Interviews / Journalists

Interview with Greg Donahue: “I just need to step away to have any chance of unlocking it.”

Greg Donahue is an American writer and investigative journalist. His work has appeared in publications including New York Magazine, The Guardian, The Atavist Magazine, Vice, and Marie Claire, among many others.

His stories have been optioned for film by Anonymous Content and FilmNation. ‘The Minuteman,’ his 2019 Audible Original, peaked at #2 on Audible’s bestseller list. He grew up in northern New Jersey and currently resides in New York City.

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Hi Greg, thanks so much for joining us today. We’re super excited to talk to you about your writing process. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Thanks for having me. I am a writer and investigative reporter whose work focuses largely on crime, although not exclusively. My work has appeared in publications including New York Magazine, The Guardian, The Atavist Magazine, Vice, and Marie Claire, among many others. A number of my magazine articles have been optioned for film, and my 2019 Audible Original, ‘The Minuteman,’ peaked at #2 on Audible’s bestseller list. I’m currently at work on a couple of screenwriting projects and am in the early stages of writing my first book.

I recently finished reading your article – The Fugitive Next Door for The Atavist Magazine – and it was one of the best pieces I’ve read in a long time. Can you take us through the creative process of putting together that article?

The hardest part of putting together The Fugitive Next Door was undoubtedly the reporting process. I find that for me, most of the time anyway, any issue I’m having with the writing is usually down to a reporting issue- if I haven’t talked to everyone I can, found every document or reference material I need to flesh out the story, etc.

I end up paying for it during the writing process. Holes in the chronology or character development show themselves almost immediately. What this means in practice is that I often over-report and am left with a lot of editing to tighten up the story after a first draft. 

In the case of The Fugitive Next Door, a number of my principle characters had agreed to tell me their stories, only later to rescind their cooperation. I was already deep into reporting the story and it forced me to kind of change tack a little bit about how I approached the piece. I think in the end it was beneficial because I ended up focusing more on this notion of redemption rather than telling a more by-the-book, fugitive drug story. 

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What does a typical writing day look like for you?

I would love to have a ‘typical’ daily writing routine (and occasionally I get lucky and can string a few days together that look similar), but the reality is that I’ve got two kids under three years old so I’ve had to become very efficient at working whenever an opportunity presents itself.

Generally speaking, I like to get in front of the computer as early as possible in the day – usually sometime between 6-8am – and get a few hours in before the rest of the world (and/or my kids) wakes up. After breakfast, I’ll write or do interviews until noon or so, or at least until lunch, daycare pick-ups, etc., get in the way. Same is true after lunch, a few hours if I’m lucky.

Usually by 4pm or so, I’m wiped from staring at the screen and family responsibilities take over. My wife is a school teacher so during her summer break I have a lot more freedom from the domestic stuff I often take care of as a work-from-home parent. That’s when I can really stretch my writing legs for longer periods.

Bottom line, it’s tough! But I’ve learned that as long I have a plan for the upcoming day, I’m at least as efficient as I was when I had all the time in the world. 

Do you have a target word count or a certain amount of hours you like to hit each day? 

Because my daily schedule is always in flux, it doesn’t make much sense to count hours. In an ideal world, I try to hit a benchmark of around 500 good words a day, but I think of it more as a moving average than a hard target.

If I miss the mark one day because I’m busy doing interviews, I’ll try and make up for it with 800-1,000 good words the next. I say “good” words specifically because, for me, there’s often a notable distinction between the actual word count and the number of words I know will make it into a final draft.

I can write 1,000 words in a few hours if I’m flying, but if I know that only a third of it is really the kind of worthwhile material that will make the final cut, then I try to think of that as a 300 word day, not a thousand.

Can you talk about some of your must-have writing tools? 

Nothing special, frankly. I do all my writing in Word and very, very, occasionally Google docs if I’m on the road. I have a Zoom H4N sound recorder that I use for interviews. I also usually carry a pad and pen wherever I am, but I think that’s more of a Romantic notion than a utilitarian one. Most of the time if I have to make a quick note I’ll use the voice recorder on my cell phone and just talk it out. I was just gifted a very fine gold fibre notebook though, so maybe I’ll class it up in the future. 

Whenever you hit a roadblock during a writing session, what are some of the methods you use to get back into the flow of things?

First off, just get away from the computer. It took me a very long time – years and years and years – to convince myself that pounding my head against the desk wasn’t the way to go, but I finally came to the realization that if I’m truly stuck on something, I just need to step away to have any chance of unlocking it.

The best bet for me is going for a run, low and slow, nothing fancy. No headphones, not running for time. I just get my legs moving while talking out the story in my head. Eventually, I get tired and sweaty and forget what I was stuck on, which is usually when I have the epiphany I was hoping for.

Can you describe what your writing workspace looks like?

I have a small office in our apartment, which is basically home to my desk, computer, and ever-growing piles of books that no longer fit on the bookshelf. All in all, it’s a pretty simple set up. I suppose the one notable feature are my notes and outlines, which I print out and tape to the wall surrounding my desk.

I find it easier to refer back to those in physical form than always switching back and forth between documents on the laptop. On longer pieces it can certainly get unwieldy – I’ve had dozens of pages covering the wall before – but I find it to be a helpful way to keep  focused on the story just by glancing up from the screen.

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