Fergus M. Bordewich’s review of Island on Fire in “Three Books on Jamaica – Anatomy of an Uprising,” The Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2020.
Tom Zoellner was awarded the Arizona Historical Society’s Sonnichsen Award for his article “The Catalina Highway: Boosterism, Convict Labor, and the Road to Tucson’s Backyard Mountain,” from the summer 2019 issue of The Journal of Arizona History, March 5, 2020.
“The Cabin,” by Tom Zoellner, available now in The Maine Review, Spring 2017, Issue 3.2.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies names Train to “Recon Recommended: A Holiday Reading List,” December 21, 2016.
A historical marker commemorating Lisbon Valley’s uranium heritage in Utah installed, with Zoellner’s support. The Moab Times Independent, October 27, 2016.
Harry Levin’s review of Train in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Tom Zoellner Explores the History of a Revolt in Jamaica That Ended Slavery in the British Empire, KJZZ 91.5, May 27, 2020
As America Freaks Out About Extreme Heat, Phoenix Could Go Outside and Embrace It, KJZZ 91.5, January 3, 2020
Press Play with Madeleine Brand, April 27, 2016
Bloomberg Radio, January 30, 2014
The Daily Show interview April 2, 2009
American Public Media. “Marketplace,” March 27th, 2009
KUER, Utah. “RadioWest,” March 19th, 2009
Canadian Broadcasting Company. “The Current,” Dec. 8, 2006
WBUR, Boston. “Here and Now,” Dec. 6, 2006
KQED, San Francisco. “Forum,” June 8, 2006
National Public Radio. “Talk of the Nation,” May 24, 2006
National Public Radio. “All Things Considered,” July 1, 2002
Q: Who is De Beers and what does your book say about them?
A: De Beers Consolidated Mines, based in Johannesburg, South Africa, has dominated the industry for more than a century. It was founded by the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who managed to corner almost all of the mining claims in South Africa in the 1870s and thus make diamonds “rare” when they’re really not. If there was ever a truly free market in diamonds, these stones would cost a fraction of their current price, so no free market could be allowed to exist. This philosophy has kept jewelry prices sky-high ever since. Despite new discoveries in Canada and Australia, De Beers still has enormous amount of control over the diamond trade. DeBeers influences every diamond purchased in the world in some way or another, and yet so little is known about them and how they do business. This book is really the first to explore the history and inner workings of the organization in a complete fashion.
Q: What inspired this book?
A: A lot of it was because of the weird relationship I had with the diamond ring left over from a broken engagement. I was pretty depressed and found myself dealing with the heartbreak in an odd sort of way. I became slightly obsessed with the ring my ex-fiancée gave back to me. The thought of selling it was too hard to contemplate. But at the same time, I knew it was only a polished piece of carbon and I had never been very interested in jewelry before. So why did I care so much about this ring? Finding the answer to that question took me around the globe.
Q: The reporting took you to six continents. What did you find?
A: I met some people I will never forget. Many of them were working in the most obscure places you could imagine – dingy factories in India, distant hilltops in Brazil, villages in Central Africa, warehouses in Siberia, mining camps above the Arctic Circle. The stories I heard were incredible. Diamonds have made fortunes and ruined lives in places you wouldn’t expect.
Q: Were there some dangerous moments?
A: There were a few occasions when I was mistaken for a diamond smuggler. I was arrested and briefly detained in a central African country for reasons that were unclear to me at the time. I got feverish and sick from bad water. But other than that, it went pretty smoothly.
Q: What are “blood diamonds”?
A: These are diamonds that are mined in violent places and used to buy guns and landmines. Children are also forced to pick up shovels and dig for stones that eventually will become a part of somebody’s wedding ring in America. At one point not so long ago, nearly one in six of the diamonds sold in this country had probably come from such circumstances. The problem is, it’s impossible to know. De Beers and the rest of the diamond industry have taken steps toward correcting the “blood diamond” problem, but the solution they devised, known as the Kimberly Process, is full of flaws and loopholes. And so diamonds with violent pedigrees are still being sold as “symbols of love” in America, and the consumer has no way to know about it. One of the biggest problems is that it takes a formal state of war to trigger a sanction against a diamond-producing nation. But several regions in Africa are permanently unstable, with people being robbed, beaten and killed around the mines every day. The workers often have to swallow the bigger diamonds to smuggle them out, and people are sometimes sliced open like fish so their intestines can be searched for hidden stones. Those are very bloody diamonds, but so far as the industry is concerned, they’re pure as a snowflake. They’re under the glass right now at your local shopping mall. future projects?
