Interviews / Journalists

Interview with Carl Hoffman: “It takes a lot of work to live the life you want to live.”

Carl Hoffman is the author of the critically acclaimed New York Times bestselling Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest, which was a New York Times “Editor’s Choice,” a NYTimes bestseller, one of the Washington Post’s 50 notable books of 2014, a Kirkus best book of 2014 and the number one non-fiction book of 2014 on 

The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, was one of the Wall Street Journal’s ten best books of 2010. He is a former contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler and Wired magazines and his narrative pieces have also appeared in Smithsonian, Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic Adventure and many other magazines. He has traveled on assignment to eighty countries and is the father of three young adults. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Hi Carl! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself? 

I’m the author of five non-fiction books. Savage Harvest was a New York Times editors’ choice, a Washington Post notable book of the year and a New York Times bestseller, and has been translated into nine languages. The Lunatic Express was one of The Wall Street Journal’s ten best books of the year. The Last Wild Men of Borneo was a finalist for an Edgar Award and a Banff Mountain Book Award. Liar’s Circus was named one of the 100 best books of 2020 by Kirkus Reviews.

For many years I was a magazine writer, so I’m a former contributing editor at Wired and National Geographic Traveler, and my long narrative magazine pieces have appeared in many other places. I like to travel to difficult places and I have a dog and a daily yoga practice and three grown kids. 

You’ve contributed numerous narrative pieces in Smithsonian, Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic Adventure and many other magazines. Do you have one particularly memorable piece that you’d like to talk about? 

Funny you’re asking about that magazine work. Since 2010 I’ve done very little for magazines and have been writing books – five (of six) since 2010, four works of narrative nonfiction and a novel. 

There’s a pretty hard schism in my career. I wrote my first book in 2001, but for most of the 90s and the aughts I often wrote about technology and travel and often the nexus between them – people doing difficult and fantastic things with big machines – boats, planes, rockets, cars – in distant places, as well as a lot of disasters, for national magazines.

Elon Musk for Wired, where I was a contributing editor, way back in 2007. Missionaries flying in New Guinea, hippie math geniuses in New Zealand making the perfect surf break. An American pilot who became a kind of Captain Kurtz in the Congo for Outside. An obsessed Canadian geologist who discovered a mother lode of diamonds in the Yukon. Katrina when the levees broke in New Orleans, the tsunami in Japan, the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010. I went all over the world and did some fun stories, but I got tired of it. 

I got divorced after a long marriage in 2009 and my work changed completely. I wanted depth. Length. I wasn’t interested in technology anymore, but people. I guess one of my favorite stories is one of my last – a piece for Outside in 2013 about a violent attack on a party of Australian trekkers in Papua New Guinea.

Media at the time made it all about the Australians, the Westerners, but I understood and revealed otherwise – it was an attack on the porters, a story about the effects of tourism and acculturation in a rapidly changing society. And it’s a story I understood because of the long and deep work I’d done next door in Indonesian Papua among the Asmat people for my book about Michael Rockefeller. 

Can you discuss the research and development process behind your book, Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest?

Michael was the 23-year old son of Nelson, then the Governor of New York and grandson of John D, the richest man in the world, at the time of Nelson’s birth, who’d traveled to what was then the Dutch New Guinea in 1961 to collect artifacts for his father’s newly opened Museum of Primitive Art, and vanished. 

I’d known about Michael’s disappearance for years. There were many rumors. He’d been murdered and cannibalized; he’d run away and joined a tribe; he’d drowned or been eaten by crocodiles. It was the subject of millions of pages of Internet gossip and, when I looked at it, it was obvious to me that no one had ever done any careful, substantive, sustained reporting on it. And that enough time had passed that information and people unavailable in 1961 might now be. 

When I got the contract, the first thing I did was to hire a Dutch researcher in Amsterdam. Immediately he started finding things in the archives of the Dutch colonial government and the Catholic Church. Amazing things, things that had never been seen before, from important people. The Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs. The apostolic Vicar in New Guinea Reports from two Dutch missionaries who lived in the area Michael disappeared, who spoke the local language, detailing who killed Michael, who ate which parts of him, who retained his femur, his ribs.

The reports from the Dutch colonial patrol officer whose attack on a particular village initiated the series of events that led to Michael’s death. Incredible stuff. Then we found one of those missionaries still alive and a Dutch patrol officer who, it turned out, had not only originally sold his own boat to Michael, the boat he vanished on, but was secretly sent by the Dutch government to investigate reports he’d been killed and eaten by the village of Pirien/Otsjanep. I had long conversations with the missionary and the former patrol officer in the Netherlands and Spain, where they lived. 

But all of that was just the beginning. One half. I still had to go to Asmat, a 10,000-square mile swamp in what’s now West Papua, Indonesia, to see if the records held up, to hear the story of the sons of the men named in all of those stories. Asmat is not an easy place. It’s still remote, roadless and navigable only by boat, almost completely without internet, electricity, plumbing, commercial anything, outside of the main town, Agats.

I spent two months retracing Michael’s path and three trips to the village said to have killed him. But that village was difficult. Silent. Resentful. I couldn’t pierce it. I knew I was getting a runaround. After two months I went home, started writing, and got stuck. Realized I knew nothing. That I didn’t understand the Asmat, that I needed to go back, go much deeper, in a very different way. 

In the village I’d had all of these people, a whole retinue – two translators, the guy who owned the boat, his assistant, the cook they insisted on bringing along, the cook’s assistant, the translator’s assistant. Must have been eight or ten of us. 

