Friday, December 5, 2008

Writer Profile: Barry Yeoman

I met Barry Yeoman when we were both reporters in North Carolina. I was running the Winston-Salem Journal’s one-woman bureau office in Boone and he was writing for a local weekly, Mountain Times, and freelancing for the Charlotte Observer and The Independent. The big news that year was whether the city of Boone would allow alcohol sales. Despite being a college town (home of Appalachian State University), it was dry—forcing college students to make a perilous, winding journey to Blowing Rock to get “likkered-up.” It was such a big deal that TV reporters from Charlotte and Winston-Salem joined local reporters at what had been sparsely attended council meetings. Eventually the referendum came to a vote and passed, students got drunk to celebrate, and nothing really changed except that you could buy a beer with your pizza in downtown restaurants.

Barry and I both left Boone after a year—I ran away from my too-solitary office to go to graduate school at UNC, and he went to work for The Independent in Durham. We didn’t communicate with each other again, though I kept up with his career by reading the articles he filed at The Independent, and later for Mother Jones and other national publications.

I renewed contact with him this summer when a friend of mine wanted to write about his medical mission to Iraq and I suggested he query Mother Jones since “I knew someone there.” A bold and somewhat false statement, for sure, since I hadn’t seen Barry for 20 years, but the urgency of the story lent itself to such chutzpah. Happily, Barry remembered me, which led to this interview.

The thing I have learned from Barry, even from afar, is that any writing job, no matter how small and humble, can lead to bigger publications and wider audiences as long as you keep putting yourself out there, and keep looking for a story and for a market. Of course, it helps in his case that he is a wordsmith as well as a terrific investigative reporter.

Barry's work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; The New York Times; AARP The Magazine; Mother Jones; Audubon; Rolling Stone; Reader's Digest; Psychology Today; Glamour;; The Boston Globe; Ladies' Home Journal and many other publications. He is currently a contributing editor for AARP The Magazine and US Airways Magazine, and a contributing writer for Mother Jones. His work has been reprinted in several books, including The Best American Science Writing 2007, The Best Business Stories of the Year and The World's Best Sex Writing 2005. In addition to his writing, during the summer, he teaches at Duke Young Writers' Camp in Durham. For more information, see

WH: Why are you a writer?

It’s definitely in my blood. I was creating a neighborhood newspaper when I was 11. I’m not sure where the impulse initially came from. It’s something I always knew I wanted. I was editor of my junior high and high school newspaper. And when I started to think about college, many of the adults around me were trying to talk me out of journalism. One, because it was a bastard profession and, two, because they didn’t think that it was ideally suited for a kid with a stutter. But I was only in college for three days before I went to a journalism department orientation at NYU and I was so excited that I changed my major from psychology.

I think why I write now is different than why I wrote even 10 years ago. As I’ve made my way first through alternative weeklies and now to national magazines, my original impulse was about changing the world. I primarily saw journalism as a way of educating people, so that they could make a difference in addressing social injustice and economic maldistribution and stupidity in politics. That is certainly still one of my missions, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that a great deal of my pleasure comes in two other places. First, the opportunity to pull up a front-row seat to people’s lives, especially people whom I wouldn’t ordinarily cross paths with. And, second, to my great surprise, the craft.

Craft came second to me. I came of age in the inverted-pyramid style of journalism. I wrote so that you could lop it off the bottom. Now I write narrative. I’m writing stories, consciously focusing on narrative structure and character development and the weaving of big-picture issues with very fine, narrative detail. You can no longer cut a story of mine by lopping it from the bottom because every piece of the story is carefully interwoven with every other piece. Many people call this kind of journalism narrative nonfiction, and I think that’s right, because we are telling stories, which happen to be true, and we are using all the techniques of literature in the creation of story.

WH: Do you do any other kinds of writing, for fun or elsewhere?

Not very much. I keep journals when I travel. (But) I tend to write so prolifically professionally that at the end of the day what I’d rather do is read, or cook, or walk, or travel. Most days when I’m done creating words I want to kick back with my friends and have a good meal and hear some music, drink some beer and zone out the mind so it’s fresh the next day.

