particularly where theres a conflict involved, you frequently end up with two people who are in a harsh conflict with one another where theres not a simple answer that one is right and the other is wrong Sometimes problems arise when you genuinely like someone that youre writing about, but you know theyre not going to necessarily like what you write in the story, so you try to negotiate those issues as honestly as you can.

WBM How about when youre really sympathetic to that persons cause or if you admire them a great deal. How do you differentiate?

MB I think what you do is you seek out people who are critical of them, who dont agree with them, and really try to understand things from that point of view. That helps to sharpen your own perspective. It doesnt necessarily mean they end up changing my mind, but I do think that a story, if its too obviously enamored of a character, reduces the value of the story, and its not as believable to the reader. Its not rich enough, so you try to challenge that As a result of all the work Ive done, I am not an overtly opinionated person. Its because so often in my life when Ive had to explore issues or conflicts or people, you get to a level of complexity or understanding where you realize that there is no easy answer to these problems that theres a real compelling reason why people are at odds and its not always easy to choose whos right and whos wrong.

WBM How did you know when your story is done?

MB I know when a story is done when I feel like Ive arrived at the final understanding of it. Thats what I work towards. I often begin stories ignorant of the subject matter, and once you start working on something you learn a little bit and it raises more questions. As a newspaper reporter, I remember the frustration of having to write stories when I knew I didnt fully understand what was going on. The advantage there is that in a newspaper you can keep coming back if its a developing story, and eventually you pull it all together, but more often than that you just dont have a chance to do that. Im lucky, at this point in my life I can work on a story until I feel like I get it.

WBM Did you ever have trouble with the writing itself when you were starting out, in terms of knowing when to stop, or wanting to go back and revise it over and over?

MB Sure, I think even though those stories had no pressure, I would write them and then I would, until this day, read a story and then go, "I should have done this differently." Im always thinking of ways I can do things better, but you learn. At some point your editor wrestles it from your hands.

WBM How do you tailor your interview to the person youre talking to? Is there a different style that you go about or a different approach you take when youre talking to other people?

MB Pretty much the same approach. I find that most people are really dying to tell their stories. Its very rare that you encounter someone who is uncomfortable or reticent. If they are, theres usually a reason why and you can try to figure out what that is to put them at ease and get them to talk. I think the art of interviewing someone is to make sure that it is more of a conversation than an interrogation. A mistake that a lot of young reporters make is that they draw up a list of questions, and that was obviously an issue with me when I went to interview the President because I did have a list of questions, but then they just adhere to it like a script, and I think thats a mistake because youre going to learn things if youre listening that should prompt questions. An interview should be free enough that it flows like a conversation. But if you let it go too far in a conversational direction youll walk out without having addressed some of the critical things that you really needed to ask about. Its a balancing act.

WBM How do you craft your stories and break the difficult details down for a broad readership?

MB Thats a good example of why ignorance is an excellent starting point There are many times when youre talking to someone who is telling you about something fairly complicated and you settle for a general understanding. You cant settle if you have to write a story about it. You have to be rigorous with yourself. You have to say, "I dont really understand this." You literally have to come back a fourth and fifth time and say, "Im sorry, I still dont get it. I still dont understand this," and identify why you dont understand it. Get them to define terms. Thats what I mean about hammering at them until you get it.

 

WBM How do you deal with a meeting youre not permitted to attend, or somewhere that youre not welcome or its off limits, how do you get a source to give you information?

MB My theory is that there is no way you can keep it a secret if two people know it. And if five people know it, forget about it.

Everyone has a different idea of what needs to be protected. So somebody might feel like, well Im not going to tell them anything about this but I feel confident telling them about these things. Then the next person thinks, Im not going to tell them about this but Ill tell them about these things. Those things might be what the other person wasnt going to tell you.

Its fun.

 


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