Isabel Wilkerson spent most of her journalism career at The New York Times where, as Chicago bureau chief, she won the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the midwestern floods of 1993, and for her profile of Nicholas Whitiker, a plucky ten-year-old boy from the rough-and-tumble South Side of Chicago. She’s the author of the best-selling The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), for which she interviewed more than 1,200 people to tell the epic story of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the urban North and West. It won a slew of awards, including the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-Fiction, the 2011 Hillman Book Prize, the Heartland Prize for Non-fiction, and the Lukas Prize for History, and was cited as one of the best books of the year by some twenty-five publications, including the Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post. Wilkerson is director of the narrative nonfiction program at Boston University. Known for her literary style, the soft-spoken Wilkerson becomes animated when talking about reporting. “The methodology is an extension of who I am,” she says, likening that methodology to a mix of ethnography, anthropology, sociology, and journalism. Pamela Newkirk interviewed Wilkerson in New York City in April 2011.
What Would I Do?
I tend to be quiet, introverted, the one sitting on the sidelines watching. It gives you a chance to analyze from afar. At a certain point in my life I wanted to be a playwright or an architect. An architect thinks about structure; assesses the contours of the land, the pilings. A playwright thinks how this is going to look, sound, and feel on stage. My father was a civil engineer. It’s how I think. I’m taking in the scene. Most of my work is with regular people. I’m extremely happy talking to regular people. The intimacy that I describe requires time and a kind of feeling that the two of you are in a bubble, a rare moment to share something important in this person’s life that’s going out to a larger world. When we are reporting, the definition of news when it comes to an individual is an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance or an extraordinary person in an ordinary circumstance.
I’m entering people’s lives so I have to give thought to how to enter their world with gratitude for what they’re giving, and also a sense of humility because they don’t have to talk and it’s often difficult to talk about and recognize the dignity of who they happen to be. I feel it’s my duty then when I’m talking to people who are not famous, not celebrities, to recognize the responsibility that comes with that, and the privilege that is being afforded me about their willingness to open their hearts and souls to me for the greater good.
That does not mean that you don’t present the fullness of their life stories, the triumphs and the trials. They’re not portrayed as perfect. That’s what allows people to see themselves in the people that I talk to. And they feel a connection. This is the kind of reporting I consider my calling: anthropology, ethnography, and a search for human understanding.
The joy is being able to see another person’s experience from their perspective—being able to truly understand what it’s like to be another person. Making these discoveries is like experiencing what feels like anthropology and archeology of the heart and spirit. Most of my work involves crisis or disaster, whether it’s the flood or hurricane or the migration of millions of people: an individual at the juncture of some challenge that often they did not seek. I’m the person who comes in to convey that to a larger audience. The joy is to find that individual who will represent something larger than themselves and be open to sharing their experience with the world. It’s hard work.
You Can’t Recreate the Field
In every situation there’s a way to carve out a little bit more time to go a little bit deeper than you otherwise would. First of all, you don’t start out doing this kind of work. For me it was a matter of inserting a little bit more into even my daily news stories, some element of narrative that would bring more of a human element, some window into something potentially larger, more emotion that would have the reader connect to what it was to be in this place—whether a crime scene or a flower show. Sometimes these things would make it, sometimes they would be cut. There are opportunities in every story, if we are open to it, to introduce the elements. Over time, editors begin to recognize this in the reporter. There will be opportunities and whenever you get one, take it and run with it, which is what I did with the Nicholas story. We did not have forever. Given how in-depth the pieces were, we did not have huge amounts of time. A couple of months searching for the person, getting in that person’s world. Anthropologists take years and years. We’re forced to get a whole lot done in less time. Ultimately, I put more time in the front end for the reporting and spend less time on the writing. You can’t recreate the field again. It’s a matter of how you apportion the time you have. I have a theory that it’s about four to one, or five to one, reporting to writing. If you’ve done the work in the field, the writing comes easier. We’re talking increments of time. If you have more time to feel open, to trust, then it will yield results in the final piece that you cannot manufacture. Sometimes you literally can’t go back. The homeless are gone.
Time is a relative thing. It might mean taking a day rather than half an hour; a couple of months when ideally you would have taken a week. It means making the choice, taking the risk, to spend more time with an individual. It means finding the right individual who has insight. Who is the person the reader will be able to identify with? They’re not perfect. They’re candid about their trials and their triumphs. The reader has to say: I know people like this. What would you have done if you had been in this circumstance? What would you have done after Hurricane Katrina, or the tsunami, or the Haiti earthquake? That’s how people learn.
