Andrea Elliott joins us to discuss her investigative reporting career and her Pulitzer Prize winning book Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City. We go over how this remarkable story came to be, and how it shifted from what Andrea first anticipated. We also get into what can and should change about the ethics of journalism, and the challenge of protecting children from themselves in the media.
The Stacks Book Club selection for September is The Trees by Percival Everett. We will discuss the book on September 28th with Lisa Lucas.
*Due to the nature of podcast advertising, these timestamps are not 100% accurate and will vary.
Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we welcome Andrea Eliott. She’s an investigative reporter for the New York Times and the winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for her incredible book, Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival and Hope in an American City. The book started as a five part series for the Times and it’s about homelessness in New York, and it tells the story of a young girl named Dasani. Andrea reported on Dasani and her family for eight years culminating in this book, a book that I loved so much. I had to have Andrea on the podcast, we talked about how she reported and wrote this incredibly readable book, the ethics in journalism and what it means to Andrea to be the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in both journalism and letters. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on each episode of the stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. Don’t forget our book club pick for September is The Trees by Percival Everett, make sure to listen to that episode on September 28th with our guest, Lisa Lucas. If you love the show, and want more of it, head to patreon.com/the stacks to join the stacks pack, you’ll get BONUS episodes of the show, like our most recent one with good friend of the pod, Cree Myles, plus our virtual book club meetups, our bookish discord and a lot more. If those perks sound exciting to you, or you just really want to show love for this little black woman run in the book podcast, head to patreon.com/thestacks to join. Thank you to some of our newest members, TM Tate, Ashley Alluxio, Emily chalik, Marla Horton, and Jessica Musselwhite. Thank you all so much, and thank you to every single member of the stacks pack. Alright, now it’s time for my conversation with Andrea Eliott.
Alright, everybody, I am so excited. Today I have Andrea Eliott, who is the author of Invisible Child, which won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s the reigning Pulitzer Prize champion of the world, or whatever that is. Andrea, welcome to The Stacks.
Andrea Elliott 2:10
Oh, thank you so much for having me. That was a lovely introduction.
Traci Thomas 2:14
I’m so excited. So I have to tell you just a quick story about how, how come you’re on the show, like almost a year after your book came out, which is, I bought the book last year leading up to the holidays. And I was like, Okay, everyone says it’s good. I’m gonna read it. I didn’t read it. As you know, I read for work. So sometimes I just like can’t get to everything. But I was like, this is sort of up my alley. I love investigative journalism. I lived in New York, like, Whatever I’ll get to it. Eventually, I got to it like, three weeks ago. And I loved it so much that I sent an email to every single person I knew at Random House and was like, this is the kind of book that I always want to do on the show. This is the kind of book that inspired the show itself. I started the show because I couldn’t find people talking about Heather and Thompson’s blood in the water. And I was like, I want to I want to talk about that book. And I want to talk about how that kind of book comes to life in a way that’s accessible and all of these things. And so when I read your book, I was like, I have to cancel someone else and move them later because I have to have Andrea on the show, because this is why this show exists. So all that is to say thank you for writing a book that is just so exciting to me and thrilling. And I know that my listeners will love this.
Andrea Elliott 3:23
It’s an honor to hear everything you just said I’m a little speechless, actually. Thank you.
Traci Thomas 3:30
It’s true. Well, you’re gonna get to talk a lot starting with the first question, which is always in about 30 seconds or so can you just tell everyone what the book is about?
Andrea Elliott 3:38
This is a story of a girl named Dasani who grew up in and out of homelessness. And I followed her childhood for more than eight years, as she and her family navigated poverty, racism, and a bunch of other hurdles in New York City. It’s a book about so many things. It’s very hard to summarize, but at the heart of it is the story of this child who is trying her best to reach for something better than the life that she was born into.
Traci Thomas 4:09
Yeah, I mean, this book, you’re right, it is about so many things, which is, I think, what makes it such an incredible book, as far as like as a reader, grasping at the scope of what you’ve done, and I want to come back to scope because I have a lot of questions about that. But I want to start with the family and dishonest family. And, you know, I read the book, I read the notes that you know, I tried to do my research. I listened to you on other podcasts, and I’ve heard you say a few times like what was important to you about Dasani was that you found the right person who could narrate their life and explain to you and bring you into the story. Were there other things that you were looking for in the family? How important was it that they were native New Yorkers in a sense or that they were black or that there was a two parent household? How important was that other stuff in deciding which family you are going to be a part of?
Andrea Elliott 4:58
I think with This story, I learned the lesson that I always learn over and over again as a journalist, which is to, to question my own assumptions, I go in with an idea of what I think is the story only to find that idea up ended. And that’s because what’s happening on the ground is usually something that academia hasn’t caught up with. And what we do in the very beginning is we read a lot, we do our research, we talk to experts. And so I wanted what I thought was a representative face of a new story of poverty, I was looking for that family. And that family was a very different portrait than the family that I wound up following. The family that I sought, I should follow would have been part Hispanic, I’m Hispanic that would have made a lot of sense, would have been smaller, most likely run by a single mom, juggling several jobs hovering at the poverty line, newly homeless, this was a story that hadn’t really been told in our pages. And it seemed very worthy. Like all of these stories are many months later, and dozens and dozens of interviews later, and many children later, all I cared about was finding that kid who could pull me in and who wanted to talk, and wanted to narrate her experience in and had a lively and creative mind, and humor, and all the things that I have found over the course of my career are the things that make me want excited about the story and therefore transport the reader into the story. And so design his family was was totally different from the family that I thought I would find. For one thing, they were not a mixed race. If this was a black family, although Dasani does have a some Latin American influences in her lineage, which she’s very proud of, but one grandmother, but basically, black family, married parents, a lot of kids, chronically homeless, chronically poor, all the opposite, basically, of the checklist that I thought was guiding me. And I’m so glad that that checklist flew out the window. And then I was just following my gut by this moment that I met them because it turned out to be such an important story. And yeah, and actually, I would argue, the most worthy of any story I could have followed for so many years.
