“I’ve come close to the possibility of getting killed occasionally…I’ve been mortared, I’ve had a house destroyed by rockets, I’ve been chuck bombed, I’ve been shot at. But whatever, it’s not very frightening. “
William Langewiesche is a very lucky man.
Not because he’s escaped death countless times, but because he was in the line of fire by choice doing what he loves the most: witnessing the wild events of our world and then writing about them.
For more than 20 years, Langewiesche (pronounced: long-gah-VEE-shuh), has carved out a formidable career writing for two of the world’s biggest magazines, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair.
Not only does he write for some of the best magazines, he has managed to do it on his own terms.
He has, in many eyes, an enviable setup: he can choose to go wherever he wants, write about whatever he wants, take as long as he wants, and all the while make a comfortable living.
These days, only a rare breed of journalists are afforded such luxuries, but through quality work Langewiesche has earned the trust and respect of his editors and been awarded this privilege.
He’s taking full advantage of his lucky opportunity.
During his time with The Atlantic (1991-mid-2006) and since then international correspondent for Vanity Fair, he’s reported on a diverse set of fascinating, and often volatile, subjects: gangs in Brazil and Italy, the war in Iraq, how to build an atomic bomb, terrorism in London, and the World Trade Center clean-up.
He’s also written a great deal about flying. Langwiesche spent most of his childhood flying in planes with his pilot father, Wolfgang. By the age of 14, Langewiesche was steering the plane and developing a deep love for the sky. Eventually he became a commercial pilot and flew during and after university. He eventually navigated his skills to the literary world and wrote a lot about his time in the sky, including his many adventures purposely flying into storms.
All in all, Langewiesche’s literary catalogue has garnered multiple magazine awards and produced several best-selling books.
One fine example of Langewiesche’s work is his acclaimed and controversial book, American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks Langewiesche was sent on assignment by The Atlantic to cover the event. Through blind luck, Kenneth Holden, the man in charge of the clean-up process was a huge fan of Langewiesche and gave him unparalleled access to the site. For the next six months straight Langewiesche reported on the scene at Ground Zero. The result was a one of a kind glimpse into the culture that emerged: the tension between the police and firefighters, the discovery of survivors, the fate of the rubble. The story was initially written as three massive features for the magazine and then turned into a book.
The book shocked many readers for remaining completely apolitical and refusing to explore the grief surrounding the event. There is not one mention of George W. Bush or Osama Bin Laden in the entire book, nor his encounters with emotionally distraught loved ones. It was, however, a revealing look exclusively at the clean-up process. As such, it lives as a stand-alone account of that history.
American Ground is the perfect glimpse at Langewiesche’s writing style: It’s painstakingly researched, it delves into important and controversial subject matter, and it’s dense in imagery and characters.
Langewiesche’s most recent piece follows his signature style and is called “The Camorra Never Sleeps.” It’s about the infamous crime organization in Naples. It featured in the May 2012 edition of Vanity Fair and can be read by clicking HERE.
There is much I WANNA KNOW about one of journalism’s most accomplished and fearless writers.
I caught up with William Langewiesche from Kourou, French Guiana, where he is currently on assignment with Vanity Fair.
From the Camorra in Naples, to a discussion on fear, to alternatives to state government, to the power of luck and rejection in the writing world, to teenage girl music, we cover it all.
Ryan Kohls: When did you decide you wanted to write a story about the Camorra?
William Langewiesche: Some years ago I was in Italy at a literary festival and there was a guy there named Roberto Saviano who wrote a book about the Camorra called Gomorrah – they made a movie out of it. We appeared on a stage together where we were talking about “Reporting from War Zones.” I was coming in from Baghdad and so I had some idea of what that was. He was coming from Naples. So, I thought, that’s really strange. Why is he calling Naples a war zone? The audience really ate it up. This guy was playing the war correspondent from Naples. That was my first close encounter with the subject. At the time, I thought what he was saying was fake and indeed it was fake, at least as I see it now. He was overplaying the drama of his own personal risk and the situation.
