Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest writer, editor and media consultant, Christopher Conte. Chris is a former reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal. He has traveled and consulted on economic development issues and journalism and has lived in Uganda from 2008 through 2010, and considers the country his second home.
Chris has recently edited
Crossroads: Women Coming of Age in Today's Uganda, 15
highly-varied, personal essays in which a group of Ugandan women
explore how traditional African culture shaped their personal lives,
and discuss what they want to preserve and change about the culture
now. Stories range from heart-warming to terrifying, but are always
fascinating and inspiring.
Norm: Good day Chris and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
Chris: I wanted to be a newspaper reporter ever since I was in elementary school. My first story described the time my father’s nose was broken by a line-drive softball hit by my older brother in a family game in our back yard. That paper had a circulation of four – and I’m pretty sure my brother didn’t read his copy.
My journalism itch was as
strong as ever when I graduated from college, and started my first
newspaper job. It’s still going strong 42 years later, although I
have graduated from newspapers to freelancing, from covering breaking
news to feature-writing, and from reporting and writing to editing
and teaching. For a long time, what kept me going was simply an
endless desire to see what would happen next, but over time I have
grown more conscious of the almost mystical power of words and how we
use them to explore our inner as well as outer worlds. I have so much
Norm: What's the most difficult thing for you about being a writer?
Chris: The most difficult thing about being a writer is . . . writing! One of my favorite writers, Walker Percy, talked about the agony of having “infinite choices” in life. I understand his point. I am inclined to wallow in indecision when I view a blank computer screen because every word I write will preclude some options. I like journalism in part because daily deadlines make indecision impossible. Of course, the instant gratification of seeing my stories – and byline – just hours after I finished writing also was quite seductive. And maybe the short shelf-life of newspaper stories kept me from second-guessing myself as much as I might have otherwise.
Norm: What did you
find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most
Chris: Besides giving me much-needed discipline, writing on deadline forced me to focus and to be clear and direct. I read once that John Updike used to set a goal for himself of writing every day and not stopping until he had produced 1,000 words.
That requires more discipline than having an externally-imposed deadline, but the idea is the same – to force yourself to take the plunge and be decisive. The other thing that helped me immeasurably as a writer was working as an editor.
It’s hard to see flaws in your own writing because your brain knows what you want to say and mentally auto-corrects when you read over what you have written. But it’s easy to see what works and doesn’t work when you read somebody else’s writing. And having to explain and justify editing changes to the writer makes you think through the reasons some writing is effective and some isn’t.
Ironically, I think newspaper work also can become harmful, however. Constant deadlines and the imperative to be straightforward and unambiguous can lead to writing that is formulaic and lacking in nuance. It also can lead you to turn a blind eye to some of the things that most matter in literature – ambiguity, uncertainty and motivation.
Norm: What do you think makes a good story?
Chris: I actually spend a lot of time training journalists on that. Looking beyond the mechanics of good story-telling, I think the most important ingredient is honesty. People like to read stories because they help us sort out our own lives and the choices we make. So to me, good stories require authentic characters with whom we can emphasize.
We relate to them because
they have all the complexity and flaws that we know we have. It’s
hard to create characters like that unless the writer is willing to
look deeply into his or her heart, and then forthrightly share what’s
there, with all the rough edges, inconsistencies, doubts and defects.
Beyond that, interesting characters have to be involved in genuine
situations – and by “genuine” I mean situations that are
important and meaningful to how we live and make sense of our lives.
Norm: What do you think is the future of reading/writing?
Chris: I used to think that story-telling, which in a real sense what I spent my whole life learning, was a dying art. Digital technology was breaking stories down into info-packets, and the Internet was wiping out the gatekeepers who vetted what we read and ensured its quality. But I think I was wrong.
Story-telling is alive and well. My children don’t read newspapers but they are incredibly well-informed – and they read books at about 10 times the rate I do. On television, never-ending series that week after week brought us stock characters and insignificant variations on unchanging themes, have given way to intriguing and plot-driven dramas.
Studies show that online
readers like not only quick hits of information but long and
carefully crafted features. And while the Internet (and
self-publishing) have no doubt brought us a lot more junk, they also
have allowed many more voices to be heard. Just surveying the
hundreds of book blogs out there is an amazing experience. I don’t
think any time in history has seen so many people talking with each
other so much about the written word.
Norm: Why do you consider Uganda your second home?
Chris: A couple of reasons. First, I have been blessed to live in some beautiful places – the American Pacific Northwest and New England. Uganda, which Winston Churchill called the “Pearl of Africa” is such a place, boasting verdant forests, some spectacular scenery (and wildlife) and perfect weather all year round.
In many ways it reminds me
of northern New England, with its lush rolling hills (though it
definitely does not have New England’s weather). But more
importantly, you can’t spend much time in Uganda without feeling
infused with the warmth, good humor, grace and spirituality of its
people. I have never lived in a place where I made more friends more
quickly or felt such friendship and acceptance.
