A Journalistic Inheritance

Evan and Peter Osnos in conversation

Evan Osnos has been reporting on China for the past five years for The New Yorker and last month, his book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. His father, Peter Osnos, is also a renowned journalist and the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs. Here, father and son discuss the difference between writing a book and writing for magazines, the changing journalism landscape, and the technicalities of a family edit.

Age of Ambition
Barnes and Noble

Evan Osnos: Did you ever imagine reading or writing would become the family business?

Peter Osnos: I would say that people always ask me why and how I moved from journalism to publishing, and what I realized was: within journalism, you get the story, you write the story, you put the story in the paper, it gets published, and you go home. In book publishing, you get the story, the story gets written, the story gets published, and then you go out and sell the thing. In publishing, the act of writing and the act of selling are directly connected, whereas in journalism, reporting and writing are considered a work on their own. And the whole business side of journalism, at least in my time, was always considered a completely separate element from the reporting and writing.

Evan: Does that mean then that you’ve seen a lot of journalists embark on writing books and become surprised or put off by the difference? Did you worry that I was going to encounter this problem as I embarked on Age of Ambition?

Peter: No, I think that from watching me for decades and working in publishing you understood that to really write a book properly, you need to write it with a notion that you’re going to have to project it, that it isn’t going to land on somebody’s doorstep the way a newspaper does. You have to actively solicit people’s interest to get them to read the book. In order for you to most clearly reach your audience in publishing, you have to think of it very much as a process, and you work very closely with people—not only with your editor, but with the people who are in marketing and sales—all of the people who are out there doing everything they can to find an audience for the book on your behalf. It’s a partnership.

Evan: You deal with a lot of authors, but when it’s your son, I suppose there’s a certain kind of investment. What were you trying to get through my thick head as I started this process, besides the fact that I would have to get out there and actually try to get the book into people’s hands? Was there anything else that you thought was going to be the hard part?

Peter: In a sense, you were about to take the next big step, which is taking the skills and experiences of a magazine writer and turning it into a fuller narrative within a broader context. And what could be a broader context than contemporary China? I thought that the big question was going to be how you would continue to progress from your initial experience as a news writer into a long-form storyteller, combining analysis with color quotes and anecdotes.

Evan: Yeah, part of the difficulty was that the newspaper journalism that people do now is very different than the newspaper journalism when you were in that part of your career. When I pick up The New York Times, I’m struck by the fact that the stories that I see—the first-day analysis piece, or even the first-day news story—often have the kinds of color and analysis that you used to have to wait to read on the weekend or in the magazine.

Peter: The assumption in writing today for what we used to call for newspapers and to some extent some of the online publications is that the reader already knows the headline, or knows the basic facts, and you, the writer, need to be able then to get behind that and give the person something which is an expert assessment of what’s going on. And of course the book logically fits that mode. Because what you do is chase a whole series of specific stories that are about people and places, and envelop them in a context so that the reader can get from the story the pleasure of reading a lively anecdote, but also reap the benefits of in-depth analysis.

The basic question—and the one that I think is the most fundamental—is what was the experience like for you? Of going to these places, through the newspaper phase to the magazine writing phase to writing a book? After all, this is your first book, and you started with a great deal of material and years of experience in China, but you had to develop it into something that was coherent and whole. What was it like for you?

Evan: I tend to listen to editing advice very, very closely. I think probably almost to the point of being too literal sometimes. But it’s because when you’re writing and you’ve produced your draft, or you’re thinking about what it is that you’re about to do, you really are sort of on your raft out on the waves. And so when an editor gives you some kind of insight, it really is like a flotation ring that’s been tossed to you. There was a point very early on in the process when I was explaining the structure I was going to use to Eric Chinski, my editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I told him it was going to be a series of characters who were held together by a theme, but not surfacing and then submerging and then re-emerging. And he said, just briefly, “You know, just remember to parcel people out a little more. You don’t need to deal with them each in a single self-contained narrative arc. Let those pieces talk to each other more.” In some ways it was a kind of common-sense observation, but one that had eluded me until that point, and it was transformative. It meant that all of a sudden, I was writing an opera instead of a variety show.

