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Imagine being the one guy who still lives in a town that's been engulfed by lava—by yourself in a small, lush pocket amid a volcanic landscape that's riddled with deadly lava tubes. Think about inhabiting an abandoned military compound in a remote Alaskan outpost, where winds rage, there's always a threat of an avalanche, the only access to the rest of the world is through a long tunnel, and nearly all the residents inhabit one government-built apartment building. Consider hanging on as an 81-year-old hillbilly in the mountains of Malibu, refusing to budge when regular wildfires come charging through the valley. Living in these so-called "extreme locales" would seem unpleasant, if not forbidding, to most of us, but to certain people who actually live there, they're proud homes that can't be abandoned. In his new book, Braving Home, 28-year-old Jake Halpern, a bit of a nomad himself, examined these sorts of places, and he sought to explain why some people get so attached to their residences they're willing to stay there through anything. He sought out five such communities—places too risky for most of us to live in, but with at least one very devoted local—and visited each one, getting a feel for the place and its residents (or, sometimes, resident). Safe back home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Halpern spoke to mediabistro.com recently about working at The New Republic, writing this book, and the various colorful characters he's encountered while reporting, from Volcano resident Jack to Alaskan Babs to Malibu's Millie—to even New York's infamous Bernie Goetz.
Your first—and only, really—job in journalism was as a fact-checker at The New Republic. How did that come about?
When I was in college, I worked on a documentary about my great uncle, a Holocaust survivor. He grew up in a Slovakian small town, and he survived because his best friend from childhood, who was a Catholic kid, hid him underneath his bed for almost a year and then built a secret room for him in his basement, where he hid for another two years. When the film was done, someone mentioned to me that this guy Marty Peretz, who is the editor-in-chief of The New Republic, had an interest in Holocaust stories and might like this. So I invited him to come to the screening, and that launched a friendship with him. I then went overseas and worked as a freelance journalist and taught at an embassy school in Israel for a year, but I stayed in touch with him, and eventually Marty said to me, "If you're ever interested in working at The New Republic, just let me know." And when I came back I had this growing interest in journalism and contacted him.
What was it like working there, and how did it lead you to this book?
I came to The New Republic right after the Stephen Glass incident. They were extremely, and rightly so, concerned about accuracy. So I really had the fear of God in me about getting facts right. Which is something that I'm extremely grateful for, because in writing the book and doing other things, I was really disciplined in how to go over something and really make sure and knowing where it's possible to make unintentional errors.
Also I made the contacts for the book. I had written a story about this coal-mining town that's on fire, and that led to people saying, "Hey, if you're interested in that story, you should really check out this place." One thing led to another, and I kind of became the bad-homes correspondent; that became my little niche. So one day I'm sitting on the switchboard, which is part of the rite of passage for all the interns, and the publicist for the magazine calls to talk to the editor, Peter Beinart. Peter was on the phone, and she wanted to hold, so we started chatting and I told her about this crazy idea I had for a book. And she says, "That sounds like an awesome idea—you should write something up, and I'll get it in the hands of an agent." So I spent the next few weeks seriously putting together a proposal, and, with the help Jen Bluestein, the publicist, and a few other people, I ended up getting an agent.
Was it hard, visiting these places and writing the book?
I think the biggest challenge was that the natural expectation was that people living in these crazy places are crazy people, kind of cockeyed maniacs who are get-away-from-my-land kind of people. And what I wanted to do was try to bring out some of the color and eccentricities of these people, make them really engaging and, yeah, the characters that they were, but not to make them caricatures—tto lend them a sense of dignity that I thought that they deserved.
Most of the people I wrote about, I lived with them and they kind of brought me into their homes. Normally, when you interview someone for a story there are natural confines to the interview: you meet them at a restaurant, you meet them in their office, maybe you even meet them in their home and, for two or three hours, they can kind of watch what they say to you and you can have a proper interview. But I was living with these people and befriending them, and so they would tell me everything. I was aware that I was really trespassing through their lives and hearing much more than I might otherwise hear, and I didn't want to betray them. I didn't want to air all their dirty laundry; I wanted to not leave their lives total messes. Not that everyone in the world will be reading my book, but assuming they and their neighbors and a bunch of other people might be reading this book, I wanted them to feel that they had not been steamrolled by me. So what I ended up doing was, all of their quotes I read back to them at least twice. I did this for fact-checking purposes mainly, but I also wanted them to kind of have a sense of what was going to be in there and give them a chance to object if they felt that what I had said was unfair.
