Conventional wisdom for writers of non-fiction is that building suspense is one of the key tools to keep readers engaged.
Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, advises writers that, since they will have few opportunities to include suspense, they should make good use of any they do get. Even Dickens advised: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”
But in his podcast series The Last Days of August, Jon Ronson chooses to be upfront about deciding not to build suspense.
The series, an Audible Original which is now freely available, concerns the death of porn actress August Ames. In episode two, Ronson says this:
“Before I take you to my interview with Mercedes Carrera, I want to stop for a moment, and tell you something. These first interviews were recorded in early 2018 but this is the Jon of a year later talking who, with my producer Lena, spent ten months investigating August’s death. I don’t want this to be one of those shows which creates narrative tension by fuelling suspicion that a person might be a murderer. So I want to tell you that while we uncover some extraordinary and unexpected things and devastating mysteries will reveal themselves and be solved, this will NOT turn out to be a murder mystery.”
It’s a bold decision to take, and even bolder to be open about it so early in the piece.
Perhaps a glimpse of Ronson’s motivation came in a conversation he had with Manveen Rana for the new Times podcast Stories of our Times in which he discusses his history of anxiety and how that’s been affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
“I also developed a new kind of anxiety called scrupulosity. It’s an excessive concern about behaving in an ethical manner. You tie yourself up in knots about doing the right thing ethically…. Specifically I suppose mainly as a journalist. You want to make sure that your stories are ethical, that you’re treating everybody in the right way, whilst still being a proper journalist. You know as journalists we have a great responsibility over people we are chronicling, and you’ve got to be ethical.”
We’re delighted that acclaimed author, reporter and columnist Sathnam Sanghera is joining the line-up of speakers at the UK’s only festival of longform journalism which is taking place at the start of March.
Sathnam is a multi-talented writer who displays his talents in both his journalism in The Times and also in his books. The Boy With the Topknot, a memoir of his upbringing in the West Midlands with his Punjabi parents, won many awards and was adapted for BBC Two. After that came his novel, Marriage Material, which by common consensus one of the novels of 2013.
Jonathan Coe named Sathnam as one of “the men of the next 25 years” in GQ, saying that “whether he’s writing autobiography or fiction, Sathnam is busy carving out his own literary niche – in the multicultural British Midlands – which he explores with incredible grace, generosity and humour”.
For CIJ Well Told, Sathnam will draw on his experience juggling his journalism with his writing, and also the difficult task of balancing the writing of factual memoir with fiction.
Acclaimed true-crime writer Jeff Maysh is the latest longform talent to join the line-up for the CIJ Well Told festival of longform and narrative journalism.
The tale of a Greek robber who, in protest at greedy banks, would throw handfuls of stolen cash into the air for passers-by to collect is pure Jeff Maysh. It’s as gripping as fiction, but is all true. That article was the first time I encountered his work, but it was the first time of many.
In fact, those occasional bursts of Twitter recommendations which flare for a day or two seem to happen around Maysh stories disproportionately often.
The article itself is, again, pure Maysh – a clear tale which goes deep within a world you would otherwise never know, extracted with as much precision as if he had used one of those foot-long cheese triers to bring out a long plug from the heart of the wheel.
Maysh’s journalistic career began on Loaded. He found his way into longform narrative through sports- and crime-writing. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he is on hand for film-makers wanting to talk about adapting his stories.
We’re absolutely delighted that Jeff will be joining us at CIJ Well Told 2019, especially since he is coming back to the UK specifically to be part of the festival. He will be talking about how he finds and tells his stories, and how he discovered his approach to making a life of telling longform stories sustainable.
He is without doubt one of the most talented UK longform writers, and anyone who loves the genre – as well as those who do it themselves or have ambitions to – should not miss the chance to hear what Jeff has to say.
The last of the earlybird tickets are available here – priced £55 for people in staff jobs and £45 for freelances. Student discounts are available on request by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re delighted Christina Lamb will be taking part in CIJ Well Told 2019. Below, Catarina Fernandes Martins, the Christian Science Monitor Southern Europe correspondent, who will be speaking to Lamb at the festival, writes of what makes her such a compelling reporter.
“When I think of Christina Lamb, the first image that comes to mind is that of a schoolgirl, kept in detention for refusing to give way on a point of principle. “Kept after school writing lines, I would gaze out of the window conjuring up far-off worlds,” Lamb writes in Small Wars Permitting, reminiscing of a time when she dreamt of being a poet or a novelist.
That restless teenage girl became one of Britain’s leading foreign correspondents and is well-known all over the globe for her bravery as a war reporter in all those far-off worlds she dreamed about growing up. Lamb has been arrested, kidnapped and deported. Four days before her son’s seventh birthday, she was almost killed by Taliban in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
“I have had far more than my nine lives,” she says in a short video piece the Sunday Times did about their Chief Foreign Correspondent.
Her bravery is remarkable and admirable, and yet, what really fascinates me about Christina Lamb is that she brings the same schoolgirl curiosity and imaginative powers to her writing.
That curiosity and imagination seem intact after an almost 30-year career, in which she has delivered intrepid, high-quality reporting in the most sophisticated literary form. Lamb has traveled all over, boarded Benazir Bhutto’s bus when it was bombed, competed in a Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro, had tea with Pinochet days after she gave birth, written about war, poverty and crime, interviewed warlords and royals. Still, every description of a new scene she enters is drenched with so much detail, her readers can’t help but care about the world she brings to them. They can’t help but feel they’re right there with her, tasting the “fruits and almonds dipped in silver and gold” at Bhutto’s wedding, marvelling at the kites flying from the rooftops in Kabul after the Taliban had been driven out. Some of those details stuck with me because they made me open my eyes with wonder, made me dream of far-off worlds, made me care more.
“If I see something that’s really shocking that’s happening I want people outside to know about it… because I hope that will change,” Lamb says in the Sunday Times film.
Maybe that’s every reporter’s hope, but only a few of them can look past the bang-bang, pass the tiresome headlines and tell stories that latch onto the imagination the way poetry or novels do. Christina Lamb is one of the very best doing precisely that.”
We are delighted to announce that Well Told has a new partner – the wonderful Centre for Investigative Journalism. Based at Goldsmiths College, the CIJ is a standard-bearer for the interests and practices of investigative journalism. We see investigative and longform journalism as being cousins, and so are delighted to be teaming up with James Harkin and team.
It’s great to be able to confirm that the second Well Told will take place on 1&2 March, 2019. The line-up is being devised at the moment, but our approach will be the same as that which was such a success in the summer of 2016: bring together the best talents in narrative and longform, put them in a room with other people who are wanting to improve their skills, and enjoy what happens as a result. Well Told 2 will be bigger than the first event, but we are sticking with spreading it over a day and a half – and this time we will avoid a bank holiday weekend!