CATALYST: When were you first introduced to journalism? What made you want to pursue it as a career?
Hampton Sides: I grew up in the Woodward and Bernstein era of journalism. There was a whole generation of young journalists who saw what Woodward and Bernstein did at the Washington Post in bringing down Nixon and were inspired to go into journalism. I was definitely part of that generation. I had a little notebook and was the editor of my high school newspaper. I wanted to be a journalist. What that meant for me was to go to D.C., work my sources, and bring down the powerful vested interests. I did exactly that for nearly a decade, and I hated it. I hated that kind of source journalism. It wasn’t for me; I wasn’t good at it. I spent that decade worming my way slowly but surely into writing history and writing long form narrative nonfiction books and magazine pieces, just trying to get away from Washington. That was the pinnacle of journalism—to be Woodward and Bernstein. It never really happened like that before, where the president was brought down by reporting.
What are some of the publications you have worked and/or freelanced for?
I’ve worked for National Geographic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Esquire, and Outside. I was an editor and a writer at Outside. I now jump around still a lot, working on a piece for the Atlantic.
What was it like working at Outside magazine?
When I first started working at Outside, they were based in Chicago. We called it Inside magazine because it’s so cold working in downtown Chicago that we just stayed inside most of the time. We sent writers all over the world to write these pieces, but we stayed inside and drank coffee all day and drank bourbon and beer all night and put these pieces together. We were unhealthy and not outside-y at all. When the company moved to Santa Fe in 1994, that [culture] changed. We started actually doing stuff we were writing about. People were skiing, camping, and biking a lot. Now, I hardly recognize the place. These guys paraglide to work and kayak home pretty much. It is extremely gear-savvy and techy kind of crew that runs it. Also, just a really cool place. All magazines have some kind of beat, focus, and a lifestyle that they cover. I can’t think of anything as interesting as the outdoors. The politics of the outdoors, the environmental politics, sports, adventure, travel. It’s something I never got tired of and still think it’s great.
When did you leave?
I left outside full time in 1998 to work on a book about WWII in the Philippines. It was a story about the Bataan Death March and the prison camps run by the Japanese. I spent two or three years on that project. I traveled all over the world, including Japan. That book, “Ghost Soldiers,” came out in 2001. That book changed my life. Up to that point, all the writing I had done was hustling, freelancing, trying to get three stories out of one trip. I had three kids at that time. I was terrified I wouldn’t make it. It sold nearly a million copies, though, and I thought, ‘Wow, I can make a living out of this.’ It changed the whole dynamic for me. I also had thought of myself almost exclusively as journalist. In that book, even though it was a historical topic, it was based on interviews with survivors and veterans. But here I was, a historian now. From then on, I’ve written more historical books that go deeper into the past. There is a semi-permeable membrane between journalism and history, and between writing for periodicals and longer books. I enjoy how they inform each other. So, that’s been a transition for me.
What is your least favorite story you have written?
I wrote a profile last year for a men’s magazine on Cristiano Ronaldo, the greatest soccer player in the world—or at least he thinks he is. I flew to Madrid and waited over a week to interview him. I know it sounds really terrible to be stuck in Madrid, but I couldn’t leave hotel as the phone might ring anytime. During the interview, he got distracted and left the interview within one minute. I spent all this money and had to piece his profile together by talking to other people. He’s a douche. I interviewed his family, other players, and watched him practice. I like to go deep on my pieces. To do a profile on someone you haven’t met, it’s difficult. You have to reinvent the wheel to make it work. I went to [one of Ronaldo’s photo shoots for underwear], which was very close to him and his junk.
How do you overcome the cliché ‘writer’s block’?
One of the ways is having three kids who are in college. I know a lot of writers have to wait for their muse to kick in, you know, ‘I didn’t feel like it today, so I didn’t write.’ I chuckle at that. For me, the muse is the bills that have to be paid. It’s a job, and I mean that in the best sense of the world. A surgeon can’t say that, like he just doesn’t feel like operating today. The writer can’t either. If you’re stuck in a story, work on another part of the story. If there is a kink there, go somewhere else. Also, sleeping on it. Sometimes, you wake up and the problem is solved.
I have two sons here. I think it was their worst nightmare having me on campus, as if I would show up to Classy Wednesday and be doing keg stands. But, I think I’ve done a good job.
I’m working on a new one about the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War, which was truly one of the gnarliest battles in U.S. history. I’m going to Korea this summer, maybe to North Korea, but I don’t want to go to jail and spend 12 years in a labor camp.
What do you do in your free time?
I have a group of friends in Santa Fe who have a shack in an arroyo, and we listen to music as loud as it will go for hours. It’s like ice fishing: guys being guys. I also swim a lot. I’ve swam across Mississippi river in Memphis, which you’re not supposed to do, and I wrote about it for Outside.
If you could enroll in a CC class, what would it be?
One of the field-trip classes CC is so famous for, like the Faulkner Class in Memphis or the Homer class in Greece.
What have you found at or learned about CC that surprised you since starting here last year as Journalist-in-Residence?
It’s an extraordinary place, a light-on-its-feet institution. If there’s a problem, people fix it. If you have an idea for class or symposium or a speaker to bring in, it happens. At most institutions, people line up and give you excuses why it won’t work. Here, they make it happen. It’s like, if you can do that much in three and a half weeks, what can’t you do? There’s a suppleness and unpretentiousness about the approach.