We were sad to miss the New Yorker Festival a ways back, but have finally had a chance to look at some videos from the event, and wanted to deliver a few highlights relevant to storytellers. There were a lot of tempting sessions – Atul Gawande! Janet Malcolm! David Remnick! – but given the number of people who highlighted David Grann’s work on their Longreads end-of-year lists, we took a cue from them and focused on his panel for this post.
Grann hosted a talk with a collection of investigative types – not investigative journalists but people whose careers require them to delve into other peoples’ business. (You can see a free preview of part of the session here). The panel included
- Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer-winning biographer of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Véra Nabokov and Cleopatra;
- Robert Baer, a two-decade veteran of the CIA, author of “Sleeping with the Devil” and “See No Evil”;
- William Oldham, a former police detective in Washington, D.C., and New York City, co-author of “The Brotherhoods”; and
- Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford and author of “Leonardo.”
Grann noted that he had assembled an unconventional combination of participants but swore some patterns would emerge. And sure enough, a lot of the things that were said about how to approach sleuthing in different fields are relevant to storytellers, even if those of us who aren’t calling out French SWAT teams to make high-security arrests or chasing down murderous mafiosi.
Schiff, when asked what drew her to the art of detection, quoted the adage that “all biography is high-class gossip.” She talked about sneaking from her desk at a publishing house to the New York Public Library on her lunch hour to look at material on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a project she orginally thought she would find someone else to write for the company. She had heard that one of the biographies, perhaps the best one, had been written by his mistress but published under a male pseudonym. Hoping to identify the mistress, she sat at a table with the various accounts piled around her. Eventually it dawned on her that the mystery biographer was the one who had avoided any discussion of his marriage. A lot of biography, concluded Schiff, “is reading the silences.”
Former detective Oldham addressed assessing information in a way that will surely seem familiar to many narrative journalists:
No matter what you’re presented with, half of it is unlikely to be germane to what you’re looking at or what you’re looking for. So you learn to dismiss what seem like perfectly good clues and concentrate on the clues that actually have some meaning.
Furthering the idea was art historian Kemp, who suggested that it’s easy to see what you want to see.
The key thing to me is not to believe your first idea too strongly. Always look for the thing which will erode it. Even if 10 things are good about it, at the 11th thing, you have to say, “If this doesn’t fit, then start again.”
That’s essential, just hard looking, just serious hard looking. That’s a very difficult thing. I was trained as a biologist. Once we were dissecting an animal, and the biology master said, “Let’s look for the gall bladder.” And he said, “How many people have found the gall bladder?” All the arms go up. “Funny thing: This animal doesn’t have one.” Looking is important.
Panelists mentioned peoples’ willingness to lie when questioned, but more than one member pointed out how sources typically viewed as more reliable have their own problems. Grann quoted Schiff as explaining how “documents can be as deceptive as people.” Former CIA agent Baer said that even using what seemed like crystal-clear phone intercepts had backfired, explaining how he once heard a target call for a delivery, giving his hotel room number and verifying that he would be there for a set period of time. After mobilizing the French police to do a midday hotel raid to capture the suspect, the agents crashed through the windows of the room number he had given, only to startle an innocent Spanish family eating lunch.
Kemp addressed sourcing by talking about the process for evaluating a work of art and its provenance:
The job I do is rather simple. We say, What is the source? What is the quality of the source? Is it trustworthy? … You cut back to the most reliable possible sources you can find. And then you assume that the most likely explanation is true. (If) that one breaks down, you go on to the next most likely one.
On whether misinformation is a more serious matter today, digital sources took some heat and then Schiff stepped up to defend the Internet, tracing the role of disinformation going back to Benjamin Franklin and the Revolutionary era (another subject she has treated).
Even with an established set of facts, Schiff noted, it’s not as if the truth comes with a bow. Another biographer had access to the very same material she did – personal letters – and drew very different conclusions from them. “I do believe that every biographer is like a child who impudently connects the dots a little bit differently,” she said, “and that your own personality will somewhat come into play.”
Even though journalists are rarely cast in the role of experts and are more likely to investigate CIA activities than to participate in them, there’s more than one profession from which we can cadge techniques, turning relentless sleuthing into great stories.