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RANDOM FAMILY
Q&A with author Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

BY DAVID S. HIRSCHMAN | For ten years, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc hung out in the South Bronx chronicling the lives of a group of young people for a book "loosely" about urban poverty. By shining light on seemingly insignificant events and drawing out the greater context, she has created a work of unprecedented breadth and chilling beauty. The book, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx (in bookstores February 4th), is being described by many as a masterpiece. Author Richard Price writes "Somehow managing to be both journalistically objective and novelistically passionate, in Random Family, Adrian LeBlanc has made a singular contribution to the literature of the American underclass. An unforgettable and intimate portrait of life in the urban trenches as much about love and longing as about the statistics of despair." A portion of the book is excerpted in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine. We asked Adrian to share some of the journalistic insights she gained in the course of her reporting. (Click here to buy Random Family on Amazon.com)

How did you decide to write an epic about love, drugs, trouble and family life in the South Bronx?
The book evolved out of a profile I was writing for Rolling Stone magazine that got killed. It was pretty much a standard profile of a young heroin dealer who was being tried in federal court. By the end of the trial, I had met one of his girlfriends in the courtroom. I had interviewed her and was hanging out with her a bit, and then she ended up getting locked up, and the story became like a tree with various branches…And, so when I focused on the girls, it included their moms and when I focused on [the moms], it included their kids and so on... …I can't say I ever decided to create what resulted, though. I just knew it was a book about urban poverty -- very loosely.

The book maintains a delicate balance of sympathy for and yet stark observation of its subjects. What brought about such interest?
My background probably contributed to my interest. My mom worked in a drug rehab center and my dad was a union organizer. So, I was exposed entirely to a social work/social justice orientation to the world. …I spent a lot of time hanging out at the drug rehab center where my mom worked after school, talking to people.

How did you get people to tell you such incredibly personal details about their lives?
I was always very straightforward about my interest and I find that people are generally very responsive [--] if you pay close attention. I was really interested in mundane life. I mean, the book turned out to be an incredibly wild plot-driven story, but I was just trying to get the lay of the land. I wasn't trying to find out who shot who. I just wanted to know "How did you feel when your boyfriend went to prison?" or "How do you feel in the morning when you have this much money on you?"

Why else do you think people talked to you?
Boredom plays a factor. People talk to reporters for all kinds of reasons but I think people would talk to me because they were bored or because I was sincerely interested. For anyone, whether you're an inner city kid or a very sophisticated upper-middle-class person, it's really compelling when someone pays attention to you.

How often did you go up to the Bronx?
There were periods when I went for weeks every single day. And there were periods of time when I didn't go for awhile. Eventually, I ended up spending more extended periods of time there, days and nights at a time.

Did some people think you were a cop?
Until this very day, some people probably still think I was a cop. People who didn't know me probably thought I was a social worker, I mean the neighborhood was very racially segregated, so being in the neighborhood, just being a white person, I stood out.

Why would people let you stay in their houses?
I don't know. It wasn't lots of people, it was mainly one of the girls [in the book]. I so enjoyed her company and she responded with the same enthusiasm and interest.

So, you're a white girl, reporting alone at night in the Bronx. Did you ever feel you were in danger?
When I was standing by myself on the subway platform at two in the morning, I was more aware, but I would be aware standing at the subway at two in the morning anywhere. People have many misconceptions about the inner city and the Bronx. I'm not saying there are neighborhoods where it's not dangerous or that there aren't places with higher chances of violence, but the vast majority of people are just people living their lives. It was more when I was alone that I was conscious, because I then realized that my relationships with people were a measure of protection. So when I was with people, I would not worry. When I was alone again, I would sometimes worry. And those moments were insights. That's when I understood that maybe that's why girls never walked to the store by themselves -- because guys make all these comments to the girls when they're walking that feel more like teasing when you're in a group, but can be frightening or make you feel vulnerable when you're alone. So, maybe sometimes that's why they go out in packs or always bring along a younger cousin.

