David Rieff Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Humanitarianism, the Human Rights Movement, and U.S. Foreign Policy: Conversation with David Rieff, author; March 11, 2003 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 2 of 5

Being a Writer

Was it almost natural that you became a writer? You were suggesting that a moment ago.

I think it was as foreordained as things get. I resisted it. I was a book editor for about ten years because I didn't have the guts, basically, to be a writer. I also think that I didn't particularly want to be identified for the first X years of my career as my mother's son, which indeed did happen when I finally did it, and it wasn't so terrible. But, yes, I think I also knew I was a writer. I don't think I was much good at anything else. I could probably be an aid worker in a pinch now, but that's a more recent discovery.

What is the hardest thing about writing?

The hardest thing about writing is finding the will to keep doing it when so much of the time what you're doing is no good, particularly now, when I'm so much on the road. I mean, any piece of work is flawed. Half the time what you're doing is utter crap. The difficulty of writing is -- no pun intended -- getting it right. And it's over and over. If you're in the field, if you're covering the kinds of things I'm covering, you're awfully self-indulgent. You keep saying, "Well, I'm doing this remarkable thing," or "I'm putting myself in harm's way," or all these self-congratulatory remarks. You think you should be allowed to get away with stuff. But if you have any pride in your craft, you can't.

Writing is a translation into prose of an experience that on some level is untranslatable, so it's always an approximation. It's always only somewhat good. I think that's true for every writer. Some people are smarter than their work. There are people whose work is smarter than they are, I think. But you're always failing. That's the great frustration, and that's why writing is actually painful -- even, on some weird level, almost physically painful.

You're clearly very well read and a person who follows the intellectual debates around a subject matter. But on the other hand, you've made a commitment from your first works to go into the field, to travel, to check things out. How do you address those two very different realms, namely researching -- sitting and reading books and following an intellectual debate -- but on the other hand, going to wars, going to immigrant communities, wherever, in Miami or L.A.?

I'm increasingly intolerant of armchair writing about these subjects. I'm not talking about people who do other kinds of writing -- philosophers, theorists, international relations people. I have no beef with them and no reproach. I have no right to make any reproach doing any of that work. But my experience of the field is that every time I go to a place, I think something different than what I thought when I was sitting in my apartment in New York, or in the various European cities that I sometimes call home. My experience is that life in the field changes what I think.

So I'm now incredibly hesitant and, indeed, almost tongue-tied about any place I haven't got my boots muddied in. For example, one of the places in the world that's probably most important to think about is North Korea. But I've never been to North Korea. I've been to Panmunjon and I've been to South Korea. But I've never been to North Korea. I don't have any sense of the place. And I'm incredibly reluctant to voice any kind of opinion, either about Korea, or for that matter, about American policy toward Korea.

I just think about my experience in the Balkans. I came to Bosnia in 1992, completely ignorant to the place. I couldn't draw you Sarajevo, accurately, on a map. And by the end, I think I understood something about the place. I guess I'm more interested in writing about subjects that I see than making lightning visits. It seems to me, it shows. It seems to me the people who parachuted in, or who don't do it all, who write about these places from their head, even if they have great heads -- I mean, God knows there are lots of smart people doing it from their armchairs -- [but] there's always something missing for me. And in a way, I'm kind of a sport of nature. I mean, if I were to speak cynically about myself, I'm an intellectual who's willing to get shot at. And there are not too many of us. It's more common in France. I think there's a big tradition of that in France. I think in France, what I do would be quite unremarkable.

Before we talk about your new book, I want to understand what is your pace when you go to places, and how do you either write or prepare for your writing? Do you keep a diary? Where are your creative moments in Bosnia? At a scene of war, or coming back to your apartment and thinking about what you've seen?

Before I go, I read a lot. But my sense, again, and I'm not being falsely modest, is that I don't understand very much. I read infinite amounts and listen. I read infinite amounts when I'm not in the field on lots of different places. I gave you the Korea example. I've been reading a lot on Korea lately, but I still don't think I understand anything. So I go to a place having read lots of books, having interviewed people, [for example, at] the UN I live in New York, so the UN is very convenient for that, because you can go and talk to people at the UN, the desk officers. Even though I've attacked them, they're always very civil.

And then there are aid agencies, who usually have desk officers in these places. A lot of the traveling I do, I do with aid agencies. Once I'm there, I just try to take it in. In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide I was in the eastern Congo, what was then Zaire, and this was a scene of absolutely abominable suffering and death. I didn't know how to make my way in it. So I went to an aid station and I just sat there for about ten days. Just sat in the corner. There were aid workers whom I knew, and they said, "If you keep out of the way, it's fine." So I did, and I just took it in.

I always have a notebook. I'm always writing as I go. Of course, if you're in a bumpy four-wheel drive, the thing bounces around and sometimes your own notes, even the smart ones, are quite illegible to you afterwards.

My practice, for what it's worth, is just to write up everything that is in my head every evening, if I'm not too tired and haven't had some arduous or horrible experience. I've been very careful to keep the capacity to write in longhand, even though I use a computer to write pieces, because, obviously, in a lot of these places there's no power. You may have a computer, but you may not be able to plug it in until you get back to the capital or go somewhere else, and the power is often iffy, so you don't want to fry the thing. But I just write everything. So I come back from a trip with vast numbers of notebooks, and try -- I don't always succeed -- to write the piece as close to the experience as I can out of that.

The only other thing to add is that the writing then, even including the things I read, makes more sense. I feel, then, I can read people intelligently. So I may do a lot of reading after, including maybe even stuff I've read beforehand, but stuff that went in one ear and out the other.

It strikes me as interesting and important that you never aspire to be Assistant to the Secretary General of the U.N. or to serve on the National Security Council. You're really a critic, a gadfly, an outsider. How does that inform your writing and make it better, if it does?

I don't know whether it makes it better, but it is its essence. I really don't have another agenda. When I look at Samantha Power's book on genocide -- and I admire Samantha Power; I know her, she is a friend, I admire her -- I feel this is the writing of someone who wants to be Secretary of State one day. It's a campaign document as well as a very brilliant book. I don't happen to agree with it, but I think it's an absolutely brilliant book. But I also think it's a campaign document. It's a document of someone who wants a seat at the table. I don't want a seat at the table. On the contrary, the essential thing about me is that I'm a critic. Not a contrarian in the Christopher Hitchens sense. I don't have much patience for that concept, I think it's kind of adolescent; but a critic. I think my job is precisely to offer non-constructive criticisms. I don't think it's my job to say, "this is a helpful way."

It gives me a certain standing. It also excludes me from certain things. I don't want to be consulted about targeting decisions in Iraq the way Michael Ignatieff, for example, is. I don't want to be on a commission. As General Sherman said about running for president, "If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve." If anyone ever asked me to serve on a distinguished eminent persons committee, I would refuse, and I would give instructions to my friends to kneecap me if they see any wavering. It seems to me what gives me whatever authority I have and whatever authority I've earned is that I really am not simultaneously trying to get a job, become precisely special rapporteur for X or Y -- let alone make money, like be a political risk consultant. I mean, if Sy Hersch is right in his account of Richard Perle making money off the war, I don't want any of those things. I really do want to be a critic.

Next page: Humanitarianism

© Copyright 2003, Regents of the University of California

See also the Conversations with History interview with Samantha Power (April 2002)