Traci Thomas 7:33
Yeah, I mean, it’s just so interesting to hear you say that people who listen to this show will know I have this sort of fantasy for myself that I will one day be an investigative journalist, I have zero interest in actually writing anything. I just really am nosy, which is sort of how come this podcast exists. But hearing you say that, like you went in with this one idea. And you know, this one, this this thing you’d imagine that you would write about and then realizing that, you know, the world had other plans for you. I just love that because it’s a reminder of you know, how many stories there are, how many different versions of things there could, could be and that, like you said, are worthy.
Andrea Elliott 8:12
being nosy is the most, I would say, single most important skill that I possess, and even a skill.
Traci Thomas 8:21
I feel like I was just born this way. And I’m really proud of it. It’s who I am though. Sometimes I embarrassed myself because I asked too many questions. And people are like, Are you the police? I’m like, No, I just want to gossip later. It’s that’s
Andrea Elliott 8:34
DeSantis mother Chanel always calls me to this day nosey. Yeah.
Traci Thomas 8:39
I can only imagine if you’re really you know, you were really nosy. I heard you talk about the pens that you had that would record as you write the spy pens, love, love these. Okay, let’s talk scope. How consuming was this project? You’re a reporter for the New York Times. Were you reporting on other things throughout? I know it was a story there first, then it became a book like how much of your life was this for the last almost 10 years now,
Andrea Elliott 9:06
this was entirely my life. This was all that I could do. And it was very hard to pull off because it was so all consuming. And so I relied very much first. First on my my job at the Times which allotted me more than a year to devote to the story. In its earliest iteration. It ran as a five part series in the newspaper. And it was an extraordinary launch into the journey of writing the book. And I didn’t really know I was going to write a book until the story came out. I all I could do is that story. It’s a little bit like what happened with the book, then all I could do is the book book. And then it came out and I thought I’m not ready to let go of this. I’ve only barely scratched the surface. It was the longest investigative project that it had run. Up until then, in the history of the New York Times it was almost 30 1000 words long, the newspaper had never devoted that kind of real estate. So to speak to one story and design, he was on the front page five days in a row, I don’t I can’t think of another kid who’s been on the front page five days in a row, the New York Times. And yet, I felt I had scratched it just barely scratched the surface. And so off, I went in to what I saw would be a few years and wound up being almost a decade of time devoted to following them. A lot of this was reporting, it really wasn’t writing, it was deep immersion in their lives, as things kept happening, that I struggled to understand or had to scramble to make sense of, because it started out as a story about homelessness, but then became a story about so many other things going to your question about scope. And I kept feeling that I owed it to the story to the reader, to dishonouring, to her family, and also, I suppose to myself as someone who wanted to do the best job possible with this, to stay the path and to really constantly feel out of my depth, that’s how I felt I was I was just eternally in the mode of student trying to figure out the history of welfare, trying to understand how food stamps function, and the monthly cycle of family planning, just so many different things, the role of stress, and sleep deprivation and hunger, and even just noise, things like noise, just just constant, interrupted sleep, and how that guides the trajectory of a school kid who is poor, compared to a kid who can sleep properly and eat properly. And just, it was, it was this nonstop kind of crash course, in so many things. And the way I was able to do that was by applying for grants and fellowships, and I don’t, I can’t I think I’ve applied for everything that’s out there. It carried me through these, these were extraordinary opportunities that make books like this one exist from New America, and Whiting and, and others that I’m forgetting to name and residencies and stuff. So I, I scrambled and did what I could to get through those years to get to the finish line. But it was all it was the most intense work experience of my my life.
Traci Thomas 12:39
Yeah, I mean, it’s, I mean, you talked about a lot of the things that are in the book, one of the things that I really loved was how you went back into Saudis family line, and how far back you’re able to trace the family and you know, where they’d come from in the south. And all of that, I found that to be really fascinating. Because I think, you know, one of the things that’s special about this book is, yes, it’s a book about poverty in New York City and ostensibly the country. But it’s oftentimes, you know, when you talk about this, I think in the, in the outro, in the conclusion, the notes or whatever, that it’s you know, about people’s decisions, or individuals or whatever, and sometimes it touches on the systems, but you’ve really brought this back is something that’s like part of the fabric of America, when you take it back to slavery, you need to take it back so far, you understand that this is not something that can change overnight. And I just really appreciated that a lot. Like I just that that section of the book, I think was for me, when I was reading it, I was like, Oh, this isn’t a good book. This is like something really substantial and meaningful. So I’m glad that you took on the scope. And I’m grateful to all of the fellowships and residencies, for giving you that space, for sure.
