Q&A: New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv on making well-worn topics fresh

Photo courtesy of Rachel Aviv.

The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv is a master of turning heavily covered topics into breathtaking narrative storytelling, finding cases and channeling characters that show the human side of abstract tragedies.

This year alone, Aviv has delivered a series of extraordinary stories. She wrote about migrant children in Sweden who fell mysteriously unconscious after they learned their families were being expelled from the country. She covered people in Nebraska who believed they were guilty of a crime they didn’t commit. And most recently, she profiled a Muslim former NYPD officer who rose swiftly through the ranks, then fell back down in a climate of paranoia and Islamophobia.

Aviv talked with CJR about how she finds new angles on old topics, how she chooses compelling characters, and how she makes unbelievable stories believable. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

You write about topics that are pretty well-trodden. How do you keep them fresh?

I didn’t really even realize the topics I was writing about were well-trodden. I guess they never felt that way to me. For instance, the piece that I wrote about refugees—the seed of that piece was not the thought of wanting to write about refugees; it was the thought of wanting to write about culture-bound syndrome, the way symptoms of illnesses manifest differently depending on the culture. It’s a topic I’d been following for maybe a year. I subscribed to a bioethics newsletter, and there was an entry about this mysterious syndrome in Sweden. So maybe because I came to it from that angle, I didn’t worry that it would be just another story about child refugees.

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I read the Sweden piece, and your article on the people in Nebraska who were convinced they were guilty of a crime they didn’t commit. All the way through I was thinking, this doesn’t feel real. How do you find these stories? And how, when you’ve found them, do you make them believable for people?

I get excited when I’m reading a story and I genuinely don’t understand how something happened. I think I’m drawn to stories where I feel amazed and bewildered by the way people behave, and the way the human mind works. [Communicating it to the reader] feels like the easier part. You want to tell a story by taking the reader step by step through the process in the same way that, if these things are happening to you, you can’t do anything but believe that it’s true, because it unfolds gradually. I think if you can mirror that process of discovery—especially if you get inside the head or the perspective of one particular person within that story—then you can describe it from that person’s perspective.

 

How important is finding compelling central characters to your work?

There was a time when I knew I wanted to write about domestic workers, and I was particularly interested in home-health aides and how they care for the elderly. So I interviewed maybe 15 domestic workers who were taking care of the elderly, and at the very end of that process I interviewed a woman who takes care of little babies, who’s a nanny. Immediately there was something about her, the way she described herself and her work, that I found so compelling I couldn’t get it out of mind. I realized in that case that I would rather follow her: Whatever issues her story raises and whatever questions her particular life story raises, I’m going to let her take me there, as opposed to clinging to the subject I’d originally wanted to write about.

 

Reporters sometimes go through a lot of phone calls before they can find someone who’s willing to talk. When you work for The New Yorker, is it a lot easier to find these characters?

In some ways it gets a lot easier. With people who have this sort of social-professional status it becomes easier. But for someone like a domestic worker, I don’t think it makes any difference. I think it’s still about having a trusting relationship, and whether I had been a student in a journalism program or writing for The New Yorker I don’t know if the access would have been that much different. The people I was writing about in that story didn’t know what The New Yorker was and didn’t really care. It was more about whether they trusted me.

 

How did you find Bobby Hadid, the police officer from your most recent piece?

That was more accidental. Right after Trump won, I was trying to think about what the experience was like for Muslim New Yorkers who had these really traumatic memories of the NYPD surveilling them in the post-9/11 years. Because Trump was talking about a Muslim registry, I imagined, and I heard from people, that they were suddenly afraid they would be drawn back into that situation.

A friend put me in touch with a woman whose husband was Algerian, and she was talking to me about how he had been questioned by the NYPD. I think she might have mentioned the word “debriefing,” that he’d been “debriefed” by the NYPD. So I was Googling “Algerian, debrief, NYPD” and I came across a New York Times article about a citywide debriefing team, and it had a paragraph that told what had happened to the career of Bobby Hadid. It just didn’t make sense to me. It said that he was this well-respected sergeant, and that his career had been derailed because of an allegation he’d had an affair. It sounded like such a strange sequence of events that there had to be something behind it. So I started researching him, and I saw that he had filed a case against the city.

