Mark Bowden is an award winning and best-selling author and correspondent with more than 40 years of professional experience. His notable literary works include “Black Hawk Down” and “Killing Pablo,” both of which went on to be made into motion pictures.
Bowden holds numerous awards and finalist placements for his nonfiction publications and journalistic work. In addition to winning two Overseas Press Club Awards for his aforementioned titles, he also received the Science Writing Award from The American Association of the Advancement of Science and the Feature Writing Award by the Sunday Magazine Editors Association.
Bowden is a graduate of Loyola University, where he was the editor of the school newspaper, The Greyhound.
After graduation, he went to work at the Baltimore News-American. After six years, Bowden took an opportunity at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he would spend the next 24 years. He is currently writing for The Atlantic magazine and working with director/producer Ridley Scott on Hollywood screenwriting projects.
“You want to know the number one rule?” he asked as we sat sipping coffee in the shade of his back deck. “The number one rule in journalism is that you never know until you ask, so be professionally curious.”
DF: All right, let’s start this thing off. I have a little list of questions here to keep us on topic.
MB: Ah, a list is a good thing to have remember that interviews are an organic process. They’re a conversation.
DF: Could you talk a little more about that?
MB: Yes, it can be foolish to let your main objective guide you sometimes. One of my favorite interviewers, Terry Gross on NPR, gets way off topic. She pursues anything that she deems
interesting about the person she’s interviewing. And, of course, she’s a good listener.
DF: Did you always know you wanted to write?
MB: Well, I loved to read as a kid. I still do, so writing always appealed to me.
DF: I read that you found inspiration in the book “The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.” What’s the story there?
MB: [Laughing] I thought regular journalistic writing was kind of boring. The classic inverted pyramid for boiler plate articles was too plain. Tom Wolfe wrote this wild-ass story about going
to live with the hippies in California and I saw that writing could be about creativity and doing it however you wanted to do it.
DF: That being said, when it comes to regular news journalism, what are your thoughts about the opinions of the writers and reporters being included in the work?
MB: Ah, terrible! In real reporting we restrain our opinions. We’re fair to everyone. You gotta have an open mind. You’re talking about advocacy journalism. The world’s full of it now. It has its place, but it’s really just persuasive writing.
DF: It seems like that’s a lot of what you see on TV. You feel pretty strongly about that?
MB: Real journalism takes time and work, and sublimating your own opinion. If you want to change minds, educate, don’t persuade. Or show, don’t tell. I’m a living example of how it can work in your favor. Let’s say you were to just do some research online and write an article based off that. That’s bullshit. The essence of it, really, is to tell something new. That requires going places and talking to people.
DF: Would you say it’s an endless pursuit? Every situation is different. There’s so many people and perspectives.
MB: It is, Dylan. I’m trying to understand the world. In a way you’re explaining what seems unexplainable at first. Why would this person do this? What possibly could have transpired?
But when you look into it closer, and you ask questions, you begin to say, “Oh, now it’s starting to make sense.” You’re in a way explaining the unexplainable. I really enjoy that process, and it’s what the readers seem to like too. It’s about understanding the world.
DF: It seems like you really like it, talking to people. It’s kind of nerveracking though, isn’t it?
MB: [Laughing] I’ll tell ya, people are endlessly interesting. Once you get them talking, and it can be quite easy to get them talking, you’d be amazed at what they tell you. How often does
someone come up to you and say, “Hello, could you tell me about yourself? I’m just here to listen.” There’s been so many times when people would ask me “How did you figure that out!?” and I would just laugh and say, “Well, I asked so and so and they just told me!” That’s how you got here, now. Luckily, I love to talk, especially about writing and journalism.
DF: I see that you worked at the Baltimore News-American right out of college. How did you make the big jump to The Philadelphia Inquirer?
MB: I got really lucky. There was this guy, Jean Roberts, who was scouting talent all over the country. He got in contact with me and gave me something to think about.
DF: Sounds like a huge opportunity. Was it an easy decision?
MB: I realized the type of opportunity that it was, but it was going to be a big change. I had so many connections in Baltimore that made my job as a reporter a little easier, different people whom I had good relationships with, who would leak me information. I knew moving to Philadelphia I would have to start all over. That being said, I took the chance and moved the family. Taking chances made me, and I dealt with the uncertainty in my youth. Uncertainty is the real bugaboo of any writer.
DF: I know you don’t work directly for The Inquirer anymore. I’ve read you still write for The Atlantic though. Any other big projects nowadays?
MB: Oh yeah, a bunch of things. I write for the Atlantic, Airmail and occasionally Vanity Fair. I’m also working closing with Ridley Scott, the [director] of Black Hawk Down. We’re trying to sell this idea to Hollywood about animal conservation in Africa, something I’m pretty excited about. The funny thing about working with Hollywood is that you can’t give them what they want, because they don’t know what they want. Basically, you gotta write a story you like and hope
they’ll buy it [Laughs].
DF: To wrap things up, what do you think of the future of journalism and print media?
MB: Dylan, I have an abiding faith that journalism is so important that it will continue, though the old business models have broken down. There’s no longer a ladder to climb. Now creativity
wins. People who are willing to use the internet to their advantage and take use of all multimedia platforms will rise to the top. As far as the current administration’s effect, it’s been
disastrous and damaging to society as a whole. To say that the New York
Times is “fake news” is unbelievably irresponsible. People don’t know who they can trust anymore. When it comes to print media, it’s dead. I just hope it does not truly die until after I’m gone because I love reading the paper.
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