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June 21 2013

14:27

Pinned: Story trailers, a notable narrative, writers on rejection, writers on Twitter, Michael Hastings’ tips for young journalists

Pinned this week, for your storytelling pleasure:

Inspired: Story trailers. Esquire made not one but two (a 46- and 20-second version) for Chris Jones’ “Animals,” a taut narrative about the Zanesville, Ohio, zoo massacre. And Georgia’s Macon Telegraph just launched one for “Searching for Shorty: The murder of an unknown man,” a narrative coming this Sunday by enterprise reporters Amy Leigh Womack and Joe Kovac Jr.:

Kovac makes these himself. We asked him how he does it, and why, and here’s what he told us yesterday:

This was actually the third “trailer” I’ve done for stories in the past year and a half. They’re all fairly pedestrian, done with half-a-decade-old iMovie software on the Mac in my kitchen. (Not low-budget, but rather no-budget.) “Killing in the Country: The Death of Trevorius Thomas,” for instance, incorporates audio I recorded on my iPhone at the funeral; I used a photo I snapped at the scene as the backdrop. I made “Phantom on Emery Highway“ on a Sunday night. I filmed it through an open sunroof with a point-and-shoot camera. The idea was to follow the same route that police thought the hit-and-run driver took. Which I did. The clip ends at the spot where the man was killed. I had hoped to film it at 3:30 a.m. to capture an accurate depiction of what the traffic might have been like when the man was run over. But I figured late on a Sunday was good enough. I’ve tried to be as careful as I can on these not to go over the top with the effects and bells and whistles that iMovie offers. As a novice on video, I think sometimes there’s an urge to “use all the toys.” I’ve tried to keep the trailers simple. As we might say in a print newsroom, Write it straight.

Joe Kovac Jr.

Joe Kovac Jr.

I’m pretty much a shade-tree mechanic when it comes to video. At best. I can write “grabber” copy well enough and I think that’s why I use it instead of voiceovers. I’ve made most of these in my spare time, off the clock. But I’ve found that distilling a 5,000-word story into a minute or so of video really makes you focus as a writer. On “Killing in the Country,” about a drug deal gone bad, I made the trailer the weekend before I started writing. It was agonizing, tedious, making the text match the sound, learning the iMovie ropes trial and error. So much of it is timing. But bottom line, it forces you to find the heart of the story. But again, low-budget as it may look, it was painstaking. The “Killing in the Country” clip took … well, let’s just say longer than I’d have liked. Hours.

I wouldn’t want to do trailers on everyday features, but on a piece I’ve spent a few weeks or months reporting it can be worth it. The hope, of course, is that the videos will drive readers to our site for the stories. Hard to gauge whether it works. It’s still kind of cool.

Notable narrativesThe Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen wrote a remarkable piece recently about a mother, a son and schizophrenia. A passage:

It has been 10 years since he began thinking his classmates were whispering about him, four years since he started feeling angry all the time, and two years since he first told a doctor he was hearing imaginary voices. It has been 20 months since he was told he had a form of schizophrenia, and 15 months since he swallowed three bottles of Benadryl and laid down to die, after which he had gotten better, and worse and, for a while, better again, or so Naomi had thought until an hour ago, when they were in the therapist’s office and Spencer said that his head was feeling “cloudy.” 

“Wait —” she said, interrupting. “You described it as a cloudy feeling?”

Cloudy was the big, flying red flag that she had learned to dread. It might simply be a side effect of one of his five medications. But it could also be the quiet beginning of her firstborn son falling apart again, of hallucinations, or a dive into depression, or some other dimension of his illness that Naomi has yet to fathom.

“Yeah,” Spencer said. “Cloudy. It feels like these winds are blowing inside my head.”

Inspired, Part 2: Twelve famous writers on rejection, which in this fractious writing universe appears applicable across disciplines (“To ward off a feeling of failure, she joked that she could wallpaper her bathroom with rejection slips, which she chose not to see as messages to stop, but rather as tickets to the game.”—Anita Shreve) and Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a new book about the habits of 161 creative minds. From the website of the author, Mason Currey:

Here are: Anthony Trollope, who demanded of himself 3,000 words each morning (250 words every 15 minutes for three hours) before going off to his job at the postal service, which he kept for 33 years during the writing of more than two dozen books; George Balanchine, who liked to do his own laundry and who did most of his “work” while ironing; George Gershwin, who worked for 12 hours a day, from late morning to midnight, composing at the piano in pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers.

Recommended: At NewYorker.com, Thomas Beller wrote about writers and Twitter:

Writing on Twitter brings the energy of a début to every phrase. You could say it imbues writing with a sense of performance, though writing has always involved performance in the sense of performance anxiety. The question for the writer who is leaving multiple pages crumpled on the floor—literally or figuratively—is for whom is that line, or paragraph, unsatisfactory? Who is the appraiser of one’s own unpublished, or even unwritten, work?

The editor Ted Solotaroff wrote an essay called “A Few Good Voices In My Head,” in which he talked about managing this feeling of having an audience. His prescription is summed up in his title: a couple of trusted voices with whom a writer will engage in a dialogue—sometimes literally, more often not. Twitter is messing with this equation: I have many more voices in my head than I ever had before.

Cartoontorials: It’s not that big a deal but really, people, isn’t it time to stop double-spacing after a period in your first drafts? The typewriter imperative is over.

GearThese notebooks, spotted by former Arizona Republic reporter Jamiee Rose. Not so great for reporting, maybe (we prefer the long narrow classic ones: easily tuckable or back-pocketable), but just fine for sketching out story notes and structures.

In memorium: Let’s just agree that this was one crappy week. Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings died at 33 in a Los Angeles car crash; the actor James Gandolfini died suddenly at 51, while vacationing in Italy; the Oregonian announced a publishing scale-back plus layoffs and the publisher referred to the newsroom as a “content organization.” (“Kill me,” tweeted Gene Weingarten.) Worth remembering as we shake off a tough one: Hastings’ 10 tips for young journalists, which in the hours after his death circulated widely beyond his year-old reddit AMA. They included:

By the second sentence of a pitch, the entirety of the story should be explained. (In other words, if you can’t come up with a rough headline for your story idea, it’s going to be a challenge to get it published.)

And:

Mainly you really have to love writing and reporting. Like it’s more important to you than anything else in your life–family, friends, social life, whatever. 

Join us on Pinterest for more good stuff, and find the burgeoning “Pinned” archives here.

May 23 2013

14:58

Writing a tornado narrative, with Esquire’s Luke Dittrich

The news out of Moore, Okla., couldn’t help remind us of the historic tornado in Joplin, Mo., and of one narrative in particular: Luke Dittrich’s National Magazine Award-winning Esquire piece on how a group of strangers survived by crowding into a convenience store cooler. The scenario, which happened two years ago yesterday, was echoed this week at Plaza Towers Elementary, where 70 to 80 children survived by taking cover with their teachers in a bathroom. Dittrich visited the Nieman Foundation last year to talk about his piece, “Heavenly Father!…,” as part of the Nieman Narrative speaker series. Dittrich’s story was so strong partly because he recognized the opportunity for narrative. From a gargantuan topic (tornado), he extracted Story (what happened to a specific set of people caught in a specific shared circumstance). The piece works because it contains the key narrative elements, including:

Arc. The story has a natural beginning, middle, and end. The people went into the cooler, helped each other survive, and then returned to their lives. Dittrich, in his Nieman talk: 

spread_merged11-300x197

courtesy Esquire

I was drawn to the cooler because it’s so tightly focused – it’s a very tight space with a bunch of people crammed inside, in the dark. I liked the idea of simplifying it as much as possible. The thing that made it easier was the fact that there weren’t two dozen disconnected individuals in there; there were maybe six or seven smaller units. My biggest fear was that (readers) were gonna lose track of who’s who. Approaching it as family units or as friend units, or as people who were helping each other, helped me try to keep it as comprehensible as possible.

Characters. Strong narratives usually depend on a strong leading character or characters—someone who faces a challenge and then either surmounts it or fails. Dittrich tracked down every person from the cooler and then:

I first tell them to just give me a little backstory – who are ya and what do you do? How long have you been around here? Where do you come from? In this case I had them start with what happened as best they could remember from the moment they woke up that morning to the end of the day, and to just walk me through every single thing they could remember about that day.

Dittrich

Dittrich

Detail/description. Dittrich went so far as to have the people from the Fastrip cooler sketch out everyone’s places as best they could recollect, to better “see” the scene and to make sure the details lined up:

I got anybody that could to sketch out who was around them. When I got them finally together at the site of the Fastrip I got them to arrange themselves as they were, as they were crouched down and draped over each other, so I could picture it in my head.

To read the whole conversation with Dittrich, about the tornado and other stories, go here.

 

April 24 2012

14:43

“Why’s this so good?” No. 39: Gay Talese diagnoses Frank Sinatra

Just shoot me now.

That might be a normal journalist’s reaction to news that the subject of a mega-profile for a magazine cover story has declined to be interviewed for the piece. But in the mid-1960s Gay Talese was anything but a “normal journalist.” When Frank Sinatra offered not so much as a “Buzz off!” in person, Talese kept reporting in his meticulous way as the persistent eyewitness, eventually writing a Sinatra story that caused a national sensation and pioneered a narrative style of nonfiction later dubbed the New Journalism.

Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” appeared in Esquire in April 1966. In October 2003, for the magazine’s 70th anniversary, editors pronounced the Talese piece the best story Esquire had ever published. And of course the story appeared in Talese’s classic story collection “Fame and Obscurity,” which New York University’s journalism department named No. 43 among the 20th century’s top 100 works of American journalism.

Why’s it so good? I could point to any of the usual signposts for superb literary nonfiction – scenes, dialogue, characters, interior monologues, the beginning, the ending, digressions and a structure that suggests a larger meaning. The 15,000-word story is as finely crafted as Sinatra’s (and Talese’s) custom-tailored suits. I prefer today to praise the humble but honest work that should come with any journalism, new or old: reporting.

Talese’s curiosity fuels his research in such an expansive way that we learn the paradoxical tale of Sinatra the arrogant, tempestuous celebrity and Sinatra the lonesome, sentimental man, a part of whom, Talese writes, “no matter where he is, is never there.” It required prodigious reporting to write with such confidence a crystalline description that serves as the essence of this piece.

The mastery begins with Talese reporting on Sinatra’s origins and family life. Biographical details abounded. Sinatra had been the subject of published articles for decades. How could Talese bring something fresh to the task? First, he was Italian-American. He understood Sinatra’s culture from an insider’s point of view. He knew the relevant layers of cultural experience and where to mine the telling details, the “remarkable juxtaposition of the pious and the worldly” − the photographs of Pope John and Ava Gardner, the statues of saints and holy water, and a chair signed by Sammy Davis Jr., for instance, all in Sinatra’s parents’ home. Best of all, he landed an interview with Dolly, Sinatra’s mother, “a large and very ambitious woman,” an agile player in Hoboken’s Democratic political machine and not the sort of Italian mother who could be appeased “merely by a child’s obedience and good appetite.”

Without saying it outright, Talese underscores the region’s historical political tensions when he writes:

In later years Dolly Sinatra, possessing a round red face and blue eyes, was often mistaken for being Irish, and surprised many at the speed with which she swung her heavy handbag at anyone uttering “Wop.”

She threw a shoe at her son when she learned he wished to become a singer. “Later, finding she could not talk him out of it – ‘he takes after me’ – she encouraged his singing,” Talese writes. Such reporting on family history forms the foundation that allows us to savor revelations that Talese deftly introduces through scenes in Las Vegas, a New York saloon, a poolroom, a recording studio and a movie lot. We have context for our character because Talese has shown us the origins of Sinatra’s world.

Now pay attention to the minor characters. Talese assigns them illuminating roles to help us understand Sinatra. Here is how Talese deals with a dreaded story obstacle: the press agent. In this case, the anxious flack is Jim Mahoney, and we learn Mahoney has plenty of reason to worry:

Still, Sinatra seems ever present, and if Mahoney did not have legitimate worries about Sinatra, as he did today, he could invent them – and, as worry aids, he surrounds himself with little mementos of moments in the past when he did worry. In his shaving kit there is a two-year-old box of sleeping tablets dispensed by a Reno druggist – the date on the bottle marks the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. There is on a table in Mahoney’s office a mounted wood reproduction of Frank Sinatra’s ransom note written on the aforementioned occasion. One of Mahoney’s mannerisms, when he is sitting at his desk worrying, is to tinker with the tiny toy train he keeps in front of him – the train is a souvenir from the Sinatra film, Von Ryan’s Express; it is to men who are close to Sinatra what the PT-109 tie clasps are to men who were close to Kennedy – and Mahoney then proceeds to roll the little train back and forth on the six inches of track; back and forth, back and forth, click-clack-click-clack. It is his Queeg-thing.

We are wringing our hands by the time we finish reading about this poor guy and his woes. Yet by developing Mahoney as a character, even only slightly, we somehow see Sinatra more clearly.

And in the following passage Talese relays some old news, but settling his unerring eye on a nameless, minor character reveals more than the standard tattler fare:

He also wore, as everybody seemed to know, a remarkably convincing black hairpiece, one of sixty that he owns, most of them under the care of an inconspicuous little grey-haired lady who, holding his hair in a tiny satchel, follows him around whenever he performs. She earns $400 a week.

(Talese anticipated our curiosity about that paycheck. Today, her salary would be roughly $2,800 − not bad for toting hair.)

