How did you write that, Dale Russakoff?

DaleRussakoff_007-300x293-300x293Dale Russakoff gained access to some major players — including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — while researching and writing The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools?, her new book about the recent attempt at radical education reform in Newark, New Jersey. But it may be her empathetic approach to the stories of those affected by reform — the students, teachers, administrators, and families — that makes the book a potential classic of its genre.

Dale brought decades of solid reporting experience to The Prize. I think you’ll find this interview both inspiring and full of practical tips for your own writing.

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Prize?

I recently had taken a buyout from The Washington Post after 28 years as a staff writer and was making my way (shakily) as a freelance writer. I had been interested for several years in the rise of what has become known as the education reform movement — that potent combination of billionaire philanthropists, charter school leaders, social entrepreneurs and politicians in both parties who wanted to upend the status quo of traditional public schools governed by large, usually unionized bureaucracies. I also had a lifelong interest in issues of race and inequality from having grown up in Birmingham, Alabama during the final years of legal segregation and the civil rights movement.

When Mark Zuckerberg, at age 26, announced his $100 million gift to the Newark schools, I was electrified to see this very young billionaire sitting beside a Democratic mayor and a Republican governor on the Oprah show, all of them pledging to transform education for some of the nation’s poorest children. I had spent more than a decade in the New York bureau of the Washington Post and I had written frequently about Newark. The city was compelling to me from the beginning. In many ways, it’s a metaphor for what has happened to cities across America as a result of the collapse of manufacturing, white and middle-class flight to the suburbs, disinvestment. I saw this as an opportunity to learn, in detail, at the ground level, what the education reform movement really meant for schooling in cities like this. I wanted to get as close to the process as I possibly could because this is what had fascinated me in my almost 30 years as a reporter for The Washington Post — tracing the process by which big public policy ideas do or don’t translate into actual changes in people’s lives, and understanding why or why not.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Dale: I began by going to Newark a lot, meeting people who for years had been active in education on various fronts — all stripes of community activists, current and former school board members, clergy, principals, teachers, charter school leaders, the staffs of nonprofits involved in education. But I also sought and ultimately gained access to the people at the very top of the effort — Zuckerberg himself, then-Mayor (of Newark) Cory Booker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his state education commissioner, Chris Cerf, and Newark superintendent Cami Anderson. My goal was to see the effort through the eyes of those crafting and leading it as well as those at the ground level, in the schools and the community, who would experience the changes.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Dale: Initially I created categories as they emerged and filed research related to them in online folders: Education Philanthropy; History of Corruption in the Newark district; Unions; Social Conditions in Newark; History of the Education Reform Movement; Reformers; Anti-Reformers; Common Core.

It soon got wildly out of control, and I sought advice from a good friend from my years at The Post named Rick Atkinson, a prolific and prizewinning book author who is also brilliant at organization. He said his technique was to create separate Word files for each month, and within those, a file for each interview, for notes from that day’s reporting or for any research conducted, with the date in the subject line. So I literally ended up with Word folders for 54 months, and within those, all of the interviews I conducted in those months, all of the notes I took, etc. As I collected documents or reports or made copies of microfiche records from the Newark archives in the public library, I filed them under the day I obtained them. I found that my mind began to remember interviews by the month in which I conducted them. Or I remembered the months of particular events. If I needed a document at the writing stage and I couldn’t remember the month in which I had filed it, I could use the search function and enter a phrase or a key word, which would ultimately lead me to the file I needed.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Dale: Fortunately or unfortunately, I never had a typical day. I spent many, many days in district and charter schools, observing teachers and principals, getting to know students and staff members. I also was allowed to attend many sessions that Cami Anderson, the superintendent, held with her leadership team, and to follow her around at times as she visited schools or met with charter leaders or held training sessions with principals. I often arranged interviews in the afternoon and evenings with parents, teachers, principals, kids. I interviewed executives of the various philanthropies involved in the reform effort — from Mark Zuckerberg’s to those of local Newark philanthropies that contributed some of the matching funds.

And I attended scores of community meetings, rallies, school board meetings, campaign organizing efforts (the reform effort became a huge political issue as time went on). I also attended a lot of events that were not directly related to education but had a bearing on it — such as those in response to the high level of violence in the city. For example, anti-violence rallies were held weekly at the intersection nearest the latest murder, and I went to a number of those and just listened to people talk about how violence was affecting their families and their children.

