The Truth Can be Strange: An Interview with Bryan Christy

Investigative reporter and author, Bryan Christy, has been a lawyer, accountant, a National Geographic Society Rolex Explorer of the Year, and the founder and former head of Special Investigations at National Geographic.

Christy has a long and impressive history as a journalist who has gone around the world tackling some tough stories on wildlife crimes. This led to his first book, The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers, a non-fiction account of the illegal exotic reptile business. After the reptiles, Christy took on those responsible for the illegal elephant ivory and rhino horn trade. His reporting is credited with bringing about police raids on ivory shops in Vatican City and the collapse of the domestic ivory market in China. These stories he’s now fictionalized and have become the backdrop to his first novel, In the Company of Killers. Christy and wife, Jennifer, live in Oxford, where he is currently writing his next novel.


EEDC: What about nature drives you to shine a light on the exploitation of life and our ecosystem?


Bryan Christy (BC): I hate an unfair fight. And there is no fight less fair than the fight endangered species have to survive. I started with that at National Geographic and then realized the same was true for people; we’re all in it together. The fact that we’re in the state we’re in as a species—a warming planet, a global pandemic, biblical droughts, fires, and floods is in part because the stories we tell each other have not done enough to motivate us to make things better. I try to tell stories that get us to a better place.


EEDC: What drives you?


BC: I want to do good with whatever talent I have. I grew up in a family that reveres good storytelling—growing up in a funeral home (as an apprentice in the family funeral business), you are surrounded by stories. It’s how we remember each other, how we celebrate life. I was afraid to be a writer, so I went to law school, but you can’t deny your passion and be happy in life. I quit law in my 30s and became a writer.


EEDC: After becoming a professional writer, did you find that the actual reading process changed for you, both in what you read and how you enjoyed it?


BC: Mark Twain said that being a river pilot, which he was, ruined his enjoyment of running a river; he was never able to see the water the same. He considers the rapids on the horizon not as beautiful but as threats to his boat.


It’s the same for me with stories. Reading as a professional writer is a little like watching a crime show on TV, and you’re guessing all the time who did it. When I’m reading, one part of my brain is constantly analyzing and asking questions: What are they trying to achieve, and are they executing it? What are they setting up? Questions like this could ruin some stories, but if I’m reading really great writers, it deepens my appreciation for how they’re working their craft.


EEDC: What is a harsh reality about making a career in storytelling and education that you had to learn the hard way?


BC: Nothing worked for me until I decided to write stories that I would write regardless of whether anyone paid me. I was going to research and write and put everything I had into it, and if I ran out of money doing it, I’d find a part-time job or sell my car or something and do it again.


One of the things that saved me at National Geographic is I would pitch a story and they would say, “Oh, we don’t know. Let us think about it.” They’re very bureaucratic.


And I told them, “Well, I’m doing it anyway. And then I’m going to sell it to the New Yorker.”  And as soon as that line got circulated—’he’s doing it anyway’–I got the job. Those words were very powerful. I never got turned down after that.


EEDC: Is this your full-time thing now? Or are you still doing investigative work?


BC: I left National Geographic at the end of 2017 because I wanted to just write, and that’s all I’ve done. And I work harder than I did as a journalist.


EEDC: In your book, In the Company of Killers, the book blurb describes your main character, Tom Klay, as a “Celebrated wildlife crime reporter for an esteemed magazine.” It seems that you have a lot of stories in you that are not necessarily made up.  Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?


BC: No, I’m going to continue to fictionalize my experiences. I’ve been fortunate to have some extraordinary experiences with some really phenomenal people and some really horrible people. And my approach to investigation is to build relationships with both. I wasn’t educated as a journalist, but I was taught by my uncle, a pioneer FBI undercover agent, who trained me to investigate in the real world.  His law enforcement approach to developing sources and a journalist approach are not the same. Journalists probably need to maintain a greater degree of objectivity than I have. And it gives me a really good source for telling and fictionalizing stories, but it becomes increasingly hard to move as you know more and more people in the criminal space.


EEDC: So, given this unconventional training, talk more about how this affected your writing style as a journalist.


Because I was so dissatisfied with storytelling, particularly in the environmental crime space, I developed something called results-oriented reporting, which was a formula for telling stories that didn’t just inform people but impacted them. So, I would find a problem, say elephant poaching, and then an anecdote inside elephant poaching that I could build a story around, a crime story I could tell in a bar that would have the guy on the barstool next to me say, “Holy cow! I had no idea!”


Then I would ask myself as a lawyer: what would need to change and what needed to happen to solve the problem–government officials would have to do their jobs better, the laws would have to be stronger, the international organizations would have to act, etc.


I would identify each of those elements and include something in my story for each of them. So I would not just tell the story of the criminal killing the elephant; I would find the government official who was supposed to regulate that guy and sit down with them and figure out whether they were incompetent, complacent, or something else. And I would go through each part of the problem as if I were a Washington lawyer trying to solve a problem for my client.


One of the most important things to me was figuring out all the levers that needed to be turned and try to include each of them in my story in a dramatic way. I didn’t want just to describe a problem and leave it at that. I tried to catalyze change.


EEDC: Is there anything you miss about your “former life?”


BC: I miss the clarity of identifying someone hurting people or animals and designing an investigation to expose them. You can wake up every day and know you’re doing the right thing. I was recently reading my first book, The Lizard King, which is being made into a documentary. And I was marveling at how much research went into it. It reminded me how much I love research. And I love seeing real-life connections that, at times, seem magical. Truth can actually be stranger than fiction because if you made it up, no one would believe you. When you see extraordinary things in an investigation, you can put them in your story, and people will say, “wow.” Fiction is much harder than non-fiction for me. It’s why I’m turning to it now. I’m taking worlds I’ve seen and wrapping them in spy novels that let me get at things that matter. That’s the great adventure.


EEDC: Given all of the “bad guys” you’ve met, do you or did you ever fear for your life?


BC:  I was scared when I first started because I worked alone and didn’t know what or who to be afraid of and what not to be afraid of. Over time I figured it out. But the one time I’ve been the most afraid was when there was a conflict in a village in the Congo where a shooting had started, and I had to go through that space. I had zero control over what happened. That was very scary. I can’t imagine the courage it takes to be a soldier.


EEDC: What drew you to the Eastern Shore?


BC: My wife and I love nature. We moved here from the Catskill Mountains. We wanted to be closer to our kids who live and work in DC; this is just a beautiful place.


EEDC: Is there a muse here for you?


BC: One of the things that’s really exciting for me is that I grew up in South Jersey, near the Delaware Bay and am looking forward to connecting with people who work the water. I’d like to find ways to tell their stories.


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