The Confession Book: Pam Belluck

Best-selling author Noah Charney interviews great writers about the writing life.

/ by Noah Charney

How did you come to write for The New York Times? Many writers aspire to work there, and would love to learn how one becomes a columnist.

I guess the short answer is probably that I've been very fortunate and I've worked very hard at a profession I love and am deeply committed to. A longer answer? After college, my goal was to do something that would make a positive difference to people, and I thought I might be able to do that through writing. I won a Fulbright Scholarship to go to the Philippines, and almost as soon as I arrived, I became a freelance foreign correspondent in Asia. It was an extraordinary experience and I learned a lot from veteran reporters. I traveled around Asia, writing primarily for The San Francisco Chronicle, but also for other papers and news services.

After a stint in Asia, I returned to the U.S. and took a staff job with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, whose editor at the time was the journalistic powerhouse, Bill Kovach. I then worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer, soaking up the talents and traditions of the wonderful people who had been hired and inspired by the legendary editor, Eugene Roberts. And then The New York Times hired me, and I still remember feeling rather stunned and weak-kneed when Joe Lelyveld offered me the job. I owe a great deal to the people I've worked with and learned from, and to the opportunities and experiences I've been able to have.

 

Describe your morning routine.

It takes me about an hour and half or more to get to the office from my house, including an hour on the train and at least 20 minutes of walking. I get a lot done. I write. I organize. I tinkered with more than a few phrases and paragraphs in Island Practice while riding the rails, and I've probably sent my book editor, Clive Priddle, more emails from a precariously-rocking train car than almost any other location (although ice skating rinks might rank a close second.)

Occasionally, I jot down a scrap of dialogue uttered by an unsuspecting passenger or train worker. Like the conductor who grumbled to a compatriot: "I had this passenger without a ticket, so I say, ‘Where you going, sir?’ He says, ‘I’m going to hell.’ I say, ‘We don’t go there. Let’s stick to somewhere between New York and Connecticut.’”

And once, while waiting for a delayed train, I practiced piccolo for an upcoming concert, brushing up on the solo from "The Stars and Stripes Forever" while sitting behind the steering wheel of my parked car. I swear some fellow commuters started marching jauntily with their briefcases.

Also, I drink cocoa, but - according to the eye rolls I get from our children - not the kind of cocoa anyone else would find appealing. I use unsweetened baking cocoa - no sugar, no milk. My defense: it satisfies my chocoholism, and it's healthy, with all of chocolate's antioxidants, none of the bad stuff, and only about 10 calories in a cup. And this just in, from The Journal of Experimental Biology: "Chocolate Makes Snails Smarter." If it can work for the pond snail (Lymnaea stagnalis to its friends), what have I got to lose?

Shockingly, despite my evangelizing to friends, coworkers and co-commuters, my cocoa concoction has not caught on. I'm thinking of trying to pitch it while playing a piccolo solo.

 

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

I sing. Usually ballads but other stuff too

 

Do you choose what you write about for the Times, or does an editor usually assign you a story?

It's a mix. Many of the stories I write are ideas I've come up with myself, and I always have a fountain of them so the challenge tends to be finding time to get to all the things on my list. My editors come up with story assignments as well. And there are stories that are driven by events in the news. For example, when Nora Ephron died, we decided to write about her leukemia.

 

Do you write throughout your time traveling, or when you get back home?

When I travel, I tend to write during whatever downtime I have - on the plane, in the airport, at the hotel. But during those times, I may well be writing something other than the story I'm traveling to report. On a trip to Seoul for a New York Times story, for instance, I celebrated my birthday by spending the 15-hour overnight plane ride working on what became Chapter 7 of Island Practice. Typically, unless deadlines dictate otherwise, when I travel to work on a story, I spend most of the time on the ground gathering information and impressions, and then I write that story when I get back. That approach gives me the ability to digest the reporting, supplement it with further reporting, and gain perspective on the material so that I can communicate it in the most effective way.

 

Describe your routine when conceiving of an article, before the writing begins.

Before I decide whether something constitutes a story worth writing, I look for certain elements. There has to be something happening with the subject or issue that is surprising or counterintuitive. There has to be something of moment, of importance, and something that significantly advances the ball, especially if it is a subject that The New York Times has written about before. And the subject should be one that has an impact on people, so that writing about it can make a difference in their decisions or their lives.

