Authors In The Media With Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

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Authors In The Media Q&A With Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

In the later part of 2023 I did a Q&A with author & former journalist Joanne Leedom-Ackerman. We discussed her books, and briefly discussed her journalism career and the organization PEN International. In this Q&A we will go in more detail about both her journalism career & PEN International which helps writers around the world under threat of persecution, imprisonment & death. 

Q: Joanne, when we did our Q&A in the later part of 2023, you explained to me what you enjoyed about both journalism writing but really wanted to focus on writing longer, fuller stories. Would you ever return to journalism or just focus on writing books full time? 

A: I’m able to do both, though these days, my shorter writing more often takes the form of an essay and articles posted in my monthly Substack “On the Yellow Brick Road” where I share a blog on a topic of the day, a short article on a Writer at Risk which includes action to take to assist the writer, and several short reviews of books I’ve read which in some way link, usually at least one newly published book. Journalism and essays keep me in touch with the immediate day to day and keep me writing. The novel is still my favorite form where ideas and characters and story can go the distance and take much more time. My recent novels Burning Distance and The Far Side of the Desert took years to complete, but some of the backstory I learned and developed when writing journalistic pieces for newspapers or blogs for my website.
Q: Joanne, you mentioned in our regular Q&A you were on the front lines of several debates & demonstrations one of them being the Vietnam War protests. Would you like to talk about what those experiences were like?

A: These experiences occurred when I was a young reporter for The Christian Science Monitor and was covering Vietnam War protests. At the time I was covering both civil rights protests and Vietnam War protests in Boston. The largest Vietnam protest I covered was a march from the Boston Common to Harvard Square where a riot broke out and lasted through the night. I spent part of the evening along with others in a church which opened up for the protesters who wanted to get away from the tear gas and the police dogs. There were Molotov cocktails being thrown into shop windows and police filling the streets. I slept a few hours in the church and had to look around for a pay phone in order to file my story.

Q: When you were a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, you had access to top academics, politicians & thinkers! Can you give a list of these academics, politicians & thinkers you’ve met & interviewed? 

A: It was many years ago, so I don’t have a list to refer to, but I recall interviewing Senator Ted Kennedy. In one story where I was researching the effect of Nixon’s wage price controls on Europe, I interviewed top economic professors at Harvard and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. I remember talking with James Farmer who told me the story of his father who was in hospital while Farmer was on the freedom rides through the South. Farmer said each day his father would ask, “Where is Jimmy today?” His father died just before Farmer would have gone into Mississippi. Farmer said he suspected his father held off dying to keep him from going into Mississippi and the danger that entailed. He left the freedom rides to bury his father and believed his father was trying to save him. 

Q: You’ve also worked with talented reporters who remain your friends and are top journalists today! I think that’s amazing! Which of these famous journalists did you work with that are still your friends?

A: I had the privilege of working with many talented reporters and editors. I have remained good friends with three women in particular: Robin Wright, author of many books, who still reports on current affairs, particularly in the Middle East. She is a regular writer for The New Yorker now and is often a commentator on CNN, NBC and others. Trudy Rubin, the diplomatic columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer who still goes over to cover the hotspots of international affairs, is frequently in the Middle East and just returned from Ukraine. And Julia Malone, who I’ve known the longest. Julia went on to be the White House correspondent for Cox News, which includes The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Julia has retired now from reporting, but we often get together and analyze the news of the day.


Q: What are important lessons you’ve learned as a journalist that would help future journalists today? 

A: As a writer, journalism, especially the daily journalism at the Monitor, taught me to be dogged in pursuing facts and information; to be scrupulous in getting it right, to listen to many voices and points of view, and to write every day. The bonus was that I was published every other day. Journalism kept me attuned to the thoughts and activities of the world each day. As a training ground for fiction, it was excellent preparation. I learned not only the discipline of writing daily and listening to many people, I grew comfortable with the multiplicity of voices so that I find dialogue comes easily to me. 

In shifting to fiction, however, I had to learn to look at the world not from the outside, but from the inside, from a character’s point of view. I had to learn to see what shaped that point of view and how it related to the other characters in the story. Journalism, they say, is the first draft of history. In many ways some articles I wrote were the first draft of the larger story I would write in my novels The Dark Path to the River, Burning Distance and The Far Side of the Desert.

