I'm really not going to pull a George R.R. with this series about process. There will be no sprawling beyond control or letting HBO get ahead of me or whatever. This is the last pre-arrival-in-Rio installment, and then the pace will pick up since the behind-the-scenes of freelancing process is mostly prepping for interviews and writing, which, very rough guess, I’d say together represent only about 25 percent of my working hours.
Let’s talk fixing, which is a big thing in foreign correspondence. Fixing is basically getting your foreign, culture-shocked hand held by a trusty and seasoned local journalist who knows the terrain and the language and plays an invaluable but usually un-bylined role in the process. If you’re just parachuting in somewhere for the first time, and especially if you don’t speak the language, I suppose having a fixer is probably more or less a must. Over the past year, I’ve hired one three times, including during prep for the Rio 2016 expedition.
The first time was when I went to São Paulo to write about a trash collector who is also a competitive runner. I needed to work through his employer’s PR folks to schedule an interview, and was on a deadline, and was a unsure of where to start. It turns out that this works basically the same in the US: you contact the media contacts (here, more often than at home it seems, this is outsourced to another PR firm), give them the rundown and proceed. But at the time – this was back in March – I was still making excuses to keep myself from having to make phone calls in Portuguese (more on language in a sec).
A fellow foreign journo in São Paulo connected me with a fixer there, and it was an absolutely remarkable experience. I emailed the fixer and told her who I needed to interview and when. Soon thereafter, she emailed back: done. All I had to do was show up. I felt like Captain Picard, just telling people to make it so. Another fixer (the first had a scheduling conflict and passed me off to a colleague) accompanied me to the interview and pitched in as needed with translation.
Now a little aside about language: it’s a must. If you aren’t good at languages, or are scared of learning one, or just otherwise aren’t going to be able to pull weight in Portuguese, freelancing in Brazil isn’t for you. It would be like being a bad writer, or afraid of talking with strangers or uninterested in the world around you and still wanting to be a journalist – i.e., incompatible; unworkable; inadvisable. I am lucky to be handy with languages and I invested an awful lot of time and money my first year on developing Portuguese fluency. I record my all Portuguese interviews in case there are bits that I don’t fully copy real-time, I make mistakes when I talk and I’m fairly sure I have a ferocious accent. And if there’s a particularly important or formal interview where being 95 percent on the same linguistic page isn’t going to cut it, I’ll still hire a translator to be there with me. Because I am still intimidated by the phone (it’s amazing how much we convey through body language and facial expression), I email as much as possible. When calling is a must, I rehearse my lines and draw from the gumption well and pick up the phone. It’s awfully similar that adolescent feeling when you’re staring at the phone, about to call a girl.
In July, back in Porto Alegre, I had a second fixer experience when I wrote about a local controversy generated by the French swim team’s arrival for a pre-Olympics training camp. I needed an interview on extremely short notice with a police supervisor, and hired someone recommended by a local journalist I’ve gotten to know. Same brilliant deal: I told her what I needed, she scheduled the interview almost immediately and then came along with and was just basically awesome. My limited fixer-assisted work so far has always involved paying them by the hour rates at rates that translate to extremely high value and are totally totally 100 percent worth the cost.
In the days before I left for Rio, one of the story ideas that had been decided on was a feature on a new restaurant that was going to feed homeless people. I asked my local fixer get to work on scheduling a visit and interviews with the head honchos.
A second, general story theme, specific idea as yet unidentified, involved farmers’ markets. I’d found some months-old info about a government-backed project to set up a bunch of new organic markets in Rio specifically for the Olympics, but curiously, after a flurry of early-2016 press releases, the information trail went cold. I also asked my fixer to get to the bottom of this, handling inquiries with the ministry that appeared to have been planning the affair. She reported back that things had fallen through and the special-edition Rio 2016 organic farmers’ markets previously announced to great press-release fanfare by the Brazilian Ministério do Desenvolvimento Social would not come to pass.
In both cases, this fixing was entirely a matter of logistics, basically me hiring an assistant to do the tiresome work of emailing people and, if needed, upping the pressure with phone calls and more emails.
On my own, I sent an email to Rafa, the chef of a restaurant who we’d decided to try to do a Q&A with. The only way I could find to do this was using the reservation form on his restaurant’s website, which is not a communication channel that inspires confidence but actually worked in this instance.
By this point it was Friday night and time to fly to Rio. My interview with Rafa was set for 8am Saturday. My fixer was still arranging the visit to the restaurant for the homeless (I was soon to learn that she was learning this was easier said than done). The story Modern Farmer had commissioned about beach food on Copacabana didn’t require arranging interviews ahead of time. Despite the cancelation of the government-backed markets, the fourth story was still going to involve farmers’ markets and/or urban farming, details unknown and TBD and therefore no other plans in place.
That afternoon I’d developed this fear that I would forget my camera, so I packed it hours early and checked that it was still in my suitcase a couple times. I took my running clothes because I always tell myself I plan to run on vacation, though I hardly ever do. The only other personal non-essentials: bird book and binoculars (I never run on vacation because I’d rather look at birds) and a book for the plane and that acrid, anxious feeling that always creeps up at this point in the process, when contracts have been signed and (some) interviews scheduled and plans have been laid – meaning from here on out, full responsibility for the success or failure of the endeavor lies with me and only me, and as the plane takes off, I can only hope it all works out.