Once I began writing, I tended to write all day, from morning to night. But I began to feel very isolated from Newark and from the schools. I live only 20 minutes from Newark, so at times I broke away for a visit to a school or an interview in the city, or a school basketball game (see below), just to feel that I remained in touch with the story as it was developing.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Dale: My favorite “tool” is one that I learned at age 25 from my city editor, Bob Johnson, at The Atlanta Journal, the second newspaper I worked for. I was one of a number of young reporters covering the counties that surrounded Atlanta. This was the late 1970s, and these were mostly semi-rural areas that were going suburban very fast. We were filing multiple stories a day from the city halls, the police departments, the zoning boards, all the official places. But Bob told us that we should take at least one afternoon a week to do what he called “missionary work.”

What he meant by this was that we were to put away our notebooks, stop looking for stories for a couple of hours, and go talk to people someplace in our counties that we hadn’t explored, or just check out something that had caught our fancy but that didn’t qualify as “news.” The idea was to experience the county as people who lived there experienced it. This sounded really intriguing to me, and I started doing it, and I immediately began finding some of my best stories this way — when I wasn’t really looking for news, when I had simply followed my instinct to someplace or someone interesting.

I do this now as a matter of course whenever I’m reporting a story, and I did it often over the 4-1/2 years I was researching my book. And again, I found some of the most eye-opening stories in my book this way. I wrote an entire chapter on one kid whose story I learned just by attending the middle school basketball tournament in Newark. I love youth sports — my now-grown sons were both baseball and soccer players and I always was amazed to see what kids do together on teams — so it caught my attention when the basketball team at a K-8 school I was following made it into the city-wide tournament. Everyone at the school, it seemed, caught the excitement, and so I started going to all the games, cheering alongside all the kids, teachers and parents, as I always did at my sons’ games. And this one player was so outstanding that I decided to learn more about him — purely out of curiosity. And his story grew into what may be my favorite chapter in the entire book.

Bonus question: Who do you envision as the perfect audience for The Prize? How did you decide on that audience?

Dale: Teachers — dedicated, committed teachers — were my target audience. Of course I hope that everyone interested in education will read the book and learn from it. But as I reported and wrote The Prize, I was moved most of all by the teachers who give so much of themselves every day to reach students in the face of extraordinary obstacles. I saw so many men and women — some of whom had been teaching for decades — who seemed to have bottomless capacity to teach, inspire, improvise, buck up, whatever it took for that particular child on that particular day. I saw this happening in so-called “failing schools” as well as excellent schools, in both district schools and charter schools. These teachers have the most intimate awareness of the challenges inherent in trying to transform education for America’s poorest children. They know how much is being left out of the very polarized national debate between the reform movement on one side and unions on the other. Every day, they and their students go up against all the forces that brought down Newark and so many of our cities — extreme poverty, violence, family strife. I wanted to write a book that would make them feel that they had been heard.


How did you write that, Ethan Gilsdorf?

EthanGilsdorf_DD_stufff_Mags_LR-e1422901846523Looking over Ethan Gilsdorf‘s list of credits, it’s clear the man has never met a genre of nonfiction he could not master. He’s a frequent instructor at Boston’s GrubStreet and has published hundreds of articles, but today he’ll be answering a few questions about his book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

In this interview, you’ll learn:

  • How newspaper and magazine articles can launch a book.
  • The value of first-hand reporting.
  • Tips for promoting your work.

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks?

fantasy-199x300Ethan: My original idea was to write a memoir about my relationship with my mother, and her life. She had succumbed to a debilitating brain injury when I was 12 and she was 38—the same year I began to play Dungeons & Dragons and get sucked into fantasy worlds. That book never happened, but I began to see way I could explore my fascination with fantasy and gaming through the lens of my own life, as well as the cultural changes that had occurred since I was a nerd back in the 1970s and 1980s. My agent helped me shape the idea as a hybrid memoir, stunt journalism narrative, and pop cultural investigation into various subcultures, such as D&D players, Larpers and video gamers, to Harry Potter, cosplay and Lord of the Rings fan communities. How and why had fantasy and gaming gone so mainstream? What did it all mean? Those were my guiding ideas as I delved into researching and writing Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. In the end, I was able to save one of the chapters from my “mom memoir” project which, seriously revised, became the prologue to FF&GG.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Ethan: In a panic. Seriously, I wish I’d had more of a method to my madness. But here is what happened. To write FF&GGI first began getting assignments from magazines and newspapers for stand-alone articles; a few of these later became chapters in the book. Once I had a book contract in hand and a small advance, I spent a year doing (simultaneously!) book/internet research, field work/interviews, and immersion journalism projects, as well as investigating my own past, which involved talking to family/old friends and analyzing my own personal archives of high school papers, photos, and old D&D paraphernalia.