It was during the time of a lot of drive-by shootings, and this was an attempt to go beyond the numbers. They brought together ten reporters. Each would have a topic on what it was like to be a child. Each reporter had to come up with a subject. I came up with ten things—children at risk, gangs, sexuality. Family was the tenth idea, and that was my assignment. It’s everything, so where do you begin? It could be an extreme case or something so common that teaches us nothing. I had to first figure out what I was looking for: a child still dependent on a family; not a teenager; between nine and twelve. Fourth graders were perfect. Not an only child; I wanted supporting characters. I also wanted someone in the middle—not the gang-banger, not the valedictorian, more universal. You learn over time how to read people. I wasn’t looking for a particular race.
I went to GED classes. I wanted movement. If you want someone fully out [of the situation], they may be looking backward. So I’m looking at someone on the cusp; trying to get out of where they are. That would give momentum.
I found a training program for nurses’ assistants. They were giving out travel vouchers and there was a big turnout. I said I wanted someone who had a child age nine to twelve. I asked for names, fields, and ages of their children. Nicholas’s mother wasn’t there when I made the announcement. The sheet was going around but she came in late. She sounded great on the phone. The first thing I did was ask what she did and what was she doing tomorrow. She said she was doing laundry. I went with her. I went to the laundromat and helped her fold socks. If you try to get everything you need, you won’t. It’s a learning process for them and for you. You learn their world and you learn what they do. It’s very much like a courtship.
I was the last person on the reporting team to find someone. Nicholas was the youngest. Extra care had to be taken. I had to make sure I was on good terms with everyone involved. If it’s a shorter deadline I still interview as many people. The vast majority never make it into the story. This is my process. The methodology is an extension of who I am.
I came into contact with a hundred or so families to find Nicholas. I narrowed it down to fifteen. When you interview all those people, you’re studying the thing you are going to write about. You’ll have more context. You can appreciate it all the more. The bar is very high for what makes a regular person newsworthy. Access, their story, chemistry, all of those things have to come together. Access is the main challenge—being able to spend the time.
As I was working on Nicholas’s story I felt as if what I needed to do wasn’t about journalistic techniques. I read Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes [by Robert Emerson, Rachel Fretz, and Linda Shaw]. It’s like a survey of philosophy and field notes. A series of interactions. I didn’t consider them interviews. I try to blend into their world and make it comfortable for them. It requires patience. Over time, it works.
It’s humbling to realize how much you learn when you spend the time. It’s a relationship. That’s the first date. They’re assessing you as you’re assessing them. You have so many layers. I would go see them every morning. We would go to school together. It would be two below in the morning. One morning the kids were very late coming down from the apartment. I went up there and the mother got an aerosol can of religious oil and started spraying the kids. They didn’t have any reaction. It was clearly something she did all the time. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what was going on. No one ever said anything. Afterward I mentioned in an almost casual way—“I noticed that, and is that something you do often and what’s the goal?” And it was one of the things she did to protect them. It couldn’t in the literal sense, but she believed it would protect them, and it’s a powerful scene in the story. It gives readers insight into the lengths to which an inner-city mother felt she needed to go to protect her children from a violent world. That’s an example of the humanity. What do people do when they’re in violent circumstances, when gang activity is a regular part of their lives? This is one of the things she did. It was not the lead of my story. It was well into the piece. The reader was not ready to be exposed to something like that right up front. They may say, “That’s a bizarre thing.” They’re not ready to absorb the magnitude, the show of love and protectiveness that was coming from that mother. That’s what I mean about the humanity. They needed to be seen like anyone else. You have to first understand the world that they’re in. I opened up with a universal experience; the universal fear of every parent. Bringing the reader and protagonist together in a shared humanity, and then over the course of the narrative they can be exposed to additional things that the mother feels compelled to do because the experience is so extraordinary. I wanted readers to really understand what it was like to be a child in tough situations in the city.
When I won the Pulitzer, I heard from lots of different people, but it meant so much to me to hear from some of the people I had written about. The principal at Nicholas’s school sent flowers and telegrams. But it’s not about me. The methodology works so the people are not being portrayed as perfect. It’s a full story, meaning there’s a humanity—getting that balance right is a real challenge. They’re human beings in a tough situation. There’s an imperative to try to show the fullness; otherwise people are not going to feel the connection.
