Like many young writers, Donovan Webster at first wanted to write fiction. While at Kenyon College and later while working at an ad agency in New York City, the 1977 New Trier graduate diligently sent his short stories out into the world and watched the piles of rejection notices grow. He regularly sent stories to the New Yorker and got back rejection slips that “shrank over time from form letters to note cards down to business cards.”
Then Robert Gottlieb became the editor at the New Yorker. Webster, who’d started working as an editorial assistant for Condé Nast in 1983, started writing for the Talk of the Town section. One of his more memorable assignments was a journey to Atlanta to meet with Ted Turner, who’d recently produced a video that was to be aired on CNN in the event of a nuclear attack. “Turner was anticipating this event–he was getting ready,” says Webster. “Those were the Reagan years.”
Webster started writing longer pieces for the New Yorker as well, including a story on crop dusting that “only the most diligent readers could get through.” He also wrote for other magazines, including Southern, which he cofounded, and had a piece on how to keep a relationship’s embers glowing reprinted in Reader’s Digest.
In 1989 he came back to Chicago to work as an editor for Outside magazine. “They were really good to me there. They let me disappear for two weeks at a time while I worked on assignments for the likes of the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker.”
Around this time Webster and his wife were vacationing in France and came across a small cryptic story in a newspaper about “deminers” collecting unexploded bombs. He started working on a piece about the deminers for the New Yorker, but it wasn’t easy getting information about them. “They’re a top secret branch of the military in France,” he says. And by the time he finished the story Tina Brown had taken over as editor at the New Yorker. She said the story wasn’t what the magazine was looking for.
The story ran in Smithsonian, where an editor at Pantheon read it. He called Webster and proposed that he write a book about the continuing effects of this century’s wars.
Webster spent three years researching Aftermath: The Remnants of War. He walked through fields outside Stalingrad that are still littered with bleached and broken bones, the remains of hundreds of thousands of German soldiers. He spoke with victims of nuclear tests in Nevada. He traveled around Vietnam observing the ingenuity of the people this country tried to bomb into oblivion. He went to Kuwait and found out how dangerous and expensive it is to destroy land mines–between $300 and $1,000 for every $3 mine.
He says he still gets nightmares from the sights he saw and the stories he heard while working on the book. He likes to say, “I got depressed so you won’t have to.”
Webster will give a lecture at 6 PM, Tuesday, September 24, at the University Club, 76 E. Monroe; cocktails and hors d’oeuvres start at 5:30. His ap-pearance is sponsored by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations; tickets are $12 for members, $22 for nonmembers. For more information call 726-3860.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Donovan Webster photo by Dick Kane.