Issue 4: Subjectivity vs. Objectivity
A Publication of the USF MFA in Writing Program

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Interviews: Mark Follman, Eileen Myles, Jackie Spinner, and Lynn Sweet


Interviewees:

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is an associate editor of the online magazine Salon, where he has focused on national security and foreign affairs as a writer and editor since 2003. He was a founding author of "War Room," Salon's widely read news & politics blog. His weekly column "Right Hook," which covered conservative commentary and analysis in the media, was noted in Forbes magazine's 2004 "Best of the Web" survey. More recently, he has worked as a lead editor on Salon's investigative reporting team. Follman is a graduate of Duke University, and of the MFA in Writing program at the University of San Francisco.

Eileen Myles

Eileen Myles, poet, is still mostly feeling based in New York, though living much of the time and teaching in San Diego. She is the author of poetry books including Not Me, School of Fish, Skies, fiction titles Cool for You and Chelsea Girls, and an edited anthology The New Fuck You/adventures in lesbian reading. At the time of the interview Myles was in New York for the premiere of the opera she wrote the libretto for—Hell.

Jackie Spinner

Jackie Spinner is the regional military affairs reporter for The Washington Post, where she has been a staff writer since June 1995. She was a co-winner of the 2005 Distinguished International Reporting award from the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild. Jackie spent 13 months covering the war in Iraq, beginning in May 2004 and wrote a book about her experience called Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A young journalist’s story of joy, loss and survival in Iraq (Scribner/2006). Her twin sister, Jenny, contributed to the memoir. Jackie has appeared on CNN's Larry King Live and The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, C-Span, Good Morning America, the Today Show, the CBS Early Morning Show, and Nightline and has contributed to PBS, the BBC and National Public Radio. She was featured in a PBS Frontline documentary on reporting the war in Iraq. Jackie has a B.S. in journalism from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a M.J. in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley. She has an honorary doctorate in the humane letters from Lakeland College in Wisconsin. She is a member of the Journalism and Women’s Symposium and the Society of Professional Journalists. Jackie lives in Maryland.

Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times and writes a column and a blog for the paper. She is also a columnist for The Hill, a newspaper covering Congress. In Spring, 2004, Sweet was named a fellow at Harvard University's Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government. Sweet has a master's from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley after attending the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Sweet is an adjunct instructor at Medill's Washington program. She is often a guest on a variety of national public affairs television and radio shows and has been a regular contributor to programs on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and WTTW's Chicago Tonight. Sweet's blog is at http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/

Q: In these days of heated controversy over the blurred lines between truth and fiction in memoir, propaganda as PR, disclosed and undisclosed sources, revisionist history, journalists being let go for falsified stories, authors creating mystery by assuming false "public" identities, and the entreaty "just trust me" becoming so shrouded in gray, how does a writer find his/her way to what's right to write, or a reader find what's right for them to read?

Mark Follman

Nonfiction—whether straightforward news reporting or the most ambitious literary narrative—honors a basic contract between writer and reader. Its architecture is factual. "This is what happened and when, this is where, this is who was involved." The "how" and the "why"—and maybe even the "who said what"—can sometimes get more complicated. But it's the writer's charge to seek out and present the truth, to the best of his or her knowledge and belief. Short of that, what you have is a violation. Even if a magnificently entertaining one. A conjuring of the facts can be great. Where I come from, we usually call it fiction. Or if done right, even poetry, which radiates truth of another kind.  

Eileen Myles

I think we always write with our intelligence and our impulses to put things together this way, not that way. I'm all for candor in terms of what we say about what we're doing. I enjoy messing the boundaries between fiction and non-, poetry and prose, and I think it's more interesting to openly advocate for this. In the communities of writers that are interested in genre blending, few people feel betrayed “aesthetically,” but clearly we had a local hero that some people feel duped by. Would they feel as duped by a man? I wonder how much it's gender, not genre. As a female author I'm just so used to Arthur Goldens writing Geishas and Jeffrey Eugenides doing hermaphodites and Virgins and even Michael Cunningham writing women. Women are betrayed at birth, so are less touchy about these matters. As a reader I just notice if it feels good. And sometimes, can I use it?  

