We recently noticed that Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Goffard had expanded a series he had done for the paper into the book “You Will See Fire.” We’ve talked with other narrative journalists who have done a similar thing (David Finkel, Tom French), but in this case, we thought it would be interesting to focus specifically on that transition.
Goffard has been at the L.A. Times for six years. Before that he worked at the St. Petersburg Times, where he was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. He has also written a novel called “Snitch Jacket.” His current book explores the complicated life and death of John Kaiser, an American Catholic priest in Kenya, and Charles Gathenji, the Kenyan lawyer who befriended Kaiser. In these excerpts from our phone conversation this week, Goffard talks with us about finding the ideal length for a story, blowing deadlines and dealing with ambiguity.
Your book started out as a 2009 newspaper project for the L.A. Times. What was the extent of the newspaper piece? I’m remembering three installments.
Yes, it was 11,000 words, three installments, and that was a mighty act of compression, because I had many boxes of material and much more material that went unused.
A lot of stuff was edited out of the series when it ran in the paper. It seemed like the book was the natural place for all that extra material.
When did that idea first occur to you?
I suppose when I was writing the series. It seemed like there were a lot of avenues to explore that you just didn’t have room for in the newspaper. Like Gathenji in the series is reduced, if I remember correctly, to the last installment. He becomes the vehicle through which you understand how the mystery unfolds.
But in the book he’s central from the very beginning. It becomes a story of two men – that’s the key structural difference between the series and the book.
Can you talk a little bit more about that? Did you at some point consider having the story center more exclusively on Kaiser? At what point did you decide to weave the two together?
The first draft of the book was – it resembled a biography of Kaiser much more than the final draft. The editor, Alane Mason at Norton, said, “This is not a biography of Kaiser. It’s the story of his life as it intersects with Kenyan history, and I want more of Gathenji in the story.”
I went back and interviewed Gathenji for hours more. I put in a lot of material about his childhood, which wound up being fascinating to me. He grew up in colonial Kenya in what they called a protected village during the Mau Mau uprising.
So I think it’s as much about Gathenji as it is about Kaiser, in the final analysis. They really have a lot in common; they’re reflections of each other. They’re both extremely brave men who are daring in their own ways to stand up to a police state when a lot of other people are silent.
So you realized as you were writing the newspaper story that it could be a book. How did you go about turning it into a book? Did someone approach you, or did you seek out agents?
Well, the newspaper series came out, and I got a lot of calls from agents, and they said, “Have you considered making this into a script? Have you considered making this into a book?” I got an agent in New York, Lydia Wills, who seemed to understand exactly what I was doing in the series, and she helped me a shape a book proposal.
Writing a book proposal is not an easy thing. It’s a specialized sort of format. You have to tell the story, and you have to explain why it would be a book that could sell, why it would be of interest to people. It’s not easy to sell a book about Africa. What I was told as we were sending this proposal around was that even critically acclaimed books about Africa tend not to sell very well.
I’m kind of foggy on the date when I turned in my draft, but I remember that I blew my first deadline and needed an extension.
Did you have to do any additional research?
Gathenji ended up in California for a few days. I met with him in San Francisco and Sacramento while he was here en route to a legal conference in Mexico. I was ready to go to Kenya to spend some time with him when he, by amazing coincidence, came here. So I got a few days with him of very intense interviewing. We were practically together from morning to night, talking and going through the story.
Did you have to do any additional archival research, too?
When I went to Kenya the first time to interview people for the newspaper series, I got an immense amount of archival material. I got Kenyan police reports. I got court documents. I got stacks of documents that never made it into the original series. But I did a lot of additional reading when it came time to do the book: about the Mau Mau era, about Kenyan politics, about the reign of Daniel arap Moi, and before him, Jomo Kenyatta. So it was an education in Kenyan history.
The real challenge of the book was in weaving this enormous body of political and historical material into a narrative without slowing it down. The more drafts I did, the more material I wound up putting in the endnotes, so as not to throw a speed bump in front of the narrative.
I think you have to understand the context in which the story plays out in order to fully to appreciate it, but I didn’t want to so bog the reader down with names and dates and places that are probably foreign to most Western readers that they would stop reading about the two men at the center of the book.
Did you have a rule of thumb on how to make the call about what went into endnotes, or did you just do it by feel?
I did it by feel, but in retrospect, reading it now, I probably could have cut more of the historical stuff and put it in the back without losing the momentum of the narrative. But some readers like the historical material. Some people find it interesting. So it’s a judgment call; sometimes I second-guess my choices, and sometimes they seem right.