These minor characters surround Sinatra as agents who serve, protect and sometimes fear him. Examine each one, and you will come away impressed by the intense reporting that Talese had do to unearth their stories. He doesn’t overwhelm us with their presence; each one’s appearance, carefully placed, deepens our understanding of Sinatra he approaches his 50th birthday.

Talese’s gift for observing detail gives us immediate, vivid imagery that put us right there in the room with Sinatra. The tension is palpable as Talese recounts the poolroom scene in which one of “coolest” in the bar, writer Harlan Ellison, drew Sinatra’s ire for wearing Game Warden boots, “for which he had recently paid $60.” Talese has Sinatra gazing at those boots, turning away, focusing on them again and then firing questions at Ellison about the provenance of the boots. “I don’t like the way you’re dressed,” he tells Ellison. Throughout the slowly evolving, hostile scene, Talese conveys the precise action in the background −  from the man who was bent low with his cue stick and then froze, to the “hard tap of Sinatra’s shoes” as the singer made his way with a “slow, arrogant swagger” from his stool to face off with Ellison. In simply writing what he saw and heard, Talese built scenes around straight action, which builds drama, emotion. In one scene, Talese conveys the “kind of airy aphrodisiac” of Sinatra’s music through young couples moving languidly on a dance floor, holding each other close.

By giving us a portrait of Sinatra, Talese also gives us a portrait of L.A., “a lovely city of sun and sex, a Spanish discovery of Mexican misery, a star land of little men and little women sliding in and out of convertibles in tense tight pants.”

Without such relentless reporting none of this would have been possible. Who cares if the subject won’t cooperate? In the right hands, there’s always a story.

Maria Henson (@mariahenson), a 1994 Nieman Fellow, won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1992 and edited the Sacramento Bee’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial series about Hetch Hetchy. She teaches journalism and serves as vice president and editor-at-large at Wake Forest University, which last month screened “Editor Uncut,” a documentary in production about WFU alumnus and Esquire editor Harold T.P. Hayes. Created by Hayes’ son, Tom, the film includes an interview with Gay Talese about “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.

For more from our collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every week.

April 19 2012

14:26

Narrative gold: Eli Sanders and his Pulitzer-winning crime saga

“The prosecutor wanted to know about window coverings. He asked: Which windows in the house on South Rose Street, the house where you woke up to him standing over you with a knife that night – which windows had curtains that blocked out the rest of the world and which did not?”

So begins Eli Sanders’ story “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” which this week won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The category usually offers up an unforgettable narrative and this year gave us a story – and an exciting writer – that we otherwise might have missed.

Sanders’ elegantly tense portrayal of a home invasion, double rape and murder appeared last June in The Stranger, a Seattle weekly, but Sanders’ coverage of suspect Isaiah Kalebu started long before that. In “The Mind of Kalebu,” which ran in the fall of 2009, Sanders examined loopholes in the criminal justice system’s treatment of mentally unstable suspects. His reporting ultimately led us into the courtroom, as murder victim Teresa Butz’s partner testified:

The attacks became more sadistic. Things began to happen that were beyond the worst imagining of Butz’s partner. She felt like she was going to be ripped in half. She thought: “He’s not going to kill me with a knife, but he’s going to kill me this way.”

Then she heard Butz say: “Why are you cutting me? Why are you cutting me?”

The man said to Butz: “Shut up, or I’m going to kill your girlfriend.”

He took the women into another room in the house, where he pulled another knife out of a pair of jeans he’d left on a guest bed.

The story he had been telling them, the story Butz’s partner had been telling her- self, the story that he just wanted sex and was not going to hurt them, now completely shattered. “In that moment I just knew he was going to kill us,” Butz’s partner told the court. “I just knew. There was something different in his gaze. There was this kind of looking. I didn’t feel fear from him, I didn’t feel anger from him, I just felt this nothing.”

We asked four Pulitzer winners, a Pulitzer judge and a legendary contributor to the craft of narrative journalism what they thought made the story special. Here’s what they said:

I’ve never read a court story like “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” – never in 28 years of journalism. I don’t know that anyone has read a trial story containing such painstaking detail and emotion; containing so many elements of the human instinct to survive in the face of the near inevitability of death.

“The Bravest Woman in Seattle” has all the elements of a work of fiction until the reader quickly reaches the chilling realization that this case was real. This was not some made-up crime novel. The people who were the subjects of this story, the heroes of it, too, were human beings, though savagely treated.

The power of this story is in the incredible writing, which made me care deeply for two women who were strangers to me, who were living normal lives before a knife-wielding man sexually assaulted and tormented them. “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” leaves readers clinging to hope that all ends well. The readers pray for the victims’ survival and that the bad guy gets caught. It is a challenge of human will to stay with this story. There is the temptation to leave for fear it will rip at your own emotions. Once the mind wraps itself around the facts in the case (although it is impossible to comprehend how one human could be so cruel to another), the reader is left to draw her own conclusions about whether the convicted man got what he deserved.

Ronnie Agnew is a four-time Pulitzer Prize judge and sat on this year’s feature writing jury. He is the executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting and the former executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson, Miss. He has worked as a reporter and editor in Ohio, Alabama and Mississippi.

***

As the Pulitzer board noted this week, Eli Sanders’ “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is “a haunting story of a woman who survived a brutal attack that took the life of her partner.” It is also the story of the woman telling that story: The citation commends Sanders’ use of her courtroom testimony to “construct a moving narrative.”

But it is also the story of Sanders, a reporter, responding to the woman’s telling of that haunting story. And that extra level of narrative, I think, is the source of the story’s riveting power.

Sanders calls the survivor “the bravest woman in Seattle.’’ Maybe that is true. But what matters is that we feel the rawness of his admiration for her courage, and of his rage on her behalf. It takes journalistic bravery to expose yourself, as well as your subject, to the reader. And it takes a rare skill to do it, as Sanders does, almost entirely with telling details, structure and intensity of tone. Seeking to transport us into the head of the woman whose story he is telling, Sanders places us at the same time into his own. He quotes her as well as her thoughts, channeling her with an authority born of his observation, of his participation as a reporter covering the emotionally charged event: “I am not scared,’’ he imagines her thinking. “I have nothing to hide here. Not anymore. Not for something as important as this, the opportunity to put him away.’’

You risk credibility when you do this, even in a story where no one can fault you for sympathizing with the woman on the stand. Maybe especially in a story like this, reporters bend over backward to be fair, to maintain a safe distance. But Sanders’ understated honesty makes us trust him. The reporter next to him cried, he says. “I cried.’’

How much of the graphic information about the rapes and murder, we hear Sanders wondering, about his role in this drama, is right to include? “Some of her testimony from this day is not going to be recounted in this story,’’ he decides.

One of my favorite passages comes when Sanders observes the mother of Teresa Butz, the partner who was murdered:

She is a small woman, just like her daughter. If this woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before a jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter – can view the bloody crime scene photographs, can listen to the 911 call from a neighbor leaning over her blood-soaked daughter and screaming, “Ma’am, please wake up! Please wake up!” (while, to the 911 operator pleading, “Please hurry, please hurry”), can hear the testimony about DNA evidence and what orifices it was recovered from – then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.

Here, Sanders transports us to all three levels of the story at once. We are in the moment of the attack, we are listening to the horrifying details unfold in the courtroom, and we are in Sanders’ own head, flinching from those details yet increasingly convinced that there is a moral imperative in relaying them.

Amy Harmon is a two-time Pulitzer winner and a New York Times national correspondent who covers the impact of science and technology on American life. Her series “The DNA Age” won the 2008 Pulitzer for explanatory reporting, and in 2001 she shared the prize for national reporting, for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.”

***

“Maybe he could use that love against them.”

In Eli Sanders’ searing narrative about the rapes of two women and the murder of one of them, that single sentence reveals the writer’s mastery of his subject. In the midst of all the horror, we are reminded of the victims’ love for one another and experience an excruciating clash of emotions.

With his command of pace, rhythm, vivid description and multiple perspectives, Sanders switches between courtroom and crime, and from the victims’ point of view to the narrator’s, always taking care to be honest without being sensational.

The tension in the story comes as much from what is not said as what is. Instead of detailing every grim act, we get the reactions to the survivor’s descriptions of those acts – from the bailiff, the court reporter, the prosecutor, even another reporter. By the end, we are reminded that violence is not ordinary, nor are the victims of violence.

If ever a story was three-dimensional, “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is it. The story lives not only in time and space, but in consciousness. A testament to its power and truthfulness is that the survivor, who asked not to be named by Sanders, was moved to identify herself after the story’s publication.

Amy Ellis Nutt won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2011 for “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” and was a finalist in 2008 for “The Accidental Artist.” A reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger, she’s also an adjunct professor in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

***

The writing is rhythmic, concise. Every sentence does what it should in narrative: reveals more about character or moves the action forward. And while the details are beyond grisly, Sanders frames them in a way that forces – obligates – readers to withstand them.

Raquel Rutledge won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 2010 for her Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series “Cashing in on Kids.” An investigative reporter on the Watchdog Team, she is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

***

Sometimes details are nitroglycerin. As a kid, I knew about nitroglycerin only from Road Runner cartoons – this stuff is incredibly explosive yet there was always plenty of it, and the characters always seemed destined to drop it. Back then, I didn’t know that in tiny doses, in heart medication, it can save a life. As reporters entrusted with powerful details, we sometimes wind up like the coyote trying desperately to cradle them before the ground falls away.

Not here. I was continually impressed with the way Sanders blended the horrific details with a strong instinct for story and, most importantly, care. It’s a crucial combination, as I think he sets this up as more of a campfire story than a courtroom story. He starts off with a scene, then tells us that he’s going to tell us a story. He actually allows us a chance to smile. He lets Teresa Butz’s partner lay the foundation for how honest this story is going to be. He foreshadows some of it, knowing that won’t make it easier when we get there, but at least we know to prepare. Then he tells us we’ve seen enough. Then he immerses us again.

The scenes in this story will join so many others in the feature writing category that haunt and teach through searing detail and restraint, among them one particular child in a car in Gene Weingarten’s “Fatal Distraction,” a little girl’s room/closet in Lane DeGregory’s “The Girl in the Window,” and the description of the dead boy in the snow in Barry Siegel’s “A Father’s Pain….”

In “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” Sanders also finds that balance between the explicit and delicate, guaranteeing that though readers may pause, brace themselves or close their eyes they’ll keep going. We have to continue, because Sanders has allowed Butz’s partner to take us by the hand and show us why we must. By building elements of the story’s framework on the details that make us cringe, Sanders demands that we read until the last word – actually the last nine words – so that by the time we reach that scream, it has been transformed into pure strength.

Jim Sheeler won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2006, for a Rocky Mountain News story that chronicled nearly a year in the life of a U.S. Marine casualty notification officer and the families he touched. His subsequent book, “Final Salute,” was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.  He holds the Shirley Wormser Professorship in Journalism and Media Writing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

***

The story is admirable in a similar (though of course less profound and courageous) way as its subject is admirable. Throughout, Sanders stresses the survivor’s reasons for going through the ordeal of testifying, writing early on:

This happened to me. You must listen. This happened to us. You must hear who was lost. You must hear what he did. You must hear how Teresa fought him. You must hear what I loved about her. You must know what he took from us. This happened.

Later, he says that the mother of the murder victim, Teresa Butz, was in court and observes: “If a woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter…. then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.”

The accumulation of such comments begins to suggest, in a subtle way, that Sanders and we (the readers) are also participating in the very painful but also brave and important act of taking in this testimony. Later in the story he writes that in the aftermath of the crime, “civilization, which did not stop this from happening, which did not even know this was happening, slowly returned.” The persuasive suggestion is that this article is a part of that slow return: listening to the woman bear witness, without turning away, is the least we can do.

I’ll add, in passing, something I might have asked Sanders if I had been his editor. It strikes me that the bravest woman in Seattle, maybe the bravest woman in the history of Seattle, may have been Teresa Butz, whose actions, as described in the story, ultimately saved her partner’s life even as she was losing her own. Do you think it might make sense to put a little more emphasis on Butz? Just asking.

Ben Yagoda has written about language, writing and other topics for Slate, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times magazine, The American Scholar, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and many others. He’s a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made” and “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.” His “The Art of Fact,” coauthored with Kevin Kerrane, is a staple of narrative journalism classrooms. His forthcoming book is “How to Not Write Bad.”

 ***

This year’s two features finalists were also rivetingly memorable, and each ran with compelling multimedia components. In “A Chance in Hell,” Corinne Reilly of the Virginian-Pilot told the story of two weeks in a NATO hospital in Afghanistan. A glimpse:

A few minutes later the soldier is in the operating room. He’s writhing now more than shaking. Through the moans, he’s mumbling three words over and over.

“This is bad. This is bad. This is bad.”

He keeps lifting his head, trying to get a look.

On the end of the bed, the last right boot he ever put on is lying at an angle that’s all wrong, a sweaty foot still inside. The calf above it is a shredded mess of uniform, flesh, dirt and grass. Nothing about it looks real.

Above that there is no discernible knee, just a thin stretch of filthy skin barely hanging onto what’s left of a thigh, which looks a lot like the mangled calf, except for one thing: Among the blood and mud, there is a little white inchworm, scrunching and straightening, slowly making its way across a bit of dying muscle.

Somehow it survived an explosion the soldier may not.

Around him, a dozen people are preparing for surgery. The room smells like damp earth, rubbing alcohol and blood.

“Hang in there one more minute, bud,” the anesthesiologist says, trying uselessly to soothe his patient. “Everything’s gonna be OK in just a minute.”

