Joshuah Bearman is fresh off the success of Argo, the Oscar-winning film based on his 2007 Wired article, “The Great Escape.” That piece, a tight, dramatic narrative about the creative and daring CIA rescue of six Americans caught in revolutionary Iran, is filled with thorough reporting and marked by a precise attention to ironic details. Bearman’s style is direct and compact, the writing driven by an unyielding narrative momentum.
In the last several years, Bearman has become one of our most unique and exciting non-fiction writers, unearthing extraordinary true-life stories like “The Great Escape” as well as turning out engaging portraits of offbeat characters and subcultures. There are tales of competition and rivalry, including a fantastic profile of video game superstar Billy Mitchell (the mulleted co-star of The King of Kong, a documentary Bearman contributed to), a McSweeney’s piece about the annual Mr. Romance cover model competition, and a This American Life segment about a civil war within the not-so-cheery Santa Clause union known as The Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas. Other stories could be described, with unfairly dry language, as historical non-fiction—including a Playboy feature about the smuggling of Black Panther founder Huey Newton into Cuba and an article about the Green Zone bar that became Iraq’s “Casablanca.”
I was first introduced to Bearman’s work while interning at McSweeney’s during college. I’d just made my thesis film, an offbeat documentary about Winnipeg, Manitoba’s obsession with 7-11 Slurpees, and he’d just contributed a piece to McSweeney’s 14 about the hordes of oversized gerbils swarming the Xinjiang province of China. I thought — now here’s a guy writing my kind of stuff.
Argo’s success led me to revisit Bearman’s back catalogue, where I was reminded of the things about his work that made me a fan way back in 2007: his generous yet tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, his empathy for oddball characters, and his ability to craft razor-sharp narrative from complicated, often convoluted situations.
Over lunch in Echo Park, Bearman and I discussed the process of unearthing amazing stories, the difficulty of non-fiction storytelling, and the recurring themes throughout his work.
Brian McGinn: How do you find these people you write about, how do you find a story that’s interesting?
Joshuah Bearman: I’m always reading. And I keep a whole list of stories, often unusual stories. There are a hundred some-odd ideas on that list. Some of them are just little stray items I’ve read, like how Stalin directed the faculty at a Soviet zoological institute to attempt a breeding program, crossing gorillas with people to create a race of super warriors. I thought that would be an awesome story if it were true. But it seems impossible to report on, so it’ll be on the list forever.
Just yesterday I was link cruising on Slate — I like margin links — and I read something that had a link to another piece. Eventually I landed on a story about a Spanish neuroscientist at Yale who had this idea to implant a remote controlled chip in a bull’s brain. It was the 60’s, early in the understanding of neurophysiology, of exploring mind control. There’s a video of this guy jumping into a bullring and getting in front of this bull. The bull comes charging at him and he hits the button on this device and the bull stops.
I thought that could be an interesting story about the history of mind control, or maybe just the story of this researcher and his dramatic entry into the bull ring. I looked him up, but, tragically, he’s dead. That’s always disappointing when you find a good story and you realize the person has died, because then it’s difficult to report.
Sometimes, I’ll read a news story and there will be one line about something else, and I’ll find it interesting and look into it. That can often turn into an entire story on its own.
The Rumpus: That’s what happens for me. I’ll see a line in some article that hints at some richer narrative behind it.
Bearman: Sometimes you’ll read something and think, “What is going on here? There must be more to this.” The constraints of the news format didn’t allow for more detail, or the writer didn’t see it or just wasn’t interested.
The Rumpus: You keep a blog where you share all sorts of amazing links and stories. One of my recent favorites was this link to Hexnet, a website devoted to “Hexagons, Hexagonal Awareness, and Hexagon Consciousness.” How far do you pursue each of these to see if there’s a real story there?
Bearman: Years ago, when I wrote shorter pieces more frequently at the LA Weekly, every week I would say, “What am I going to look for?” And then — I’d find the guy who invented the laserium! Or the secret room at the museum of natural history where the flesh-eating beetles eat the cadavers! I could indulge any weird interests. Back then, I would have called the hexagon guy, because there’s not that much of a burden on the story.
The Rumpus: It doesn’t have to be a huge narrative.
Bearman: Right. Nowadays, I’ve gotten used to spending more time with heavily narrative stories. My next one is the worst, or the best, maybe. It took so long, and involved so many people. There were court records archived in the desert. I had to send an assistant out there, like in Erin Brockovich. She drove out to the desert and got all these thousands of pages of records. The longer stories have a really high bar if I’m going to pursue them. I’ve got to really know where the story is going. A lot of them I nurse for a long time and then –
The Rumpus: They click.
Bearman: They take hold, or I’ll reach the main guy. For example, my most recent story, in Playboy, called “The Big Cigar,” was about Bert Schneider and Huey Newton, and I had been reporting it off and on, on slow boil, since 2008. The main character was a recluse, and nobody knew where he was. And then a friend of mine ran into him on the street. That got me in touch and that snapped the story into place.
