Thursday, January 5, 2012

Q & A with Maureen Orth: Author & Journalist, Special Correspondent for Vanity Fair

1. What inspired you to embark on a career in journalism?

I was so bored with my Masters in Latin American studies classes at UCLA after the Peace Corps that I just flipped through the catalog and J for Journalism was near L for Latin American studies. Thus it began.

2. Is there a specific article that is particularly memorable and why?

I went to Russia and Central Asia and to the Afghan border right after 9/11 to do a long investigative piece on the relationship between terrorism and drugs (VF March, 2002). It was clear to me from my experiences in Colombia that drugs pay for terrorism and no one in the United States or the powers that be in Europe seemed to want to acknowledge this (just as no one in the US is willing to take responsibility for the violent consequences of casual cocaine use.) If we had done so, I believe the last decades’ losses there would have been much less.

3. You've interviewed many notable individuals. Is there one that stands out as extremely intriguing?

Most of the people I have dealt with are pretty layered and complex. I was fascinated by the creativity and fun I had doing Karl Lagerfeld; I was also intrigued by the tragedy of Margaret Thatcher when I got the first interview after she was thrown out of office.

4. What is your process and schedule when meeting a deadline?

First I read all my reporting, then I decide interview by interview what the quotes will be. I discuss the lead with my editor and the overall organization and how many parts the article will fall into. Then, when I feel like I've processed it and can't procrastinate anymore, I start writing. It's easy to keep reporting but it's hard to start writing.

5. How long does it take to write a typical Vanity Fair article?

It really depends on the amount of investigation and reporting necessary. The quickest it’s been from start to finish has been three weeks, some articles can go on for months. But I don't necessarily work on them every day.

6. What are some of the current projects that you are working on?

I have had so much fun this past year doing something different: going all over the world to produce short videos for the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps that are up on a website I helped create: I just got back from Southwest China before Christmas and it was one of the most interesting trips I've ever taken. We shot six videos which will start being posted later in the month around Chinese New Years. I am so proud of the work I see these great Peace Corps kids are doing. This past year I’ve been to Mongolia, Morocco, and Colombia. Also if you go to, you will see the work I am doing that has grown out of my original Peace Corps experience. Three schools for over 1200 children, each with their own laptop. They emphasize English, Technology and Leadership and are located around Medellin, Colombia. I'm also about to start a new article for Vanity Fair.

7. How have you managed a busy career and raising your wonderful son, Luke?

I have been very lucky that I've always had sufficient help and that my late husband, Tim Russert, stayed close to home much more than I did, so that there were very few times when at least one of us wasn't at home. My only theory about rearing children is "you've gotta put in the time." It's pretty hard to have a big job, a big social life and be a good parent. Something's got to give.

8. Can you tell the readers a little bit about your educational foundation?
I mentioned the Foundation above but it gives me the most satisfaction of anything I do. When I was in the Peace Corps way back when, I helped build a school that was named after me -- Escuela Marina Orth. In 2005, I was asked by the Colombians to please help them start the first public bi-lingual school. We became the first school in Colombia to have One Laptop Per Child computers for every student at my old school. Now we have three schools, financed through public-private partnerships involving the Colombian Government, private Colombian funds and private US Funds. For example, Procter and Gamble, General Mills, HP, and Chevron have all contributed to the three schools. We also take US volunteers to teach English in case any of your readers are interested! Please visit the website.

9. What advice would you give someone who would like to pursue a career in investigative journalism?
You need a lot of energy, a lot of curiosity and you can't give up easily. You have to be persistent and keep digging. You constantly have to figure out how to get around people saying no. You have to have empathy so people will give you information. My own personal credo is what I dub the EEEPPP Rule - Energy, Enthusiasm, Empathy, Polite, Prepared, Persistent.

10. Who are some of your favorite authors and journalists?
When I was starting out I read everything by Joan Didion, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. Now I tend to view it article by article and constantly find gems in Vanity Fair, of course! However, two articles I really loved recently were in the New Yorker. One was by Jane Kramer was about the food foraging phenomenon. The other was simply terrific by Ben McGrath about the Dom Bosco High School football team in New Jersey. I also loved Michael Lewis' piece about the Greek Economy in Vanity Fair about a year ago; thought Nancy Jo Sales VF piece on Courtney Love was just fabulous and was very moved by Christopher Hitchens last column in Vanity Fair before he recently died. So many wonderful writers are my friends that naming them all is impossible. I love reading Maureen Dowd and Janet Maslin in the New York Times. I'm just finishing my good friend Sally Bedell Smith's huge biography of Elizabeth the Queen and about to dive into Mark Whitakers' memoir, My Long Trip Home. Larry McMurtry, particularly everything up to and including Lonesome Dove, are cherished favorites too!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

An Invisible Thread: Laura Schroff & Alex Tresnioski

An Invisible Thread (2011): Laura Schroff & Alex Tresniowski

Have you ever been in a large city and wandered by someone who was panhandling on the street? We have all had this experience and blindly walked along into our daily lives. In 1986, Laura Schroff did the same but something moved her to return to the disheveled young man she saw on Broadway Ave in New York City. This small act culminated in a twenty-five year relationship between two people who now call themselves family.

In 1986, Laura Schroff was a busy sales executive working for USA Today when she happened upon 11 year old, Maurice, a poor young boy struggling to eat in the projects of New York City. For some reason, Laura went back and asked Maurice if he wanted to go to McDonalds for a meal. Laura and Maurice continued to meet every Monday at a restaurant or for a home-cooked meal for years. At first, Laura’s friends and family struggled to understand this unusual relationship and tried to deter her from becoming involved in the hopelessness of Maurice’s situation. In one scene, Laura is compelled to look for Maurice when he doesn’t show up for a promised trip to a Mets game. She travels with her neighbor to the Bryant, one of New York City’s worst welfare hotels. When she finds him she encounters Maurice’s mother, Darcella, a woman who is severely addicted to crack. This visit and another to Maurice’s school emphasize the need for an authentic and responsible role model for this impressionable young boy. Laura is compelled to be a mentor to Maurice and teaches him many life skills that we all take for granted. Both parties feel rewarded by their situation.

Throughout the book, Laura’s memories of her traditional childhood are shadowed by her own family problems and are mentioned in alternating chapters. This is a writing method that feels engaging and enhances the message of the book.

As the novel progresses, Maurice becomes an important part of Laura’s extended family and attends family gatherings with her during Christmas and Thanksgiving. As an inner city child, he observes common traditional rituals such as eating at a dinner table, riding his first bike, and seeing a parent comforting a child without abuse. As a reader, I wished this constant interaction between Laura and Maurice would continue to the end of the book but life is not always perfect. Circumstances in both of their lives affect Laura’s relationship with Maurice and become a source of pain for both. As a favor to new readers and I will not spoil the plot outcome.

An Invisible Thread was such a pleasure to read. I finished it in nearly a day in my favorite place to read - riding in the passenger seat of our family car. The memoir is not long and if you enjoy my recommendations, please take a few days to dive into this amazing and inspiring book. My New Year’s resolution includes looking outside of my comfort zone for ways that I might help others. Laura Schroff represents an honorable and poignant example that we are all connected and one small act can be monumental!