I think about this frequently because I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of different editors, including an editor in my own house growing up. One of the things that I think people outside of the writing world don’t fully understand is what that relationship is like between a writer and an editor. They think, “Well, what can an editor really do?” That’s the underlying argument that you see as newspapers and publishing, to some extent, lose the emphasis on editing. There’s a tendency to overlook how a piece of work can actually be transformed from the moment of writing to the time it’s finished. I was very struck by what a catalyst that single comment turned out to be. It also, I should say, added nine months of work.

Peter: How many chapters are in the book?

Evan: I ended up with twenty-five, if you include the epilogue.

Peter: So is that the equivalent of twenty-five magazine articles, or one book? What’s the difference between the twenty-five chapters which could be twenty-five magazine articles, and one fully-developed book?

Evan: Well that was, I think, the risk and proposition that was at the center of this project. I was trying to cover a whole range of different experiences and different characters, deliberately broad, but at the same time attempting to keep a strong enough core that it would feel like the reader was participating in a long-running enterprise, not a series of episodic entries. That was the essential struggle. And in the end, I think the book turned out to be very different than the usual magazine article, In every moment of the book, the reader is, ideally, both reflecting back on the things that have already accumulated—the information, the analysis, the impressions, the sentiments—and also being set up for the things that will follow.

I think that the kind of writing we do in The New Yorker is about as close as you can get to writing a book because of the sheer depth of the research that goes into every piece there, and also, if you’re doing it right, there is a feeling of being close to characters as human beings rather than seeing them as signposts in a thematic argument. And that was going to be the essential thing in Age of Ambition: it wasn’t going to work if it was a book about a series of topics related to China. That’s a briefing paper. In order for a project to have any life of its own, some organic coherence, you have to engage the subjects and sources as people. That’s another way of saying that had I written this book without having written about China for The New Yorker for five years, I would’ve had a very different set of ideas and tools, and I don’t think it would’ve worked. That was a very specific kind of training of the mind as a writer, and a real benefit.

Peter: I think that is one of the reasons why the narrative-journalism books that people want to read now tend to have the flavor of a New Yorker piece; which is to say that they are intended to be descriptive of personality or of situation, but have to cover a broad range of territory. I think that we both would agree that it is quite remarkable that for the last three years the National Book Award in nonfiction has been won by New Yorker writers.

Evan: But even setting aside where it appears or what kind of magazine it’s in or whatever, what I find notable is after the last few years of all of the industry turbulence—and this turbulence will continue in journalism and publishing—people are still asking “What do people want? How do we meet the reader where he or she is?” For a long time, the theory was, “Well, everyone wants shorter, glibber, lighter,” and there’s obviously a huge market for that. But what’s so striking is that in the end, I think readers really do feel (though don’t often articulate) that there is just no way around the tedious, slavish, almost grueling work of a deep reporting process, in which you do nothing fancier than pick up the telephone and call people and write down what they say, and go to their homes and knock on their door. For all the technological change in our industries, the thing that still satisfies is that most basic and unadorned process of talking to people, listening to what they are trying to say, and then attempting to render their lives in some kind of detail.

Peter: In 1966 I went to work, in London, as a night editor at The Washington Post’s news service. In my spare time I’d go out and write stories. And that was, for me, an early education in the craft of being an observer in a culture that is not your own. I began to write from the perspective of the visitor. And that’s a quality that I think makes for good writing and reporting. You should be able to describe and engage, but not be so immersed in the story that you can’t stand back and help explain what’s going on. It’s very important to be able to do that. Good books will always reflect this. As a writer, you lose the broad view of the story because you are unable to pull yourself out of it and be, to some extent, an observer.

Evan Osnos is the winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Nonfiction. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he served as the China correspondent from 2008 to 2013. He is the winner of two Overseas Press Club awards and the Asia Society’s Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Tribune, where he was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2008. He lives in Washington, D.C.