So, some years later when the subject of the Camorra came up, I thought it was inherently interesting. Over the years I’ve been writing a series of pieces on alternatives to state power. It was clear to me, and still is, that the Camorra is such an alternative.
RK: That’s interesting you say it wasn’t as dangerous or frightening as it was made out to be. Reading the piece, it seemed like a place to avoid.
WL: Of course not. You would have to know how this guy made it out to be. I tried to read the book, but as a reader I couldn’t get through it. It was overwrought after three or four pages, and I put it down. As far as claiming that this is the cancer that will spread the chaos, I don’t buy it all. It’s a long-standing alternative to what we would now call traditional government. In fact, it’s much older than the government there itself.
RK: So, were there any times during your reporting in Naples that you felt in danger or unsafe?
WL: No. Not at all. It’s funny because when I was there a newspaper ran a piece about me being there, which is kind of weird to begin with. When journalists write about journalists we’re getting into strange territory. In this piece, there were scenes that didn’t exist. It was written that I had been in the northern suburbs, where the Camorra are strong, and that the police had come up to me and warned me that I was in danger. None of that happened. There was zero problem in Naples.
Look, the Camorra is not interested in anything but pursuing its own business. It wants to commit as little violence as possible and the violence it does commit is related to power struggles within the Camorra. So, obviously I wasn’t at risk. One of the predictable aspects of Naples is that the nieghbourhoods in which the Camorra are strongest are, for the casual pedestrian like me, the safest.
RK: In the story you say, “Silence is a Neapolitan birthright.” Was it difficult to get sources to talk with you?
WL: Yeah. The people are very reluctant to talk. They don’t know what a journalist is, or if they do, they don’t know what it is that I do, which is different than standard newspaper reporters. The silence and fear of talking was a very real operational concern for the piece. I spent roughly two months in Naples to try and crack through and find a narrative structure that would work. For instance, one of my early thoughts was that I knew of a certain barber in Scampia, the ground zero of the Camorra. I made an approach through a friend of mine to see if I could write about him because he knows of everything going on. My friend told him what I wanted to do, that I would protect him, that there was no risk for him, and the barber told my friend, “I don’t remember what I had for dinner last night.” So that was the end of that conversation.
RK: The character that ended up providing the narrative structure was former Camorra leader Paolo Di Lauro. How did you land on him as the main subject?
WL: I chose Paolo because of the problem of silence. The negative side of choosing him as a subject is because it’s history. Di Lauro is in jail, and will be in jail for the rest of his life. I kind of regret that, but that’s reality. In a way, it would have been better to describe the Camorra by finding a narrative structure that is not historic, and is active. To some degree Paolo did accommodate that but to a lesser degree than I would have wanted.
As a counterexample in terms of writing, I would turn you to a piece I wrote in São Paulo called “City of Fear” (Vanity Fair, 2007). It’s a very similar subject. That was a piece that was active. There was a history of the gang in the piece, but it was dominant when I was there and I did end up talking to one captain in that gang. In the case of Di Lauro, his gang had lost power when I arrived. If I had spent years there I could have found something more current, but it wouldn’t have been worth the time. The story as told in Vanity Fair did answer the need for information about what is going on in Naples and Italy.
RK: A recuring idea in the piece is that the Camorra, despite its obvious flaws, is actually doing a better job of goverance than the Italian state. Is that a conclusion that you personally arrived at?
WL: One doesn’t want to become too extreme but I think it’s worth asking the question. With all the handwringing that goes on about alternatives to state power, whether it’s American state power or Italian state power, you have to ask yourself: what is the difference? If you look at the Italian government in the last few years, and in general, and see what they do and don’t do for the people, and what an institution like the Camorra does, you get into grey areas. It’s not obvious that the Italian government is superior, nor is it obvious that the Camorra is something to be feared.
