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First Person

The Experience Questionnaire: Garrett M. Graff

Garrett M. Graff is an award-winning journalist and historian. His latest book, “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11” is a New York Times Bestseller. Follow him here.

Where do you come up with your best ideas?
Most of my ideas come from things I read or see where I say, “Huh, it seems like there’s more to that story.” Since I cover a lot of national security and law enforcement, many of the magazine stories I write literally start as press releases I read on the Justice Department’s website where I go, “Huh?” 

What is the best non-material gift you’ve received?
My parents and my teachers instilled in me a voracious curiosity, which is a tremendous benefit as a journalist. 

What is the best non-material gift you’ve given?
One of the things I loved most about being a magazine editor was helping people get started in their careers — giving people an internship, their first job, a big writing assignment — and then helping them learn the ropes and figure out what they wanted to do. There is a whole generation of former interns and young writers for whom I feel immense pride in their careers and watching them thrive. Many of them were talented and surely would have succeeded wherever they ended up, but I feel proud of helping them get started.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
I’m deeply dyslexic, amid a pile of learning disabilities that I struggled with growing up. I spent years in intensive special education, up until about the sixth grade. My parents really worked to get me the help I needed to learn to read, write, and speak. I actually thank my speech therapist in the acknowledgements of all my books.

If you had to choose a different profession, what would you do?
I was quite interested growing up in joining the Coast Guard and applied to the Coast Guard Academy. That for me will be always be the path not taken in my life.

How on earth was I striking out so badly that I was getting preemptively rejected from internships? 

What is the most useful mistake you’ve made?
I don’t know this counts as a mistake, but I’ve been remarkably unsuccessful in my life getting jobs I thought I wanted at the time — I really tried to be a newspaper writer but I just never got an internship or a job at a newspaper, and instead ended up on the magazine path, which I’ve loved. At one point in college, because of a paperwork snafu I got rejected from the New York Times internship program — which was odd because I’d never even applied to the internship! I remember sitting on the floor of the college mail center, staring at the letter, and thinking how on earth was I striking out so badly that I was getting preemptively rejected from internships?

What’s the strangest experience you’ve had?
In June, I went to China to report on the telecom company Huawei and visited their campus outside Shenzhen that they’ve built to resemble different European villages. Riding an imported Swiss train through the campus, through “towns” built to resemble Burgundy, Heidelberg, and Paris was the strangest experience I’ve ever had — neither positive nor negative, just objectively strange. I at one point exclaimed, “I think I’ve been to that actual church in Germany.”

What opportunity do you regret passing up?
I feel incredibly blessed and happy in my life. Everything that’s happened, good and bad, has brought me here, so it’s hard to say that there’s anything I regret.

How do you relax?
My wife and I had a daughter last year, and playing with her puts me in just an entirely different mindset. I’m not thinking about anything other than being with her. As someone who has traditionally — happily — worked most of the time for my adult life, the change of pace required to be a parent has been incredible. 

If you could go anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you go?

What is your most indelible childhood memory?
I grew up in Vermont and had a very idyllic New England childhood, so many of my best memories are along those lines — playing on my grandparents’ farm in the summers, stacking wood with my dad in the fall, skating on the river behind our house in the winter. When I was a kid, the river froze consistently, and would stay frozen for most of the winter. Now it barely does, and skating is impossible many years.

What’s the most valuable thing you learned in school?
I was lucky to have some teachers who just made me love history. 

When you’re stuck how do you get unstuck?
Actually, one of the things I’ve learned as a writer is you can’t write until it’s time to write. When I started writing, I would often sit there frustrated unable to write; now I’ve learned to just get up and come back another time. I can’t force writing.

What is your proudest moment?
Professionally, it would have to be when I was editor of Washingtonian magazine and we won the annual general excellence award for the best city/regional magazine in the country. I’d worked really hard to build our team, to raise our ambitions and the quality of the work, and the recognition was just an amazing testament to me of how awesome the team was. 

What would you like to experience before you die? 
I hope someday I’m able to see the curvature of the earth and the darkness of space.

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Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for WIRED25

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