Jackie Spinner

It's not gray if reporters do the right thing, represent themselves honestly to sources and readers, keep to the facts, fairly represent those facts, drop agendas and personal pursuits and stay focused on the only thing reporters should advocate--the truth. Readers will find their way to stories written by a reporter whose reputation and credibility is solid.  

Lynn Sweet

A reporter reports a story as facts with attributions and documents; a reader should look for sourcing and backup.  

Q: What are the general guideposts and delimeters you use for staying within bounds? How would these differ for memoir, for a journalistic piece? Why do they differ?

Mark Follman

I think people tend to regard journalism as something more mundane than memoir, with memoir permitting a looser handling of the truth in the pursuit of artful storytelling. But great journalism (I'm thinking more of long-form magazine features than Associated Press news dispatches, of course) shows how you don't have to play loose with the truth to tell a compelling story. The skilled journalist wields artistic license in the use of language—concise, vivid, junk-free prose—to immerse a reader in a place, or to bring a reader face to face with an individual worth knowing.  

Eileen Myles

I guess personal boundaries, would I hurt this person (and do I care), would this person sue me, is this a trust buster, with my family or a lover? I prefer not to be cruel. A journalistic piece might feel more temporary and more local. I'd say things in an article or a review that I wouldn't put in a novel. Nothing's permanent, but if you spend five years on a book you have longer to brood about what's in and what's out and you want to get it right. That right for me means settled, kind of.  

Jackie Spinner

When I decided to write a memoir about my experience in Iraq, I approached it the same way I approach a news story. I wrote it honestly, recalling moments and scenes as accurately as I could. Obviously, a memoir is a personal account in which I had to interject myself into the story. After all, it was my story. I tried not to calculate what to disclose. It seemed pointless to write my story if I weren't going to write it fully and truthfully. But it was not a comfortable experience for me, this act of writing about myself. I don't believe in journalists occupying the stage. In the end, however, I decided that I did have a story to tell, and it was important for people to understand what it was like to cover the war in Iraq. This was a hard sell--for me to appreciate that my own story had value within the larger context of the war, that it could, in fact, help enlighten people about what was happening in Iraq.  

Lynn Sweet

Memoir is a whole different genre; it's like apples and oranges. There are a lot of different ways for people to go about memoir. A journalist is usually reporting on something.  

Q: What faith do you have that facts have been checked in nonfiction books you read for pleasure? Have recent controversies helped or hurt this fact-checking process in your opinion?

Mark Follman

Hokum has, and always will be around, whether Oprah devotes a show to it or not. Writers and publications tend to stand or fall based on their reputation for trustworthiness. But in this hyper-media age, I think it's as critical as ever to read widely—and to vet, dig deeper, and confirm. With a nonfiction book, the case may be a bit different if entertainment is the primary motivation (for either writer or reader). But if you plan to rely on that book as a source of information, you might want to take a peek at the bibliography and end notes. If there aren't any, take that as a clue that you may have crossed into "genre-bending" territory.  

Eileen Myles

I have no confidence in fact checking anywhere because publishers are just wings of gigantic media conglomerates and they are slinging books pretty fast and probably don't think books are worth the investment. I think the heat's on the writer to get it right. I don't think there's much of a net. I find there's more in journalism.  

Jackie Spinner

I generally read non-fiction works by authors whom I trust. I tend not to trust authors who have taken previously held positions, political or otherwise, and then attempt to write an "objective" narrative. I have not written off "non-fiction" as a genre simply because of the recent controversies. That wouldn't be fair, and it would be hypocritical, considering that I want to be judged by my own work and reputation and not by others within my profession. That said, if the controversies encourage more fact-checking, I see nothing wrong with that. Honest accounts will stand up to the additional scrutiny.  

