How To Report When You Can't

Wyl S. Hilton's New York Times profile of Laura Hillenbrand is illuminating in a particularly unexpected way.  It sheds light not only on the way Hillenbrand works, but also suggests an approach for other authors.

Hillenbrand's long struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome is widely known -- she is functionally housebound. Hilton focuses on how she turned that disadvantage into an advantage as a reporter. She cannot travel to battlefields or interview her subjects face-to-face. It's extraordinary to learn that she only ever spoke to the subject of Unbroken, Louis Zamperini, by telephone, interviewing him scores of times. But she notes that being removed, having to rely only on tone of voice and phrasing, allowed her to focus more closely on asking hard questions and listening deeply to the answers. In other words, she believes she was a better interviewer because she actually received less, rather than more, information from her interviews. She finds support from Teri Gross, the Fresh Air host, who interviews most of her subjects remotely and says that working only with the spoken word helps make her radio broadcasts better for listeners.

Even more interesting was how Hillenbrand conducts historical research. Unable to travel to a library or tolerate reading microfilm, she simply doesn't. Instead, she purchases vintage newspapers on eBay and literally flips through them to find the articles she wants. In so doing she enjoys a particular serendipity familiar to anyone who has handled a newspaper in hard copy. These days I do most of my reading online, but I know I am missing something by doing so, just as I knew we were losing something when we did away with actual card catalogs in libraries. Flipping through a card catalog you ran a good chance of discovering a related book you hadn't known about, or some marginalia on the card itself that would be useful or at least entertaining.

In the same way, Hillenbrand finds that the advertisements, announcements and news articles that fill the pages of the historical newspapers she reads allow her a sense of the gestalt of the era that she might otherwise fail to capture. That understanding, in turn, infuses and informs her writing.

As a nonfiction author and former newspaperman, I am intrigued and gratified by Hillenbrand's approach. I have informally used it in the past. As I gear up to research a nonfiction book about the 1980s, I intend to use it much more consciously.