Q: We briefly spoke about PEN International in our Q&A late last year. You spoke about how PEN International helps writers around the world under threat of persecution, imprisonment & death. How does PEN secure writers their freedom or escape from the countries they are being persecuted in? 

A: The methodology of what works to secure a writer’s freedom has been modified over the years. When I began working with PEN, members would write letters of protest to the governments imprisoning the writers and write to the Ambassadors in the countries and to the Ambassadors of one’s own countries and write to the imprisoned writer him/herself in solidarity. In addition, PEN International would protest at the United Nations where PEN has consultative status, particularly through the UN Human Rights Commission which meets in Geneva and also on occasion with UNESCO. These methods are still used, but the internet and social media have changed the dynamic. There are so many avenues of communication these days and so much communication, governments are more hardened to this kind of deluge of protest. Writers also hold vigils and try to get media coverage about the writer’s circumstance. An effective method remains to find someone within a government or elsewhere who can directly contact the relevant official on the other side to secure a release. Writers are also at risk from non-state actors such as terrorist or criminal gangs. 

PEN International has centers in over 100 countries, and the outpouring of care and protest from around the world on a case can still have an effect, though at times it has also hardened governments such as China in cases like Liu Xiaobo.

Q: I believe the world should know about every writer being persecuted in other parts of the world. However, what are current stories that you want to bring awareness about that we should know more about?

A: It is very difficult to choose one case over another. In my monthly (free) Substack, I profile one writer at risk each month and list actions to take so I will review those cases with a link here to the Substack where more information is given.

Maria Cristina Garrido Rodriguez from Cuba

Narges Mohammadi from Iran

Ilhan Sami Çomak from Turkey

Rahile Dawut from China

Ga Sherab Gyatso (Gosher) from Tibet/China

Iryna Donylovych from Crimea

Sooulaiman Raissouni from Morocco

Galal El-Behairy from Egypt

Salma al-Shehab from Saudi Arabia

Yang Hengjun from China

Pinar Selek from Turkey

Gui Minhai from China

Maksim Znak from Belarus

Freddy Antonio Quezada from Nicaragua

Pham Doan Trang from Vietnam

Arnon Nampa from Thailand

Q: You were president of one of two American PEN centers the year of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the year of the Tiananmen Square protests. Did you ever get to meet Salman Rushdie? If so, what was he like? Were you on site at the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre? If so, what was it like? I know I would be terrified! 

A: I was President of PEN Center USA West the year of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and along with PEN members around the world, we mobilized in protest. We recognized right away the uniqueness of this attack against a writer. I have met Salman on numbers of occasions. When I lived in London, he would occasionally show up for a PEN event. The year I was elected at the International PEN Congress to head PEN’s human rights work as Chair of its International Writers in Prison Committee, Salman made a surprise visit to the Congress, and a few of us had dinner together. He is a very smart, dedicated writer who has managed to use this attack on him and the fame resulting to grow as a writer and to help other writers. 

The year I was President of PEN USA Tiananmen Square protests also occurred. I was not in China but in Los Angeles where we mobilized and sorted through all the Chinese names for writers who had been imprisoned. I visited Tiananmen Square many years after, but it was a quieter time, at least on the surface. One of those names from Tiananmen Square was the writer Liu Xiaobo who went on decades later to be the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize for Peace. I was honored to be asked to be the lead editor on a book of essays about Xiaobo in English: The Journey of Liu Xiaobo: From Dark Horse to Nobel Laureate.

Q: Speaking of Salman Rushdie, have you read his memoir Knife? What were your thoughts about it? I know I plan on reading it in the future! 

A: I haven’t yet read the memoir, but I have heard interviews with him about the book and the experience.

Q: I know you provided links last year on how we can help with PEN International to bring awareness about persecuted writers around the world. Would you still please post the links here again? I want to keep spreading the word!

A: The links on behalf of the writers I listed in the earlier question refer to the individual profiles in my Substack and to the actions that can be taken on behalf of the writers. The link for PEN International is 

For PEN American is 

And other PEN Center links can be found on PEN International’s website.

On my Substack and on my website are links to other organizations which work in the field of free expression.