A nurse walks in. Next to the boot, she sets down a medical form.

It says the soldier’s name is Eddie Ward.

It says he is 19 years old.

And in “Punched Out,” John Branch of The New York Times told the story of the life and death of hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard:

Boogaard, with a backlog of frustrations, wanted to quit during training camp in 2000. He was 18. He called his father to tell him. He told his teammates he had a plane ticket home. Tobin ultimately persuaded him to stay.

And, suddenly, Boogaard started to win fights.

“His first year in the W.H.L., I think, it was mostly adjusting to his frame, not knowing how to use his reach,” Ryan Boogaard said. “I think he felt more comfortable with that frame in his second year in the W.H.L., and he did a lot better.”

He quickly  avenged his broken-jaw loss to Mike Lee.  He beat Mat Sommerfeld, a rival who had torn Boogaard’s name from the back of his uniform and  held it over his head after an earlier conquest. One Web site put Boogaard’s record at 18-4-4 in fights that season. One poll named him the toughest player in the W.H.L.’s Western Conference.

When Boogaard took the ice, a buzz rippled through Prince George’s arena, which routinely had capacity crowds of 5,995. One side of the arena would shout “Boo!” and the other would shout “Gaard!”

He scored only once in 61 games for Prince George in 2000-1. He recorded 245 penalty minutes, ranking eighth in the W.H.L. He was, finally, an enforcer, appreciated by one team, feared by all others.

This continues Pulitzer Week on Storyboard. On Tuesday, Anna Griffin looked at Walt Harrington’s story about Pulitzer-winning poet Rita Dove’s writing process in our “Why’s this so good?” series. On Friday, we’ll post a video, transcript and interactive index of Pulitzer-winning novelist Paul Harding’s recent standing-room-only appearance at the Nieman Foundation.

In the meantime, you’ll find the citations, works and biographies for all of this year’s Pulitzer winners here.

April 13 2012

15:17

Getting the story: Luke Dittrich and the tornado

In Thursday’s post we excerpted nice lines from the five National Magazine Award finalists in feature writing. These included Luke Dittrich’s “Heavenly Father!…,” from Esquire, about survivors of the Joplin, Mo., tornado, which killed 160 people. As it happens, Dittrich had just visited the Nieman Narrative Writing class, where he talked about the story and read aloud a poignant update.

Before joining Esquire in 2008 as a contributing editor, Dittrich wrote for Atlanta magazine, The Oxford American and Egypt Today. He’s writing a book for Random House based on his Esquire piece “The Brain That Changed Everything,” which was recently anthologized in the new edition of “The Best American Science and Nature Writing.” A generalist, Dittrich has written about atomic-bomb testing, Todd Palin, Chuck Berry, walking the entire U.S.-Mexico border, and the “Dateline NBC” reality series “To Catch a Predator.”Here’s some of his conversation with Nieman fellows, staff and guests, who included Dittrich’s mom, Lisa, who lives in Cambridge. We’ve edited the discussion for clarity and length.

Paige Williams: You’ve said the reporting on the tornado story felt absolutely “right” to you – what did you mean?

Luke Dittrich (photo: Jonathan Seitz)

It was one of the most gratifying reporting experiences of my life. Let me back up just a tiny bit to say how it happened. The tornado hit on (May 22, 2011); I arrived in St. Louis on the 23rd, and I flew in from the Yukon (Territory).I was going to profile Chuck Berry. So I got there, and obviously news about the tornado dominated everything but I didn’t think of doing anything about it. I dug into the Chuck Berry story and continued to be bombarded every day by the Joplin news.

Two things happened: One, I got increasingly frustrated with the Chuck Berry story. Chuck Berry’s a fascinating guy but he’s also very private and wasn’t going to give me the sort of access that I typically like to have if I’m profiling somebody. The second thing that happened – and it’s great that she’s (in the room today): I can honestly credit my mom with this story. She knew I was in St. Louis and we were chatting one day, and she said, “I was listening to NPR and they had this audio of something about people trapped in a (gas station) cooler in Joplin.” She said she thought there was something on YouTube about it, so I went and found the video. I’m not sure how many of you have watched it but it’s an insanely moving document.At least for me it was. I’d never heard anything like it. I started immediately thinking, “Okay, do we know who these people are?” It instantly seemed that (the people in the cooler) was an untold story.

Williams: In terms of storytelling there was so much in Joplin to choose from, but deciding to focus on the people in the cooler gave you (parameters), a narrative within a narrative.

I was drawn to the cooler because it’s so tightly focused – it’s a very tight space with a bunch of people crammed inside, in the dark. I liked the idea of simplifying it as much as possible. The thing that made it easier was the fact that there weren’t two dozen disconnected individuals in there; there were maybe six or seven smaller units. My biggest fear was that (readers) were gonna lose track of who’s who. Approaching it as family units or as friend units, or as people who were helping each other, helped me try to keep it as comprehensible as possible.

Raquel Rutledge: These people’s lives – there’s so much about them that you could have included. How did you decide? Was it just the most interesting facts?

Once I found these people I tried to just spend a good chunk of time with them. Sometimes the information I was getting seemed to slot perfectly into the story. It’s not always like this, but for whatever reason what was essential to their story seemed obvious.

Williams: How did you start, though? You sat down with a tape recorder

I use a tape recorder, yeah.

Williams: − and said, “Tell me about that day?”

I first tell them to just give me a little backstory – who are ya and what do you do? How long have you been around here? Where do you come from? In this case I had them start with what happened as best they could remember from the moment they woke up that morning to the end of the day, and to just walk me through every single thing they could remember about that day.

Williams: Great details. Like the kid with the cell phone texts, “Is pink bad?” to her friend, talking about the radar image. You then went and found the radar image so you could drop a more exact description into the moment.

Yeah. But in terms of what you leave out, I remember I also went and found out what golf match (the girl’s father) must have been watching (on television), because he didn’t remember. I found out who won the tournament. In one draft I had this extended thing about, like, the background of the golfer and how he was a comeback kid, and it totally didn’t work. It was totally unnecessary.

John Diedrich: Given the YouTube footage you probably weren’t the only one who was seeking this storyline. Can you talk about the competition and also about how you found (the people from the cooler)?

I was terrified that there would be lots of competition. As far as I know there wasn’t anybody else looking for these people, which surprised me. As far as how I went about finding them: I showed up in Joplin and met with Isaac (Duncan) that first day. Isaac is the one who actually shot the (YouTube) video. He gave me contact info for his two friends that were in (the cooler), and he said he thought the clerk’s name was Ruben. He thought a cousin of his might know how to get in touch. But that was it. He didn’t know anybody else. It took me about 3 1/2 weeks to actually finally find everybody.

Williams: Wow.

I would always ask everybody: Describe as best you can everybody else who was in the cooler, any distinguishing details you can remember, about cars they might have been driving, all this stuff.

Every day I would kind of station myself at the site of the Fastrip and talk to everybody that was coming to look at what was going on. I would ask if they knew anybody that had been in there. I would run into people at the Fastrip who had come because they knew somebody who had been there or they knew someone who knew someone.

For example the woman Stacy LaBarge, the photographer. She actually took some pictures while she was in (the cooler). I found her maybe 10 days into the process. When I first started talking to people a few started saying, “Yeah there was a woman in there with a long lens, I think she might’ve been taking pictures during the tornado or right after,” and I was like, Wow. They thought maybe she was heading to Kansas City but nobody knew for sure – she had just sort of disappeared afterward. I found this Kia Soul that was upside down, under one of the wrecked canopies, that had a Nikon lens cap in it. It also had some compact flash cards in it. So when I saw that, I thought it must be her car. Although in certain cars I would find wreckage that had been in other cars because the tornado had whipped things around. But the Kia Soul ended up being Stacy’s car. I finally did get to her, and not only had she been there but she also had all these pictures.

Diedrich: Was there ever a point where you thought, “I’m not gonna find everybody. I need a Plan B.” And also, was there ever any doubt in your mind that there wasn’t somebody else still out there? (Did you ever worry) that the numbers didn’t add up, that there might’ve been somebody in a corner that didn’t get any notice?

Yeah. And there are still some doubts in my mind in terms of whether there could’ve been some lone person that wasn’t accounted for, because this was utter chaos and there was nobody taking a head count. As I started accounting for all the people that were in the cooler my numbers quickly got a lot higher than any of the estimates.

In terms of whether I thought I’d have to drop this and go do something else, certainly after I met Ruben (Carter) there wasn’t any way I was gonna do a different story. That was the story I wanted to do.

Williams: Some of the descriptions are incredible – the flapping of the wings of the steel canopy; the line, “You could smack the ball straight up and it would trace a curve like the St. Louis arch.” How did that come to you?

The St. Louis arch – (one of the witnesses) said if you smacked the ball straight up it would curve, and I’d just been in St. Louis, so –

(laughter)

– that came to mind. The flapping of the wings was somebody’s description. At least one person described it as big flapping wings. The same thing with the walls breathing in and out – that was somebody else’s description and it was just powerful.

Jonathan Blakley: And the cows without legs.

Diedrich: And closing the door and everything’s just disappearing right on the other side of the door.

Williams: You asked everybody what it was like, so then you had this load of description. It all lined up? Everybody was saying the same thing?

That’s a good question. I’m sure there were places where things didn’t match and I had to decide what seemed more plausible, just in terms of who came out (of the cooler first) and stuff. Pretty late into the reporting I still thought Ruben was the last person out of the cooler because I’d been told that by several people, and I think that was his recollection as well, but it turned out he was the second-to-last person. That guy Chris pushed him out.

Williams: I love how you play with voice even within small narratives. The Donna Barnes section starts: “She believes in the Pentecost. She believes that a bowl of multigrain Cheerios with low-fat milk is a good breakfast and there’s no reason not to have it every single day.” And then two paragraphs later, “She believes that a sliced banana is optional.” That’s a tiny bit of humor in the midst of all this panic and drama. Another writer might’ve put the banana with the cereal but I’m glad you didn’t. It’s a small move that makes all the difference. How’d you decide to use a slightly different voice in that section?

That first line, about the Pentecost, I think that’s from a Lucinda Williams song

Williams: It is!

– and I had that in mind when I wrote that. I’m not sure if I’d been listening to the song or whatever but that’s what I thought of when I thought of Pentecost. But yeah, I obsessed over that section because it was different. I really worried that it was gonna be condescending somehow, and I worried about putting the banana thing where you mentioned, sort of breaking it up like that, putting her deep beliefs next to the more frivolous ones –

Lisa Dittrich (Luke’s mom): I remember him going over and over and over this.

She’s my first reader.

Lisa Dittrich: I rip it apart.

(laughter)

Diedrich: Was Isaac the first one to talk about the “I-love-you” chain?

That’s one thing that there were some discrepancies about – who said it first. The voices you hear in the video are the people closest to Isaac. He was the one who first described it to me, and that was one of the questions I asked everybody, whether they sort of participated in the I-love-you-ing or not.

Diedrich: That’s a huge part of what’s memorable.

That’s a huge part of what drew me to the story. I mean when you’re reading about the military, for example, you often hear that military training allows you to behave sort of selflessly and to give up your own life if necessary for somebody next to you. And one of the things I thought was beautiful about what these people did was, these were people who were strangers to one another, who were thrown together in circumstances that none of them could have been prepared for that morning, and some, if not all, of them behaved entirely selflessly. They had every reason to believe they were about to die and in their last moments they expressed love to these strangers. There was something totally beautiful to me about that. That, to me, is the climax of the story, when they start saying, “I love all of you.”

Diedrich: Did you sketch the cooler out?

I did, yeah. I got anybody that could to sketch out who was around them. When I got them finally together at the site of the Fastrip I got them to arrange themselves as they were, as they were crouched down and draped over each other so I could picture it in my head.

 

Williams: Just to switch it up for a minute, I’d like to ask about “Tonight on Dateline This Man Will Die” (about the NBC reality show that some believe led to a Texas man’s suicide). What was that story’s genesis?

I was in Argentina and I had – I guess I had just come back from – for a different story I’d just run a marathon in Antarctica –

Alison Loat: As you do.

(laughter)

– and Dave Katz, an editor at Esquire, emailed and said that they had this story in mind and what were my thoughts on it. He wasn’t saying they wanted to assign it to me; I think he was sort of soliciting my approach to it. And I had never heard of this. I’d been (living) in Canada and didn’t have cable, but thankfully you could stream all of the episodes online. So I quickly watched a few episodes. And I mean I found it to be insanely compelling television but also right from the get-go it just seemed weird. I couldn’t believe it was legal, what they were doing. There seemed to be something terribly, terribly wrong with it, but also extremely entertaining. It was Dave’s idea, to pursue (the narrative of) the (Bill) Conrad suicide. It was at least six weeks of reporting or so, maybe two months.

Williams: On the ground.

Yeah, yeah. The biggest key to that one – well, there were several things. Lots of Open Records Act requests. And it took me a long time to get to one of the cops involved, this guy Gator, who was intimately involved in that particular sting and had fallen off the radar. Maybe four weeks into the process he agreed to meet with me. And he helped a huge amount. That and actually getting a hold of the raw footage.

Williams: Details about the SWAT team coming into the house and that eerie scene of Conrad stepping into the doorway – how did you get such riveting details?

A, I got to go through the house and spend a lot of time in the house just sort of taking my own pictures and mapping out what the house actually looked like. And B, one of the advantages of doing any reporting that involves law enforcement actions is that cops have to write up these really meticulous narratives, and for this (case) there were at least nine SWAT team members, and each one wrote up probably 800 words on exactly what they did.

