For García Márquez, this was a revelation about the possibilities of journalism. As he wrote in his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, which appeared in English in 2003:

Elvira did not write the dialogue she had foreseen, based on the diva’s responses, but instead wrote an article about her difficulties with Berta Singerman. She took advantage of the providential intervention of the husband and turned him into the real protagonist of the meeting . . . . The sangfroid and ingenuity with which Elvira . . . used Singerman’s foolishness to reveal her true personality set me to thinking for the first time about the possibilities of journalism, not as a primary source of information but as much more: a literary genre. Before many years passed I would prove this in my own flesh, until I came to believe, as I believe today more than ever, that the novel and journalism are children of the same mother . . . . Elvira’s article made me aware of the reporter I carried sleeping in my heart and I resolved to wake him. I began to read newspapers in a different way.

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.”

Miles Corwin , a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, teaches literary journalism at the University of California, Irvine. His novel, Kind of Blue, will be released in November.