Katya Cengel has written for Marie Claire, Wall Street Journal, Salon, National Geographic and Condé Nast Traveller. Her University of Nebraska Press book “Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life” was a 2013 Kentucky Literary Award finalist. A former Louisville Courier-Journal writer, Cengel now reports from around the world and teaches journalism at U.C. Berkeley Extension.
How did you become a journalist?
I always wanted to write. I was taking writing courses in college and I was trying to figure out how to use writing to make a living, because being a novelist just didn't seem realistic to me. I decided to intern for a newspaper, just to see if it was something I liked. I fell in love with journalism. I loved sharing other people's stories. I figured that was a good way to get paid for doing what I loved – writing, and following my curiosity. That's how I started, and I have never been able to give it up.
You started your career in Latvia and Ukraine. How did you end up on the other side of the world?
I look at it now and I think: “Oh, the stupidity of youth. What was I thinking?” (laugh) I am glad I did it. I think as we get older we overthink things and that stops us. I was in college and I was interning at the San Diego Union-Tribune. I didn't have a car and I was waiting for one of the journalists to give me a ride home one afternoon. While I was waiting, I walked over to a water fountain and saw a posting there. It said something like: “If you are up for an adventure in the former Soviet Union and want to go to an unexplored area, you should apply for a job for an English language newspaper.” I decided to do it on a whim. I didn't think I would get the job, but once I did, I just decided to go. I had not heard about Latvia before the posting, but I researched it and thought it was interesting.
You write about a wide variety of topics – from dancing bears and mobile marijuana dispensaries, to inmates helping with battling the rim fire, to minor baseball league. How do you choose the subject?
It's true that many people specialize in one area, for example sports. In some ways I think it would be easier if I wrote about one area, but I follow what I am interested in. What really interests me is a human aspect of the story. This is what ties all of my stories together. I especially love focusing on people who don't usually get to tell their story – immigrants, minor league players who are not famous yet – the voices you don't hear about.
Is there any subject you prefer not to write about?
I don't touch a whole lot on business and politics, mainly because I don't get business (laugh). I don't have a background in it. I don't write much about technology. I write about general issues, but I don't do actual political coverage. I write about people who were famous for a day, but not celebrities. I like to write about people who are not in the limelight.
Do you have a favorite story? If so, which one is it?
The ones that come to mind are usually the ones I have worked on recently. While I was in Ukraine, I did a story about jumping from airplanes. I liked that one because I got to jump out of an airplane! But the one I really liked was about a youth detention facility for young girls. They ran a program there where they paired up girls with retired racing greyhounds. The girls were responsible to teach the dogs how to become pets. Greyhounds don't know how to be pets. They spend their whole lives racing. All they know is how to race. It is a big adjustment for them once they retire. They don't know how to interact and be a part of the family. They don't even know how to sit. The girls taught them these skills, and in return, they learned how to take care of something. Hopefully once they get out, they can stay out of trouble.
Do you ever follow up on the protagonists of your story?
I wonder about many of them. I did a story about a young woman who was homeless. She had a 2-year-old son. She was trying to put her life back together and start over. Her little boy would be in grade school now. I have not followed up on her, though. I wonder what happened to her. But I did a series about young men from Africa. They resettled in Kentucky, leaving their wives and families behind. I followed a man who was able to bring his wife and a young boy over. I saw him a few years later. His wife was adjusting, she spoke English, and they had a little girl. It was neat to see. I get intimate glance into people's lives, but then don't know what happens to them.
That must be emotionally challenging. How do you deal with that?
I got better at being sympathetic, but knowing how to remove myself. I get to work closely with the photographers and they go through the same as I do, so we can talk about it and that helps a lot. I also hope that telling the story itself helps. For people who have been through a lot of drama, just talking about it and being able to bring a voice to it seems to help. And of course, others can learn about it then.
Writing has been your life. In 2012, your first book was released. “Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life” was rated one of the top ten non-fiction books of 2012 by Shelf Awareness and East Bay Express. What was the biggest challenge with writing a book? How was this experience different from writing an article for magazine?
When I started I thought: “Everybody has written a book these days, how hard can it be? I write for living, it will be easy.” When I write for magazines or newspapers, I keep things to a point and concise. I am used to writing like that. With the book, I kept trimming things down instead of expanding on them. My editor kept saying: “Write more, write more!” and I said: “This is all I have to say.” I had to keep expanding it and it was hard for me to do. If I can say it in this many words, I don't need to go on for another two pages. Another difference was that when I write articles, I read them over to see how they flow, and to check for accuracy. You can't do it with a book. It is too long and too familiar to read at once, but if you read one part one day and another part the next day, you don't remember what you read before anymore and you can't recall if you mentioned something already. So the hardest part for me was editing - seeing if the parts flowed.
You write travel pieces – which places would you like to visit?
I want to go to lots of places – I would love to go to Mongolia. I am fascinated by North Korea and Cuba. I like places you don't have a lot of information about. I would love to see what is really going on there. Rural parts of China would be interesting, too.
You teach at UC Berkeley Extension – what advice do you give to your students?
I teach basic journalism and cross cultural reporting. The advice I have for my students is to follow their curiosity. I live by that advice. If you are curious about it, lots of other people will be as well. Always be open minded about where you can find stories. Learn to listen, and listen more than you talk. That's how you find a story.
You can read more about Katya at www.katyacengel.com. Her book is available at http://www.amazon.com/Bluegrass-Baseball-Year-Minor-League/dp/0803235356. Follow her on Twitter @kcengel, or like her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/k2cengel.