Williams: Is that the kind of thing you had to request via Open Records?

Yeah, I was submitting requests all over. The Texas Rangers sent me a whole bunch of stuff, like discs with all the crime scene photos and stuff like that, which we ended up using. Even Perverted Justice, which is this civilian group that works with NBC to execute these stings, they had I think the audiotapes on their website, stuff that wasn’t used in the broadcast. They posted all the audiotapes between Bill Conrad and the fake kids.

Williams: What was the wider impact of this story? Is this show still on the air?

They run reruns but they have not made any new episodes. It’s unclear (why) exactly. (The story) came out and then a lawsuit was filed soon after, by Patricia Conrad, Bill’s sister. NBC later settled out of court. Since the story came out they haven’t produced any more episodes.

Adam Tanner: Can you talk about how you structured the beginning? How do you know if it’s effective at getting the reader to continue?

I think the “Dateline” one has a pretty slow beginning, so it might not be too effective. I do remember with that one in particular, I had all this raw footage, and I was watching and re-watching this footage of what happened in the hours leading up to the raid. In one of them there’s this green wheelbarrow that the cameraman keeps focusing on. I knew I wanted to start with a view through a lens, because to me (the story) was all about that – what we’re filming, what we show and don’t show. I had heard an anecdote about Bill Conrad being drunk at a party and being carried out in a wheelbarrow, so as soon as I saw the wheelbarrow that connection (also) clicked with me. But I think there is an argument that it’s not the quickest start to the story. It’s a slow burn.

Tanner: In magazine writing do you think, “Okay, I’ve got a page before” – many of us write for newspapers, wire services, whatever, and within a sentence or two you’ve lost the reader, right? So how much time do you think you have, to lay out the scene, to expose where you’re going?

I don’t think there are any rules about that. I think you have to take it story by story. I am really keen to keep momentum going. It’s hugely important to me that the reader gets engaged and stays engaged. If I start with something that’s not pure action I certainly am keeping in mind that I need to get to the action quickly. That’s something that my editor and I are working on all the time, keeping the pace up. I always want it to be a fast read even if it’s a long read.

Williams: Especially if it’s a long read.

Yeah.

Tanner: Sometimes there appears to be detail that may not be essential to the story. It’s not exactly clear how it’s pertinent, and I’m wondering if that’s a deliberate device, to slow down the action.

I don’t think I consciously put in superfluous detail. I’m always hoping the detail is in service of something. I do think that ideally there’s always going to be a certain ebb and flow. It can’t be balls-to-the-wall constantly; I don’t think that works. That’s as hard to get through as something slow. So maybe there are certain rhythmic differences but I wouldn’t say I’m putting in something intentionally because I think, “Well, let’s bore them for a while and then get going.”

Williams: With the “Dateline” piece, I’m wondering how you reported for dialogue. I imagine the chat stuff between Conrad and Luke was in the documents –

That was in some of the documents. The voice transcripts came from the Perverted Justice site, I believe. And there’s a lot of dialogue that I got from the raw footage. One of the things I liked was that – and I think it shows the fallibility of memory, which is something everybody deals with when they’re reporting – in the nine narratives that the SWAT team did, they all had a slightly different recollection of his last words.

Williams: You (embrace the discrepancies by using all the versions): “I’m not gonna hurt anybody,” and, “I’m not gonna hurt anyone,” and, “Guys, I’m not gonna hurt anyone,” and, “I’m not gonna hurt nobody, guys.” I like that you used all four because it instills more confidence in the storyteller.

When it comes to dialogue I’m really tethered either to the tape recorder or to some other real concrete documentation of what exactly was said. There’s a lot of stories I do where I hardly use any quotes at all and I’ll just have paraphrases, and that’s when I don’t have the actual quotes backed up by some type of recording.

Carole Osterer: For the tornado update, did you go back down there, and are you continuing to write about it?

My first draft, I didn’t have exactly this (the update read aloud at the beginning of class) tagged onto the end, but I had sort of another section, after they all get out (of the cooler), where I tell what went on afterward. I actually introduced myself funkily into the story, and told about the reporting that went into finding them, and then finally getting them together for this reunion that I described, this sort of aftermath postscript thing. And Tyler convinced me – and I think he was totally right – that it’s much more effective to just kind of close the door as soon as they wander off. You’re leaving questions dangling, but that’s okay.

Dina Kraft: Can I switch to the brain science story? I was wondering if, when writing that story, you were feeling some sort of unfinished business with your grandfather?

I did feel like after I finished reporting that story I understood the context of what he had done. Still, there are aspects that are very disturbing that you kind of have to wrestle with: the ethics of human experimentation and all of that. Today it’s very unlikely that somebody could do something like (the debilitating surgery), but I did feel in reporting that, that I understood how it could be done and not be a terrible thing necessarily for a neurosurgeon to do.

Kraft: It seems like you’re giving Henry (Molaison, the patient) his voice back.

I’m fascinated by Henry. I’m fascinated by what it would be like to live like him. I don’t understand it. I grappled with what that must be like, and I still do because I’m working on this book about him now. This whole year I’m going to continue to grapple with Henry and Henry’s story.

Kraft: How long were you thinking about it before you wrote the story?

It was the first story I ever pitched to Esquire, in 2005. The editor liked the idea and said do it, and then I started looking into it and it became clear pretty quickly that the person who kind of controlled access to Henry – Henry was alive at the time – was not going to give me access. And I didn’t want to do a write-around when he was still alive. And then strangely when he died, that made access to him easier in a paradoxical way, because things opened up somewhat. He wasn’t as cloistered and protected, and the details of his life weren’t secret. Until he died no one knew his name; he was just Patient H.M. It’s a very stimulating story to work on but it’s difficult because family is involved.

Kraft: Did your grandfather tell you about him?

My grandfather died when I was 10, so I don’t think I ever even heard of Henry while he was still alive.

Lisa Dittrich (Luke’s mom): I never heard of him.

Kraft (to Lisa): This was your father?

Lisa Dittrich: Yeah.

Williams: Lisa’s the source of all Luke’s stories.

(laughter)

Loat: I’m actually intrigued by your editing relationship.

When I say she’s my first reader: I don’t send her drafts but I call her up when I’m late in the draft process, and usually before I send it off to Tyler, and I read it over the phone to her. And she used to just tell me –

Lisa Dittrich: The beginning’s wrong.

(laughter)

– the beginning’s way too slow and long and all of that. And now she – she’s always a great listener and has great comments for me, but it’s always just a big help for me to read. When I’m writing I’m constantly reading out loud, even to myself. It’s really irritating to be in a room with me if I’m writing because I’m reading everything out loud. But it’s a huge part of the editing, tweaking, polishing process for me, so if I can have somebody to read out loud to I guess it’s less weird.

Williams: These are 10,000-word stories, though.

Yeah, it takes an hour. And I get hoarse.

(laughter)

Diedrich: You talked earlier about the feeling of “taking” from people when you’re working on stories. Do you find that that’s changed your approach? I’ve had the same feeling myself, this sort of parasitic or vulture-type role we sometimes see ourselves in.

I do a few things differently. The first story I ever did for a national magazine was for The Oxford American, and it was about child beauty pageants. I worked with this great photographer, Vance Jacobs, who did these amazing black-and-white pictures. The opening spread was one of these contestants we spent a lot of time with, sort of laid out on a bed with curlers in her hair, smoking a fake cigarette. She had one of those candy cigarettes, right? She was like 10 years old. It was a striking image. She was Little Miss North Carolina. When the story came out the (pageant organizers) revoked her crown because she was “encouraging” smoking with her candy cigarettes. I focused the story on these two sisters. I don’t think I wrote a negative word about them, but I clearly wrote in a negative way about the people around them, including their grandma, who was sort of the domineering pageant mom.

I suspect (the little girls) never read the story, but still, I decided that I did not want to do any more stories where the central characters were minors. It’s such a big move to let a reporter into your life, you know what I mean? You’re making yourself so incredibly vulnerable. And if the reporter’s gonna do his or her job honestly, you never know what’s gonna come of it, and I felt like that’s not a decision a minor is able to make.

(Feature spread courtesy of Esquire)

April 12 2012

14:43

The best magazine features of 2011: an ASME sampler

National Magazine Award judges have a tough job this year as they choose a winner in the features category. There’s the sobering story about a corporate attorney’s mysterious death in Guatemala; the bizarre tale of a pair of young international arms dealers; the moving account of two dozen strangers braving a massive tornado; a fable-like piece about a man who rode out the Japanese tsunami on the roof of his house; and a high-larious (pardon us) story about a darker side of Disney World.

The American Society of Magazine Editors will announce the winner on May 3, but until then here’s a sampling from those five fine finalists, written by some of the top names in narrative:

Luke Dittrich* of Esquire. From “Heavenly Father!…”:

Tinkerbell is squirming and twisting in Michaela’s arms, trying to look up at the widening holes in the roof. The tornado, unlike the storm clouds that shrouded it and concealed its approach, is not entirely dense and black. Dim, green, aquatic light, like the light scuba divers see, brightens the cooler a bit even as the cooler is being torn apart.

The tornado stretches twenty thousand feet into the sky. It is three quarters of a mile wide. It is not empty.

It is carrying two-by-fours and drywall and automobiles.

It is carrying baseball cards, laptop computers, family photo albums.

It is carrying people, as naked as newborns, their clothes stripped away like tissue paper.

It is carrying fragments of the Walmart where Carl and Jennifer met, of the church where Donna worships, of three of the nursing homes where Lacey works.

It has traveled six miles through the city, and now it is carrying a great deal of the city within itself.

Michaela pushes Tinkerbell’s head down, but she can feel her squirrelly little neck straining against her hand, wanting to look up, wanting to see.

David Grann of The New Yorker. From “A Murder Foretold”:

Initially, Rosenberg spoke slowly and stiffly, but then his hands began to rise and fall, along with his eyebrows, the power of his voice growing—a voice from the grave. “I don’t have a hero complex,” he said. “I don’t have any desire to die. I have four divine children, the best brother life could have given me, marvellous friends.” He continued, “The last thing I wanted was to deliver this message…But I hope my death helps get the country started down a new path.” He urged Vice-President Espada whom he described as “not a thief or an assassin” − to assume the Presidency and insure that the guilty parties wound up in jail. “This is not about seeking revenge, which only makes us like them,” Rosenberg said. “It is about justice.” He predicted that the Guatemalan government would try to cover up the truth, by smearing the Musas and inventing plots. “But the only reality that counts is this: if you saw and heard this message, it is because I was killed by Álvaro Colom and Sandra de Colom, with the help of Gustavo Alejos.” He concluded, “Guatemalans, the time has come. Please it is time. Good afternoon.”

Guy Lawson of Rolling Stone. From “Arms and the Dudes”:

To get into the game, Diveroli knew he would have to deal with some of the world’s shadiest operators – the war criminals, soldiers of fortune, crooked diplomats and small-time thugs who keep militaries and mercenaries loaded with arms. The vast aftermarket in arms had grown exponentially after the end of the Cold War. For decades, weapons had been stockpiled in warehouses throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe for the threat of war against the West, but now arms dealers were selling them off to the highest bidder. The Pentagon needed access to this new aftermarket to arm the militias it was creating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The trouble was, it couldn’t go into such a murky underworld on its own. It needed proxies to do its dirty work – companies like AEY. The result was a new era of lawlessness. According to a report by Amnesty International, “Tens of millions of rounds of ammunition from the Balkans were reportedly shipped – clandestinely and without public oversight – to Iraq by a chain of private brokers and transport contractors under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense.”

This was the “gray market” that Diveroli wanted to penetrate. Still a teenager, he rented a room in a house owned by a Hispanic family in Miami and went to work on his laptop.

Michael Paterniti of GQ. From “The Man Who Sailed His House”:

This force is greater than the force of memory, or regret, or fear. It’s the force of an impersonal death, delivered by thousands of pounds of freezing water that slam you into a dark underworld, the one in which you now find yourself hooded, beaten, pinned deeper. The sensation is one of having been lowered into a spinning, womblike grave. If you could see anything in the grip of this monster, fifteen feet down, you’d see your neighbors tumbling by, as if part of the same circus. You’d see huge pieces of house – chimneys and doors, stairs and walls – crashing into each other, fusing, becoming part of one solid, deadly wave. You’d see shards of glass and splintered swords of wood. Or a car moving like a submarine. You’d see your thirty pigeons revolving in their cage. Or your wife within an arm’s reach, then vacuumed away like a small fish. You frantically flail. Is this up or down? Something is burning inside now, not desperation but blood depleted of oxygen. What you illogically desire more than anything is to open your mouth wide and gulp. You scissor your legs. In some eternity, the water turns from black to gray, and gray to dirty green, as you reach up over your head one last time and whip your arms down, shooting for the light.

John Jeremiah Sullivan of the New York Times magazine. From “You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!”:

“I always figured you were doing brownies,” I said.

“I do do brownies,” he said. “I have brownies. But, you know. . . .”

I did. Edibles are good, and wise heads move toward them over time, to save their lungs, but there’s something about the combination of oxygen-deprivation and intense THC-flush that comes with smoking and in particular from smoking joints. There’s no real substitute, for the abuser. A brownie can alter your mood over hours, but a joint swings a psychic broom around you – it clears an instant space.

“I actually saw this thing on the Internet,” Trevor said, “where people were talking about getting high in the park.”

“At Disney World!” I said, as if I hadn’t been listening.

