Over the course of my career, I have evolved from foreign correspondent to narrative nonfiction writer. My first job, at age 24, was as a war correspondent in Saigon for the Los Angeles Times. A year later, I became the first American journalist to enter and return from Viet Cong territory in South Vietnam. That story marked the beginning of a long run of exclusive stories I wrote from Vietnam. For them, I earned an expulsion from South Vietnam, engineered by the South Vietnamese government. My astonishing year was 1975, when I covered the collapse of the Lon Nol government (and left Phnom Penh in an evacuation helicopter); the Pathet Lao's toppling of the coalition government in Laos; Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's conviction on election malpractice charges and her subsequent declaration of a political emergency (leading to the arrests of a hundred thousand people); and the death of Francisco Franco and its aftermath in Spain.
It was enough. After covering Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong's death from Hong Kong, I resigned from the Times in 1977 and began the long process of turning myself into a writer. I spent years writing and rewriting The Mark: A War Correspondent's Memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia (published by Four Walls Eight Windows in 1994). I honed my style on magazine pieces, and wrote for nearly every major magazine in the United States: Harper's, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Mother Jones, Wired, Salon, a couple of dozen others. I wrote personal essays, investigative pieces, analytical and narrative reportage, humor. As time went on, I turned more and more of my attention to the form I find most compelling, narrative nonfiction. I spent a few weeks in the shop of a shoe repairman, and wrote a long essay about him that won a grant from a local arts council here in California. In 2000, I did a cover story for Harper's Magazine, "Running Dry: What Happens When the World No Longer Has Enough Freshwater?" that made me feel I'd found the marriage of voice, style, and subject I'd been seeking. The topic is a slice of what I take to be the great looming story of the twenty-first century, the unraveling of the global environment. The piece was selected for inclusion in The Best American Science Writing 2001, published by Ecco Press.
I still had no more than dipped my toe in the roiled currents of water debate; to immerse myself, I needed to write a book. At the core of every argument about water are dams, the modern pyramids, generators of extravagantly apportioned electricity, water storage, and environmental and social disasters, where water conflicts are manifested in most dramatic form-- I knew dams were my subject. I spent a month at the headquarters of the since-disbanded World Commission on Dams in Cape Town, South Africa, and eventually decided that the book should portray three of its Commissioners-- an anti-dam activist, an anthropologist, and an administrator-- as they went about their dam-related activities. The book, Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, August 2005), won the 2002 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award. http://www.jrn.columbia.edu/events/lukas/2002/.
My intent now is to continue writing about the immense environmental and social consequences of humanity's heedless, headlong embrace of development.
© Jerry Bauer