George Packer’s vivid narrative about the life and career of Richard Holbrooke, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century maps the intricate relationships between the Foreign Service, governments and the countries they serve. Public Seminar Books editor Charlotte Slivka interviewed him about the book, and the “three fierce wars” Holbrooke oversaw as a diplomat.
Charlotte Slivka [CS]: Thank you, George, for agreeing to do this interview, I really appreciate it and the whole community does especially in the face of the NBCC awards ceremony being postponed due to COVID-19.
George Packer [GP]: That was a real downer but I’m happy to do it. Are you a nonfiction writer?
CS: I am but I’m not a very political one and I don’t follow issues very closely. I’m centered more on family memoir so your book has been a real eye-opener for me. The way you laid it out and made Richard Holbrooke’s long and deeply entrenched and complicated political career accessible, it was easy for a person like me to follow.
GP: Good! I wanted to reach readers who were not already committed to the subject
CS: You write at the beginning of the book that you can’t get Richard Holbrooke’s voice out of your head. That on the phone he did something to you that was exhausting. You write “I admired him for his readiness to suffer.” What was your relationship like with Richard Holbrooke and what compelled you to write this book?
GP: I didn’t know him very well. I covered him as a journalist for the New Yorker — I wrote a profile of him while he was Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan — and I socialized with him and his wife a little, but we weren’t close friends at all. Which leads to the question of who is this narrator who seems to have known him really well and to somehow have known the whole story? That narrator’s voice isn’t really mine. It obviously bears some resemblance to mine, but it is an invention.
To me, it sounds like his old friends — a kind of combination of people I interviewed for the book who knew him from Vietnam onward. So it has an intimacy and an authority that I didn’t have, and it’s a way of writing about him without sounding like a biographer. It’s a voice that is more like that of an acquaintance telling a yarn about someone he has known for a long time, and that’s sort of the narrative conceit of the book, which is why the narrator is constantly speaking directly to the reader in the second person, breaking the fourth wall in order to create the sense of a novelistic tale told about this outsized man.
CS: I was wondering about the fourth wall. It feels especially poignant because you write, “I wonder if I’ve made you feel what he was like to be around and I’m not sure if I can.” That was an intimacy and a vulnerability introduced to the reader that I thought that was interesting.
GP: You can accumulate mountains of facts and arrange them into a five hundred and fifty-page narrative and make the narrative compelling and lively and dramatic, and you still don’t quite know whether you brought the character to life. The ineffable quality of what it’s like to be with someone, what the moment-to-moment interaction is like, what their psychic moods and energy is like — that’s hard to convey. My narrator suddenly wondered whether he’d been successful, whether there was something about Holbrooke that eluded his grasp.
And I think it’s necessary to be humble that way if you’re writing a biography — to admit what you don’t know and what you can’t convey. There is another moment where the narrator says, “Which of us could survive a trial by biography?” That’s when we’re learning about one of the really low moments for Holbrooke, one of his least admirable moments, and the narrator steps back to say, “Wait a minute. I’m telling you his life story in great detail, I have all this information — is that totally fair? He’s not here to answer. We may feel we can sit in easy judgment. Don’t be so quick to judge, because none of us would necessarily come off well if we were subjected to this kind of scrutiny.”
CS: Yes that makes me think of the part when Richard Holbrooke is ghostwriting Clark Clifford’s memoir and you talk about verisimilitude in biography. So was this your moment of verisimilitude?
GP: What I was saying in that passage about Holbrooke’s ghostwritten autobiography of Clark Clifford [former advisor to Truman, JFK, Johnson, and Carter] was that for a book like that to work, it has to have the feel of real life, and it almost never does because famous and powerful people spend a lot of energy making sure that the truth is told in a way that they can keep under control and can suit their ambitions. So you rarely get a book about a famous person that feels true, and Holbrooke’s book with Clifford is no exception. It feels like it’s been airbrushed a bit. What I didn’t say in that passage and what I was thinking was, I hope this book that you’re reading, my book, feels true; that it doesn’t feel as if you’re getting a slightly doctored PR version of a man’s life, but that you’re getting the real feel of it.
