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So What Do You Do, William Langewiesche, International Correspondent, Vanity Fair?

Graydon Carter's Ellie-winning secret weapon on why these are the 'golden years' for magazines

By E.B. Boyd - July 25, 2007
lang_072407.jpgIt seems like every other piece Vanity Fair international correspondent William Langewiesche writes gets nominated for a National Magazine Award. His pieces have been among the finalists for nine years running, and two of them have nabbed a prestigious Ellie, including last year's "Rules of Engagement," about the U.S. Marine killings of civilians in Haditha, Iraq. Langewiesche first gained recognition while writing for The Atlantic, where for 15 years he covered everything from the crash of the space shuttle Columbia to the clean-up of the World Trade Center site. He is also the author of six books of non-fiction, including his latest, The Atomic Bazaar, published this year, about the proliferation of nuclear weapons among poor states and non-state actors.

Before taking his place among the leading writers of literary journalism, however, Langewiesche struggled for what he calls ten long years "in the wilderness," writing every day but getting almost nothing published and flying planes to pay the bills. Langewiesche talks to us about the risks of failure, his job at Vanity Fair, and why he believes these are the golden years for magazine writing.

Name: William Langewiesche
Position: International correspondent, Vanity Fair
Last three jobs: National correspondent for The Atlantic. Pilot and freelance writer (simultaneously)
Hometown: Princeton, New Jersey
Education: "None [laughs]. Effectively it's true, but nominally, I graduated from Stanford University."
Marital status: Married, two children
First section of the Sunday Times: Front page
Favorite TV show: Doesn't watch television.
Last five songs listened to on your iPod: Doesn't have an iPod.
Last book read: Everest by Walt Unsworth
Guilty pleasure: "I have pleasures, but I don't feel guilty about them."
Last five stamps in your passport: Brazil, France, U.K., Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador

You're in Brazil right now. Are you working on a story down there?
Yes, but I can't really talk about work I'm doing. I'm doing a very light piece, for a break.

The title "international correspondent" evokes images of jetting off to exotic locales, hobnobbing with dictators, and canoodling with beautiful women. What's it really like?
It's just like that [laughs]. What's it really like? There are probably many forms of this and probably very few that are like mine. I'm not a newspaper writer, doing daily news from Beijing. Mine is a job in which I consult with my editors, [Vanity Fair editor-at-large] Cullen Murphy and [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter, and we decide on the next subject. Then I head out into it, with very little preparation, intentionally somewhat naïve about it. I read a little about it, but not too much. And then I go to ground. I'm allowed to take as much time as I need on the ground to look into a story, and then from there I proceed to write.

How do you decide what you're going to work on next?
I typically have a running list of 10-15 ideas, in other words, years of work that I could move on to, that I've discussed with my editors. And then eventually we choose one. I'm always dropping ideas because new things come up, so there's always a rolling list of subjects, most of which I never get to.

'We're living in a time when the best people are not cynical, when the dollar is not absolutely ruling things, when there's a lot of deep intelligence and integrity being applied to our business. It's a great time to be a magazine writer.'

Do you wrestle with your editors about what you're going to work on?
I don't remember them ever telling me they really wanted me to do a story that I didn't want to do, and I don't remember ever really wanting to do a story that they didn't want me to do. Typically, if I have an idea, I discuss it with them, and they may have reason to tell me they don't think it's a good story, and I listen to them because they're very smart people. I'm lucky, because I'm working with some of the best editors of the past 50 years. These are the golden years. If only people knew it. We have some very, very good editors at work today, and I'm just lucky that I'm allowed to work with some of these guys.

These are the golden years?
There's a tendency to think always that the golden years in publishing, in magazines, in almost anything, probably, were some time probably 50 years ago. Before our generation. Those were the golden times when really good work was being done, when the really dedicated editors were working, when the dollar was not ruling, when people were not as cynical as they are now. I find that's actually wrong. We're living in a time when the best people are not cynical, when the dollar is not absolutely ruling things, when there's a lot of deep intelligence and integrity being applied to our business. It's a great time to be a magazine writer.

But the news coming out of the publishing world is so gloom and doom.
It always has been. But look, it's a very rough racket. It's a very, very tough business to be in. It's a tough job to be a writer, to be an editor, to run a magazine, to make money of any kind, to publish books. It's a crap shoot. We know it. But we are the people who decided we weren't going to become doctors and lawyers. So it's a very difficult road to walk. Always has been. Always will be.

