Good Read: Interview With Duncan Murrell, CDS Writer in Residence

Duncan Murrell. Photograph by Joel Mora.

Duncan Murrell is an award-winning writer and journalist from North Carolina. He is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and The Normal School and a consulting editor at Southern Cultures. Murrell has written about living in New Orleans for a year after Hurricane Katrina, as well as on such topics as immigration, politicians, termites, vultures, and hogs. Duncan’s essay “The Meat Horses of Serbia” was recently named a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2011, edited by Edwidge Danticat.

Joel Mora, CDS publishing intern, talks with Murrell about teaching documentary writing and CDS’s interest in enhancing and refining its writing program.

JM: Congratulations on being featured in The Best American Essays 2011. There is an interesting line in that essay where you write, “I’m not a Dane. I’m an improviser.” I was wondering if you think about that in terms of your writing. When I read “In the Year of the Storm,” [about Katrina] none of what happens seems predictable, or at least the way you wrote it, it doesn’t.

DM: I do try to improvise. I mean, I go into reporting or documenting with some ideas of what I want a story to be but not a complete idea. There’s this discovery process that happens when I sit down to write—of course I’ve already discovered a lot of it—but I try to represent that discovery process in the piece itself and that’s where I hope surprise, as you put it, comes in.

JM: So you were in  New Orleans a long time. If you were a journalist, you would get in and out. Is this where the documentary writing comes in?

DM: The kind of literature that I would like to make derives from that feeling of being a little bit unmoored and uncertain and that seems to me like life—we’re uncertain, we’re sort of poking forward in the dark. I’d like to get that feeling across, and it happens fairly often in my work, but the truth is that I begin like every other journalist/documentarian. i call a bunch of people, I do some phone interviews, I arrange to meet people, and early on I pay attention to all those pseudo-events like press conferences and rallies, but at some point I quit. Not consciously, but I find more interesting things to write about.

JM: Let’s fast-forward a bit. What brought you to CDS?

DM: After I published the story about New Orleans, I talked with some people here at CDS, and they wanted me to teach writing. So, I did. I’ve been teaching documentary writing one semester a year for the last three years, and they asked me if I could help develop a more robust writing program, by suggesting things for the curriculum but also by doing things to help to establish CDS as a place for writing in addition to a place for film and audio and photography. One thing led to another, and they hired me.

JM: Coming from a journalism background, I had never heard the term “documentary writing.” Is it “literary journalism”?

DM: Documentary writing is a term that has been coined here, and in some ways it’s a term of convenience—it makes sense to have “documentary” in the title. You’re right, it is congruent with literary journalism, narrative nonfiction, and creative nonfiction in many ways, but I’ve come to the idea that documentary writing as a term is actually very descriptive of what we’re trying to do here. I think it’s essential as we move through the changes that are occurring in technology and the consumption of art, that we see the intersections between writing, photography, film, and audio. Documentary writing implies two things to me: a certain cross-media-rich approach as well as a departure from journalism. Documentary implies an expenditure of time. A documentarian is the person who is there after others have left. I think that is an ethic that we ought to encourage among writers.

JM: When people think about CDS, they often think of images. How do you see writing fitting in?

DM: There is a really unique opportunity here at CDS to think about writing outward-directed nonfiction writing in new ways. There is almost nothing hidebound about CDS, nothing written in stone—that you have to do things this way. That means there is a lot of opportunity to try something new in instruction, in what we produce, to think from the ground up.

There is a growing concern—especially within journalism—that if you’re too tied to one way of doing things that the world moves past you. The best way of telling that story might ultimately be a written work or it could be a film or it could be an audio piece; we should have students leave here knowing how to tell a story in more than one medium. I would like writing to be a component of a well-rounded documentarian’s box of tricks. Technology is going to come and go and change, but if you are someone who is able to tell a story across media, you’ll always be able to follow it.

There are just different ways of observing—different ways of simply going about your business. You can’t miss it here, when you walk past students at banks of computers printing photographs, or hear John [Biewen] cutting some audio, or see Gary [Hawkins] across the hallway editing a film. You’re constantly reminded that you can team up. You can collaborate. Combining mediums opens up so many possibilities for a writer. That’s what’s different about this place.

JM: How do you structure your course?

DM: We’re doing two courses right now. One is an introductory seminar called Documentary Writing. The students write a lot, and that work includes one big, long final project; everything in the class builds to that. The other course, which I’ll be teaching with Kelly Alexander this spring, is organized like a creative writing workshop. There will be a tutorial aspect to the class, but there will be a lot of in-class writing assignments and then a final project that will take the whole semester to research and write.

We will be encouraging students to get out in the world, do research, interviews, and report, but we also want to acknowledge that while journalism has often been taught as a science, it’s an art to know who to talk to, what is important and telling, and what is just boring and should be cut out. That’s all art to me.

JM: Tell me about the Documentary Writing Speakers Series. Will that be an ongoing series of talks and readings?

DM: Yes, we’re going to try to do that every semester. We might even do an event or two in the summer. This fall we had Jeff Sharlet, Siddhartha Deb, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Paul Hendrickson, who all come at this kind of writing in different ways, which helps us to continue to underline the fact that CDS is a destination for great writers and great instruction in writing.

Many of the conversations I have with my students revolve around how to make a living as a documentarian or how to build a writing life. Being able to meet and talk with these talented nonfiction writers is useful to them, and encouraging. We have some recent graduates who’ve done terrific and are having some real success. I’m hoping to bring some of them back also.

Murrell will be teaching an undergraduate Documentary Writing Workshop in spring 2012 with writer Kelly Alexander and a continuing education advanced nonfiction writing workshop with former Harper’s Magazine editor-in-chief Roger Hodge in August 2012.

This interview and more can be found in the winter 2012 issue of Document.

PODCAST: Murrell was a recent guest on WUNC’s “The State of Things” with host Frank Stasio. Listen to the interview here: http://www.cdsporch.org/archives/8737.

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