Elizabeth Farnsworth is a filmmaker, foreign correspondent, and former chief correspondent and principal substitute anchor of PBS’ NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Her 2008 documentary, The Judge and the General, co-directed with Patricio Lanfranco, aired on television around the world, winning many awards. She has reported from Cambodia, Vietnam, Chile, Haiti, Iraq, and Iran, among other countries. She grew up in Topeka, Kansas, where her ancestors were pioneers, and lives in Berkeley.
Farnsworth recently published a memoir, A Train Through Time: A Life, Real and Imagined, that weaves a child’s imaginative adventures with vivid memories from her reporting in conflicted countries like Haiti or Cambodia.
Michael Chabon said the book “broke his heart.” “It has been a long time since I read a book so moving, plain-spoken and beautiful. The instant I finished it, I went back to the beginning and started in again,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, also a Berkeley resident, wrote.
Berkeleyside asked Farnsworth about what inspired her to write the book and about the experience of moving from journalist to memoirist.
Why did you choose to write a memoir?
Like most journalists, I have usually focused on the lives of others and not on myself. I preferred that, and it was more or less mandatory at the The NewsHour, where I worked for 20 years.
Jim Lehrer used to say that we had failed if viewers noticed us – the anchors or reporters – rather than the people we were covering.
I never intended to write a memoir, but some years ago, I had a powerful encounter at Skywalker Ranch, where the soundscapes of hundreds of films were created. (I was there overseeing the audio mix of a documentary film.) The encounter, which I describe in the first pages of my book, set off a cascade of memories in my mind – from conflicted places like Iraq to a train trip with my father after a tragedy struck our family when I was nine.
My friend, the poet Brenda Hillman, encouraged me to write about the encounter and the memories. I did what she advised, and it became A Train Through Time.
The book is not chronological but moves back and forth in time. How did you decide on this structure?
As I wrote, I understood that I was struggling to understand how events long ago might have led to reporting from danger zones. It felt like I was speaking as a child across the years to myself as an adult, and vice versa. The memories did not come to mind chronologically. I can’t explain why the first “fragment,” as Brenda Hillman called the short pieces I would eventually put together, came from a 1993 shoot in a Khmer Rouge-controlled part of Cambodia. As I was writing, I flashed back and forth in time. Brenda Hillman encouraged me to structure the book that way. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have dared to do it.
The book occasionally blends reality and imagination. This is fairly unusual for a journalist. Why did you do it?
Most of the events in the book actually happened, but when writing about the trip with my father from Topeka to San Francisco — and especially as we neared the Sierra Nevada — I was surprised to feel memory yielding to imagination. (I’ve learned that the two are closely linked.) For a while in the book, the trip becomes wondrous, almost magical. Jim Lehrer read an early version of the manuscript and recommended that I explain in an afterword when and why the imagining began. As readers will see, I followed Jim’s advice.
None of the reporting in the book from around the world is imagined. I checked those memories against notes and video and asked colleagues who had traveled with me to fact-check what I wrote.
Your memories of your childhood are often very clear. Did you find it hard to remember your past?
Some events from my childhood feel permanently burned into my memory. I think the reader will recognize them in the book. They feel intense, illuminated. I wonder if my loss as a child explains why I remember some of those events so vividly.
I’m lucky to have boxes full of records of my childhood, including short stories submitted to Seventeen magazine (and never published), letters from summer camp, photographs, and, best of all, a few of my diaries. Perhaps writing every night about the day’s events helps keep them alive in our memories forever.
Sometimes I’ve had to improvise. For example, I remember the street in St. Louis where the friend I met on the train lived — Tulip Lane — but I am not sure of her name. I think it was Sally, and that’s what I call her in the book, but I could be wrong.
I imagined some of the long-ago dialogue in the book but not the most significant conversations. I remembered them almost word for word.
You vividly depict the dangers of covering conflicts and people like General Augusto Pinochet. Did you nevertheless love your work?
Yes, in spite of the dangers, I loved my work. Robin MacNeil, Jim Lehrer, executive producer Lester M. Crystal, and deputy executive producer Linda Winslow are talented, dedicated and generous-spirited people, and they provided inspired leadership for me and the rest of the NewsHour staff. Each of those leaders has now retired. The program suffered a grievous loss when Gwen Ifill died, a loss still deeply felt, but Judy Woodruff, executive producer Sara Just, and the rest of the staff are keeping the standards very high. I think the program is excellent these days.
You talked recently at a book event about the responsibility you feel as an American producer for the drivers and “fixers” (local field producers/translators) who sometimes took risks working for you. Tell us more about that.
This issue is a major part of the book, because I quit reporting from dangerous places when they got too dangerous for crews and the local independent reporters/producers (fixers) we hire to interpret, get interviews, and help keep us safe. A camera can be mistaken for a gun. The sound technician is busy gathering audio and may not see danger when it comes. And the local fixer is potentially the most endangered of us all. He or she will be blamed if we report something a local despot doesn’t like. I am relieved that in recent years the Committee to Protect Journalists and others are increasingly recognizing and publicizing the courage and contributions of fixers in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, and other dangerous places.
I’m glad that I could call attention in my book to the dangers for crews and fixers, and I am deeply grateful to editor Jack Shoemaker and others at Counterpoint Press for publishing the work. I also want to mention my talented friend Mark Serr, who created the photo art in the book. He found a way to highlight both what’s real and what I’ve imagined.