The Rumpus: That makes sense — the puzzle pieces slowly come together and then you can decide if it’s worth writing. When you do finally settle on a story and start reporting, how do you build a relationship with your subjects? People with wild stories tend to be made fun of — how do you gain their trust?
Bearman: I don’t know if any of the people perceive themselves as having been made fun of. Billy Mitchell does not — he thinks he’s a badass, which he kind of is. The Mr. Romance contestants, they thought, “This is our big chance to tell our story to the world.” Fundamentally, most people want to tell their story, unless there’s some compelling reason not to.
The Rumpus: So it’s an opportunity for people to reach the audience they know they deserve.
Bearman: Yeah. I did a story a long time ago about the last survivor of Heaven’s Gate. He wanted his story told because he wanted to spread the gospel of Heaven’s Gate — which entailed the belief, among many strange ideas — that all the people who had killed themselves had entered the next level of existence and become androgynous beings floating in space. He believed that literally. He knew that the group was portrayed in the media as a cult of crazy people, but he was a really nice guy, had struggled in life, and just wanted to explain what this belief meant to him.
I liked Rio, and was compelled by his story, but I was also very explicit in the article that there were troubling aspects to Rio’s belief system. I wrestled with this explicitly in the narrative. At times, Rio had a certain satisfied soothsayer of doomsday attitude, and would announce: “The earth’s going to reverse its axis and there’s going to be earthquakes.” I said something in the story about how I don’t like it when someone sits at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and tells me with a smile that millions of people will die while we’re drinking our mochas. But his belief had motivated his whole life, and the lives of others, including the decision to end those lives, and I tried to take it very seriously. And I didn’t just try to take it seriously — I did, by instinct. I was really struck by all these people who had committed suicide. There are videos of all of them talking about why they’re so happy to shed their human existence and exit their “vehicles” and I thought, “Why is that?” I extrapolated this whole cult philosophy and why it was meaningful. And Rio, the subject of the article, appreciated it. Even though at times I would say, “This guy’s crazy,” he was pleased that I had taken it so seriously.
The Rumpus: That’s interesting. You took what other people think is “way out there” and discovered some meaning that’s applicable to the rest of us. Are you normally involved in a sort of search for common ground?
Bearman: I think that most of the stories have some kind of universal theme — they are inductive, I guess? They start with these very particular characters or worlds and end up being about all of us. The King of Kong is actually the best example because it’s about a very esoteric, insular world of people that find something seemingly meaningless — Donkey Kong — to be meaningful. That’s silly, but if you just stick around long enough you’ll start to see that it actually is meaningful. I look for these universal ideas instinctively. I don’t really think about it ahead of time too much. It just sort of happens.
The Rumpus: I’m wondering how much you think self-deception plays into your characters.
Bearman: I don’t think that the people in my stories are lying to themselves. Well, some of them are — everybody is at some level. But there is something about how they all inhabit a narrative of their own making. Certainly Rio, the Heaven’s Gate guy, or Billy Mitchell. Then sometimes you have a clash between these kinds of narratives.
The Tale of Two Santas is an example of what I recall a history professor calling “the epistemological gap.” That was a piece on This American Life about a bitter feud between rival factions of professional Santa Clauses, and it was really acrimonious. The two sides hated each other, and each had their own version of the story. It was a prime example of subjectivity, where there is no collective narrative, just positions along the narrative spectrum. In that case there were two opposed narratives, and it was so confusing that I didn’t know what the fuck had actually happened for a long time. My producer, Alex Bloomberg, and I spent some of the time reporting each side, talking mostly to Santas on opposing sides. At a certain point, I believed my sources, and Alex believed his, and we argued. We were taking on the opposing narratives. He’d call and say, “So what did your despotic pretenders to the Santa throne tell you today?” And then I would say, “What did your Stalin Santas tell you today?”
It took a long time to figure out that there was one semi-neutral Santa. He became the Rosetta Stone. Once we had a firm footing on one event we could kind of piece it all together. But you still never know. It’s hard to actually know. People are really stuck on their ideas about themselves.
The Rumpus: And you can find yourself getting drawn into their personal narratives. That’s tough.
Bearman: Totally. It’s a tricky balance, because you’re telling somebody else’s story. A few years ago, I recorded a This American Life story about my family. It’s a difficult family story, tragic at times. My mother was a career alcoholic, and my younger brother was an aspiring rapper who lived with her in Florida. And they were always getting into trouble, and the story was about my attempts to save them, and how frustrating it was. It was not my idea, but my producer at the show convinced me to do it. Because the story was compelling. But it was hard from the inside. For obvious, personal reasons. But also because of craft, and storytelling. I was recording my mother, and they were her words, but I was holding the microphone. And writing the narrative. I realized I wasn’t sure whose story it was. Was it mine? Hers? It was both, in fact. But, because I was in control — I got to arrange the story, and therefore had the last word — I realized I had this obligation to understand her perspective as best as possible. Without abandoning my perspective. I had to represent both.
