Thanks to the cooperation of the NBCC and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of their students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Interview with NBCC Nonfiction Finalist Ari Berman
Kirsten Chen, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ari Berman about his book Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Kirsten Chen: Give Us the Ballot was tremendously rich in history and detailed facts. How did you manage the volume of research needed to complete this?
Ari Berman: Considering the history of voting rights, I had a sprawling amount of time to cover. So, I tried to focus the narrative prior to starting the research. This meant figuring out major themes and “connective tissue”—e.g. characters that could be pulled through the entire narrative, or characters that fully embodied the story we wanted to tell.
And really, I was telling two intertwining narratives: the narrative of revolution and all the good things that have happened since the VRA, and the resulting counterrevolution to that progress. So I focused on finding the through-points that propelled both sides.
I always outline—that’s how I work. As I did the research, the outline would adjust, but I always knew where I was headed.
KC: Did you conduct many interviews? Who was the most interesting to learn more about?
AB: I did conduct a lot of interviews, partly because I’m a journalist so that’s just how I’m used to reporting, but also because there were a lot of things that took place before I was born or before there were good records. While there may have been a newspaper article or some old archives for something that had happened, say, in the sixties in Mississippi, there wasn’t likely to be much TV footage. So, I relied on people’s memory to make me feel like I was there and help bring the story to life. I would look into a case and ask myself: where is the human story behind this? Then I’d talk with whomever I could find: the lawyers involved, the plaintiffs, or family members of them if the plaintiff was deceased.
Interview with NBCC Nonfiction Finalist Mary Beard
Maryana Vestic, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Mary Beard about her book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Maryana Vestic: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is a tremendous piece of historical writing and, yet, you successfully focused in on the giant cast of characters at particular points in Roman history: Cicero, Augustus (Octavian), Pliny (the Elder and the Younger). How did you go about transforming this mammoth world of often conflicting information into one very clearly wrought story line that feels very focused and intimate to the reader?
Mary Beard: That was the big challenge. So I am glad you think it has worked. I reckon I had to give readers an idea of the big sweep, while also letting them enjoy the detail we have of some moments and characters in Roman history. In some ways the selection almost makes itself. If you want to get close to any individual in the Roman world, it has to be Cicero first (the only really plausible ‘biographical figure’ to come down to us from the whole period), and Pliny comes a close second.
I tried to use detail even when it was in many ways not ‘historical’ in the strictest sense. So, for example, a lot of the rich information we have on individual emperors is black propaganda. But all the same it can tell us huge amounts abut the prejudices of the Roman world, of Roman ideas of corruption and misrule. On other occasions I made it a priority to squeeze the interest out of such rich, but apparently rather dull, documents as the anti-corruption legislation of Gaius Gracchus. Reading between the lines of this you can glimpse rather vividly Roman attempts to grapple with the problems of ruing an empire and policing those appointed as provincial governors.
Interview with NBCC Nonfiction Finalist Sam Quinones
Juliana Broad, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Sam Quinones about his book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (Bloomsbury), which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Juliana Broad: How is the current opiate epidemic different from other substance abuse epidemics in the past?
Sam Quinones: In a couple of ways. One is that it is really caused not by drug traffickers and mafias and street gangs and the common ordinary street dealers, but is rooted in the way doctors prescribe prescription pills. That’s what this is all about. You’ve got many times more doctors in America than drug traffickers and many of them were convinced of the idea that we’re a country in pain and that they could prescribe these pills for all manner of issues – surgeries, etc. – and these pills would be non-addictive. There was a revolution in pain management in America. It began in the early 90s and gathered stream through that decade. Hundreds of thousands of doctors all across America bought into this idea and acted accordingly.
The other thing that really separates it from ones in recent memory – cocaine and crack – is that it is very quiet, private, and there’s no public violence. That’s key. When Colombians brought cocaine into Miami, Miami’s murder rates sky-rocketed. And then of course crack cocaine comes around and you see the Bloods and the Crips and street gangs getting involved. None of that happened with this.
The way it starts with doctors prescribing pills combined with a lack of violence means that it’s not readily apparent what’s happening for many years, from the late 90s until recently. The idea that this is actually epidemic proportions of people dying is not really clear because it’s not accompanied by the hallmarks of a drug scourge.