From 1973 and for more than 35 years, Canadian foreign correspondent Hilary Brown reported from trouble spots throughout the world and covered such stories as the fall of Saigon in 1975. She has filed reports “from every continent except for Antarctica” and she was the first female foreign correspondent at ABC News.
Retired and now calling Toronto home, Brown has written her autobiography titled War Tourist, Memories of a Foreign Correspondent.
She answers some of my questions about her book and her life.
Q. When did you decide you were finally ready to write a book about your life?
A. I decided to finally write my memoirs when my son Jonathan Bierman threatened to sit me down in front of a camera for an in-depth interminable interview about my life and career. That was in 2018. Then a month later, while on a solo trip to the otherwise delightful colonial Mexican town of Oaxaca, I was attacked by a mugger who threw me to the ground with such force that it fractured my hip. I was fitted with a new hip, in Mexico, two days later. This left me with a lot of time on my hands and it also concentrated my mind on my own mortality. As a number of friends pointed out, I could have been killed. So, I started the book and finished it 18 months later.
Q. Did you have any difficulty recalling details of things from the past? Did you keep notebooks or diaries – or copies of your stories on video?
A. I had no difficulty remembering episodes from the past and if I was in any doubt, I contacted any friends and colleagues who might have been around at the time. I have a fairly good memory for places and people. I kept journals from time to time, I had clip reels of my work that I could review, and then there was the enormously valuable resource of the Internet, to check the background of stories that I had covered. Finally, when my manuscript was ready (I went through about four drafts), I hired a well-known editor (she worked for Canadian author Margaret Atwood) to do a line and copy edit, along with a thorough fact check.
Q. Why was it important to tell your story? Why now?
A. I thought it important to tell my story primarily because so many people told me I should. They had been telling me to do this for the past 25 years. But I was also struck by a line from Paul Auster’s novel, The Brooklyn Follies. He said : “Most lives vanish. A person dies, and little by little, all traces of that life disappear.”
I suppose I want readers to learn of the almost infinite possibilities for a reasonably educated female in a democratic country in the age of feminism. I also wanted to make my readers laugh.
Q. Why did you decide to self-publish, and did self-publishing allow your opportunities that a traditional publisher wouldn’t?
A. I decided to self-publish because I wanted to write my story my way. For my entire professional life, my scripts had been scrutinized and changed and re-written by serried ranks of editors. That was the case for all correspondents: we called it ’Script Dick.’
For once I wanted complete control and not very much interference. The only editor in whom I had total undying confidence was my late husband, John Bierman, a BBC correspondent, and successful biographer. But by the time I sat down to write, he was in the Great Newsroom in the Sky. I did have overtures from some legacy publishers, but I knew they would make me crazy with changes, assuming I had been offered a contract. So, I self-published and there is no disgrace in that. After all, so did Proust.
Q. Although War Tourist is almost 500 pages, with a life like yours you needed to decide what was and wasn’t going to be in the book. How did you decide what parts of your life you wanted in the book and what you didn’t?
A. Yes my book is 450 pages long and my excuse is that I had a long life, and a lot of life. In the first draft, it was 600 pages. A couple of friends looked at those early drafts and told me what was boring. I also took out a lot of family episodes, which of course included horror stories about my mother-in-law, and stories that would have made the book more like a soap opera than a racy, fast-paced memoir
Q. Is there anything that you now wish that you included – or didn’t include in War Tourist?
A. The details that I wish I had included in the memoir were primarily those that were potentially libelous, and on the advice of my lawyer, removed. Therefore, I let off a few people who really deserved to be completely and utterly skewered.
Q. In the early part of your book, you talked about school holidays and travelling around Europe with your family. There was one incident where you learned “that you never feel more alive…than when you think you may soon be dead.” You then had a 35-year career reporting from trouble spots around the world, including 19 war zones. You were afraid. You felt guilty. What made you continue doing it?
A. Yes, I found at a very early age that I loved danger, precisely because you never feel more alive….than when you think you may soon be dead. I ended up in a career that involved a lot of risk. But what you usually find is that you are not actually thinking about the risk when you are working. You are thinking about getting the story, being in the right place, beating the competition, pleasing your masters in New York, getting the material out, etc. etc. There’s no time to be afraid!
The only situation that really frightened me was getting caught up in an all-male, fanatical Islamic mob. No one can protect you from that and after one potentially fatal episode, I stayed away from mobs.
You continue working because it really is its own reward, and you can sometimes flatter yourself that you are writing the ‘first rough draft of history,’ as the cliche goes.