So this time I found an Indonesian woman in Washington, D.C., where I lived, and I spent several months crashing Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian language, and seven months after I’d left Asmat, I returned to the village. This time everything was different. I was alone and I’d returned and I more or less could speak directly to them, understand them, and they took me in, looked after me.

I lived with an elder named Kokai and his family – 20 of us in a tiny frame structure – in a village with nothing, nothing but men and women and children and mud and a river. No power, no plumbing, no stores, no internet. I didn’t ask questions about Michael. I just lived. Woke up at 4:30 am with the crying children and drank instant coffee and smoked with Kokai and talked and listened and fell asleep on the floor when the day was done. Amazing things happened.

The village decided to build a new jeu – men’s house – a massive, 300-foot long structure without a nail, filled with sacred importance. I spent hours and hours – sometimes 24 hours straight – as they danced and sang and I watched and listened and smoked and slowly, ever so slowly, I began asking questions, but they were completely different kinds of questions.

Not who killed Michal Rockefeller, but who were the men killed by Max Lepre, the colonial patrol officer who’d opened fire on the village in 1957? What were they to the village, their sacred and political positions? Who were the men who were named in the reports as having killed Michael, and what was their relation to the men killed by Lepre? These were village cultural and historical questions, questions about Asmat cosmology and their sacred world, and it was within these questions that all the answers lay.

Questions I’d never understand to ask if I hadn’t lived with them and if I hadn’t been able to speak directly to them without an interpreter. By the time I left Asmat on that second trip, I was confident I knew what happened to Michael that morning on November 21, 1961, the last morning he was seen alive. 

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Can you give us some insights into your creative process and writing routine behind the book? What did a typical writing day look like when you were working on it?  

My process for writing Savage Harvest was pretty much the same as for all of my books. A year and more of reporting, digging, traveling, going as deeply as I can into the lives and cultures and worlds of the people I’m writing about.

For The Lunatic Express, my second book, I spent five months traveling 50,000 miles around the world. For The Last Wild Men of Borneo, my fourth, the one after Savage Harvest, I again did a lot of archival work and interviewed people in Switzerland and France and then lived in Indonesia for six months, where I made two month-long journeys into Borneo, one with one of subjects of the book – I was also living a block from him during the other four months – and the second month in Borneo I walked across the last patches of primary rain forest in Sarawak with its last nomads. Just me and a family of two adults and their three children, as they hunted and wandered. 

For 2020’s Liar’s Circus, my fifth non-fiction book, I traveled thousands of miles across the USA from Trump rally to Trump rally, living with his most obsessed fans, spending hundreds of hours in arena parking lots. Again, same thing – I lived with them, I ate with them, I sat in the cold rain with them. 

In those times, in the field, I do whatever is necessary. I don’t really have any personal needs. I eat what my subjects eat, I sleep when they sleep, I subsume myself to the story. 

When I get home and start writing, then I write from nine am to five pm, five days a week, Monday to Friday, eight hours a day, 1,000 words a day, 5,000 a week, 20,000 a month, until I’ve got the book. Five or six months. I’m very regular. No weekends and no nights. Then my agent reads the draft and suggests changes, which I address pretty quickly, and then the book goes in to my editor. 

How do you balance writing with other responsibilities, such as family and work, and what advice would you give to aspiring writers trying to do the same?

Well, I’m a full-time writer, so my writing is my work, my only job. Many years ago, when I first decided to try to become “a writer,” I decided that if I was going to be a writer, then I wanted to make my living writing, and writing what I wanted to write, and that’s mostly held true.

I did a few years of part time construction work in my early 20s, but ever since the age of 27 or 28, all I’ve ever done is write. I’ve never had another job and I’ve never received a grant and I’ve never taken a teaching position and I’ve never done PR or copy writing. 

How did I do that? I sacrificed. It takes a lot of work to live the life you want to live, and there’s also the old saw, how much do you want it? 

For years I lived very cheaply, and I had a partner who also worked for herself and didn’t make much money, but at least there were two of us. I had old cars, a small, old house that I worked on myself (after years of living in group houses with my wife), my kids got scholarships at pre-school and went to public school, we were always in debt and behind to the IRS and refinancing the house. Of course those were different times, too. Magazines were big and full of ads and the feature was deep and the word count was high. I went from front of the book pieces to features and those paid well. 

In my most productive magazine years I actually made pretty good money and traveled sometimes six months of the year, which was obviously difficult on my marriage. With books, I travel in blocks, but then I’m home for long stretches of time. And the books pay a living wage, or have, so far (relatively speaking), and my kids are grown and things more or less work.

But I still rent a room in my house out on Airbnb, to help pay the bills, and I go through stretches of feast and famine, from the months of good living with an advance payout, to very little money when those payments run out and I’m waiting for something new. It’s a crazy way to live, really, but it’s all I know. 

To be a freelance writer you have to be pretty fearless and relentless and willing to sacrifice a lot of material comforts. My niece is 21 and she’s crazy talented and she’s selling pieces to magazines for decent money, so I know it’s still possible. But you have to really want it. 

What does your writing workspace look like?

For years I wrote in a coffee shop. Every day, eight hours a day, in Tryst, in Washington, D.C. Three full books. They even named a sandwich after me, The Carl. But then I inherited my son’s dog and he doesn’t like to be alone and, I don’t know, the noise of the shop began to bother me, and I wrote most of Liar’s Circus at home, and then the pandemic hit, and I’m now used to working in my home office.

It’s a small bedroom in my house and there’s a wall of bookshelves and a big yellow sofa I call the Golden Throne and a window and a very blue wall, and that’s where I write, laptop on my lap, feet on the coffee table. It might be killing my back, though. 

Photo courtesy of the author

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