He led me back inside and quietly cracked open his laptop on the kitchen counter. “Check this out,” he whispered. Only the two of us were awake.

I dropped into one of the swivel stools in front of the bright screen. I was reading before I knew what I was reading, but it was like a chat room. Or a forum. “Forum” is the better term. A motif of cannabis leaves and naked women holding glittery buds ran down the left margin: a pothead forum. Trevor scrolled it down to a posting, the subject of which read, “Re: Hello from Disney World.”

An anonymous person, evidently the veteran of a staggering number of weed-smoking experiences in the park, had done a solid for the community and laid out his or her knowledge in a systematic way. It was nothing less than a fiend’s guide to Disney World. It pinpointed the safest places for burning the proverbial rope, telling what in particular to watch for at each spot. Isolated footpaths that didn’t see much traffic, conventional smoking areas with good hedge cover, places where you could hide under a bridge by a little artificial river – those were its points of interest. The number of views suggested that the list had helped a lot of desperate people.

In other finalist categories you’ll find equally terrific pieces, including Mark Bowden’s “Echoes from a Distant Battlefield” (Vanity Fair), Natasha Gardner’s “Direct Fail” (5280) and Mike Kessler’s “What Happened to Mitrice Richardson?” (Los Angeles).

Enjoy!


*Coming Friday: Dittrich recently visited the Nieman Narrative Writing class, where he took us behind the scenes of reporting and writing the Joplin, Mo.,
tornado story. Check back tomorrow for that conversation.

December 01 2011

15:11

Chris Jones on reporting for detail, the case against outlining and the power of donuts

Esquire feature writer Chris Jones came to the Nieman Foundation in November as part of the Narrative Writing speakers series I started at the foundation last year, and spent a couple of hours talking about craft. Jones began his career as a sportswriter for the National Post in Toronto, where he covered boxing, which became the subject of his first book, “Falling Hard: A Rookie’s Year in Boxing.” Without a single magazine byline, and with a whole lot of hubris and a box of donuts, he famously talked his way into Esquire, a legendary home for narrative journalism.

Williams & Jones (photo: Jonathan Seitz)

Now Esquire’s writer at large (as well as ESPN The Magazine’s new back-page columnist), Jones has written about presidential candidates, astronauts, soldiers, movie stars and game shows, and has won two National Magazine Awards, the highest honor in magazine writing. One ASME award was for “The Things That Carried Him,” about the return of a soldier’s body from Iraq, and the other was for “Home,” which became the basis for his nonfiction book “Out of Orbit: The Incredible True Story of Three Astronauts Who Were Hundreds of Miles Above Earth When They Lost Their Ride Home.”

“When you read one of his stories, you’re putting on the Chris Jones suit of clothes and walking through this world, and you’re seeing and feeling things the way he does,” his Esquire editor, Peter Griffin, told me the other day. [Read our 2009 interview with Griffin here, for Jones’ “The End of Mystery.”] “But it’s frictionless. Part of the reason is, he’s obsessive. He works a story until he gets it right.”

On his second day visiting Harvard, Jones appeared with Gay Talese (we’ll post that talk soon). But his first day on campus he sat down with this year’s Nieman fellows to share details about his career and thoughts on writing. What follows are some excerpts from my conversation with him and the discussion with fellows that followed.

You’ve worked in both newspapers and magazines. What adjustments did you have to make in order to move from newspapers to magazines, from the daily news beat?

When I started at the paper I was a beat guy, so I did the 600-word sports stories, mostly about baseball and boxing. Then I started working in features. The paper I worked at was a paper called the National Post, which at the time Conrad Black had sunk a bajillion dollars into, and [it] had exactly no ads, so you could write a 3,000-word feature, and you could pitch anything. I remember we sent one reporter to Mongolia to watch a meteor shower, and it was cloudy so she got no story. And that was my impression of newspapers; that was my first job ever, so I was like, This is how it is. I just didn’t know any better. So I was a feature writer. But then when I started at Esquire my very first sit-down with my new editor was – and this is no insult to anyone who works in newspapers – he said, I don’t want to read a single sentence in your stories that I could have read in a newspaper.

What did he mean by that?

I think sometimes in newspapers you sort of fall into that, you write a paragraph you put in a quote, you write a paragraph, you put in a quote –

Formula.

– formula kind of template-y stuff, and you also write thinking they might cut the last four inches off the story. With a magazine you probably don’t put that many quotes in, the story has more of a full-circle feeling to it. At Esquire if you get assigned 5,000 words you’re gonna have 5,000 words of space. There’s no cutting for space. So it wasn’t so much a language change, it was more a structural change, how the piece fits together.

And I think what you also get in magazine stories that you don’t always have time to do in newspapers is, the story might be about something on the surface but a great magazine story is also about something beyond that – an idea; there’s a theme to it. The story about Joey Montgomery was about his body coming back, but really that was a story about war, and he was one guy representing everybody who died there. In newspapers you maybe don’t get the time to craft that kind of narrative.

Newspaper writers sometimes think, “Oh if I could only write for a magazine I’d have all this freedom,” but then you get into magazines and –

It’s a different kind of hard.

Yeah.

Newspapers weren’t a great fit for me because I always wanted to spend more time on a story. I hated writing on deadline. I always lay awake at night worried that I’d made a terrible mistake, that I got the score wrong. The nice thing about working at newspapers is the immediacy of it; if you don’t like a story you’re working on you’re done the next day, and you do something else. The other nice thing about newspapers is, if you write five stories a week and one is really good and three are fine and one is kind of crappy, that’s not a bad average. With Esquire my contract is six stories a year; I can’t have a dud.

Six features a year. What sort of average length are we talking about?

Our minimum would be something like 3,000 words. I’d say average real feature is around six. Celebrity profiles are around three, and those count as features.

The longest you’ve written was the war piece, wasn’t it? Like 12,000 words?

It actually ran at 17,000, and was assigned at six. I delivered 22,000.

Did you let them know they were getting 22,000?

Yeah, it was an awkward conversation with Peter, actually, because – that story’s in sections; there’s like 13 sections. I wrote it in the order that I had the material, I didn’t leave it all till the end. So I wrote the first section, which was the section where they fly Joey back from Dover, they fly to Seymour. I wrote that section and it came out at like 2,000 words, and I thought, That math is not good. So I called Peter and said it might be more like 10. I blew past 10 and said, It’s gonna be more than that. He said, Listen, just write it and we’ll figure it out. To Esquire’s credit they just burned that whole issue.

Like Hersey and Hiroshima in The New Yorker.

We had a Jessica Simpson story, [it] was the other story in that issue.

Well, the world thanks you for burning –

Oh no, it got in. It was the cover.

So you cut 5,000 words. Did you cut it or did they?

We cut it together. One of the great things about working there, my editor Peter, we’ve been together for eight years now; you only write for one editor. Like that’s your relationship and no one else touches the story.

It doesn’t go up to [Editor in Chief David] Granger?

Well he’ll read it, but there’s no changes.

[At some other magazines] everybody gets their fingerprints on it.

And stories inevitably suffer. I think that’s a bad process. Peter and I just have this – we know what each other is looking for. If I bumped from editor to editor I’d have a hard time. You just develop a trust that I think is important to doing the best work you can.

What, then, for people who don’t get the pleasure –

Totally screwed.

[laughter]

Newspaper reporters – sometimes you’re working for different sections –

No, it’s hard. I like being edited. In newspapers I was writing sports stories at 11 o’clock at night, it just went in. I never got edited. And I didn’t like it. I know some people think of editors as evil and they’re messing with your art, but for me Peter is – I mean he’s a fantastic editor. I tell students all the time: You’ll never do your best work until you find that editor who is your perfect match. By a series of flukes I got Peter and we work perfectly together. My stuff would not be nearly as good without Peter.

How long did you spend on that [war] piece?

I spent maybe eight months on that story.

Exclusively?

In the middle I did a Scarlett Johansson feature. I flew from the mortuary at Dover to sit with her at a diner [in California]. It was a surreal juxtaposition.

A lot of what makes that story work so well is the detail. Every passage is so tight, every sentence almost seems to be built with a specific mission in mind. How’d you wind it up so much without ruining it?

Once I realized how long it was going to be, my standard for a sentence was it had to have a fact. And the way I structured it in the end – I thought, It’s so long and the material’s so difficult that people wouldn’t read it in one sitting, so every section starts with a different person. It goes from person to person to person, and the last section is Joey. Then I tried to find little details that would help guide you, because it was backward and I was worried about losing people. So there’s things like the girl in the flowered dress, little cues that I hoped would sort of ground people.

But then Peter, when we took those 5,000 words out, really tightened it – I mean we cut a feature. A simple line edit with a story that length, you can lose a thousand or two words. We lost some whole scenes, which at the time was like – there was one scene that I spent months reporting; it was the funeral they held in Iraq. The soldiers have their own memorial service in Iraq. Soldiers are tough interviews and it was a tough scene, you know? It was hard all the way around. It was probably about 1,500 words, and I spent a long time writing it, and we just cut it.

How do you report your scenes? That’s something we talk about in class – when you’re reconstructing scenes and when you’re at the mercy of people’s memories and at the mercy, in this case, of soldiers who are sort of programmed to talk like athletes, who say a lot without saying anything –

Any interview I do for a narrative story, particularly with people who don’t speak to reporters normally, I usually have a preamble where I talk about the questions I’m going to ask. I tell them, A story like this relies on details, I’m going to ask you what might seem like some really strange questions. If you don’t remember, that’s okay, don’t force yourself to remember things; don’t think anything’s stupid, if I ask a question you don’t like, tell me you don’t like it. Like with Joey’s story people were worried that I was gonna do it dirty on him, that I was going to somehow sully his memory. All you can do there is try to convince them you’re a good person. It’s a lot easier if you actually are a good person. I like to think that I’m a good person. So I told them: You can trust me. And when I said it I meant it: I’m not here to mess with Joey. And if you spend enough time with people they get comfortable. And two very important things with that story: I had the time, and I did every interview in person.

Oh wow.

Which I think makes a huge difference.

So do I.

And every interview was often somewhere very awkward. Like Aunt Vicki, I talked to her over lunch at a Cracker Barrel, and so we’re both sitting in this Cracker Barrel, and I was bawling, she was bawling, and everybody in the room going, What the hell? But it was not sitting in a house. It was almost like a date. We met at the restaurant; it was the first time we met. It was just easier that way.

I think the key to reporting a story like that – and I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant – you gotta see when people are giving you little windows. There’s a scene in that story – the girl in the flowered dress, the National Guard people who carried the casket from the plane to the family. There, I interviewed them in a group; there were six of us sitting around a table. My starting question was How do you keep your game face? That’s what they call it when you don’t show emotion. It was a general question, so they gave a general answer, which was, You don’t look at the family, you look at something else. I said, Do any of you happen to remember what you were looking at that day? The first guy, Schnieders, said, I was looking at the logo on the sheriff’s car. Then these two female soldiers started whispering together, and I said, What are you guys talking about? And that was the girl in the flowered dress, where one of them had said, Look at the girl, look at the dress, pick out a flower on the dress.

For me the girl in the flowered dress is my favorite detail. And this started with How do you keep your emotions? and gradually whittled down to this moment. So you’ve got to be aware of when somebody is giving you an opening. And then you winnow it down.

In narrative you have to be on, all the time, because every moment might matter. It’s almost like being hyper-vigilant. You just can’t be asleep.

Yeah and you have to really listen. You know, when I started that story I was worried that I’d be doing so many interviews that I’d forget stuff. But when you’re doing stuff like that, you don’t forget stuff.

But you’re thinking long term too – it’s almost like you can see the story in the making, and how certain details will serve the narrative.

Yeah. You gradually develop an instinct – this is gonna sound crass as hell, but literally I have a cash-register sound that goes off in my head. Like, cha-ching. It’s annoying. Like, the girl in the flowered dress was cha-ching. I knew that was going in. You know, it’s a spidey sense. When I first sit down to write even a story of that length, I figure if I can remember it, then it’s an important detail.

When you’re talking about details [writers] sort of over – “he was wearing a gray sweater” and there were these pants and – those don’t really matter. At Esquire our goal is always to report the story so well we can sit down at a bar and I can just tell you the story. I did 101 interviews for that story and I could go through that story right now and tell you everyone who’s in it. You just remember. You remember the stuff that counts. So a lot of [writers] are like, I’m worried I’m gonna miss something great; well if you’ve forgotten it, it probably wasn’t great. And that’s how you know the details that are great and the details that aren’t. Then you go back to your notes and tapes and make sure you’re right.

The idea of detail that doesn’t move the action forward, that doesn’t advance any ideas – gratuitous detail –

It’s just clutter. The detail has to have some purpose to it, it has to mean something. Even if it doesn’t mean anything right away, it gradually builds some picture in your head gets you where you’re going.

And nothing’s a throwaway, because you might need it. It might come back in some way.

Yeah. This is a very hard thing to explain but – I’m gonna backtrack. I don’t outline. And I know this is a great debate in narrative. Like, Gay Talese, if you come tomorrow, Gay Talese outlines in ridiculous ways, for me. He will have 17 shirt boards with the story mapped out, and for me the risk of outlining is you miss those little connections that you maybe wouldn’t see if you were sitting there thinking, How am I gonna tell this story? I love when you’re writing and you see this little connection that you wouldn’t have seen [otherwise] – little echoes that count again later when you come back to it. Sometimes I’m asked, How did you know – I didn’t know that. It was only once I started writing that I saw it. Sometimes I see Gay Talese’s outlines and I think I’m doing it wrong, but I think what you might lose then is that sort of spontaneous connection.

