Last week, David Grann and I met in his office at The New Yorker, in midtown Manhattan. It is a glorious fire hazard because he doesn't throw anything away. Grann has been a staff writer at the magazine since 2003 and published two books, the enthralling The Lost City of Z, and The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, a collection of his reportage. Stacks of papers related to finished stories ("That's Z, that's Cuba, that's Willingham…") line the walls, while the floor is devoted to a book-in-progress, as yet untitled, on the Osage Indian murders and the birth of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
For fans, a new David Grann story is an immediate must-read. As diverse as the subjects, the through-line of his articles is their attention to odd facts, the surprising twists that he always seems to uncover on his way to getting the full story. His Twitter account, launched in May of last year and, when we met, closing in on 15,000 followers, has a similar appeal. He’s delightfully catholic in the things he tweets about; on March 19, he mentioned, successively, Jack Kerouac, a giant crab and the world’s largest sweater. And so, while it's a slim part of his work, I wanted to talk to him about his daily reading, how he gets story ideas, and generally what’s made @DavidGrann so fascinating.
Elon Green: So when you first started, were you prepared for the level of interactivity on Twitter?
David Grann: No. The whole thing is still too new to me. I do have some virtual friends now that I quite like. I value the interactivity, whether someone tweets a link on physics or stars; I don't know anything about these things!
Tweeting is the antithesis of when I report, where I spend six months to a year learning about something. I don't actually go through my normal processes of evaluation. The biggest difference with Twitter and writing longform is you're part of a virtual community where you know people, or think you know them, through their links. And when I do the longform, I don't want to be conscious of an external world. I want to make sure I'm seeing just the story, and not have things refracted or a group mentality. It's fine if I'm watching the Oscars or the Super Bowl, to be part of this wonderful community also watching this event. I can feel like I'm at a cocktail party. I'm pretty shy, too, so that's kind of nice. But if I'm working on a story, I would never want those voices. I want the voices I'm reporting on, and all the participants, and I want to make sure I see the event as coldly, and clearly, and lucidly, and unemotionally, and uncollectively as possible. That's the biggest difference. Oh, and one's a lot of work and one is the illusion of work.
Why'd you start tweeting?
To be honest, I did it because Nick Thompson, an editor at The New Yorker, suggested I sign up. It wasn't really a conscious decision to join.
Were you pressured?
No. You know, there was a part of me that always wanted to be an editor. Twitter is a way to curate things I really like, or that are interesting or curious. Sometimes it's ephemera. I always would get up and read every morning, all my adult life, five to ten publications. This is part of being a news junkie and having a professional need to know what's going on in the world. Frequently I find things I wouldn't necessarily write about.
Did you have a model?
No. Honestly, I had no idea what to do on Twitter when I started. I didn't follow it enough. Slowly, though, I started to realize what I'm okay at. Like, I'm just not particularly witty. And nobody necessarily—although I probably do too much of it—really gives a shit about what I think about the New York Giants' play-calling. At some point, you have to realize there's an audience out there. You know, when you're getting on the plane and say, "The weather's sunny," tell that to your family. Don't share it publicly.
I don't really do that much commentary on Twitter. Mostly I just try to tap everybody else's genius and send it out into the world—or, in some cases, their lack of genius. I generally try to avoid the links that many are sharing. I figure there's enough people tweeting Paul Ryan introducing his budget, I'm not going to really add anything. Mostly, I send things out that are interesting and that people might not come across otherwise.
It seems like your daily routine includes the British papers.
Yeah, I read the British papers and foreign papers. In fact, that was one of the ways I look for story ideas. Twitter reflects people's personalities, to some extent, and I've always had an affinity with the tabloids. I love tabloids. I tweet the Gothic tales because they're just… Gothic.
What's going on when you tweet? For some reason, I imagine you in your home office, wearing a bathrobe, cup of coffee in hand. How close is that?
The cup of coffee, definitely. It's a big cup that I'm constantly nuking because it's getting cold. I have to steal time to do it, in between all the random elements of daily routine and life.
I mean, that's why I can't blog, and even have trouble answering email. I always want to write everything just right, and edit it, so it's takes me a long time. Twitter goes against all my habits; I try not to worry about it. I just send it out.
As you've gained followers, has that changed the way you approach things? Are you more conscious of what you're doing?
No, but I'm hopefully a little better at it, after doing it more. At the beginning I really had no idea what Twitter was. I didn't even have a fake account so I could follow people. It wasn't because of any opposition. I'm kind of odd; I'm a technophobe who isn't a technophobe. I'm afraid of new things, but eventually I love them. That happened with Twitter. I've started to figure out who to follow: people with different interests, someone who knows the art world, a physicist, politics people, your Knicks beat writer. I've got my NFL nose-in-the-draft.
Has Twitter, as a medium, affected your work habits at all?
It probably takes up more of my time than when I was just reading the papers. It's made it easier to find a lot of great story ideas.
But it hasn't actually resulted in a story that you've written.
No, because I'm working on a book. It would have otherwise.
What Twitter has done, though, is create an extended office culture, in a way, which is kind of nice. Where you see another side of colleagues. I like that because being a writer is pretty isolating, especially when I'm working on a book.
It takes you into another world, oftentimes, as well.
I mean, Canseco. That's the greatest Twitter feed in the history of man. I don't know if he's conscious, but it's brilliant performance art. It's brilliant, every tweet. And this guy in outer space; It's the greatest thing in the world! To be honest, I used to always procrastinate when I write. I mean, I love writing but I hate it. So when I get a few hours away I need to distract myself. And there's nothing better than that. I'm getting a tweet from a dude in outer space. And he's sending some clips and explaining some strange physical force. I saw the other day, he's making a sandwich.
A lot of the stuff I tweet is out of childlike curiosity. You know, this guy took photographs of extra-large eyeballs that look like planets! That's weird. You don't want to spend a lot of time on it, but it's worth noting. It made me kind of smile or flinch—one or the other.
What would make you stop tweeting?
I'd quit if it stopped being fun. I mean, it's fun and informative and I like the virtual community. But if someone told me I had to stop, I would be fine. If someone told me I had to stop writing stories, that would be the end of me. That's the difference.
Interview condensed, edited and lightly reordered.
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Elon Green is a contributing editor to Longform.