We recently posted our latest Editors’ Roundtable, which dissected “The Boy from Gitmo” by Mike Paterniti. A National Magazine Award winner (and a seven-time finalist), Paterniti writes for GQ and lives in Maine, where he and his wife, Sara Corbett, co-founded The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing program for kids. He is also the author of “Driving Mr. Albert,” a book about a cross-country trip with Albert Einstein’s brain. Paterniti’s piece explores the relationship between Mohammed Jawad, a boy who was sent to Guantánamo Bay eight years ago, and Eric Montalvo, the defense attorney who represented him at trial. As has been the case with all our Roundtable writers, Paterniti talked about his story before seeing the editors’ comments on it. Here are excerpts from our conversation, in which he discusses his perpetual delusion about the writing process, false narratives of reconciliation, and “taking the rocky path.”
How did you or your editor first hear about the relationship between Jawad and Montalvo?
Their story first came from my editor’s wife, who was working as a psychologist at Guantánamo. She was very close to Jawad, and it really had nothing to do with Guantánamo – it was just about Jawad.
My editor was Joel Lovell. He’s now at The New York Times Magazine and his wife is Kate Porterfield. She’s been working with a lot of these Guantánamo detainees, and Jawad was one of the detainees that she had sort of a special relationship with.
I started talking to Kate, and then to the defense team a little bit. I think [Eric] Montalvo was probably the first guy on the defense team that I spoke to, and from the first time I spoke to Eric, I was like, “Wow, this guy is in deep here.” And I was so curious about his motivations. By that time, they had gotten Jawad free, and Eric was in an absolute swivet about all of it. He was haunted by it and couldn’t let it go. He was planning this trip to Afghanistan to see Jawad.
I remember saying to him, “Why are you going? What’s the point of going over there?” And he said, more or less, “Well, really it’s kind of personal now. I feel so let down by my country that I want to make sure this kid doesn’t turn out to be the person they accused him of being, the person they potentially turned him into, because they surrounded him with other detainees who were more radicalized, and then they deprived him of some of his rights, at least his right to know what the charges were against him.”
That kind of shot me off into the story, and then it was a fair amount of gaining the trust of Eric, spending some time with Eric, so that he got a feeling for how I worked and maybe just talking our way into it a little bit.
Obviously a good chunk of it happened before you entered the story, but were you present for the late trip back to Afghanistan? What part of the story were you present for?
I was on that trip to Afghanistan. The whole second half of the story is firsthand reporting. The story went through so many drafts. There was a first-person version of the whole story, where I acted much more as a Virgil leading the reader into this world and trying to parse it in the first person, but that never quite worked.
The more I wrote, the more I felt like the stronger sections were the ones that weren’t first person. So then I had to go back and refashion the second half of that piece in particular, because when you’re there, and you’re in proximity to a suicide bomb going off or you think you’re about to be kidnapped, these things take on maybe a bigger importance for you than they deserve in the story.
By switching it out of first person, I was able to put those things in place, so the suicide bomb at the end is just that. It’s just a bomb going off around the corner. It kind of freezes everybody in place. Nobody can leave, because the city’s in lockdown for those few hours. How one responds to being in the proximity of a bomb going off and the actual actions surrounding it – people reacting, what phone calls get made and what the substance of those calls are – all that was very interesting to me and very germane in the moment, but afterward it just didn’t end up being important for the piece. So I had to make some tough decisions.
I think cutting back on that part makes it feel understated and powerful. But back to your mention of doing the piece in the first person – could you tell me more about the revising and editing? Were any other major changes made during those processes?
I had a draft of the story that was very much inside of Jawad’s head. It was like a shattered story: You take the windowpane and call it a story, and then you throw a rock at it. That’s what that draft looked a little bit like. It was a lot of half lines and broken thoughts. I was trying to capture him and the interior damage that organized his world, but it was not sustainable. I didn’t know him well enough to go all the way with that. You really have to live with somebody for a while before you can audaciously assume those interior thoughts. And usually when I’ve done it in the past, it’s because I’ve spent so much time with the people, and I’ve asked them very directly “What were you thinking then?” or “What was your train of thought there?” It takes a certain kind of person who can give it to you so that you can put it on the page and it can carry the narrative arc. That draft for me was important in a way and very freeing and experimental. I was very excited by it, but I had to abandon that.