I was often amazed that things I thought would upset them and bother them didn't. For example, in Whittier, Alaska, I have these sisters talking about one another, complaining about one another saying, "Oh, she's in my hair, we didn't talk for years, she's kind of a nuisance," and I really wanted to include that kind of sisterly tension because I thought it added a lot to their portrait, but I wasn't sure how they were going to react. So I read it back to them and they were pretty much like, "Yup, that's true, she is a pain in the ass. Yeah, she is an emotional vampire, that's right, uh-huh." And I'm like, "You're comfortable with me putting that in there?" "Sure, why not?" The same thing happened with Thad Knight, in North Carolina, whose son committed suicide. I didn't know if I wanted to drag that out. Eventually I just said, "Thad, you know, I would like to include this bit about Carlton committing suicide, and would that be all right with you?" And he said, "Yeah, that's no problem." And so sometimes the things that I was thinking would be sensitive were not.
But what about the physical challenges?
Those were much more immediate. The one that comes to mind the most is the volcano. Essentially we had to walk in, a chopper was not an option, it was just too expensive, and we couldn't take Jack's motorcycle in because there had been too much volcanic activity. Leading up to me going there, the volcanic activity was more intense in that area than it had been in like a decade. So we get a lift out there, and we're passing all of these road signs that are like, "Don't go beyond this point." "Absolutely don't go beyond this point." "Sulfuric acid-laden steam from lava mixing with seawater will blow inward and scald." These signs continued to progress with more intense warnings and dangers, and I was just sitting in the back of the pickup truck. I couldn't talk to Jack because he was riding in the front with someone else, and we finally got out and Jack just said come on, let's go, and it was a leap of faith. I figured that this guy has been making this trip for 20-odd years; he's not going to die on this time across. And we started walking across the flow and the ground was hot, you could feel the heat radiating up through your shoes, and it was kind of cracking and the biggest fear is that you would fall into a lava tube, which are these giant underground tunnels that convey the lava, and if the surface is thin above one of these tubes, you could fall and that would be the end of you. We did come to a point where there was red gushing out of the earth, and Jack very nonchalantly popped out a penny and flipped it in. The penny just melted immediately, and we kind of marveled at it.
And then in the other places, the place that was hit by hurricanes in Louisiana, and then Malibu with wild fires, it was more that we thought we might have a hurricane when I was there, and it was just kind of me debating whether or not, if the hurricane came, or if the wildfire came, would I stay around to get the story of it passing through. It never came to that so I didn't have to make that hard decision.
How did you find working on books rather than magazine articles?
One of my strongest motivations for writing this book was that the pieces that I wrote for The New Republic were only about a page long, and I found myself very frustrated with that length. I gathered all this great research and did so much reporting and then had to condense it. So I think that the advantage of doing a book is that you just have tons of time, and you have lots of space, and you can really go off on tangents. Just to have that room is a great luxury. The tough side is that sometimes you can just gather too much information, or you can go overboard, or you can be a little bit freaked out about just how much space you have. Whereas there's something great about doing a piece that's just really short.
For example, I wrote a New Yorker "Talk of the Town" piece in October. I caught up with Bernhard Goetz, who was the famous subway shooter from the '80s, and he's trying to reinvent himself as a vegetarian. He marches in the Halloween Day Parade now as this giant peapod. I wanted to march with him, and he told me that I could come and supply him with flyers if I dressed up as a tomato. So I flew into New York, rented a tomato outfit, marched in the Halloween Day Parade as a tomato with Bernie Goetz. Then woke up the next morning, wrote the piece, sent it to The New Yorker, and it was in print the next week. And it was like, "Wow, this is so cool." It just all happens so quickly, and there was something fun about just having a crazy idea and jumping on it and then all of a sudden seeing it in print. So that's, I think, the advantage to being able to do a piece a magazine piece, you can kind of just have a zany idea and go with it.
Jacqueline Schneider is an editorial intern at mediabistro.com. Braving Home was published earlier this month by Houghton Mifflin. You can buy Braving Home at Amazon.com. Photo by Neil Giordano.