Lots of lawyers leave law for writing. But in the annals of journalism trajectories, Bryan Christy’s career is unique. In the 15 years since he left his job as an international lawyer in D.C., he’s written exactly two stories: one about the rarest coin in the world, published 8 years ago by Playboy, and another about the international trade in endangered species, published earlier this year by National Geographic.
Both stories have been put up for National Magazine Awards. And Christy’s 2008 book, The Lizard King, was published by Twelve, the same house that handles Christopher Hitchens, Christopher Buckley, and Sebastian Junger.
On his decision to leave law, Christy, 47, told LongForum: “There was a moment where I thought to myself: ‘You have a big ego. You can either ride it into politics and be shallow and probably do well. Or you can ride it into writing and see if you can put your own stamp on the life you live.’”
Fifteen years later Christy is a contributing writer at NatGeo, has a memoir in the works, and is in talks to convert his reptile reporting into a television series. He recently spoke to LongForum about his early dark days as a struggling writer, the importance of mentors, and the false notion that publishing top-flight work automatically leads to more work.
When I see an environmental story in a magazine I usually move on. Even you think wildlife crime reporting sucks, as you recently wrote in an op-ed. How hard is to get editors to care about wildlife crime?
There are two answers. National Geographic made me a contributing writer, so they care about it, which is enough. Second, as long as you write these stories as crime stories and not as environmental pieces, you don’t have to deal with people not caring. I’m not trying to sell a Save the Whale story. I’m selling a criminal syndicate that has all the adventure and structure of a mafia story.
You’ve had a lifelong obsession with reptiles. How did that start?
Just like kids trade baseball cards, the kids on my street caught frogs, toads, turtles and snakes and traded them. I brought a king snake to school once and everyone ran out of the room. There’s a lot of power in having something that other people are afraid of, especially adults. The other nice thing about studying reptiles is that you don’t have to get very deep into the subject before you’re alone on that path. It rewards you almost immediately with authority.
How did it go over with girls?
I would say, “You want to come see my snake eat a rabbit?” That worked pretty well.
But before you circled back to reptiles, at around age 40, you worked in accounting and politics, you were a Fulbright scholar in Japan, and you worked as an international lawyer in D.C. Talk about leaving law for writing.
I worked for Powell Goldstein in D.C. It was a bunch of Carter Whitehouse people. Most of the guys I worked with are now at Sidley Austin. I got to see a lot of people at the top of their game in D.C., and I started thinking about whether I wanted to be one of those guys. I thought most of them were really egotistical and had lost all individuality. I thought highly of myself but didn’t think I’d be any different than them. There was a moment where I thought to myself: ‘You have a big ego. You can ride it into politics and be shallow and probably do well. Or you can ride it into writing and see if you can put your own stamp on the life you live.’
What decided it for you?
The triggering event was when my father got colon cancer and was going to die. I said, ‘Dad, I was afraid to tell you years ago that I really wanted to be a writer and not go to law school.’ He was hurt by this, because he’d always supported anything I’d done. He said: ‘If you can pay your bills, then do what you want to do. I’m 55, and the thing I care about most in the world is throwing a worm into a lake.’ So I quit the law firm. This was in 1995.
But you hadn’t written a thing yet.
I’d written some law journal pieces, but had never published a piece of fiction, other than a short story in college called “The Big Gulp,” about how a snake swallows. But I was sure I could write. I had no doubt. I started with a novel, a thriller. I thought I’d write a thriller first because they have a formula and there’s a high demand for them.
I worked on that for about 6 years. I sold my house on Capitol Hill, and sold my car. Eventually, after my grandmother and my father died, I moved back to old the funeral home that our family had owned and lived in for 100 years.
That sounds both inspiring and depressing.
It was such a fall. To go from a lawyer who thought he’d be a cabinet member, or at least a powerful D.C. lawyer, to waiting tables at a bar in D.C. where lawyers I knew came in, and then to living back in the funeral home, in my father’s boyhood bedroom no less.
How was the novel coming along?
Six years passed. I went to the summer writing program at the University of Iowa, where I studied with James Alan McPherson. For the first time I understood that writing was not a hobby or a self-indulgent exercise but necessary to a functioning society. I felt worthwhile for the first time. He asked me to come back and do the program full-time. But I already had too many graduate degrees. I needed to start making money again.