I wish I had a rule of thumb, so I could be consistent about these things.
Despite a lot of years as a reporter, did you have a moment when you said to yourself, “I’m not an Africa specialist. I’m not a Church historian. This is really complicated. What the hell am I doing?”
I say “What the hell am I doing?” on almost every story that I write for the newspaper. It’s a common feeling. This is just a vastly protracted version of that experience, because it lasted years and years. You feel overwhelmed by the material, you feel adrift in a sea of facts. It’s daunting.
But it helps to have a contract, and it helps to have a deadline and an editor who is asking, “Where is your book?” If you didn’t have that, it might never get done, considering the amount of work that goes into it. But it helps to have a fear of blowing your deadline.
Which you blew, but somehow survived.
She was nice enough to give me an extension. But still, it helps to have the fear of returning your advance money.
There are so many wonderful newspaper and magazine stories that get turned into books but just don’t have enough there there to make it as a book. Did you worry about that?
No, I thought the real danger would be that it would be too long a book.
When I did “The $40 Lawyer” for the St. Pete Times a few years ago, I got some inquiries about whether I wanted to turn it into a book. And I thought it was great just as it was – I didn’t think it warranted expansion into a book. I thought it had reached its ideal form as a newspaper series.
But the Kaiser story gives you a portal into so many different realms that a book is the only way to really do it: the massacres that attended the reign of Daniel arap Moi, the fraught history of missionaries in Kenya, the nature of manic depression, the ambiguity surrounding martyrdom and suicide. All these things you just don’t have room to explore with great depth in a newspaper story.
In a way I didn’t worry about there being enough material, I worried about there being too much material to make it manageable, to make the book palatable for readers.
Your book is in many ways a mystery story: How did Father John Kaiser die in Kenya? And you deliver a lot of heavy evidence, but you never serve up a gotcha conclusion where it all becomes clear. How did you think about setting up that ending across the book?
I knew I wouldn’t have a tidy resolution. And that’s difficult, because you risk inducing in readers a feeling of betrayal and dissatisfaction if they come to the end of what is ostensibly a murder mystery without getting a satisfying conclusion.
So you have to somehow supply an emotionally satisfying ending, and I hope we did that with the image of Kaiser’s brother going to church in western Kenya and meeting all these kids who are named for his brother – the final point being that we probably never will know what happened to Father Kaiser, but he left his imprint in this very tangible way.
A lot of people are uncomfortable with ambiguous endings. I happen to like them. The ambiguity of the story is one of the things that interested me the most. Because how you answer the question of what killed Father Kaiser, I think, says a lot about you and your perspective and your experience.
Did you have any pushback from your agent, or your editor, or the salespeople at Norton about keeping that ambiguity?
Not really. It was central to the book. I don’t recall any pushback. All I can do as a journalist is present what evidence there is on both sides. I tried to do it as honestly as possible without distorting the evidence to fit a predetermined conclusion.
Readers should make up their own mind, and I give them enough to do so, I think. Most people who read the book come away thinking Kaiser was murdered. Some people are left with a troubling uncertainty about it. I don’t think that’s at odds with what I was going for.
Was there something you hoped the book would do that the newspaper story didn’t?
It would take people deeper into the complexities of the case and the complexities of a man who I admire a lot, Kaiser, but who was far from the papier-mâché saint. He was a complicated man, sometimes a reckless man, a very brave man, but also stubborn and exasperating in a way that a lot of his church colleagues found very difficult to deal with.
I guess, fundamentally, it’s an exploration of the nature of courage. What animated this man to do these things at such a dangerous time and at such a cost to himself? You can just get into that stuff a lot more deeply in a book than you can in a newspaper series.
In an email after our phone call, Goffard sent along additional thoughts for those pondering turning a feature story into a book:
It’s amazingly rewarding but amazingly difficult. A lot of the same rules apply to a 3-part series as do to a book. The normal anxieties you have about doing a newspaper project – mastering the material, making it readable, not disgracing yourself with errors – are hugely magnified. You’re not dealing with, say, 500 facts you have to get right but 5,000. And the “What the hell am I doing?” question is going to live under your skin, on and off, for much longer.
So you really have to be consumed by the need to do this particular book. If you’re spending 3 or 4 years on it, and you calculate the hours you’re devoting to it, even an OK advance amounts to minimum wage, or less. No rational person would do it for the money. Maybe no rational person would do it at all.