Nov 22, 2010

Q&A with Peter Laufer

I interviewed Peter Laufer this summer for Etude, the Journal of Literary Nonfiction. And now Peter works with me at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication. I also just got his butterfly book. Here's an introduction to Peter followed by our Q&A.

Peter Laufer is an investigative journalist, broadcaster and documentary filmmaker working in traditional and new media. Laufer is the author of several books dealing with critical social and political issues. His book Mission Rejected focuses on American soldiers who return from Iraq opposed to the war. Laufer worked as a news correspondent for NBC News, reported for CBS and ABC radio, and was the Berlin voice of the public radio program “Marketplace.” He has also produced and directed an award winning documentary film on immigration in Europe (“Exodus to Berlin”), and anchored national television talk shows such as LinkTV’s “FAQs”. Laufer is currently writing a natural history trilogy published by Lyons Press. The first book, The Dangerous World of Butterflies (May 2009), is an examination of the strange subculture of rare butterfly enthusiasts. As a follow-up, Laufer wrote Forbidden Creatures (June 2010), a study of the exotic pet industry. The third book tentatively titled No Animals Were Harmed during the Writing of this Book is due out in 2011. Laufer was recently named the James Wallace Chair in Journalism at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication and will begin teaching this fall.

You are two books into a three-book deal. Most writers dream about a three-book deal. Is it a dream...or a burden...or a little of both?

It is a dream and a challenge. The Dangerous World of Butterflies led directly to Forbidden Creatures because many of the issues I encountered researching the butterfly book — poaching, illicit trade in animals, endangered species, habitat loss, fascinating characters — are replicated in the world of so-called exotic pets: great apes, big cats, long snakes, and the like. The third book in the trilogy deals with the point where animal use becomes animal abuse. Careening into this moving target of use vs. abuse is proving to be not just a reportorial challenge, but also a personal one. I've been a vegetarian since Jimmy Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan, but the research for this third book pushed me into a vegan lifestyle — difficult to pursue on the road and undoubtedly an irritant to friends and relations still gracious enough to invite me for dinner.

So my short answer to your query must be: It is a dream (as long as I get back to my desk quickly so that I can meet that looming deadline for book number three).

You are what is now being called a multi-platform storyteller. You tell stories with text, with audio and with video. How do you know which stories deserve which treatment? Should all storytellers be conversant across platforms? What about the "jack of all trades, master of none" idea?

The story is all that counts, I remain convinced. The platform — from the wall of our caves to the screens of our G4 iPhones, and beyond — is just a platform. The "jack of all trades, master of none" idea is not an issue because storytellers must be master storytellers to make an impact, especially in today's information overloaded culture. And when the story is well told, the platform is merely the vehicle that delivers it. Most storytellers working today grew up in the mélange of print, audio, and video, and should be able to move seamlessly across these "platforms." I use that buzzword in quotes because I think our mediated societies can now dispense with such labels. A story is a story. I expect I should be able to tell it to you via whatever means works best to get it into your (likely) distracted head.

All that said, I'm promoting my Slow News Movement, announced in the butterfly book and inspired — of course — by Italy's Slow Food Movement. My slogan is "Yesterday's News Tomorrow" and I believe we need to consciously and carefully moderate our incoming media. I've taken to writing letters with a fountain pen and sending them through the post. I try not to respond immediately to email messages, I leave my mobile phone in the car when I go out to restaurants, and I'm seriously considering closing my Facebook account (I shut down Twitter after just a few “tweets”). We need to decide for ourselves what media is worth our while to read (and as a writer I want to use the word "read'' and not "consume"). We're in danger of missing the story because of the noise. So although I exploit all media to tell my stories to the widest possible audience, I embrace the legacy and permanence of the printed word on paper — and prefer it for my long-form work. My other first love is radio; live sound is ideally suited for triggering the imagination and blasting news out to the world fast and first.

Today I visited the Hermann Hesse Museum here in Switzerland and was intrigued to see collections of his letters, musing to my wife Sheila that it's hard to imagine our contemporary email traffic making a compelling graphic exhibit. I encourage us all to write more letters by hand and leave a legacy impossible for the quartermasters at Facebook and Amazon to delete.

What have you learned from all your years in radio that you apply to your work as a book author?

There is no better training ground for reporting, writing, and editing with accuracy and clarity than a traditional radio newsroom. Radio news, with its relentless perpetual deadlines, requires one to work under extreme time pressure (minute-by-minute deadlines!) and in close proximity (physical and conceptual) with usually stressed-out colleagues. It mandates telling complicated stories with brevity. I like to share the paraphrased quote attributed to both Twain and Pascal, "Sorry for the long letter. I would have written a shorter one, but I didn't have the time." Radio news equals that elusive short letter. Writing for radio teaches us how to make the complex concise and how to communicate clearly in today's information-cluttered marketplace. Facing radio news deadlines day after day makes any other deadline appealing. Working a live audience that will jump to correct errors is a constant reminder to check facts. Crafting a story in a noisy newsroom full of unrestrained egos tempers a writer from the romantic notion that she or he requires an idyllic atelier on a Left Bank equivalent in order to compose compelling prose.