Following the People
During the floods of 1993 I was in Hardin, Missouri, a small town that was flooded so badly that the cemetery was washed away. There were so many places to write the story of this flood, so many places to go, but I ended up choosing to go to this town. The floodwaters washed away the cemetery so the people were grieving all over again. They had grieved already for their mothers, their fathers; they were re-experiencing it. They were emotionally dislocated by it. I remember talking to one woman and I said, “Where did you live?”, and she couldn’t remember her own address. She began looking at her bag to find something that had her address, a bill, a letter. She was teary-eyed and glazed in her facial expressions. It was stunning to me what you’re exposed to. We were in the middle of trying to arrange to talk. She couldn’t tell me where she lived. That became its own story.
By the time I got there the town’s story had gone on the wires. It could have been a brief, but something about it drew me. The people said the AP had already been there. I decided to stay. I went to church that day. I had not expected how traumatized they were. They actually had set up an intake center at the armory for loved ones to report relatives whose remains were believed missing from the cemetery. They had a bulletin board. It was not what you’d expect. People wanted to see for themselves. They were concerned about a particular family member. This was a story about the survivors. The people were so sweet, small-town people, humble people. I wrote on deadline. I spoke to thirty people in three or four days.
The goal is to find a portal for the story. Whose eyes? The coroner who was under a lot of pressure; a businessman who was anxious and heartsick because he had a father and a stillborn son in the cemetery. I spent time with this man who was determined to find his stillborn son, whose casket he feared had been taken by the floodwaters. I was following the people. He was friends with the coroner. When we got to the cemetery, the coroner said, “I’m not supposed to let anyone in.” But seeing how distraught the man who had lost his son was, he let the two of us in. The businessman looked at the headstones, telling stories about the people. He went to the place where his family was buried. His son wasn’t there. The goal is to convey that to the reader. Tolstoy has a definition for art: the transfer of emotion from one person to another.
Seeing the Whole Human Being
Coming off of fifteen years of researching and writing the book, the things that people told me were things they had not told their own grandchildren. I was so grateful to be in a position to receive this gift they were giving, not just to me but to the world. There is a chemistry that has to occur in any interaction. I think it’s empathy. We use empathy. It’s not pity. It’s a way of seeing them as whole human beings and an attempt to understand what it means to be them in this circumstance. By listening, which is very hard to do—it’s hard to keep yourself from interjecting, to move them more quickly through the story.
Giving them the space to talk is a big part of it. It takes time to build up the sense of trust and courage. It is a really difficult thing to do. I don’t think people realize how difficult it is. We don’t have forever to get it in a linear fashion that we can just plop into a story. Getting it right is really difficult.
It’s a slow-moving reporting. It means being in the moment, with the individual—they cannot be rushed. Giving them time to enunciate things they never told anyone before: “I can’t believe I’m saying this to you.” We should stop and take note of how huge that may be for the person in front of us. It’s our job to make them feel safe to talk about difficult things, to recount these things for the greater good.
In the book, one of the most recent examples is Dr. Robert Joseph Foster, who made a treacherous drive across the mountains from Louisiana to California. He faced many experiences which were heartbreaking. He had not told his children anything. They knew he was from Monroe, Louisiana. That was about all they knew. He had not told them how difficult life had been and nothing about the drive, which was a seminal passage in the book. People who had read the book the first few months it was out, they knew more about these people than their own children knew. It was too painful. They had suppressed it from their memories and identities. They didn’t want to burden their children. They wanted their children to start fresh.
I try to connect with every individual I’m interviewing. I have experiences when I so enjoy talking to a person, like Dr. Foster out of LA. I love talking to him. He was brilliant, for one thing. He had ways of looking at the world where you were always learning.
Being able to sit at the knee of a person as they’re sharing this allows the reporter to be a student and teacher, by sharing what they have told you with the wider world. Foster was a character. I sat down to talk to him the first time and he said, “I love to talk and I’m my favorite subject.” The people in this book are extraordinary human beings. They had been through things and lived to tell it with forethought and consideration, prayer and deliberation, and were assessing me in their own way. So I just loved talking to them. It was like going to school, but you’re majoring in this individual.