Andrea Elliott 13:46
You know, that dive into history is something that we should always do, right? Whenever we’re writing books about people, but it gets to be laborious, and it’s hard. And I’m not an historian and I am not a genealogist. So I had to get a lot of guidance, and the most important guide and all of this was dishonest family. And it’s it’s so striking to me, because, of course, that is what was one of my my greatest aspirations, when we found out about her great grandfather was that people would begin to be able to see her story as part of this larger narrative. But it was so clear to them all along from the moment I met them, they were saying to me, the truth of our lives, is in our history. Our poverty is the outgrowth of so many injustices going all the way back to slavery. We spent hours, hours and it was almost a daily topic of conversation in the eyes. Often some days I would spend up to eight hours with them, so maybe it came up for a few minutes here or there, but it was always in the air. This flow focus on America’s past and its deep past, it’s a history of hundreds going hundreds of years back. And I was struck by that, because this was 2012 2013, we had yet to enter into the kind of national reckoning that has been more more present in terms of talking about slavery talking about race, in recent years, and, and yet it was so so so present for them. And so I really think that I did that, because that’s, that’s who led me there was the family say, and then also just the sense that history weighed so heavily. And at the same time, because of so much upheaval, and trauma and serial displacement, documents, records had been lost. And all that was left was was often this oral history. And it was a very imperfect oral history, as oral histories tend to be. And so one example of that is the story of her great grandfather to son, his great grandfather, who, in the very beginning was presented to me as a kind of guy who drank a lot and had crazy stories to tell about a distant war that no one believed he fought. And that just led to a well, let’s see, kind of on a lark, let me reach out to the National Archives, see what what they have. Months later, many months later, in came this trove of documents that laid bare this extraordinary history of his early life that no one that was not known to the family. And this is the kind of thing you think, if every family had the ability to look deeper, and we would have such a rich sense of even just this block where Dasani was growing up in Fort Greene, but these these are lost histories. Yeah, often,
Traci Thomas 16:54
it’s so true. I mean, it’s interesting that you say that the family always knew that, you know, I’m black, and my dad is family is from the south. And there’s a lot of stories and things that were always present that are you know, it’s we can’t prove it, you know, that’s all part of it, right? Part of it is that we don’t have the documents, it’s all oral history, it’s things that we know and have been taught, but can’t for sure, say, which is, I think sort of what allows black people to be taken advantage of or to be abused in certain ways. It’s because you can’t prove it to the standard of white supremacy, or whatever that that being is that needs the proof or whatever. Okay, this is what I want to talk to you about. I think we’re gonna spend a lot of time on this, because as I mentioned, I want to be a journalist fakely I just want to ask questions. But when I finished the book, I kept thinking about the ethics of journalism, right? I kept thinking about, you know, in this case, you but because this is my favorite genre, I think about so many journalists who have done similar things have been in similar places, I talked about this with Heather and Thompson is like, how I know you know, in the book, you mentioned, you know, there were times where you would take them out to, to eat food, because you, you are allowed to do that by the rules of journalism, and that sometimes you broke the rules, and you gave money here, you did things there. But I’m just sort of wondering like, Should these be the rules? Should the rules be different? Because obviously, in this case, it feels like you should be able to do whatever you want, and buy them a house if you want. But I know that if it was some other person, and you’re doing a profile of like, some bad guy or something like I wouldn’t want you paying them, you know, like, and so I’m wondering, kind of how you look at it as a person who’s in this world, and you you understand those dynamics, so much better than I do.
Andrea Elliott 18:38
This is something that to this day, I wrestle with, and I think it’s probably the most important question we could discuss. In this in this conversation. I came into this with a very traditional reporter mindset. I think, even though I’d been doing immersion reporting for a while, when I began the reporting on DeSantis, I’ve I still had that sort of traditional rules of the newsroom, in my mind, and I was working for The New York Times. And therefore it made it easy to say these are the this is the newspapers, rules, right? So you’re poor, you need money, I am here are trying to write about your poverty. And the rules are that I cannot give you anything for your story. And I hope that you’ll still allow allow me in and I hope that you will see that there potentially could be a kind of greater a broader sort of benefit to society for letting me tell your story. That saying those words to someone who is suffering daily and probably doesn’t even have the bandwidth and I’m talking about not even about this, I’m talking about her parents, because that’s who I had to I find an inroad with the beginning of course, and that’s whose trust I needed to gain. To say that to them just always felt really unsatisfying. Like I wasn’t really. I knew that they, they knew I had a script that I had to repeat. And I knew that they knew that and there was this sort of unspoken, but come on, it’s your job, you. And academics goes through this all the time, by the way, you know, it’s your job, it’s your career rests on finding this research doing and you’re getting paid, basically, to tell these stories about someone else’s material lack. So there’s a material gain for you in observing somebody else’s material, like how do you reconcile those two things and even feel okay? In the very beginning, I mean, maybe some of this is in retrospect, I’m, I’m, I’m thinking I It weighed on me as much as it did. But I think in the very beginning, I just felt more like, nervous and careful to make the rules very, very clear. And only later did I start to think about it from really from their perspective, I never changed the rules, although, of course, I am human. And so yes, there were times when I did help them out. And I, I couldn’t imagine doing otherwise. But that’s not to say that I don’t think the rules should change. And I this is something that I’m I’m hoping to focus on in my next phase of my work is, what should the rules be? You know, we are allowed to take our sources out to eat and pay for it that is on that’s just part of the rules. Well, when your source is hungry, that becomes a transaction. Right? Right. And so I don’t have like a very good answer, the thing that I would say is that we never stop talking about it. And I would square with them early on this was I understood that it, it’s probably felt hypocritical or frustrating to them, or reason enough to not even let me in that they would stand to gain nothing material from, from letting me in to their story. Now, that said, when the series ran, funds did come in a trust was created, the family opted to have that money, sort of stay safe for the future for college, and so they could keep their public benefits. So that was their decision. And I had nothing to do with that trust. But the story that I wrote resulted in this small sum of money going to the future of their children. So right there already, they could see that something could potentially benefit them. I did, as I’ve written about in the afterword decide early on that if the book should ever generate proceeds, that they should be meaningfully shared with the family. This is their story. And, of course, I think it is really important to after the reporting is done, I would say and when it’s kind of something that is you could say the process is over. There’s a conclusion that you can feel in the air, it I think that is the time to make it clear what your intentions are. I think if you do that early on, you then create a financial incentive that takes away from a person’s independence and ability to say no, or their own feeling of agencies. It’s really, really complicated. It’s like, it’s just, there’s so much to say about it.