You have an unusual resumé for a magazine writer. After college, you worked for a flying magazine for a few years and then left and became a pilot.
I left the magazine in order to become the next John McPhee [laughs]. John McPhee, of course, being one of the great nonfiction writers of our time, and I thought: "I can read this stuff easily enough. Why can't I write it?"

I, being young and naïve myself, left my job and began to fly airplanes and to write, always writing. I wrote a bunch of stuff that wasn't published, and I continued to struggle. My goal was never to become a pilot. My goal was to, well, become exactly what I am now, interestingly enough. I failed at that for many years, but I was lucky because I had a skill which allowed me to stay dry when it rained.

Were you pitching stories to magazines during that time, or were you just writing for yourself?
I knew that there was this magazine world in New York, with lots of slick magazines, and I knew I didn't want to write for those guys, so I never approached them. I thought I'd rather fly airplanes than do that. I don't know why I had a strong aversion to it. I wanted to write serious stuff, long stuff, not fast stuff. I wanted to write with quality, both quality of thought and literary quality, and I knew I couldn't do that in that world. I felt they would not have given me that opportunity. They would have asked me to do it fast, and make it slick and catchy, and I didn't want to do any of that.

I had some very small contracts for books, which I wrote, and were unpublishable. And then I was able eventually to begin to publish some of the kind of writing I wanted to write, after many years. I must have spent almost 10 years in the wilderness, a long time, never giving up. I was traveling a lot internationally. I would take a job [as a pilot] for a while, and then I'd quit and travel. I was looking for things to write about. I was trying to expose myself to the world. A lot of what I was doing was getting older, but I didn't see it that way at the time.

Getting older how?
One of the reasons my writing was not good enough when I was 25 years old was that my thinking wasn't good enough. One of the reasons my thinking wasn't good enough was that I wasn't old enough. I didn't have enough experience. Why would a reader, a mature reader, an intelligent reader want to read the work of a 25-year-old, wet-behind-the-ears kid, at least on serious subjects? I was trying to write about the world in which we live on a more serious level. But I was too young. But that's just me. I was a late bloomer.

Giving hope to late bloomers everywhere, given where you are now.
[Laughs] Yeah, well, I don't know where I am now. Certainly I don't have to fly airplanes anymore.

Eventually you sent two pieces to The Atlantic. They liked your writing and gave you an assignment.
I was actually doing some work by that time for The New York Times Sunday sections. I'd written a piece on a town in Algeria. I intended it to be for The New York Times Travel section, but after I wrote it, I thought, "This is pretty good." So, completely blindly, I sent it off to The Atlantic, hardly knowing what The Atlantic was. I just knew it was a good magazine.

So, The Atlantic assigns you a story, and you haven't had a lot of experience being published. Now you're writing for one of the top magazines in the country, and the first story you give them is 17,000 words ["The World in its Extreme," November 1991]. Were you nervous about your ability to deliver?
No. It didn't cross my mind to be nervous. They sent me back to North Africa. I wasn't worried about what the result was going to be. I was just worried about working. I also didn't think they were going to make that big a deal out of it, and then they turned around and made it into a cover story. That was really a surprise.

Once you joined The Atlantic, did they throw you in a particular direction because you were the "new guy"? Or did they leverage the experience you'd built up and have you do certain kinds of stories?
They treated me then the way Vanity Fair treats me now. They were all in favor of my doing what I wanted to do. They were very enthusiastic about my work. They were more positive about my work than I was myself, and they still are.

Walk us through a three-month period in your job.
Having launched out with the approval of my editors, I typically will go out with a little bit of research -- either I will have read or some people will have done some reading for me. I try to stay off the Internet. It's a huge time-sink. I try not to get involved in reading everything about a subject, but I may have a few books with me. I never underline anything. I absorb what I'm absorbing, and if I forget it, I figure it was worth forgetting. It's a very loose approach.

So I go into it and try to understand what I'm seeing. There's a stage I go through when I'm rubbing my eyes, and I can't understand this world that I'm in now. I feel like I don't understand anything. I can't see anything. I start asking questions, and then I very much listen to people. I listen to people very carefully. I never prepare questions in advance. I never email questions to people. I just talk to people and listen carefully and respond to what they're saying and try to give of myself as much as I'm asking them to give of themselves, so that a true conversation can develop. These conversations typically will go on for weeks, on and off. Sometimes I take notes. Depending on the sophistication of the people I'm talking to, I record what they're saying. When I'm on the ground, I'm working anywhere from 12 to 16 hours a day.

