Exclusive: Evan Wright’s Immersion in War, Porn, and Anarchy

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Generation Kill chronicled Evan Wright‘s experience reporting as an embedded journalist in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His original Rolling Stone articles won him a National Magazine Award, and the resulting book was spun off into an HBO series. But Wright’s writing career didn’t begin with war reporting, and Hella Nation attests to this. It’s a collection of the best of his long-form journalism, comprising thoughtful and immersive portraits of individuals and communities who have seceded from the normal. Hella Nation is stuffed with dispatches from weird America: neo-Nazi conventions, anarchist riots, porn sets, and the living rooms of professional skateboarders. Wright spoke with our sister publication Boldtype about journalism, voyeurism, and his taste for insanity.

Boldtype: In your essay on Porn Valley, you write that you had the feeling of “being in a group of people deliberately and methodically engaged in acts of insanity.” That could describe a lot of these articles, which take readers into alternate worlds with their own rules. What draws you to these kinds of stories?

Evan Wright: I’m always interested in discovering the inner logic that guides people who do things that outwardly seem puzzling, insane, or reprehensible. My personal motivation perhaps stems from the nagging suspicion that some of my own thought is as illogical and blind as my subjects’.

BT: What’s the most shocking scene you’ve ever witnessed?

EW: I have seen and written about quite a bit of horror in war. Nothing tops seeing a person kill another person, or having someone fire a machine gun at you from a few meters away — as I experienced. Hella Nation is more about people or situations that are socially, psychologically shocking. A personal memory that stands out was being among the neo-Nazis for the essay about them in Hella Nation. The moment I can’t shake is this young neo-Nazi mother smiling to me as she demonstrated something she claimed to be her own invention: “the Nazi curtsey” — doing a curtsey while simultaneously saluting Hitler. She was proud of the fact she had taught this to her daughter. What strikes me about this memory is her pride, as well as a strange kind of innocence she displayed. She seemed to have no clue a person might find this to be grotesque.

BT: Another thread that runs through the book is willfully “extreme” behavior — lifestyles that reject normalcy and try to take things to the limit. Have you ever been tempted by any of the flavors of “rejectionism” you write about?

EW: I personally liked the anarchist, Wingnut, whom I profile in Hella Nation. I enjoyed his company a great deal. I wasn’t into his worship of the Unabomber, but up to that point, I admired his militancy and dedication in battling the logging companies decimating old-growth forests. I also totally admired his rejection of the material life.

BT: Have you ever pitched something that’s so out there you couldn’t get any editor to sign on?

EW:There are some ideas of mine that have been rejected, but I never give up on a thing. As for the most-out-there magazine-story pitch, this honor goes to my friend Dave Carney. Carney is a former editor of the legendary, now defunct, skateboard magazine Big Brother, which spawned Jackass. He wanted Rolling Stone to send him to Ireland to hunt for leprechauns. I recall Carney proposed trying to hunt one down and kill it, eat the meat, skin it, mount the head, etc. Rolling Stone passed on that pitch. I hope Carney hasn’t given up on this.

BT: Long-form journalism like yours requires a lot of space to build up momentum, but that’s becoming more rare as print magazines decline. How do you see the future of the craft?

EW: The trick is to hold a reader’s attention. “Pat Dollard’s War on Hollywood,” the last chapter in Hella Nation, was originally published in different form in Vanity Fair in 2007. Even in the shorter magazine form, it was more than 20,000 words, and one of the longest articles ever published in Vanity Fair. This was in a year when people had already declared the death of long-form journalism, as they had been doing since at least the mid-90s. But, of course, it’s a valid question as magazines and their budgets shrink. Most of the essays in Hella Nation were underwritten by magazines that paid me to spend months researching them. I’m not sure the economic model of blogging supports that. At the same time, people still seem to want to read long-form journalism. Perhaps magazines will get a boost from new platforms like the Kindle.

But, I am writer who started out by writing long letters to friends, or journal entries about situations and people I was experiencing or seeing. The essays in Hella Nation are basically just slightly more refined versions of letters I used to write to friends. So whether the business model dies or not, I’ll still be doing it. I might be working at a gas station to support my habit, but I will still be doing it.

BT: Do you ever worry that, for your readers, your work might offer a kind of voyeurism? This occurred to me while reading the piece on taxi-dancing. I wondered whether the essays might be allowing readers a kind of “taxi-dance” with the realities in which you’re immersing yourself.

EW: I never worry about the potential voyeuristic appeal of my work. When I read Herodotus — arguably the first immersion journalist/historian — I was able to taxi-dance, so to speak, with ancient Greek soldiers, crooked Athenian politicians, and the odd social mores of Persians. When Xenophon chronicled battles somewhat later, he also wrote about squabbles of commanders over the affections of boys in their armies (as was the habit of ancient Greeks) and appraised the skills of dancing women brought to entertain them during breaks from their epic war fighting. I was told that my essay in Hella Nation about US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan infuriated Donald Rumsfeld when it first ran in Rolling Stone, because it included such things as American soldiers discussing masturbation, and observations about the homosexuality common among Afghan troops allied with the US. I believe all subjects under the sun are worthy of inquiry, and, for me, writing is a form of inquiry.

Voyeuristic material must be prurient. I don’t believe even my writing on porn is prurient. If a reader gets erections while reading my essays on prison gangs, anarchists, or Nazis, that’s a problem for the reader, not the author.