To extrapolate beyond that, what about the chaos that is perceived from Washington, D.C. in the world? Is that chaos actually so frightening as George Bush and Hillary Clinton believe it to be? Or, is it a pattern that can be accommodated by people that our leaders believe? These are questions worth asking, especially in the United States, because we go to war based on this kind of stuff.
So, the question is, what are the alternatives to government? What is it like to live within those alternatives? And, must we really fear those alternatives to the extent that we’re told we should? That’s the common denominator of what I’m doing right now. I’m trying to calm down the rhetoric.
RK: Many of the stories that interest you, and that you end up writing about, involve going to conflict zones. Does any of that attraction have to do with the thrill or adrenaline that comes with this kind of reporting?
WL: Not at all. In fact, I don’t even know what “adrenaline rush” means. I’ve never felt an increase in heart rate in conflict zones during the rare moments of acute problem — when someone is shooting at me, or mortaring, or I’m being chased by car. The heart rate doesn’t go up and I don’t know why or care. Therefore, it can’t be seeking an adrenaline rush because I don’t feel it. I actually don’t think that has defined my writing or the life that I’ve led. I’m more just curious about how things work, that’s about it. If it was that way my work would be more transferable into movies, but that’s not how I write or feel about the world in which I move.
RK: The fact that you don’t get scared, or feel adrenaline in those situations is surprising. Where do you think that calm comes from?
WL: In all honesty I don’t know, and I don’t want to pretend to be macho. I don’t really have a way to answer that other than this. When I was a kid, the war in Vietnam was going on, then there was the draft, and the possibility existed that I could get drafted to war. At the time — I’m talking 12 years old — that was an unimaginable nightmare. I couldn’t imagine you could endure something like that. I have not been in a war like Vietnam, though as a journalist I have been in situations that may be more dangerous. Very early on in my professional life as a writer, which was in my 30s, I found myself in conflict zones like Algeria and I was surprised that it wasn’t frightening at all. There was nothing that scared me about being there and doing my job and the possibility of being killed. I don’t know to what extent that’s a common experience, but I suspect that is it.
The fear of these things comes largely from a lack of familiarity with them. When you do become familiar they become less frightening. I think that’s the most honest answer I can give you. There’s a strong incentive for other writers or soldiers, who go through those experiences, to act as if it’s terrifying. I’m sure that it is at times terrifying, especially for civilians, but for those of us who choose to be there I suspect there is a social incentive to play it up as being more terrifying, or to believe it is more terrifying. This might come from people telling you you should be terrified.
RK: Most people would be terrified in those situations. So, I’m wondering what does scare you?
WL: Well, I really hate heights. Cliffs scare me. (See “Storm Island,” The Atlantic, December 2001, where Langewiesche crawls close to a steep cliff’s edge in a raging gale on Ile d’Ouessant, off the coast of Brittany.)
From a more practical point, the thing I find most difficult in my work is dealing with the secret police. The power of the state frightens me more than the power of the insurgent. It’s much stronger and it’s very difficult. I really hate being in a situation, where I have been many times, where the state is going after me typically on accusations that I’m dealing in inappropriate information or represent a threat to the line of propaganda they’re pushing out to the world. This happens on a regular basis and that’s really frightening. You’re alone, you have no back-up, and there is no such thing as back-up. The American government in terms of that is a joke. You are completely at risk of being accused of all sorts of things, detained, and jailed. That’s the worst thing.
RK: There’s a scene in your book, Sahara Unveiled, where you’re left in the desert and it seems like you’re going to die. Would you say that’s the closest you’ve come to losing your life on an assignment?
WL: I don’t think I came close to death in that case. I suspected those people would come back, and they did.
I used to teach people acrobatic flying, stunt flying. There were times when teaching pilots how to do those manoeuvers where they would lose control and there were a few times where I felt I might have to go to the parachute. In each case, I recovered and didn’t have to jump out. I’ve come close to the possibility of getting killed occassionally. I can’t really name the one time. I’ve been mortared, I’ve had a house destroyed by rockets, I’ve been chuck bombed, I’ve been shot at. But whatever, it’s not very frightening.
