García Márquez ended up leaving law school and working for a series of Colombian newspapers. He spent most of his early career writing movie reviews, human-interest stories, and a daily, unsigned column he shared with other reporters that resembled The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town”—a common feature of South American newspapers. Yet he aspired to cover more substantive issues, including politics and government corruption, and to pursue investigative projects.
When he was first hired at El Espectador, García Márquez hoped to impress an editor by the name of Jose Salgar. “It seems to me that Salgar had his eye on me to be a reporter,” he later recounted in his autobiography, “while the others had relegated me to films, editorials, and cultural matters because I had always been designated a short-story writer. But my dream was to be a reporter . . . and I knew that Salgar was the best teacher.” The editor taught him to how to communicate his ideas clearly and pare down his florid prose. Every time Salgar read one of García Márquez’s stories, he made “the strenuous gesture of forcing a cork out of a bottle and said, ‘Wring the neck of the swan.’ ”
Soon, García Márquez was assigned the kinds of projects he had dreamed of pursuing. He wrote numerous in-depth stories, including pieces about the corruption surrounding the construction of a port on the Caribbean coast, the neglect of war veterans by the government, and landslides that killed dozens of people in a slum neighborhood. He specialized in what Latin American newspapers called the refrito (“refried”): a detailed reconstruction of a dramatic news event, published weeks or months later with élan and great narrative skill. And then something new landed on his desk: the Velasco series.
After Luis Alejandro Velasco washed ashore, he was lionized by the press, decorated by the Colombian president, and became a national hero. García Márquez thought it was absurd the way the government held up Velasco as an example of patriotic morality. What’s more, he believed the sailor had sold out in a most unseemly manner—advertising the brand of watch he wore at sea (because it had not stopped) and the shoes on his feet (because they were too sturdy for him to tear apart and eat during his ordeal).
A month after his rescue, Velasco walked into El Espectador’s newsroom and offered the exclusive rights to his story. He had already told his tale to innumerable reporters as well as government officials, and the staff doubted he had anything new to add to the record. “We sent him away,” García Márquez recalls in his autobiography. “But on a hunch, [Salgar] caught up with him on the stairway, accepted the deal, and placed him in my hands. It was as if he had given me a time bomb.”
At first, though, García Márquez declined the assignment. He believed the story was not only a “dead fish,” as he later wrote, but “a rotten one”—which is to say, both dated and dubious. Salgar persisted. “I informed him,” García Márquez recounts, “that I would write the article out of obedience as his employee but would not put my name to it. Without having thought about it first, this was a fortuitous but on-target determination regarding the story, for it obliged me to tell it in the first-person voice of the protagonist.”
García Márquez proved the newspaper adage that there can’t be great writing without great reporting. Over the course of twenty consecutive days, he interviewed Velasco for six hours each day. To make sure his subject was telling the truth, he frequently interjected trick questions, hoping to expose any contradictions in Velasco’s tale. “I sincerely believe that interviewing is a kind of fictional genre and that it must be regarded in this light,” García Márquez wrote after his interviews with the sailor. He added:
The majority of journalists let the tape recorder do the work, and they think that they are respecting the wishes of the person they are interviewing by retranscribing word for word what he says. They do not realize that this work method is really quite disrespectful: whenever someone speaks, he hesitates, goes off on tangents, does not finish his sentences, and he makes trifling remarks. For me the tape recorder must only be used to record material that the journalist will decide to use later on, that he will interpret and will choose to present in his own way. In this sense it is possible to interview someone in the same way that you write a novel or poetry.