Earlier today, we posted our second Editors’ Roundtable, in which our group of veterans examined a piece of narrative nonfiction. The story for the second outing is “Welcome to Haiti’s Reconstruction Hell,” written by Mac McClelland of Mother Jones. Despite being warned that having a group of editors look at her work is a little like getting an ice cream sundae while being beaten with a stick, McClelland was still willing to talk with us. What follows are excerpts from our conversation, in which McClelland discusses the toll her reporting took on her, the editing process for the piece, and the decision to make her own experiences part of the finished story.
You’ve reported on the humanitarian crisis in Burma. You’ve done the Gulf Oil spill. You went to Haiti to look at reconstruction there. What is it that you’re hoping to do by covering humanitarian and environmental crises?
I think awareness is one of the big reasons for doing stories like that. In the case of Burma, especially, because I was with this minority that no one’s ever heard of who is on the business end of this genocide that no one’s ever heard of. In that particular case, it was just a matter of getting a story out that nobody had any idea was going on.
That could be true in a way for the Gulf stuff as well. Obviously, there were a lot of reporters in the Gulf, but certainly the government wasn’t covering the story. Any of the reliable information, any of the important questions that were being asked, all of that stuff was coming from the reporters. Awareness of what was unfolding down there as well was totally reliant – any accurate information about it – was totally reliant on the reporters who were there, which is why my editors left me there for four f—— months.
When they sent me to Haiti, that was a straight-up assignment. I cannot take credit for it at all. They were just like, “You are going to Haiti. See what you come up with.” When I got there, I was only there for one day before I was in the car with this girl who had very recently been raped and seriously maimed. Everywhere I went and everyone I talked to were like, “Oh, yeah, this is the thing. This happens all the time. We get all these calls about this. We see it happening all the time.”
There were some very sensational headlines about it right after the quake – two weeks after the quake people were reporting that. And then that story died. When I got there, I realized the rape crisis has gotten worse than it was after the quake. So it’s even more of a story now, even though it’s not a story anyone is hearing.
How long after the car ride with the maimed girl did you know which direction your reporting would head?
That’s a good question. I mean certainly I knew that was going to be a big part of the story when that was happening. Then two days later, I had a driver that –
I can’t drive around Haiti. It takes a very long time to get used to the layout, because there’s no road signs, and there’s rubble everywhere. So I had to have a driver and a translator. Two days after my first day, I had a driver who threatened to assault me.
Then I ended up talking to some of the groups that work with the rape victims. And then even when I was talking with groups who don’t work with rape victims, they were still all saying the same thing. Then the MINUSTAH soldiers, the UN peacekeepers, totally unprompted all bring it up. It was everywhere. The more time that I spent there, the more material I had about it. It was always happening, and people were always talking about it.
I remember when I got back, and I was sitting here with my editors, and they were like, “What have you got? You were gone for two weeks.” That was what was the most compelling thing and what came together out of it. It was the common thread in a lot of that information. As it turns out, in my opinion, also an incredibly important story for itself. But also it speaks to the level of disorder and chaos and unpreparedness that still exists so strongly in that country, even eight months after the quake.
When you saw this common thread, how did you go about putting the piece together? How did you approach structure?
I had been in the Gulf for four months, and I was back in San Francisco for a day before I left for Haiti. I was very tired when I got there. And in addition to having watched – for reasons of the victim, I won’t go into exactly what I saw when I was with her. But in watching her go through that, and in my own being threatened with assault, I was only back in San Francisco for a couple days before I was diagnosed with PTSD. It was incredibly extreme – I was completely nonfunctional for a while. But the story was due. So I had 10 days, something like that, to write it.
I didn’t go through my normal process, because honestly, I was not well. It’s not like I sat down and made the perfect outline. I just pulled all the pieces together and looked at it afterward to see how it went and then started shaping it with my editors. As Clara was saying, the way she described it, was that it feels sort of like “postcards from.”
The narrative is chronological. It follows my time, basically. Partly the reason I put it together like that – in addition to it just happening to work out that those scenes flowed pretty well together – was that I was a complete wreck when I was putting it together. And that was the easiest way for me to deal with the material on paper while I was still trying to deal with it mentally, going through all this trauma counseling and things like that.
Did you cut much from the piece? It sounds like you left out the experience of some of what you saw.
We did leave out one very emotionally violent scene for reasons that I won’t go into, but that was pretty much it. I don’t know if this is always her philosophy, but Clara’s philosophy with me is “write long, and we’ll take what we want.” So it’s sort of my practice with her – and on big stories like this, she’s generally my editor – that I write everything. I don’t have a standard word count, where it’s going to be 3,000 words long, and so do that. They’re like, “If you turn in 9,000 words, that’s fine, and we’ll decide what we want to do with it and what we like best.”
So I put in pretty much everything. I struggled a little bit with whether or not I should add in my personally being threatened, because I didn’t want to be like, “I went to Haiti, but this is about me now. We’re going to talk about what happened to me and my experience.”
But I decided, and we decided also, that it’s important to show how pervasive the rape culture is in that country. Which it is, and it has been for a very, very long time. It gets you away from that sense that, “Oh, yeah, of course, very poor uneducated black girls are threatened.”
You might have this sense that there was some sort of safety for rich white people walking around. But that’s not the case. It’s one of the great equalizers, for sure. Nothing can protect you from that, in a lot of societies and certainly in that culture. So we decided to keep that stuff in, and make a little bit of a thread of that as well, because not only did it happen with one of my drivers, but it also happened at my hotel and on multiple occasions, so we decided to keep that theme.
Do you see yourself as somebody who is not just doing reporting and getting information, but thinking of the piece as a story? Do you think of what you do as narratives?
Yeah, absolutely, I do. I do think of things as narratives. I think my brain works in a very narrative way. I’m a big baby. I have a lot of feelings. So people become very real and intense and close, even in short periods of time. When you have feelings like that, it’s hard to envision those people as part of just “a piece.” Because it’s their story, and that story is part of a larger story, it all does feel very narrative to me.
We talked a little about how you put this piece together. But normally, when you’re approaching these kinds of pieces – not just this Haiti piece – do you outline a lot? Do you think in scenes? How do you approach the writing?
I do think in scenes. You mean while it’s happening?
While it’s happening, or after the fact.
I do often think in scenes, even sometimes when I’m not on assignment, just when I’m walking around and things are happening, I think of them in scenes. I break them down in scene prose in my head.
I’m out, and I’m talking to people and then I’m walking away – or while I’m trying to fall asleep. I do break things down into scenes, which I think is why the stories that I write end up having so many scenes – maybe too many scenes. That is definitely the way that I construct things.
When I was putting this story together, I was telling someone, “I have to figure out how to string all these scenes together.” I knew I had a bunch of scenes, so I knew that the issue was working out the transitions between them so they could tell one whole story.