Did your sources ever try to push you away?
Some people did. I was always ready to leave when something intense was happening. My instincts in that way are not aggressive. I think the most direct action is probably the thing I'd be least responsive to. So probably the most overtly dramatic event would interest me the least. I'm much more interested in what is going on on the sidelines. I'm not saying that's a strategy. But, for example, there's a murder scene in the book and for years the scene consisted simply of "and then he was shot and he was dead." Literally that was it, and my editor kept saying, "Adrian, this is an incredibly dramatic moment," but it was so painful to talk to the man who shot his friend, it was so painful to talk to people about the dead kid; and it was more painful the more I got to know people and understand. I didn't like asking people about that stuff, and I put it off as long as possible. And, yes, the passage is longer now, it's just not my natural tendency to go in that way.

What kinds of intense moments did you experience with your subjects?
There are overtly intense moments like, maybe, a fight... but also quieter, intimate moments, like a glance, or overhearing an endearment. Another example, one of the young people had been released from jail after having been falsely arrested. His return was very emotional for his family and I was very close with them, so it was very emotional for me, too. But I was still thinking, "It's not right to be here." And it's not necessary. It's private. And I doubt they even noticed me. But at the end of the day, I think people are really themselves throughout the day. Whether it's a touching or an awful moment of their lives or the most boring, there's still some residue of that person. I don't believe that one moment is more revealing than another. These are choices, the luxuries, really, of taking so much reporting time.

In the course of your years of reporting, did you ever find out later that people had been withholding things from you?
Sure, but more interestingly, in a lot of ways, you get the story you can bear. I think people tell you what they sense you can absorb as un-judgmentally as possible. So, when I listen to my early tapes, I realize that people were so ready to tell me stuff that I wasn't ready to hear. Because it was painful, it was sad, because I was utterly ingnorant, my education was slow. But I really think people sense what you're capable of taking.

Did they know throughout that it was for a book?
Yes. I was very straightforward about it. Many people began to doubt it. Especially after it took ten years. Some people even made comments like, "It doesn't take everybody ten years to write a book, does it?"

Were you ever surprised by the similarity between characters in your book and people in your personal life?
People always assumed that these worlds would be wildly different, but actually, the similarities were much more striking. Someone was commenting on the love life of one of my book's characters and she asked "why would that girl fall for a prisoner"? The consequences of that love were what she was referring to. And I just thought, "Who can explain love?" or any human behavior, for that matter. In the end, people's basic humanity always trumps class differences.

How about the nuts and bolts of ten years of writing? Did you have a lot of records to keep track of?
For the most part, I stopped tape recording after the first four years or so because I simply couldn't keep up with the transcripts. I don't like anyone else to do my transcripts and so it got just impossible.

How many tapes did you have?
I can't even imagine. Hundreds.

Were you able to manage with notebooks instead?
Yes, but the problem with having such a massive amount of material is that obviously people don't talk chronologically, so at first I'd only date the notebook December 12th or something but I wouldn't put anything on the cover about what was inside the notebook. So, I had to read and re-read all the earlier notebooks to find what I needed much later.

Were there problems fact-checking or finishing the book?
Some things had to go because of the length of time that had passed, where the person didn't remember what they'd said or they said it six different ways. And there were a lot of things that Coco simply didn't remember, not because of the time that had passed, but because so much had happened in the interim. She had kids and she was busy and her life was hectic.

What other useful lessons did you learn in the reporting?
You really don't know what is interesting when you're in the field. I thought I knew, and sometimes those instincts proved very useful. But often, very different people emerged as the most vivid characters. Lourdes, the mom, was one of those characters. I spent a lot of time with her, but didn't realize she was such a central character in the book until much later on in the writing of it.

You followed 30 people's lives over the course of your reporting, how did you keep track of all the information?
I kept theme files and bio files on most of the characters. I had one that was a Shame file, things people seemed ashamed of. Another one was a "Baby 'Cuz" file, which was all the reasons why people had babies. I had a Moms file, and a Grandmothers file, but what was funny was that I didn't have a Fathers file. Someone pointed this out to me and I realized that it was because so many of the fathers were locked up.

