Adam Popescu has spent years writing for a variety of newspapers and magazines. His acclaimed stories range from covering Arctic tsunamis to droughts in East Africa and Indonesia.
He has traveled the world finding the most interesting stories in the smallest of places. One place he traveled to was Mount Everest, where he learned and wrote about the Sherpa community.
That experience drove him to write his debut novel, Nima, about a young Sherpa woman helping outsiders navigate the rugged terrain. I corresponded with Popescu about that novel via email. He graciously took me into a deep dive of his journalism experiences and writing this novel.
You have a degree in creative writing and a master’s in journalism. Was writing always a part of your life?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I blame my parents. They warned me but I looked up to them growing up, it was all I wanted to do. Writing incorporated so many of my interests, in many ways it’s perfect for me and my personality. In many ways, it’s quite possibly the most challenging daily test anyone can willingly accept—it’s also dangerous to be by yourself and in your own mind so much thinking about everyone and everything else in a piercing, analytical way. It’s easy to see why mental illness runs hand in hand with artists and narcissism seems to be the flask many of my fellow journalists keep in their back pocket.
Many writers talk about the joy of the craft, the journey. I think a lot of writers say that because they think that’s what they’re supposed to say. To the general public we really are these alchemists that create something from nothing—it must all be inspiration, right?—and I think that lack of understanding plays into the stereotypes and stigma.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be read—you’re supposed to have readers. Nobody makes art to keep it locked up. Nobody really writes just for themselves. Maybe they’re scared to show their work to the world, I know I was when I was starting off. Sometimes I still am. And that’s ok. It’s a part of the process, the growth, and that’s the hardest part of development. Once you’re willing to hit print, or send and let the world—strangers!—read your words, that’s a big step. And in many ways getting there and getting that confidence is alchemy.
How do you practice your craft, put in the real time it takes to make mistakes and grow on the page, and read book after book by the masters to understand the power of sentence and structure, and all the while, how do you pay the bills? For me, journalism was that blessing.
I do have a degree in creative writing and a master’s in journalism. Maybe that sounds impressive. The truth is those degrees never got me a single job. Getting a degree didn’t make me a writer even though at the time I’d probably tell you the opposite. They were steps. Just that. So was junior college, so was my up and down high school career where I graduated with a squeak and a lot of heavy words from my parents. See, my parents raised my sister and I as writing partners. They had, and continue to have a career in an unforgiving business. And they instilled in me a love for words and reading, but at the same time, a healthy (dis)respect for it all. To be a working writer, you have to be working. Otherwise, it’s not real. And you can’t listen to everything readers will tell you. Forget don’t read the comments, don’t take it all too seriously. Rejections are day to day in this world and you have to hear them—maybe there’s some truth in their take—but you also have to keep your focus even in the midst of all of the odds and the outside voices. And that’s extremely challenging no matter who you are.
You have spent a lot of time traveling the world writing about a variety of topics for various publications ranging from The New York Times to Businessweek to Vanity Fair. What draws you into a subject with enough interest to write so in depth about it?
The beauty and burden of freelancing is choice: we have the choice to focus on issues and subjects that we truly care about, stories that we want to pursue, stories that maybe others aren’t covering for a number of reasons. And I think when you get it right, that shows on the page. That’s why I travel, that’s what gives me an edge as a freelancer, the willingness to leave my desk and go and report from a rubber dinghy in the Pacific or a mountainside in the Karakorams or the concrete canyons of my native Los Angeles. The ability to blend from world to world and fit in to whatever situation or subject can be tough. Sometimes the best thing to do is just shut up and listen and the story reveals itself.
Travel isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds. Especially on your own without institutional support—or insurance should it hit the fan—and if you’re honest, it often does. That’s when you earn it, when you can keep it going despite the mishaps and the lack of sleep, confusion of timezones and (sometimes) the bullshit that gets served up.
The willingness to hit the road plus a heavy dose of curiosity and frankly salesmanship is the formula for successful freelancing. We’re competing against other freelancers and of course staff writers. But the thing about staffers—and I’ve been a staffer at several places earlier in my career—is that most beat reporters are chained to the desk. But that doesn’t work for most freelancers I know, the real ones who do this full time and don’t dip a toe in and tweet about it because they think it makes them sound cool or worldly.