The best way to do that is not by revealing every negative thing you can find, it’s by showing the life, by making it as concrete and vivid and even physical as you can so that the reader feels this sense of closeness and you are there. Which is why I began with his feet and his eyes. Those are the two features that come up most often when people talk about him and that embody different qualities. The feet are sort of the feet of clay; they’re everything all too human about him that is bringing him down. The eyes are his intelligence and the life spirit in him, and they are what are attractive to people. I wanted readers to be brought as close to the experience of a man like this as I could in order not to have it appear to be like so many books about great men.
CS: Right, so many of which are dry and unreadable — for the casual reader anyway. I feel you did do that, I mean he was brought to life as ultra-intelligent but also ultra-human: so complicated, so good but yet so bad.
GP: Yes, that’s a good way to put it.
CS: But ultimately good, I mean, did he have a moral compass?
GP: I think he absolutely did. It did not guide him well in personal relationships. It wasn’t a true compass for how to treat people, especially the people you’re closest to, or even the person you’re stuck sitting next to at a dinner party. That was not where his moral compass was true, that’s where he could really fail as a human being, in those encounters with actual people who he didn’t regard as worth his time. But it was true in a larger way because of his sense of obligation as a government official to relieve suffering and to do things that benefited people and not just to serve time and occupy a position.
And maybe even larger than that, his compass was true in his sense that America had an obligation not just to be another great power but to be a great power that played a positive role in the world. Obviously there were massive failures during his career, which began in Vietnam and ended with Afghanistan. But that idea remained with him and led to some very good things too: on refugees, on ending the war in Bosnia, on AIDS. He had a really unusual degree of conscience for a public servant because so many people hold those positions simply to hold the position and he held the position in order to do things. That’s where I think we can really say he was good.
CS: I’d like to talk about characters and nuance. You brought so many characters to life so vividly. I’m thinking about George Melvin in Vietnam, who came across to me like some really gritty war-torn character you’d see in a film noir. I thought there were many points throughout the book that felt very cinematic and noir in particular and I was wondering if you were thinking that way as you were writing.
GP: You’re onto something there. The cover of the book to me looks like a movie poster for a film noir, and I pushed Knopf in that direction because I wanted the reader to feel this is not going to be a conventional staid political biography, this is going to be more like a vintage movie about a big, rambunctious, difficult person with a lot of high drama. And the title also has a bit of that vintage feel. It came to me when I was thinking about jackets for the right look and I saw the original jacket for Grahame Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana, and if you look at that jacket you’ll see that is exactly the font for mine and that got me thinking about our man in Kabul, our man in Sarajevo, our man in Saigon; you know, where was he? Well, he was in a lot of places so I can’t really limit it to our man in one place.
But then I began to think maybe just Our Man. That has an old fashioned feel to it because diplomats used to be called “our man” in whatever place they were posted to. So yeah, it’s a throwback and he was a bit of a throwback. And as for cinema, I was always looking for language and detail that could make it as visual and as cinematic as possible so that the reader had the sense of watching a continuous movie—which obviously would be interrupted from time to time by the voice-over of the narrator describing things, analyzing, summarizing, giving a bit of history and background. But mostly what I wanted, and this guided my interviews, was scenes. So I wrote the book as much as possible as a series of scenes.
CS: It does come across as a movie, especially when you describe the people in Sarajevo during the siege. I felt as if I were watching a film. Do you think that this book could be a film?
GP: There is a TV producer who has the rights and it’s in that state of possibility that so many book projects go through before they end up in the trashcan. I don’t want to say anything is certain, but it could.
CS: I’d like to turn the conversation back towards crafting the book, writing, and structure. I thought Richard Holbrooke himself was a very good writer. I really enjoyed reading his passages and his writing appears throughout the book. Did you feel at times you were in collaboration? What was it like to write with and around Richard Holbrooke and maintain your voice on the page?