Traci Thomas 23:48
I mean, it’s even preparing for this conversation I have I have like 20 more questions about this. And I’m going to ask a few more, but it’s just like, so overwhelming to sort of think about because it almost feels like the what’s in place doesn’t feel quite right. But other options start to feel like they could be taken advantage of and they could, you know, muddy the waters and all of these things. But I’m wondering for you, like sort of on a personal level, if you don’t mind sharing, this might be too personal. So you can tell me to fuck off. But how does it feel to you to be, you know, celebrated and to win prestigious awards, knowing that your work was allowed to you because this family that because they were poor? Because they were struggling? Because you know, and also because of they said yes, like without them? Who knows? Maybe the story isn’t as compelling. Not that you’re not a fantastic writer, but it feels like if it were me, I know I’d have a lot of big feelings about that. So I’m just curious sort of how your success feels as sort of connected to so much shitty stuff.
Andrea Elliott 24:57
It is bittersweet, I would say and I think, first of all, the first thing I told assignee when the book won the Pulitzer, was that that money was hers. I didn’t feel that I could keep that the Pulitzer is a concept meant very little to actually really meant nothing. You could care less about the closer. Now the thing that really mattered was when Barack Obama chose this as one of his favorite books. That was her Pulitzer, she’s jumping up. But if funds come to you, the author with a prize for a story about a poor family, I think it is. And maybe every situation is different. I personally didn’t feel right. Keeping that. Yes, I stand to gain professionally from this I, I will say that, during the course of the many years that I worked on this book, there were moments when I wondered if it would ever come out, or anyone would ever read it. Really, I mean, I did not have the sense that it was going to be a success, necessarily. I just, I just couldn’t stop working on it until I felt that it was ready. But that didn’t mean that I expected this. And yes, I think for me, the only way to feel okay, with the success that has come with this book, is to share the platform in as many ways as possible to bring dishonor Chanel, or both to events to have them speak for themselves to share in the prizes to share in any proceeds or even really more than share. I mean, I hope proceeds come I really do because I want so much to see what can happen for this family if if they were able to, to move forward financially in a way that they haven’t. Right. But you know, it’s just, it’s such a surreal conversation to be having. Yeah, right. Yeah, just
Traci Thomas 27:08
like, big idea. It’s like a big idea. But for you and for the family. It’s like very literal, you know, like for me, yeah. And I’m like musing about but it’s for you. It’s something that you’re like in, in the world of?
Andrea Elliott 27:21
Absolutely. And I guess what I would say is that I feel kind of rocked by the bravery that they showed in opening up and letting me inside. When I said that Chanel, consider me nosy I mean, this is a world Chanel’s world of Brooklyn in the 80s and 90s. And up until today, where it’s dangerous to answer questions. It’s not just like, irritating, it’s actually something that you’re trained not to do that, you know, you keep your your walls up. And to break those walls down and actually be vulnerable enough to let a person in who’s there to make your story public is, I think, was unthinkable to them at the very beginning. And I didn’t know how deep it would go. But our conversations were kind of forever conversations they never seen. I was endlessly fascinated in their story. And I do think that that is what opens people up more than anything is just the person who’s willing to listen and who cares and is interested in. And so it’s a very, it’s a very close bond that I have with the family as a result,
Traci Thomas 28:45
right. Did you ever sense like in the beginning that there was difficulty because, you know, you’re you’re white, you’re Chilean, and American and you are white presenting? And I’m wondering, like, Was that was that part of it difficult? And and how did you navigate that? If it was, it was very
Andrea Elliott 29:03
difficult. And in the very beginning, I was only white. I was they knew nothing about me except my whiteness, and they even said, so I met them standing outside a homeless shelter in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. And for many days after that, I would return and wait because Chanel’s phone was always off, or, you know, or she had lost it or there was no way to reach there was no way to find them except to show up. And she would send her kids out to the front and say, check if the white lady’s like yeah, Ma, she’s there. Like, Oh, God. And finally there’s just like, she just decided to, to take the next step with me, which is to go to the park and let me interview her. But I had to go back again and again. And I think, yeah, I mean, I was definitely a person to be suspicious of a total outsider. As she later explained it to me somebody who could either be a snitch or a I, quote unquote do gooder. Those are the two forms of white people that she knew to be around the neighborhood. So I might be a social worker or a cop, or I might be a teacher or none. And either way I wasn’t of the place I was coming in from the outside with some kind of agenda. And I think I didn’t that was her experience. And that was also the case, right, I did have an agenda, I was there to try to report the story. And I think that, because so much of this book, invisible child, and the story of DeSantis upbringing, and her family’s experience in New York City, is about the encounter between black America and white America, that the fact that we were different, was a way to keep that very present and alive in our conversations from the very beginning. And so, you know, it was a very blunt subject that was discussed with a great deal of candor, from from the first moment that I got to talk to Chanel. And, you know, she refer to white America as your world, your world, people in your world people, your people, versus my people. And I can’t remember what it was. But if maybe a few weeks in, she heard me pick up the phone, and I was talking to my mom in Spanish. And I think we started arguing because we’re always bickering. And we’re very close, but you know, typical relationship between mothers and daughters in Chile. And she, you know, just love that she loved it, she’s she, she just made me relatable to her in a way that she probably hadn’t seen up until that moment. The other thing that made me relatable was that I was a mother and I had a one year old and a three year old at that point, and I talked about them a lot. And so those were the things that made her I think, give me a chance to at least start to see past skin color as the only thing right, and maybe beyond that to other things like, and she even said, you know, in her own words, you know, you weren’t always because you’re that, you know, that’s what I realized, like you were a lot and so that made that made it better. But I’d like to