Writerland, Chapter 25: A Reporting Master Class with C.J. Chivers

Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.

This is what judging for the National Magazine Awards looks like: a dozen people sit in a hotel room and read stories all day. They get up and walk around and sometimes they get tired of sitting in chairs so they sit on the floor. It is quiet and the quiet is broken by the ruffling of papers and the occasional harrumph and sigh that signals a story is unlikely to make it to the finals. Rarely will the judges begin to talk excitedly about a story, at least not before it’s time to cull the field. But I recall vividly what happened in a room at the Millenium Hotel in midtown Manhattan in 2008 when one judge and then another began to say, “Have you read the Chivers yet?”

Editors will often refer to stories by their authors’ names, and in this instance the author was C.J. Chivers, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. I knew Chris Chivers, and because so many editors know the writers whose work is being judged, transparency is essential. Chris, who was then posted to the Times’ Moscow bureau, reported to my wife, who was then the paper’s Foreign Editor. I had known him in passing when he was a student at Columbia and though I had never taught him, had followed his work, first at the Providence Journal and then at the Times.

Chris was unlike most journalists I knew. He had been a captain in the Marine Corps. No one who met him was surprised to learn this, not in his bearing, his seriousness of purpose, and the particular form of dedication in which he went about his work: he spoke about reporting as if it were a mission, and while I assumed that he was driven by personal motives -- as we all were, right? -- I never heard him so much as hint at it. 

In September of 2004, the Times sent Chris to the remote Russian region of North Ossetia to cover the siege at a school in the town of Beslan. Chechen terrorists had occupied the school on the first day of class and were holding over 1,100  people -- 770 of whom were children -- hostage. On the third day the Russian army stormed the school. Three hundred and thirty people were killed, half of them children. 

Chris reported and filed and left Beslan but he did not let go of the story. In the months and years to come he returned to Beslan, and to the story, to make sense of what happened over those three days. I once asked Chris whether the story resonated so powerfully with him because he was a parent, and had witnessed the deaths of so many children. No, he said without rancor and without judging the presumptuousness of my question. That was not it at all. He needed to know what had happened inside the school.

In 2007, after years of reporting, Chris wrote his story. He had pitched it to the Times’ Magazine, which inexplicably passed. He took it to Esquire, which published it at its full 18,000 words, the longest piece that storied magazine had ever run. 

It begins: “Kazbek Misikov stared at the bomb hanging above his family. It was a simple device, a plastic bucket packed with explosive paste, nails, and small metal balls. It weighed perhaps eight pounds. The existence of this bomb had become a central focus of his life. If it exploded, Kazbek knew, it would blast shrapnel into the heads of his wife and two sons, and into him as well, killing them all.

Throughout the day he had memorized the bomb, down to the blue electrical wire linking it to the network of explosives the terrorists had strung around them hours before.” 

In those one hundred words are, by my rough count, perhaps fifteen reported facts that, taken together, transform readers to the world view of Kazbek Misikov as he contemplated the death of his family: the location of the bomb; a plastic bucket; a device filled with explosive paste, nails and small metal balls; blue electrical wire. If you are a reporter reading this you will ask yourself, how did he get all this? Because you knew just what went into finding those seemingly mundane but vital details: what color was the wire? And how much did the bomb weigh? 

The judges in that room knew it. They were mostly editors and as editors were familiar with that too rare experience of encountering a story in which they could put their editing pencils down and just read. 

“Have you read the Chivers?”

I recall that many strong stories were among the finalists, stories any editor would have been proud to run. I was careful not to involve myself too much in the conversation, given my familiarity with Chris. The others had already made up their minds. There was the Chivers, and everything else. 

Chris’ National Magazine Award for Reporting would be followed by being part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team for International Reporting in 2009 and a Pulitzer for Feature Writing in 2017. He’s since written two books -- “The Gun” and “The Fighters” -- and while he continues writing terrific pieces for the now-wiser Times Magazine, when he talks to my students, I ask him to talk about the Beslan story. In 2008 Esquire listed it as one of the seven greatest stories it has ever published.

I ask Chris to tell them how he reported it, step by step, of course. But more importantly I want him to talk about the way he thinks about what he must learn to produce a work of narrative nonfiction that meets the exacting standards he sets for himself.

I put the same question to Chris recently.

This is what he wrote.

