How did you become a writer?
First, I became a reporter. I wrote professionally for more than a decade, mostly for newspapers and wire services, before I began to truly consider myself a writer. Even now, after eight books and more than 30 years of doing and teaching this work, I still have a hard time separating my identity as a reporter from my writing. The latter doesn’t exist without the former. Good nonfiction writing is wholly reliant on research: interviews, observation, documents, etc. I became a writer by learning how to be a good reporter. Then I sat in front of a keyboard and tried (and tried, and tried) to communicate all that I’d learned in the most engaging way possible.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
When I was in college, I found a used copy of Lillian Ross’s book “Reporting” in a Cape Cod bookstore. I didn’t read The New Yorker, and I figured this tattered old book was an ancient textbook on how to work for a 19th century newspaper. I bought it almost as a gag. Then I read it and thought, “That’s reporting? How do I do that?” Soon after, someone pointed me toward John McPhee. I started with “Levels of the Game,” and since then I’ve read all his books and been influenced by every one. Scores of other writers and books come to mind (i.e., David McCullough’s “The Johnstown Flood” taught me so much), but only one teacher: the late Wilbur Doctor, who taught me newswriting in college and set my compass at true north.
When and where do you write?
I can write anywhere, a lasting effect of my work as a newspaper reporter. But I’m most productive in my home office, ideally with my dog sleeping nearby. It was originally a smallish bedroom, but now it’s filled with files and books and mementos. It’s a mess, but it’s my mess. I tend to “type” mostly at night, when the world is relatively quiet. But when I’m deep into a project I’m “writing” whenever I’m awake, if you include the time spent obsessively thinking about everything from the overall structure to the tangled sentences I need to rework. Hikes in the woods are especially good for that kind of writing.
What are you working on now?
I have a new book coming out April 30, a five-year project called “Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11.” I covered 9/11 for The Boston Globe and wrote the lead news story on the day of the attacks. This book is a comprehensive, character-driven narrative that includes all four hijacked planes, the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, Shanksville, and the initial military and government response. Now that it’s complete I’ve got a few other ideas in mind, but for the moment I’m focused on teaching upcoming journalists at Boston University.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not really. I’m repeating myself here, but so much of my work today is an outgrowth of my years as a daily reporter. Writer’s block isn’t an option when you’ve got a hole in the paper to fill, a looming deadline, and an editor losing patience. Having said that, I’ve definitely encountered periods where my writing is so lousy it should be blocked. The sentences don’t flow, the ideas are stale, and clichés grow like topsy (uh oh, wait, am I in one of those periods now?). The solution for me is to take a short break then get back to work, knowing that it’s usually easier to revise and rewrite junk than it is to face the blank page.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
When I was a member of the Boston Globe Spotlight Team, my editor, Gerry O’Neill, urged me to “write scared.” That is, push yourself beyond what you think is possible or safe, to the outer limits of your research and your ability, to the point where it feels exciting and a little scary. When it works, it’s exhilarating for you and for the reader.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Mitchell Zuckoff is the Sumner M. Redstone Professor of Narrative Studies at Boston University and the author of eight nonfiction books. His forthcoming book is Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11, to be published by HarperCollins on April 30. His previous book, 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and became a movie from Paramount Pictures. His books Frozen in Time and Lost in Shangri-La also were New York Times bestsellers. Lost In Shangri-La received the Winship/PEN Award for Nonfiction. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and numerous other publications. He lives outside Boston with his family.