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The Questions Every Writer Asks - Featuring New York Times Bestselling Author and Pulitzer Prize Finalist Gerald Posner
By Dusty Sang and Gerald Posner
Gerald Posner is known as one of the very best investigative journalists in America. The author of thirteen books, he is a multi-time New York Times bestselling author, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a contributor to The New York Times, The New Yorker, Newsweek, Time, CNN, the History Channel, MSNBC, Fox News, among others, and the recipient of countless awards. He has been praised as “a merciless pit bull” for his exhaustive research and for his fast-paced style. Working with his wife, Trisha, Gerald has dug his teeth into subjects as diverse as the pharmaceutical industry, the Vatican Bank, the assassination of JFK, and he has let the sunshine in on subjects often hidden from view or taboo.
He brings a lifetime of experience to the craft of researching and writing. His passion, commitment and focus are legendary in the industry, and I hope that this peek behind the curtain of his writing process will be helpful to writers, debut and veteran alike.
I wrote the following questions and emailed them to Gerald. He wrote his responses and emailed them back to me. A great collaboration. -- Dusty
DUSTY SANG: How did you get started in writing? What inspired you to pursue a career as an author?
GERALD POSNER: When I was in school, I never thought of a career as a writer. Instead, I wanted to be an attorney as far back as high school. That was fed partly by my enthusiasm for debate and research. After getting my undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, I went to the UC Hastings College of Law in my native San Francisco. After graduation, I went to work for a couple of years at a large New York law firm before heading out to my own small legal practice.
That is when Marc and Francesca Berkowitz, a pair of surviving twins of Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele's concentration camp experiments, approached me. They wanted to get the German government and Mengele family to pay some of the substantial medical costs that they, and a handful of surviving twins, sustained because of what Mengele had done to them. I took that case pro bono (no charge). The research took nearly four years. And while the lawsuit was not ultimately successful, I took some 25,000 pages of documents I had gathered about Mengele's life as a fugitive, and together with a British journalist, John Ware, published a biography of Mengele.
Research and writing Mengele was far more fulfilling than anything in my short legal career. I loved the deep research dive and the challenge of investigating issues that had stymied many others. My legal background was a big help in fashioning a cohesive story from tens of thousands of documents and hundreds of interviews. Mengele was published to widespread critical acclaim and acknowledged as the definitive biography of the fugitive war criminal. By that time, I had married Trisha, who was then working in the fashion business. Did we both want to leave our established careers and try paying our bills by writing books? I was 32 and Trisha was 35 and we had no children. It seemed that if we did not do it then, we never would.
What sealed the deal was that during my reporting in Paraguay about Mengele, I came across some Corsicans who were fugitives from international heroin trafficking charges. Although they did not help me find Nazis in South America, they regaled me with jaw-dropping tales about the heroin business. They complained that heroin smuggling had gone to rot since it had been taken over, they claimed, by Chinese Triads based in Hong Kong. Do you want to do that as our next book, I asked Trisha. She said yes and soon we were off to spend a few months wandering around Southeast Asia and the heroin fields of the Golden Triangle. A couple of years later, that research turned into my second book, Warlords of Crime. A New York Times review said it was “powerful, frightening, and, unfortunately, nonfiction.”
That was it. I never looked back at my law career.
DUSTY SANG: What was your big break? What advice do you have for new writers trying to get their books published?
GERALD POSNER: My “big break” was the result of a lot of hard work and a bit of luck. The hard work was the research about Mengele and how he had stayed one step ahead of Nazi hunters for so many years. By serendipity, when I visited Buenos Aires in November 1984, Argentina had a civilian government that was less than a year old. The country’s military junta had lost power after the nation’s humiliating defeat to the British in the war over the Falkland Islands. What I did not realize initially was the degree to which Argentina was undergoing a generational change in all aspects of governing. There had long been rumors that Mengele had gotten safe haven in Argentina after fleeing postwar Europe. Argentina’s ex-military leaders had rebuffed all requests for any information they had about Mengele. I applied, as had many before me, for Argentina’s Mengele file. After six weeks of waiting in a hotel in central Buenos Aires, the Federal Police arrived at my hotel late one night and drove me to their central headquarters. A very grumpy police colonel met me and took me to a small windowless room. There, on a table was a thick file that contained the secrets of everything from Mengele’s arrival in the country under a false name in 1949 to the details of his ten years of living the high life in Buenos Aires.
