Interviews / Journalists

Interview with Mitchell Zuckoff: “I apply the lessons of Spotlight to every book I write.”

Mitchell Zuckoff is the bestselling author of eight works of nonfiction, including the #1 New York Times bestseller 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi.

As a former member of the Boston Globe Spotlight Team, Zuckoff was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting and has received numerous accolades for his writing, including the Livingston Award for International Reporting, the Winship/PEN New England Award for Nonfiction, the Heywood Broun Memorial Award, and the Distinguished Writing Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Mitchell’s work has appeared in prestigious publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Times, and he continues to be a respected voice in the world of journalism. He resides with his family just outside of Boston.

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Hi Mitchell, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! You have had a long and distinguished career as a journalist and author, with several books and numerous honors to your name. Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a writer, and what inspired you to pursue this path?

Thanks very much for the invitation. When I was starting out, my greatest ambition was to be a reporter at a major newspaper. I had a romantic idea of a reporter’s life, and it turned out that the reality suited me even better than my fantasy.

I liked the idea of learning something new every day, I liked writing under the pressure of deadlines, and I liked the people who inhabit newsrooms. I made it to The Boston Globe when I was 27, and in the years that followed I wrote longer and more challenging stories.

Eventually I wrote a six-part series that ran nearly 20,000 words, about a year in the life of a couple who had to decide whether to continue a pregnancy knowing their child would have Down syndrome and a severe heart defect. That turned into my first book, Choosing Naia: A Family’s Journey, and I knew from that point that I wanted to continue writing books.

As a member of the Boston Globe Spotlight Team, you were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting. Can you share some insights into your approach to investigative journalism?

My approach to investigative journalism starts with an understanding that it’s a privilege to do this work, so the effort and the resources given to us should be focused on significant subjects – often involving fraud, waste or abuse – that otherwise wouldn’t be examined. Another element is my belief that high-profile investigative journalism like the kind we produced on the Spotlight Team has an outsized impact on the reputation of the larger organization.

That means it’s essential to hold yourself to the absolutely highest standards – in terms of proof, and also in terms of ethics – because you’re carrying the credibility of many others who put out the newspaper every day, as well as all the Spotlight reporters and editors who came before you. So, it’s about choosing your targets well and then carrying out the work without compromise.

Can you describe your experience working as a member of the Boston Globe Spotlight Team and what you learned during that time?

It’s a great question – and I’m not dodging it – but it would take a book or at least a semester-long class to begin to teach all the lessons of Spotlight. In terms of my experience, it was a highlight of my career.

I worked most closely with Spotlight editor Gerry O’Neill and my friend and colleague Dick Lehr, and I’ve never known two more extraordinary journalists. They taught me how to break down major projects into manageable parts, how to withstand pressure, how to translate huge amounts of material into readable stories, and how to balance work and life. 

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How did your experience with the Boston Globe Spotlight Team shape your approach to writing nonfiction books?

It’s no exaggeration to say I apply the lessons of Spotlight to every book I write. As one major example, in Spotlight we had a system of writing detailed memos and progress reports. For instance, you’d write one after every significant interview, or as you were trying to make sense of new data, or as you were summarizing previously published material on the subject you were investigating.

So instead of unwieldy amounts of information or overflowing files, you had clearly summarized memos that crystallized your findings. You still had the backup material, or the complete interview transcript, which you could use when writing, as needed. But by imposing order onto the chaos of research material, you never got overwhelmed by the mountain you were trying to climb. You had a record of every step along the way, and you could retrace them at any point. I do essentially the same thing when writing my books, using memos as the building blocks of chapters. 

As someone with a reputation for producing deeply researched and compelling works of nonfiction, can you walk us through your creative process, from idea to finished product, and what you believe are the key elements of a successful work of nonfiction?

It’s hard for me to articulate what you call my creative process, mostly because every book I’ve written has required a somewhat different creative approach. For instance, some of my books have been suggested to me, like the one I have coming out in April 2023.

It’s called The Secret Gate: A True Story of Courage and Sacrifice During the Collapse of Afghanistan. The two main subjects approached me, and I knew immediately I wanted to tell their story. Then the creative questions became how best to gather the information I needed and how best to structure the book.

I couldn’t speak to all nonfiction, but the works of narrative nonfiction I love to read and try to write revolve around complex, indelible subjects (I don’t like the word “characters” when talking about real people). If the subjects are people I find interesting and they’re facing high enough stakes (life or death, for example) I think there’s a pretty good chance that in the hands of a good writer this will be a successful book.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

All these years later, in many ways I’m not so different from when I was a young newspaper reporter who liked doing new things every day. That’s my way of saying I don’t have many typical days. When I’m reporting a book, I might spend long days in a library, or doing interviews, or tracking down documents, or all of the above.

Once I’m in the writing phase of the work, I do have some routines. I’ve never been able to break the old newspaper reporter’s habit of collecting information all day and then writing as the sun goes down. So I tend to write at night after organizing my material and thinking about the pages ahead.

Sometimes I take this to the extreme, and my wife will find me at my desk at 2 or 3 in the morning. Then, the following day, while I’m collecting my material and my thoughts, I’ll review what I wrote the previous night and smooth over anything especially awkward. Then I’ll start the process all over again. 

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that be and why?

I’d normally say Robert Caro, but thankfully in recent years he’s been sharing those routines and giving us a window into his process. So I’ll choose David McCullough, whose work remains a constant inspiration. Decades ago, when I first read The Jonestown Flood, I knew I found a writer who could serve as a true north on my professional compass.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favourite recent reads?

Lately I’ve been alternating between fiction and narrative nonfiction, and the last two were both winners: Horse, by Geraldine Brooks and A Death on K Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy, by an excellent investigative reporter named Andy Kroll.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

Like a bit of a mess! I’ve written all my books in the same spot: a bedroom in my house that I turned into an office. To my left is a bookcase with my latest files on top; in front of me is a desk with my laptop propped up on a stack of books, alongside photos of my two daughters; and to my right are boxes of files from my last book and my next book. The walls are covered with mementos of my career and plaques from awards won by my wife, Globe photographer Suzanne Kreiter.

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