And then at one point I had some sections with his mom, but because his mom was not able to be present at the big meal that we had when I was there, and there was no other way I was going to see her, I found myself in the end retreating from those scenes also. Trying to paint a character you haven’t seen – I didn’t even have photographs – something about that never felt quite right. But emotionally, that mother-son relationship was very important. And the way Montalvo echoes that when he finds out that his father is not his father, which left him wondering about his mother – again, all that ended up downplayed, but I wanted the intonations of it to remain. So I didn’t completely abandon it, but in the end it was much less than what I actually wrote.
You brought up the Montalvo parallels. How did you decide how many of the questions and mysteries in Montalvo’s life to let into the story? In the end, whose story were you telling? Both of their stories or primarily one of their stories?
Originally, I was telling Jawad’s story. I got so deep into the legal documents, a lot of depositions. I had a lot of material, some requiring certain security clearances. So I felt like I had this unbelievable line into how things worked at Gitmo, and how in particular Jawad had been treated. For a long time, all I was thinking about was Jawad, and trying to figure out how to tell the story, how to keep the forward action going, but also begin to build in some of these bigger ideas.
But then, I spent time with Eric when we were over there in Afghanistan. We were constantly talking, and I saw him a few times in D.C. afterward, and it was somewhere near the end when he told me – he mentioned something in Afghanistan, something that had happened, some revelation in his own life that he felt might be a partial motivation for why he was so attached to Jawad, but he didn’t tell me what it was until quite late in the process.
And then I suddenly felt like this was his story, too, and in some ways I had such deeper access to his thoughts and emotional life that I was able to use it and use him as a way to set up the emotional terms of the story, and then bring Jawad on behind that. It does start with Eric because I was able to get into his head, to have him tell me the things that Jawad couldn’t about that first encounter and how Eric came to be there. And then I had all the court documents and everything else I used to describe how Jawad had gotten there.
Jawad was never able, and probably isn’t able, to describe in the same kind of detail what happened to him as Eric could what had happened to Jawad, what had happened to him, how this case had affected his life, and how in the course of this case he found himself Jawad’s doppelganger in a way.
In another perfectly good magazine, the relationship of Jawad and Montalvo could have been played as a heartwarming bond between a man of principle and a boy who, despite his terrible treatment, could somehow connect on a human level. Someone could have fit that surface story into something closer to a Hallmark version. What you’ve written is much more unsettling than that. That’s not a criticism.
I don’t take it as criticism, and I appreciate that, because that’s what I was trying to do. I was only trying to reflect back what had been shown to me in the course of my reporting. I did think of it as a postwar story, that there is some wreckage that we leave behind. I was curious about it, and I was curious about it when I was traveling through the landscape in Kabul and traveling just outside of Kabul, that there were these remnants of decades of war, and the physical scarring matching some deeper emotional scarring.
Framing it as a postwar story, I was able to play with some of these ideas that were most important to Eric but clearly defined who Jawad was. And that comes down to some breach of faith that took place for Montalvo the uber-patriot, and then for Jawad, who was just a boy, and in a weird way trusted adults and authority figures and was betrayed by all of them, from the people he fell in with in Afghanistan and initially in Pakistan to how he was treated by the U.S. military.
There’s such darkness there. There was something inspirational about what Montalvo was trying to do, but he himself was pretty beaten up by it. He was, I think, in a state of disillusion. I really wanted to get that. I didn’t want to turn it into some neat parable about how in the aftermath of the war there is a chance for healing and reconciliation, because I do feel like that’s a knee-jerk media reaction. In the news cycle, you get the disaster and/or the precipitating event, you get the “what happened here?” And then it gets shoved into that reconciliation and healing framework. It’s never like that. People are haunted by things like this for the rest of their lives.
You’ve been writing narrative nonfiction for a long time, and I imagine that each piece offers its own challenges. Were there any unusual struggles with the piece? Any new problems to solve that you hadn’t thought about directly before?
I got a lot of help in conversation with Joel Lovell. He’s a brilliant editor. I think one of the challenges I felt most acutely in this piece was how to deliver so much information and how to cull the details of the story. I was absolutely fascinated by the underground that Jawad had traveled to be in the square that day, who these people were and how we came by our own information about them.
