Author of Black Hawk Down discusses research in Africa

Mark Bowden has never been one to listen to authority.

So when nobody would hear the veteran reporter’s request to explore a budding book idea in Mogadishu, Somalia, he wasn’t discouraged.

Today, Bowden has turned that rough story sketch into a #1 New York Times Bestseller and a blockbuster movie hit. Based on a Philadelphia Inquirer series that won the Overseas Press Club’s Hal Boyle Award for best foreign reporting, Black Hawk Down was also a finalist for the 1999 National Book Award for non-fiction.

In a Gaudino lecture last Wednesday evening, the author gave students an inside look at his experiences as a journalist, book-writer and screenwriter.

“I was always a stubborn, sleuth employee,” said Bowden, who chose his first reporting job over a higher-paying supermarket cashier position.

“I would try to stay away from the office as much as possible. I never told anybody what I was working on if I could avoid it and I never asked permission to do a story. If it was something that I was excited about, I would just go up and start doing it.”

Bowden began the research for Black Hawk Down in 1996 – two and a half years after the UN peacekeeping raid that left 99 American soldiers trapped overnight in the city of Mogadishu. The struggle was the longest sustained ground battle involving American soldiers since the Vietnam War.

The “Battle of the Black Sea” ended with the death of 18 American soldiers and an estimated 500 Somalis.

In the days following the debacle, Bowden was moved by the powerful photographs that appeared in the media.

“It made me angry, it confused me,” he said. “I didn’t understand how a humanitarian mission where we ostensibly went to feed people had evolved into something where angry mobs were dragging dead American soldiers through the streets.”

The images also struck the reporter with an idea for his next project: “I just thought, ‘Wow. What a hell of a story that would be.’”

He embarked on an investigative mission knowing little about the battle and bearing no military experience. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I got started,” he said. “I had begun this project with no real idea about how to go about doing it.”

Although his first attempts to contact sources in Washington were largely unsuccessful, Bowden soon discovered that his most valuable resources were the soldiers who had actually fought in the battle, or the families of the men who had died there.

After numerous interviews, his project swelled with a collection of new contacts and a mass of detailed, first-hand accounts.

But his research was far from complete.

“At some point it dawned on me that I would have to go to Somalia,” he said. “There are two sides to every story and of no story is that more true than of a battle.”

In 1997, the Inquirer sent Bowden and a photographer to Nairobi where they caught a flight to Mogadishu riding on sacks of khat, a popular narcotic of the area. He spent seven days in the city, unearthing the second side of the story, interviewing local residents and meeting with leaders of the Habr Gidr clan, whom he describes as “polite but unfriendly.”

“That trip to Somalia was tremendous for the book,” Bowden said. “It allowed me to have at least some insight into why the Somalis had grown so angry with the UN and U.S. presence there. It added a whole other level of intelligence to the book – something I’m very proud of.”

For the 2001 movie, Bowden had a chance to work with director Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Gladiator”) and producer Jerry Bruckheimer (“Top Gun,” “The Rock”). He collaborated with screenwriter Ken Nolan on writing the screenplay, a venture that he described as “storytelling, in a more abstract way.”

“I’m very impressed with how accurate the depiction in film was and I’m also really impressed with how much of the story of the battle gets into those two and a half hours,” he said.

Since completing work with Black Hawk Down, Bowden has written another novel, Killing Pablo, a detailed account of the hunt for Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar and the role of U.S. forces in his capture.

“I love throwing myself into a story, like the story of Pablo Escobar, which happened in a country that I had never visited, with a language I don’t speak and an event that I knew almost nothing about,” he said.

“For me, the fun of it is to just dive in and figure out how to report it. To work on it literally for years until you feel that you have had enough of an understanding of what happened, that you can confidently sit down and tell at least a piece of the story.”

But Bowden’s storytelling approach is not limited to his non-fiction. He applies the same philosophy to his news writing.

“My primary motivation is to tell a good story,” he said. “It may sound trite, but I want to entertain the person reading the story. That’s what motivates literature – the desire to record your existence and the existence of other people.”

“For me personally, it’s my way of making sense of my life of the world around me, and in a way trying to understand why things happen the way they do,”

As both an author and a journalist, Bowden tries to approach any situation with a “blank slate.” “I feel that if that if I undertook a project with some political motivation or with an idea that I wanted to make an argument for, it would ruin the experience,” he said.

“I love walking into a controversial situation with no agenda whatsoever. Just as an intelligent, curious human being who wants to try to understand what really happened here and tell other people about it.”

Bowden encourages aspiring novelists and journalists to become the sole directors of their own career paths.

“Always be working on the most ambitious thing that you’ve ever done,” he said. “If you’ve got one project that really challenges you more than anything, you’ll always be learning more things about what you’re doing, and you’ll get better and better at it.”

In the upcoming months, Bowden will continue to live by this ideal, working on a screenplay for Killing Pablo and “Tales of a Tyrant”, a piece on Saddam Hussein that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. His newest book idea will take him to Iran, where he plans to research the Iranian hostage crisis.

Yet, through all of these daring undertakings, Bowden insists that the adventure of writing is still what thrills him the most:

“My goal is that a hundred years from now, if someone wants to know what happened, or what was going on, they’ll say ‘You need to read this book. Because this book that Mark Bowden wrote knows what it’s talking about.’ And to me, that’s the most exciting work that I can imagine doing.”