think that even if I was like, this blonde girl from I don’t know, was somewhere in Wisconsin that that have that it’s not a it’s that with enough persistence, any reporter from any background, a black reporter, or Latino reporter going into a very white Street, whatever our our life story is that we bring up to that moment in into the next adventure of this other world that we’re trying to write about whatever that is, it should never stop us from trying to step into this other world. Right. And that’s, that’s what I think is is the job of journalists is to not stay in our own lanes, right. And if I were to always write about people like me, it would be a very limited population. So I think I’ve been drawn forever to the stories of others. But it is not easy. And it comes with a huge amount of responsibility. And really, the need to be humble, the need to be ready to constantly second guess everything you think and be mindful of your blind spots and think about your own lens. These are the tasks of the journalist in whatever area the journalist is in and whatever the story might be, that you’re just it’s important to, to be aware. What makes us different, what makes us the same?
Traci Thomas 33:45
Yeah, I love this idea of the journalist because, you know, you’re alive now you know, that things are, the journalist has really changed I think from this idea of the journalist to what journalism has become in a lot of ways and what people feel the job of news, etc, is, I do want to ask you about sort of the I don’t know if negotiation is the right word, but sort of like the negotiation between Chanel and supreme and EU for for access to their underage children, because I feel like that’s a whole different element. It’s not just Can I follow you Chanel and adult woman, it’s Can I also have access to two children, some as young as you know, little babies. And so I’m wondering, like, I know that in the book, you mentioned that both supreme and Chanel are big readers, and you gave them your work to see but I’m just sort of wondering like, Were there things that they said, you know, this is off limits, or we would prefer if it didn’t go here, or that you said, I won’t, I won’t do this you can have my word that this won’t be part of it, or was there a negotiation or was it just a Yeah, sure. Let’s do it.
Andrea Elliott 34:57
One thing I learned early on in five Following the lives of these children, because this was new to me, I hadn’t really done immersion with children was it, you almost have to protect them from themselves. Because unlike their parents who have access to information, the ability to make informed decisions, ability to judge things based on their own wisdom as adults, even though they were stressed, and I mentioned that earlier, and so they were under a lot of stress themselves. And they certainly had the agency of adults, with children who don’t really know what’s going on. And they don’t really understand what a journalist is necessarily, especially a five year old to Papa was five, the child that the book begins with, when I met them, really was a baby. And I wanted to tell the story of child poverty through the experience of one kid, in part, because so much of reporting around poverty tends to be overshadowed by the debates around adult responsibility. Right, right. And so my answer to that was, just keep the adults out and focus on the kids. I don’t think even I understood what that would entail emotionally. And ethically, just as a human being trying to report the story, as a mother as, as a journalist, it was something that tested me daily, and it was, at times deeply painful to see what they were going through and very frustrating. And I also learned early on to be very clear about the language around our arrangement. So off the record, doesn’t mean anything to people who are not press savvy. You know, our rule was, if this is private, tell me it’s private. Everyone knows what private means. Yeah. And yet, I never heard the kid say that ever once. And so that’s, you know, when the series ran, which was about a year into this, I think up until that, I would say, I didn’t really witness anything that seemed like it would get the kids in trouble with their parents, for example, or something that we really had to protect them against. But I think that as you know, they grew up and as I continued to follow them, and understand who they were better and better, it became important to me to see them reckoning with the book at different stages of their own development. And by the time the book came out, Dasani could sign off on it as an adult, she, you know, she was she’s not 22. And she, I think that that also helped a lot, because one of the things that haunted me early on was this idea that these kids would understand in some very simple way, what they were doing, they were talking to a reporter, their, their life story would be in the newspaper, but one day, they would come to regret it, for the very reason we kept their last names out of the newspaper. But their cover was ultimately blown by politician, and there was no real way to protect them once they were on the front page in New York Times. And so yeah, it’s it, that negotiation was Chanel supreme, very much in the early days was an intellectual exchange. They are self taught. They’re very proud readers, and they love to reading my work today, I did had done a lot of work on Islam and Z. They wanted to engage with me on those things. I think they were excited. They were excited that I might give their story, similar kind of depth, potentially, and attention, at least, that I as I had these other stores, I also offered to connect them with the people I’d written about, which was kind of risky and read. And when I think back on that was wow, what if, what if they had actually followed up, but they didn’t, but I was ready to put them on the phone with the mom that I had written about it in a three part series about a new mom that ran in 2006. You know, ask, ask these anyone you want. Was she fair? What was it like? Did the story match expectations? I have long tried to ensure as best as I can, that whoever I’m writing about is not surprised by what is published, that they know what’s coming, and that, that we’ve had enough opportunities to discuss it, to debate it to reconsider it. But obviously, with the understanding that I do have editorial control, in this instance, though, because it was such an intimate story and it went so deep. I think that it just felt like a very different kind of project. It wasn’t I read the entire book to design it took five days, I didn’t trust her, you know, she’s at the time and she’s always on her phone, I have a teenage daughter now, I would not try a she still hasn’t read the whole book. It’s just attention spans are short. And I also wanted, I felt I owed it to Sonny, because some passages are very hard to read, you know. And I felt I owed it to her to read it out loud to her and to see her face and to sit with her in it and to talk through certain turns of phrase, potentially that she might not understand or, or thinks that she was part of the fact check process. But it was also I think, a part of feeling like I had abided by my role of the person not feeling surprised. She actually heard the whole book.
