PW: Can you elaborate on the common theme that runs through your stories as touched on in your introduction?
SJ: Mainly, I realized after collecting them all in one group (I didn't write those pieces in order to have a collection—that came as an afterthought when I looked back on my 30s; I'm about to turn 40 now)—the one thing that compelled me as a journalist is situations where people are in one form or another being confronted with forces that are way beyond their control. I used to work as a climber for tree companies, and one of the scariest things about that job is, you take trees down in pieces, and I worked 80—90 feet in the air, and you cut off the top of the tree, while you're up there in it. You're unleashing tons of weight into the air over your head, and you have to do it skillfully or you're in danger. I got hurt doing that job, and I think that's one of the reasons I became interested in people in similar situations.
PW: What is your position on the use of the first person in journalistic writing? And alternately, what is the role of the storyteller?
SJ: I feel like real first-person storytelling is the realm of memoir. As a journalist, I feel that it's inappropriate—there's a risk of the journalist turning himself into the story. But I do use it—I like to think I use it lightly. I have written pieces that were completely third-person (like The Perfect Storm). But in really complex situations like Sierra Leone or Afghanistan, using a little bit of the first person helps bring the country you're writing about into focus. It's sort of a lens that helps the reader see more clearly. Once, I was getting shelled on this hilltop, it was absolutely miserable—without the first person it would be hard to communicate that. It really gives you the sense of what war is like. But you have to use the first person with tremendous discretion. I have to be very clear in my mind—I am not the point of this story. God forbid I mistake my little adventure for the point of all this.
PW: How do you go about getting a story from those determined not to offer one?
SJ: You go to their enemies. That was one of the first pieces of advice I got when I started writing. Way, way back when I was in Washington, I was writing for the City Paper. For the first article that I did, I had no idea what I was doing, and the editor said, "Here's an assignment on a cable contract that the city awarded to somebody. They're not going to talk to you, so go to the people who didn't get the contract, because they're upset." Of course, the danger is, the information you get from the other side will be biased and inaccurate. But you can get enough information that you can triangulate on the truth. The Perfect Storm was an attempt to write about a boat that disappeared—you can't absolutely know for sure, but the whole book was an attempt at the best possible guess. If that's as close as you can get, as long as you tell the reader that it's a guess and that you don't know for sure, that's fine. Ultimately, the reader will be the judge, but this approach has an inherent honesty to it, which I think readers really appreciate.
PW: Are you happy with the Norton-HarperCollins publishing axis you've established?
SJ: Oh, yes, they're great. The deal that we've worked out between the two of them is just a more formalized version of the arrangement that we had for The Perfect Storm. There really is something to be said for being with a smaller house; you feel like you're family. I think I'd be saying this even if my book were sort of midlevel. You really feel like they care. You're not just lost in this sea that pours out of a big house every spring, and I like that.