Author Interview: Ethan Chorin

What is the title your current book, and what is it about?

The book is called “Benghazi! A New History.” It’s partly my own account as a witness to the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya and the surrounding events, which killed four Americans. The book also offers, I believe, a very important argument for how the attack (and the following 4-year political scandal) has shaped American politics and foreign policy ever since – without most of us realizing it. There’s a general sense that “Benghazi” was just one massive partisan brawl, with no broader importance. My desire was to provide, much factual context as possible, in a readable and engaging way.

What was the hardest part about writing this book?

This was an extremely difficult book to write, for a number of reasons. First, for me, “Benghazi” and its consequences were not just a national tragedy, it involved a personal trauma. Writing and interviewing key actors and other witnesses became a kind of therapy. But at times it got to be nearly too much, as the book forced me to relive upsetting events and associations on an almost daily basis (of course, many positive ones, too). Second, there was the problem of timing, and selling the book. In the few years after the attack, you couldn’t turn around without someone screaming about “Benghazi.” The general public got an overdose of political venom, and the details were so confusing and convoluted, that many people retreated behind the safety of party lines. Ultimately the story not only died, but became politically untouchable. I had to find a way to break through that barrier. The 10th anniversary offered at least a hook upon which we could look back at everything we missed, and how it was continuing to affect the country.

How did you come up with the title?

The title is the most obvious example of a compromise that needs to be struck, between the desire to ‘sell’ and to communicate. But it’s a shaky art, not a science. I’ve rarely come up with a title that my editors loved, and vice versa. In the case of “Benghazi!”, the main title was what was left when we eliminated everything that was off-limits – which pretty much left one word.

How long did it take you to write this book?

Including research, interviews, and the selling of it, 6 years.

At what point do you think someone should call themselves a writer?

When one finds oneself obsessing about plots, the exact meaning of words, and phrasing; when writing becomes a compulsion that drives one to produce an ever-better product. I think that’s the point when one can confidently say one is a writer. I don’t think it has anything to do with status, or whether one can (or has) made a living at it, or whether one has ever been published. When you’re gone, someone may dig them up and digitize them.

Do you prefer ebooks, printed books, or audiobooks most of the time?

I’m old fashioned. I prefer printed books, and the feel of a fountain pen on paper to electronic media, though I do enjoy podcasts. Kindle books certainly cuts down on clutter.

Who’s a better writing companion, a person or a pet?

For me, my dog. I don’t know many people who can happily keep themselves occupied while I’m in a “zone”, let alone be helpful to the process at the same time!

What book (or books) are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading Orhan Pamuk’s Nights of Plague, and (re-reading) Agnes Newton Keith’s Children of Allah.

What do the words “writer’s block” mean to you?

For me it means over-thinking, or being not quite sure what I want to write. Which usually means the basic idea needs to be digested more, or reworked – or to be left alone and revisited later.

What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?

Explain less, and feel more.

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