Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City, is an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post. He heads the Post's Continuous News department, which reports and edits breaking news stories for washingtonpost.com, and he helps to shape the newspaper's overall multimedia strategy.
From April 2003 to October 2004, he was the Post's bureau chief in Baghdad, where he was responsible for covering the American occupation of Iraq and supervising a team of Post correspondents. He lived in Baghdad for much of the six months before the war, reporting on the United Nations weapons-inspections process and the build-up to the conflict.
He took a sabbatical from the Post in 2005 to serve as the journalist in residence at the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington and as a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.
Before the U.S.-led war in Iraq, he was the Post's Cairo bureau chief. Prior to that assignment, he was The Post's Southeast Asia correspondent, based in Jakarta, Indonesia. In the months following September 11, 2001, he was part of a team of Post reporters who covered the war in Afghanistan.
He joined the Post in 1994 as a reporter on the Metropolitan staff. He subsequently served as the paper's Washington-based national technology correspondent. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, he holds a degree in political science from Stanford University, where he was editor in chief of The Stanford Daily. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Chandrasekaran:
"I've worked for only one employer since graduating from college: The Washington Post. And I hope to spend my entire career there."
"I'm the least educated person in my family. My brother, my father, my uncles and both grandfathers have doctorates. (My brother is on track to get two!) My mother and my maternal grandmother have master's degrees. With just a bachelor's, I'm the black sheep."
"I've wanted to be a newspaper reporter since I was in the 5th grade."
"I couldn't have worked in Baghdad -- and by extension, I couldn't have written Imperial Life in the Emerald City -- without the help of several very brave Iraqis who were my translators, drivers and guards. They are my heroes and I'm eternally grateful to them."
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In the fall of 2006, nonfiction finalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran took some time to talk with us before the National Book Awards ceremony about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
All The President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. This book, which I first devoured sometime in junior high school, stoked my interest in the world of newspapers and helped cement my desire to become a reporter. If two reporters armed with no more than dedication, smarts and good instincts could expose malfeasance in the White House and bring down a president, I wanted to be a reporter, too.
The book also made clear how so many of their scoops were a result of methodical digging and persistence, not because a leaker handed them the goods. Deep Throat corroborated; he didn't pony up documents. (This is a point that's particularly relevant in the current debate over the publication of stories that include sensitive intelligence information, such as the existence of secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe. In most cases, reporters assemble those stories after talking to numerous sources. Rarely do they ever encounter one person who has is willing to divulge all the necessary details.)
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuscinski -- This is a brilliant work of foreign correspondence. Although Shah of Shahs and the Emperor are Kapuscinski's more popular books, Another Day of Life, which is about the Angolan civil war, is my hands-down favorite. His ability to use small details and a small cast of characters to illustrate a larger story were an inspiration to me as I sought to describe the Green Zone. More than once I asked myself as I wrote, "How would have Kapuscinski have told this story?"
A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan -- Another phenomenal work of journalism and literature. Through the tale of one individual, John Paul Vann, Sheehan tells a much larger story. When I was in Baghdad, I wondered whether there was someone similar in the Green Zone. I kept my ears open for someone as outspoken as Vann, but I never found anyone who saw the failings of America's political and military strategy in Iraq as clearly as he did in Vietnam. Some have suggested that John Agresto (the neoconservative who admitted to me that he was "mugged by reality" in Iraq) is my Vann, but one crucial difference remains: Vann died believing that Vietnam was winnable; Agresto, as I detail in my book, left with no such optimism about Iraq.
We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch -- A tour de force of reporting. Gourevitch's skill at reconstructing the past was a model for me as I sought to describe the occupation of Iraq.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth -- This tome is indescribably wonderful -- vivid detail, compelling characters, a gripping narrative. Although it takes a few hundred pages to engrossed -- the whole thing is about 1,500 pages -- once I was hooked, I couldn't put it down. Rereading it at a Mexican resort was my gift to myself after finishing my book.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri -- Her collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, received greater critical acclaim, but I'm far more partial to her second book. Her tale of Gogol, a first-generation Indian-American who struggles with the conflicts of cultural assimilation, resonated in my head for months after I first read it.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller -- It was a favorite before I encountered the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. All of a sudden, what fiction became reality.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
My tastes range from Cuban jazz to bad '70s disco tunes. While writing Imperial Life in the Emerald City, the CD player often contained Cowboy Mouth, Wilco, Shawn Colvin, Morcheeba, Ibrahim Ferrer and the lovely Ry Cooder-Manuel Galban collaboration, Mambo Sinuendo.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret -- I've just finished this book and I couldn't put it down. John, who studied in China in the early 1980s and later returned to the country as The Washington Post's bureau chief, describes China's transformation over the past thirty years through the stories of his classmates at Nanjing University. It's a fascinating, personal glimpse into the lives of a disparate group of Chinese people. Along the way, John describes his coming of age as a Westerner in the Orient. The book would certainly spark lively a discussion that ranged from U.S.-China policy to the relationship between children and parents in moments of crisis.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
The book I have most commonly given as a gift is Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate. A novel in verse! Who couldn't love that?
I also tend to give works of nonfiction written by friends, often those who work with me at The Post. Karen DeYoung's Soldier will be a holiday present to many friends.
Since I read so much nonfiction, I prefer to receive fiction. I count on friends who work as literary editors and broadcast producers to expose me to books I might not otherwise pick up at the bookstore.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Lots of junk food!
I was fortunate to have an office at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where I wrote much of the book, that lacked a window or regular access to my Washington Post email account. The absence of distractions is a key prerequisite for me to write.
Although I worked up an elaborate outline before I began writing, my best writing occurred when I ditched the plan and just wrote.
What are you working on now?
My day job, as an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, keeps me busy enough. Perhaps I'll write another book someday, but I don't have any specific plans.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I was scared $%*!-less when it came time to start writing Imperial Life in the Emerald City. I had never penned anything longer than a 5,000-word newspaper story. Had I done enough reporting? Would I be able to get past newspaper style and find an original voice? I got over it by thinking of each chapter as its own story. Even so, the first few chapters of the first draft were pretty unremarkable. It took a while to find the right pacing, the appropriate use of background material, the placement of my characters in the chronology, and most important, my role in the narrative. Once I felt like I had my voice, I ripped up the earlier chapters and rewrote them.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Sarah Courteau, the whip-smart literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly, who helped to edit the early drafts of my manuscript. She's got a way with words that few have.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't obsess about it. Write the book you want to write. That's what I did. When I finished the manuscript, it didn't matter to me whether people would buy the book. What was important was that I had told a story that I felt needed to be told.
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