I wanted each chapter to focus on a different subculture, so I picked a couple dozen ideas: exemplary events to attend, people to shadow and interview, and activities I could participate in — like dressing up in costume and camping with 12,000 medieval reenactors, for example; or spending a few weeks playing the video game World of Warcraft; or hanging out with Tolkien nerds at a convention in the UK for a weekend.

That said, I tried to — and for space reasons, had to — narrow the focus of my investigation to fantasy and gaming only. That meant skipping things like science fiction (my beloved Star Wars!), or superhero comics, and other nerd cultures. I was also limited by budget, which impacted where I could travel. I went on several trips across the nation, one to the UK and to France. I also decide to splurge on a trip to New Zealand to make a pilgrimage to the Lord of the Rings filming locations and Peter Jackson’s movie production facilities. Sadly, I had to ignore a LOT of ideas and leads, and even after my trips and experiences, and hundreds of pages of notes, much great material ended up on cutting room floor.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Ethan: Badly! I am terribly disorganized. I make lists, and jot down notes, and keep many Word docs laden with ideas, links, other stories. I buy books, I go to the library, and I look on Google a lot. I have lots of things scribbled on post-it notes. At times, it can all feel pretty overwhelming. And I definitely think you can research too much. It can get in the way of your own thinking and your own ideas.

I think I do my best research first-hand, with notebook in hand, and camera around my neck (or in my pocket), in the field, taking notes as I’m talking to people, and recording my observation and ideas. I do this while I’m engaged in some experience, such as mountain biking, or trying to sword fight, or wandering around talking to people at a convention. I learned this skill as a travel writer based in Paris for five years. There is no substitute for first-hand reportage.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Ethan: A research day is different from a writing day is different from book promotion day.

A research day usually has me out in the field somewhere, interviewing someone in person (where possible) or talking to them on the phone, or doing some archival work or Googling around the internet. This is a fun process as I get sucked down multiple rabbit holes.

A writing day, especially when I’m on deadline, is more fraught with stress. As a freelance journalist, usually I am trying to knock out some story or column (or at least the first draft of it) in a good solid 4 to 6 hour stretch (in between being seduced by social media). When I wrote Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, I was able to scale back my freelance work and focus more on my book writing. But I had less than a year from signing the contract to my deadline to do all my research and writing, so I had to become more disciplined than I’d ever been as a writer. I thumb-tacked a calendar to the wall in my office, made firm dates for the trips and travel that was needed for about 9 months of researching. I had to crank out 1 to 2 chapter a month, in and around all the travel. I gave myself deadlines, and tried to stick with my plan. And I did, more or less.

Book promotion is a different muscle. I slip into self-promotion mode. Back when Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks was a new book, a book promotion day might have involved contacting organizers of reading series, college professors, bookstores, potential reviewers, groups that might co-sponsor some promotion or event, or trying to write an op-ed and place it with a media outlet. Or I might have been giving a talk at a college or book fair, doing a radio show, or attending a convention and handing out postcards. I tried all kinds of things. I was a tireless self-promoter! Some of my tips can be found in a chapter I contributed to Chuck Sambuchino’s excellent book Create Your Writer Platform: The Key to Building an Audience, Selling More Books, and Finding Success as an Author.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Ethan: I’m a fan of several books, including Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, a terrific book for those looking for big-picture and micro-level writing issues, and for memoir writers, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss by Jessica Handler, and The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts which are both great help for those thinking about writing short or long-length memoir.

On a more practical level, if you’re easily distracted by the internet, I recommend installing these apps on your computer: Freedom and Antisocial are software to block access to the internet or social media only for discreet periods time, so you can increase your own productivity.

Bonus question: Dungeons & Dragons recently turned 40 (How is that possible?). Were you able to use that occasion to generate new publicity for your book?

Ethan: Short answer: yes! Anniversaries are great ways to make your expertise or niche area instantly timely and newsworthy. I wrote probably 10 different stories, op-eds, commentaries, posts and personal essays in 2014 that tied into the 40th anniversary of D&D. Each of these ended with my bio: “Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Boston GlobeBoston Globe MagazineBoston Magazine, Salon, BoingBoing, … etc. You can read more about Ethan at or Twitter @ethanfreak.Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @ethanfreak.” Get your book title and your website and Twitter handle into your boilerplate bio. Which is  what I am doing here. Mwwhahahha!


