Friday, July 3, 2009

Interview with Jia-Rui Chong Cook

LH: How did you get interested in writing?

J-R C: I’ve always loved to read, so I think it was only natural to want to try writing. I wouldn’t say I love the process of writing, though. It’s often difficult and always humbling. But I am always delighted to have created something in my own words. I think I got interested in newspaper writing because of the adventure. To write the best story, you have to get out to the scene, and you often get to see things most civilians never see. You get to be curious and ask a lot of questions that would normally be considered nosy. Then you get to try to make sense out of it and tell it to your audience in the pithiest, most evocative way. I think deep curiosity about character and the unfolding events makes for really great writing. I am always turned off by writing that lacks an intimate knowledge of a subject or lacks a thorough thinking-through of what things mean.

LH: What was your first success?

J-R C: If you define first success as first bylined article in a major publication, I guess I’d say that happened in the summer of 1999, when I got an article on good vs. bad low-fat foods in U.S. News and World Report magazine. I just started as an intern at the magazine and an editor assigned me to work with another reporter on low-fat foods. That reporter was nonplussed, but said I could start making some calls. When I came back to her saying that some nutritionists I talked to said there were actually bad low-fat foods, she was impressed. She suggested I do my own article.

If we’re defining success as my first award, that would be the 2006 Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award from the National Association of Science Writers and National Press Foundation. (Link to announcement: It’s given once a year to science writers under 30. I won for four pieces – a story about Alaskan villagers on the lookout for bird flu (,0,4438376.story), a story about the impact of bird flu on badminton, a story about recovering a lost text of Archimedes (, and a story about the emerging human health risks from climate change ( I was really excited about winning this award. I had only really started writing stories for the LA Times’s science editor in 2005.

LH: What kind of things do you most enjoy writing?

J-R C: My favorite kind of writing is narrative non-fiction. I love watching things unfold in front of me. I love having enough time with a subject that I can put the things I see in context and highlight the most meaningful bits. I love being able to write authoritatively in my own words, find my own analogies to describe something. This kind of writing is most similar to documentary filmmaking. Here is an example of one of my recent favorites of this kind:

LH: Do you have an agent? Tell us about your experiences with/without agents.

J-R C: No, I don’t have an agent.

LH: What are your thoughts about marketing? Do you have any great tips on how to do it well?

J-R C: When I am doing “marketing,” I feel as if I’m doing it on behalf of the LA Times. I want people to read my stories, but also to browse the Times and hopefully stumble on another story that interests them. I’m excited that the internet has made connecting to a potential audience that much easier. I have a Facebook page, where I often post my stories and stories by my colleagues that I like. I also have a Twitter feed (@jahree) that I update at least daily. I try not to insert too much of my opinion in these places, but I do give people reading my Twitter/Facebook posts something a little extra. It might be a funny comment a researcher made to me that didn’t make it into the story.

I also try to accept speaking invitations, even if they require a significant amount of work outside of my regular job. For instance, Zocalo, a group that organizes public lectures around Los Angeles, asked me to curate and moderate a panel discussion on veterans’ health issues at the UCLA Hammer Museum. (Link: While the story that this panel was based on has not yet come out in the LA Times, I did have many people come up to me afterwards saying that they’re looking forward to the story.

LH: If you could go back in time and start over, tell us one thing you have learned that would help you to succeed better/faster/with less struggle.

J-R C: I love the clarifying power of writing. When I first started working at the LA Times in 2002, one of the best writers at the paper said that clear writing requires clear thinking. I’ve really come to believe that when troubled, confused thinking results in bad, confusing writing. It’s worth taking the time to step back and ask, “What’s really important here? How do these things fit together?” Of course, sometimes you don’t know that you have a gap in your thinking until you try to put words on paper and you get stuck. That’s good, though. Then you know what you’re missing.

LH: Any other thoughts to share?

J-R C: I think I’ve said enough!


Anonymous said...

I learned a lot from this interview. Now I'm going to follow the link to the Archimedes article--that subject interests me.

Lorelei said...

Wow, Jia-Rui, I didn't realize that Alaska article was a prize winner too. I loved how you talked about that trip and how you used what looked like setbacks to get even more information (birds as wedding dinner, etc) at the WriteGirl event. But it's more fun to know you won an award based on it!