1. Describe for us your reaction to your memoir Whiskey Tango Foxtrot being adapted into a major motion picture starring Tina Fey. Did you have any input with the creative process or the writing of the screenplay?
I met with Robert Carlock, the screenwriter, over several months, and I introduced him to friends of mine who had been in Afghanistan and then in New York. Some were journalists, some were Afghan-Americans, one was in the military, and one was Afghan. Robert also met with people on his own who had been in Afghanistan. He was almost acting like a reporter—trying to report out the story he wanted to tell in the movie, and making sure it was as accurate as possible. Of course, this is Hollywood, so things have been changed from the book. More explosions, more cocaine, more drama, more hijinx. They sent me the screenplay in February 2014, but told me I couldn’t make changes. So, because I’m a total control freak in a constant state of denial, I opted not to read it. A friend insisted on reading it because she wanted to make sure it was OK. She said it was great—but I’d hate the fact that my character was more heroic in the movie than I am in real life. (I’m actually a chicken. I run from explosions, rather than toward them.) My first experience in seeing what Hollywood had done to me was about three weeks ago, when I watched the movie for the first time. That was surreal.
2. How did being a woman affect your ability to report the news during the political situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan?
It’s impossible for me to say, as I’ve never tried it as a man. But I think that it was great to be a woman there. Some of the best correspondents there during my time were women—whether Kathy Gannon, or Carlotta Gall, or Pam Constable, or Aryn Baker, or Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. (I know I’ve forgotten someone, fellow lady reporters who are tired of this question. I’ve lost brain cells being on the other end of an interview. Forgive me!) I think that being a woman, especially in Afghanistan, gave you access to half the population who would have difficulty talking to a male correspondent. (That would be the women.) Women I think felt more comfortable talking to other women about deeply personal subjects, given the cultural constraints. And as a female reporter, you also had access to men, and to male leaders. I like to say that we weren’t seen like foreign men there, or like local women. We were kind of like a Third Sex.
3. In terms of American journalism, do you feel that the public is kept informed as to the severity of the crisis in the Middle East and South Asia? How has international coverage changed since the economic crisis?
There’s a severe crisis in the Middle East and there continues to be a war in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties are at record highs, the Taliban has made gains, ISIS is coming into the country and the government is beset by corruption and conflict by its very design. But there are no longer many journalists based in Afghanistan. That’s because of several reasons. Obviously the economic crisis in journalism took its toll. Newspapers, such as my former one, the Chicago Tribune, eliminated its foreign positions and instead allowed sister newspaper the Los Angeles Times to handle foreign coverage. Freelancers and local stringers have filled the gap, or newspapers have simply opted to reduce foreign coverage. But these stories are so important. I feel like we’re at the point now where we have a handful of outlets—the New York Times, my current employer, at the top of the list—doing excellent foreign coverage, where we used to have many outlets.
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4. After spending five years covering the war, what was it like coming home and adjusting to everyday life and work?
It was extremely difficult. It took me two years to adjust to being back home. It was much harder to come back than to go over to the region in the first place. Over there, the story was all-consuming, and it felt like the most important story in the world. (Even if, back home, it wasn’t.) I felt like what I did mattered in a way that it didn’t necessarily matter back home. Becoming “normal” again wasn’t very easy. I think I was difficult to be around. I just wanted to talk about Afghanistan and Pakistan—some of my friends from before I left simply didn’t want to be around me, as they thought I was damaged. It was also very helpful just to be home for a while, and realize that it was OK to discuss pop culture and home prices in New York at a party. That didn’t mean I had stopped caring about Afghanistan and Pakistan. It meant that I had balanced out my life. Or, as the movie gets at, I had embraced the suck and moved on.
5. As for your journalism career, what highlight over the past ten years best exemplifies your personal best in achieving the distinction as a significant voice in modern day news?
It’s hard to pick one highlight because I’ve done a lot of work I’m proud of over the past 10 years. The stories I did for ProPublica on social-welfare nonprofits spending money on politics without reporting their donors were great, and occasionally ground-breaking. But obviously I’m at the New York Times now, and so I’ll go with my last big project for them, on flophouses that exploit the poor, mentally ill and substance abusers who live there.
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