Traci Thomas 40:50
Wow. Okay, we’re gonna take a quick break, and we’ll be right back. All right, we’re back. So speaking of Dasani, how is Dasani? Will there be updates on her? Would she ever want to tell her own story in her own way? Do you have any idea about that?
Andrea Elliott 41:09
I think she’d love to have a podcast and I would be more than happy to connect her to you. If you’re interested in mentoring her. Yes, she is enrolled in community college, she became the first in her family to graduate from high school and go to college. She’s had jobs here and there. She’s the way she most recently put it to me is that she’s surviving. And you know, hers is a life that is filled with ups and downs. It’s really unpredictable. She has had two major changes occur in her life that I think are indicative of what really needed to happen always, in order for her to feel like she could thrive. One was that she was reunited with her mother after being separated and put in foster care system. And the other is that she has a permanent roof over her head through section eight, which is Federal Housing Program that only serves about 3% of Americans, as we are in the midst of such a terrible, affordable housing and homelessness crisis in this country. But she’s got those two things in place. And for a long time she didn’t and I think that’s made all the difference. Yeah. Just to know she’s with her mother. She’s safe. And she’s in a home that is hers is major.
Traci Thomas 42:30
Yeah. This is sort of a surface question. But I it’s important to me because it was meaningful to me. The cover how involved were you in that? I think it’s one of my favorite covers in the last, I don’t know, 10 years. It’s just so striking. It’s so good. I just I’m curious if you were involved at all, or
Andrea Elliott 42:49
Thank you. Yes, there was a very beautiful collaboration. Random House did a superb job with the cover the image of Dasani is taken from a photograph by Ruth crimson, the photographer at the New York Times who worked on the series with me. And so it’s Dasani, which was important, I I felt was very important that it was her. And she also gave it her blessing. We weren’t going to go with that cover without her feeling good about it. The paperback is a little different. I don’t know which cover
Traci Thomas 43:25
I was talking about the hardback cover, but I also really liked the paperback, but the black on the hardcover, just like for whatever reason, really, like resonated with me like that. The contrast but I do actually really liked the paperback cover, and I was surprised that it was different.
Andrea Elliott 43:42
I think it was. I’m not sure why it changed. I love them both. Yeah, they’re very similar but they’re one is black and white and one is has color to it. And Dasani prefers the paperback because she feels that even more of the sort of de mentions of her I would say her beauty she would say her her skin, her being come come across in that and she she loves it. But ya know, it’s it’s a step both beautiful. And I feel very, very lucky to, to have had this story come out, first and foremost, into the world and then be packaged so beautifully. So that hopefully people read it.
Traci Thomas 44:25
Is there anything that’s not in the book that you wish was?
Andrea Elliott 44:31
I cannot say that there is anything that should be in the book that isn’t I feel grateful to have been edited as carefully as I was. And this is a long book. It’s a long book intentionally. I think it hopefully doesn’t read long. People have told me it reads quickly, but it is the length of the presidential biography and and when I say intentionally I say that because I feel very much DeSantis life matters every bit as much as the life of a president and what we’ve, you know, what I think comes across with this book is that in this one life, you can see you can learn so much about America so many different ways.
Traci Thomas 45:16
Yeah. Okay, we’re gonna do a slight transition, because we always talk about this, about how you write, where do you write? How many hours a day? How often is there music? Are you in your home? Are you in a cafe? Do you have snacks and beverages? Do you light a candle, can you sort of set the scene of how you write.
Andrea Elliott 45:33
So I wake up very, very early, I drink a lot of coffee. And I have to be in total silence. I would never, I’ve never understood the people who can write in a cafe, I just, I’m amazed that they’re not like going crazy. The noise and and I used to be really good at noise because of course, you have to be in a newsroom on deadline. But what I’ve learned about myself as I write best when I am in solitude, and preferably even just physically separated from the temptations that would pull me out of my work. So that would mean being in a very rural setting. Like the farm where I was born and spent part of my childhood, I go back there sometimes to write, and I’m cooking every meal, because it’s very, it’s many miles between that place and the closest store. And so, you know, that kind of solitude. And just deep deep immersion is a version of the kind of reporting I do, but I do it as I write, which is just to immerse entirely, right for as long as I can, until I drop, wake up the next day and do it again. And I like doing it that way. But it’s a kind of crazy way to work for some people, they I, there are people who write maybe few hours a day, and they stop and then they do other things. That’s not the way I am. When I’m ready to write, I feel like it’s all I can do. And I have to do it for spells, and then I stop, but it can take, I’ve had several weeks like that where my kids are with their dad and I am entirely surrendered to the process of my work,
Traci Thomas 47:03
many snacks. Well,
Andrea Elliott 47:06
I have this weird sort of, you know, contrast between the first half of the day where I’m really good. And then the last second half where I’m terrible. So I start out with like healthy things. And I hydrate and I drink coffee, but I you know, I protein nuts. And by the time we’re past noon, and into like, you know, mid afternoon, which is like slump time it’s I’m in the land of Doritos and Oreos,
Traci Thomas 47:33
that you know, I’m coming over to hang out. Yes,
Andrea Elliott 47:36
that is the best, right? You You You need those things. I mean, it’s just, I couldn’t I could never be very healthy and write and survive. Cast. I love this for you. And then wine at the end of the day while I always have glass of wine. Good, good, good. Good. I
Traci Thomas 47:51
love this. I love the progression. So this was your first book? Do you want to write more books? Or are you feeling like reporting and articles? And those things are are your place? Are you open to both?
