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A thrilling thing happened after our recent NPR underwriting campaign. We received a phone call from Greg Campbell, author of Blood Diamonds and other notable works of narrative nonfiction on diamond heists, international wars, and more, an author whose persona was called “half Jimmy Stewart, half Indiana Jones” by Washington Post’s Book World. On the phone, Campbell wondered if he might be able to teach some of our narrative nonfiction workshops, and I thought I might carve out some time to meet with the gentleman. Minutes into our conversation, I could tell he was perfect for the job. Flash forward a few months and he’s now about to teach his second session of workshops at Lighthouse, three courses in narrative nonfiction for beginners, more experienced writers, and all-levels online. Our own lovely and talented program assistant Jenny Taylor-Whitehorn took a go at interviewing Campbell recently. Everyone’s welcome to come meet him and other Lighthouse faculty (Jon Cotter, Linda Ashman, and Seth Brady Tucker) at The Story of A Book 3.0 on Saturday, March 31, in the Lighthouse Grotto. It’s from 7 to 9 PM, includes food and drink, and is free and open to Lighthousers and their friends. (RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org so that we order enough food.)
A Passenger in his Own Backyard: Greg Campbell on his stint as a “Ganjaprenurealist” for his new book, Pot Inc.
by Jenny Taylor-Whitehorn
In early 2012, just after the holidays, things seemed pretty quiet around Lighthouse. Jon, our friendly neighborhood accountant, and I
spent our Monday afternoons eating leftover cookies from the October session, crunching through the last two hours of work in the incredibly still house on Race Street. That is, until the January session started up and Greg Campbell’s class moved into the room just outside our office. Since that time, it’s as if every Monday afternoon there’s a party going on in the first floor dining room. The laughter, the discussion, and more laughter.
Sure, with Greg’s next book, Pot Inc., coming out in April, a book about growing your own medical marijuana and getting in on the Colorado “ganjaprenurealism” boom, we suspected funny business. But the class tested clean and as Jon and I listened every Monday afternoon, still eating those October cookies, I couldn’t wait to sit down with this award-winning journalist and find out just what’s so funny about narrative nonfiction, anyway.
Q: Let’s be clear: are you, or are you not having a party on the first floor that Jon and I aren’t invited to?
A. I have a secret little hand gesture that prompts my group to burst out into hysterical laughter any time I feel like we need to make the other workshops jealous of all the fun we’re having, but the truth is I’ve never had to use it. The people in my groups are very talented and creative and we have a great vibe together, so the laughter and the camaraderie come really naturally. And you and Jon are invited to join any time you like. As long as you bring the cookies.
Q: Your other books, Blood Diamonds and The Road to Kosovo: A Balkan Diary demanded a certain seriousness in dealing with the subject matter. How was writing Pot Inc. different for you?
A. This turned out to be one of the more surprising aspects of writing this book. I expected a certain degree of seriousness when dealing with medical marijuana and its legal and cultural acceptance into American society, but did not expect how serious it would turn out to be. In the process of writing the book, I found out that a family member had illegally used marijuana to ease the pain of chemotherapy for a particularly insidious form of cancer, and that really brought the whole issue home in a way that I didn’t expect. With that said, there is levity and humor in the book. You simply can’t write about marijuana in the United States and not find something amusing to highlight, whether it’s the pretensions of many people who are trying to legalize it or in the hypocrisy of those trying to keep it illegal. I’d say that the humor comes mostly from my almost total ignorance of the subject at first, but runs the gamut from slapstick to gallows throughout the book. Humor was an important tool in telling this story.
Q: You’ve mentioned in different interviews that Pot Inc. is part memoir, part narrative nonfiction. How did that open doors for your writing? Or, in turn, limit it?
A. This was a real experiment for me, in terms of what I’m used to writing. I would never consider myself a memoir writer, but here I am writing very intimate and revealing chapters about my personal drug use, my family’s reaction to (and accommodation of) a hare-brained plan to grow pot in my house, and my maturing understanding of this very contemporary and controversial subject. Of course, that understanding came through my detailed research into marijuana culture, so that lent itself very naturally to a narrative approach to storytelling that I’m more used to. I’d say it freed me to make interpretations of the research that were more personal than journalistic, which was really liberating. But because of my natural journalistic instincts, I was able to couch my maturation about this subject within a fact-based framework. In all, this was one of the more enjoyable books I’ve written, because it really allowed me some freedom of movement within my subject that wasn’t restricted by the normal constraints of third-person reporting because, after all, this was all happening to me. I was the one changing and developing, so it was cool to be able to write about those changes from a very personal perspective and not be restricted to describing a third person’s development.
Q: A lot of your books have to do with foreign countries and acting as a passenger into these worlds that most people aren’t familiar with. How did it feel to be writing about the good ol’ USA?
A. I foolishly thought that this would be a subject that would be totally unique compared to my past experiences, but as it turned out, marijuana has a lot in common with subjects I’ve written about before. You have an aggrieved underground society fighting for legitimacy (as with various societies in the Balkans), and you have a commodity with a huge demand that can’t be adequately regulated (as with conflict diamonds). So the parallels are uncanny … the difference here is that we’re talking about Americans (some 25 million of whom smoke pot) and a commodity that will never (ever, ever, ever) go away or be controlled. So although the venue was different, the topic was similar and I found I was on familiar ground much of the time. There’s no question that I felt like a passenger into other worlds during much of my research into this subject. The beauty was that I was a passenger in my own backyard.
Q: Most dad’s crazy, at-home projects require a handful of Sundays and trip to Home Depot. What did your family say when you embarked on the “grow your own marijuana” journey? What other casualties are in store for the families of journalists and narrative nonfiction writers?
A. Actually, I got most of my grow gear at Home Depot, so it wasn’t all that odd. But it’s true that my son was 13 when I started this experiment, the exact age when most kids try marijuana for the first time. That didn’t occur to me until it was too late. But my going forward with it hews to a philosophy I’ve always adhered to—be honest with your kids and trust them to make good decisions. I’ve always felt that parents shoot themselves in the feet by prolonging the inevitable questioning of convention by parroting the party line … whether the topic is sex or drugs or anything else. Just be honest with your kids when they’re old enough to understand what you’re talking about and I believe that you can avoid or (at least) more easily manage their inevitable curiosity about it. In this case, I told my son exactly what I thought about marijuana, that it can be useful to people with serious illnesses and that its illegality was absurd. But I was also clear that I didn’t want him to smoke it, that he was too young to make smart decisions about where (if anywhere) it might fit in his life, the same advice I gave him about far more deadly substances like tobacco and liquor. As for my wife, all I can say is that I’m truly blessed to have met and married a very tolerant woman who, by some quirk of her DNA, understands the singular drives of journalists and narrative nonfiction writers.
Q: If, like Blood Diamonds, Pot Inc. is made into a movie, will Leonardo DiCaprio be playing you?
Who could ask for anyone better than Leo? Although I’ve been told that Edward Norton is a better match from a physical-resemblance point of view, but hey — beggars won’t be choosers. They could pick Carrot-Top for all I care. (Actually, I take that back. Anyone but Carrot Top.)
Bonus Question from Jenny: Who do you think would play Greg Campbell in a movie? Or any of our Nonfiction Faculty members?