My favorite stories are ones that involve something unexpected or complex - where a deep and unbiased look at the subject reveals that while there may be two major sides of an issue, the truth is a lot grayer. That's one of the reasons I love writing about health and science. Often health subjects can become politicized (as with some of the women's reproductive health issues I've been writing about recently), but if you delve into them in a conscientious journalistic fashion, you find that where the rubber meets the road, where the real people are affected, the reality is more nuanced, less simplistic, less glib.

I also pay close attention to details - the way people speak, the way they live, small but revealing anecdotes and scenes. I am attuned to elements of humor and color that can bring the situation to life. And I work very hard to get all sides to talk with me and to find people who are actually affected by the issue I am writing about.

 

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

Rituals? Would you count doing three one-handed cartwheels, chanting a Norse whaling song, and walking backward over the carpet of hot coals we have here in the Science Department?

 

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?

Besides photos, Island Practice paraphernalia, and assorted New Yorker cartoons, here are some items in and around my cubicle at the moment:

  • A sprig of vine from the "twigloo" house built by Underground Tom, an intriguingly eccentric hermit in Island Practice.

  • An "Extreme Ironing" calendar, featuring photos of people ironing clothes while scuba diving or mountain climbing. As I wrote in a story once, Extreme Ironing, invented in Britain, involves "the marriage of activities like cliff jumping and kayaking treacherous rapids with what participants call 'the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt.'"

  • A copy of a blog post about a story I wrote in which the blogger offers up a lovely translation of my last name: "Bell, like French belle, for beautiful, coupled with good old fashioned luck. That's auspicious, Beautiful Luck."

  • An elephant ear mushroom that was given to me by a hunter I wrote about in Vermont who carved into the mushroom a detailed picture of a baby deer and a little bird in a birch forest.

  • A photo I took at the Musée Rodin in Paris of Rodin's "The Kiss." (Marble sculpture, mushroom sculpture, potato, potahto ... imagine Rodin's Gates of Hell carved in shiitaki.)

  • A baseball cap from the staff of a former Minnesota governor, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, a professional wrestler, that says: "Our Governor Can Beat-Up Your Governor!"

  • Sheet music for several tunes I've written: "All About You," "Lion and Sprite," "Partly Sunny."

  • Numerous pieces of artwork and writing by the Belluck children. Among my favorites is a poem that includes the lines: "Three birds thrived in the unsanitary recesses of the bleak, barren and snowy backyard. .... Now, the deer were seen sporadically. Occasionally, squirrels would skip across the yard. Tails entwined."

  • An array of homemade cards, including this: "Lovely notes numbers 1 and 2. 1. Dear Mom, Thank you so much for being my mom. Thank you for taking care of me. 2. How do you become a mom? Answer my question later. Any won would be lucky to have you for a mom!"

 

What do you think makes for the best sort of journalistic writing? Could you point readers to any one of your articles that you are particularly satisfied with that perhaps best exemplifies how you write?

To me, good journalistic writing is clear, cogent, and lively. As my colleague Verlyn Klinkenborg put it recently, in a delightful series of sentences about sentences (which I've decided to quote here in part because Verlyn Klinkenborg is one of those names that is fun to write and read): "Become a connoisseur of ambiguity. Sentences are wily and multifarious, secretive, mischievous. Language is inherently playful, eager to make nonsense and no-sense if it gets out of order."

So, good journalistic writing, like all good writing, shines light into shadowed corners and serpentine alleys, and plucks needles of clarity from haystacks of chaos. It rests on thorough reporting and sharp observation, from having command of the facts and confidence in the details.

It captures contradictions, surprises, and absurdities. It has rhythm, pitch, and melody. It breathes. It has humanity, and, if relevant, humor. It makes readers see, hear, and sense things. It speaks with an original voice.

That's the goal, anyway, although I wouldn't presume to say that anything I've written has achieved all that. As for pieces I feel pretty good about, on the serious side is a story about a large family in Colombia whose members are stricken with Alzheimer's disease when they are distressingly young. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/02/health/02alzheimers.html?pagewanted=all

On the humorous side is a story about the place in the country with the longest name: (Let's all say it together) Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/20/national/20lake.html

 

Did you vacation on Nantucket for many years before stumbling on the story?

