Culture | When I grow up I want to be Alex Shoumatoff

“Bono and I had dinner in Dublin. We stayed up till 3:00 in the morning and got totally shitfaced,” Alex Shoumatoff tells me over noodles in a Thai restaurant on Mont-Royal, just off Parc. Shoumatoff, a Montreal author and former staff writer at The New Yorker, and now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is telling me about a piece he wrote on Bono’s most recent humanitarian initiative. It’s a pretty crazy story, and the rest of our interview continues in much the same vein. He tells me about living in the wilds of the Amazon for nine months, and about trance dancing with the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, and about the time he played golf with Donald Trump and tried to convince the Trumpster (as he referred to him) that global warming was not just a natural cycle. Indeed, Shoumatoff is quite the storyteller, and recently he’s been sharing his stories with McGill students.

In 2006, Professor Karen Richardson of McGill’s Geography Department asked Shoumatoff to give a guest lecture in her Protected Areas class. Richardson had read Shoumatoff’s books and articles and was a fan of his web site, Dispatches from a Vanishing World. Dispatches is a collection of Shoumatoff’s published magazine articles, most of which document habitat destruction and cultural change. This semester, Shoumatoff lectured to business students in Professor Karl Moore’s Managing Globalization class. Moore, like Richardson, is a big Shoumatoff fan. “When I grow up,” Moore told his class, “I want to be Alex Shoumatoff.”

Almost famous

Alex Shoumatoff was born in 1946 in Mount Kisco, New York. As a child he attended the prestigious St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, whose more notable alumni include 2004 U.S. presidential campaign loser John Kerry. After St. Paul’s came Harvard and a decision to pursue a career in journalism. In 1971, Shoumatoff completed his first magazine article. It was a 5,000-word profile of a blind New York City blues guitarist that he sold to Rolling Stone for $300.

Since the Rolling Stone piece, Shoumatoff has written 10 books and published dozens of articles in a wide variety of prominent magazines. His writing is exceptionally detailed and gives the impression of hours of painstaking research. If he didn’t have to answer to editors he’d write every story long and he’d write about whatever he wanted. “There was no word length in the old New Yorker,” he says. “They never gave you any assignments. You just wrote what you wanted to. It was amazing.”

Shoumatoff was a staff writer at The New Yorker for eight years before deciding to leave in 1986 in favour of a position at Vanity Fair. “The price of working at The New Yorker was that it was kind of like being in the Royal Academia, doing these tasteful still-lifes,” he says. “But at Vanity Fair I found that I had much more freedom to write how I actually think and talk rather than in this sort of stilted, prissy, New Yorker prose.”

The first piece Shoumatoff wrote for Vanity Fair was on Dian Fossey. Fossey, known for her observation of wild gorillas in Rwanda and her deep hatred of poachers, was savagely murdered while she slept in her cabin. In 12,000 words, Shoumatoff rigorously reviews her life’s work and the events leading up to her death, all the while sprinkling the story with his own experiences in Africa while on assignment. The piece, along with Fossey’s own writing, was adapted into the Oscar-nominated film, Gorillas in the Mist.

Grim dispatches

Although his more recent work is not about murder, an environmentalist might find it equally grim. Shoumatoff has traveled to more than 50 countries, mostly in the developing world, and he doesn’t like what he sees. “A Russian Tragedy,” for instance, laments the death of the traditional Russian village, while “A Gasping Forest” investigates the deforestation of the Amazon.

Meeting Shoumatoff in person, it becomes immediately clear why he might shy away from The New Yorker’s uppity attitude for the more laid-back writing style of Vanity Fair. On the day we meet, he is wearing a plaid shirt and dark cords that barely contain his bulging frame. He sports necklaces strung with colourful beads of different shapes and sizes. And what is almost, but not quite, a handlebar moustache gives way to thick gray stubble around his chin. While slurping soup from an enormous oriental bowl, he drops a four-inch-long rice noodle onto his breast pocket. On my notepad I cross off the minutes that it remains there unnoticed. I lose track after 10.

Professor Shoumatoff?

In many ways, Shoumatoff fits the character of the absent-minded professor, so I’m not at all surprised when he tells me that he’s recently been working closely with students. Since 2005, unpaid interns – mostly McGill undergraduates – have helped write and organize the bulletins section of his web site. His bulletins are short summaries of newspaper and magazine articles that document environmental and cultural developments from around the world. “I’m talking to Vanity Fair about doing a weekly podcast for their web site of the most interesting bulletins,” he says. “So there you’d have McGill undergraduates doing research that immediately gets out to the mainstream.”

In the future, Shoumatoff would like to develop even closer ties with McGill, with the ultimate goal of teaching an entire course. Like his interns have already done, he’d have his students write summaries of news stories that could then be posted on his web site. “And each one of them could also do a 10,000-word word dispatch and I’d edit that for them,” he says, adding that, “If it’s good it could be submitted to some magazine.”

Shoumatoff does have some reservations about teaching at McGill. “They don’t pay shit,” he tells me. Part-time instructors make about $5,000 per course. But salary problems aside, there will be other hurdles to clear before students can register for a class with Professor Shoumatoff. According to Richardson, it is very difficult for people like Shoumatoff to enter academia; being a world-class magazine journalist does not make up for the lack of a Ph.D. And there is also the issue of whether he can actually teach. Reading the transcript from the talk he gave in Professor Moore’s class (available on Shoumatoff’s web site), it is readily apparent that he gives a very unstructured lecture. Much like our interview, he bounces around from story to story, recounting tales from his travels as a journalist. Yet there is clearly some student benefit to people like Shoumatoff being active in a university setting, if only for the occasional guest lecture. As Richardson puts it, “Alex is like an elder”; he has a vast and important knowledge base to impart to a younger generation.

“This is an incredible time to be young,” Shoumatoff says just before he picks up his soup bowl with two hands and drains it. And despite all of the environmental and cultural devastation he’s observed, he remains optimistic that society is changing for the better. “You are participating in this transformation that could be like the sixties or the Enlightenment or the Renaissance.”

To read Shoumatoff’s writing visit dispatchesfromavanishingworld.com.


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.