She’ll never admit it, but Brooke Jarvis is like Indiana Jones — assuming Indy turns in his bullwhip for a ballpoint pen. Jarvis, a Seattle resident by way of Tennessee, has traveled to every corner of the world to tell stories of people and groups on the margins. In the last few years, her work has been published in the likes of GQ, Rolling Stone, Harper’s and Pacific Standard. These stories often shine a light on the earth’s mysteries, like her tale of disappearing islands in Papau New Guinea. Other times, her work plunges into the depths of despair in some of the world’s forgotten corners — like her critically acclaimed narrative “When We Are Called to Part.”
In the latter, Jarvis recounts her days living in the Kalaupapa community on Moloka’i, an island once quarantined and isolated as a home for lepers. When many of her University of Richmond friends shipped off to internships and 9-to-5s, the recently graduated Jarvis headed to a leprosarium on an island in Hawaii. The community was home to a shrinking population that Jarvis would help care for as an intern. She was supposed to stay six months, but would soon extend the trip — she had become a part of the community.
Like many of her stories, “When We Are Called to Part” is a haunting chronicle of loss. Yet Jarvis’ personal narrative also evokes the beauty and hope that pervaded this land of despair. In doing so, she gives the real people of Kalaupapa the one thing which they were always deprived: a place to tell their story.
By telling this story, Jarvis was able to show us a world that we were told didn’t matter; by writing it, she was able to heal.
Your work takes you all over the world, yet you seem to be churning out a story more often than most. I’m curious about the down time. What do you do when you’re not researching or writing?
Oh wow, what is “down time?” I can assure you that my life is incredibly boring, but I do have the best job in the world. A couple years ago, I was on a reporting trip on Maui, and I was writing about endangered forest birds. I would go to these places that very few people had ever been, and just scour the forest in the mud and rain, looking for birds we never found. I kept thinking that this was really more like an amazing vacation than a job, and I love that I get to do that for a living. However, that’s a very small percentage of my time. Before I go out, I have to do a huge amount of legwork and pre-reporting, and sometimes those stories don’t happen. That’s often what my down time looks like. I get off into the mountains as often as I can, and I like crafty sorts of things. Most of the time I’m hanging out with friends, cooking and going on walks. Usually that involves a lot of thinking about whatever I’m writing at the time. But it’s not as adventurous as it sounds — there’s a lot of quilting and lino cutting involved.
One thing that struck me about all your work is that you’re always writing about groups on the margins and subjects that we never really hear about. Is that intentional on your part?
Yes and no. On some level, every freelance writer is looking for those surprising stories, because that’s a great way to get an audience’s attention. I think readers and people in general are primed to think, “Oh, I’ve heard this before, I know everything about it,” and one way to cut through that is to come at them from a place that they may not know much about. That’s definitely true of me, as well. There’s a personal element to all the stories. I get excited when I hear about something I know nothing about, and I have a lot of questions and curiosity about it. My writing is a reflection of me trying to chase those questions.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?
It was a little bit of a process. I edited my high school newspaper, but newspaper writing didn’t appeal to me as something I should continue with. I didn’t study journalism in college or work on the newspaper or anything like that. I majored in English and Spanish lit, because those were the classes I liked best. I figured I would figure it out and go to grad school at some point, but I never did. Then, when I studied abroad in Argentina, I talked to a friend who pointed out to me that what I seemed to really like was great storytelling. So I got interested in writing, but didn’t really find the kind of writing that that interested me just yet. After college, I interned with YES! Magazine, which is a nonprofit focused on sustainability and social justice. Every story focuses on what can be done about these grave problems. That eventually turned into a job as their web editor, and while I was there I discovered the world of literary nonfiction. That style appealed to me to a lot, and I started to feel like our search was disingenuous. Our problems are so big, and trying to make solutions seem relevant enough was tough. So I was in search of something a little more nuanced, and I decided to freelance.
It’s given you the opportunity to write so many interesting stories, but did you ever fear freelancing?