I'd only been to Nantucket once for about half a day before the summer of 2007, when The New York Times asked me, as its New England bureau chief, to write a profile of someone in the region who was not famous, but was doing something interesting in an interesting place. I put together a short list of people I'd heard about or encountered, including a guy who was running a nude bowling league in Maine. (I concluded that that one might be hard to photograph for The New York Times.)

Then I discovered in a big pile of papers on my desk, an alumni newsletter from Tufts University Medical Center, which included a single line about one of their alums, Dr. Timothy Lepore, being the only surgeon on Nantucket. I figured I'd give him a call, and we had such a fascinating conversation on the phone that I went and spent a few days on Nantucket, wrote a 900-word piece for the paper, and immediately got calls from book people asking if I wanted to use the idea as a basis for a book. The people with the best grasp of the story, who saw its book potential in a way that respected the subject matter and fit with my sensibility and writing style, were Michael Carlisle, who became my literary agent, and the team at PublicAffairs, which became my publisher. After several years of following Dr. Lepore, and talking and visiting with many other Nantucketers who generously shared their stories, Island Practice is the result.

 

How does your approach differ when writing an article and when you were writing your book?

There were similarities in the basic craft - the reporting approach of being curious and nonjudgmental, listening to people, following-up on ideas and anecdotes, and the attempt to write the story in a lively and engaging way. But the level of immersion required for reporting and writing Island Practice went beyond what is required for most articles - and required a lot of juggling for me because I did not take a leave from my day job at The New York Times. Decisions about how to structure the book and how to choose and refine the writing voice presented different kinds of challenges than a typical article does.

Also, at various points, I was conscious of feeling a sense of freedom with the writing. The ability to use contractions more than we usually do in The New York Times, for example, felt curiously liberating. And I'd venture to say that if the stuff on pages 132-134 of Island Practice had appeared in a New York Times story, it would involve a rather less detailed depiction of the anatomically pornographic placement of household objects and vegetables.

 

Writers will be interested to learn how your book, so quickly, was optioned for television. Could you share that story?

Well, it's all been kind of whirlwind, and I can't say I really understand how we got so lucky. It seems that even before Island Practice was published, people who heard about it would say that it sounded like it could be a good movie or television show. Soon after publication, the film and television agent for the book received a number of competitive offers. The result was a deal for a scripted television series with 20th Century Fox Television and Imagine Television, which is the production company run by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. Not long after that, the pilot pitch was picked up by CBS, and a wonderful screenwriter was chosen: Amy Holden Jones, who has written many successful feature films, including Mystic Pizza and Indecent Proposal. We feel very fortunate that the material is in the hands of such a talented team with such a strong track record of producing great shows.

 

Do you have any superstitions?

Well, I am superstitious about revealing superstitions.

 

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

Probably Bach. I'm not the first musician to say that if Bach were alive today, he would be playing jazz. I'd love to jam with him on Brandenburg Concerto #3.

 

Tell us a funny story related to your work.

When I was in the Philippines, I wanted to go to an island in the South China Sea that was being claimed for strategic reasons by several countries. No journalist had ever been allowed out there before. I traveled to the Philippine province of Palawan, which was the closest province to the island, and tried to persuade the Philippine military to take me to the island. It wasn't looking good. That evening, at a Palawan restaurant-nightclub, I saw a colonel I'd been talking with earlier. I made another attempt to explain why he should let me visit the island. Finally, he gestured toward the band playing on stage, and told me that if I got up and sang, he would reconsider. Never underestimate the power of Cole Porter. I sang "I've Got You Under My Skin" and was flown to the island the next day.

 

Tell us something about you that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

Besides my musical endeavors - I'm a jazz flutist, a lapsed saxophonist, and I noodle on the piano - I used to play Ultimate Frisbee. In college, because there was no women's team, I played on the Princeton Men's Ultimate Frisbee team.

And I make a killer Zebra Cake, a recipe I did not invent but I believe I did name. No zebras are harmed in the making of this cake. It's basically chocolate-and-whipped-cream heaven, and I make it in different shapes: a piano, an ice skate, a magic wand, you name it. Maybe one day, I'll make an Island Practice zebra cake in the shape of Nantucket. 

....
Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at www.noahcharney.com or by joining him on Facebook.


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