Andrea Elliott 48:08
This is gonna sound really cheesy. But your question almost made me think about dating. So I, I didn’t know I wanted to write this book. It the book found me I fell in love with the story. And that was that. I’m not looking for my next book when I meet, but when I meet that story, I know that I will be suddenly in the presence of my next book, I think in between now and my next book, what I really want to do is long form journalism and, and get as many stories out there as need to be told. That’s that’s where my my heart is. And I but I very much do want to write another book. I just know that I know that I will know when I’m when I’m when I meet that story when I
Traci Thomas 48:55
I love that. I love this validate. So I want to hear more about your journalistic future. But okay, we can talk about that. I don’t have one. This is my good journalists. I feel like so people, some people have referred to me as a journalist before. And I truly feel that that is the greatest compliment because I the reason that I want to be a journalist is because I read All the President’s Men, which I feel like is like a very, like, straight dude who went to college in the 90s answer, but it’s true. I was just so taken by that book. And it’s my favorite genre, investigative journalism books. Like I just love them. But I don’t write I just like getting like, I’m just curious. I’m just so curious. And so I just always want to know what’s going on. So that’s why I want to be a journalist. But I don’t ever want to write a thing ever
Andrea Elliott 49:46
know, journalism can exist in various forms.
Traci Thomas 49:49
Yeah, I feel like this pot. People say this podcast is journalism. I appreciate it when people say that. I don’t know if it’s real, but it makes me feel nice.
Andrea Elliott 49:56
You’re getting some good information out of me. So I was I agree I would concur that this okay, definitely a former journalist,
Traci Thomas 50:03
and you’ve won two Pulitzer. So that means a lot. Okay, you know what good journalism is? I suppose we I do want to talk about the Pulitzer. What does it mean to you to win? And just winning it twice means something different than the first time does it have a different importance does like, there’s only so many people who can say they have any. So I’m just wondering sort of what that is for you.
Andrea Elliott 50:30
The thing that was kind of stunning to me, the second time was hearing pretty quickly that I was the first woman to win in both categories ever. So there’s two general categories. One is arts and letters, and the other is journalism. seven men had done it before me. And I was sort of like, how’s that possible that I’m the first woman I didn’t, you know, my girls were very excited. I have two daughters. But I was like, I don’t know whether to be excited or depressed by the fact that, Pulitzers have been around for more than 100 years. And I’m the first woman to do that. But I don’t know, I’m still kind of stunned by it all, to be honest, I’m extremely grateful. And I feel that I, I keep thinking back, though, to like, DeSantis reaction and what it means to her and what it probably means to most of the world, which is very different than what it means to kind of the part of society that cares about prizes. And, and so it’s, you know, I think it’s just always good to keep it in perspective, and to never believe you’ve arrived, no matter what you win, because the thing that I think, makes me an okay journalist is my insecurity, actually, it’s feeling like I am not good enough, I’ve got to do better, I’ve got to work harder, I’ve got to keep going and getting that story because it’s, it’s not there yet. to not feel complacent in any way, or like I’ve arrived or that I’m at the top of my profession, or any of that crap. I just, it’s not it’s not what, why we do what we do to win. But it does, it definitely helps. Because it opens doors, right? So I’m very, very, very grateful. But I’m also a maybe I’m just a little bit in denial of it all. Like, I just think I’m really going to just do best, you know, continuing in my own sort of just quirky way doing the work that I do, and not really worrying too much about what the rest of the world thinks.
Traci Thomas 52:48
Yeah, yeah. Okay, so this will this will humble you again, this is my favorite question. What’s a word? You can never spell correctly on the first try?
Andrea Elliott 52:58
Okay, here’s a weird one. I often get the word receipt wrong.
Traci Thomas 53:04
Oh, that’s hard. It’s the E in the eye, right?
Andrea Elliott 53:07
Yes. I don’t know why. It’s like this thing. And I. Yeah,
Traci Thomas 53:11
yeah, that’s a good one. That’s a good I don’t think anyone’s ever said that on here before. There’s no weird words. We’ve I’ve we’ve got run the gamut. I’m
Andrea Elliott 53:18
sure it’s words like solipsistic or other words, a big one is
Traci Thomas 53:22
restaurant that’s like the one that comes up the most restaurant and it’s, it’s to me, I’m a terrible speller. But that is like the one word I can spell. So every time someone says that, I’m like, I’m smarter than you. But usually, I’m like, yeah, no, I can’t spell that either. Okay, I just have a few more quick questions for you. And one of them. This is sort of a big question. I should have asked it earlier. But I am so curious. For you. What is the big takeaway? What was your big takeaway from the work that you did, and invisible child?