For me, travel is essential because often I’m learning about the things I’m writing about before I pick up the pen. I need to see how things really work or else my journalism, and for that matter, my fiction suffers. Reality grounds everything. That makes real writing a sacrifice on many levels. Time, budget, safety—there’s a reason so few report on complicated topics and places—they’re difficult. Sometimes dangerous. Writing about a black preacher who took over a neo-nazi group means diving into that world and to a degree, exposing yourself to risk, to violence even. There’s a lot of TV and movies that romanticize all this but what they often gloss over is the stress of day-to-day reporting and the at-times mundane nature of waiting and the impact this all has on your loved ones. Spending more time on the road with sources instead of friends and family is a recipe for strained relationships, so I try to pack stories tightly time wise so I’m not always away.
Access can be another challenge. But if you’re able to get that source, to find the angle no one else has, and if you’re willing to go out of pocket to see for yourself, brave the elements and the unknown, and most importantly, if you can identify a story and break that idea down simply to an editor who might not know the first thing about the ripple effects of shark poaching, for example, and if you can secure an assignment and keep up in the field, well, that’s a big part of the game.
So say you’re working on that shark story for The Washington Post, which focuses on the sprawling poaching syndicates that threaten so much more than wildlife, a story that touches on crime, corruption and international politics—and you’re already heading down to the Galapagos to report that story—then in that instance, I share my plans with The New York Times and they ask me to look at the impact of overtourism on the local economy and ecosystem. Once in the bush with scientists, you learn about another undercovered topic and speak to stakeholders and experts on what’s not being covered. And boom, you have another story. All that footwork might take weeks—or maybe you’ve got only a few days to report it. I’ve had recent assignments to Mexico and Colorado for only a couple days where you have to pack 6-8 interviews in, each day. It can be exhausting. When someone opens up to you and shares their world—when they reveal themselves emotionally and share something to you, an absolute stranger, that they’ve possibly never shared to another soul—is there any bigger responsibility a writer can have? You owe it to them and their experience to do them justice. To write their story honestly and with grace and respect.
And it can take weeks, even months for that story to reach the reader—maybe your editor chops it to bits because it’s too writerly or flowery or maybe they just don’t think your flury is all that good, which happens too, so you suck it up and accept it, or you pick your hill to make a charge on—this is the challenge freelancers face. At the end of the day, it’s a job that revolves around curiosity for the world and processes we take for granted—from nature to government infrastructure—if you want to know how it all really works, step up. Juggling multiple stories and editors and ideas can be mentally exhausting. It also makes most of us—me included—sound like a know-it-all. So best to just shut up and watch. That’s what makes great writing.
One of your assignments, a piece for the BBC about the impact of tourism on Mount Everest, led to the genesis of Nima. What made that experience so memorable for you?
I spent about a month in Nepal in December, 2013. That meant about 8 or 9 days traveling up to Everest Base Camp and another 3 or 4 on the way down. Everest might be the most well known and yet least known venue on our planet. We use Everest as an adjective: hey, this car is the Everest of 4X4s, this river has the Everest of waterfalls. I don’t know what the hell any of that means. I didn’t know shit about Everest when I decided to visit her. Typical me back then. Luckily that arrogance didn’t get me hurt. Now things are different. I train hard during the year, maintenance is key. I’ve been injured, severely, I’ve been humbled. I respect the mountain now in a way that’s hard to explain without sounding a little out there or new agey.
Bottom line, these choices are hard on the body, but back then I was in a very different place. And the raw beauty I encountered, both physically in these colossal mountains, these seemingly endless glaciers that I had no idea at the time are receding at unprecedented rates and threatening the lives of hundreds of millions of people across this mountain belt of nations, and the tough, tough people who were able to make it all work and live full lives at what I felt was the end of the world. It’s inspiring. It makes you feel small. And it makes a little article for the BBC about the human impact on the mountain seem so miniscule, so tangential to the larger story. I initially thought my experiences were interesting enough for a large, non-fiction book. I kept a journal up there and when I got home, I transcribed and expanded it with that ambition. “But no one died and you didn’t reach the summit,” I was told by New York agents as they sipped Poland Spring water and smiled at me. “It’s going to be too hard for me to sell.”
The hard part about hearing that is that they were right. This is after all a business. If so many books on Everest are about the spectacle of disaster and death, and you don’t conquer her, well, is anyone going to want to read a nuanced story of a then 29-year-old Western essentially navel-gazing at 18,000 feet?
So, I returned home. There was a book here, I was sure of it. And I don’t know the exact moment that this idea struck me, but I decided to frame the story around a young woman on the mountain. I wanted to see the mountain through her point of view, to see what it would be like for someone who grew up here, who had never seen a city and cars let alone the ocean. How would she relate to this land? What would her dreams be? How would she relate to the changing climate of the mountain, to the wildlife tourists want to see for a photo, but to her could mean death? How would she deal with dating if she was forced to be in an arranged marriage, but then decided to run away from home?
