Cherie Hart has lead an interesting life. She started her career working for the National Enquirer a paper best known for celebrity scandals. From there she switched to the UN dropped into war zones, disaster sights and coups before finally settling down in Istanbul. She pulls together this unusual career in her memoir From Hollywood To Holy Wars.
Luke: I’d like to start by asking you about something I think about a lot, memory. I’m increasingly aware of how bad my own memory is, so when you are writing a memoir, how do you deal with the fact that your memories are probably wrong?
Cherie: That is a great question. What I found in writing the memoir was that my older memories were much clearer. The ones from a long time ago came to me stronger than events that happened just a few years ago. The reason could be that those were special moments in time when everything seemed momentous, when I was younger and every change seemed huge. But I could not always count on those distant memories. I had the luxury of a few things. I had many old newspaper clippings from my early writing days that trigged memories and checked accuracy. I also had the advantage of an interview that a reporter friend of mine had recorded during my tabloid days more than 20 years ago. He had sent me transcriptions of those interviews. So, for those early years I had a written record of events. For other parts of my life, I had thousands of saved emails. I had the benefit of different triggers that could clarify accuracy. It doesn’t mean that everything in the book is absolutely accurate. I’m sure there are errors and timelines that aren’t quite exact, where I couldn’t quite remember what happened when.
Luke: While you were doing your research did you find out that any of the memories you thought you had were wrong?
Cherie: Absolutely! One example was one of the Kennedy weddings that I crashed. I had it so clear in my head that it was the roof top of the Plaza Hotel in New York. I remembered everything from the Plaza lobby to the roof. Then when I Googled that actual wedding, I realized that it had taken place at the Saint Regis Hotel. It wasn’t on the rooftop. So, my memories had played tricks on me. There were other instances when that was the case, when actual times and locations weren’t how I remembered them.
Luke: My next questions is - writing a memoir is very personal - did you ever worry about giving away too much about your personal life or I suppose more importantly those of your family?
Cherie: You ask really good questions. There is much of my life that is not in that book. There were things that were too personal that I didn’t need to share with the world. They wouldn’t have added anything to the story and could have hurt people along the way. I believe everyone has moments in their life that they should keep close to their heart, memories that belong to no one else.
Luke: When I first encountered your work - I think it was back in 2015- you were reading it on the stage at Spoken Word, you were planning to write and advice book. So, can you talk a little bit about your decision to turn it into a memoir.
Cherie: Yes, I think the idea of the advice book was a shortcut and a lazy way out so I could write in third person, and not bother with a cohesive story. It was going to be a sequence of pieces of advice on how to job hunt, or how to find love, or ways to behave in an office. Each little bit of guidance would be followed by an anecdote. I spent over a year writing an advice book in third person. I sent it to editors and the few who wrote back said that my advice was terrible; It wouldn’t be useful to anybody outside my UN universe. More importantly, I wasn’t a psychologist or a career guru who was trained to give such life advice. No one would care about that kind of guidance from an unknown writer. One agent told me, however, that my stories were unusual and if I could somehow find a way to make them more personal and weave them into a memoir, with a beginning middle and end, and with dialog and characters, then maybe I’d have a book. That is when I shifted gears. I didn't know how to do it, and that’s where Spoken Word came in.
Luke: Your book is basically a sequence of anecdotes about the various professions you had during your life, some of them are funny, some of them are tragic, what kind of stories where left on the cutting room floor?
Cherie: I think incidents in our marriage that were very personal, about my own family and the challenges we sometimes had when growing up -- those weren’t in the book. Certain things belong to my family and not the world. I think that privacy is important. When a writer shares feelings and personal thoughts with a reader they bring an intimacy to a story. But too much sharing is not always necessary.
Cherie: Now if you were a tabloid journalist, you would ask what those incidents were.
Luke: Yeah, but I'm not.
Cherie: Alright what’s next?
Luke: Ok. I want to zoom into some of the specifics of the book. One of the things that I didn't understand when we were talking about this book back in 2016 was that I wasn’t familiar with the Enquirer and I think quite a lot of people outside of the USA aren’t as well. So, can you tell me why was it controversial for a young graduate to go and work at the National Enquirer?
Cherie: That kind of tabloid journalism was usually a job for older seasoned reporters. Young cub reporters did not go to the tabloids at that time. The newsroom was filled with Fleet Street reporters, who had street smarts and experience.
Luke: Yeah. I’ve got images of old working-class British guys with a permanent cigarette hanging out of their mouth.