So some of it was trying to edit that down, but it was taking this wealth of detail and trying to constantly work it into something that felt like a story, that had a philosophy. To me, everything came to me with almost equal importance. At some point, I had to demote certain events and ideas and ditch reporting, and promote the narratives that felt most true to what I saw and, in the end, what these characters were trying to tell me, what they were trying to communicate to themselves even.
In some ways, the best reaction I could have had to the piece was the one that I got from Eric. He shot me an email, something like, “I feel like I’m standing in the middle of the street with all my clothes off, but you got it. You got something deep in there that I have a hard time talking about.” The other thing he’d said was that he’d given it to his wife – he’d had a hard time discussing a lot of this with her. He said she was really mad at him for the risks that he was taking and for this commitment he’d made to this boy halfway around the world when his own boys needed a father, too. But more than anything, she was incredibly proud of the principle he was trying to stand on.
Finally, that was the biggest challenge, to try to bring that forward ahead of other things that I thought were as important, or in some ways more important. Even my trip to Gitmo for the story, I thought, that could have been its own feature, just what I saw there. And I ended up just publishing the transcripts of that trip. I carried a tape recorder through the whole tour that I got and the interviews that I requested, and we just ran excerpts of those online, but I remember coming home from Guantánamo and saying “What if this is really a Guantánamo story?”
So Joel just kept talking to me, trying to help me sort through how to take all of these very big things and present them into a way that would be satisfying to a reader without getting too lost in the minutiae.
Is there anything else we wouldn’t know from reading the piece?
I am constantly amazed at the delusion that I suffer under when I begin to write a piece that somehow this is going to be easy – that somehow I think I know it well enough, that I’ve heard my own voice tell it to my wife, my friends or whomever enough times that I’ve got it. And then I sit down, and I am still banging my head against it drafts and drafts later. I’m always astounded by that.
Sometimes you’re lucky, and you just get it in one draft. But more and more, I find that it gets personal. You have to be willing to go to the third and fourth and fifth draft and see what you have even then. Some stories that’s how they work out. This was one of them. It felt like this was a Pyrrhic victory because it was very hard work. I wouldn’t say that about all the pieces I’ve done. Some of them have come from some other place, but this one was a lot of thought, a lot of conversation, and a lot of writing.
I do remember in my MFA program, people saying “writing is hard work.” It’s true, it’s like a blue-collar job. You’ve got to get up and do it, put the hours in and punch the clock. But beyond that, there are stories, whether it’s because you’re so emotionally connected or you feel that there’s some greater importance, some bigger thing that needs to be heard – for some reason sometimes those stories just take more, and you just have to have the energy and faith to carry on.
A really good editor is always a huge help. And this is one of those stories, where Joel and I were in this deep, deep conversation. In many ways, I felt like he was there in my darkest moments guiding where we were trying to get to. I don’t know if that makes sense.
We have readers who are writing professionally, but they may not get or take the opportunity to go that far into a story. I think the frank admission that it’s clocking hours and wrestling with it is hard for people to hear, but helpful. It disabuses them of the notion that people who get to write these stories are fundamentally different in any way from other writers.
This was an exercise in pure stubbornness. There’s no particular talent involved. It was just, “I’ve got to try to figure out how to tell the story.” If you talk to my wife, there were some weeks there where I sort of went to a different place. It was very hard work, wondering if I would ever get to the other side of this.
I like to believe that talent and all those things are overrated, and that there’s a point where you find your own voice, or you find the voice of the story, by being patient and being around it enough and then you begin to let it tell itself. Not in some mystical way. You’re writing the words down, you’re beginning to give yourself cues, and you create this atmosphere of words that takes on a certain valence. Once you have that, then things begin to happen that you never imagined.
Often it feels like someone just tossed it off, and you think, “Oh, my God, I might as well quit right now.” But sometimes that’s seven drafts in. Sometimes you’re luckier and it’s a one-drafter, but that’s so rare. And I know that I could count on one hand, less than one hand, the times something came out in a way that really didn’t need a whole lot in terms of a bigger treatment.
I think that’s sometimes what separates the writers I love from other writers. I can feel them doing that work and I can feel their commitment to making it work and taking the hard way to make it work. That is really gratifying; it makes for something totally different than you might otherwise find. It is easy, despite yourself, to boil these things down into clichés. If you try to resist clichés, then you’re already taking the rocky path, and that’s going to take extra work.