Q&A with author Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
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
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
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.
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
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
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.