Meet the OPC Members: Q&A With Charles Graeber

by Chad Bouchard

Charles Graeber is a contributor to a wide range of publications, including The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times, National Geographic Adventure, Vogue, The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Salon and Wired, for which he is a contributing editor. He is also author of The Good Nurse, a portrait of America’s most prolific serial killer, Charles Cullen. Graeber’s work has received several awards, including the OPC’s 2011 Ed Cunningham Award for reporting on the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan for Bloomberg Businessweek. He served as OPC Governor from 2014 to 2018.

Hometown: Nantucket, MA.

Education: Tufts University BA, Bryn Mawr PostpBac Premed, other.

Languages you speak: English, pidgin.

First job in journalism: The Budapest Sun (newspaper reportage), Phnom Penh Post (longform), Harper’s Magazine (longform magazine feature).

Countries reported from: Australia, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Czech Republic, England, East Timor, Germany, Guatemala, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Oman, Panama, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, Thailand, Uganda, Vietnam.

When and why did you join the OPC? I joined in 2013. I was out there as a freelancer, and fairly isolated from any notion of professional journalistic organizations and relying on editors to tie my work into the larger matrix. Then a story I wrote won The Ed Cunningham Award and I was introduced to a larger community of journalists via the OPC, which was thriling and eye opening, and eventually invited to contribute ideas as to how they might even better serve the needs of those out there in the world. The organization gives community, structure, support, and the like to those who need it. That’s true around the world. The mission of the media seems especially under attack right now in the United States, but in truth it’s always a mission in peril. Professional organization helps secure it, and provides community for what is increasingly an isolating profession.

What sparked your interest in longform crime reporting? It’s all about excuse. Crime is interesting – I like to read about it, especially when it’s inventive, and so I like to write about it as well. Then by chance, my first story at the Budapest Sun was about a group from a traveling circus who had been busted as professional burglars – they used a contortionist to get into windows, the strongman to move the goods, etc. That’s three big stories in one, really – the obvious salacious news, the backstory on the individuals, the socioeconomics of the thing – really, crime has it all. It’s an excuse to write about everything. News is a break from the norm (nobody reports that the sun rose again today, etc – which I took to be Hemingway’s war joke of a title, but that’s another matter), and crime is an even greater break, extremely, and exclusively, human. It’s a fracture or forced renegotiation of the societal contract and thus sometimes fascinating, though not always happy. It has motives, plot and outcome. I sometimes take it as a subset or version of conflict reporting, but you might say that war more accurately is an extension of crime, which is why they overlap. It’s a way to consider and study humanity.

Major challenge as a journalist: Left to my own devices I’d study the situation from the edges forever. Editors don’t like that. Journalism is like being pushed from the edges into the center of the dance. So the major challenge is bothering people. I probably wouldn’t have a phone if I wasn’t a journalist.

Best journalism advice received: “There is no case but this case” and/or “when in doubt, lay brick.”

Worst experience as a journalist: There’s the horrible and there’s the embarassing. Embarassing is standing up the president of Iceland, by accident. Horrible has been the times when the family of those victimized by a criminal took me as a sort of moral accomplice to the mastermind, though those instances were all misunderstandings, awkward but resolved. Truly the worst experiences have been specific to journalism as a profession or business. People screw you over, especially when you’re young and vulnerable. Early on I had my work stolen by major editors, was threatened with blackballing if I didn’t sell to X rather than Y, and at a certain price, etc. And I’m positive my experiences are tame compared to folks who weren’t white men making their way in the biz.

Hardest story: 5,000-word stories where scouring a high desert and finally encountering a pile of cat scat was the climax (the cat was endangered). More generally creating drama from intellectual or subtle criminal acts or transgressions is tricky – making a lockpicking conference feel like Wimbledon was a challenge. In terms of raw work, trying to get to, humanize and return a 12,000-word story on a city (the people, really) devastated by the 2011 Japanese tsunami, and in a timely fashion and without a fixer, translator, etc – that still seems hard. That was one of the hardest emotionally, too – the dead were everywhere and the stories were too much, and yet, because they weren’t mine, it wasn’t mine to break down over them, except in private. Generally, what’s hard is bearing witness, then trying to do justice to that truth, and those people, in print. All while keeping it interesting- because that’s an essential aspect of the effective communication.

Advice for journalists who want to work overseas: Go. There’s a sense some have that one needs to be sent, or to get some sort of specific training or permission. Surely all of that helps, and I’m not advocating recklessness. But, especially when young, I believe you have a radar for the shifting fault lines on the planet, and a capacity to save up enough temp work cash to get there and put finger to pulse. Go.

Dream job: This one. Close seconds include parasitologist, rhino prosthetics manufacturer and whiskey taster.

Country you most want to return to: Kashmir, but in peace.

Favorite quote: Everything in moderation, including moderation.

Most over-the-top assignment: Nearly every story has pushed the limits of experience and comfort zone, which is one of the recipes for empathy. But early on I took that to extremes. At one point I found myself barefoot and dressed only in a loin cloth, dragging a boat up a river with a fecal chloroform count 20,000 times the WHO consideration of unsanitary, batting aside floating corpses with my elbows and, facing down a territorial wild dog with a human arm in its mouth and a growling determination not to allow my necessary forward progress. It was incredible but like most travel, best in retrospect.

Twitter handle: @charlesgraeber