Great conversation with Ben Ehrenreich, the novelist and journalist, in the Humanities Gateway at lunchtime. Ehrenreich talked about how he writes fiction (he needs at least three hours alone and unbothered to do any valuable work) vs how he writes nonfiction (give him a deadline!). He talked about the difficulties of reporting when you don’t speak the local language, as when he visited Afghanistan in 2003. Just having the extra layer of the interpreter in the conversation changes the interview, he said. And then, when no one knows exactly who that interpreter is, subjects can tend to clam up, especially in countries where the government is oppressive and dangerous.

Ehrenreich told a story about meeting the Haitian “aristocrat” Charles Baker in Port-au-Prince in 2006. [I know all my students will be very, very surprised to hear that I steered the conversation to Haiti, using as a feeble excuse the fact that Ehrenreich has reported from there.] Baker was running for president, and after the interview, Ehrenreich’s guides, a bunch of former street kids, informed him that Baker was certain that Ehrenreich could not be an American, because “he had dust on his shoes.” 

All writers should have dust on their shoes. That dust is magic.

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