And you can’t teach that. You can teach people to be aware always, and to look for opportunities, but it’s like teaching an ear – do you think that’s true? You can teach writing, absolutely, but the music, and those ghostly things that happen in Story –

I don’t think you can take a bad writer and make them great. I think you can make a bad writer passable and a passable writer good and a good writer great, but you can’t make massive jumps. It sounds harsh, but, excluding me from the conversation, there’s kind of an “it,” or whatever, that [good writers] just have. Like music. I’m tone deaf. You can never make me a great pianist. It would never happen. Writing is a similar kind of thing.

Okay.

It’s a terrible thing to say.

No it isn’t.

I mean you guys know: This is a tough business and there are a lot of effing good people at it, and there are lots of good people who can’t work. If you’re not good you’ve got no shot. I mean maybe you want this, you want it so bad, but if you’re not good at it, it’s not gonna happen. And you just have to be honest. It sounds brutal as it’s coming out of my mouth.

No it doesn’t.

But I don’t believe in false hope. Or there’s a sweet spot for different [types of writing] – you gotta find that spot. If you want to be a journalist, which is such a huge field, you’ve got to find your sweet spot.

Let’s talk about the origin of stories. You see Story in places where other people don’t see it.

[In magazine writing] you gotta find those stories that don’t change, and yet that no one else has written about. You’re always on the lookout for the stuff that fell through the cracks. If you’re pitching magazines, you can’t pitch a story that’s happened and that everyone’s writing about, or that’s happening in two months. For me, I get most of my ideas from newspapers, where the reporter I used to be – some poor dude only had three hours and 400 words to tell a story and you can see –

The bigger story.

The bigger story. So “Home” was a 400-word story about [the astronauts’] return. The soldier story was a 600-word piece on CNN.com. The Price Is Right was my own obsession. Roger Ebert was, like, his blog, which was just out there. No one had asked Roger Ebert to do a story – it was just sitting there. Those are the things you gotta find when you’re doing magazine stuff.

Yeah.

The great magazine stories you’re like, How the hell did no one else write this story?

That hardly ever happens though.

That hardly ever happens. I’ve been at Esquire for nine years and probably have done five or six stories that I think were good, just because it’s so hard to find that perfect mix of idea, material, your writing was good, everything worked.

It takes a massive amount of organization to keep track of the material for stories like “The Things That Carried Him” because you’re dealing with different characters, different points of view, different time periods, different countries. How do you organize everything and at what point do you write?

Because that story was so big, I wrote it in chunks, and that’s why it almost reads like a collection of little stories. With a regular story I often don’t write it front to back. Usually I know my ending, and often I’ll write my ending first. That’s from school. I had a professor telling me, How do you know how to get there if you don’t know where you’re going? That stuck with me for some reason. I also think endings are the most important part of the story. From my newspaper days I got scarred because all my endings got cut off. But with magazines, for me, it’s your finishing note; it’s how you’re leaving company with people. Ideally your story has built to this sort of crescendo and it’s like, here’s your moment. So I usually know what my ending is, and then I’ll start writing wherever I feel like writing.

But the sheer reporting. What are your tools? I didn’t realize you don’t record anything.

I record sit-down interviews. And in the soldier story I recorded – [at Esquire] it’s the only time they let you use the interns, to transcribe your tapes, but I never do it because I don’t want them to hear me stumbling and bumbling through my crap. The humiliation factor is just like – I don’t want anyone listening to this. It’s like what I do in the bathroom, you know?

Great.

So what I work toward in the reporting – I mean I sort of have two rules. For me writing is pretty hard, so my attitude has always been – my great fear is sitting down to write a 5,000-word story with 3,000 words of material. Like that’s my death. I’m not a very flowery writer. There are a lot of writers who could get away with that but I have no imagination. I think everyone would see this is where he ran out of shit and now he’s lying. I report as hard as I do so I can avoid that oh-crap feeling where you sit down and go I don’t have it. The other thing I sort of work for – Esquire’s fact checkers are beautiful, beautiful people; they are insane. My favorite fact checker story: I was writing about a fight, and I had a little joke, Shaquille O’Neal tripped over some lighting cables. The [fact checker] spent days trying to make sure they were lighting cables and not sound cables. And I was like, Dude, we can just call them cables. And he was like, Well, shit.

[laughter]

Fact checkers also make you feel like the least funny person on earth. Because you have to explain jokes. I had this basketball player who had like 17 different devices on his waistband so I was like: The Motorola fax/pager/copier on his waist – and the fact-checker was like, Well I called Motorola, and they don’t have a fax/copier/pager that goes on the waist – and I’m like Shit, dude, that’s not a real thing.

[laughter]

I love fact checkers; they allow me to sleep at night. But fact checking is torturous, and on a 17,000-word story it is hell. So that story in particular I kept ridiculous notes. I kept every phone number, every name, so they could verify everything easily – you just have to do it –

Well not all writers do it, though. You’re probably beloved for that –

I always warn them when I’m coming: Sorry guys, I’ve got another one coming down the pipe.

Annotating is your friend.

Again, going back to my newspaper days I’d have killed for that. I like that part of the process. So as long as I can get through those two things I’ve done my job and then I can write.

Dina Kraft: I have a question about structure on “The Things That Carried Him.” Were you working with a spokesperson for the Army? Did you think, This is a good possible [story subject] for me, I’ll jump over to Indiana?

Well I saw the story on CNN and that was Joey. Really it was about life at the forward operating base and it included a vignette on carrying the body back, and it turned out to be Joey. I spent probably a couple of weeks – this sounds ghoulish – but looking at other possibilities. And I kept going back to Joey. I liked that he was from a small town in Indiana; I just thought it was better than New York or L.A. And I felt sort of a weird connection – we had similar sort of adolescences. I felt like I kind of understood him. The very first thing I did was call his mom. No matter who we did, I wanted the family’s permission. So I called his mom, and it was terrible. I thought I was calling her at home. I thought, I’ll call her in the middle of the day, I’ll leave a message on her home machine and she’ll call me back if she wants. But the number I’d been given was her work, and she answered.

This is something that’s really hard to explain but, what do you say? So I was like, Hi I’m Chris, I write for Esquire magazine and I really want to write a story about how a soldier is returned from Iraq and I’d really like that soldier to be Joey. And she just started bawling. I felt so bad that I’d ruined her day, but we ended up talking for probably an hour and a half. At the end she said, You can do it, but I want to be [interviewed] last; if this story falls apart anywhere along the way I don’t want to have gone through it for nothing.

At that time there were a lot of stories about how hard it was – you couldn’t take a photo of a flag-draped casket. I thought, This is gonna be really hard. So I called the mortuary in Dover and they said, You need Pentagon approval. I said, Well who is the Pentagon? They gave me a name. I called him up and did the same schpiel. He said okay. I was like, Okay what? He said, You’ve got Pentagon approval. I said, You sure? And that was it. And I never once had a roadblock. Everything just fell into place. It was one of those spooky – I have countless examples of moments where I was like, That’s nuts. When I went to Dover – they pray over every planeload. Chaplain Sparks had done 700 planes and he said, I do a different prayer for every plane. And I said, You have no idea what you’d have said [at Joey’s]? And then he went back to his desk – and this was months later – and sitting on top of his pile was the prayer he said on Joey’s plane. He had the manifest and on the back was the prayer. He came back and looked like he’d been hit by a board. And there was countless moments of stuff like that.

The last thing I did was go to Scottsburg. The other nice thing about doing it that way was, I could tell [Joey’s family] what I knew.

Did they ask?

They asked. And one of the lessons about that story for me was, I was really worried about Gail reading it. She’d lost two husbands, her son, just this litany of tragedy, and I didn’t really want to add to it. And when I wrote the scene in the mortuary the first time I wrote it Peter called and said, You’re hedging, you’re holding back; every other part of the story is so detailed and here you’re kind of skimming it. I was like, Yeah it was really gory and I didn’t know how much detail to go into. He said, You’ve gotta go all the way with it. I was like, Okay.

Gail didn’t know Joey had lost his legs. I called her before the story came out and said, Gail, you might not want to read this, there’s stuff in there you might not want to know. She was like, Give me an example. I said, Joey didn’t have any legs. That was sort of the big – and she was okay. You know? And it’s true about writing about yourself: If you write about yourself you’ve gotta be 100 percent honest; people know if you’re holding back. And with this, Peter picked it out right away: You’re not telling me everything you know. And if you’re gonna write a story like that, you’ve got to go 100 percent.

Carlotta Gall: That’s interesting because that’s the one passage I would have cut if I was your editor.

It’s definitely the most technical. And it’s the least detailed. There you can’t say to the mortician, Do you remember that particular – there’s four morticians who’ve done thousands of bodies. It’s definitely the weakest section, it always was. You just couldn’t get the girl in the flowered dress in the mortuary. It just didn’t exist.

Claudia Mendez Arriaza: What makes Peter a great editor?

I’ll call Peter a lot when I’m reporting, and I’ll tell him I had a cash register moment, or if I’m having a problem. We’ll sort of talk it out. I think a great editor is almost part therapist in some ways. You know, writers spend a lot of time by themselves, and I’m on the road by myself a lot, so he’s just a good guy for me to talk to me about stories. I think my favorite thing that Peter does is his cuts, his actual removal of things. Like Paige was talking about with “The Things That Carried Him,” the tightness of it, that there’s no sentiment in it, that’s because of Peter. The very first section of that story, now it ends with something like, “They spend a lot of time like that.” I talk about Chaz walking out, holding hands, and they’re not talking, they spend a lot of time like that. I had, “They spend a lot of time like that, talking only with their hands.” And just that little cut makes that story better. So he’s like that 10 percent restraint, like a reining in. If I go too far with the sentimentality or the emotion he pulls it back. It’s very nice when people talk about the restraint in my stories, but that’s Peter, that’s not me. Because it’s really hard to know where the line is for the emotional.

Rema Nagarajan: Is there a time when you don’t agree with him and then what happens?

Yeah, you know that old cliché about you read your story and find your favorite line, and that’s the line you should cut? It’s kind of true. Peter has a way of [lots of sound effects here meant to represent Peter cutting, and also the sound Jones likens to being waxed].

You get waxed often then?

Yeah, all the time. It’s better not to be super-hairy.

[laughter]

It goes back to the trust thing. If Peter does it I’m like, well Peter is my swami, and he is totally correct. But yeah, he’s part therapist, part cheerleader and a hard-core ass-kicking editor.

You don’t call in wringing your hands.

I don’t often call him with a problem. I usually call Peter when I’m excited. I usually call Peter when I have that moment where I’m like, Oh this is actually gonna work, especially when it’s a story that I’ve pitched hard and I’m nervous about. The Price Is Right story, I called him after the Drew Carey interview, which was one of the great interviews of my life. We’re backstage and he just went off, like F F F F F. There was this publicist who’d been a pain in my ass – CBS was worse than the Pentagon. She was sitting there and she wouldn’t leave, and she said, You cannot ask about Terry rolling The Price Is Right. So I’m sitting there with Drew, and he kind of brought it up. He says, There’s this guy – I’m like, Yeah, Terry. And I hear behind me like a thunk, and I turn around and her head’s on the table. As soon as I was in the parking lot I called Peter and said, I got it I got it I got it. I don’t call him saying, It’s not working.

He also told me you sometimes call and say, I’m gonna go another way but I can’t tell you what it is. He trusts you to just go do it.

See I’m a writer because I can’t really talk. Like I can’t explain – so something will come up but I can’t –

Articulate it.

So it’s like, Let me try it in words. It’s like instead of me trying to explain this let me just write it. If you don’t like it, fine. Like the Price Is Right we went into it not knowing the twist about Ted, the guy in the audience who was yelling out the numbers. Instead of telling all that to Peter, I just said, Listen there’s a thing, there’s this guy Ted, I’m just gonna write it and you’ll see. That’s how we dealt with that.

No surprises.

I feel like if I’ve sold it as something I’ve gotta – it sounds like I’m bragging about the length of “The Things That Carried Him,” but I felt bad. Usually I’m within 100 words of my assigned length. I try very hard to hit that. People get offside about this, but journalism is a business. You’re expecting people to buy a product. You’re being paid for your work. Your editor is a customer; your readers are customers. So I feel this responsibility – I don’t think of it as I’m conducting my orchestra, and I’m doing my art and blah blah. For me it’s a contract. You’re paying me to do a job. I’m gonna deliver on time, I’m gonna deliver at the length you’re asking for, I’m not gonna be a pain in your ass, if you don’t like something I’ll fix it. I try to be –

Professional.

Is that the word?

I don’t know.

I try to do the job. So the soldier story was a weird – I just can’t see how you’d do it in 6,000 words.

Tyler Bridges: You said earlier that you don’t see yourself as a lyrical writer, and I’m certainly not a lyrical writer either, and if I do something that’s okay, it’s because of the reporting. But you take reporting to an extra level and I’m wondering if you have to constantly remind yourself what the person’s wearing, what the weather’s like – whether you have little tricks or it’s so natural now that you are able to get all these details –

I think it’s gotten more natural. One thing I still do is ask the people, Can I call you back? Like, If I go home and start writing and I need a little spackle can we talk about it? Because sometimes you don’t know until you’re writing it that you need this little bit that gets you from this paragraph to this paragraph. I think it’s okay not to get it all on the first run.

Bridges: Do you have little tricks to make sure you’re attendant to everything that’s going on or is it just natural to do that?

