Interview with Journalist Ian Shapira

Today’s post is an interview with Washington Post journalist and fiction writer Ian (pronounced “eye-an”) Shapira. Journalism is its own unique form of writing, and fiction is as well. But is there any overlap between the two? How can one genre inform the other? We will explore this in depth below. I conducted this email interview with Ian, a classmate of mine at the Warren Wilson MFA program, who also shares my conspiratorial sense of humor!

TWOL: Tell us a little bit about your own background in journalism.
IS: I started out in the mid-1990s writing for my high school newspaper, Pandemonium, at the Louisville Collegiate School in Kentucky. My best friend and I were co-editors and we decided to have the staff do all sorts of hard-hitting pieces like testing which was better, Krispy Kreme or Dunkin Donuts. I think we also wrote serious stories — one was about Gorbachev’s visit to the city and I’m pretty sure we covered that. I do remember once that, in haste to make deadline, I misspelled the name of the newspaper in the banner at the top of the front page. “Pandemomium,” it said. Amazingly, “Pandemomium” came out on or about Mother’s Day.

When I got to college, I wrote for The Daily Princetonian, starting out as a news reporter before going on to write lengthy arts and pop culture essays. (Major shout-out to my editor, Marshall Heyman, who taught me so much.) During my summers, I interned as a reporter at a tri-weekly newspaper in Bardstown, KY called The Kentucky Standard (where I shot photos for my own articles and developed them in something called a “dark room”!), The Washington Monthly magazine in Washington, D.C., and The Boston Globe in its Living/Arts section. After graduating from Princeton in 2000, I got an internship in the Style section of the Washington Post. That fall, I was supposed to go Columbia University to attend its MFA program in non-fiction. But the Post hired me and [I ended up] forgoing an MFA program.

TWOL: Even in journalism, the best articles tell a story. How do you shape a nonfiction story?
IS: Whenever I’m writing a lengthy story for the Post, I think first about what point the story is trying to make. Then, I look at my reporting to see if there’s a pithy scene that I witnessed or can reconstruct that would make a good “lead” — the first paragraphs of an article that can draw readers in. From there, I tend to think about stories chronologically. How did it all start? And then go from there. But there’s no single right way to tell a non-fiction story, especially in books and literature.

TWOL: And now the flip side – you are also a fiction writer. How does your background as a journalist shape (or not shape) your fiction?
IS: Let me make it clear: I still consider myself very much of a hobbyist when it comes to fiction. I haven’t even published anything yet. At Warren Wilson, I feel a bit like an imposter, a basketball player, for instance, sneaking into a baseball team’s practice. I will say that my journalism career has given me a natural impulse to write “reality-based” fiction and pursue subjects that I’ve researched well. I have to know the language, the right verbs, nouns and adjectives, what people wear and what they eat. Once I feel fluent in the characters and language of a story, then I can feel like I have the authority and velocity to write. This is true for my journalism at the Post and very true for my attempts at fiction. If there’s any advantage to having been a Washington Post reporter all these years, it’s that I can write pretty fast. I can churn out the rough draft. And once I have a rough draft to work with, then the revision and the re-writing comes. This, frankly, is pretty fun. Especially cutting. I love to cut. (My editor at the Post may think otherwise, but I swear, it’s true!)

TWOL: You’re certainly not an impostor, though every writer feels that way! Do you see any overlap between fiction and nonfiction writing, personally, or are they two completely different things for you?
IS: I think the best narrative journalism tries to achieve the same goals as all fiction — making readers feel something deeply emotional. Short stories and novels are all about the pure story, the poetry of language, but much of journalism, especially in the age of Trump, is about accountability and setting facts straight. These are not so much “stories” but articles. And yet, some of the very best magazines and newspapers — The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, Wired, the list goes on — all routinely publish deeply reported “stories” that can feel like fiction but are, in fact, non-fiction. The structures and elements of those pieces will have traditional journalism nuggets like “nut grafs” high up in the article that explicitly tell you why the story is important, and might even give you a bunch of data — information that wouldn’t really necessarily be in a piece of fiction. So, if there’s overlap between the two genres, it’s that we both want to rip your heart out and keep you reading for as long as possible. Let me also add that I don’t think you need to write 8,000-word narrative articles to accomplish this. Some of my favorite “stories” in journalism are not that long at all, maybe 1,000 words or even less. But they still have a narrative arc.

At the Post, we have to be extremely judicious from paragraph to paragraph, making sure that the articles read fast and that we do the best we can to keep readers’ eyeballs moving. I think the same should be true for fiction, especially literary fiction, even “hard fiction.” So, I try the best I can to ensure that my attempts at fiction have a certain level of propulsion and momentum. The risk, obviously, is that you go too fast and you wind up writing stories or fiction devoid of any emotional power and character depth. Some of my favorite fiction writers are Adam Ross, Ottessa Moshfegh, Colum McCann, Sally Rooney, and Elena Ferrante. (I’ve been obsessed with this short story published this year in The Sewanee Review — edited by Adam Ross — called “Beautiful People” by Lisa Taddeo, a journalist/fiction writer.)

