Sources and Methods #14: Gregory Johnsen

Johnsen%2c Gregory D credit Jeff Taylor-1-3.jpg

Gregory Johnsen 101:

Gregory on Twitter

Gregory on Buzzfeed

Gregory's book

Waq al-Waq

Show Notes:

3:39 -I’ve had the idea of writing the book since 2002, and the book wasn’t finished until 2012, so it’s been a 10 year process and the last four of those are writing… I had to throw

4:31 - One of the things that’s really benefited me is reading people who are much better writers than myself. I really love Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower, which is on Al-Qaeda and the leadup to 9/11. And I think he does an excellent job of telling a very complicated story in a way that’s very readable, and it has narrative, and it has drama.

5:01 - When I first started writing, I was obsessed with sentences, with making really beautiful sentences. And then I started going back and looking at books I really enjoyed and found that the sentences were often very simple, but that the narrative as a whole just sort of carried you along.

5:50 - Something that keeps people reading that page, it’s what I try to do.

6:40 - I’m trained as a historian, not a journalist or a writer....But I don’t tend to enjoy most of the academic writing that I read. It seems almost designed to keep people out - the language that’s used, the theories discussed, the sentence structure…. the academy does not reward readability.

10:22 - Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land is one of my favorite books, and my favorite book on Yemen.

14:55 - Junior year in college, I studied at the American University of Cairo.

15:34 - [On having someone to review your work] Any time you have an audience that you know particularly well, and an audience that knows writing structure and writing form, you can see yourself progress over the years

17:45 - Yemen is a very small country, so the longer you go there, the more people you meet, and eventually you start to meet people who know different things. It’s also a country that’s built on personal relationships, so the longer I spent there, the more people came to see me as I grew in my understanding of the culture and history and language… At one point, I’d been chewing qat with a guy for six months, seven months… and one day out of the blue, he’s like ‘hey, you know, my family has all these old records from the Ottoman period in Yemen that if you ever want to take a look at you can just swing by the house and we’d show you all these things.’ And that’s sort of how things in Yemen work, once people trust you.

19:04 - One of the things that also helped was the amount of stuff that Al Qaeda itself published. They would publish these ‘martyr biographies’ that would go into incredible details about this person’s life… all of these things were really sort of excellent resources for me as I’m going through this material...obviously you have to be careful with how you handle this kind of material, but they aren’t the only source, so you can do a lot of triangulation. And there are also Yemeni journalists that sit down with Al Qaeda, and I was able to know these [Yemeni journalists] who were welcome and gracious… I couldn’t have written the book without the help of all of these Yemenis who were just so incredibly giving.

22:40 - Fieldwork is essential.

22:50 - The American Institute of Yemeni Studies

29:44 - I scribble things on scraps of paper that then end up in Ziplock bags, which is as disorganized as it sounds… and then I use Microsoft Word, and I sit down and write.

31:46 - I don’t typically do a lot of outlining, but I do do a lot of re-writing… I’ll be at my desk by 9am and just write until - well, I know myself well enough by now to know the point at which I’m not going to get any more productive work done, and that’s usually around 4pm or so, and then I go for a run, and then the day is over… The next day, I typically read back through everything that I have, and as I read back through it I tend to find places that just don’t work… and then I spend time fixing those.

37:38 - Buzzfeed is one of the few media organizations I’m aware of that would fund something like [his fellowship] to the degree that they did and give me the flexibility and the freedom - things that I really value.

39:50 - Gregory’s great story about one sentence: 60 Words and A War Without End

50:57 - I could not have written the book that I did without Arabic [language abilities].

Greg’s Books:

Haruki Murakami - Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72 by Hunter S. Thompson

Matt’s Book: The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin

Greg’s Film: It’s a Wonderful Life

Alex’s Book: Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenges and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy by Jonathon A. C. Brown

Greg’s Music: Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony: