Interview: Tom Zoellner, Author

(alternate text)At the back of a two-story warehouse, “there was a door wide enough for large cargo that led into a dim chamber,” Tom Zoellner writes. “Dead electric bulbs hung from wires in the ceiling. The two soldiers behind me unslung their rifles. They were held casually, but the muzzles were pointed at the approximate region of my ankles.”

Puzzled and scared, Zoellner asked, “You want me to go in there?” And he remembers that “For the first time since being arrested, I began to get frightened. I could feel my hands start to tremble. Visions of an impromptu execution and a river burial began playing in my mental cineplex. They must have somehow found out I had met with diamond smugglers.”

And so goes one of the most harrowing scenes in Zoellner’s book The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desire. Leonardo might have been nominated for an Oscar for his role in a somewhat similar movie, but Zoellner actually lived this stuff. In researching and writing his book, Zoellner travelled to fourteen nations on six continents. All in search of discovering the basis of man’s obsession with diamonds.

Zoellner’s previous work includes publications in Men’s Health and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also the co-author of An Ordinary Man, the autobiography of Rwanda hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina that was the basis for the film Hotel Rwanda.

Zoellner was kind enough to talk to us about conflict diamonds, piling up stacks of notes and interviews in an increasingly heavy pack, and marketing efforts for authors.

Slushpile:  How did you decide to launch your research for The Heartless Stone in the Central African Republic, a country with only one legitimate way in or out for foreigners?

Zoellner:  There were reports about this nation being a way-station for diamond smuggling. I wanted to see if this was true. It was also a good place to look at the remote mines where diamonds are mined from the riverbeds. The Central African Republic also represents a puzzle, which I think is one of the central puzzles of the book. Here is one of the poorest nations on the globe, yet it is the worlds tenth largest producer of diamonds. How can this be?

Slushpile:  During the course of researching this book, you visited fourteen nations and six continents. Frequently, the locales were remote and dangerous. How much pre-planning did you do before arriving in these areas? Did you line up guides, security, lodging, etc? Or did you just arrive and take it from there?

Zoellner:  I discovered theres really no substitute for just showing up and trusting that things will work out alright. Theres a kind of magic that happens when you travel. You meet people much more easily, for one thing.

One useful trick for traveling in the developing world is to book the first two nights in the hotel where all the diplomats, U.N. staff and nonprofit workers stay. Every capital city no matter how poor — has one of these places. It will be pricey, but worth it. Your job on the first day is to fight your way through the airport, get a taxi to the hotel, change currency and sleep off the jet lag. Your job on the second day is to wander the city and find cheaper lodging. And your job on both evenings is to nurse a drink in the bar and listen for information and rumors you wont find in The Economist or Lonely Planet.

Aid workers, in particular, are champion gossips. This gives you a safe base from which to get used to the country, make a few friends and understand a thing or two about the place before you start the real reporting.

Slushpile:  At one point in the Central African Republic, you were taken by soldiers, and forced into an empty warehouse at gunpoint. You were handed a document (referred to as your statement) written by someone else in a foreign language you couldnt understand. You were then commanded to sign this document, ostensibly confessing to some unknown deed. Was this the most frightening moment during your travels?

Zoellner:  Yes. Nothing prepared me for that.

Slushpile:  Youve spoken about the crazy dreams that accompany anti-malarial medications and I certainly experienced those myself in KwaZulu-Natal last spring. What was your most disturbing dream?

Zoellner:  They were pretty bad. These dreams kept revolving around the diamonds and all the pathetic things I was learning about them. The most memorable one was not so much disturbing as it was sad. I kept having these incredibly vivid dreams about my ex-fiancee, Anne, and how we had supposedly gotten back together and were happy again.

We had broken up four years prior and I still had the engagement ring in a desk drawer. The memory of that dead relationship kept coming back to me in the diamond fields in the form of these malaria dreams. They were intense and thick and I couldnt shake them.

And I didnt go to Africa with the intention of writing about my own life in any way it was going to be strictly third-person journalism (plus, I’ve never been very good at self-debriefing) — but after having those dreams, I knew I had to explore my own experience with diamonds. I had made this stone a symbol of my own marriage-to-be, for no other reason than pure cultural expectation, and I had played a small role myself in sustaining this $64 billion commerce. It sounds kind of gooey, but thats what happened.

Slushpile:  One of the most fascinating aspects of The Heartless Stone was the DeBeers marketing information you obtained. How did you get access to these documents?

Zoellner:  I owed a lot to the foresightedness of a few advertising executives who preserved the strategy papers of yesteryear as a kind of memorial to their work. They believed that American advertising is a part of American history (which it is) and that these documents are part of the nations common property. There are archives of some of the old De Beers internal memos in the Smithsonian and at Duke University. I spent time rooting through both collections. I also got access to a few items in a small private library maintained by the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

Some of the most revealing documents, however, had already been uncovered in 1982 by a journalist named Edward Epstein who did a piece for The Atlantic on diamond advertising that year. I was very grateful for his work. More current information was given to me by J. Walter Thompsons staff in Tokyo, as well as a bit of information from the De Beers staff themselves. All this being said, we dont know what went into the shredder over the years.

Slushpile:  Were you as shocked as I was to learn that diamond engagement rings were not a widely accepted custom in America until the late 1930s? It certainly seems like a tradition that goes back much further.

Zoellner:  Engagement rings certainly have been a feature of Western culture since the tail end of the Roman Empire, but the diamond as the must-have ornament for that ring is a relatively new idea. Diamond rings were not widely embraced in the United States until the late 1930s and only after heavy prompting from De Beers.

Slushpile:  Its one thing for a reporter to go to a thirty minute press conference with a recorder or a pen and then go to the office and write the story. Its another for someone to trek through six continents, interview hundreds of people, and still keep up with all the quotes and material. While you were traveling, how did you manage your notes, recordings, and supporting material?

Zoellner:  I carried a reporter’s notebook with me at all times and wrote everything down for later reference. That was the most portable part about it. Often I would be handed a stack of memos or a binder, and there was simply no choice but to stow it in my backpack and lug it around for the rest of the trip. I would sometimes come back into JFK with a heavy pack, teeming with dirty laundry and documents.

Slushpile:  Has the early December release of Edward Zwick’s movie Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, helped or hurt the sales of your book?

Zoellner:  Hard to say. It certainly gave the problem of blood diamonds a more visible profile. Oddly, the movie seems to have done almost nothing to the sales of diamond rings. Jewelers reported a generally healthy Christmas season.

Slushpile:  Have you seen the movie? If so, what did you think of it?

Zoellner:  I did see it. It cost about a sixth of the gross national product of Sierra Leone to produce, but it may have been money well-spent if it gives a permanent contour to the idea that multinational mining companies (such as De Beers) must never again allow the perception that they have provided indirect bankrolling to warlords. In that sense, it was a pretty good use of $100 million. The story and the characters are fictional, but the movie takes place against an accurate backdrop. Rebel armies really did treat diamond mines as cashboxes and the stones really did wind up in the legitimate market. The river mines as shown in the film look quite a bit like real African diamond mines.

Slushpile:  In 2003, you quit working as a reporter at The Arizona Republic, moved to Montana and started writing fiction. Were you writing short stories or novels? Did any of them get published? Are you still interested in pursuing fiction at some point in the future?

Zoellner:  I’m extremely grateful for that summer in Missoula. I was living in a cheap room next to the railroad tracks. The whole building shook in the middle of the night when the yard crews would ram boxcars together. The window looked out onto the mountains and a brick wall with a painted 1920s advertisement for a long-defunct traveling salesman hotel. The only furniture in the room was a blow-up mattress on the floor and a $5 card table and a folding chair. I set my Macintosh on that card table and made myself write a thousand words a day, every single day. No phone, no email, no job, little money, a few new friends, lots of books, lots of open space, lots of words, lots of time. That was the nub of an amazing discovery. With enough faith and discipline and dumb determination, anyone can write a book – in this case, a book-length manuscript – in just three months.

I had washed up as a newspaper reporter but found a whole new way of thinking about my place in the world and what I was supposed to do with my life. Possessions don’t make anybody happy. Social position doesn’t make you happy in the end. What brings true contentment is a more difficult equation, but I think a large part of it comes from giving good things back to the world. That’s what the best fiction can accomplish.

Writing can be narcissistic and self-indulgent, and sometimes is, but the best kind of writing – the kind that survives — is deeply altruistic, almost religiously so. Jorge Luis Borges once said he conceived of heaven as a kind of library. I think that’s an apt metaphor because literature often has a core of generosity. Fiction can bestow gifts to the reader that nonfiction cannot. A novel is a snow-globe that invites us to step inside and inhabit another world for a while. And even the unpleasant things you see inside there can be clothed in a version of beauty because they reflect parts of life that are both real and rarely articulated. I’d love to go back to writing stories someday. Minus the midnight boxcars, maybe.

Slushpile:  Who are your favorite fiction writers?

Zoellner:  I think Richard Ford has written some of the most important fiction of the last quarter-century. His pet subject is the inner life of American men, and he maps this obscure country better than anybody I’ve ever read. I’m also a big fan of Graham Greene, whose novels are always set within a particular moral universe. Ron Carlson, a fellow Arizonan and a brilliant short story artist, writes with a strong sense of place. For pure dark comedy, nobody beats T.C. Boyle.

Slushpile:  Did you have an outline in mind when you were researching this book? Or, did you just gather all the information you could and then start to organize it later?

Zoellner:  I was lucky to have a natural organizing principle from the start. The book has ten chapters and each one is reported from a different nation. Each of those ten places exemplifies a certain facet of the diamond business. India, for example, is where the majority of diamonds are polished today. South Africa was the birthplace of the De Beers cartel. Russia is where synthetic diamond machines were perfected. And so on. Hopefully this method of book-building helped drive home the point that the construct of a diamond as “something valuable” has left a unique mark on almost every culture and economy where it has been introduced.

Slushpile:  Given the amount of travel and research involved, it seems like this book was written fairly quickly. You started in 2003 and the book hit the shelves in May 2006. How long did you spend researching? How long did you spend writing?

Zoellner:  The whole thing took a year-and-a-half. I started in on each chapter as soon as I returned from visiting that particular nation. But I had no job in the conventional sense, and so I could devote all my time to diamonds.

Slushpile:  You said in another interview that the book proposal for The Heartless Stone included “an outline of where I wanted to go and what I was going to report, which felt a bit presumptuous… You shouldn’t be afraid to think big.” I often feel this way myself when putting together pitches or proposals. It seems ludicrous to say, “I’m going to interview George W. Bush and Michael Jordan for this project.” But you’re suggesting that’s the appropriate way to go?

Zoellner:  I agree with you: it feels arrogant to be ordering the lobster when you can’t even afford the soup. But a really winsome proposal has to have the lobster. So you order the damn lobster and then do whatever it takes to pay for it later. You have to throw everything you have into that thing that makes you passionate. Like in poker: “all-in.” I discovered that I could be happy next to the tracks in Montana, so I wasn’t afraid of failure or poverty. I had already been there.

Slushpile:  You’ve also been outspoken about how much work you think authors should do to help sell your book. Why do you think this is so important?

Zoellner:  There are some good people in publishing, but nobody is going to care about your book quite like you do. For them, ultimately, it is a product, and for you, often, it is an offspring. So you have to work for it on the back end as hard as you did when you were writing it.

Beware, though: Publicity is even more maddening than writing. Stupid arbitrary stuff will happen and you have no choice but to laugh through it and move on to the next thing. So all that fire in the eyes must be turned on and off like a stovetop burner. At the same time, you can’t help but feel like your worth as a person is on the line when your book is under consideration for some laurel or another.

What’s even worse is being ignored altogether, which happens to all writers everywhere at some point. This may be part of what drives many of them to the bottle.

Slushpile:  To help market your book, you hired a publicist. How did the St. Martin’s publicity department work in conjunction with your own personal publicist? What should authors know about working with these combinations of publicity personnel?

Zoellner:  I had it easy here. There was a clear demarcation of jobs. The in-house publicist was charged with national media and the independent publicist handled local press for the tour. So nobody felt like their toes were being stomped. The two publicists also got along well personally – I made sure they met one another before I wrote the check.

Slushpile:  How much does a publicist cost?

Zoellner:  The bill came to about $22,000 by the year’s end. That was for both the summer book tour and a second round of publicity near the time of the Blood Diamond movie release. I had nothing to do with the making of the film, but the subject of conflict diamonds was all over the media around Christmas. So we’d have been stupid not to make another pass.

Slushpile:  You paid for your own cross-country book tour, often driving 1,000 miles a day and sleeping in the car. How much do you think an author should invest in their own publicity campaigns and activities?

Zoellner:  As much as they can afford. The only genuine reason to write a book is because of passion. Not a desire just to see your name on a jacket at Borders, but real passion for the subject at hand: a manuscript that would have been written even for an audience of one. Those are the only books that really matter. And so if you’re totally committed — if you’ve devoted your time and your fortune and your hopes to producing that book — be sure to scrape together even more of everything for the endgame.

Slushpile:  Looking back now, what would you do differently in your publicity campaigns? How would you invest the money differently or what tactics would you use?

Zoellner:  I was lucky not to have made any major mistakes. On a personal level, it was quite a lot of fun to get on the road during the summer and reconnect with some old friends in different places. But I could never stay more than a night because of the need to drive to the next bookstore. I’d been warned that a book’s first currency lasts maybe two months, so this was unavoidable. But it still kind of sucked to leave conversations half-finished. I wound up covering more than 11,000 miles that summer.

Slushpile:  While we’re talking about money, what is your advice for freelancers who aren’t getting paid? Unfortunately, it’s sometimes a struggle because magazines lose the accounting information, payroll makes a mistake, the secretary is out of the office this week, and any number of other excuses. How can a freelancer keep pushing to get the money rightfully owed to them without being a pest and pissing off the editor they hope to work with again in the future?

Zoellner:  Freelancers have one of the worst deals imaginable on this count, and a lot of it comes from a perception that it’s a buyer’s market and a talented freelancer can be found anywhere, so why cultivate a relationship? This is part of the reason why too many magazines today put out issues full of jejune and lifeless content. Fewer and fewer writers with spark and imagination want to endure this kind of life.

My journalist friend Russ Baker, one of the good ones, makes his living exclusively from magazine pieces and deals with deadbeat editors from time-to-time. His advice to me is this: “Be friendly, but firm.”

Another way to think of it is that you’re not a needy individual begging for cash, but a representative of a corporation seeking to clear an account. You are politely (and somewhat robotically) enforcing the rules. This can help take the personal edge off the conversation and make you feel more comfortable making multiple calls. But Russ is right: never get angry.

Slushpile:  What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?

Zoellner:  Well-meaning people will often tell you can’t get in to a certain place or talk to a certain person. These people are often dead wrong. Smile and try anyway.

Slushpile:  What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print

Zoellner:  Well-meaning editors or agents will often tell you your idea lacks a platform and will never become a book. These people are often dead wrong. Smile and try anyway.

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