Cherie: Well, that’s basically what that newsroom looked like at the time. So, it was quite an unusual move for the Enquirer to travel to colleges and recruit like the banks and the accounting firms were. You just didn’t think of young people chasing a career like that. People just out of college who wanted a career in journalism found work in more mainstream newsrooms.
Luke: One thing I spotted and is relevant today is that you talk about the practice of ‘catch and kill.’
Cherie: Yes. The owner of the paper back then would never have paid for the rights to a story and then bury it and never print it, as a favour to influential people.
Luke: It has obviously been in the news recently regarding Trump and Stormy Daniels and others.
Cherie: Unfortunately, yes.
Luke: In your book, you said it wasn’t the policy of the Enquirer at the time. So, I’m curious in what other ways has the magazine changed since you left?
Cherie: Well now it is owned by a big corporation. When I first started, I was surprised at how important truth was in those pages. I had previously thought that it was a paper that made up stories. I was surprised we actually had to have sources. What struck me after I had worked there for just a few days was that the headlines were crazy, sometimes over the top, but the stories themselves were accurate and true. In many cases, they were tamer than the screaming headlines. Now, the tabloids seem to make up many of the stories. Of course, there are still different echelons of tabloids on the newsstands, some that are more accurate than others, while some that just fabricate stuff.
Luke: Let’s move onto the UN. You joined the UN after leaving the Enquirer. Can you tell me what it was like transitioning between those two institutions? They are very different.
Cherie: Yes, but during my early writing days at the UN it dawned on me that there really isn’t that much difference in how to put together a compelling story. The subject matter can change. I was no longer chasing after peoples love lives or crashing their weddings. I was, instead, writing about world events, floods, conflicts, poverty. But there wasn’t a big difference in what I had to do to make people want to read a story. Each piece still needed an interesting topic, a couple of lead paragraphs to grab attention, and some compelling quotes. The subject matter was different, but it wasn’t such a shock to move from tabloid to the UN. The hardest part, I guess, was understanding some of the UN jargon. Ironically, that is why the UN hired me. They wanted somebody who didn’t understand the jargon. They wanted me to write the way people speak, but on subjects that the UN was involved in.
Luke: In your book, you talk about the sexual harassment that you and your colleague experienced. I might be misreading this, but it seemed there was more of a problem with sexual harassment at the UN than at The Enquirer. Is that right?
Cherie: I think about that question a lot. Nobody physically attacked me in that newsroom, and I can’t say the same for my time at the UN. But then again, the newsroom was one large open space and such a move could not happen as easily.
I didn’t feel like I was held back because I was a woman at the paper, but there was an old boy feeling and banter among men in the newsroom that would probably be considered inappropriate now. But I was paid exactly the same salary as the men. Whereas, at the UN that wasn’t the case. Women did not easily move up the management ranks back then, and they often started at a lower pay grade than men doing the same work.
At the Enquirer, if I did well on a story, I was rewarded just like anybody else. When I didn’t, I was reprimanded just like anybody else, and there was the same pay scale for everybody coming in. There were more male editors than female editors, but I think that changed over the three years I was there. But the UN, until recently, has been kind of a mystery. People didn’t really talk about what was going on in those corridors and I think that is changing with the #MeToo movement. Even the UN is being put under a spotlight that it never was before.
Luke: I also wonder if at the UN there was more of a veneer of respectability, that there wasn’t so much at The Enquirer.
Cherie: At the Enquirer what you saw was what you got. The Enquirer didn’t hide what it was. It didn’t have any pretentions. I don’t think the UN hides what it is, but I think that it is difficult for outsiders to fully understand what goes on in all its offices. And UN staff didn’t talk as freely about what goes on in its corridors as they do now.
Luke: That transitions quite nicely to what I wanted to talk about next. Even for somebody who follows politics quite closely like me the UN seems like a very exclusive organisation and I meet UN people here in Istanbul and it sometimes feels they are speaking a completely different language. They are in this little UN bubble and the rest of the world sometimes doesn’t intrude on them. Am I right to feel that way?
Cherie: I don’t think that it is intended secrecy, but it does speak its own language. It is one of the reasons that I wanted to leave and come back as a consultant. I found myself thinking and speaking in jargon myself. I needed to clear my head and remind myself that the UN has the potential for doing good. So, I don’t think it is intentional obfuscation, but, like any industry, it has created its own lexicon that can be incomprehensible to people on the outside.
