Reading Sarah Stillman’s resume is scary. Six years after she graduated from Yale with a Marshall Scholarship, as well as both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Anthropology, Stillman has written for The Nation, The Washington Post, The Atlantic.com, and The New Yorker. “The Invisible Army,” which The New Yorker published last June, is a finalist for a National Magazine Award. She sat down with The New Journal to talk about finding her journalistic voice.
The New Journal: How was your road from Yale to writing for magazines like The New Yorker ?
Sarah Stillman: Highly circuitous. I went to Oxford, where I realized that I could get cheap tickets to go travel during breaks. I started flying off to places where I wanted to pursue stories—Berlin, West Africa, Australia. I started doing side stories on the Iraq war and other issues that I cared about, but I quickly realized that super-opinionated punditry wasn’t my strong suit. I’m more comfortable with in-depth narrative and slow, methodical reporting—the sort of stuff you don’t have to turn around in a day for the blogosphere.
TNJ: What is your philosophy when you go out to get a story?
SS: Often, I start by looking for socially relevant stories that are at the margins of more widely-reported events or phenomena—stories, for instance, that emerge from the questions that remain unanswered by mainstream headlines. Then, I try to start scratching beneath the surface through reporting, making phone calls, showing up in the relevant places. I try to be open to the facts on the ground and the places they lead me. It’s amazing how often my initial, tidy idea of a story gets complicated or even totally unraveled once I actually show up and start poking around. Often, I’ll find that something far more nuanced and interesting is taking place than what I’d imagined.
TNJ: You uncovered the story of an “invisible army” of foreign workers at U.S. army bases, which was published in The New Yorker in June 2011. How did you know that that was the place that you should go and the story that you should cover?
SS: When I was at Oxford, I was in this Indian restaurant and my waiter heard my American accent and came to me and said, “Oh my gosh, I worked on a US military base and I have pictures of me and Jessica Simpson.” He busted open his phone and had all these pictures. He had had a really great experience in Iraq. He shared with me how many of his friends from his hometown also ended up there—but he also had colleagues who’d faced serious abuses and injuries. When I was able to go to Iraq for the first time in 2008, that was one of the things on my radar — who is this international workforce?
As soon as I arrived, I noticed that these workers were ubiquitous. Everywhere I went, they were cooking all of the food, they were cleaning the latrines, they were trucking all of the goods from here to there. You couldn’t be in Iraq and not see them. But I noticed that I had read very little about where these people come from. They were Indians, Bengalis, Fijians, and from Sierra Leone. It was stunning to me that we had tens of thousands of these people, but rarely read about the conditions that brought them there or what it was like for them.
TNJ: What do you think about the idea that there are two different schools of writers and journalists now — the kind that likes technology and the kind that doesn’t like putting a personality online?
SS: As a journalist today, you’re expected to put yourself in the public sphere and feel comfortable participating in instantaneous debates and conversation, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago. That’s really exciting and energizing in a lot of ways, to be able to be in touch with one’s readership and get immediate feedback and engage. But I think it also runs counter to a lot of what draws me to journalism. I’ve never felt particularly articulate off the cuff, and I really appreciate the time to choose my words carefully. The translation process between what is going on in my head and what is coming out of my mouth is never happening at 100 percent or even 70 percent efficiency. So being able to spend time calibrating my words is useful.
TNJ: Does it feel like there is a stronger population of tech-savyy journalists now?
SS: I think so, because a lot of publications really want you to be a part of it. Even writers that are resistant, like the Jonathan Franzens of the world, have reluctantly resigned themselves to the fact that every now and then they may find themselves participating in a videocast or a live author chat.
TNJ: Do you think the place for long-form journalism is changing?
SS: I’m so excited about some of the new platforms that are providing journalists with the opportunity to try out hypertextual modes of storytelling. Places like The Atavist where people are experimenting with integrating audio and visuals into the arc of a longform story. There are some unbelievable new opportunities for thinking about how we tell stories creatively.
TNJ: Do you see yourself integrating multimedia into your pieces in the future?
SS: Multimedia offers some new tools, I think, for getting out of your own way as a narrator. You’ll always have the complication of being the person who’s editing things down and choosing what parts of someone’s own self-presentation make it out there. But multimedia allows for a degree of immediacy that wasn’t available to storytellers before. It’s like creating a direct line between sources and reader. I’m such a Luddite in a lot of ways but I’m trying to embrace these new vehicles, partly because I think they’re interesting and meaningful.
TNJ: What has been most embarrassing in your career?
SS: I’ve written a lot of things that make me cringe. It’s so complicated that for young writers on college campuses now, no one has the opportunity to learn in private, because of the Internet. Part of learning to be a journalist these days is learning to accept the fact that your opinions will change over the course of your lifetime and you have to feel comfortable recognizing that your thoughts are evolving. Yet another reason why it’s good to have a great editor.