 

You say the theme was sparked by Trump. But he doesn’t loom over the story. Was that a conscious decision, to take him out and let the narrative speak for itself?

I think there’s one sentence about Trump empowering certain stereotypes about Muslims. I don’t think it was a conscious choice because it would be artificial to bring Trump into a story he’s not part of. But it was on my mind: What is it like for Muslims who had gone through this time of suspicion following 9/11, that abated to some degree, and who are now maybe thrown back into those same conditions?

 

Is it emotionally taxing writing about the topics you write about?

Writing about this kind of stuff is emotional, and I do worry sometimes. I think I finally came up with a story idea recently that I don’t know if I want to write. I do think it’s a good and important story, but I find it so devastating that I almost feel nauseous every time I think about it. So I don’t know if I should or will pursue it.

 

Do you ever worry that you’ve messed a story up or got something horribly wrong?

At The New Yorker I feel really lucky. There’s a trial-run experience of the piece being published because the fact-checking department basically calls everyone who you talk to or even reference and tells them how they’ll be quoted. So I get very nervous to hear back from the fact-checkers about what they’ve been finding. But once the piece is printed I feel more secure.

 

How did you end up at The New Yorker?

I graduated from Brown in 2004, and I started working at The Village Voice after that as an intern. I was freelancing for a few years, and I got a fellowship with the Rosalynn Carter Center. The goal of the fellowship was to reduce the stigma of mental illness. I think that whole year I was just reading books about psychiatry and psychology and thinking about how you write a story that achieves a particular goal. I found that process really interesting: thinking about what the purpose of the writing I’m producing is.

In my early twenties I was like, “the point of writing is to tell a good story.” I think it was an important moment when I realized that I don’t want to tell stories just to tell stories, that I want there to be some motivating impulse behind it as well. I think I can spin really easily into the question of, “What’s the point of what I’m doing?” Or, “What’s the point of anything?” So to know that I’m digging into a particular person’s life and rehashing these very granular details about that life… I don’t know that I feel comfortable doing that unless I feel there’s some larger reason, that it intersects with some question of social relevance.

 

Does writing about mental health give you that kind of pretext?

I think it does. There’s just so much bad writing about people who are mentally ill, and it’s easy to see them as foreign and crazy. I think any time you write about a person in a way that makes the reader relate really easily to them—a person who would ordinarily be dismissed as too foreign to relate to—I think that feels worthwhile.

 

You write about criminal justice frequently, particularly miscarriages of justice. Do you find there’s a natural overlap between mental health and criminal justice, and that’s how you find your way in?

It’s interesting to see the way people get categorized and stuck in institutions, the way that we have social theories that we think explain human behavior. It’s interesting to see a particular error believed in one sociologist’s theories about what causes crime, and then an entire county’s criminal justice system gets arranged around that theory. I find it interesting to look at the way individuals intersect with these larger institutions that are supposed to protect them or discipline them, because it seems like those larger institutions often misunderstand what is driving the person they’re supposed to protect.

 

Your New Yorker bio say you taught “narrative medicine.” What is that?

A lot of medical schools have these classes where medical students are taught either to read literature or to write stories. The idea is that if doctors become readers and writers they’ll somehow become more humane and observant and attentive to human details.

 

Which brings me back to the Sweden story. What was it like reporting it? It was so extraordinary.

I also didn’t quite believe that it was real. So I contacted a number of scholars and scientists who had looked at the issue, and then after talking to them I realized it was, in fact, real. I went to Sweden for 10 days. There were a couple of human rights advocates who helped facilitate my conversations with people who either had or had had this illness.

Before I went there I didn’t quite grasp what an alarming condition it was. I had been told that when you see a child with that illness it sort of sucks the air out of the room. That sounds like a cliche when someone says it over the phone. But I really did have a physical experience in the room with those children. People had been dismissing their condition as not real, and I understood why it would be easy to dismiss it if you hadn’t actually been in a room with a child like that.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist and former CJR Delacorte fellow. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.