The ProsenPeople

Interview: Martin Fletcher

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 | Permalink

by Sarah Shewchuk

Martin Fletcher is the author of four books, most recently Jacob’s Oath. A five-time Emmy-winning television news correspondent who has worked for decades as the NBC News Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv, he is cur­rently a Special Correspondent for NBC News.

Sarah Shewchuk: Martin, your first two books are works of non-fiction that examine contemporary events in your own life, namely your career as a television news correspondent in Breaking News and a walking trip that you took down the length of Israel’s coastline in Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation. In turn, your two most recent books, The List and Jacob’s Oath, are works of fiction that explore the Holocaust and its aftermath. Why did you choose to use fiction as the lens through which to examine the past?

Martin Fletcher: I did so much research for the two novels that I could probably have written them as non-fiction. But in these novels I wanted to reach something you can rarely tap into in non-fiction, namely, what was it like to be that person? To experience those dilemmas? To meet those challenges? I wanted to enter the hearts and minds of the char­acters, not just to tell their stories, which is what I do as a journalist. As a novelist I hoped to take the reader not only on the external journey, but the internal journey. It’s actually a very hard thing to do and I can only hope I managed it. When I started out I thought it would be easier: I can just make it up! But it doesn’t work that way, every nuance and development and action must have its own relentless logic or it won’t work, and that takes the writer into uncharted territory. Each character takes over his own story. I loved the process.

SS: How have your experiences as a television news correspondent impacted your choices as a writer?

MF: They have guided me toward wanting to be very truthful in my stories and characters. I want to create a sense of authenticity, not through period details but through the reality of the situations and the characters’ reactions. My work in all kinds of disaster zones has helped me to visualize terrible scenes from the past. For instance, witnessing the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia helped me imagine the reac­tions of people in the Nazi Holocaust. And above all, it does make me like happy endings.

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The Best Part of Traveling

Wednesday, September 29, 2010 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Martin Fletcher wrote about stories he’s covered for NBC’s London bureau and about choosing a title for his book. His newest book,Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation, is now available.

What I loved about writing Walking Israel was meeting the people I came across during my walk, people I would never normally have come across, and who directed me towards aspects of Israel that had never occurred to me in my 35 years of reporting from there: The tour guide who used the four faces of Akko’s clocktower to show Jews and Arabs the four faces of the truth: “it just depends where you stand”; the botanist whose main goal, when Israel was fighting for its existence in 1948, was to save the sea turtles; the Tunisian and Moroccan Jews sitting around in Roger’s café in Ashkelon who barely budged as rockets landed from Gaza, and said if it was up to them they’d make peace with the Arabs in five minutes but in the meantime “in war, it’s war!”

I loved everything about writing the book: the people I met, the subsequent year of research, and the year of writing and rewriting. But best of all was the reaction of my son after he read the finished work. “Dad,” he said, “next time you go for a long walk somewhere I want to come with you.”

Martin Fletcher spent the last thirty years as NBC News Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv. His second book, Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation, is now available. He has been blogging all week for the JBC/MJL Author Blog.

Field Stories Without Names

Tuesday, September 28, 2010 | Permalink

Yesterday, Martin Fletcher wrote about stories he’s covered for NBC’s London bureau. His newest book, Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the JBC/MJL Visting Scribe.

I’m lousy at titles; I may spend more time thinking about what to call a book than planning its content. But what I’ve discovered is it doesn’t matter much what I think because the publisher decides anyway.

The title I decided on, after much anguish, for my first book about my reporting career was “The Exploding Cow and the River of Death,” which related to two of the stories in the book. That kind of black humor is a tradition for journalist memoirs. My favorite such title is Edward Behr’s 1985 book Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? It refers to a journalist in the Congo who came across a group of Belgian nuns who had been raped and shouted the question.

If anyone thinks he made up the line, that nobody could be so crass as to ask such a question, trust me, it’s possible. I was there when journalists in Zimbabwe were sticking microphones into the face of a nun who had been raped and an American UPI journalist asked her, “Yes, but did he ejaculate inside you?” Apparently that related to a New York law concerning the statutory definition of rape.

My cow exploded when I was interviewing a Kosovar refugee who had been forced by Serbs to dig holes for landmines in a field. As we spoke to him on camera a cow trod on a mine and flew into the air above his head. The river of death was the Kagera river that flows into the Rusomo Falls in Rwanda; we watched the bodies of dozens of murdered Tutsis float downriver and over the Falls.

Hence my title. The publisher decided on the more mundane “Breaking News.”

The title I favored for my latest book, which is structured around a trek I made along the entire coast of Israel, from Lebanon to Gaza, came from my idea of doing the journey with my son. I would call the book The Father, the Son and the Holy Coast. But the publisher decided that title could antagonize Christians, and anyway my son wouldn’t come with me.

So it’s called Walking Israel. I did an Amazon search to find out how many books are named “Walking…something” and came up with 27,956.

Publishers have a lot more experience than I do of naming books, and it’s true that, being British, I tend towards the tabloidy, tongue-in-cheek, teaser which may not go down so well in America.

And anyway, all I really care about is the content.

But the title is the first attention-getter, followed closely by the cover design. And what I find strange, given that this is actually the author’s book, is that the two key marketing factors are outside the control of the author.

Still, I can only bow to the publisher’s experience, and my contractual obligation, and allow others to decide how my book will be presented. I hate that stuff anyway.

Martin Fletcher spent the last thirty years as NBC News Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv. His second book, Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation, is now available.

From Serious News to the Tabloids

Monday, September 27, 2010 | Permalink

Martin Fletcher’s newest book, Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation, will be available tomorrow. He will be blogging all week for the JBC/MJL Author Blog.

I left NBC News to write books. Which explains why I quickly found myself back on their doorstep, begging for work – paid work.

But I didn’t expect this. Here are a few of the stories I’ve reported on as a freelancer in NBC’s London bureau in the last few weeks: a shark attack in Australia, an internet blogger accused of rape in Sweden, a British woman who dumped a cat in the garbage bin, another British woman who urinated on a war memorial, a spy’s sexy photo shoot in Russia. The high point, literally, was going up in a hot air balloon with a glass floor which crashed on landing and came within three yards of being dragged into a river. All network stories.

It wasn’t the kind of writing I imagined when I resigned in December, but guess what? I love it: all the silliness, the bad puns, the tabloid humor. I found myself chuckling as I wrote about Bad British Babes and the cold war femme fatale who’s hot! And sighing at the mandatory lurid speculation when a British spy was found stuffed inside a sports bag in the bath.

The thing is, they’re good stories that people care about, and I began to think that maybe reporting on them wasn’t so different from writing books, or even from reporting serious news. After all, it’s all about telling stories about people in a way that other people will care about.

That’s really all I wanted to do with my new book Walking Israel. I wanted to get away from seeing Israel only through a single prism, that of the conflict with the Arabs, and see the country for what it really is: a fascinating place with fascinating people whose lives are so much more than just a people at war.

People were always phoning me and asking if it was safe to visit Israel. I would say yes, and then they’d call me after a week in Israel and say, wow, what a great place, I had no idea. And so I wanted to write a book about that great place about which so many people have no idea.

I walked along the coast, from Lebanon to Gaza, meeting Israelis of all kinds, Jews and Arabs, and followed up on their stories for a year. And although I’ve reported from Israel for close to thirty years, I’ve never enjoyed any research or writing as much as working on this book. And I hope that I have presented Israel in an entirely new light.

Martin Fletcher spent the last thirty years as NBC News Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv. His second book, Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation, will be available tomorrow.