As a premier writer for the New York Times Magazine, Sara Corbett of Portland has told her share of powerful stories.
She has written about a 16-year-old girl who attempted to become the youngest person to circle the globe in a 40-foot sailboat without stopping. She has written about a couple that tried to sustain a relationship when one of them opted for a sex change.
She has interviewed war veterans, artists, athletes and politicians.
But few people Corbett has encountered over her long career have made as deep and lasting an impression as Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout.
The two will be in Portland on Friday night to talk about the book they co-authored, “A House in the Sky.” It details Lindhout’s 15 months of captivity in Somalia, where she had gone in 2008 as a freelance journalist to report on the country’s civil war and famine.
Scribner published “A House in the Sky” this week, and the book is receiving widespread, international attention. Lindhout and Corbett are on a book tour that stopped this week in Toronto, New York and Brookline, Mass., before coming to Portland.
The New York Times excerpted the book earlier this month, and several magazines, including Vogue and Elle, have featured Lindhout’s story.
“I’ve been really gratified by the responses so far,” Corbett said by phone from Toronto. “People who have read the book are seeing what I saw when I was first introduced to Amanda’s story, which is a really interesting, provocative coming-of-age story about a very courageous woman. It’s exciting to see that resonating with some of the reviewers.”
Sponsored by Longfellow Books, Friday’s event begins at 6:30 p.m. at Rines Auditorium in the Portland Public Library.
The two will discuss the book, their collaboration and Lindhout’s life. While “A House in the Sky” focuses on Somalia and Lindhout’s 460 days of captivity, the book tells a broader story, including her experiences backpacking across the world, growing up in an abusive household and becoming a journalist after supporting herself as a cocktail waitress.
It also details her decision to return to Somalia after her captivity to begin an organization dedicated to helping Somalis rebuild their country.
“She’s been able to effect change,” Corbett said. “She had the courage to go back, which is really pretty amazing. I didn’t sleep a wink the whole time she was there. But she did it.”
Friday’s event is particularly meaningful to Corbett, because it occurs in her adopted hometown. She is eager to introduce Lindhout to her friends as well as to the broader Somali community that lives here. “I’m excited to bring together these two meaningful parts of my life,” she said.
Corbett and her husband, writer Michael Paterniti, have made their home in Portland for 15 years. Living here allows them to pursue their writing careers while raising their three children — ages 13, 11 and 8 — in a safe, family-friendly environment, they say. Paterniti has just released his latest book, “The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese.”
Along with their friend and fellow writer Susan Conley, the couple are co-founders of The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center in Portland dedicated to helping children and adults tell stories.
“A House in the Sky” is a perfect example of the kind of story that Corbett likes to tell.
Lindhout, now 32, grew up in a violent household in Alberta, Canada. She imagined a very different world, and dreamed of traveling to exotic places that she learned about while reading National Geographic magazine.
After high school, she moved to Calgary and got a job as a waitress. She saved her money and took a series of trips across Latin America, India, Syria and other places. She began a career as a TV journalist in the danger zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, then made the decision to travel to Somalia to report on that country’s civil war and famine.
Lindhout and her photographer, Nigel Brennan, were kidnapped within a week in the country and held for 15 months.
Her account of the abduction is vivid, harrowing and, at times, humorous. She and Brennan had paid handsomely for safe escort around Mogadishu, considered one of the most dangerous places on Earth, and on the day of their capture were en route to a camp for displaced people just west of the city. Lindhout was interested in reporting on the conditions there, and wanted a first-hand look.
Gun-toting bandits pulled their car over outside the city, and ordered Brennan and their Somali escorts into a ditch at the side of the road.
“A man in a yellow scarf yelled in my face,” Lindhout recounts in the book. “I could see beads of sweat running from his covered forehead down past his nose. He looked young. I raised my arms — like I’d seen done a hundred times in movies — and slid my way out (of the car) in the blaze of sunlight.
“Was this real? How could it be real?”
She and Brennan were ferried from house to house throughout their ordeal, and eventually separated. They were released after a security firm posted $600,000 of the $1.5 million that the captors demanded as ransom.
Lindhout writes about her captivity in detail, and talks about how she maintained her spirit and strength during the darkest days. She studied Islam to endear herself to her captors, tried to reason with them, and eventually attempted a brave escape.
She survived, she writes, by imaging herself in a “house in the sky.”
Corbett said she and Lindhout collaborated on every line. They spent months together, and traveled from Corbett’s home in Maine to Lindhout’s home in western Canada as well as to quiet Caribbean beaches to talk, write, “and shut the doors on the rest of the world,” Corbett said.
At first, Corbett was inclined to decline the book project. She was not interested in ghost writing the book, and did not want to churn out a quick read. If she was going to do it, she wanted to help tell Lindhout’s complete story, going back to her childhood and ending with her decision to do humanitarian work in the country where she was abducted.
She also insisted on doing it respectfully.
“Once I met Amanda and we had the chance to talk, I realized the magnitude of what had happened to her. For somebody who had lost everything, absolutely everything for 460 days, I realized I had no right to ask her to give me her story,” Corbett said, explaining her decision to co-write the book with Lindhout.
They spent three years working on the project.
Corbett remains as impressed with Lindhout today as she was when she first met her, and is eager to introduce her to Portland.
“After spending three years exploring every corner of her life story, the fact that I still think that she’s a remarkable person speaks volumes about how open she was with me and how willing she was to let me inside,” Corbett said. “She is one of the most determined people I have ever met.
“The person I now know, I can see what led her through these various parts of her life, and I can especially see what allowed her to get through 460 days as a captive in Somalia.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be reached at 791-6457 or: