Kathryn Joyce’s writing and reporting bring light to issues that might at first glance seem highly personal — religion, adoption, abortion, gender roles — but upon examination turn out to have important implications for national policy. Her latest book, The Child Catchers, is a clear-eyed, highly informative, and compassionate investigation of adoption in the US and abroad.
Kathryn took time out from pressing deadlines to answer our five questions (plus bonus). In this interview, you’ll learn:
- How a magazine article can generate a book project.
- How to recognize themes in your research.
- How online communities can enrich your reporting.
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Child Catchers?
Kathryn: I came to this book in two ways. In part, The Child Catchers evolved out of work on my first book, Quiverfull, which was about a conservative Christian movement that advocates forgoing contraception to have as many children as God gives a family. While I was reporting that book, I started noticing that these already-large families were beginning to adopt as well, for reasons related to their faith. That gave me a first glimpse into one tiny corner of the Christian adoption movement, which I would come to realize was much larger and far more mainstream than just this relatively small subculture.
But I think my emotional investment into this subject came more from the first interviews I conducted with first/natural/birthmothers—parents who felt they’d been coerced into relinquishing their babies for adoption. I started speaking with a few such mothers in 2008 while reporting an article for The Nation on how crisis pregnancy centers were involved in adoption, but soon found that more women were getting in touch with me, hoping to share their stories, than I had time to interview, and their stories were among the most painful and upsetting I’d ever heard. I began to read the work of other writers who’d covered past abuses in adoption, and started realizing this was a huge area of concern for anyone who cares about reproductive justice and women’s and children’s rights. I think those stories are what gave me lasting motivation to keep working on the project for four years.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Kathryn: In the way that one story often leads to another, after I’d begun looking at domestic adoption, I began to hear back from more and more people, suggesting I look into other issues within adoption. I started to think this project might be more than an article, but a book.
I started to broaden my focus to look at international adoption, and was reading some of the great work done by other journalists, writers and academics, many of them adoptees, biological or adoptive parents. I initially thought that I would only look at a couple of stories of international adoption, but then in early 2010, as I was pitching the book to publishers, the devastating earthquake happened in Haiti, and I felt that I was watching the dynamics I’d been reading about unfold before my eyes. There was an overwhelming humanitarian tragedy that affected nearly everyone in that country, but in much of the media coverage, it was being turned into an adoption narrative centered around the hopes and fears of U.S. parents. I knew then that this was a much larger story than I’d originally had in mind, and while I couldn’t undertake a definitive history of adoption, I had to find a way to report stories that illustrated the issues I was seeing.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Kathryn: I think when working on a big, long project like a book, I’ve had the luxury of letting research sort itself, in a way, into its natural themes. I tend to cast a wide net when I start reporting, reading widely and doing as many interviews as I can. When I hear the same stories repeated numerous times from different sources, they tend to emerge as general themes I want to focus on. Often those turned into chapters — about defrauded birthparents in Ethiopia, and U.S. adoptive parents told lies about the children they spent years trying to adopt; about Liberian children who were bounced from one family to another, and sometimes out of the country; or about South Korean adoptees growing up into adults who challenged the ethics of the system through which they were adopted — though not always. With this book I took a lot of time playing with the structure, and moving things around. My original plans looked a lot different from the final result.
On a practical level, the notes and interviews I ended up having filled nearly four file drawers, and that’s a lot of material to organize. I still rely a lot on having my interviews and research in hard copy form. It’s impractical in some ways, but it allowed me to physically mark research up, shuffle it around as I thought about structure, and set things to the side as I was working through my first draft. I know there are good software programs that other writers swear by, and I may try one for on my next big project. But I imagine I’ll also have a file cabinet full of paper notes as a backup.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Kathryn: Honestly, for the first three-and-a-half years I was working on the book, most days started with getting ready for my day job. But on nights and weekends, I was often applying for grants and pitching articles that would give me an opportunity to report out parts of the book I wouldn’t have been able to afford to cover on my own. I ultimately left my full-time job in order to give as much attention to writing the book as I had in reporting it.
Now that I’m just freelancing, a typical day often consists of a mix of research, reading, tracking down sources, conducting interviews, writing, editing, pitching and communicating with editors, and sometimes talking with other journalists with questions I or they have about a subject. I often have a few stories in different stages at once, so I may be writing for part of the day, and doing interviews and pitching editors later on. For me, early mornings, before emails start to arrive, tend to be best for writing, but I’m not always as good as I should be at keeping myself offline.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Kathryn: Though my father is appalled by the thought that people need this sort of deterrent, I found the internet-blocking program “Freedom” to be a big help in forcing me to start writing every day. Even a short period of enforced offline time — as little as 30 or 60 minutes — can be enough to help me switch modes from multi-tasking emails and social media, etc., to being focused on the work in front of me.
Lastly, this isn’t quite a tool, but in terms of reporting, I find one thing that isn’t often well-utilized is simply finding out where online people are talking about your subject, and following those conversations. The internet is such an incredibly vast place that there is almost always a community that revolves around the issue you’re reporting on, and often one that’s being overlooked next to other, larger outlets. Read the blogs that the group you’re reporting on read, and follow their discussions. I think the reason so much reporting can come across as out-of-touch is because reporters often aren’t availing themselves of the complex discussions and debates being hashed out in public by the affected communities. It’s indispensable not only for getting a lay of the land, but also for understanding the subtle differences in opinion that are usually part of any community or movement people report on. Understanding that complexity can make for a fuller and truer story.
HDYWT: Your work explores emotionally fraught territory: adoption, abortion, domestic violence. What are the rewards of writing about difficult or painful subjects?
Kathryn: I think the reward is in being able to do work you care about. It’s a difficult time, in a lot of practical ways, to work as a freelance journalist. The money is lousy and there’s no job security. But almost everyone I know who does this sort of work does it because they feel deeply and passionately about the issues they cover, and usually see them as part of larger questions of social justice. I think every journalist I know and admire is driven by the idea that they might be able to make a difference, even if it’s just in getting people to understand more about a subject or a group of people than they did before. That’s certainly what drove me on this book.