TWOL: Very interesting point about tradeoff between speed and emotional depth! With nonfiction and journalism, you already have a narrative arc laid out for you in that you know what has happened, so the task is how you tell it. However, with fiction, you have to create the narrative arc as you go. And also the characters. Can you talk a little bit about this?
IS: One of the reasons I like fiction so much — both as a reader and aspiring writer — is that I don’t know what will happen. I suppose that many fiction writers outline their stories or novels in advance, knowing what they’ll write every step of the way. I haven’t done this yet, mainly to avoid cornering myself and preventing twists and character development that might happen organically, from paragraph to paragraph. In my Post stories, I tend to know where things will go from start to finish mainly because I’ve done so much reporting and have sold my editor on a complete package. But in fiction, sometimes I don’t know where a story will go until I’ve got a rough draft and even then, I’ll take a look at it and say: This stinks. Let me re-write the last two-thirds so the story will end up in this new place.

TWOL: That’s always part of the fun of writing, seeing how a story unfolds on its own in ways you didn’t plan! Any other thoughts or comments?
IS: Since I write all my Post stories in the third-person, one of the things I am doing at Warren Wilson to make myself take even more risks is that I am working on a collection of short stories all written in the first-person. It’s rare that I pen first-person essays for the Post. (My favorite was this one about my late dad and daughter: It feels very new and uncomfortable to me. And the longer I’ve been at Warren Wilson, the more I am learning about the craft of point of view and the pitfalls of first-person. This is where I must thank my first supervisor, C.J. Hribal and my current supervisor, Sonya Chung, for pushing me to make sure my narrators are not over-narrating and being annoying. Which brings me to my final point: I feel so grateful for the friendships and mentorship of Warren Wilson. I learn so much from fellow students, especially during workshop, and I take those lessons and feedback and incorporate them into my own work.

TWOL: I, too, have had to learn a lot about point of view as I had done a lot of academic and social science writing, which requires a very “neutral” or objective narrator. That’s very admirable and bold to take that risk to write in first person. Doing things like that is the sign of someone who is truly committed to art, in my opinion. Thank you, and happy writing, Ian!

What Makes for Good Writing (Part II)

As promised last time, the subject requires further consideration, so here is another post with more thoughts on elements of good or interesting writing.

-A story within a story. Sometimes these may be structured as a frame story, where the true heart of the novel or story lies inside an outer story that “frames” it. But sometimes this is not the case, and regardless of the structure, this stylistic device can be very fascinating. Most often, the inner story supports the larger narrative, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. An interesting backstory about a particular character, for example, draws the reader in.

-Letters. This does not have to denote the novel as an epistolary novel. But a letter within a novel makes the reader feel privy to some sort of secret information, gives us a story within a story sometimes, and fills in some information we might not be able to get otherwise.

-Multiple angles from which to read it. This point will appeal more to the literary scholars and lit crit people, but great works of literature can be analyzed in many different ways. Dracula, for instance, could be read from Darwinian, Gothic novel, historical, Freudian, etc. etc. perspectives. Anna Karenina could be read as feminist, pre-Marxist, historical, Christian, and more. Same for Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle. In other words, what this means is that there is a complexity and layering of ideas in these novels that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

-Pacing. A good novel or story will unfold its mysteries with timing that hooks the reader enough, without giving away all the information. It draws us in because we want to know what the next event is, the next revelation of information, how the character got to be the way they are, etc. This is an extremely difficult thing to do. In novels, there is more time, and the author can take her time getting to her point. In stories, however, the urgency must be felt upfront; things have to be resolved in a short span of time. But with both genres, the reader must be engaged from the beginning so that she can be emotionally invested in the narrative.

-Subtext. Charles Baxter is one of the leading experts on this craft issue, as one can read in The Art of Subtext. There is the level of what is being said, and the level of what is not being said. Are these at odds with each other? Do they support each other? Do we get enough of a sense of where the author is going with his/her message and themes? This is employed to greater or lesser degree by various authors, and some people might argue that some writers do not use this at all. Dialogue is one area in which subtext can really be evident.

And finally,

-Simply telling a good story. When I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2015, there was an elderly participant named Norton who was, literally, just a year short of 100. Hoping to benefit his wisdom, I asked him what his best advice was on writing. “Just tell a good story,” he waved my question away, saying that people get too caught up in technique and craft, etc. And I think this is really fabulous advice. One thing many literary agents will mention is that they want to keep reading past the first page. How often do we think of someone asking us to recommend A Good Book? A good book draws us in with a compelling story, makes us want to keep reading.