7 Questions with Joshua Hammer
1) You decided to become a foreign correspondent while riding a bus from Peshawar to the Khyber Pass during a post-college backpacking trip in 1981. What happened on the ride?
There was a war going on in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union had invaded only a couple of years before that and it was really an uncovered part of the world—the true dimensions of that conflict. It was a very different time. News traveled a lot slower then. It was also a very difficult place to penetrate. So, the realization that there were places in the world where important and terrible things were going on that were largely unknown to the outside world definitely got me interested in the whole idea of becoming a correspondent.
2) How did you get your start?
I had a long roundabout route. After a couple of years in Asia, I got back to New York and was quickly caught up in the whole 80s scene. I went to work for People Magazine and led a very comfortable New York life throughout that decade, freelancing for magazines like Manhattan, Inc., GQ, and Esquire. But that nagging desire from the post-college bus trip never really went away. So after getting into Newsweek, I basically politicked and maneuvered my way into a foreign correspondent job in Africa.
3) So the bureau chief jobs were the realization of your post-college backpacking dreams?
Absolutely. I always felt that my first job as Africa correspondent for the magazine when all the chaos of war and conflict and incredibly dramatic stories were happening just one after the other in Somalia, Rwanda, South Africa, and then Zaire. It was just the best possible foreign correspondent job one could have. I was continually amazed that someone was paying me well to do this kind of work and be surrounded by like-minded people in this very exotic—yet often violent—but also incredibly compelling and alluring world. In a way, I felt I'd realized that dream I'd had 10 years before.
These were little one-man bureaus. I had an office assistant-manager, but it was basically me traveling. All of those bureau chief jobs were traveling jobs or I turned them into traveling jobs. They involved coming up with ideas, stories, going on the road, and doing them. In a way, it was the perfect training for the kind of work I do now.
4) How does your current freelancing gig compare with your previous bureau chief jobs?
Well, by the end of a 17-year career at Newsweek,I had pretty much done everything that I could do at that magazine.They sent me all over the world and treated me incredibly well, but atsome point I just wanted to try something new. The idea of taking allthat global knowledge and trying to write my own ticket was veryenticing and challenging to me. I also liked the idea of writing longnarrative journalism as opposed to Newsweekly stuff. The idea of makingmy own schedule, to take a bit more time, to not be completelybeholding to my employers as to where I would go… That wasexhilarating to me and something I had to try. But, you know, at timesI definitely miss the comfort, perks, and safety net of the staffcorrespondent job. But on the other hand, those jobs don't existanymore. Except for a handful of people at The New York Times and The Washington Post, that's kind of a thing of the past. So in a way, I got out at the right time.
5) For Outside, you've covered stories on topics ranging from Chad refugee camps (Heartbreak. Chaos. Mayhem. Hope? from our December 2009 issue,) Bolivia's coca leaf industry (Coca is It! from our December 2007 issue,) and a murderer's fascination with Bigfoot in Yosemite National Park (The Yosemite Horror from our November 1999 issue.) What do you look for in a story?
I look for a good narrative. A good story often involves characters finding themselves in danger and then having to extricate themselves from it or a figure in crisis. In the case of Bolivia, it was a fascinating political story of a great and somewhat bizarre change taking place in a society with implications for the United States. Although the broader issue was the legalization of the coca leaf and its implications for Bolivia and the world, I then had to go out and find a way of telling the story through characters and illustrating this new political reality with anecdotes and scenes and characters. So, I look for a drama and that kind have a lot of different definitions. I cast a pretty wide net.
6) Your most recent Outside piece, A Mountain of Trouble from the May 2010 issue, is about three young hikers currently imprisoned in an Iranian jail after crossing the border along the Iraq Kurdistan mountains. One of the captives—Shane Bauer—is an aspiring journalist. If he was perhaps pushing boundaries to get a good scoop, did his story resonate with your own past of reporting from dangerous locales?
Absolutely. I could easily imagine myself being their age and position and doing something exactly like they did. Maybe I would have been a little more well informed before setting out on a journey, but I can't rule out the possibility of having ended up in their position. So, there definitely was some empathy there. These were young global nomads, the kind of person I was at their age. I very very much connected with their situation. If you look at my website—joshuahammer.com—you'll see that I was actually captured by militants in Gaza and in Iraq, which were probably the closest calls I've ever had. I've also been lost on a trek in Nepal, wandering completely disoriented in the high Himalayas for a very terrifying 12 hours by myself at about 13,000 feet. My problems didn't have quite the political context of their story, but getting in trouble in the mountains is also something I can relate to. So I've had various close calls of all descriptions—political and simply wilderness disorientation. In Nepal, which was many years ago, I bushwhacked my way downhill for hours after losing a trail and finally found a hut, the first sign of civilization after hours in total wilderness. I then made it to a village from there. In the case of the kidnappings/hostage-takings, I simply got lucky and was able to talk my way out of things.
7) You said the bureau chief positions no longer exist, for the most part. What are your thoughts on journalism's future and what advice would you have for aspiring writers?
Well, I think the narrative journalism form will always be around. I think there will always be a market for the kind of stuff that Outside, The New Yorker, or Vanity Fair does. Those long, gripping, narrative magazine journalism pieces, which I love to do. I'm not particularly worried for the next 10 years. There will be a market for that type of writing. As far as someone starting out in the journalism business who wants to go the standard newspaper route and wants the type of foreign correspondent career I had, that's going to be tough. I just don't think those jobs are out there anymore and that's kind of sad to me. I think something is going to come in its place but I don't know what that something is yet. I think it's too early to say. We're in a period of a massive shake-out and rethinking of the industry—The New York Times deciding to start charging for web content, people looking at new economic models to make this business sustainable… I certainly don't think it's the end of journalism, but it's the beginning of something else. I mean, if I were in journalism school right now, I'd be in a great state of confusion.
Contributing editor Joshua Hammer's books include Yokohama Burning, A Season in Bethlehem, and Chosen By God.