Then comes the conversation with Cullen. We have complex conversations about structure, and then I start down the road. The real work is not done in the research. The real work is done in the writing. That's when you really begin to think about the subject clearly.

How so?
Writing is thinking. Writing is a form of thought. It's difficult for me to believe that real thought is possible without writing. I really begin to think most profoundly about a subject that I'm writing about when I write about it. The problem of expression forces the thought to clarify itself, and that's where the real work is done.

The real work is not done in places like Kinshasa or here in Brazil on the ground. The real work is done outside. What you're doing here on the ground is trying to provide yourself with the resources necessary to think about the subject clearly later on.

David Halberstam's standard advice to young reporters was that you should always ask the person you're interviewing: "Who else should I talk to?" What's your advice about reporting?
What matters is to listen very carefully. Just listen to people. There's no formula to it. And then if they themselves are overgeneralizing or feeding you a lot of bullshit, you need to pick up on that and make it real. If they're not willing to tell you what happened [in concrete detail], maybe the whole thing's bullshit. Put it to ground. Make it practical and real.

What impact does having had a completely different career before coming to journalism fulltime have on the reporting and writing you do today?
I did very specialized kind of flying for a while, bad weather flying and storm chasing. The kind of decision-making that has to be done in the heaviest weather probably affects my ability to function in some of the more hostile environments where I find myself, like Iraq.

I never took courses in how to do this job, and I think it's probably to my advantage. Maybe I'd be a much better writer, had I taken the courses. But I suspect that the effect of too much schooling or too much reading of the how-to manuals is to channel people into standard ways of approaching problems. I don't suffer from that problem, because I don't know what the standardized stuff is. So coming at this job from the experience of being a pilot maybe it helped me -- or maybe it hurt me [laughs].

Your articles have been nominated for nine successive National Magazine Awards, and they've won two. Is that currency of any kind? Does it get you anything?
No. [laughs]. It's very nice of them. I appreciate the compliment.

Do other writers hate you because just about every other story you do ends up getting nominated?
[Laughs] There are people who hate me, but they tend not to be writers. I don't hold myself up to be superior to anyone, certainly not other writers. Coming from where I've come from on this long and difficult road, my inclination is to help other writers to the small degree that I can.

What is the highest level of success you can imagine?
It's to write really, really good stuff, and to hit it on a sustained basis. One of the great tragedies for all of us is that the day is going to come when we're too old to do it well anymore. Luckily in writing, that age is late. Short of senility, or alcoholism, or the other traps of this business, we all tend to get better as we get older. That's one of the best things about this job. Age pays.

What's the difference between writing for The Atlantic and writing for Vanity Fair? Are they interested in different kinds of stories, or different angles on the same stories?
The work I did at The Atlantic is very similar to the work I'm doing now. There's a subtle literary liberation. I can go a little farther. I can be a little more myself. But I don't think there's a significant difference.

Does Vanity Fair ask you to sex up your stories?
Never. Vanity Fair never asks me to sex up my stories. It's a much, much higher standard than that. The writing that goes on there is the writer's writing. The writers who write for Vanity Fair would never stand for that, and Graydon Carter would never do that. He's a great editor. He's as good as it gets.

What advice do you give people who ask you how to become an international correspondent?
I get this question all the time, and my heart goes out to them. What can I say? First learn to fly? I have no idea. I don't think there's any one route. All I say is it's a very hard road. I would never want my son or daughter to go down that road because the chances of failure are too high. The rewards are enormous if you succeed. Not financial rewards, but the more important stuff. But it's a very difficult road, and anybody who's got the courage to go down that road, thank God that those people do have the courage. But I don't know what the formula is.

Do you have any secrets for kicking jet lag?
[Laughs] I wish I did. The older I get, the worse it gets. Eat carrots.

No, I was kidding.

Well, maybe as a placebo.
Definitely. If you believe carrots are going to work, go for carrots.

E.B. Boyd is freelance writer based in San Francisco.

[Editor's Note: This interview has been excerpted for length and clarity.]

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