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QRD #27, august 2004
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Interview with Jen Banbury August 2004

Some of you might know Jen Banbury, she wrote the book Like a Hole in the Head that I've been recommending to everyone for around five years.  These days she's most famous for being a reporter in Iraq & got interviewed on Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting's CounterSpin about it.  That's how I found out about what she's been up to.  You can read all about her time in Iraq at IraqAndAHardPlace.org

QRD – Like a Hole in the Head was fairly critically acclaimed & it has been a few years, do you have any more novels in the works?

Jen – I had a bit of a false start with my second novel and had to abandon it.  It was a tough choice but the right one to make.  I’m working on another novel, but it will be a little while before I’m finished.

QRD – Are the books with the pages in the wrong order in Like a Hole in the Head something that really exist or just something you made up?

Jen – I made that up.  But, as someone who collects books (a little) and worked in a used bookstore (a lot) I’ve learned that those sorts of bizarre rarities – mistakes usually – do exist and make a book more valuable than it would be otherwise. I believe the same holds true for rare stamps.  I’m trying to think of a good example but unfortunately can’t right now.

QRD – Your writing style seems to me to be more Lad-Lit oriented than Chik-Lit oriented style wise.  Do you think this is actually the case & if so why?  Do you find such vague terms offensive?

Jen – I always hated Nancy Drew.  I was more of a Hardy Boys girl.  Later, I found myself drawn to great pulp/noir writers like Dashiell Hammett, Charles Willeford, and Charles Bukowski who created lovable sociopath protagonists that were simultaneously very tough and very vulnerable.  Jill, the narrator of my novel, is hardboiled in that tradition.  She’s also very female (though not feminine).  In general, though, I do tend to rebel against terms that seek to overly define the kind of work I do.  For instance, when I was first trying to get my novel published, I got rejected by a number of literary agents who felt as though the book fell through the cracks of a number of genres: not quite mystery, not quite literature, etc.  But I like books that defy categorization.

QRD – Do you see yourself primarily as a reporter or a novelist or neither?

Jen – Right now, I have a hard time defining what kind of writer I am.  I never expected that I would find myself moving towards journalism.  For now, it’s what interests me the most.  I’m sure I’ll always write fiction too, though.

QRD – Do you feel you come from the same school of though as Lester Bangs & Hunter S. Thompson, that being a good writer has nothing to do with the final format you write in? (e.g. that a novel is not a superior literary form to news articles or record reviews.)

Jen – Yeah, I definitely agree with that.  There are great writers and lousy writers in every format.  Usually, great writers can jump genres effortlessly. Denis Johnson is a good example.  He’s my favorite contemporary poet, writes incredible short stories, and great journalistic essays to boot.

QRD – I read your short story about going to a Las Vegas strip club with your husband.  How autobiographical was it & where do you feel you should draw the line to say whether something is autobiographical versus fictional?

Jen – That piece, originally written for the now defunct “Bikini Magazine,” was entirely autobiographical.  I really hate Vegas, though I’m simultaneously drawn to it.  It’s sort of my idea of hell.  And who wouldn’t want to visit hell as a voyeur once in a while, as long as you knew you wouldn’t be stuck there indefinitely?  On that particular trip, I was with my (then) husband and three close male friends to celebrate a friend’s birthday.  The strip club was the birthday boy’s idea.  Once there, I felt, “Fuck it – as long as I’m here, I should have the full experience.”  So I got a lap-dance and wrote about the experience.  Just a little anecdote.  I wouldn’t care if someone read the piece as fiction. Obviously non-fiction (unless it’s memoir) should always adhere rigidly to facts.

QRD – Why/how did you become a reporter in Iraq?  Was it a job you fought to get or a position you fell into?

Jen – I really fell into that work.  Before the invasion of Iraq, I was pretty active in protesting against the war.  Once the war started, I felt depressed and sort of impotent.  (To top it off, I was also struggling with my second novel.)  A friend of mine was in Baghdad, working for public radio.  He kept a web-journal that I read avidly.  One day I emailed him to say that a part of me wanted to go to Iraq and see first hand what was happening there.  He called me right away from his satellite phone and basically said, “Get on a plane.”  When, a few weeks later, I reached Baghdad, I started my own web-journal. I wanted to try and convey what day-to-day life was like and how it was impacted by the occupation. I got a lot of response from people who read the journal and felt it gave them a better understanding of the situation than the “bang-bang” coverage of the major news outlets.  Eventually, I contacted Salon.com and asked if they would be interested in running a version of what I was doing on my website.  They were (for which I’m endlessly grateful).

QRD – Did your going to Iraq change your views of the US government or confirm them?  Do you think things would necessarily be different with a different administration?

Jen – Going to Iraq both confirmed and exacerbated my view that this administration and the occupation of Iraq are disasters. I got to Iraq right after Bush’s ridiculous “mission accomplished” moment.  All told, I spent about nine months in Baghdad and witnessed first hand how badly the US blew it over there.  I get so frustrated when I meet people who say that we had to invade Iraq to prevent more terrorism on US soil.  Bullshit.  The failures of US occupation have created untold numbers of new terrorists. An Iraqi who has seen a family member killed by US soldiers usually wants some kind of revenge.  This scenario happens every day.
A Democratic administration would have handled the reconstruction of Iraq very differently.  There would have been more international support and, I believe, a better distribution of reconstruction funds (as opposed to the corrupt trickle-down from giant corporations like Halliburton).

QRD – What medium is most influential to your writing style? (e.g. film, television, theater, novels, articles, paintings)

Jen – I’m influenced the most by great writing in any genre. But film – especially the silent era through the forties – has had a huge impact on me.  I try to think as visually as possible when describing an event.  Also, you mentioned painting...  One day I was trying to describe to someone the sort of journalism I like (and aspire to). I’m drawn to first-person reporting in which my own experience acts as a window into the action or political picture I’m writing about.  It occurred to me that it’s a lot like Italian Renaissance paintings in which there’s a large crowd of figures engaged in some event – say, the crucifixion – in which all the figures are watching the painting’s main event except for that one man or woman who is staring out of the painting, looking at the viewer. That one figure draws the viewer powerfully into the painting, puts them smack in the narrative.  In my writing, I try to play the same role.

QRD – With people’s attention spans seeming to get shorter & there seeming to be less fiction readers, what do you feel a writer has to do to be able to be effective to their audience?

Jen – There’s a real danger in trying to shape work in order to please people.  Having lived in Los Angeles for eight years, I saw that first hand ? writers (in that case film and TV writers) trying to figure out what their audience wants rather than writing their own style.

QRD – What are you currently working on?

Jen – I just finished a long story for Salon about my recent trip to the Kurdish North of Iraq (and about why the Kurds are so pissed at the Americans).  Now I’m seeing what it’s like to be a freelance reporter, writing for different magazines. I’ll probably go back to Iraq this fall.

QRD – Anything else?

Jen – I like that, when you Google QRD, one of the first things that comes up is “Quality Research in Dementia.”