Andrea Elliott 53:54
I think my biggest takeaway is something that relates to your first question, which was what is this book about? And my struggle to answer it, part of that is that we find ourselves rooted in these sort of labels in which as a means for describing what some things about this is a story of a homeless girl. This is a story about poverty. These labels homeless and poverty, are really just invitations into a much bigger story where issues overlap or history rears itself. And I think that that’s what it is. It’s to get people to see past those labels, and join in the kind of struggles and the act of survival that DeSantis life represents and to connect with her enough that her problems become Have the readers problems to in a way that is lasting? That where you can’t shake her, or supreme or Chanel or others in the book, long after you’ve read the last page, that’s that’s what I would hope comes of this.
Traci Thomas 55:18
For people who love invisible child, What books would you recommend to them that are maybe in conversation or in the same world or whatever that question means to you?
Andrea Elliott 55:28
I would recommend there are no children here by Alex Kaplowitz. Random family by Adrian Nicola Blanc and evicted by Matthew Desmond as the starting point.
Traci Thomas 55:39
Yeah, yeah. Random family I bought from my husband for Christmas. And I now have to read everyone keeps telling me but I’m like, I’m not quite ready. I’m still living with Dasani and her family. And I just, I need a little bit of a break before I go back because I want to give it its full. Do you know what I’m like, I don’t want it to be too similar.
Andrea Elliott 55:57
And The Warmth of Other Suns spies?
Traci Thomas 55:59
Well, that’s, of course, that’s a that’s like, I refer to that book as a book of my life. It’s like one of the most important things I saw that read. Yeah, I just loved that book so much. I
Andrea Elliott 56:07
meant to ask you about that. I saw that on Instagram, I think yeah, put that on Instagram. That I’m telling you.
Traci Thomas 56:11
I don’t know. It’s just what I because people like what’s your favorite book? And I It’s too hard. But there are books that like feel deeply meaningful to me in my life that have like meant so much blood in the water is also a book of my life. Trying to think well, those are the two that I usually say there. There are others. I think just mercy is probably one. I think Jon Krakauer is an author of my life. I love his work so much. And he made me love reading. So sometimes it’s like, maybe not the book, but it just like, it’s not fair to say that it’s my favorite. But it’s like a book that when I think about who I am, I’m like, who I want to be and why I am how I am. Those are the books that like, fill fill me, I also would say that Gone With the Wind is a book of my life, I find that I love that book so much. I just I love the movie, it was a thing that my father and I did, and my father since passed. So I always, you know, it’s just like one of those books that even though I know it’s so problematic, and you know, please cancel me, but it’s still a book of my life. And like, it’s so meaningful to me anyway. So that’s why I use that word, because it’s not my, like, favorite book. I don’t know something lovely. Okay, two more questions. I’m gonna get out of here. Who is the coolest person to express interest in your book?
Andrea Elliott 57:25
Oh, god, that’s a hard one. I’ll tell you what Saudi would say, which is Barack Obama. That’s what I would say bravo. I mean, I can’t I mean, that’s immediately who comes to mind? Yeah. There have been plenty of people who’ve expressed interest who should be named, but I want to just stop there with Brock. Yeah, that was that was a seminal moment. That feels right.
Traci Thomas 57:49
I always get so excited when he picks a book that I’ve read. I’m like, Oh, my God, we’re twins. Okay, last question. If you could have one person dead or alive, read this book. Who would you want it to be?
Andrea Elliott 58:03
The first person who comes to mind is designed his late grandmother, Joanie, Joanne Sykes. I wish she could have read this book.
Traci Thomas 58:15
She’s such an such an incredible figure in the book, too. She’s so president. All right. Oh, sorry.
Andrea Elliott 58:21
Go ahead. Not just because it, I believe honors her life, but it is the story of her father and her mother and her ancestors. And she never got to know that story. So yeah, that’s why we pick
Traci Thomas 58:37
this book is so incredible. I hope that everyone will read it. I hope that if you are a person who is scared of nonfiction, that you will trust me that it reads like a novel. And I mean that for people who are scared of nonfiction, but for people who love nonfiction, it reads like fantastic nonfiction as well. It’s long, do not be scared, you can do it. It reads so fast. I listened to some of the audiobook, which is also fantastic. I just the whole thing is great. It was such a meaningful reading experience for me this year. And Andre, I’m so grateful that you answered those questions about ethics, because I know that I’m sure it’s not easy. But I this book, more than being a story about poverty. Also, it did bring up all of that stuff for me. So for anyone who’s looking for a book to really leave you thinking, invisible child, it’s that’s the one you got to have to read it. Thank you so much for being here.
Andrea Elliott 59:24
Thank you so much, Traci.
Traci Thomas 59:26
and everyone else, we will see you in the stacks.
Thank you all so much for listening. And thank you to Andrea for being my guest. I’d also like to say a quick thank you to quantum Stansfield, for helping to make this interview possible. Remember Lisa loop this will return on September 28 to discuss our book club pick the page turning thriller The trees by Percival Everett. If you love the show in what insight access to it, head to patreon.com/the stacks to join the stacks pack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts. And if you’re listening through Apple podcast US or Spotify be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stocks follow us on social media at the stocks pod on Instagram and at the stacks pod underscore on Twitter and check out our website the stocks podcast.com This episode of the stocks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistants from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin MacWrite. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.
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