For a journalist so wed to truth with a capital T, these questions were exciting. I think good fiction can most definitely have more truth in it than the just-the-facts approach that can make journalism dry and staid. This had to be a novel because no editor would commission a sprawling piece focusing on one young woman. “Why her?,” they would ask. I wouldn’t have had a good answer. There was an attempt with my friend, Nepali journalist Deepak Adhikari, to crowdfund our own journalism project focusing on Sherpas and other mountain peoples but despite some media coverage—and support in Nepal—we ultimately couldn’t raise the funding. All the while, the novel was calling.
Smart people very close to me warned that my plan would be difficult—how will you be able to write convincingly in the voice of a woman? What do you know about Nepal? They were right. But that’s also what made this something I wanted to take on. I wanted to use my fiction to become someone else. That’s what makes the novel such a beautiful, transportational art form. It’s a vehicle for the mind.
What were the early drafts for Nima like? Did you have a pretty clear picture about how you wanted this story to unfold?
Nepal’s mountains retain a heavily male dominated culture. How could I as a male highlight this and hopefully add some context into a female lead character and POV? Could I? Could I bring an outsider’s view and create a world and characters that were convincing and textured and real? These were my major questions.
NIMA focuses on gender, climate, technology versus tradition, east and west, and ultimately opportunity and choice and the price we pay for it. Despite it’s very specific location, it’s very much a universal coming of age story. And successive drafts delved further into these themes. It was also important to make sure that the location of Everest, the cold, the weather, the land, and the Buddhist mentality of impermanence and acceptance (and my main character Nima’s rebellion to that mindset) all came to the fore. Everest has many hard truths and it’s home to a population that’s so often overlooked by the West, another motive to shed a light on a group and story that doesn’t fit the journalistic formula. And it took several drafts to get there.
What really drew me into the novel was how little I actually know about the Himalayas and Everest. You did a terrific job of creating a sense of place. Other than your trip there for the BBC, what was your research like to create this world?
I’ve traveled to the Himalayas three times. Trips to Ladakh were helpful, too. But the truth is, I had a lot of good source material. I had been to all of the villages in the book, walked miles through the Khumbu Glacier, dipped my hands in the Dudh Kosi river, knew what altitude felt like, had tasted the foods, heard the stories. But I live in the U.S. and I still had and maintain a full-time journalism career, so I had to be here to write. I would listen to Nepali music, I would talk to friends in-country, I would read everything I could get my hands on, and I just got to writing. It took time. Journalism deadlines and editors don’t wait—I didn’t tell them I was working on a novel. They would have rolled their eyes and asked “why are you missing deadlines?” I returned home in 2014 from Nepal. A year passed, wrestling with the story. Another. Then I had a traumatic injury. I had knee surgery on August 31, 2016. As I sat there in bed, my leg wrapped in a protective cast, wondering if I’d ever be able to walk normally, let alone climb, I got down on myself. Big time. Here I was, on my ass, and I hadn’t even finished my novel.
As I started to build strength, I began my rehab in the fall of 2016 (around the time my first stories with The New York Times ran). I knew these opportunities were transient and I got to work. In the mornings I would work out with a physical therapist and then I’d come home, complete my journalism assignments as fast as possible, then spend my nights (and sometimes early mornings) on the book. The discipline of working out was key. Maybe so was the sort of self flagellation of it all. Nothing like feeling bad about yourself to get motivated.
Did you have a lot of contact with people from the Sherpa community? And do you still?
Lhakpa Sherpa and I have been playing phone tag for months. She’s arguably the most accomplished female climber there is. She’s summited 9 times, a world record—she’s also a 40-something single mom who lives in Connecticut and works as a Whole Foods dishwasher and housekeeper. Every Spring, she returns to Nepal to climb with her brother. Of the 5,000 people who have climbed Everest, only 500 have been women. She’s summited while two months pregnant. She even made it the top just months after giving birth. I hope to meet her in the new year. Lhakpa is a real life hero. She’s the woman Nima hopes to grow up to be.
Are there any previous articles you worked on that might find their way into a novel? Or what’s inspiring your fiction now?
I hope so. I have a few big pieces for The Times in the pipeline that I think have major cinematic potential. There’s another piece forthcoming that I can’t talk much about that deals with L.A. gang culture that I also want to adapt. I’m really looking forward to 2020.