Oh yes, definitely. I used to have this idea that you get on a conveyor belt. And whatever decision you make whisks you away somewhere, and you’re just stuck with it. But I think the reality is, the longer you’re out in the world, the more opportunities open up for you. You’re not on a single path—there are more and more branching paths every time. So my biggest fear was that I would take a wrong turn and be screwed, but I don’t think that’s how it works. There’s usually another turn to make. When it came to leaving YES!, I knew that it was time for me to make a change no matter how scary it was. I saved up money before quitting, then gave myself a year to see if freelancing was viable. If it wasn’t I would go get a real job. I was petrified, and I remember meeting up with friends after work on the day that I quit. I burst into tears, and they were like, “This is a good thing!” I didn’t believe them at the time, because we were all in this rural community where no one had a traditional job or salary. A couple months after that, my friend was doing some work on his house and offered to pay me to help. I thought, “Well, I’m a freelance writer now, so should probably take any paying gig that comes my way.” So my first paying job as a freelance writer was digging ditches.
What was the first story you ever pitched, and how has your approach to pitching evolved throughout your career as a freelancer?
I remember pitching Grist early on, and my first official story for them was a piece about aquaculture. This guy was trying to make a more sustainable fish and bring it to market. They paid me $300, so a little bit better than the ditch digging. After that, I branched out, while still trying to utilize the connections I’d made. I always have a long list of projects I’m interested in, and I have a tendency to fill my plate and then empty it. Even when I’m working on other stories, I’m always adding to my list of potential projects and moving things around to match what I’m most passionate about. I always want to avoid pitching something just because I think it will sell, because I may not be as lit-up about it as I am about something else. If I do that, all I’ll think about while I’m writing it is every other story I’d rather be writing.
It seems like you had that freelancer’s mindset long before you embarked on this journey. For example, your first job out of college was this internship at this leprosarium on Moloka’i. What about that opportunity initially enticed you?
It was just so outside of my wheelhouse, and I had tons of questions. Mainly, I was curious what life was like there, because there were so many aspects to it. There’s the patients, the history, the quarantine and then there was all the modern stuff about the remoteness and its isolation. It felt like I couldn’t not apply. But when I was living there, I was not planning on writing about the experience. I was asked to lead a church service once, and I think that was their way of telling me, ‘If you’re gonna be here, you have to be here.’ It didn’t strike me until later that this was a really interesting story, particularly because that area has been written about before but never from this perspective. I wanted to add the story of what it felt like to be there in its last years as a patient community.
One of the key questions you raise in your story about your time there is this idea of preservation: Who decides what we preserve, and what does that preservation look like. Do you see writing as an act of preservation?
I’ve never really thought of it that way, but it certainly is. You’re capturing what things are like at a certain moment, and everything changes, but you have that to go back to. I love reading old newspaper stories or New Yorker stories — things that were not necessarily meant to be read decades later. They were written for their moment, but I really enjoy dipping back into other times. And there’s always something to learn. Good writing always translates well if it really captures a certain story or character. The world is big and diverse and sometimes beyond our understanding, but you can always relate to other people. You may not have much in common with someone on the on their side of the world, but you both may know what it feels like to lose someone you love. Good stories help bridge those gaps and help us connect.
How did your year on Moloka’i shape you as a writer?
That was one of the first long stories I wrote, and I was still learning the craft of writing. In fact, I still see myself as pretty new to this and learning a lot with each story. When I was living there, I wasn’t taking the notes that I would’ve taken had I known I was going to tell this story. Even though I was there for a while, the details weren’t originally as rich, so I had to re-examine my time among these people through a different lens. But what I learned was how to write about people you know and care about. There’s a huge amount of responsibility that comes with that, and it’s scary. In a way, I was more motivated than ever to get it right, because I felt obligated to do them justice.
How do you decompress after writing emotionally draining stories?
For me, the writing is how I decompress. That’s the part where I process what I experienced, which is both really hard and satisfying. At the end, I usually feel like I’ve dealt with the emotions and come to terms with what happened. The writing itself is how I deal with what happened.
What does the power of words mean to you?
Everybody is worried about the death of journalism or the death of longform, but instead, it’s had this flowering of interest. I do think that longform fans are ultimately a small subset of the population though, and I try to think outside my happy longform world. Not everyone loves long stories, but I like to think that they have value for everyone. I believe in the power of words in that there are certain sentences that just blow me away, and I believe in the power of storytelling to bring us together. Reading is an experience that shows you different ways to look at things, and hopefully helps you get closer to other people. Regardless of what happens, I don’t think that’s ever going away.