At this point you’d been writing for 6 or 7 years and hadn’t sold a single thing.
That’s right. But it was around then that I got a call from my uncle. In the 70’s, he’d been an undercover FBI agent who worked with Joe Pistone, a/k/a Donny Brasco. My uncle said: ‘So, I hear you’re committed to writing. I have a story for you.’
He told me the story of his undercover sting of the Philadelphia mafia. So I got an apartment in Philadelphia and started looking into his case of 20 years earlier. During this time, I met a guy from the mafia world, an ex-felon. As he was near the end of his life, he called me up and told me about an upcoming sale at Sotheby’s of the most valuable coin in the world, a coin that had been stolen from the Philadelphia Mint in the 1930’s. He said: ‘Kid, you want a story? You look into that fucking coin.’
So this became the big story for Playboy?
Yeah. I trained it up to New York and attended the auction. I pitched the idea to Philadelphia Magazine. They said write up a story proposal based on “The Red Violin,” the movie about the rare violin that travels from generation to generation. But by the time I got back to Philadelphia, there’d been a change in ownership at the magazine, and they didn’t want the story anymore. That was when a friend told me about an editor she knew at Playboy.
The next day I got a call from Chris Napolitano, an editor there who said he liked the coin story and offered me two dollars a word for 2,500 words. But soon I realized that the story was bigger than that. I realized I had to go to London and then to Texas. I didn’t ask. I just went. I delivered a 10,000 word story. They ran it at 7,500 words and paid me for the 7,500 words, plus expenses.
So that was my break. Playboy put it up for a National Magazine Award that year. I was 39.
What did that break lead to?
It led to nothing. I remember sitting in my chair in my one-room apartment in Philly and looking at the telephone, thinking, ‘Okay, I’m going to get a call from Vanity Fair or the New Yorker.’ I had this naïve notion that other editors actually read this stuff. It was an absurd thought.
Because I’d been burned so badly sending my novel proposal around and being turned down, I didn’t want to go through that again with magazine editors. Plus, frankly, I thought magazines were beneath me. You don’t hear about The Great American Magazine Article.
When did you return to reptiles?
My uncle called and said, ‘You’ve spent the last six years in your head. You’ve got to get out of your own head.’ So he trained me as an investigator. A year passed. I didn’t have anything. I pitched Playboy on a snake story, on the idea that people sell venomous snakes all over the U.S. at these things called hot shows.
I went down to Florida to visit this company called Strictly Reptiles, the biggest reptile dealer in the world. Playboy liked the story but wanted to do it differently than I had in mind. But I thought, ‘This is a book.’ So I stopped because I didn’t want Playboy to have any rights to the book.
But one of the ways people get books published is by doing an article first.
I didn’t know that. So I just started reporting the story. I asked my uncle, the FBI agent: ‘How am I going to get these reptile guys to talk to me? They’re ex-felons. They’ve been burned by the press before.’
My uncle said, ‘Look, you already did this story, right? These guys will sell their mothers for a snake. So then this is just like the coin world. Be yourself, tell them you’re from Playboy, that you want to do a story on the reptile world.’ So I did. And within two minutes, the boss’s girlfriend took her top off and asked if she could get in the magazine. The boss and I hit it off. He said he’d talk about everything except smuggling.
I wrote a draft of a book and sold it to Twelve, the new publishing house where Christopher Buckley and Christopher Hitchens were. That was like being picked by the Cowboys. As I was working on the book, National Geographic called and asked what story I wanted to do next on the international wildlife trade. I told them I wanted to write about the kingpin, Anson Wong in Malaysia. So I moved down to Florida, got an apartment, and started working at Strictly Reptiles, and then eventually got to Anson Wong.
In journalism, do you ever draw on lessons you learned as a lawyer?
In the back of my mind the lawyer is always at work asking: ‘What can we prove?’ If you look at wildlife crime reporting over the last 20 years, what you mostly see is anecdotes about bad things that have happened. Like cutting off bear cub feet and eating them. When I see these stories, I always ask, ‘Who did that?’ And no one knew. I wanted facts and identities in every situation.
The other thing is this: In the practice of law, you become very comfortable being the dumbest guy in the room. Your clients are going to be the smartest people on their industry and on their problem. You start from a dead stop and have to become an expert. How is that any different from journalism?