I don’t really know how to talk about this stuff without sounding like a jerk.

Just say it.

Well, I’m mildly autistic. It was a hindrance as a child, but as a reporter it’s kind of helpful because I find myself noticing things. And I think I have a good memory. So things will just sort of jump out sometimes, things I’m maybe not supposed to be looking at.

Bridges: I have trouble describing what someone looks like.

That is hard. That was one of my early lessons, that you always have to include a paragraph of description of the person because you can’t pretend that people know what people look like. In the Scarlett Johansson story I have a paragraph describing her face and it’s easily the most overwritten thing I’ve ever written. Because I mean how the hell do you describe a face? I mean you start with the forehead – I don’t know, big? Nose? It’s nose-like. So you kind of come up with all this language, and that’s when it gets fussy for me. Probably every other writer at Esquire is a much better writer than I am. Tom Junod could write 3,000 words about Scarlet Johansson’s face, but I can’t, so I try to get by with other stuff.

John Diedrich: I covered the military, great job on this piece. I’m curious about when you survey what’s been done on a subject area, and when you detect –

Jim Sheeler.

Diedrich: Jim Sheeler. He was covering it from a different angle. But how far will you read something – do you read everything that’s out there?

No I don’t read everything. I read Sheeler’s piece, and it’s a great piece. I mean it won a Pulitzer, right? It’s the definitive piece about the messengers. For me, it’s not good for me to read other stuff, not so much because I worry I’m gonna steal something but because I’m pretty naturally insecure. Like reading Sheeler’s piece was like, Shit, but it was good because it was a boot in my butt. I was like, Well, if that’s the bar. But no, I won’t sit there and survey the landscape because I don’t know what good could come from it.

Diedrich: So would you stay away from that aspect?

I didn’t purposely stay away from it. It was just different from the start. I mean I included the moment of notification. What was strange in this case is after reading Sheeler’s story I thought, Oh this is what this scene is gonna be like, but it wasn’t like that, because she found out from her sister. So that’s the one part of the process I thought I knew, and it was totally different. I mean if you’re doing certain stories you have to read to get the knowledge. If you’re doing a geology story you have to read about geology.

Samiha Shafy: I would like to hear the story about how you talked your way into Esquire with a box of donuts. The second is, you said you’re writing six stories a year, which doesn’t sound like a big number but considering the effort you put into each story how do you make sure you pick the right stories, and is it like two months per story or four months for one or?

Yeah, it can be six weeks – a celebrity story you might spend three weeks on and another story you might spend six months on. I’ll answer your second question first. So the hardest part of the job is the idea. You can take the best writer in the world and give them a crap idea and they’ll come out with a crap story, and you can take an awesome idea and give it to a not very good writer and they’ll probably come out with a pretty good story. Again this is part of the editorial process – pitching and pitching and pitching. So many stories I really like I had to pitch for a long time. Ebert I pitched for eight or 10 months. The space story I pitched for close to a year. The Price Is Right, I had to make that bet. [[The editors weren’t interested in the Price Is Right story at first. Convinced it was a good story, Jones bet Granger: He’d pay his own expenses and eat them if it turned out to be a non-story, but if Esquire ran the piece the editors had to pay him double his expenses. Which they did./pw]]

I think one of the tests at Esquire is if you can’t let it go, that’s when they’ll finally say yes. Like Ebert happened – I was supposed to write about Taylor Swift. At Esquire – I’m 37, I’m the young guy, so I get Taylor Swift. I’m still 37 trying to write about some 17-year-old girl, so I’m gonna be the pervert in the corner of the room. Luckily she canceled at the last minute. I was like, How about Roger? And that’s when I finally got to do it.

The donut story: So this is because I’m an idiot. I’m not very socially aware. When I was still at the National Post I really wanted to work for Esquire –

Having never written for a magazine before.

Having never written for a magazine. I got my job at the National Post having never written a published story before, so for me this was how it works. Actually I’m gonna tell my National Post story. So when I got my paper job there was a magazine in Canada called Saturday Night. I got my degree in urban planning. I thought it was gonna be like Lego. It’s not. It’s super-bureaucratic and terrible. So I had this headmaster who was a journalist and who set me up with a job interview with this guy named Ken White, who was the editor in chief of Saturday Night, which is like I guess our New Yorker. So I went for a job with Ken White and he kept saying newspaper, and I kept correcting him, saying, This is a magazine. It was like the worst job interview ever. Afterward I called my parents and said, I don’t know what that was but I’m not gonna be a writer.

And then they offered me a job at the paper. The paper was brand new. They stuck anyone with no experience, like me, in this bureau in Toronto, and if you were good enough you got pulled up. I started getting phone calls from the news editor and the sports editor, and in my head I’m like, They’re fighting over me. Meanwhile up at the paper Ken White was going, One of you has to take him. Years later I found this out. Finally I went to Sports because I wouldn’t count against their hiring quota. And I literally sat there for three months doing nothing, just sitting at my table, like ballast.

But the magazine – I walked into the Esquire building –

Wait, you flew to New York?

I was already there anyway, doing a Mets/Blue Jays series. And I walked in the building because I assumed that David Granger, the editor in chief, would want to meet with me. I was like, Clearly he’ll say yes. So the security guard was sitting there at the desk. I said, I’m here to see David Granger. He said, Do you have an appointment? I said, Nope. He said, Well, no. I was like, Can I make an appointment? He said, No, no, I don’t think you can.

So I was leaving and there was a janitor sweeping the lobby and he said, Do you want a job at Esquire? I said, Not as a janitor.

[laughter]

He said, No, no, no, there’s an editor, Andy Ward, young guy, really good guy, loves sports, you need to talk to Andy. So I went back to the security guard and said, Can I call Andy Ward? So I called up Andy, and he answers and I say, Hey I’m Chris, I write for a newspaper, I really want to work for you one day, I wonder if we could meet. He was like, Oh, when are you coming to town? I said, I’m in your lobby, the janitor said to call you.

[laughter]

And Andy said, Well, I’ve got this meeting to go to but come back at two.

And Andy’s the nicest dude on earth.

The janitor was totally right – he knew the guy I needed to talk to. So I got two boxes of donuts. I got one for the janitor, [and] was like, Thank you. I took a box of donuts to Andy, and some clips. [[I later asked Andy about this, and what kind of donuts Jones brought. Andy said Krispy Kreme, because Jones wanted to make a point that Krispy Kremes are better than Dunkin’ Donuts. Which, sorry Boston, they are./pw]] And again going back to the socially awkward thing I’m sitting there with Andy, we’re talking, he’s very nice, and I said, Can you read some of my stuff? He said, Yeah, I’ll read it. And I said, Can you read it now? He was like, While you’re sitting here? I was like, Yeah, I just kind of want to know is this even possible. So he’s reading and he’s like, Yeah, we wouldn’t use so many one-sentence paragraphs but it’s not bad. I said, Okay, great.

So, I kind of forgot about it. I quit my job at the paper, was traveling around. I ran out of money in Arizona, I was in Flagstaff. Got an email from Andy saying, We’ve got a job, 10 guys are gonna write a story, best story gets it. And this is the job I want more than anything. And I was flat broke. I mean I was busted. I had left the paper in a hissy fit, which was a terrible mistake  – and I wanted that job so bad, so I wrote my story

What was the story?

I wrote about Barry Zito, the baseball player –

You could choose any story?

I had to pitch 10 stories – this was specifically to be the sports columnist. That’s how I started at Esquire. And it was only years later that I found out the competition was bullshit. It had never happened. I spent years trying to find out – because the business isn’t that big – who are these other nine people? I was asking around, Are you one of the people? So whenever students ask how to get a job in journalism: Well, you act like an idiot, you go places you’re not supposed to go, you bring donuts, you run out of money and get super lucky.

Jonathan Blakley: With Roger Ebert – I love that story – one of the reasons I really loved it is, I’m a little older than you but I think we both grew up watching him. Suddenly you’re there. Was that one day with him?

No, parts of four days. And Roger was also awesome in the sense that, when I first emailed about doing the story he said, You know, I can’t talk, so we should probably do this by email, and I said, Well it would be better if we actually met. Roger actually started his career as a feature writer, including stuff for Esquire, so once he got past the idea of me coming, which did take some convincing –

Gosh – sorry to interrupt but that surprises me that he wouldn’t get that you needed to be in the room –

He hadn’t really been out at that point. He didn’t want people seeing his face.

Still –

Yeah. Once he got on board he was like, Oh he’s gonna need scenes – we’ll go out for dinner. All I said was, I want to go to the movies with you. Everything else was him. He knew what I needed. It’s funny – we talked afterward, and he had written the story. He was like, I’m surprised you didn’t put this in.

[laughter]

And there was a great moment that I didn’t put in, because in order for it to work I had to be in there, and I didn’t want to be in the story.

What was it?

They were cleaning the house before I got there and Chaz, his wife, had their wedding album out and Roger was like, Why the hell do you have the wedding pictures out? And she put it away. And after I’d been there maybe 15 minutes he was like, Chaz, bring out the wedding pictures! Anyway, he was like, I would’ve led with that, and …

[laughter]

I tell you the hot-sweat moment – he was mad about the picture. He was like, I’m kind of surprised you did the full face, like a whole page –

Bridges: Oh, but it’s such an amazing photo, though.

But all he sees is the damage, right? And it was a full page in the magazine. And he said, I’m surprised you spent so much time on my sickness.

Really?

And I was like, Oh shit. I said, Listen, if we don’t have the photo people are gonna spend the whole story wondering what you look like and they’re not gonna read the story. So you get that right out of the way. And with your sickness, nobody knows about this stuff. It’s important to establish why you can’t talk.

Bridges: Do you read stuff to Roger Ebert or whoever?

Oh no, no. This is always a tricky situation. I wanted Roger to love the story. I really like Roger. For me that was – I’ll never be able to relate what it was like to be sitting there pulling Post-It notes off his fingers. Like, I went there – I’d had this waffly kind of bad-head period where I was depressed or whatever, and I left there and thought, What the hell. I’m gonna leave here and I’m gonna have a root beer, and that moment on its own – it was a transformative experience, doing that story. I wanted him to like it, but you have to play this game where, I hope he likes it but I can’t be writing it for him.

And the fact checking – oh God I had this awful moment where I described the hole in his face. Originally I had it as the size of a small fist. And the fact checker called him and said, Roger do you have a hole the size of a small fist? And he immediately emailed me going, What are you talking about, this hole? I said, You have this hole, it’s there. I made it a plum, I think, in the end. But he was upset, and that kind of stuff bothered me. The reaction to the story was so positive he got on board.

Diedrich: The headline for “The Things That Carried Him” is clearly a nod to “The Things They Carried” – how aware are you when you’re writing that you’re in this legacy of people who’ve written about soldiers?

The title is a funny – I always put a headline on my stories because I find it helps me –

Focus.

If I find myself drifting I can go back to the headline. If it’s hard to write a headline for your story your story is probably unfocused. My headline was “The 3,431st.” I thought it sounded vaguely military, I thought it got across the idea of one of these thousands. Then Peter put that headline on it and I was like, Argh. Like “The Things They Carried” is one of the great pieces of war literature of all time, and when he put that headline on it I thought it sounded like hubris. But again, it was that 75th anniversary year, the original “The Things They Carried,” the short story, was in Esquire. I still never quite loved the headline. I really like headlines like “The Body.” There’s a story in the current issue that’s just called “Hood.” I like headlines like that. Very rarely is the headline that I put on my story the headline. Like this one, Roger Ebert, was [ultimately] called “The Essential Man,” or something. I like having a headline as my compass point.

March 08 2011

18:21

What we’re reading: death in all its guises

A week into March, we’re anxious for spring, but the narrative stories we’ve unearthed lately consistently offer up darker themes that go against the promise of the season. We’ve rounded up a few that focus specifically on death: murder on campus, suicide at work, death in combat and perhaps most surprising, a delicately crafted obituary for a rat. So as not to leave you in a winter funk, we’ve added two posts on craft to the end of the list: a primer for profile writing and an essay exploring the first use of cinematic scenes in writing.

What made this university scientist snap?” by Amy Wallace of Wired. “Bishop stood near the loading dock, unarmed. On her way down from the third floor, she had ducked into a restroom to stuff her Ruger 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol and blood-spattered black and red plaid jacket into a trash can. The 45-year-old assistant professor had also phoned her husband, James Anderson, and instructed him – as she often did – to come pick her up. ‘I’m done,’ she’d said.”

Lt. Gen. John Kelly, who lost son to war, says U.S. largely unaware of sacrifice” by Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post. “Before he addressed the crowd that had assembled in the St. Louis Hyatt Regency ballroom last November, Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly had one request. ‘Please don’t mention my son,’ he asked the Marine Corps officer introducing him.”

1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?by Joel Johnson in Wired (via @longreads). “It’s hard not to look at the nets. Every building is skirted in them. They drape every precipice, steel poles jutting out 20 feet above the sidewalk, loosely tangled like volleyball nets in winter. The nets went up in May, after the 11th jumper in less than a year died here. They carried a message: You can throw yourself off any building you like, as long as it isn’t one of these. And they seem to have worked. Since they were installed, the suicide rate has slowed to a trickle.”

S.F. kids spend recess toasting the best rat who ever lived,” by Steve Rubenstein from the 2002 archives of the San Francisco Chronicle (via @gangrey). A sendup of a classic obituary, this tribute to a classroom pet parodies the form while delivering a touching eulogy.