RK: Even though you don’t seem to fear some of the places you write about there is still an inherent danger and amount of sacrifice to do your job. What motivates you to keep doing this?
WL: I do, in the end, love the final product. I hate the process, like everyone else. I’m lucky because I work with one editor in particular, Cullen Murphy, who encourages the time and expense of doing things deeply and not superficially. I’m motivated by the desire to live up to the opportunity that people are giving me to do this kind of work. It’s not because of my inherent qualities; it’s luck and chance. I also love to be out in the world because with this job you can go anywhere and you can pursue a subject anywhere on earth at whatever investment of time, and you can ask questions to anyone. You have a carte blanche to ask questions. You have a platform and excuse and I love being able to do that and listen to people very, very, carefully and understand the world in which we live.
RK: People often explain your style of writing as detached and unsentimental. This, for example, was used a lot to describe American Ground. Is it fair to say that you don’t like to have your opinion shine through in your work?
WL: No, I think my opinion shines through quite a lot. The detachment is a different thing. Maybe the detachment allows for my opinion to come through. For example, I still think that the emotionalism associated with the 9/11 attack was overwrought and destructive. That’s an opinion and it permeated the work that I did on that subject at the time. The opinion does come through, and that’s what pisses people off. People wanted to wallow in the grief, and celebrate that moment, which I thought was wrong. I thought it was a tragedy, but shouldn’t be celebrated.
As far as my detachment, I think I’m deeply empathetic to the people and situations I’m writing about. If they’re overreacting to something, like during 9/11, I’m even empathetic to that. I’m not cold, as one New York Times reporter once said I was — I’m rather emotional about these subjects. Right now I’m writing about the Foreign Legion. These guys are not French, they’re foreigners who give their lives for this military organization and die on a regular basis. These are guys who leave behind their earlier lives in a most radical way, they assume new identities and are protected by the legion in that. I look at these people and feel enormous warmth and admiration. My attitude is not at all cold. People who know my writing, like editor Cullen Murphy, know that. They know my writing embraces the human condition. I don’t hold myself to be superior or anything like that.
RK: Would you say you carry an emotional baggage from your past stories?
WL: Well, it’s a very emotional thing to always be writing. The period of actually writing is a deeply consuming process. I can’t answer emails, answer the telephone, or do anything other than write the piece. This may go on for months. Seven days a week, forget about it. Forget about shaving, forget about being a normal person. I’m into it. That’s the writing process.
Now, as far as the people I meet. One of the worst things about this job is that I meet all kinds of people and develop very close relationships with my subjects. I have to and I’m allowed to because I’m given the time. I really like the people that I’m writing about. I fundamentally like, listen, and kind of love them in a way. When it’s all said and done, I walk away. Why? Because I’m busy, I’ve got to go off to the next one. That’s really a hard thing. People don’t often understand that, but you establish a close relationship. It’s not like a standard friendship between the writer and subject. Over all the years I’ve written, and people I’ve known, there have been a few cases I’ve managed to maintain a relationship afterwards. But I couldn’t hold on to everyone or I’d become a full-time relationship manager. You do have to let some of it go.
RK: It seemed like you had a close connection with Mouloud Sihali from your story “A Face in the Crowd.” Is that someone you’ve kept in touch with?
WL: I don’t, but that would be a classic example. That was a beautiful thing. The piece itself was a mix because half was about British anti-terrorism policy and it shouldn’t have even been in there. But the other half about him was beautiful. When we went through the fact checking in that piece, there was a scene where he’s in prison and he’s been accused of being the number one terrorist in the U.K., and being held in an Orwellian nightmare. Of course, he was not a terrorist and he’ll be in prison forever. He learns to deal with it by travelling with his mind. I spent a lot of time with Sihali and at some point as a narrator I put myself in his mind and took a mental walk with Sihali through the streets of London.
