The elusive, graceful future of journalism: Nina Burleigh's Writing Life

A NPR foreign correspondent chum used to recount a list of seven ways for journalists to grow old with grace. His premise, which is self-evident to anyone who’s been a reporter, was that daily news was an undignified thing to be doing in your 40s. I can’t remember the whole of the list. It included writing op-eds for your newspaper (which seemed more or less like retirement), teaching journalism at a university (also retirement, but somewhat scorned by other hacks), and maybe the seventh was dieing. Undoubtedly the most prestigious way to proceed, according to that list, was to write nonfiction books. Nina Burleigh has a most graceful career, indeed. A former correspondent for Time and People, she’s written a number of historical nonfiction books, the most recent of which is “Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Ho... That book focused on a series of biblical archeological finds which the Israeli Antiquities Authority says are fakes and the dealers and archeologists currently on trial for allegedly faking such objects as the burial ossuary of Jesus’s brother James. Sort of The Da Vinci Code with subordinate clauses. Since completing “Unholy Business,” Nina’s been working on a book to be published next year about the controversial trial of American Amanda Knox for the ritual murder of a British student with her Italian boyfriend. Pretty gruesome and, when Nina and I chatted about it on my recent New York trip, it also turns out to involve some sinister figures tracking the author. But it also necessitated her taking her family to live in Perugia, Umbria, for most of last year. As I said, it’s the graceful way for a journalist to go. Here’s how she does it:
How long did it take you to get published?
First published in sixth grade, I think. A local library in Elgin, Illinois. First paid publishing in journalism, at the AP in Springfield, Illinois. First book published, 1997. I don’t want to say how old I was then, but it happened because my agent was trawling the DC press corps for clients and found me. I had written a novel or two and never got anywhere with them (still haven’t sold any fiction).
Would you recommend any books on writing?
I like Strunk and White “Elements of Style.” And a Roget’s Thesaurus. I prefer my old paperback one, although the one on the web works okay.
What’s a typical writing day?
If I’m in the groove, I get up in the morning, fiddle around on the internet until I feel totally guilty, then quit it and don’t go back on for at least 3 or 4 hours, during which time I am supposedly writing, but may in fact be re-reading, in which case it’s not such a great day. After that, I usually have lunch or kids or other distractions.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?
“Unholy Business.” Thrilling, hilarious and fun. Best book I ever put together. I am so depressed that it didn’t sell and that Collins never made a paperback of it. It’s fast and entertaining. But, the next book about Amanda Knox will be even better and maybe people care more about youth, sex drugs and Italy than fake archaeological objects and the Bible they purport to prove.
How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?
Pretty much, c, if you are talking about structure. In terms of method … probably b.
What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?
Ridiculous question, Matt. I can’t remember the name of the author or book, though.
What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?
Hmm. In ALL of literature? I can’t remember. I do like a lot of the description in “The Leopard”, which I read in preparation for working in Italy. The author brilliantly, deliciously evokes 19th century Sicily, a place and time I had never given much thought to.
Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?
I don’t know. There are a lot of smart writers out there. I kind of admire Chris Buckley’s novels about American politics.
Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?
I wish I knew. I would copy it.
How much research is involved in each of your books?
Too much. I really don’t want to work this hard.
Do you have a pain from childhood that compels you to write? If not, what does?
Yes, and it exists today. Nobody pays attention to me when I speak.
What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?
I’ve heard that John Berendt claims you must do 4 things for your book every day for a year in order to get a best-seller. It worked for him, obviously. But I ran out of “things” after a few weeks the last time I tried.
What’s your experience with being translated?
I love looking at my book in Japanese. I have no idea where my name is on it, it could say anything.
Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?
I do live off my writing, but not off my books alone.
How many books did you write before you were published?
I think there was one novel in a drawer. It remains there.
What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?
An autistic-seeming guy at the Jewish book festival in San Francisco followed me all around for an hour and none of the organizers stepped in, I had to hide. And then, I am among the chosen who have had the humiliating experience of speaking at bookstores where only the employees are present.
What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?
I really want to write the amazing life story of my dog, picked up in a gutter in Mexico, now splitting his time between an apartment in Manhattan and house in upstate New York, after a half year frolicking in the olive groves of Umbria. I want to go into his brain and write about the world from his point of view. I think he must have a rather happy outlook. I don’t think this is any less likely to get published than my other ideas, though.

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