Sara Simone, the protagonist in “Reporting Lives,” is a tall, ambitious TV journalist who, while covering the tragedies of life in a Kenyan slum, is surprised by her inability to emotionally separate herself from her job. Sara might sound a lot like her creator, barring at least one major difference.
“I always joke that you know it’s fiction because Sara’s tall,” said Debra Pickett, the 5-foot-1 author of “Reporting Lives.” “It’s some sort of projection or wish fulfillment.”
Pickett spent several years as a journalist in Chicago before moving to Madison a little more than a year ago. She worked as a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and received an assignment in 2004 that took her to Africa to follow a humanitarian group at the height of the AIDS pandemic. It was then that she started to formulate the idea for “Reporting Lives.”
“I had so many eye-opening and sensory overwhelming experiences back to back to back” on that first trip that, Pickett said, she knew she had found the subject for her first book. “The novel stems from very fictionalized ideas that started with me on that first trip.”
Over the next few years she would return to Africa, either on her own or with the group she initially wrote about, Global Alliance for Africa. She would visit orphanages and see first-hand the devastation wrought by the AIDS epidemic. She wrote about “the world’s realization of the orphan crisis, the vulnerable children crisis that was emerging in the wake of that.”
There she bore witness to a generation of young children whose parents were dead, dying or very ill. She was no stranger to sad stories; after all, she worked the “tragedy beat” at the Chicago paper. But this felt different.
“I had never struggled up until that point with any kind of conflict about my role as a journalist,” Pickett said. “To me it was very straightforward and almost ethically pure. You’re a neutral observer and you go and tell the story.”
In Chicago, she said that there were many occasions where “I was talking to people on some of the most difficult days of their lives.” But suddenly, faced with orphaned, sick children, “I could barely bring myself to get out my camera or notebook because the waters just seemed so much more murky.”
She said she asked herself what purpose she was serving by writing about sick kids in Africa for a Midwestern newspaper.
“I can tell myself the story that I’m bringing the news to the world and it will inspire people to do what? Why should I take a picture of a shabbily dressed child, whose sad eyes could inspire some charity or compassion? That’s not going to help this kid,” she said.
Sure, she thought, her words might prompt someone to write a check and feel a bit better about themselves, but then what? She decided to turn her lens behind the scenes and offer people a view of the inner workings of how the images we see — of refugees, of starving children — are created.
Pickett said she chose to tell that story with a fictionalized version of herself because she didn’t want the story to be about her. She wanted the message to feel more universal than just her personal story. She created Sara Simone, a hard-nosed television journalist, as her alter-ego.
And while she took some liberties by making Sara taller than herself and changing her journalistic medium, Pickett admits she was a little shocked to hear some of the feedback she received from her book’s editors.
“One thing I heard consistently was that Sara wasn’t likeable enough, which was hard to hear because there’s so much of me in her,” Pickett said with a laugh.
Pickett, who continues to work in media relations, left her job as a columnist shortly after the birth of her first child. Her editors suggested she visit Wrigley Field and breastfeed her baby in the bleachers to see how people would react, and then write about it.
“The central irony of it is that baby probably was nursed in public places, but I didn’t have a photographer with me. I didn’t do it for shock value,” Pickett said. That incident spurred her to depart the world of newspaper columns and focus her energy on writing books.
Pickett said she is at work on her next book, which has one thing in common with “Reporting Lives.”
“It’s about a challenging, complicated woman,” she said.