We have this rigorous fact-checking process at the magazine — they check every word — and the fact checkers on that piece balked at it. They said, “How can you get in Sihali’s mind?” First, I said the reader knows this is me, so there’s no problem there. The reader knows I’m imagining this. They said it wasn’t good enough, and our legal council said we have to check this with Sihali. We called up Sihali from the offices and I said this is the problem we’re having: I went inside your mind and we have a verification process and our fact checkers are having a problem. So, we read it to him and asked him how accurate this mental walk was and he began to cry. So how close is the relationship? It’s fucking close.
RK: There’s an often quoted line from Janet Malcolm that reads, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” Based on what you just said, is it safe to assume you wouldn’t agree with her?
WL: I’d say it’s bullshit. To say it’s morally indefensible is an easy thing to say, but it’s ridiculous. As far as being conmen, there is an element of that. That’s an operational description because you need to make friends with people and persuade them you’re not going to fuck them. They need to trust you. Now, if you persuade someone that you’re not going to screw them over, and then screw them over, you were a conman. But if you persuade someone that you will not screw them over, and you write something they approve of, were you a conmen? You tell me. It’s bullshit.
RK: When I spoke with Gay Talese he described the process of writing as torture. He spends an incredible amount of time drafting his work. How would you describe the writing process?
WL: I take a lot time because I write very, very, slowly and agonizing over every comma. So, especially in the opening where you’re coming at the reader from nowhere are difficult. So, it’s normal for me to spend two weeks on the first page.
There’s really no difference between the first and last line in the sense that you have to come at the subject strong and not let up. If you let up the reader gets off the ride. How well can you do that without insulting the reader? That’s the problem. If you’re willing to play cheap tricks it’s relatively easy. For example, we heard the hoofs of the oncoming cavalry before we could see them, the firefight grew more intense, this kind of shit. That’s an insult to the reader. How do you retain the dynamic of the piece without insulting the reader? In that case there’s no difference between any line. The problem gets a little easier as you go because you’ve built up information and knowledge and relationship with the reader. But it’s a bitch and it’s really hard.
RK: If you examine the back stories of several successful magazine writers there seems to be a trend of starting out late in life and sort of stumbling into writing. You didn’t start writing seriously until your mid-30s. Why do you think this tends to happen?
WL: The beauty of writing as a profession, and this might be the only thing, is that you get better with age. I’m sure of that. Until you become senile and as long as you can fend off all the anxieties of life, like the IRS, you’ll improve. I only know from my own experience, and I haven’t met many writers because I don’t hang out in literary salons. How the hell am I supposed to know?
I do know this. The man who gave me my first real opportunity was William Whitworth at The Atlantic. This would have been in the early ’90s. He is a grand man of literary journalism. At some point a new owner bought the magazine in Boston and it was time for Bill to leave, a new editor was coming in. When Whitworth was leaving I went to Boston to thank him for having done for me what he did, which was give me a chance. I was a pilot, just a fucking pilot. I said to him, “What are you going to do now?” He said, “I’m not sure. I’m going back to Little Rock.” He told me that some university had offered him a position teaching long form nonfiction. I said, “Well great. That sounds like it would be fun and nice and gentle.” He told me he declined and told me that in all of his career — which was long and important — he had never seen a single writer coming out of these schools who could hack it and produce what he needed as an editor. I wouldn’t take that as a general, or absolute rule, but I thought it was interesting. The best, he said, came from unexpected angles. I think that academics and professors who try and teach how to write has been the death of fiction. The reason nonfiction is riding high, compared to fiction, is that fiction has been so much relegated to Master’s degrees and workshops, whereas literary nonfiction is not often taught.
RK: I’ve heard many times that to be a great writer, you have to read great writing. What do you make of that?
WL: (Laughs) It’s probably true, which is why I’m not a great writer. I don’t read other writers. I understand the logic why people would say that. Who’s going to challenge you on that? Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not.
