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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Coaxing Out the Story

It is striking that your compelling imagery, your compelling analysis rests on very great simplicity -- hearing, listening well, and recording and putting things together.

I take that as a great compliment. I was in a class the other day and we were talking about interviewing. And they said how do you get -- for example, there is a woman who is absolutely crucial to the El Mozote story named Rufina Amaya who was the one surviving adult witness of what happened in the massacre.

We should clarify that this was an incident where the military slew over 700 children, women, and men.

Yes. That is right. During one day. She had witnessed it, and she had told the story various times. So how do you interview her and absolutely bring her back from telling the story, that is repeating it, to being there. In other words, to getting her to be at the event, speaking from there, not from a retelling. You have a similar problem with people on book tours. The mouth just goes. They are not thinking anymore about the actual questions.

You have to establish with anyone you interview, obviously, a relationship, a human relationship where they have trust in you and they feel that you are sympathetic to them and they want to talk and they feel like you are listening; and this can take a long time. But it is the crucial part of doing one of these stories. You have to have them speak and trust you, and it can be very difficult. Janet Malcolm, my colleague at the New Yorker, has written The Journalist and the Murderer -- very controversial -- how each writer is a seducer in a way, and there is a lot of truth to that. You are presenting yourself in a way that will get people to trust you and that's just a fact, a fact of life, if you are going to be doing this trade or this business or what ever you like to call it. You have to learn how to talk to people. Any kind of people.

Your work has won a number of awards. How do you see your writings contributing to the moral education of your readers on the one hand, and the policy debate on the other?

That is a difficult question. I try to tell the story, to get it right, and to tell it well. I really don't think about the moral education of readers. Insofar as I think of readers, I think of them as people who might get bored. I am sorry, but that is the case. I think they have a right to expect a story that is told tautly, even though what I write tends to be long. So the moral issues just come out of the particular stories.

Bosnia is for many Americans, certainly for American officials, a deeply moral problem. Is there something we owed to this place? Why? The Cold War is over. Why is there any responsibility there? Is it because of national security? Is it because of idealistic reasons that have to do with the number of people being killed and the horror of the place? Should that matter? Should we be in a position to bemoan it, denounce it, but not necessarily intervene to stop it? And finally, how do officials who in the end are employed by us, who are our leaders and our servants (as this government is supposed to work), how do they behave and how is their behavior influenced by us?

In that way, we are implicated. We are implicated all the time, I think. We have a weight in the world as Americans that is very, very great. And this is one thing I find is a pity: Americans don't tend to be aware of that. That we will look at a place like a searchlight. Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, you name it, Haiti. The searchlight will focus for a few moments in time. Enough time, perhaps, to intervene, to make an enormous difference in a country; and the searchlight, the focus for those people sitting in the United States, who suddenly learn a little about it, the searchlight will move on and this place will be in darkness again, with a few more ruins and a few more problems. And that, I think, is a very great pity.

Insofar as you can tell the story so that it is as full as possible, so it is captivating, and also moving, but you get it right, which is a very pompous thing to say, but nonetheless that is what your ambition has to be, that is where you are successful. But I don't have any pretensions to alter the moral views of people. That is up to them, I guess.

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