Sometimes magazine articles just scratch the surface. That’s typically when I decide to do deep dives into the lives of volcano dwellers and former bank robbers. Here is some of my work…
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: October, 2014
A trip to the underworld of debt collection, where bankers team up with ex-burglars and few rules apply.
Bad Paper is a riveting exposé, a moving story of an unlikely friendship, and a gritty narrative of how scrappy entrepreneurs profit from our debts. Jake Halpern introduces us to a former banking executive and a former armed robber who become partners and go in quest of "paper" - the uncollected debts that are sold off by banks for pennies on the dollar.
As Halpern shows, the world of consumer debt collection is a wild and unregulated shadowland, where operators may misrepresent a debtor’s situation, make illegal threats, and even lay claim to debts that are not theirs to collect in the first place. It is a realm of indelible individuals who possess a swagger and vocabulary that even David Mamet could not invent. Halpern follows his collectors as they intimidate competitors with weapons, manage high-pressure call centers, and scheme new ways to benefit from American’s debt-industrial complex. He also explores the history of collection agencies and reveals the human cost of a system that leaves hardworking Americans with little opportunity to retire their debts in a reasonable way. The result is a bravura work of storytelling that is also an important consciousness-raiser.
Houghton Mifflin: January, 2007
A prismatic portrait of our national obsession with celebrity, in the tradition of Fast Food Nation and Blink.
For several years, Jake Halpern has reported on Hollywood for NPR's All Things Considered. In his new book, he explores the fascinating and often dark implications of America's obsession with fame. Why do more people watch the ultimate competition for celebrityhood, American Idol, than watch the nightly news on the three major networks combined? Why do seemingly normal, educated people care about Paris Hilton's dating life? Why do teenage girls – when given the option of "pressing a magic button" and becoming either stronger, smarter, famous, or more beautiful – overwhelmingly opt for fame?
Halpern answers these and other questions by traveling to America's fame factories and profiling a colorful and surprisingly insightful cast of characters, including diehard fans, aspiring stars, and celebrities like Rod Stewart and U2's The Edge. Interspersing these stories with new research – including original findings from his own "fame survey" – Halpern helps us understand how psychology, technology, evolution, and profit conspire to make us so enthralled with the world of red carpets and velvet ropes.
Houghton Mifflin: June, 2003
Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava Side Inn, & Other Extreme Locales.
When Jake Halpern was just a cub reporter, he became obsessed with stories about hellish places. In his spare time, he traveled to smoldering coal towns and deadly flood plains to meet with the few diehards who refused to leave. Iron-willed, unfearing, and utterly immovable, these characters captured his imagination. They were the nation’s toughest home-keepers, and he was their aspiring chronicler. His fellow reporters joked with him and nicknamed him the Bad Homes Correspondent. But the more he learned about these people, the more he was drawn to them.
BRAVING HOME is a journey to the most punishing towns in America, but more than this, it’s a periscope into the extraordinary lives of the people who live there. In North Carolina, Halpern finds a retired mill worker who single-handedly mans his hometown in the wake of a devastating flood. In Alaska, Halpern travels to a snowbound high-rise in the wilderness where he meets a woman hiding from her maniacal ex-husband. At the base of a volcano in Hawaii, he stays with a hermit whose house has been surrounded by lava for almost twenty years. And these are just a few of his stops. On a year-long odyssey packed with ocean storms, raging wildfires, and erupting volcanoes – he provides a glimpse into a world where almost all are afraid to venture, and a few refuse to leave.
Braving Home was a Borders' 'Original Voices' book, an Amazon.com 'Breakout Book' and a pick for the 'Book of the Month Club' by Bill Bryson. BRAVING HOME offers a glimpse at some of America's most dangerous hometowns, and the people who refuse to leave them. It was published in softcover in June of 2004.