Clarissa Ward, 37, is a senior international correspondent for CNN. In her 15 year career she has reported from the most dangerous places in the world, including Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Georgia. She reported from the ground the bombing of Aleppo in Syria and in 2016 gave evidence to the UN Security Council – it is profoundly affecting and you can watch it here. She speaks six languages (she says to “wildly different levels”) and has won awards including two George Foster Peabody awards and four Emmys. She also recently interviewed Elmo from Sesame Street; witness the insane cuteness here. She is married and lives in London.
1 There is a huge amount of travel in your work – as well as your passport, phone, wallet and keys, when you are heading out of the door what do you always take with you?
I cannot leave the house without a notebook and a pen and under eye concealer. But mainly under eye concealer because I can use my phone in lieu of a pad but without concealer I look positively cadaverous. Other essentials include tissues, headphones, bottled water, a portable charger, hairspray and powder.
2 You have seen some horrible things and I know you were friends with James Foley [the American journalist who was killed by ISIS]. It must be very hard not to replay traumatic events – let alone let go of those times when you personally have been very scared. Is it possible to tune out the worst of it when you need to?
The weird thing about trauma is that it doesn’t hit you in ways you expect. You don’t see a dead child and then feel sad and then have a nightmare about the dead child. More often, for me, you see a dead child, you feel slightly sickened but mostly numb because that’s what you need to push through it.
And then later, when you have the time and space to process it, you will feel supremely detached from your “real” life and then feel a strong urge to go out and get insanely drunk and then you shout at people you love because they inexplicably irritate you and clearly don’t understand you and finally you stub your toe and burst into tears, sobs racking your body and something shifts inside you and the grief pours out and you realise “ohh, this isn’t really about my toe.”
It’s different for everyone and everyone has different ways of dealing with it. I find time spent with animals is very important. And in some weird way, I hold some of the most horrific things I have witnessed sacred. They are more real and more profound than much of my everyday life and I won’t let myself forget them.
3 What do you read when you have time?
I love novels. I studied Russian literature at university and am still a huge fan. I just finished Resurrection which is a highly underrated Tolstoy masterpiece. I also read an inordinate amount about Islam in an effort to better understand one of the most broadly misunderstood religions in the world. Oh and I recently read an amazing novel by a Brit called “In the Light of What We Know” which is just jaw dropping.
4 You are a Londoner but also a New Yorker; New York women have a reputation as being much smarter or more groomed than Londoners. (I’d agree with that.) Do you think that is true? Do you think it matters?
In some ways, I do think that’s true. Most women in NYC get a manicure every week or two. In London it’s still seen as a luxury (though we are starting to see more and more reasonably priced nail bars). My New York friends are much more likely to be having Botox and skin peels etc. Appearances matter a huge amount in the US.
I just realised that by “smart” you mean well put together and not intelligent (which is what smart means in the US). Yes, my British friends are often more casual but I love them for it and I am the same way. Comfort all the way unless you’re dressing up, in which case, really go for it. Whenever I’m in the office in New York I wear dresses and heels and it’s such a relief to get back to London and shuffle into work in my jeans and Converse!
5 Do you have a method for learning a language? I have in my mind that once you have a critical mass of languages adding a new one is easier than learning just one extra one from scratch. Or is that nonsense.
It definitely gets easier as you learn more of them and there are general themes that are broadly applicable across a wide range of languages. My method is to immerse myself in a language/ place/ culture and argue with taxi drivers and try to get around by myself. When I was younger, having a local boyfriend was also a good tactic but those days are over. No matter what though, the most important thing is confidence. Make mistakes, sound like an idiot but just open your mouth and speak.
6 Complete this sentence: “My favourite time of year is….”
It’s got to be summertime… spent outside with people I love and my dogs and lots of rose and goats cheese and lazy games of scrabble and afternoon naps.
7 What was the last film or TV series you watched that you really loved?
I am obsessed with a French series called The Bureau which is about the DGSE (French CIA) and which overlaps with parts of my work life. I also loved the Handmaid’s Tale, though it was a lot of rape to sit through. And Big Little Lies was kind of fun, mindless fare with great performances.
8 What are you having for dinner tonight?
I just got back from three weeks on the road for work in Greenland and New York for work so I am going to have my classic, favourite comfort meal: roast chicken, mashed potatoes, peas, carrots and gravy. It makes me so happy to eat home cooked food and remember that the greatest pleasures in life are the simplest.