BROOKE GLADSTONE: To outsiders, the inner city is a foreign land with its own rules and its own language, but the right guide, like journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, can take us there and show us what we could never see for ourselves. Her book called Random Family follows an extended family in their ordinary, everyday struggle for happiness over the course of 11 years. It wasn't what LeBlanc originally intended. She went to the trial of a Bronx drug dealer to write about his life. But in the courtroom she met his girlfriend Jessica and her brother Caesar, and through them his girlfriend Coco and Coco introduced her mother Foxy and a wide extended family. She chronicled their lives day by day. Without a single pious pronouncement or judgment, Random Family brings us close to a real understanding of people we might never fathom. We follow their mistakes -- the ones that seem so obvious to us -- children having children - dropping out of school - taking drugs -- and finally we understand why they make them. It transforms the reader and the writer too. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, welcome to the show!
ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC: It's nice to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So-- to us your book represents an extreme example of a certain kind of risky journalism. It seemed that you were the master of the telling detail, the brand of candy that people liked to buy. [LAUGHTER] The, the brands of shoes -- and not just the consumer goods, but the color that they chose for, for their curtains. You couldn't have conveyed the life of your subjects with so much clarity if you hadn't become their friends.
ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC: I think that's very true. I feel it would be hard to make readers care about anything, really, if as a writer you didn't care deeply about it yourself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I guess that's why I wonder, were any of these characters, some of whom had so much compassion and empathy, did they ever worry about you?
ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC: I think - I know that Caesar said to me toward the end of when I'd finished the book, you know, he said to me I wonder what you're going to do without us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Caesar is the brother of Jessica; another character. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC:Yes. And Coco's first love and the father of several of her children, and he and I had a very slow-- courtship, and-- eventually became extremely close and he's incarcerated and the large part of our relationship was over the telephone. You know, he would often say to me you need to spend more time with you man -- because I --my primary energy was really given over to the reporting much of the time, and I think he understood more about my life in a way or he was paying attention to my life in a way that I had ceased to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So is there any particular story you can tell me where your role as a friend conflicted with your role as a journalist?
ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC:One of the most dramatic moments in the book perhaps is you know when Caesar accidentally shoots his best friend, and for months that scene was really just a, a few brief sentences. And my editor was emphatic that I open the scene up; it was an incredible moment for him. It, it ends up being the thing that sort of turns him around in prison - what he learns from this loss. And I tend to be resistant to naturally dramatic moments because of the risk of cliche and all of that but I later came to understand that part of my resistance was that it was such a painful subject for Caesar that I really dreaded having to ask him the straightforward questions. And I think that's where my friendship with him made me acutely sensitive to some of those issues, and-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And as a result that story really does only occupy a couple of sentences in the book.
ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC: That's right. That's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Can you give me an example of a time when your particular concern about your version of the story clashing with theirs or possibly having consequences beyond the book -- gave you pause.
ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC: It's not an obvious moment, but for example the scene toward the end of the book where Coco's apartment is utterly infested by roaches. I worried myself sick about including that scene, because she worked so hard to keep her apartment clean, and it was such a fundamental way in which she spent a lot of her effort and time, and I felt it would be very shaming for her to have her house betrayed in a way that many, I believe, middle class people would interpret to have to be about not keeping a clean house, when in fact it was a, an issue about substandard housing and a, and a bad landlord. But what was interesting is when we spoke about the scene, she was excited that I was going to put it in, because she said you know that lady never calls me back and it's not my fault and I'm happy that she'll-- she ought to be ashamed of herself for letting my children live with these roaches.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Characters like Coco, starting out in their early or mid-teens, are full of optimism and they're buoyant and they're resilient and then as time goes on, as time for Coco went on, she became prematurely middle aged, her patience ran out, her endless struggle to make good for herself and good for her children wore her down-- you know these people changed over time, and presumably so did you!
ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC: I'm being weaned of this, but friends of mine have said to me that I've be-- you know for a period of time became very sarcastic, deeply cynical. So I, I certainly was affected by the fog of despair that I describe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Any regrets about choices you made about what to put in the book and what to leave out?
ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC:I've wondered have I captured the joyfulness of these lives, because so many people are responding to the hardship, but there was so much joy there as well, and one thing that I tried to do is to show how the mothers who in the, in the beginning of the book are really grandmothers by that point were the, the young women that you meet in the narrative. So that Foxy was the exuberant Coco at one point in her life, and that there are sort of ghost moments of, of that resilience - what I put in quotes - because I think at the end of the day what I'm saying is damaging circumstances do damage, and no amount of resilience is going to trump impossibility.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:I noticed that in January you had an article in the New York Times Magazine where you chronicled lives similar to those in your book, and you gotta wonder -- are you obsessed? Can, can you not let this thing go?
ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC: I certainly have other interests and am looking forward to doing pieces on other subjects, but I know when I'm on the street, when I'm doing street reporting, I'm at my happiest -- I feel-- I - I mean it sounds precious and I don't mean it to be precious in any way, but I feel true to myself because I, I have very strong concerns about social injustice. So I think, you know, certainly in a very conventional sense, I feel it's a worthy place for any journalist to spend some time and a, a very easy one. But I think personally, you know, I definitely have a deep sense of -- I feel a deep sense of home.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
ADRIAN NICOLE LEBLANC: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is the author of Random Family. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers and Megan Ryan with Tony Field; engineered by Dylan Keefe, Irene Trudel, Rob Christiansen and Bill O'Neill, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Sharon Ball, Brian Tilley and Mark Herz. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. [MUSIC TAG] [FUNDING CREDITS] ************