This is part three of the five-part Sonia Nazario Series for Writers. Read the rest of the series for writing insights from this Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist and author.
When I spend time with people, I have to do it for long enough that they forget that I am there. They start to behave and do the things they would normally do. That’s when the interesting stuff happens. -Sonia Nazario
Mandy: You’ve talked about “fly on the wall reporting.” Can you tell us what that means? How does it help you write compelling stories?
Sonia: Fly on the wall reporting is inserting yourself into the middle of the action and watching that action unfold. It means attaching yourself to the person or people you are writing about for long enough that you can see what their lives are like, what their work is like.
By placing myself in the middle of that action, I can put the reader there too.
I think this is the most interesting place for a reader to be. Doing this brings an immediacy and power to nonfiction storytelling that you cannot get any other way. It helps readers feel like they were on top of the train, alongside Enrique, as he makes his modern-day odyssey to get through Mexico.
I could have written the story without ever leaving Los Angeles. I could have interviewed a boy who had just made the journey and written it up. But it would have been a much less compelling story.
My first priority was to make the journey with a boy, to start in Central America and travel to the U.S. alongside my subject, to be there as everything happened. This wasn’t possible, however.
I knew that since my subject would be constantly running from gangsters, corrupt cops, and bandits, I would constantly be losing the boy I was trying to write about.
So I did what was second best: find a boy who had made it to northern Mexico, spend time with him for two weeks, and then reconstruct his journey by doing it in the same way Enrique had just done it a few weeks before.
This allowed me to bring all five senses to the experience Enrique had just undergone and bring that sense of being on top of the train to readers.
Many readers have told me they felt they were making the journey as they read about Enrique’s journey. You can only give readers that, I believe, by immersing yourself in the story in this way.
When I spend time with people, I have to do it for long enough that they forget that I am there. They start to behave and do the things they would normally do. That’s when the interesting stuff happens.
I also think that by immersing myself in this action, I don’t only observe compelling scenes. I also write with an authority and passion that I couldn’t if reporting something from a telephone in Los Angeles.