Burgers with Burkhard Bilger

by Sarah Graalman


Burkhard Bilger suffers from an incipient case of wanderlust. After nearly 14 years writing features for the New Yorker, he hankers for a place he can lose himself—maybe a sabbatical with his family to Morocco? Istanbul? A brief palate cleanser from New York might be just the thing. Bilger’s had, by his estimate, “a long, wonderful, extremely stable period here in New York.”

“Long-form journalism is at its best in the New Yorker,” Bilger said. He’d always dreamt of writing for the magazine, and “that nice feeling hasn’t worn off,” he said. He then reflected on his only dilemma.

“How do you leave to write a book when you’re given the opportunity to regularly cover huge topics in such a complete way?” He writes articles that could be small books. And, after 13 years on staff, and he still reads each issue cover to cover.

Bilger covered the Mars rover landing, which took place August 5, 2012. We were scheduled to meet over burgers on that exact date, which he had to move so he could be present in Los Angeles during the landing, a location he likely couldn’t reveal at the time. Writing for the New Yorker means getting top-level access to most subjects. It also means writing with a partly obsessive fear about getting it right every time.

“Partly I’m just obsessive,” he said. “Partly it’s anxiety. Fear of disapproval … That’s the nature of the job. It’s a jury of your peers.”

Bilger covers what many out on the coasts refer to as “the flyover states”—“That is what attracted Remnick (New Yorker editor) to me,” he says—the rich center of America he mines without cartoonishly painting it in the “Southern grotesque” style other writers choose for such topics. He’s carved a niche out of the lesser-explored and -understood characters of Americana. “I am interested in them, not in a ‘Woohoo, check out this wacko!’ kind of way. What makes them interesting is that they’re interesting.”

Bilger graduated from Stillwater High School in the early 1980s, then ventured to Yale to study English and French. I was just a kid in Stillwater then, pretend-reading my parents’ copies of the New Yorker. I’d fake-laugh at the cartoons, which were so adult they appeared to be written in a different language.

Fast-forward many moons: I’m on the subway, reading my New Yorker like the good city girl I am. Early in a story about a soon-to-be demolished building (“Mystery on Pearl Street”) by Burkhard Bilger, I discovered a reference to a childhood spent in Oklahoma. I gasped like a neurotic mom on a playground. I have strong feelings about finding others from Oklahoma in New York, especially writers.

I took note of this information and assumed Bilger was from somewhere like Tulsa or Oklahoma City. Even still, I smiled to myself as I continued reading his article, going about my day. I jumped to his stories when I saw them in the contents, relishing every mention of Oklahoma, and when he didn’t, I relished the idea he came from my small, red state.

Then I learned he and I were both from Stillwater, after emailing him while scheduling meetings for a science conference. I recognized his name and sent him a fan mail. After a few exchanges, it was revealed that my childhood plumber was the inspiration for his essay on noodling in his 2000 book Noodling for Flatheads. Lee McFarlin, a friend of Bilger’s from high school, was a championship noodler, a sport in which the human body becomes the pole and the hand a hook to jerk large catfish from the holes in the banks of rivers and lakes.

Even when he wasn’t writing about Oklahoma, I read. Friends would say, “Did you read piece about Katz and fermentation?” and I’d proudly toss my hair and say, “Um, yeah I did. That writer is from my hometown.”

After the Mars landing, Bilger came over for burgers.

We talked about Stillwater and how it had changed over the years, from a small college town to a bigger college town with chain stores and a behemoth sports stadium towering over the red-bricked college landscape. We chatted about living in Brooklyn, and the act of looking for subtle traces of home in the hustle of city life. He joked about how tired he was at times to see so many “sharp-eyed New Yorkers” pacing around our neighborhood in Brooklyn. There was surreal comfort in talking about both worlds with someone I’d been reading for so many years.

Bilger has the laid-back comfort of many Okies I know—kind, patient, and curious. He is an observer, but not a silent one. He engages earnestly and warmly in conversation. He is a man who wants to know details. He laughs easily in conversation, and gives as good as he gets.