WH: What prompts a story for you?

With most of the magazines I work for, we have a give and take. About half of the stories I write, they’ve come up with the idea, and half of them, I’ve come up with the idea. A lot of my work includes developing and maintaining relationships with editors so that when I write or call with a story idea they know who I am and they know that they can trust me. And, likewise, when they have an idea, that they think of me.

I hear ideas when I’m reporting other stories. I read a lot. I keep my eyes open as I move around the world and I move through the world a lot. Even in my hometown, I try to move through a big world and have a relationship with people who are different from me, and always have my ears open whether I’m in Bolivia, South America or Bolivia, North Carolina.

WH: What are some of the more memorable pieces or some of the favorite stories you’ve written?

The first thing I think of is a two-part series where I spent ten months at a Hispanic Baptist mission in Siler City, N.C., as a way of understanding the huge wave of Latinos that had immigrated to North Carolina. It was such an amazing experience to be able to see this community of immigrants and believers up close, for so long, to be welcomed into their church, and into their homes, and into their secrets. They trusted me and shared a lot with me. I attended Saturday-night services, Baptisms, birthday parties and weddings. It became a 17,000-word series for The Independent, and the inspiration for an article in Mother Jones.

Many of my favorite stories have let me penetrate cultures that were unfamiliar to me, or have conversations with people having interesting lives. Writing for Mother Jones about Christian missionaries that had gone undercover in the Muslim world; writing about scientists who were under attack for sex research; writing a profile of Jack Abramoff, and having the opportunity to interview him for 12 hours; and, likewise, having tremendous access to Elizabeth Edwards, for a profile I wrote about her for O Magazine.

WH: Have you managed to make a living solely as a writer, or have supplemented your income in other ways?

I teach writing to high school kids (at the Duke Young Writers Camp) in the summer. My teaching is something I do for fun. It actually pays less than my journalism. I make a living full-time as a writer. I’ve been a full-time writer since I graduated from college in 1982 and I’ve been full-time freelancing for the last nine years. Before that, it was half-time freelancing and half-time newspaper work. Freelance writing has been very good to me. Once you reach a certain tier in the magazine world, the pay scale is sufficient—not to get wealthy—but to make a reasonable, middle-class living.

WH: By the way, why did you move to North Carolina in the first place?

Around 1984 I was working for a mainstream alternative weekly in Lafayette, La.—they were leagues above the daily paper in quality, but didn’t really live on the cutting edge. My publisher went to a conference of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and she came back and said, “We met the founders of a new alternative newspaper in Durham, N.C. (The Independent) whom you would love. They are such idealists. But they’ll never make it.” That was 25 years ago.

I left Louisiana when the oil-industry bottom fell out and I found myself unemployed. I moved to Watauga County because I had a friend who had a house in the woods 18 miles out of Boone. And I started freelancing there. A year later, I was offered a job at The Independent and I moved to Durham and fell in love with the place. I’ve lived in Durham since.

WH: Before this interview, you said you were going into isolation for a week, to write. Do you do this for every article you write, or only when it’s a major assignment or an accumulation of work? And, how do you manage it?

When I’m writing, I turn off the phone, I try not to check email. I make sure I have food in the house and plenty of coffee, and really do quarantine myself for eight to 12 hours a day. Because I need to concentrate, and it’s so easy in this modern world to succumb to a lot of distractions. And that means also not doing other work-related things. I don’t write queries or handle administrative stuff. But, since I live in the real world, I will respond if an editor needs to contact me. Every so often I need a change of scenery and I’ll take my laptop to a coffeeshop, but that’s very rare. I’m much more focused when I’m in my house with coffee on the stove and food in the fridge and the phone turned off.

WH: Is there a subject area you’re most comfortable with, or do you consider yourself to have expertise in any particular subjects?

I do pride myself on being a generalist, in that I can come into a subject I know very little about and totally immerse myself in the issue and come away as a miniature expert. I don’t claim expertise in any one issue, but, rather, I think of myself as an expert in Topic A this month, and Topic B three months from now.

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