Q: If diamonds can be so unsavory, why do people continue to buy them?
A: There’s an old saying in the business: “If diamonds didn’t exist, we would have to invent them.” This book goes deeply into the psychology behind the desire to wear a brightly colored stone. I think it goes straight to the heart of the experience of being alive—this urge to possess and coexist with a sliver of perfect beauty. De Beers and the rest of the industry have built a brilliant mythology around this simple urge. And so there’s this collective myth about diamonds in American society, in Japanese society, in European society, in just about every place that diamonds have been marketed. The ironic thing is that diamonds are fundamentally worthless. They’re just rocks that twinkle under the light. I mean, big deal, right? They are valuable only because we’ve been taught to project our own longings onto them. That’s the REALLY interesting thing about diamonds: the way they become these little sparkling holding devices for our own primitive emotions and hungers. I experienced this myself in a very personal way when I found myself mythologizing my ex-fiancée’s diamond as some kind of symbol of what the relationship had been and would never be again. And I’m a slobby, beer-drinking guy who had never cared about jewelry before.
Q: After all that you’ve experienced, do you think you’ll ever be able to purchase a diamond again?
A: I understand the appeal. I bought one for someone once. But I’ll never buy another one again.
Author Tom Zoellner talks to Gelf about his new book The Heartless Stone, in which he uncovers the PR campaign that has turned diamonds from mere rocks into potent symbols of love and power. He also talks about the future of diamond mining as it (hopefully) moves away from the battlefield and into the lab.
By David Goldenberg
Four years ago, while living in Zambia, I met a man from Brooklyn who wanted to buy my car—if it had enough hidden compartments. When I asked him why his vehicle-accessory wish list included concealed spaces, he smiled and said, “Diamonds.” The man explained that he had become friendly with an Angolan army officer who had offered to split with him the mineral profits from a recent battle over a mine—provided that the New Yorker would undertake the task of getting the stones from Angola to buyers in the States. So this guy wanted my car to get the gems into Zambia, and—oh, by the way, would I be interested in making some quick cash by taking a few oddly-colored diamonds to a dealer in Harlem?
I relate this anecdote to Tom Zoellner, who is unsurprised. After spending a year traveling through six continents to report for his new book The Heartless Stone, Zoellner is well-versed in the seedy nature of the diamond trade, so to him, the propositioning of a writer for diamond mule duty doesn’t sound far-fetched. (For the record, I refused.) While researching his book, Zoellner himself was mistaken for a smuggler more than once.
How did Zoellner get into this? He started his investigation after he was left with a ring from a broken engagement. He wondered why he could have such a strong attachment to a rock so long after the relationship it was based on was over, so he decided to look into the roots of the diamond business. What he found was that the stones themselves are not that special. They are naturally deposited in larger quantities and in more places than you’d think (Arkansas, anyone?) and their simple chemical composition means they can be easily (and cheaply) synthesized in the lab.
Diamonds are considered so valuable, Zoellner found, because of one of the most successful PR campaigns in history. Over the last century, the De Beers Company has managed to convince the diamond-buying public that these rocks are rare, precious, and irreplaceable symbols of everything from success to true love. (In the book, Zoellner sometimes takes that symbolism a little too far; he can’t resist comparing many of his subjects—including both rebel leader Jonas Savimbi and rapper Master P—to the stones.)
Zoellner weaves an impressive narrative connecting the child soldier in Africa to the child laborer in India to the young actress sparkling on the red carpet. This mythology surrounding the gem—the “diamond song,” as he calls it—is at the root of much death and destruction, and we are lucky that Zoellner was intrepid and brave enough to expose how the corrupt industry really works.
Gelf caught up with Zoellner over the phone just as he was finishing up his book-publicity tour in Boston. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Gelf Magazine: Several times in the book you talk about how diamonds are artificially rare. How do we know that?
Tom Zoellner: We don’t have any idea how many there are still buried in the ground. That’s a geological mystery. One thing is for sure: There is no free market in diamonds. This market exists because of artificial scarcity. If diamonds were treated like any other commodity like copper or cobalt or what have you, the price would plummet.
GM: Do you have any idea what that price would be?
TZ: It’s anybody’s guess. I did not attempt to arrive at that figure in my research. But I don’t think anybody in the diamond industry would say with a straight face that these stones go straight to market for the market price. That’s never been the idea with the modern diamond industry.
GM: In your book there’s a big section about how diamonds can be made synthetically, which was also the subject of a Wired article a few years back. When I read both the article and your book, I said “Wow, this is really happening.” And then I tried to find evidence that this is happening, but I haven’t seen any real results yet.
TZ: It’s off the ground. The leading company is making a healthy profit. It’s called Gemesis.
GM: So why do diamonds still cost the same amount of money if there are these cheaper diamonds flooding into the market?
TZ: This in an industry in its infancy. They’re only putting out about 500 carats every month. They’re only doing yellows, for a couple reasons. Yellow diamonds are more expensive and the profit margin is greater because they’re rarer in nature, but paradoxically it’s easier to make a yellow diamond in a machine because of the slight amount of nitrogen impurities that get into that graphite. It’s possible to make a colorless diamond in what’s called a BARS machine, but it’s not economical at this point. However, the technology is only going to get better. What you’re looking for—that infinite-supply-driven collapse of diamond prices—may well happen.
GM: So would you suggest to people who own a lot of diamonds to sell now?
TZ: (Laughing.) When I wrote the book, I didn’t want to be prescriptive and tell anybody what to do with diamonds they now own or with diamonds they will one day acquire. I didn’t want to be this sort of censorious tut-tutter. I didn’t want to sit up here on some pedestal and say “Bad people. No diamonds.” What needs to happen is a real knowledge of what lies behind the mythology that keeps this commerce alive. It’s really this silly little rock. The only thing that makes it anything at all is this grand mythology that’s been structured around that. Take that away, and you’ve got nothing. You’ve got an empty little pebble. It’s the most ridiculous thing in the world.
GM: In terms of this mythology, do you think De Beers has a chance to convince people that these synthetic diamonds—even though they’re the same thing, chemically—are actually different?
TZ: You hit on exactly what it’s going to come down to. This is going to be the duel of narratives. When I asked the director of external relations for the De Beers Group in London, a guy named Andy Bone, if they were worried about this, he went into a response that was just pure poetry. A pure hagiography of the diamond.
[Editor’s note. Here’s a sample of the rambling narrative Bone gives Zoellner in Chapter Nine:
[Natural diamonds are] as old as time itself. They are made of the same thing we are—carbon. And when you give one to a woman, it’s a symbolic exchange of commitment. You have to remember, a diamond is much more than a physical thing. The physical intercourse between men and women is something without words, and that’s what a diamond conveys—something without words. Now take a diamond created by this mysterious process of nature and put it next to one created in a lab in Florida six months ago. Which of these are you going to choose to carry your message? The diamond created in the laboratory has lost the mystery.”]
It’s going to come down to who can spin the most convincing back story around their stone. If those who make diamonds above ground can make the same sort of romance around that product that the purveyors of diamonds from the ground have been able to do, then, yes: You’re going to see a real titanic shift in this industry.
GM: If this titanic shift occurs, what effect will this have on diamond-related fighting in Sub-Saharan Africa—in Angola, Sierra Leone and Congo?
TZ: It will certainly help dry that up. No question. If outsiders stop going into Africa to offer these tempting prices for the stone, then a really efficient funding of civil conflicts will be gone.
GM: In the long run, will the fact that these natural resources that these countries have are no longer worth as much going to hurt them?
TZ: You’ve opened up a real question mark here, and I have been asked this quite a bit. If you took diamond-mining away—let’s say you could wave a magic wand and basically strip diamonds from the countries where they have been deposited by nature or by God—would that be a good thing? Certainly in the short run, it would not be, because tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people would be instantly out of work. One of the only sources for getting out of absolute, grinding poverty in some of these places where alluvial mining is done would be gone. In the long run, however, I do think diamonds have mostly—I don’t want to make a total statement here because diamonds have been used for positive development purposes in a couple of places; Botswana and Namibia are the shining examples—but for the most part this stone has been a real curse for Africa instead of a blessing, and I think that the people who are unfortunate enough to live in some of these areas where there is a sprinkling of diamonds—by the hand of nature or the hand of God—they have been more wounded by them than they have benefited from them.
GM: After writing your book, do you think that it is at all possible to keep the non-blood diamonds from mixing in with the blood diamonds?
TZ: I think it’s possible to tighten up the existing system certainly. The existing system is almost more PR than it is an effective tool for ending the blood diamond trade. You can take steps towards eradicating this problem and more can be done, but no, in the long run I’m a pessimist about this. A diamond has been judged to be so valuable by the rest of the world and it is so easy to smuggle and it is so easy to conceal its origin that I don’t think this problem will ever be completely resolved as long as we have this fairly silly obsession with diamonds in the Western world.
GM: Have you heard from anyone in the diamond industry since your book was published? I can’t imagine that De Beers was that psyched about your book.
TZ: De Beers did meet with me afterwards, and they wanted me to be aware of everything that they’re doing to help end the trade in conflict diamonds. As I said before, that’s absolutely true. They have been taking steps to make sure that this issue—I don’t think anyone can ever make it go away—that the trade in these stones is reduced. I appreciated them reminding me of that. They do have to be given a certain amount of credit for acknowledging the issue and stepping up to the plate and making small steps in the direction of trying to end this.
GM: In the book you go from this very journalistic style to this very personal style of writing about your ex-fiancé. Have you heard from her at all since you wrote the book? Was she pissed that you wrote this big book about the diamond that you gave her?
TZ: I sent her a copy but I have not heard from her.
GM: One of the things you talk about a lot is the role that Hollywood has played in terms of hyping diamonds’ mystique…
TZ: Hollywood has been a handmaiden of De Beers in this whole thing.
GM: Is that an acknowledged relationship?
TZ: It was a somewhat unadvertised partnership that De Beers had with Hollywood studios and also with screenwriters and Broadway lyricists. And there was their shameless manipulation of the celebrity press. They were masters at making sure that diamonds made their way into these bits and pieces of celebrity journalism.
GM: Do you still see that today?
TZ: Not as much. Certainly the industry—we’re going beyond De Beers here—they love to see diamonds portrayed in the popular media: JLo’s big six-carat ring; the diamond-coated dress worn by Maria Menounos to the Oscars. Diamonds have always benefited from their association with royalty, and the royalty that we have in this country is our celebrities.
GM: There’s a new movie coming out called Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio. I saw an article in the Independent that said that this movie is going to be putting the diamond trade in a pretty terrible light.
TZ: They’re on the defensive. De Beers announced that they’re going to be spending $15 million on a PR campaign to try to save their image from this movie. It underlines a central truth to the diamond trade, which is that image is everything. Instead of focusing this time and energy on correcting some of the root causes, they’re going to be focusing on this PR campaign to save their image. In fairness, De Beers has since the late 1990s taken steps to eradicate this trade at the source. They were a big driving factor behind the Kimberley Process—they don’t like blood diamonds any more than you or I or any reader of your magazine does, if for no other reason than it really hurts their image. A diamond depends on that image to be something that people will coo over, that they spend large amounts of money on. If you throw a bucket of blood on that, if you turn it into the mink-fur kind of thing that has a certain social taint to it, then they stand to lose not just their market share but also their entire industry.
GM: But if it’s just an image thing, then it’s just as good for them to be spending it on PR as to clear up the root cause.
TZ: As a business strategy, it’s certainly characteristic of what a smart diamond executive would do. My contention is: Fix the problem where it starts, on the ground in Africa.
GM: One of the things that you talk about in the book is that there have been cultural shifts away from diamonds in Japan in particular. Do you think that’s possible in the US? What needs to change for people to say, “We’re no longer interested in diamonds as an engagement ring?”
TZ: What happened in Asia was due to the shocks of the Asian financial crisis which convinced the majority of Japanese that they had better things to spend their discretionary income on, particularly where the crucible of people’s interest in diamonds is in that time of engagement. In your 20s, when you are making your first major purchases, establishing a pattern for the rest of your life. Young Japanese couples were worried that their jobs might not be as secure as they used to be, and we’ve got to do something about this. I wouldn’t want to wish a national depression down on us, but I wonder what would happen to diamond purchases if that were to happen.
It could be that the if the industry does not move to correct some of these problems with diamonds being used to fund civil conflicts in Africa, with diamonds being polished by children in India, if some of these really ugly aspects of the industry don’t get cleaned up and if they get enough attention here in the US, it could be that more and more brides will say this is not the kind of mark I want to be wearing on my finger. It is a rock, but really it’s the symbolism behind it that makes it worth much of anything.
GM: You also talk a little bit about the relationship between rappers and diamonds. You mention that Kanye West has started speaking out about diamonds. Do you see that relationship changing at all?
TZ: As for Kanye, that song Diamonds from Sierra Leone really reflected I think not so much a rejection of diamonds, as a real ambivalence about diamonds. In that, he was sort of speaking for a lot of people in the hip-hop community who have a real double-vision about diamonds. On the one hand, they do realize that these are very potent symbols of success and ostentatious display that you’ve arrived. But on the other hand, there’s an awareness that these stones do come from Africa, and often from not-so-great places. I don’t think the verdict is in on what the hip-hop community is ultimately going to make of diamonds.
GM: One of the things we saw that we thought was cool was that on your book’s website you put corrections on there. [Editor’s note: Gelf does a quasi-weekly roundup of notable corrections.] Why did you decide to do that?
TZ: I wanted to be transparent about everything. It comes from my background as a newspaper reporter. If you got something wrong, the newspaper was going to highlight it the next day on page A2. If you write a nonfiction book and an error is called to your attention, you need to correct it at the first possible opportunity, which for me is the paperback edition. Those goofs are going to be corrected in the paperback, and it’s not perfect, but you want to try to be as accurate as you can be.
GM: The Wall Street Journal did a review of your book, and one of the lines was that your geology was lacking. I believe you actually ended up doing a correction based on it. Did you feel that in general you didn’t have the background for it or they just pointed out one or two facts you messed up?
TZ: I think it was the latter. First of all, I have no geological training, nor have I ever claimed to have any geological training. The Journal was absolutely correct. I am not a geologist. I was relying on the word of the experts whom I was dealing with. Of his contentions, one I’m still investigating; another I’m not going to correct because I heard it from a professional geologist who has a PhD; and the third he did bust me correctly on—I said that a type of diamond in Australia is 16 billion years old, which he pointed out, somewhat amusingly, is older than the solar system. He’s absolutely correct. What happened is, I misplaced a decimal point. It’s actually 1.6 billion years old. I went back and checked. I deserved to be busted on that one.
GM: Have you seen anything change since publishing that you would add on now?
TZ: The book has only been out two months, but I think the impact of the movie (Blood Diamond] is going to be interesting. The paperback will be coming out next year, and there may be some revisions and updates.
Puzzled and scared, Zoellner asked, “You want me to go in there?” And he remembers that “For the first time since being arrested, I began to get frightened. I could feel my hands start to tremble. Visions of an impromptu execution and a river burial began playing in my mental cineplex. They must have somehow found out I had met with diamond smugglers.”
And so goes one of the most harrowing scenes in Zoellner’s book The Heartless Stone. Leonardo might have been nominated for an Oscar for his role in a somewhat similar movie, but Zoellner actually lived this stuff. In researching and writing his book, Zoellner travelled to fourteen nations on six continents. All in search of discovering the basis of man’s obsession with diamonds.
Zoellner’s previous work includes publications in Men’s Health and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also the co-author of An Ordinary Man, the autobiography of Rwanda hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina that was the basis for the film Hotel Rwanda. [Note: the film preceeded the book].
Zoellner was kind enough to talk to us about conflict diamonds, piling up stacks of notes and interviews in an increasingly heavy pack, and marketing efforts for authors.
Slushpile: How did you decide to launch your research for The Heartless Stone in the Central African Republic, a country with only one legitimate way in or out for foreigners?
Zoellner: There were reports about this nation being a way-station for diamond smuggling. I wanted to see if this was true. It was also a good place to look at the remote mines where diamonds are mined from the riverbeds. The Central African Republic also represents a puzzle, which I think is one of the central puzzles of the book. Here is one of the poorest nations on the globe, yet it is the worlds tenth largest producer of diamonds. How can this be?
Slushpile: During the course of researching this book, you visited fourteen nations and six continents. Frequently, the locales were remote and dangerous. How much pre-planning did you do before arriving in these areas? Did you line up guides, security, lodging, etc? Or did you just arrive and take it from there?
Zoellner: I discovered theres really no substitute for just showing up and trusting that things will work out alright. Theres a kind of magic that happens when you travel. You meet people much more easily, for one thing.
One useful trick for traveling in the developing world is to book the first two nights in the hotel where all the diplomats, U.N. staff and nonprofit workers stay. Every capital city no matter how poor — has one of these places. It will be pricey, but worth it. Your job on the first day is to fight your way through the airport, get a taxi to the hotel, change currency and sleep off the jet lag. Your job on the second day is to wander the city and find cheaper lodging. And your job on both evenings is to nurse a drink in the bar and listen for information and rumors you wont find in The Economist or Lonely Planet.
Aid workers, in particular, are champion gossips. This gives you a safe base from which to get used to the country, make a few friends and understand a thing or two about the place before you start the real reporting.
Slushpile: At one point in the Central African Republic, you were taken by soldiers, and forced into an empty warehouse at gunpoint. You were handed a document (referred to as your statement) written by someone else in a foreign language you couldnt understand. You were then commanded to sign this document, ostensibly confessing to some unknown deed. Was this the most frightening moment during your travels?
Zoellner: Yes. Nothing prepared me for that.
Slushpile: Youve spoken about the crazy dreams that accompany anti-malarial medications and I certainly experienced those myself in KwaZulu-Natal last spring. What was your most disturbing dream?
Zoellner: They were pretty bad. These dreams kept revolving around the diamonds and all the pathetic things I was learning about them. The most memorable one was not so much disturbing as it was sad. I kept having these incredibly vivid dreams about my ex-fiancee, Anne, and how we had supposedly gotten back together and were happy again.
We had broken up four years prior and I still had the engagement ring in a desk drawer. The memory of that dead relationship kept coming back to me in the diamond fields in the form of these malaria dreams. They were intense and thick and I couldnt shake them.
And I didnt go to Africa with the intention of writing about my own life in any way it was going to be strictly third-person journalism (plus, I’ve never been very good at self-debriefing) — but after having those dreams, I knew I had to explore my own experience with diamonds. I had made this stone a symbol of my own marriage-to-be, for no other reason than pure cultural expectation, and I had played a small role myself in sustaining this $64 billion commerce. It sounds kind of gooey, but thats what happened.
Slushpile: One of the most fascinating aspects of The Heartless Stone was the DeBeers marketing information you obtained. How did you get access to these documents?
Zoellner: I owed a lot to the foresightedness of a few advertising executives who preserved the strategy papers of yesteryear as a kind of memorial to their work. They believed that American advertising is a part of American history (which it is) and that these documents are part of the nations common property. There are archives of some of the old De Beers internal memos in the Smithsonian and at Duke University. I spent time rooting through both collections. I also got access to a few items in a small private library maintained by the American Association of Advertising Agencies.
Some of the most revealing documents, however, had already been uncovered in 1982 by a journalist named Edward Epstein who did a piece for The Atlantic on diamond advertising that year. I was very grateful for his work. More current information was given to me by J. Walter Thompsons staff in Tokyo, as well as a bit of information from the De Beers staff themselves. All this being said, we dont know what went into the shredder over the years.
Slushpile: Were you as shocked as I was to learn that diamond engagement rings were not a widely accepted custom in America until the late 1930s? It certainly seems like a tradition that goes back much further.
Zoellner: Engagement rings certainly have been a feature of Western culture since the tail end of the Roman Empire, but the diamond as the must-have ornament for that ring is a relatively new idea. Diamond rings were not widely embraced in the United States until the late 1930s and only after heavy prompting from De Beers.
Slushpile: Its one thing for a reporter to go to a thirty minute press conference with a recorder or a pen and then go to the office and write the story. Its another for someone to trek through six continents, interview hundreds of people, and still keep up with all the quotes and material. While you were traveling, how did you manage your notes, recordings, and supporting material?
Zoellner: I carried a reporter’s notebook with me at all times and wrote everything down for later reference. That was the most portable part about it. Often I would be handed a stack of memos or a binder, and there was simply no choice but to stow it in my backpack and lug it around for the rest of the trip. I would sometimes come back into JFK with a heavy pack, teeming with dirty laundry and documents.
Slushpile: Has the early December release of Edward Zwick’s movie Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, helped or hurt the sales of your book?
Zoellner: Hard to say. It certainly gave the problem of blood diamonds a more visible profile. Oddly, the movie seems to have done almost nothing to the sales of diamond rings. Jewelers reported a generally healthy Christmas season.
Slushpile: Have you seen the movie? If so, what did you think of it?
Zoellner: I did see it. It cost about a sixth of the gross national product of Sierra Leone to produce, but it may have been money well-spent if it gives a permanent contour to the idea that multinational mining companies (such as De Beers) must never again allow the perception that they have provided indirect bankrolling to warlords. In that sense, it was a pretty good use of $100 million. The story and the characters are fictional, but the movie takes place against an accurate backdrop. Rebel armies really did treat diamond mines as cashboxes and the stones really did wind up in the legitimate market. The river mines as shown in the film look quite a bit like real African diamond mines.
Slushpile: In 2003, you quit working as a reporter at The Arizona Republic, moved to Montana and started writing fiction. Were you writing short stories or novels? Did any of them get published? Are you still interested in pursuing fiction at some point in the future?
Zoellner: I’m extremely grateful for that summer in Missoula. I was living in a cheap room next to the railroad tracks. The whole building shook in the middle of the night when the yard crews would ram boxcars together. The window looked out onto the mountains and a brick wall with a painted 1920s advertisement for a long-defunct traveling salesman hotel. The only furniture in the room was a blow-up mattress on the floor and a $5 card table and a folding chair. I set my Macintosh on that card table and made myself write a thousand words a day, every single day. No phone, no email, no job, little money, a few new friends, lots of books, lots of open space, lots of words, lots of time. That was the nub of an amazing discovery. With enough faith and discipline and dumb determination, anyone can write a book – in this case, a book-length manuscript – in just three months.
I had washed up as a newspaper reporter but found a whole new way of thinking about my place in the world and what I was supposed to do with my life. Possessions don’t make anybody happy. Social position doesn’t make you happy in the end. What brings true contentment is a more difficult equation, but I think a large part of it comes from giving good things back to the world. That’s what the best fiction can accomplish.
Writing can be narcissistic and self-indulgent, and sometimes is, but the best kind of writing – the kind that survives — is deeply altruistic, almost religiously so. Jorge Luis Borges once said he conceived of heaven as a kind of library. I think that’s an apt metaphor because literature often has a core of generosity. Fiction can bestow gifts to the reader that nonfiction cannot. A novel is a snow-globe that invites us to step inside and inhabit another world for a while. And even the unpleasant things you see inside there can be clothed in a version of beauty because they reflect parts of life that are both real and rarely articulated. I’d love to go back to writing stories someday. Minus the midnight boxcars, maybe.
Slushpile: Who are your favorite fiction writers?
Zoellner: I think Richard Ford has written some of the most important fiction of the last quarter-century. His pet subject is the inner life of American men, and he maps this obscure country better than anybody I’ve ever read. I’m also a big fan of Graham Greene, whose novels are always set within a particular moral universe. Ron Carlson, a fellow Arizonan and a brilliant short story artist, writes with a strong sense of place. For pure dark comedy, nobody beats T.C. Boyle.
Slushpile: Did you have an outline in mind when you were researching this book? Or, did you just gather all the information you could and then start to organize it later?
Zoellner: I was lucky to have a natural organizing principle from the start. The book has ten chapters and each one is reported from a different nation. Each of those ten places exemplifies a certain facet of the diamond business. India, for example, is where the majority of diamonds are polished today. South Africa was the birthplace of the De Beers cartel. Russia is where synthetic diamond machines were perfected. And so on. Hopefully this method of book-building helped drive home the point that the construct of a diamond as “something valuable” has left a unique mark on almost every culture and economy where it has been introduced.
Slushpile: Given the amount of travel and research involved, it seems like this book was written fairly quickly. You started in 2003 and the book hit the shelves in May 2006. How long did you spend researching? How long did you spend writing?
Zoellner: The whole thing took a year-and-a-half. I started in on each chapter as soon as I returned from visiting that particular nation. But I had no job in the conventional sense, and so I could devote all my time to diamonds.
Slushpile: You said in another interview that the book proposal for The Heartless Stone included “an outline of where I wanted to go and what I was going to report, which felt a bit presumptuous… You shouldn’t be afraid to think big.” I often feel this way myself when putting together pitches or proposals. It seems ludicrous to say, “I’m going to interview George W. Bush and Michael Jordan for this project.” But you’re suggesting that’s the appropriate way to go?
Zoellner: I agree with you: it feels arrogant to be ordering the lobster when you can’t even afford the soup. But a really winsome proposal has to have the lobster. So you order the damn lobster and then do whatever it takes to pay for it later. You have to throw everything you have into that thing that makes you passionate. Like in poker: “all-in.” I discovered that I could be happy next to the tracks in Montana, so I wasn’t afraid of failure or poverty. I had already been there.
Slushpile: You’ve also been outspoken about how much work you think authors should do to help sell your book. Why do you think this is so important?
Zoellner: There are some good people in publishing, but nobody is going to care about your book quite like you do. For them, ultimately, it is a product, and for you, often, it is an offspring. So you have to work for it on the back end as hard as you did when you were writing it.
Beware, though: Publicity is even more maddening than writing. Stupid arbitrary stuff will happen and you have no choice but to laugh through it and move on to the next thing. So all that fire in the eyes must be turned on and off like a stovetop burner. At the same time, you can’t help but feel like your worth as a person is on the line when your book is under consideration for some laurel or another.
What’s even worse is being ignored altogether, which happens to all writers everywhere at some point. This may be part of what drives many of them to the bottle.
Slushpile: To help market your book, you hired a publicist. How did the St. Martin’s publicity department work in conjunction with your own personal publicist? What should authors know about working with these combinations of publicity personnel?
Zoellner: I had it easy here. There was a clear demarcation of jobs. The in-house publicist was charged with national media and the independent publicist handled local press for the tour. So nobody felt like their toes were being stomped. The two publicists also got along well personally – I made sure they met one another before I wrote the check.
Slushpile: How much does a publicist cost?
Zoellner: The bill came to about $22,000 by the year’s end. That was for both the summer book tour and a second round of publicity near the time of the Blood Diamond movie release. I had nothing to do with the making of the film, but the subject of conflict diamonds was all over the media around Christmas. So we’d have been stupid not to make another pass.
Slushpile: You paid for your own cross-country book tour, often driving 1,000 miles a day and sleeping in the car. How much do you think an author should invest in their own publicity campaigns and activities?
Zoellner: As much as they can afford. The only genuine reason to write a book is because of passion. Not a desire just to see your name on a jacket at Borders, but real passion for the subject at hand: a manuscript that would have been written even for an audience of one. Those are the only books that really matter. And so if you’re totally committed — if you’ve devoted your time and your fortune and your hopes to producing that book — be sure to scrape together even more of everything for the endgame.
Slushpile: Looking back now, what would you do differently in your publicity campaigns? How would you invest the money differently or what tactics would you use?
Zoellner: I was lucky not to have made any major mistakes. On a personal level, it was quite a lot of fun to get on the road during the summer and reconnect with some old friends in different places. But I could never stay more than a night because of the need to drive to the next bookstore. I’d been warned that a book’s first currency lasts maybe two months, so this was unavoidable. But it still kind of sucked to leave conversations half-finished. I wound up covering more than 11,000 miles that summer.
Slushpile: While we’re talking about money, what is your advice for freelancers who aren’t getting paid? Unfortunately, it’s sometimes a struggle because magazines lose the accounting information, payroll makes a mistake, the secretary is out of the office this week, and any number of other excuses. How can a freelancer keep pushing to get the money rightfully owed to them without being a pest and pissing off the editor they hope to work with again in the future?
Zoellner: Freelancers have one of the worst deals imaginable on this count, and a lot of it comes from a perception that it’s a buyer’s market and a talented freelancer can be found anywhere, so why cultivate a relationship? This is part of the reason why too many magazines today put out issues full of jejune and lifeless content. Fewer and fewer writers with spark and imagination want to endure this kind of life.
My journalist friend Russ Baker, one of the good ones, makes his living exclusively from magazine pieces and deals with deadbeat editors from time-to-time. His advice to me is this: “Be friendly, but firm.”
Another way to think of it is that you’re not a needy individual begging for cash, but a representative of a corporation seeking to clear an account. You are politely (and somewhat robotically) enforcing the rules. This can help take the personal edge off the conversation and make you feel more comfortable making multiple calls. But Russ is right: never get angry.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Zoellner: Well-meaning people will often tell you can’t get in to a certain place or talk to a certain person. These people are often dead wrong. Smile and try anyway.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print
Zoellner: Well-meaning editors or agents will often tell you your idea lacks a platform and will never become a book. These people are often dead wrong. Smile and try anyway.