Luke: Right, and I think that’s been to its detriment. Because organisations like UNDP are bad at communicating, or they seem so to me. It has allowed the critics of the UN from the left and the right to have free reign to criticise. And I do think that the UN is a devalued institution these days. I think people don’t take it as seriously as they once did.
Cherie: I think that the UN for whatever reason has declined in the world’s view. I think the planet has become a much more complex place and the challenges that the world faces can’t be tackled by any one institution alone. It needs much more. On the other hand, I think the world still needs the UN. It is the only forum where every country has a voice and is represented.
Luke: What I found interesting about your book was when the UN is covered in the media it is always the big stuff, the security council, big meetings of global leaders, whereas what your book talks about is the small-scale programs, ones that have had an impact on small communities, but that we don’t always hear about. So, my question is what can the UN do better to communicate that side of its work better? For example, I can’t think the last time I saw UNDP in a major paper.
Fix the UN! Go!
Cherie: Well, fix the communications aspect of the UN. It takes resources to do that, it takes writers on the ground to do that, but more importantly it takes news outlets that care. Increasingly what reporters cover are the devastating movements of refugees, the internal crises going on in countries in all continents, as they should. It is rare that you open up a paper and find good news. So, it is a challenge for even strong communications officers to find reporters that really want to cover happy upbeat news in a community that is doing well with the help of UN support. So, it goes both ways. It is about writing clearly and finding good stories, but also finding the new outlets for them.
Luke: it is also about bringing the micro and the macro because at the macro the UN looks incredibly ineffective, but at the micro it is still doing good work.
Cherie: I agree. That is part of the reason I decided to leave. Increasingly my job was going to conferences, and gatherings of important people, talking and talking. I still think you need those mouthpieces. You need experts to shape policy, as well as grass-roots efforts that can provide the visible and visual results of a good or bad policy. You need both. If you just have community projects, they don't necessarily coalesce into any kind of change. Similarly, if you just have policies that aren’t rooted in the needs at the local level, then you just have policy people talking to each other. I preferred writing about people and their stories, rather than conferences and their PowerPoints.
Luke: I'm going to move onto from the UN now. I would like to talk about publishing.
Luke: We were discussing this earlier. You went the self-publishing route. Why did you choose that?
Cherie: I didn’t choose it. It was the only way I could get published. I approached somewhere between 50 and 60 literary agents and I sent my manuscript all over Europe and the US. Most of them never responded, and the few that did, rejected my manuscript. But they all said I could write and it was a fun book. They just couldn’t see a target audience for it. One said they couldn’t see which bookshelf it would fall into at an airport bookstore.
Cherie: One of the agents told me that the readers who would like the first part of my book, about The Enquirer, wouldn’t care about the UN. Another said it was perfect for a UN crowd, but that was limited audience.
Luke: But it is still a big audience though. I mean it’s a massive organisation.
Cherie: Well that’s what I thought. And they are the ones buying the book now online. I just need to figure out how to better promote it. Though I’ve had UN buddies all over the world who are buying it. It is heartwarming to me every morning when I wake up and hear from people in Africa and Asia who have gotten hold of the book. I would love to be able to prove the mainstream agents wrong and sell the book beyond what they said is possible.
Luke: How are you finding self-publishing.
Cherie: Well, it gave me an outlet to publish a book. It has always been my dream to live on the water and write a book. And if it weren’t for the self-publishing outlets, I’d have a manuscript in my computer. Instead, I have a book on my bookshelf, so I'm grateful for that. The downside is you have to do all of your own promotion and it is a complicated process to get the word out. But I'm having fun with it as the next phase of my self-publishing journey.
Luke: Ok I’m getting to the end of my questions now. You started this project as an advice book, so I want to ask do you have one piece of advice for people thinking of moving their families abroad?
Cherie: Yes. I believe both partners have to be engaged in something. You can’t have one person working and the other at home doing nothing. It doesn’t mean that you both have to have paid salaries. There is plenty of volunteer work to do, particularly if you are in a developing country. It can be very lonely to be living in a foreign country if you are home alone without friends or a support system. Start your networking before you board that plane for your overseas life.
Luke: That makes a lot of sense. When I first went abroad and I wasn’t going with family or anything, but my initial group of friends was work based. That’s how you meet people. I can totally see that if you were just stuck at home, it would be a very depressing experience.
Cherie: It can be alienating for that one partner in a foreign country, home alone, without office colleagues or friends nearby.
Luke: My last question is one I ask to most people. What are you reading now?
Cherie: I’m reading Michael Connelly’s Dark Sacred Night. I like spy novels and murder mysteries.