And that’s true even when you’re not working in a memoir form. With straight reporting, you still have to understand your subjects, but not lose sight of an external perspective. Like this story I did for The Rolling Stone a few years ago, about a real life superhero named Master Legend. He would run around Orlando, in uniform, trying to save the world. And he did manage to help people, while also having a rather disastrous personal life. It seems silly, the idea of a guy with homemade weapons outfit, practicing, as Master Legend did, his own form of Kung fu, called The Way of the Diamond Spirit. But his sentiment was genuine, his heart was in the right place. And he was, in his way, a hero. And I felt that. And at times I got really sucked into it. Which allowed the reader to understand him. But at the same time, I couldn’t allow that to entirely overpower the story. I had to also recognize what people on the outside would think about this wildly eccentric figure.
And the narratives are slippery, of course. The change over time. After the story is done, they change. They’d keep changing if you kept reporting. The narrative you start with is rarely what winds up on the page. Because when you find a story, there’s usually some narrative in place. You’ve read something in the newspaper — like my current piece, about a group of friends who grew up together and started the first major drug smuggling operation on the west coast. At first you think: “Here’s a true crime story about some drug smugglers.” With reporting, the story changes. All the time, I’ll realize, “That’s wrong. My whole conception about this person is wrong.” And then I’ll go back and try to re-find it.
The King of Kong is classic case of where there is so much room for interpretation. It was easy to believe Steve Wiebe’s narrative. And his is a compelling narrative to believe. You meet this guy, he seems like the nicest guy, he just wants to do something right, and this is the one thing he can do. But then he can’t, because there’s someone standing in his way – an actual Donkey Kong throwing barrel down at him. It’s a great narrative. But the truth is more complicated than that.
I feel like there is an entire class to be taught on the epistemology of modern media using The King of Kong. It’s a classic case of the gap, where there are competing, parallel narratives. Billy Mitchell inadvertently helped portray himself as a villain, because he cut off access at a certain point, making it very hard to appreciate his narrative
Billy was caught in a conundrum — he didn’t want to give access because he knew the story was shaping up a certain way, but that only made his situation worse. He had a classic Hobson’s choice.
He should have opened up more and then his version of the narrative would have informed the story more. But there’s no way out of the conundrum. It still would never have been his story because the story is in the hands of the filmmakers. The thing that people don’t realize is they’re just not in control of their own story.
The Rumpus: Not at all?
Bearman: In life? No. Never. That’s the thing, fundamentally the thing. You exist in the minds of other people.
The Rumpus: I like that idea.What about your own relationships with your subjects — how hands on do you stay after you finish a story?
Bearman: I still am in communication with almost everybody I’ve done a story about. I have a fantasy that if I ever strike it rich, I’ll have a big party and fly all of these people there, and they’ll be roaming around the party – Billy Mitchell, Master Legend, Santa Tim, Rio DiAngelo, Mr. Romance circa 2007, and so on. Then people who know the stories could go “Oh, there’s Billy Mitchell, I’m going to go ask him about…” It would be this weird SuperFriends collection of people.
The Rumpus: Do you think there are similarities between your characters? I really liked this German term you’ve written about, weltschmerz, which seemed like it could possibly be a theme.
Bearman: Weltschmerz is this concept from romanticism, the 19th century Byronic Era. You would like to inhabit the poetic realm, and the world does not suffice, and so the constant melancholy pain you feel from the gap between your mind and reality is weltschmerz. Byron’s answer was to dramatically re-make reality, or attempt to do so, by charging around and then dying on a battlefield in Greece, which is then heroic. Which worked. Sort of. It’s foolish but it’s also heroic. I’m attracted to characters who think this way. That’s a lot like Master Legend, for example. Master Legend is a Don Quixote story, which is fundamentally a romantic idea. If you feel sad reading it, that’s because of the weltschmerz of Master Legend — you want the world he inhabits in his mind to be the world he lives in, but it doesn’t square up. Often my characters have some kind of idealism or grand belief that they’re pursuing.
I was thinking about this recently; if I were going to anthologize all my stories, what would the themes be? One is that all the people would have no irony. Or that they’re all marginal figures, or glitches in the system. That was one idea. Or maybe they’re all just romantics.
The Rumpus: Obsession, that’s another theme.
Bearman: Yeah, obsession: how to lose your way. I like the obsessives. I had this other idea that they’re all self-starters and entrepreneurs, so I thought I could collect my stories as a fake business book, a fake Malcolm Gladwell book.
The Rumpus: The grand plan that doesn’t quite work out the way you thought because it’s not in your control.
Bearman: Right. Wait, do any of them ever work out? Hold on a second. No. So that’s another interesting theme. The Malcolm Gladwell version would be “Halfway: People That Never Quite Get There.“ Or: “How to Never Quite Get There in Business and Life.” That would be mine.