Lynn Sweet

I deal in facts, I would have to research to know the answer to that. I don't assume anything. I'd have to look at a book in question. A broad answer doesn't seem to be helpful to anybody; each book is a case-by-case situation.  

Q: Does it bother you when you read for pleasure if the writing is stellar and breaks new ground, but the facts are later determined to be manufactured?

Mark Follman

Well, after some contemplation, I would offer this: The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.

(But how will you feel later on when you discover that Oscar Wilde said that long before I did?)  

Eileen Myles

No, I really don't care about that at all. Unless it's in some area I have personal investment in. I've never read a stellar book about lesbian lives for instance that wasn't also true. True in the profound sense. By the way I believe in JT's suffering. Just because it was fiction doesn't mean it wasn't true. I haven't read James Frey but I suspect I wouldn't find it to be true, and I hear he's a lousy writer. I mean when you read like Poe narratives that claim passionately to be true we always understand that to be part of the fiction. It's interesting the way the demand for authenticity in books is demanded by such a lied-to culture. I always think of Chris Kraus's great line. “Because capitalism's insincere, it demands sincerity from its art.” The obsession with truth is gross. Just a sad reflection of a stupid philistine empire farting on itself.

Why would you pin all this responsibility on artists? Isn't truth the great fiction being spun, that there's this thing, this promise. It's pretty sad. I like to write true books. It's why I write. But I'm thinking tone. Sounds true, feels true.  

Jackie Spinner

Of course. If the writing is stellar and breaks new ground but the material is not factual, it should be appropriately labeled as fiction. No one wants to be misled.  

Lynn Sweet

Yes.  

Q: When interviewing and writing, how do you balance and weigh the amount of gray you tolerate in truth in a memoir, biography, journalistic story, history--given the subjectivity of memory, and the variances of opinions individuals have when sharing their own versions of truth?

Mark Follman

I think it's usually very clear when you're in the hands of a writer who is deeply invested in the subject matter, and who cares to deliver a truthful account. Yes, memory can be a tricky thing, so to some degree you have to trust the writer as gatekeeper -- to sort through all the raw material, turn it over and over, and give it fair shape.

A couple years ago I spent some time reporting from and writing about the heroin-plagued streets of Vancouver. Some of the people I met there were difficult to gauge at first—were they really telling me the truth about their lives? But by observing and talking with enough people, and by devoting enough time and thought to research around that, I was confident that I could build a truthful story of the people and the place.  

Eileen Myles

Exactly. Who's remembering anything, really. I feel like life is a dream and some of us are lucky enough to spend our dream writing. I do like a narrator that addresses these issues - her own relationship to reality is weighed from time to time - I like a suspicious cranky author with some capacity to be deluded and acknowledge it - to occupy the middle ground with the reader and then let the fiction rip for a while as if it's a “real book.” I like several different experiences of reading to take place in a book so that we take a "real look" at reading. That's the "truth" I'm looking for. Most of the writers I like let me do that, and I try and do it too. If life is a dream, what is writing? A manual? I think so.  

Jackie Spinner

It takes time to build the kind of trust with a subject that enables a reporter to understand the extent to which that individual is presenting a version of himself or herself. But really, you can't escape it entirely. As human beings, that is what we do. We make decisions all of the time about what parts of ourselves we will reveal to other people. All of us are creations of our own careful marketing. The trick is to recognize it, to challenge it, both within ourselves in writing a memoir and with our subjects in writing a journalistic piece. In writing my own memoir, I found myself constantly coaxing myself to reveal more, to risk exposing my vulnerabilities in order to offer the most accurate account I could of my time in Iraq. I do the same thing with my interview subjects, and if I succeed, the balance of the work will be as honest as it can be, given that we are human beings, given that in life, there really are no absolutes.  

Lynn Sweet

That's why you have to work at it, ask a lot of questions, do a lot of research.  



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