As a writer, he takes no shortcuts. He noodled with Lee McFarlin. He went squirrel hunting. He ran around with moonshiners. He deeply entrenched himself in the world of cockfighting. He writes character studies of hidden customs and cultures. He wriggles into the tighter, lesser-seen folds of American culture. “Th ere is history there,” Bilger said. “There is philosophy there. There are ideas and obsession there … I think flipping that whole perspective inside out was huge, and Oklahoma really kind of led me to that.”

Bilger makes files of quotes from the characters of his stories. He then begins an outline file, dropping his characters slowly but surely into what becomes the story. He jokes that writers are divided into two categories—meticulous first-drafters, and the rest. Thanks to his process, when the first draft is done, it’s “pretty damned close” to being the last. He feels he has to hand in something in that feels done. “Must be that fear of disapproval.”

In his 13 years, his New Yorker editors have rejected just one of his stories.

* * *

Bilger was born in 1964, the fi rst child of his family born in Stillwater to German parents who had emigrated two years earlier. His father, a physicist, was an avid reader of Karl May novels, through which he was intensely drawn to the grandness of the American West. Due to his father’s work, he went abroad during his childhood during sabbaticals. First was a year in Germany; when they returned he was in first grade, had lost much of his English, and felt like an outsider. During his middle school years, the family lived in France. Eventually, Bilger developed a tight group of Stillwater friends, who still call him “Burk.”

“He got along with everyone,” his oldest friend, Shawn Evans, told me over lunch at Cherokee Strip BBQ. “He was at ease with the farm boys, the eggheads, the stoners, and the honor students.” Bilger was an honor student, and something of a class clown—he ran for student council as a fake gospel preacher—and was consistently finding new ways to act out his creativity.

“I want to be a science writer,” he said. After writing a few stories at Yale, he felt grounded in what a great field science writing could be—it would allow him to steer clear of fluff pieces so many beginning journalists fall prey to, and he had a knack for writing pieces that made science understandable to the general public.

After graduating from Yale, Bilger settled in Boston for a few years, before moving to NYC in 1994, where he was deputy editor at  e Sciences, a publication of the New York Academy of Sciences, and later served as senior editor at Discover. While still in Boston, he began writing features for Oklahoma Today, which allowed him to make trips home. He wrote about buffalo ranchers, and interviewed victims of the Tulsa Race Riot. “What struck me,” he said, “was that my little bubble of existence was NOT the most important thing going on. There was all this cool stuff going on around me that I had kind of ignored … so much more interesting than what I’d experienced growing up.”

I always want to know where Okies feel most at home. Bilger thought about this for a minute, his eyes lighting up, then leaned into a story about landing in Namibia a few years back while working on a story for the New Yorker.

“My dad had been telling me about Namibia my whole life. I land in the airport and I come out of the plane, and it looks like Oklahoma, it’s flat and short grass and very much that arid western … but it had the German stuff I grew up with, so it was like, weirdly, a combination of my world. I was walking around the darkness in this little town.”

After realizing he had no contact to guide him to a hotel, he was pointed down the road to a home where a German priest met him at the door. Th e priest came from the same area in Germany as Bilger’s father. There, in the middle of Namibia, Bilger ate a meal much like his childhood meals of spätzle and bratwurst, speaking with the priest in German. He’d stepped broadly away from his roots, but looping back when he least expected it in Africa, a surprisingly comforting version of home.

Brooklyn is now Bilger’s home, where he’s settled with his wife Jennifer (also from Stillwater) and his three children. The family plays in an old-timey bluegrass band together in some local haunts, where they are sometimes paid with a free dinner. They’ve even opened for Bon Jovi, during a fundraiser for the school where Jennifer teaches. They keep three chickens in their Brooklyn backyard.

Bilger daydreams about the idea of building a cabin someday on a bluff overlooking the ruddy Cimarron River, one of his favorite childhood vistas. Or maybe building a cabin near Horsethief Canyon, where I used to rappel with a Baptist church youth group, kids shouting “I love Jesus” as they scaled the rocks, dangling from thick ropes.

We talked about the art of employing one’s accent. I slip into an Oklahoma lilt if I’m excited, tipsy, or in trouble and need to be found endearing quickly. His is mostly absent, having grown up speaking German and French as well as English. He wistfully wishes he had one, though—the soft-throated Oklahoma twang being as perfect as an American accent can be. He laughs, and says, “I mean, it’s kind of cool to be from Oklahoma in New York, isn’t it?”