By Megan Kirby for Printers Row Journal’s weekly e-reader column, September 5, 2014
Former newspaper columnist Debra Pickett discusses her semi-autobiographical debut novel, “Reporting Lives”
Debra Pickett was young, single and childless when she went to Nairobi, Kenya, as a Chicago Sun-Times correspondent more than a decade ago. When Mama Mercy, director of the Good Samaritan orphanage, handed her a baby girl, she felt entirely out of her element. The children all had heartbreaking stories, many orphaned by the AIDS pandemic, and Pickett immediately began fantasizing about rescuing the infant in her arms.
Later, she reflected on that emotional response as cliché or even selfish — who was she really aiming to help in that fantasy? But over the years, she revisited that moment again and again.
“That was such a strange, complicated moment that I replayed over and over in my head,” she says. “What would the right response have been? I think in my obsessive mulling over that, a fictional heroine was born.”
Pickett’s debut novel, “Reporting Lives,” was released in June — and was directly influenced by her years as a Sun-Times reporter and Page 2 columnist. The novel follows Chicago television reporter Sara Simone, assigned to a terrible car accident in which Kenyan exchange students riding in a school bus on the Kennedy Expressway are killed. Sara follows the story to the slums of Nairobi, hoping to score emotionally charged interviews with grieving parents. But in Africa, she suddenly questions the morality behind her job’s “vulture work.” So she walks away, abandoning not just the story but her entire career.
Many of those details come straight from Pickett’s biography. While at the Sun-Times, she got involved with Global Alliance for Africa, a Chicago nonprofit focused on helping AIDS orphans. Pickett’s first trip to Africa prompted an unexpected crisis of conscience, and — like her heroine — she began questioning her role as a journalist.
“I get that as a reporter, when I see this kid who is looking up with these desperate, big, brown eyes, I should capture that in a photograph,” she says. “That photograph would tell an amazing story that we could put in the newspaper, and half a million people would see.” But she couldn’t bring herself to take any pictures. Was she helping or exploiting? When she came home, she wrote a Sun-Times essay titled “Orphan Porn,” about the media’s call for attention-grabbing images of children in poverty.
Thomas Derdak, executive director of Global Alliance for Africa, sees Pickett’s dilemma echoed in other first-time visitors to Africa’s slums. “I think a lot of people, when they go over, their first pang of conscience is to take out a 50 or 100 dollar bill and just give it to somebody,” Derdak says. “And that is actually very counterproductive.” Instead, Global Alliance puts its efforts into community-building enterprises such as building libraries and running therapeutic arts programs, efforts that will continue to give back beyond one-time interactions.
Pickett spent 10 years writing the novel, finding in her protagonist a tool to continue exploring the issues. Sara is ambitious but icy, with charm that only appears on camera. Perfecting Sara’s voice meant branching out from the “snarky, smart-ass, cute girl” voice Pickett perfected during her columnist years. “I wanted to write about a difficult woman,” she says.
“I think Debra’s exposure to the issues in East Africa has significantly changed her and given her the eyes to write,” says Derdak. “The fact that she’s kept (these experiences) at the forefront of both her artistic considerations and developmental issues is really a testament to her courage.”
Pickett left the Sun-Times in 2007, and a year ago she moved with her family to a quiet town just outside of Madison, Wis. Today she runs her own media firm, Page 2 Communications, and finds time to write in a home office that overlooks her family’s backyard woods. Sometimes she still misses her journalism glory days, but she hangs onto some of the habits: She writes her first drafts entirely by hand.
“I think that comes from being a journalist, with your notebook in your hand,” she says. “The beauty of fiction is that if I’m somehow missing a detail, I just get to make it up.”