Q. What was your favourite part about being a foreign correspondent?
A. One of the things I loved most about being a foreign correspondent was travelling with my crews. They were like the brothers I never had. We looked out for each other, we loved each other. And I miss them.
Q. What was your least favourite part of your job as a foreign correspondent
A. What I loved least about being a foreign correspondent was getting my hair right. Inevitably the wind would be blowing behind you the moment you opened your mouth to record your piece to camera.
Q. What made what you did unique to those covering the same story?
A. I wouldn’t claim to be unique in my coverage of any story. I think my strength was possibly in my voice, which is in the lower register. And thanks to a wonderful voice teacher called Eleanor Stuart early in my career, I learned phrasing. Also, I was pretty passionate about what I was reporting.
Q. Of all the stories you have covered in your amazing career, is there one story that causes the most regret?
A. The story I most regretted, at the time, was the fall of Saigon in 1975. I thought I should stay behind in Saigon and cover the actual takeover of the city by North Vietnamese Forces. But I was talked out of this, and so I was one of the last correspondents to be lifted off the roof of the American Embassy by helicopter to the aircraft carriers in the South China Sea.
I felt like a coward. Lots of European correspondents and photographers stayed in the city, but, as it turned out, this led to my 15-seconds of fame, as Andy Warhol might have said. The producers of the motion picture The Deer Hunter (the 1978 movie stared Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken), contacted me asking for permission to use one of my reports from the South China Sea. My agent negotiated a very nice fee, but I should have asked for residuals. If I had, I wouldn’t be writing to you. I would be sitting on my yacht.
Q. How were journalists treated in these war zones while you were in the field? Do you feel journalists today are being treated better or worse?
A. Mainly TV correspondents are treated with deference in war zones — that’s the power of television. But if you are in an especially nasty police state, you don’t get treated well at all. Many brave reporters have been arrested, tortured, and killed while documenting the crimes of repressive regimes
Q. How did you know the time was right to retire?
A. I never imagined that I would last as long as I did as a reporter. And, of course, CBC took me off the air at age 50, in one of my life’s darkest moments. But ABC still thought I was good on television, hired me back, and kept me employed until I was almost 70. When you reach that stage in life, you have pretty much run out of steam. You shouldn’t really be racing around with colleagues who could be your own children. So, I was entirely ready to stop working when I finally hung up my trench coat.
Q. Is there a story since retirement that you would have loved to have covered? Why?
A. The story, or stories, that I would most like to have covered was the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. I was an anchor for CBC on the six o’clock news in Toronto at the time, and I just ached to be out in the field. Of course, I miss the excitement of foreign news reporting, but I know that in today’s world, I wouldn’t last a week. The technological demands on correspondents now are huge. They have to write, sometimes shoot pictures, sometimes edit, file to Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and all the other electronic platforms. The pressure is relentless.
Q. What advice would you give today’s female journalists?
Q. Prior to the pandemic, your partner and you were flying around the world in the “relent pursuit of pseudo-extreme sports keeping you in a state of fear and excitement, just like your days as a foreign correspondent. What brings joy, fear and excitement to your life now?
A. It’s true that since I stopped working as a foreign correspondent, I fell in love with a Canadian businessman /pilot/ philanthropist / skier and all-round crazy man. He has had me white-water rafting down the Zambezi in Africa, rappelling down jungle waterfalls in Costa Rica, deep powder skiing in the backwoods of British Columbia, riding around his 1,000-acre ranch in Alberta, riding through the Rockies on the back of his Harley Davidson, and cycling up and down impossibly steep hills in Sicily. This is what brings fear and excitement to my life now. It’s just like being a foreign correspondent, all over again.
Q. What has been the feedback on your book?
Since publishing my book, I have had the most extraordinary feedback. Yes, it has been mainly from friends, but they tell me they can’t put it down. They don’t have to say that do they? One friend said that my book got her through sleepless nights following the unexpected death of her brother. Others say I made them laugh out loud. My favourite comment is from my son’s friends. The operative word is ‘bad-ass.’ I love that.
War Tourist is courtesy of The Idea Shop.
“With risk came both triumph and disaster, and as the poet said, she treats those two imposters just the same. (Hilary Brown) writes of heartache, concusssion and clinical depression, guilt and atonemet, as well as the complete, triple-distilled thrill of the job, writing ‘the first rough draft of history.’ Her memoir is a riveting, self-deprecating account of a charmed life in the age of feminism.”
To purchase a copy of War Tourist, visit Brown’s website.