“The narrative journalism that I find most satisfying to work on, and finally to publish, is that which requires and somehow will ultimately allow the engagement of a full set of research and reporting tools. I'm generally at my best on stories that allow for deep immersion, and the chance to live or work side-by-side with material and subjects. This means physically gaining access (ideally sustained access) to the environments, people and action that together will shape my understanding and become part of my stories. It means going there, then being there, then staying there and maybe returning there. It also means being open-minded and open-ended. 

“I look for work that interests me enough that I want to commit to it fully, and when I find such a line of coverage, I then seek and shape ways to access it comprehensively, so the stories literally wrap around me. And I caution myself to admit that there is little chance at the outset that I will know what my stories will be. 

“In practical terms, and conceptual terms, this means that I don't pre-shape story ideas. I choose beats and lines of inquiry and access, and let the stories find me and grow within me as I work. Little is more limiting than thinking you know the story you have not yet researched, reported, or even lived. So my attitude and approach, about which I am explicit with sources, is that I don't know my story until I know my story, and I can't declare my story before I've done a large amount of work.  

“This often frustrates sources and gatekeepers, at least initially, because people expect you to tell them at first encounter what your story will say, or what "angle" you are pursuing. More often than not the answer should be "damned if I know."  

“I tell people and gatekeepers that I am here to understand the issue or the subject or the incident or event, and the way to do that is to be open-minded and do the work, have all the conversations and review as much material as is available, and that early declarations about conclusions reflect bad methodology, and are confining.  

“All the above said, physical access is only one element of immersion. There are many steps beyond being there, and many tools that a reporter or writer can bring to the job. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but the process involves reading across a beat or subject line, and extensive repeated interviews with sources and subjects, and multiple forms of document work -- everything from asking to see people's photo files and text records and saved videos, to building what I call a "social map" around a significant character or event and interviewing everyone in these adjacent rings. It means reviewing maps and nautical charts, and building diagrams or satellite imagery. It means taking thorough notes. It means reading historical records and technical data. 

“Often none of this is explicitly visible in a published work. I might interview a dozen people at length and not quote any of them, to reconstruct a small sequence of events on the ground, and I might review technical diagrams and photographs and then do five interviews to understand the arrangement of instruments and order of hand and foot motions for a pilot in a cockpit. And no one may be quoted at all. But volume of quotes is not the measure of work. (I often read stories that feel as if quotes are some odd quid pro quo arrangement for access and time.) 

“All of this interviewing and researching richly informs the work, and is priceless for fact-checking as you go. Building the social maps and working through them elicits detail and context that make stories sturdy and vivid; the process also serves as guard rails against error and misunderstanding.  

“But I'll add a few more thoughts: I make video and photographs as I work, as visual notebooks, and refer back to them when I write or as I prepare for future interviews. And I carry a tape measure, and sometimes stop in place for measuring objects and distances that I might use in stories later. I also try to stay organized, as I often have multiple long-term projects in the works at once, so I create digital files to save and store dated materials where I can reference them easily later.  This includes some of my notebooks. I scan and label them as I work so they won't be lost later in the boxes or piles, or, in situations where my work might be confiscated (as happened on occasion overseas and I have been fearful about at US airports) I'll take photos of notes and email them to myself ahead of risk of confiscation. In this way, if I lose the original I still have the material safe, beyond the reach of the confiscator. I suppose this is a product of working for years in violent, unpredictable and oppressive settings, but this is an anxiety reducer, and it retains in me a sense of control as I work, which helps me proceed.”

But what happens, I asked, when things go wrong. How does he find his way out of the pitfalls, rabbit holes, and false doors that reporters inevitably encounter, which can leave less experienced reporters overwhelmed?

“The steps I mentioned expect and purposefully anticipate wrong turns, dead ends and the rest, and they make the difficulties and disappointments more manageable, as does trying to maintain a state-of-mind that sees working through the hassles as part of writing's potential for deep satisfaction. (On the other hand, resisting the inevitable, like having a "script' for a story before reporting it, or doing paint-by-number work to create a preconceived sketch, is a recipe for shoddy or toxic work.) 

“Now, do you want the best and all but fail-safe answer? The best and finally most important element of methodology is fact-checking. Strong work bakes in time for fact-checking, and for the laborious processes essential to it. We could spend an entire conversation on the necessity of fact-checking and methods for it. But for now let's just say that fact-checking is the best and final defense, the industry does a woefully bad job of it, and it's essential to doing solid, enduring work.”

Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.