Unholy Business: Chicago-bred writer Nina Burleigh discusses her latest book, religion, and the ugly side of journalism

Courtesy of Nina Burleigh
There are few quicker ways to inflame a conversation than by broaching the topic of religion. Monolithic megachurch pastors wield enormous influence over vast swaths of the pious population, while nonbelievers like Christopher Hitchens energize the opposing side in the same fashion. And with a presidential election constantly dredging up religious associations as artillery fodder (Jeremiah Wright on the one hand, Sarah Palin’s Amida-Buddhist-like zeal for invoking God as the solution to all life’s problems on the other), it’s readily obvious that faith can sting as often as it can salve.

Radical rhetoric aside, however, much of the debate concerning religion often boils down to the true nature of God, the path to salvation, and, for the skeptical, whether or not She even exists. So imagine the surprise when, in 2002, an ancient limestone ossuary emerged, inscribed with the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” It was a find that could have profoundly affect religious beliefs worldwide–at least, it would have, if it had turned out to be real.

Author Nina Burleigh presents the saga in her latest offering, “Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land,” a caper to be released October 21 by HarperCollins. Between billionaire investors and impassioned archeologists, the story melds Hollywood excitement with history in a way that’s already made fans of the readers over at Publishers Weekly, who gave the story a starred review in their September 22 issue.

Burleigh, author of four books and a veteran journalist, is a University of Chicago Humanities graduate, having received her Master’s degree in English in 1987. But she has more than just a passing connection to Hyde Park: both her parents were UofC students, and she was born in the neighborhood in 1960, living there for seven years before the family packed up and moved to Haight-Ashbury in 1967. But after sticking around just long enough for the Summer of Love and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, her mother decided to take a leave of absence from the country, flying Burleigh and her two siblings to Baghdad for six months to live with her grandmother.

It was in this unlikely locale that Burleigh got one of her first initiations into the world of journalism. “I used to lie on my grandmother’s couch in that strange city and read Time magazine,” she recalls. Soon after, she and her family would return to the States, settling down in a farmhouse in an Amish area of Michigan.

Like many an elementary schooler, Burleigh was writing stories and poems by the third grade. But unlike most students, her interest in being a writer didn’t evaporate with mandated literary exercises in English class. “In college I thought I might go into fiction writing, but a professor of mine…suggested I could get paid as a journalism intern at the Illinois Statehouse, through a program called the Public Affairs Reporting Program. I got an internship at the [Associated Press], and learned a lot about government and writing journalism there,” she explains.

From there, she returned to Hyde Park to attend the University of Chicago, and after graduating with her Master’s (“I would have stayed around for a PhD but…I wasn’t writing at all like a critic, so I didn’t make the cut,” she admits) she moved on to freelance for her childhood favorite, Time magazine, followed by work with People magazine and the Chicago Tribune, where she wrote mostly for the women’s section and the Sunday magazine. Soon after she relocated to Washington, DC, where her stories inevitably waded into more political territory–notably, one article related what it felt like to get hit on by President Clinton (Mirabella magazine, July 1998). She also told the Washington Post she’d “be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal,” but that’s another story (for those interested, her thoughts and responses to the now-decade-old controversy can be found in some of her blog entries at the Huffington Post). In addition to being the White House correspondent for Time, Burleigh has also written for New York magazine, the New York Observer, More magazine, Elle, and a slew of other publications.

But though Burleigh spent the ten years after receiving her Master’s freelancing, deep down she desired to get out of magazines and ultimately take the next step: publishing a book. With the release of “A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Mary Meyer” (Bantam, 1998), she would achieve this goal. “When I got the book contract I thought I would never have to work in magazines again,” she recalls. “[I] walked around with a huge grin on my face for months.” Of course, this wouldn’t exactly prove to be the case, but it would end up a crucial first step towards a successful career as a published author.

“I worked every day on that book,” Burleigh proclaims proudly of her first foray into the publishing world. For the story, which attempted to unravel the 1964 murder of socialite Mary Meyer, she interviewed “150 Georgetown denizens, CIA types, aged World War II-generation Cold Warriors and their widows. A lot of them didn’t want to talk to me,” she admits. “It was the hardest thing I had ever done at the time.”

The whole book-publishing thing has presumably gotten easier–or at least Burleigh makes it seem so. “Unholy Business” marks her fourth published book and, remarkably, her second published within the past year (following “Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt,” released by HarperCollins in November 2007). But don’t be fooled into thinking it was a quick eleven-month toss-off–“I was reading the [New York] Times about four years ago, and saw a small story about a forgery conspiracy involving Biblical relics,” she explains of the book’s origins. “I am not a religious believer, but I am fascinated by people of faith and the religious mania in some members of my generation–I’m about the same age as Sarah Palin!” she blurts out. “[I] wondered what sort of people of faith would desire physical proof and what manner of man would fake it for them. That was the start. Two years later, I sold a proposal.” From there, as simple math will tell you, it was but a mere two years until “Unholy Business” was born.

Perhaps unsurprisingly (what with all this book publishing going on), Burleigh doesn’t do much freelancing nowadays. She obtained her first staff position working with People in 2006, but other than producing an occasional human interest story for the magazine, she’s decided to take some much-deserved time off. The mother of two small children and an adjunct professor with the Columbia School of Journalism, Burleigh has plenty on her plate as it is. Now she can relax (sort of) and think about all the great things going on in the world today, like the financial crisis and the ongoing death of print media.

But it’s not all doom and gloom–as Burleigh sees it, such situations have definite silver linings. “The financial crisis makes me a little nervous,” she confesses, “but then, it also makes me feel smart for never having had a lot of money to lose in the first place. When I was a nihilistic twenty-year-old and Reagan was elected, I thought the world was going to end imminently. And it didn’t. But now it’s looking more and more interesting, everything sort of unraveling, the old order really falling apart. If we see it as that and not as the apocalypse, and if we have leaders with energy and ideas, we can move into a better place.”

Her thoughts on the latter subject, however, are a bit more tempered. “I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to the future of journalism,” Burleigh confides. “I hope it survives…[but] for example, at the New York Times or Time, Inc, decision makers are flailing around at the top…It’s hard to tell where this form–the long essay, narrative nonfiction that’s not a book–will have a home in thirty years.”

Then again, for Burleigh, the death of journalism might not be all bad–her experience in the field has left a somewhat sour taste in her mouth. “Female journalists are generally marginalized, ghetto-ized by the big ‘serious’ magazines,” she opines. “[It’s] worse now that we live in a macho war culture…you won’t find women writing the big war stories, the stories about soldiers either home or abroad, or the Al Qaeda stories, and that’s what the big news is about these days. That’s why I went into books ten years ago. It seems to be easier to find mentors and supportive editors in the book business.”

In the meantime, however, journalism lives on, as does Burleigh, now a resident of New York City. But her ties with Chicago remain strong. “I miss Lake Michigan and I miss my family, who all still live there,” she laments. “But I don’t miss the sports bar scene in Chicago, or the gray winters.” Truer words were never spoken.