A Conversation with Evan Osnos: Crafting a Narrative

In June 2012, Project Pengyou and NorCap China Internships hosted a talk with Evan Osnos, China correspondent for The New Yorker.

In this video, Evan talks about reporting a story even if he doesn’t know what it is yet. Transcript is below. (Youku link)

EVAN: Oftentimes, when you start on a story you don’t know what that overarching narrative is.

So, last year I went on a tour with some Chinese tourists to Europe and that was an experience where I didn’t really know what that was going to be. Basically I was curious about the phenomenon of Chinese people going abroad for the first time and seeing the West.

So I signed up for this tour and it was 39 Chinese tourists and me on a bus in Europe for 10 days. Five countries, ten days.

If we’re talking about the technical process of how you write in detail, it was kind of an interesting problem in that case because I knew just from a storytelling perspective that the first few days were going to be very important for the story. Because by necessity when you’re telling a story of that kind you know that the first 24 hours, even the first 20 minutes, is vital. You have to really try to evoke that in the writing.

It doesn’t work if the best thing you’ve got is day four, because that doesn’t get you there. The problem is, on the first day you don’t know anybody’s names. You don’t know where they’re from. You don’t know why they’re doing the things they’re doing.

I started the trip knowing nothing about what I was seeing. I just watched people interact. So, for instance, one guy named Zhu Zhongming.

When we got to Paris, Zhu Zhongming was looking around and he was sort of the resident philosopher of the group. We’re on a ferry on the Seine and we’re going down and he’s looking around at the buildings and he’s like, “You know, there was a point in our history where we were the same as the Europeans. We were all the leading civilizations of the world, and something happened and they pulled ahead for a while.”

And it was a really interesting observation. I couldn’t figure out why was this guy the one making that point. It turned out he was the one who had traveled. He’s an accountant, a small town sophisticate. He’d made some money. He was the one who was in a position to be able to evaluate, so other people would defer to him.

So for the first couple of days before I even knew his name, I was just writing down “Hat Man,” like, “Guy in Hat,” and “he was talking about China-U.S. civilization.” I had a lot of those. I was like, “Little Kid with Bowl Cut,” and it was only later that I found out that his name was Pang Ziyi.

And so you find all this stuff out, you start to develop the story. From a storytelling perspective, that was the thing where, if I had done this 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have known that. I probably would have gone, “I’d love to meet that guy. Maybe I’ll meet him later and then I’ll write down what he said on day one.”

Doesn’t work that way—you gotta get everything.