Norm: What motivated you to edit and put together the fifteen essays contributed by Ugandan women that make up Crossroads: Women Coming of Age in Today's Uganda? As a follow up, what purpose do you believe the stories serve and what matters to you about the stories?
Chris: It evolved almost organically. One day I had a conversation with a reporter whose personal stories and reflections on life were fascinating to me. I was struck by how much her life stories taught me about her culture. I persuaded her to write a first-person story about one aspect of her life for her newspaper.
Other writers joined in,
and eventually we decided to turn the exercise into a book. For me,
the stories give readers a priceless chance to peer deeply into the
writers’ personal lives. In the process, they exemplify grace and
what it means to find meaning in life – including misfortune. From
a social perspective, the stories show those of us in the west both
how much Africans are like us – and not like the stereotypes we
have of them. But at the same time they demonstrate why we should
respect cultural differences and how much we can learn from others.
Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
Chris: In part I wanted to repay Ugandans for all the kindness they showed me during the happy years that I lived there. I also wanted to show people from my own culture how precious and rich another culture can be. Readers, of course, are the final judge of whether the book works. We have received wonderful and supportive feedback from them. But perhaps the greatest sense of accomplishment I have is that, years after the project started and after months of editing, rewriting, discussing, sometimes disagreeing and then endless proofreading, I love the stories more than ever.
Norm: What did you enjoy most about editing this book?
Chris: I have studied the editor-writer relationship up close for more than 40 years from both sides, and I must say I really enjoy it. Crossroads was a delightful experience. I admire every one of the writers, who to a woman are thoughtful and courageous. In some cases, I edited stories before even meeting or knowing the writers well: It’s an amazing experience to meet somebody by reading a very personal story she has shared with you!
Norm: What was the most difficult challenge in editing the book?
Chris: Editing cross-culturally poses some very interesting challenges. Ugandans all have their native languages and also speak English, which is the national language.
They learn the Queen’s English and most speak it with lovely English accents since English colonialists brought the language to their country. But there also is “Ugandan English,” which includes a variety of phrases that, while not unintelligible, don’t seem to make sense to outsiders.
As an editor, I wanted to revise such phrases so the writing would be more accessible to American readers. The risk, of course, is that in the process I may have diluted some of what distinguishes Uganda. Someday, I’d like to edit a Ugandan manuscript but consciously avoid the editor’s tendency to homogenize the language. That may require somebody who is more bilingual and bi-cultural than I am.
One of the Crossroads writers, Harriet Anena, is working on a manuscript that consciously uses Ugandan English. I think that is a fascinating exercise, and I can’t wait to read it.
The whole question of
whether an editor imposes himself too much on a writer extends far
beyond linguistic issues, of course. One of the Crossroads writers
once told me that I romanticize Ugandan women. Did I unconsciously
edit these stories to make them something different from what they
really are? I take comfort in recalling that I wrestled a fair amount
with the author who considered me a romantic over her manuscript. She
is strong-willed, assertive, and deeply committed to her story –
and she approved the final version. So I don’t think I twisted her
Norm: Do you hear from your readers much about the book? What kinds of things do they say?
Chris: We have received very nice comments and reviews. In Africa, women not only in Uganda but in other countries far away from it, say the stories resonate with them. In the west, some readers are struck by the difficulties the Crossroads writers encountered in their lives, while others say they were surprised about how much African women are like westerners.
We have received a couple of not-so-complimentary comments by African men, but the sample is too small for me to draw any conclusions about that. A few African men also have asked why the book was only by women. Frankly, it just happened that way without a lot of deliberate thought on my part, but the question has set me wondering if I should try a men’s Crossroads next.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and Crossroads:Women Coming of Age in Today's Uganda?
Chris: The best place is our WEBSITE. It has bios of the authors, reviews, video excerpts of our official book launch in Uganda and some television interviews, an excerpt and photos. Or people can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Norm: What is next for Chris Conte?
Chris: I’m not certain. I’d like to take the idea of cross-cultural publishing a step further. All of the Crossroads writers are well educated and cosmopolitan in their outlook. I think it would be interesting to collect Crossroads-like stories from poor, isolated and perhaps illiterate people.
To do that, I’d need a group of intermediary reporters who could interview rural folks, drawing out their personal stories and then writing them in a way that captures not only their experiences, feelings and ideas, but also their way of expressing themselves and viewing the world.
Crossroads writers would be perfect for the task, but I’m not sure
how many would want to put up with me again! I’m also very
interested in mental health, and have been thinking about ways I
could write something about it in a cross-cultural context.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?
Chris: The best question would be, “How can I buy 1,000 copies?” But seriously, I think I stretched my answers out to the point that I already have answered more questions than you asked. Besides, it’s more interesting to me to learn what people think of the book than to tell them what I think about it. I hope the book speaks for itself.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors