Will Storr: “You have to decide what story you’re going to tell”

In conversation with the author of MATTER #6, Bad Blood

Will Storr is a man of many talents. His reporting from African refugee camps and adventures with scientific heretics have rightly won him plaudits, but he’s a novelist too. So when we approached him to write Bad Blood, the story of murdered Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko for MATTER, we were excited to see where he’d go with it. The end result? A gripping tale of political intrigue and poisoning that had readers calling it “absorbing” and “fantastic.”

Each time we publish a story, we offer readers the chance to ask the team questions. Here’s a selection of what they had to ask Will, together with his replies.

From Aadil Maan: With this kind of an investigative story I imagine finding the starting point must be difficult. How did you begin to identify the sources and determine whether they are speaking the truth or just fiction?

My real starting point was the book Death of a Dissident by Alex Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko, which I gave a very close read. I considered this a good place to start, as it’s a collaboration between Litvinenko’s widow and a close aide of Berezovsky, who was also witness to some of the events. Obviously, though, the particular risk with that book is that I’d be getting a very pro-Litvinenko viewpoint. This coloured the investigations that followed, especially my interviews with other witnesses, such as Yuri Felshtinsky. I wanted specifically to poke into the places where the Goldfarb/Litvinkenko narrative might be flawed. Was he really such an angel? Was his loyalty to Berezovksy really so agenda-free?

From Firat Oter: How do you start searching for real-life stories in all over the world? How did you finance all those journeys? What was the main motivation that lead you into journalism?

Story ideas come from everywhere — I actually often come across new potential story ideas when I’m researching others. Finance comes from the publishing organisation.

I came to journalism because of a love of story telling and a fascination with humans and human behaviour. One should always remain professional whilst having one’s own ideals. The point is to show the world as you see it, and be open about the reasons why — after you’ve explored all the arguments — that you have come see it that way. If you’re open about how you’ve come to your views, via your curation and editing of your reporting, then there should be no conflict between professionalism and ideals.

From Dahn Tamir: Brilliant story. I’d be grateful of more detail on Arafat. Was his illness consistent with Polonium poisoning? Did his exhumed body test positive? Has Israel used radiation poisoning in its oft-reported assassination program?

I agree that Arafat’s case is a fascinating one. For further reading, I’d suggest this story from my editor, Deborah Blum, and this piece in Chemistry World. This BBC piece also has some really useful pages linking from it, and then there’s this, from NPR.

From Matt Mikus: How long does a project like this take? Could you break the timeframe down in the process?

This project took six to seven weeks. At the start, I knew almost literally nothing about the case or about Russia. It quickly became apparent that to understand it, I’d have to get my head around the history of the country since the end of the Soviet Union — the economy, the oligarchs, the corruption, Chechnya, the whole lot. So it was a big job.

I spent the first day or so on Wikipedia, going through all their pages that relate to Litvinenko, the poison trail, and everything else (there’s a lot on there). I took all that info and rearranged it into a timeline, so I had some sort of structure for my thinking (to be clear, Wikipedia isn’t a source, it’s my first glance at the story, to gather something of its sense, scope and the various forces within it).

Then I spent roughly a week going through the Goldfarb/Litvinenko book very slowly, and created my own index for that book. Then I broadened my search — more books, documentaries, newspapers cuts. Then it was identifying potential interviewees, tracking down contact info and putting out requests. This was a tough job, as because this is an ongoing criminal investigation, all those close to it in any official capacity have been instructed not to speak. Then interviewing, transcription (which takes an age).

Then comes the pivot point in all longform pieces. From doing an extremely broad trawl, you then have to decide what story you’re going to tell, then narrow down fiercely upon that narrative, going back through all your information finding all the useful info that pertains to that narrative, then filling in holes with further research until you have what you need.

My first draft focused very much on the human story. I wanted to tell the tale of how this loyal man did a 180 degree turn, from loyalty to the state to enemy of the state. What were the experiences in his life that pushed Litvinenko from one position to the other? This was a huge geo-political story, lived out in the life of one man.

But when I submitted it, my editors felt it lacked the thriller edge that they were after — it was too much back story, not enough adrenaline. So after a light cut, that first draft became the middle passage of the piece, and I wrote a new top end with the poisoning and a bottom end with the investigation, which gave my editors the pace they were after.

After this, I had to travel, and some very final additions were made by my editors, which described in more detail the effect of polonium on a human body. I love their addition, and feel rather guilty about my name being officially on it.

From Eleanor Sandry: When the waitperson poured away the tea there was an implication that there was something odd about the liquid that remained in the cup, as if it could have been noticed even by the person drinking the tea. However, if the amount of poison was as small as the story later confirms then why were the tea dregs recognised as odd?

I agree — it is odd, but it’s in the nature of a story such as this that not everything can be explained. However, the polonium expert Richard Wakeford told me that, “Clearly, someone is not going to ask Litvinenko to swallow a microgram of Po-210 placed on the end of a pin, so it will have been dissolved.”

Of course, we don’t know what it was dissolved in. If the head waiter’s memory is accurate, presumably it was that, rather than the polonium itself, that caused the odd effects in the tea that was poured away.

Bad Blood: The Mysterious Life and Brutal Death of Alexander Litvinenko, is available for 99c at the MATTER website and via Amazon.

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