Did you grow as a journalist over the decade of your reporting?
I think it was a real process of my education as a journalist. Some part of me would like to tell you that I knew what I was doing the whole time, but I really didn't. I really didn't know what I was looking for. I was happy in that place of bafflement because I was fully challenged and engaged. And for a long time, I didn't even know what I'd found. I mean I knew it considered poverty; the love stories; I knew it considered young pregnancy; I knew it considered the drug trade; the thing was about all of those things. But I really resented pinning stuff down.

Was there a struggle to impose a structure on so much material?
That was the constant comment for a long time, that the book lacked structure and that there was no natural evolution. And there was no expository writing, it was just scene after scene after scene. Partly, I resisted that because I'm not particularly good at exposition or comfortable with it. I'm more interested in just documenting. In the final version, there are some little gestures to the wider social problems. But no paragraph that's going to sum up what's going on with teenage pregnancy in 1998.

Have you become an expert on poverty?
I intentionally didn't read a lot of books about poverty when I was doing the initial reporting because I didn't want to have my head filled with the thoughts of other folks... I just wanted to see what I saw… I'd rather do the field work and then let that stuff come forward after I've figured out what I've seen. But, even now, I can't say I feel I know something. I feel like I described some part of a world I was lucky to be in, and in the description and the level of detail, there are insights to be drawn.

Do you think with the same notes you could write a totally different book?
I don't think I could. I think someone else might, but I couldn't. Because my heart is responsive to the same things again and again. I'm very interested in whether people are able to survive damage and how they do.

How long did you expect the book to take?
I thought I was finishing the book all the time. Even before I started writing it. Even when I'd just signed the contract…The writing for me was the hard part. The reporting was easier. And I didn't write chronologically, I just wrote the pieces that affected me when I felt capable of writing, so at first I had all these fragments -- scenes and people and places just swirling around. I wrote the first draft, if you could call it that, emotionally, using whatever felt important to me. Until the very end I resisted drawing connections, underscoring themes.

Did this level of constant and intense reporting ruin your social life?
It didn't ruin my life, it enriched my life because my life went to it. But in order to be present [in the Bronx], I couldn't be present in many other places. You can't be available and hang around and rush uptown if someone's in the emergency room or someone gets arrested and then still go to dinner parties in SoHo. But then, I never went to dinner parties in SoHo, so, I mean, I guess some people could do it, but I couldn't. To be present, I had to be there. And even if I wasn't present physically, I was present emotionally and it just meant that I had a lot less emotional energy for other things.

What was your greatest challenge emotionally?
There were a bunch of times I felt I couldn't do it because I felt too much responsibility for the access I was being given. It felt impossible to do justice to any part of what I was privy to. That made me want to never write [the book]. I just thought "I can never explain what I've seen, because it's so complicated." A lot of the questions that my friends would ask me like "why did this girl get pregnant or "why did this guy do something?" are very remedial questions that would only make sense out of context, and I was in another context, and things have to be taken in their context. And, recreating that context so that new questions get asked -- just the thought of it made me sometimes want to go to sleep.

Were you ever tempted to financially help your subjects?
Of course, but I really didn't have any money. And I also learned early on that there's a certain way that being kind and empathic in a place with such deprivation can be seen as being a sucker, which creates other barricades to communication, so you have to be careful.

But as a caring, empathetic person, how could you not at least give advice?
It was so truly confusing that I didn't feel like I was in any position to give advice. I never thought I had advice that people needed to hear. They were teaching me things I needed to know. But there were a few times when I reacted to things and I was promptly put in my place. Someone would say, "Well, don't you sound like a social worker?" The book really sort of asks the question "Can you be rescued?" And the answer which comes out, I think, is that, given our country's current abandonment of social support, you better try to save yourself.

You grew close to your subjects over the years, how much interest did they take in your life?
There wasn't a lot of interest. I was not central to the drama. I mean these are young people; they were falling in love, they were falling out of love, they were having kids, they were living lives.

Are you still in touch with your subjects?
Yes. I hope that many of these relationships can continue, because they're very important in my life.


David S. Hirschman is a freelance writer and interim editor of mediabistro.com.

More information about Random Family and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc can be found at www.randomfamily.com.

Read more in our Archives. Send your feedback to Jesse Oxfeld.

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