Creatively Speaking: Joshua Davis

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We're thrilled to have Joshua Davis in the house today. If you don't know his writing, it's high time you checked it out. His latest piece, which appeared in last month's Wired is a great place to start. A story about one of the most amazing diamond heists in recent history, the piece has been optioned by J.J. Abrams and is now being developed into a feature film (many of Davis's pieces are in development with various studios).

book_jacket.gifDavis is also the author of the very cool book, The Underdog (How I Survived the World's Most Outlandish Competitions). Be sure to pick up a copy after reading our exclusive interview where Joshua talks about how he got into writing, his experiences covering the Iraq war, and the process of turning a story into a movie. He also drops some good advice for those who have an idea to get into journalism.

DI: You got into journalism sort of through the back door, going from fourth-ranked lightweight arm wrestler in the U.S. to author in a blink of an eye (or should I say, flick of the wrist?). What did you want to be when you grew up and how did you finally settle on writing?

JD: I never intended to be a journalist: it happened by accident. I worked a lot of odd jobs in my early 20s "“ data entry, catering, usher, I ran a small graphics business "“ and on the weekends made documentaries and films about things that interested me. One doc I made was about a naked bug eating contest in Oregon. A friend of mine going to journalism school proposed that we go together and co-write an article for the SF Bay Guardian. We did and it got published. I think we each got $200 "“ I was thrilled. My doc just gathered dust on the shelf "“ I had no idea how to distribute it. But all of a sudden, here was a way to basically do the same thing and get paid for it. It was a revelation for me.

DI: Talk a little bit about your first big break?

JD: An important moment for me early on was the lead up to the Iraq War. I had done one feature for Wired at that time and a bunch of short pieces. I figured they had a big-time writer covering the war for them so I proposed a short sidebar-type of story about an army unit that created wi-fi networks on the battlefield.

When I submitted the story, my editor told me that the magazine hadn't lined anyone up yet to cover the war. "So send me!," I said. Since they didn't seem to have anyone else, they agreed. I arrived just before the invasion and was refered to as a unilateral, someone not under the protection of the US Military (it was too late to register to become an embed). I didn't have a helmet or a bullet-proof vest and no idea how to get into Iraq but I eventually figured it out. When I got back and filed a story about how networking changed the way war is fought, Wired offered me a full-time gig as a contributing editor.

DI: What's your typical process like? Do you go looking for a wild story, or do they fall into your lap?

JD: I sit in my chair for long stretches of the day when I am thinking about new stories. I'll just sit there and think, hmmm, I wonder if anybody has tried this or done that. Then I'll google whatever it is and more often than not, somebody is actually trying to do what seemed to me a crazy idea. That's how I came up with my first diamond story. I thought, "Hmm, I wonder if anybody is trying to make diamonds." So I googled "Man made diamonds" and found a company trying to do just that.

DI: Once you have the story, is there a lot of outlining? Or do you just start writing and then go back to shape it later?

JD: I spend days, sometimes weeks, working on the first few paragraphs. I re-write those beginning lines over and over and over until I am convinced that they are as good as they can be. It is often very frustrating and maddening but once I've locked in the beginning, everything flows pretty well from there on out. I sometimes feel like once the beginning is in place, there is a clear track laid down and it can only move in a certain direction. That's why I spend so much time at the beginning: I want to make sure that I'm going down the right track.

DI: A lot of your Wired pieces have been optioned for film. What's that process like?

JD: It is exciting at first but the process of actually getting a movie made seems to take forever. I'm very happy that I have journalism to keep me busy. Ultimately, what I like to do is tell stories and if I had to depend on Hollywood to get something out into the world, I think it would be very frustrating.

Not to say that it isn't fun to feel like I'm in an episode of Entourage for an hour or two. But then the phones stop ringing and I go back to trying to get people to tell me about their lives.

DI: Do you consciously look for stories that might lend themselves to the big screen? Or are you just drawn to stories with built-in drama?

JD: I like stories that are exciting. I like to hear about adventure and daring-do and bravery. I want to hear stories that make me leap out of my chair and say "THAT'S AWESOME!!" I think people in Hollywood like those stories too.

DI: As executive producer on some of these films, how much input do you have once they've optioned it from you?

JD: Since I've done research into the world that the film is based on, I serve as a resource for the screenwriter and producing team. Sometimes they want to go it alone, sometimes they want the help.

DI: In your latest piece for Wired, you write about the diamond heist of the century. Talk about how that one came about: Obviously it's every journalist's dream to get such an exclusive scoop. Was it luck? A lot of pavement pounding?

JD: In 2003, I was in Antwerp writing the story about the advent of jewelry-grade man-made diamonds. It was soon after the heist and I heard people in the diamond district talking about this incredible robbery. I started researching it then but the police and prosecutors were unwilling to talk at that point. So I continued to research it over the subsequent 5 years. I began to send letters to the men who were arrested for the crime and, in 2008, I received a call from the mastermind. He said he wanted to meet and I scrambled to get on a plane for Belgium as fast as I could. So, after 5 years of chasing it, I got my first break.

DI: Is it hard to break a story in a magazine that has a 3-month lead time?

JD: Good question. In the case of this diamond heist story, I found out that Notarbartolo "“ the mastermind "“ was going to be released from jail early. His release would come a few weeks before the on-sale date of the magazine so we decided to put the story on-line before the magazine came out. That's a very unusual thing for a print magazine to do. They essentially scooped themselves. But that's better than having someone else scoop them.

What magazines offer is deep reporting and in-depth analysis. That's something you don't get in the usual fast-breaking news cycle. But, when you do deep reporting, you sometimes end up in a position of having a scoop and the question is, what do you do with it?

Luckily Wired has a robust on-line presence so that's helpful. I don't know what I'd do if I was in that situation at a magazine that didn't have that ability.

DI: When do you think Wired will be an online-only magazine? What's the future for pulp publications?

JD: To me, the question is: do people want to read long, in-depth stories on-line? The on-line environment is very distracting. It's hard to make it through 500 words, let along 5000. It seems to me that there will always be a market for a nice, glossy magazine that offers rich, rewarding reporting.

Digital readers (a la Kindle) might one day change the way those magazines are distributed but I personally feel like they will still exist.

Unless"¦.our entire society dumbs down and stops wanting that level of analysis and story-telling. Hopefully that won't happen.

DI: What advice do you have for would-be journalists just setting out now?

JD: Well, for people wanting to get into magazine writing, I'd say it's important to start writing front of the book stuff at magazines you like and respect. Try and build relationships with editors there as you need someone on the inside to advocate for you. Prove that you're dependable and have good ideas on the short stuff and then step up with a feature proposal.

What's nice about this business is that the barrier to entry is low. All you need is an idea and an email address.

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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April 20, 2009 - 1:04am
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