How did you write that, Adam Parfrey?

As soon as I heard about Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes, I knew I had to get my hands on this book. Big-eye portraits were everywhere when I was a kid — hanging in friends’ homes, advertised in magazines, and peering down from the walls of doctor’s offices, giving them a “sick children welcome here” vibe.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s an example:MargaretKeane-225x300

(Even the kitten has big eyes!)

Citizen Keane is a great read for art historians, mid-century nostalgia buffs, and fans of the Big Con. This book blows the whole big-eye phenomenon sky-high. I reached out to Citizen Keane’s publisher and co-author, Adam Parfrey, for the backstory on how this book came to be. Here’s his reply:

Adam: Citizen Keane was originally published as a cover story I wrote for The San Diego Reader in 1991.

How I got involved with that weekly paper is a story in itself. A couple staffers — one a short Jewish guy, and the other a tall blonde girl — came up from San Diego to visit me one afternoon. I had never met them before, but apparently they enjoyed books I had published through Feral House. We spoke throughout the evening but they were apparently too drunk to drive home, so I invited them to crash at my rented East Hollywood bungalow that I was in the middle of cleaning up and varnishing years-old layers of cat piss. I woke the next morning with the blonde in my bed, which confused me as I assumed she was the short guy’s girlfriend. In any case, they recommended me to publisher Jim Holman.

citizen.keane_I wasn’t aware that Holman was a high-level Catholic who often visited the Vatican and contributed to anti-gay and anti-abortion movements in California. He nevertheless hired me to write features and a column for the paper called “HelL.A.,” my weekly disquisition on weird L.A. individuals and institutions.

When I was underway writing a feature about a strange cult, I ran into notices on telephone poles about a self-published paperback by Walter Keane called “The World of Keane.” I phoned the number on the poster and reached Keane directly, and made plans to interview him for an article. I knew of the man and his supposed art, and owned a two volume hardcover set. One of Walter Keane’s work, of the big eye kids, and the other was about Margaret’s work, mostly of Modigliani-style young women. Walter has a strange way about him, asking me intimate questions about my life and my sexual preferences. I started to wonder what made San Diegans so damn strange.

The more I researched the Keane article, obtaining transcripts of his legal troubles, the story became odd as hell, truly a great potential article. Both Walter and Margaret had been launching lawsuits for over a decade regarding the true painter of the big eye kids. The final lawsuit had just finished in Margaret’s favor by the time I interviewed them. Walter was bitter about the whole thing, and made sure to tell me creepy sex-oriented accusations about Margaret that were no doubt total lies. Margaret was a lovely and agreeable woman who devoted her life to the Jehovah’s Witness faith. By mail she sent me a few signed JW books, and its art seemed Keane-like to me, although she had nothing to do with them. After the nine or ten thousand word Reader article was published, Walter Keane wrote a letter to the editor accusing me of being paid off a million dollars by the Witnesses.

The article got quite a reaction at the time. Hip coffee shops and nightclubs started to put up Keane paintings, and a new lowbrow art magazine, Juxtapoz, reprinted it, and it later appeared in my 1994 book collection called Cult Rapture.  Margaret got an exhibition at an art museum in Laguna Beach. A couple years ago I heard that the screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the ones behind the Ed Wood movie that properly paid credit to the Feral House book, were doing a new film with Tim Burton again, this time about the Keanes.  What do I think of this? I won’t reveal this in print, but at least I could publish a revised, enlarged and illustrated version prior to the film’s release. So happened the book Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes. Author Cletus Nelson assisted me with its research.

I’ve got a busy schedule acquiring, editing and publishing a number of books through the Feral House and Process Media imprints. It’s really a full-time occupation.  The Keane story and other articles or books I’ve written take quite a bit of focus and time…

A big discovery about writing stories is that one should try and call people you’re interested in reporting about. You might get a lot. For example, I found in the phone book a listing for former Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty. A visit to his house yielded three great columns.

5 Links for Nonfiction Authors – August 6, 2014

35thEditionCover-227x300It’s been a slow month for interviews, I know. But in the meantime, here are five more links of inspiration, how-to, opportunity, or just plain fun.

Got a link you’d like to share? Send a tweet to @emcculloughjoin my Diigo group, or contact me here


How did you write that, Kathryn Joyce?

Kathryn-Joyce-250x300Kathryn 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?

child.catchersKathryn: 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.

quiverfullBut 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.