But, what is a good writer anyway? I’m thinking in more practical terms. Like, what is a good soldier? I’ve been thinking about that lately. What does it mean? I understand what it means to be a great boxer like Muhammad Ali. But, to be a great soldier? What does that mean?
RK: In terms of being a great writer, I’m starting to think it has something to do with determination and not giving up. For example, the process you endured to produce American Ground was unbelievable. I know I would have given up somewhere along the journey. So, perhaps being great means not giving up.
WL: You’re so right. How do you not give up? What are the terms of giving up, and what does that look like? In my case, I was very lucky in two ways. One, I was a pilot so I had this standard. Early on in my life I was exposed to the slick New York magazine world. It was shit and I swore after three years there I would never write shit. Therefore, I left and started flying again. I was able, therefore, to pay my rent and continue to have these very high standards of writing what I thought was good. And by the way, I failed for something like twelve years. But, the point is that you have to be lucky in order to not give up. Most people are not pilots, and even if you have the ambition I have, they still have to write for the shit magazines. What else are they going to do for a living?
The other thing is purely chance. You have to keep at it long enough for the possibility of good luck to occur. Aside from skill and ability, it’s not just that, which is why people who are successful and rich in America and Canada think they deserve to be rich, but they discount the element of chance. The one thing is that is if you keep at it long enough you allow the chance that maybe you could win.
RK: Like you mentioned, you’ve faced a great deal of rejection in your career. You even had fully written books rejected by publishers. How did you deal with that rejection early on?
WL: I wrote a novel that Robert Loomis at Random House told me to write. I wrote the novel and he rejected it. It took me two years to write it, and I was working as a pilot at the time. When he rejected it I thought, you know what, he’s right. I spent another two years writing it, now we’re four years in, and I sent it to him again and he said, “It still stinks.” I thought, you know what, he’s right. So, the one thing I could boast about is that when I was rejected I didn’t say, “They’re fucked up and I’m a great genius.” I truly thought, I’ve got to be better, this isn’t good enough.
RK: You mentioned the importance of chance and luck. Which part of your career do you count as being the most lucky?
WL: The real luck was sending something off to The Atlantic and having Bill Whitworth and Cullen Murphy respond to it. I was a pilot and I sent off a very short thing, which I intended for the New York Times. I didn’t know what The Atlantic was, I’d hardly read it. I went to a magazine stand and said, “Who am I going to send this crap to?” I basically chose The Atlantic out of thin air. That’s luck.
RK: What kind of music do you listen to?
WL: You know what, I don’t know how to tell you this but I have a taste in music that is kind of unusual for someone of my age. My daughter, who is 19, accuses me of liking teenage girl music.
RK: So you’re saying if Justin Bieber came on the radio you wouldn’t change the station?
WL: Well, I don’t mean like that bad.
RK: Besides Rhonda Shearer, do you have any pet peeves you’ve developed over the years?
WL: (Laughs) I don’t have a problem with Rhonda Shearer. I’ve got so many pet peeves I can’t even tell you about it. Of course, one passes judgement on all sorts of things, but silently, and if you’re not an egomaniac you try and keep it under control.
In terms of language, the term “the reason is because” instead of “the reason is that” is a question of logic. When I hear people say, “The reason I went to the store is because I was hungry,” I have to fight the impulse to say, “You didn’t go because you were hungry, the reason was that you were hungry.” I have a friend in Singapore who understands my problem and said to me one day, “William, you’re being very pedantic. All sorts of people who are very smart say this.” He told me to get off my pet peeve, and I agree with him.
Mr Langewiesche wrote a piece for Best of the Best Science Writing, don’t have exact title, that was just beautifully written. Columbia’s Last Flight was the title, just excellent, it was poetic, factual, knowledgable about causes of the crash of a routine mission in 2003, fascinating in its exploration of the culture of NASA that denied investigation of its problems. I read this three times, I thought, who IS this guy?? Gad, what a superstar in the world of science journalism….