Interview with Mark Danner: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Being a Writer: Conversation with Mark Danner, staff writer, The New Yorker; 3/3/99 by Harry Kreisler.

Photo by Jane Scherr

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Writing as a Creative Act

How do you tell the story? Because that is the next task, isn't it? You've read the history, you've done the observation, now you have to tell the story. One of the things that strikes me in your writing, whether on Bosnia, El Salvador, Haiti -- even your article on NATO -- is the striking images by which you draw the reader into the situation and into your analysis of the situation.

The question of how is a very difficult one, because it involves a very mysterious area of human endeavor, which is how you create something. If you ask a scientist, the same thing; or a computer programmer, perhaps; or a painter. These are all areas where people have nothing and create something. There is at some point a spark.

I do not work very methodically, which in some ways makes me not a very good example for students here, I am afraid, because I almost have to have the beginning of a piece before I can write it. Somehow there has to be a sound in my ear about how that thing starts. I have almost started to think of it as a sonata form, because of the idea that you have a tonal and then you go to a dominant, and you eventually recover the tonal at the end. So you start with a suspension of some kind, a bit of tension and if things work -- this is how I think of it, it might sound pretentious -- almost from the first sentence or the first paragraph I would like to establish some sort of strong narrative tension on the part of the reader, that is: what is this? what is happening? You want to in some way put up in front of the reader a question, an intriguing, powerful question to which they must have the answer. And it has to be done in a way that is almost -- to use a much overused word -- visceral. You have to feel it. It may be the description of a place, description of an action.

There are all sorts of ways to do it, but you want to start off on a journey that the reader is bodily taken on so that from the first sentence. Particularly when you're writing long pieces, you're asking a lot of people, I think. Particularly today when, as everyone says (the throwaway line), there's a great deal of competition in entertainment and information, and so on; you are asking a lot of people to sit down and read you for three hours or four hours. You want to grab them at the beginning and say "Here is this story" and do it in as vivid a way as possible, and if you do it right, you come back to precisely that point at the end. It should be like that final chord.

In El Mozote, the book you mentioned, the end is about a helicopter crashing with the villain of the piece inside, and where it happens. It's funny. Sometimes the world cooperates with you. This is exactly how the story happened. But the parallels of it where the helicopter crashed ....

The book had covered a massacre in El Salvador committed by the military.

The villain in the piece is Colonel Monterrosa. He is a fascinating character. As a villain, he is a fascinating character. The Americans loved him because he was one of the few officers who would go out into the field. His soldiers loved him because he got down and fought with them. He wasn't thought to be a separate figure who just cared about his money. He was very close to a lot of people in the press corps as well, who couldn't believe he could have been the perpetrator of this killing of nearly a thousand people.

He had an obsession -- he had a number of obsessions -- but one was the guerrilla radio station Radio Venceremos, which to him was a symbol of the left making fun of the army. The beginning of this story was the original operation in which these people were killed -- the intent of [the massacre] was to find this radio, and they did find it in that sweep. But the eventual way that Monterrosa was killed was that his archenemy on the guerrilla side, Villalobos, thought about it. They were mirror images, and they thought about each other all the time.

Villalobos said, "What would get Monterrosa? What would get him? A trophy! A trophy! He's a hotdog. He would want a trophy. And what is it? The radio of course." So they packed the radio with explosives and they left it at a particular point, and [the army] did this operation. Absolutely incomprehensible that [the guerrillas] would have retreated without it. Monterrosa [found the radio] and he took it up in the helicopter and "boom!" they blew him up.

A lot of characters in the story were at this same place. It was almost uncanny. As I started calling people [when I wrote the piece, I found that] a lot of them were in another helicopter that went up first. The guerrillas were on a hill, and they went click and pressed the button and nothing happened. It was a line-of-sight [detonator], so they thought, "The explosives aren't working, the bomb isn't working." Later, I was in a position to tell some of the people in the [first] helicopter that this had happened. They were very surprised and not very happy. But when the next helicopter came along, [the guerrillas] pointed, it blew up and was very close to the original massacre.

These striking images pose the questions on a particular issue in a stark manner. In the Bosnia pieces, one of your chapters dealt with the moral blindness of the Clinton administration with regard to its own words and its own action, and its incapacity to see the inconsistency between the two. You link images of the president dancing at a party and learning that he had to intervene in Bosnia one way or the other with the images of the people on the ground in Bosnia who were suffering. In addition to drawing the reader in, you use these techniques to make a point. Tell us about that.

Any person who is sitting down at a desk and writing, whether it's writing a short story, a novel, or describing what's happening in Bosnia, is using a lot of the same techniques. There is imagery, there is repetition, there are certain kinds of description, quotation. Obviously, one of the differences has to do with matters of fact. On the other hand, the organization that's used is arbitrary with so-called nonfiction writing -- a definition I love because it simply means stuff that isn't fiction; it is not a very well-defined category. But obviously, the methods of organization are arbitrary. The writer has enormous choices to make. And one of the keys is not to be too obvious in making a point. On the other hand, what you are referring to first of all happened, which is the beginning of everything here.

In other words, they were dancing; the Clintons, that is, were dancing. This was a reception for Jacques Chirac and his wife in the White House, and it was on that evening that [Clinton] was told by Richard Holbrooke, then the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, that indeed, if the Europeans pulled their peacekeeping troops out of Bosnia, the Americans were already committed to send in their troops to support that extraction. Clinton was under the impression he could make the decision at the time. In fact he couldn't; it was already decided.

When I first discovered this, the idea that the President of the United States would not know that he was already committed to send 25,000 American troops to Bosnia -- something that is an enormous fact when considering what to do about Bosnia -- that he would not know it was extraordinary! I found it incomprehensible. Or to put it another way, terribly comprehensible when you look at the policy of the Clinton administration. So the question was, here we had a series of facts. They happened. How to describe it in a way that presents not only the series of facts, but the moral conflict and the moral irresponsibility, if you want to put it that way. To me that was part of this lack of knowledge. And the dancing, the blithe dancing, together with finding this out at the same time!

I said a moment ago that the world sometimes cooperates with you, and it is not only sometimes but a lot of the time it cooperates with you. You couldn't do that in a novel because it would be to obvious. It would be too obvious a juxtaposition, and a critic would say there is no subtlety there; but this is real life, and because the reader has a right to demand and to expect that this fact, the reader can be struck by it and it can be effective because I have fact behind me. That is what they should expect. If I did it in fiction, since I would have nothing like that behind me, I would be making a rather unsubtle point.

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