GP: You’re absolutely right he was a really good writer. Government service doesn’t make you a better writer. If anything, it tends to turn your prose into a lot of fog and mud because so much government writing is attempting not to say anything that could get you in trouble. Holbrooke was never like that. He was always reading. He read a lot of fiction when he was young. From his letters to his first wife, I found him reading a novel every couple of days, the novels of his time. He was reading Catch 22, and he was reading Goodbye. He also read a lot of history, but he was reading history by really good writers. So he had surrounded himself with great prose. And because he had that fearlessness, that lack of any concern about how he came off, which could be his worst quality, it also liberated him to be a good writer and not to try to tip-toe around the truth. I never felt I was in collaboration with him, I felt more that I was giving the stage to him at certain points.
But there were those three points where I thought let him tell the story because I have the material, I have the words, and it’s so much more vivid and interesting to have it direct rather than paraphrase for page after page. I started out paraphrasing his Vietnam experience and then I realized his letters are an incredible narrative. So I had to do a bunch of editing and stitched them together into what felt like a continuous stand-alone narrative. Obviously they were letters and so they were more scattered and fragmentary, and that became a literary challenge that I really liked — to turn his work into a narrative. And I did the same with these recorded diaries he kept during Bosnia and Afghanistan, and those are the substance of the second and third Holbrooke passages. But I just wanted the reader to be inside his voice, hearing directly from him; catching his thoughts, catching his way of talking and thinking about things for a sustained period.
It’s risky because you’re giving up the microphone of your book to your subject, but I felt that this subject was such a good speaker/writer that it was worth the risk to give him the stage in those three passages. And they also sort of tie the book together, they’re a way of giving it some structural unity by having the reader come back once, twice, three times to the same device and seeing the book organized around those three passages.
CS: It’s a remarkable gift and I think that it was no easy task; you make it feel flawless which is amazing. Just one last question: you have an essay in the Atlantic which was adapted from your acceptance speech on having received the Christopher Hitchens award and in it, you write, “Writers are individuals whose job is to find language that can cross the unfathomable gap separating us from one another.” I found this to be so beautiful and could itself be a mission statement. So with that thought in mind, how do we writers and would-be writers stick to the mission?
GP: First of all just by sheer tenacity. Almost everything in your life is pushing in the other direction — to give it up, to find something else to do, to make a more regular living in an easier way. Whether it’s money or recognition or lack thereof, or criticism, or there’s a sense that no one knows, no one cares; that people don’t read anymore, which is a feeling I sometimes have. So that tenacity has to come from a passion for something, and finding what it is that you’re passionate about, that you care enough about to really sacrifice in the way that writing demands sacrifice. Writing a book, especially a book of this length and scope — you can’t do it unless you feel some deep drive to do it; unless it’s answering a deep need and you have a powerful urge to convey something to others to cross that gap that I wrote about.
Whether it’s an aesthetic urge to create something beautiful that can reach other people, or a political idea that you want to persuade people of, or just a passage of history that you don’t want to be forgotten, that you want to put before a new generation’s eyes. Those are the kind of motives that are necessary they have to be on that scale in order to do it. Otherwise, what’s the point? And I think it gets harder, it gets harder. We’re becoming to some extent a post-literate society with TV and video and even social media, which can be in words but it’s not quite the same words I think of as writing, and with a certain historical amnesia about the past and about literature and about what is good writing. All those things I feel are so fragile. But the work of a writer is to keep them alive and to hope — it’s kind of a leap of faith, it’s just a leap of faith that there will be readers there. So when I hear from someone like you, it’s not just nice to hear your reactions to my book, but it’s a confirmation of the leap of faith that is required in order to keep doing it.
George Packer is a staff writer at the Atlantic and the author of The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, which was a New York Times best-seller and winner of the 2013 National Book Award.
Charlotte Slivka is an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at The New School.
This interview was first published on March 12th, 2020 at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.