The Argentine file was indispensable in leading to others who had helped Mengele and key Nazis evade justice. It was the key to opening the flood gates for the rest of my research.
Persistence was part of the reason I got those papers. I never took no for an answer. If I had, I would have left Buenos Aires after a couple of weeks of rejections. The other element was a bit of luck in making my requests to a new government that would favorably consider them. That’s the good fortune of timing, something from which all reporters can benefit but also something over which we have little control.
When I was ready to turn my research into a book, I knew very little about the publishing business. Trisha and I went to a Barnes & Noble bookstore on Broadway in Manhattan, around the corner from The New York Times. We examined the nonfiction and history books to see which publisher put out the most books on history. By the time we left the store, our informal survey had settled on McGraw-Hill. A week later, I sent a letter to an editor whose name I found in the acknowledgements of one of the books. The editor answered about a month later. She wanted to meet and talk further. That was the opening I needed, the chance to make a pitch in person about why I thought there was the need for a book about Mengele’s life on the run.
Again, my good fortune was that my letter landed on the desk of a young assistant editor who liked the idea. If it had been opened by someone who thought the subject was a waste of time, it would have ended up in the wastebasket and I never would have gotten an answer.
All I know for a certainty, is that writers can only be successful if they are willing to hear a hundred times no, and just move on looking for a yes. While I got a yes from the first publisher I approached for Mengele, over the years I have had many subsequent proposals for books and magazine articles rejected. I have also gotten a lot of yeses. You cannot let the rejections take away your confidence in an idea you fervently believe is worth of publication.
DUSTY SANG: What is the most challenging aspect of choosing a subject to write about?
GERALD POSNER: It must be something about which I am passionate. That is especially true for a book, since it takes years from the start of research to publication. If I am not on fire about the topic, then it will never sustain my interest for the long haul. Since Trisha and I work together on the projects, we must share that enthusiasm. That means we both must be excited about a project before submitting a proposal it to a publisher.
DUSTY SANG: How do you approach the writing process? What tips do you have for staying motivated and bringing a project to conclusion?
GERALD POSNER: Once I start a book project, I stay focused only on it. That means I don’t write articles or do much on my Substack, and I cut back on Twitter and other social media.
I don’t use an outline because the book changes during my research and reporting. Sometimes what I think will be a stand-alone chapter becomes a smaller part of another chapter, other times it gets condensed into a long footnote, or possibly disappears entirely. My drafts do not follow a straight chronology of the story. I instead start writing about the slice of reporting on which I am focused at that moment. Straightening it out and telling it seamlessly is a way down the road.
I like a set writing schedule. I start early in the day and often work into the evening. There are some days I don’t leave the apartment. Trisha is with me, chasing down some research we need or editing and commenting on early drafts.
Our friends know that once we start in earnest on a book, our social life pretty much disappears. The book is all consuming. That might not work for everyone, but it is how I like to work. It gets me totally immersed in the subject and I pretty much have blinders on to what else is going on in the world.
And no matter how long I have for a deadline, it is never enough. There is always a mad crunch of last-minute editing, research and fact checking as the submission date to the publisher draws near.
DUSTY SANG: What do you consider to be the key elements of a successful book and how do you ensure that you're delivering those elements to your readers?
GERALD POSNER: The most enthusiastic readers of my books are those interested in a history as well as breaking news about current events. Many writers measure success by sales, others by editorial reviews and journalism awards. Those are all important to give a sense of accomplishment. It is satisfying to know that my peers respect my work. For me, however, the best personal measure of success comes from the hundreds of reader emails I get after publication. Some are fans of one or more of my previous books, but many have just discovered my work. Their raves, as history buffs or people knowledgeable about my latest topic, are the best indicators about whether I delivered a successful book. For instance, on my last book, Pharma, the notes I relished most were from physicians and drug industry professionals. Many said they had learned things they never knew about the very business in which they worked. That is the bar I set for myself.
DUSTY SANG: How do you handle criticism of your work?
GERALD POSNER: No one likes criticism but people who are thin-skinned, should not become writers. They especially should avoid becoming investigative journalists because that is field in which the best work makes the most enemies.
Some of my writer friends claim they pay no attention to reviews, not even those in The New York Times and other major newspapers. I don’t believe that. As writers, we have put our heart and soul into a book and those reviews are critical to spreading the word.
Criticism is part and parcel of writing. “Get used to it” might sound too simplistic a suggestion, but it happens to be right.
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