Radio is the most visual of media. Before I explain, I must define terms. The word "radio" meaning sound transmitted through the airwaves and listened to over a radio receiver is antiquated. In today's world the storytelling we enjoy as sound comes to us via a variety of devices besides a Bakelite transistor and its variants. "Audio" is a more precise label for those sound stories. But I lobby for the continued use of "radio." The word need not be restricted to the old technology and it conjures a sense of using a device to hear a story. Despite my rejection of the romantic Paris writing studio, I'm romantically attached to the word "radio" and I'm betting its use doesn't die no matter how many podcasts you download, even though National Public Radio decided to change its official name to NPR. That foolishness makes me think of a story that circulated around Rockefeller Center when I worked as an NBC News correspondent. Correspondent Irving R. Levine supposedly was asked by a producer if he would drop the “R” at the end of his reports, making the precious second it took to pronounce the initial available for more editorial content. My colleague’s reputed retort was, “I’ll drop the ‘R’ in my name when you take the ‘B’ out of NBC.”

Radio requires concerted effort be exerted by both the producer and the listener in order to function. When we create radio we must trigger the imagination of the listener. The listener — by default — creates a visual image of what he or she hears. It is an unavoidable phenomenon cleverly demonstrated in one minute by one of my radio heroes, Stan Freberg. In an example of how radio is superior to television, Freberg describes Lake Michigan bombed with whipped cream by the Canadian air force, which then drops a huge cherry on the top to the cheers of thousands of bystanders. No one can listen to that minute without envisioning the ludicrous sight of a whip-creamed Great Lake.

Successful radio writing must incessantly project visual images; such writing translates well to the printed page. Successful radio writing is informal and conversational; that tone also works well for stories presented as printed words on paper (or pixels on Kindles and iPads).

I love radio.

Tell us about your investigative reporting process. Do you pursue questions? Do you follow people’s stories? Do follow the money? How do you think about it?

That there are no stupid questions is a key to my process. I often look to guidance from the detective portrayed by actor Peter Falk, Colombo. I observe and follow my curiosity, and I try to listen long and hard when I ask questions. Initially I cast a wide net (animal metaphor!) and then follow the stories and characters both most appealing to me and that seem most likely to reveal those truths I'm seeking.

Your list of book titles, documentaries and radio programs is extensive — okay, that’s an understatement. You’re one heck of a prolific journalist. How do you maintain such energy for your work?

For me the answer is the inverse of your question: The work energizes me. It is much more exhausting to consider waking up to no assignment. In fact, it is impossible to consider. As my friend and colleague Markos Kounalakis remarked to me years ago when we were musing about how lucky we were to have chosen journalism for a profession, "We're sentenced to a lifetime of learning." There never can be a blank page. There are no slow news days; there are only slow news reporters.

I understand you are in Lugano, Switzerland at the moment. What brings you there? Are you there on a research adventure? (If so, can you tell us about it?)

In fact I am writing this on the deck of the gracious apartment of family friends, looking out on Mt. San Salvatore, eating tofuwürst. I'm here for the launch of the Italian edition of my butterfly book, and yes, I am engaged in some research for the animal use and abuse book (the working title is No Animals Were Harmed during the Writing of this Book). Lugano was the home of Hans Ruesch, a man with an extraordinarily varied career: race car driver (Alfas and Maseratis, a Grand Prix winner), novelist ("A born storyteller," said the New York Times), film writer (for films with Anthony Quinn and Kirk Douglas), and — for my purposes — an early and longtime anti-vivisection activist, and author of the nonfiction animal rights book, Slaughter of the Innocents. He died a few years ago well into his nineties, but a foundation dedicated to his animal rights work remains active.

Finally, we ask all our authors, what are you reading at the moment?

In preparation for my arrival at the University of Oregon and Eugene I've just finished two books assigned to me by a grammar school friend who moved to Eugene years ago: Amis's Lucky Jim and Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. The former teaches moderation at the bar during faculty parties and the latter suggests it rains now and again in Oregon. I just started Ruesch's Slaughter of the Innocents. Aside from the animal rights issues, the preface to the 1983 edition I'm reading offers detailed documentation and analysis from the author regarding what he considered was a concerted effort by the drug industry to marginalize his work. It is a fascinating essay about journalism, storytelling, and the challenges of moving ideas and information to an audience.

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