THOUGHTS ON WRITING

Profile Writing: The Basics” by Chris Jones, Esquire correspondent. Jones offers some fundamental rules, including that “Good features often have a ‘theme’ as well as an ‘idea’ – they’re about something, but they’re also about something else, if that makes any sense. They’re about beauty or art or the fragility of life. They’re inspirational or devastating. They’re not just a story; like fairytales, they have a moral, too.”

Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar” by Rob Goodman on The Millions (via @TheBrowser). Did literature teach us how to connect scenic jumps and read panoramic shots centuries before moving pictures appeared?

February 25 2011

20:12

Jeanne Marie Laskas on voice, point of view and accountability to her subjects: “this is the human story of a guy suffering”

In our latest Notable Narrative, “The People V. Football,” GQ correspondent Jeanne Marie Laskas looks at a former football player who has already lost much of his life and is in the process of losing his mind. Laskas has won a slot in the “Best American Sportswriting” anthologies four times, written five books and been a contributing editor at Esquire, as well as a columnist for The Washington Post Magazine and Reader’s Digest. I spoke with her by phone this week about her story. In these excerpts from our talk, she discusses becoming a sportswriter by default, accountability to her subjects, and using voice to bring characters to the page.

People who know you as the Washington Post Magazine columnist or Reader’s Digest lady might not realize that you’ve done sportswriting for a long time.

It’s so funny – I don’t know why I do sportswriting. I’ve never called myself a sportswriter, and it’s not like I have an interest in it. I think it came out of being a contributing whatever-the-heck-I-am at GQ – and was at Esquire – writing for this male audience.

They would ask me to do these stories. Now I could say “no” to them, but they were often about athletes or things that were sports-related. Honest to God, though, the reason that my editor would ask me if I would be interested in a football story was because I knew so very little about football. I wasn’t bringing any bias to the picture; instead, I was just looking at it as a series of characters, and thinking about how to write about these characters who happen to play football. That’s the way I got into writing sports stories.

I did the same thing about a bullrider, and a whole bunch of guys that were athletes. But it wasn’t because I had a particular interest in sports. That’s probably not the answer you wanted to hear, but that’s the honest to God truth.

The way I think about it is that I write about characters. In any kind of long-form narrative writing, I don’t even care what the character does. As long as the character is obsessed with something, I’m interested in the character. If I specialize in anything taste-wise, that’s what I lean toward.

You’ve done a lot of different types of writing. When you think of long-form narrative, you mentioned character, but what else do you need and want for that kind of piece?

The other stuff I’ve do, the essays and the columns, that’s like the other side of my brain. For me, to write long-form – it’s always starting with character. Both of these concussion stories are clearly character-driven. I was not even interested in the concussion story when my editor first proposed it to me. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the other story.

I’ve seen two but didn’t know if there were more.

Just two. And that story only became interesting to me when I discovered Bennet Omalu, this young pathologist from Nigeria who had an obsession with the brain of Mike Webster and needed to get to the bottom of what happened to this guy, why he died. That’s what grabbed me as a researcher, reporter – whatever we’re calling ourselves these days – to write his story: to put me as close as I could get, into that kind of “in his eyeballs” mode.

It was the same thing with Fred. With that first story, I didn’t approach it as an issue story, but it became one, because there was an issue. I wanted to come back and update it a couple years later. I just didn’t want to do it with the same research and information as before. The issue was not as interesting to me as “Wait a second , we don’t even know these people who are living with this condition. Have we ever met any of these guys?” I wondered if I could find someone who would let me into his life now, as he’s suffering from this condition. I wondered if I could find a character.

How did you find Fred McNeill?

HBO is doing a movie based on the first story. The screenwriter is Peter Landesman, and he is researching this topic like crazy. He ran into Dr. [Daniel] Amen, who is in the second story but who I didn’t write about the first time. He has all of these patients who are suffering from what they think is CTE. I met Fred through him – both Fred and Tia.

Were they resistant or open to the idea of talking to you?

This was especially tricky, because I don’t think Fred really understood. You can really manipulate that if you want to, but obviously that is not the approach to go with. So I worked through Tia and her sons to talk about whether or not it would be a good idea to write a story for a large audience that looked at Fred’s condition deteriorating. It was up to Tia whether or not to open up. I think she struggled a little bit but decided it was worth showing what it’s like. To her it was a matter of getting the message out. The way that story reads is literally true; she had no idea what was wrong with him until last summer.

Were there any challenges in writing the piece?

The biggest challenge for me was interviewing Fred. It’s a reporter’s challenge, just because it’s hard to interview someone who isn’t quite with you at all times. He could never remember my name.

You wonder “What’s your responsibility here?” So it was mostly an ethical challenge. “When am I running toward the edges of exploiting this person who’s suffering?” You hope you’re doing the right thing.

Was there anything you didn’t use based on that concern?

Oh yeah, a lot. I also blurred a lot – the details of the girlfriend, for instance. It was more the fact of her existing that I thought was enough – to give that information without turning her into a character. What’s the point of portraying someone just for the fact that you know it’s juicy and silly and gossipy and weird? Do you do it just because of that? It’s a question of “what purpose does she serve in this larger story? And what purpose does including his shenanigans with her serve?” As a writer, it’s got to have a purpose anyway, to drive a scene and not just to be like, “Oh, wow, that’s weird.”

I didn’t actually do a line count, but it looked like the majority of the piece is dialogue. Do you use dialogue that extensively all the time?

Here’s what I like to do: I love playing with voice in a story in general. I’m very rarely in the stories at all. I don’t think there’s any first person in this one. Often what I’ll do is – it’s almost like ventriloquism. I’ll try to get the voice of the person in my head so intensely that I kind of write in that voice – just as a tool, almost to evoke the character.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I’m working on this book right now called “Hidden America,” which has a lot of individual chapters that go into little tiny worlds that you as a reader have probably never had access to yet are dependent on. That’s the theme of it.

Like coal miners. I hung out with coal miners for a long time and wrote about that culture. There’s a lot of dialogue there. The voice of the people is going to come through either in dialogue, through just reporting it, or through throwing my voice to evoke it. One way or the other, I’m going to use a lot of people’s voices.

At the beginning of the GQ piece, it’s almost like you’re writing from inside Tia’s head. It’s clear you’re not taking the step to pretend you have complete omniscience, but you’re picking up that voice even when there aren’t quotations.

It’s so helpful to me to know you picked that up. That’s exactly what I did in that little moment in the story. Now, I switch out of it in that story, but I have some stories where I just stay in the head like that.

But that “Tia” moment – there are a lot of ways you could write that. You could be the person in the backseat, reporting it and noticing this or noticing that. Or interviewing her and having her talk to you, so that all of a sudden you’re throwing yourself in the scene.

But who cares about you? Why I chose that scene as an opener is that so much of this story is through Tia’s point of view: her frustration, dealing with this man she loves. But she can’t stand this nonsense. So rather than having her say, “Gosh, it’s so frustrating to be the wife of this guy,” to me it would be more interesting to evoke that feeling. So I throw it into her point of view for a moment.

There’s this low-key use of humor – like when you acknowledge the girlfriend’s existence and explain that Tia doesn’t mind, because it gives her a break. And then of course the closing scene, which is funny but horrific. Were you thinking funny, or did it just come out from their characters?

Oh, I was laughing! Not at them. I was laughing with Tia. That’s really Tia that I’m almost channeling. That’s so much of what I loved about her as a character. This is so tragic, but it’s just hilarious. That flipping back and forth. I think she felt that it ended up being helpful for her to have me there for so long to witness some of this, so she could laugh with someone.

That exchange with him about being buried alive – she was laughing through that. He would laugh, too. That was not me creating humor; that was me reporting humor. If that had been just a tearjerker moment, I’m sure I would have tried to evoke it as a tearjerker moment.

But I didn’t make up that sentiment. It wasn’t me feeling that sentiment. That sentiment was there.

If it had been a tearjerker moment, would you have closed the piece with that scene?

Heck, yeah. Here’s the dishonest version of that ending, which I at one point had, and I kept rejecting it, even though my editor thought it was the ending: it cut off that last bit and ended with “but for Fred it’s more like being buried alive.” It ended on that buried alive moment.

To me, that was a “Pow!” but it really was not honest to the experience of Tia and Fred. That was a breathless melodramatic thought, and they didn’t think that way. They would have those moments, but then they would roll into something more mundane. Just the way people do. Nobody thinks like that all the time.

That was the ending for a while. My editor was saying, “That’s the ending.” But I was saying, “It just isn’t true.” It’s what happened, but it’s not the truth of who these two characters are. So I extended it, and it rang true to me. But it all happened. We could have chopped it anywhere we wanted.

How long were you there?

Not that long, compared to some of the other stuff I’ve done. I’m going to guess it was two trips – roughly a week, and then I went home to think, and then I went back for a week or so.

You talked about the first CTE piece becoming an issue piece although you didn’t intend it to be. But by the time you wrote the second piece, you probably had a pretty good idea it would turn into an issue piece. Did you write this one differently because of that?

You should see all the stuff I chopped off. I backed into it as just a profile. I wanted to hang an issue story on a profile, just to have this character be a vehicle, to update the science, to distinguish the drama between two scientific teams who are vying for attention.

I cut all of that out. I wrote it all, and it ended up being so fricking beside the point. It cheapened Fred and Tia’s lives to pack this research into it. It just cheapened it. No, this is the human story of a guy suffering. He stands for nothing. Ultimately, he’s the guy suffering from something, but to make him stand for something, it just didn’t work. I didn’t like it.

Anything else about the piece you want to say?

There are still another 15 issue stories that could be done around this subject. This is one of those stories that’s so in the news. It keeps popping up. You hear of somebody else dying, and we all get upset – like the Chicago Bears guy who committed suicide just last week.

I don’t know what to do with a story like this, because in general in the world, I don’t know when we’re ever going to get this one. How many times can you tell the same story about football and concussion? When are people going to get it? Nobody gets it. I don’t even get it – I go back and I watch the Steelers after I write this thing. We’re all complicit in this myth of football as happy American apple pie stuff, and these guys are killing each other. It’s so messed up.

If I were ever to write this again, the next version, I would want to get at that. The cultural significance – what this says about us as a culture – that we keep watching this. And I am as guilty as anyone. I’m not separating myself out. That’s why the story continues to be interesting to me. I haven’t figured it out.

December 16 2010

20:40

Interview as story: on radio, online and in print

Insane Clown Posse

Whether they use full-on storytelling or just crib a few literary devices, interviews have their own narrative arcs and angles. From political drama (think the Frost-Nixon standoff or “The Fog of War”) to Studs Terkel’s cultural layering, interviews create a kind of permanent present-tense experience for viewers.

Two recent magazine interviews underline the narrative potential of the form. The first, “Insane Clown Posse: And God created controversy,” runs through a dizzying talk with the rap duo on The Guardian’s website.

The conversation jumps off with the acknowledgement that despite their ultra-violent lyrics, the pair are evangelical Christians. Reporter Jon Ronson moves on to reveal that the performers suffer from depression. As the story unfolds, even those who contest the importance of hate-spewing clowns may find the interview compelling, funny and disturbing, and perhaps not in predictable ways. Here’s an excerpt of Ronson’s dialogue:

Violent J shakes his head sorrowfully. “Who looks at the stars at night and says, ‘Oh, those are gaseous forms of plutonium’?” he says. “No! You look at the stars and you think, ‘Those are beautiful.’ ”

Suddenly he glances at me. The woman in the video is bespectacled and nerdy. I am bespectacled and nerdy. Might I have a similar motive?

“I don’t know how magnets work,” I say, to put him at his ease.

“Nobody does, man!” he replies, relieved. “Magnetic force, man. What else is similar to that on this Earth? Nothing! Magnetic force is fascinating to us. It’s right there, in your f**king face. You can feel them pulling. You can’t see it. You can’t smell it. You can’t touch it. But there’s a f**king force there. That’s cool!”

Shaggy says the idea for the lyrics came when one of the ICP road crew brought some magnets into the recording studio one day and they spent ages playing with them in wonderment.

“Gravity’s cool,” Violent J says, “but not as cool as magnets.”

The struggle between interviewer John H. Richardson and actor Christian Bale in Esquire’s December issue is more convoluted. As Richardson attempts to build a narrative that illuminates Bale as a person, the temperamental actor throws up roadblocks, refuses to participate, and ends with an insult to his interviewer’s efforts to reveal anything at all about him.

The narrative builds and destroys itself, eventually piling up a kind of story:

BALE: Why are you questioning those things?

ESQUIRE: Just curious.

BALE: Why are you putting all that muddle in your brain thats not needed to be there?

ESQUIRE: I guess you just look at the choices people make and wonder, Whats up with that?

BALE: But why are you worrying so much about everybody else? Lets start looking at you for a minute, all right?

A standoff ensues not unlike the scene in Antonionis The Passenger when Jack Nicholson is interviewing a witch doctor who clearly thinks hes an obnoxious idiot. “Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answers will be about me,” the witch doctor says, turning the camera around so its pointing at Nicholson. Major existential moment as Nicholson stares into the abyss between sign and signifier. But we have seen this movie, and it does not turn out well — the spell must be reversed.

BALE: It should just happen. It should just happen. If somethings true and sincere, it happens regardless of marketing. The more I talk about it, the more Im telling people how they should react. And that is an asshole.

ESQUIRE: Not to argue, but that’s not really true.

BALE: Are you calling me a liar? Am I lying?

ESQUIRE: Sometimes the ground needs to be prepared. And youve laid down these onerous rules on me — all I can do is a Q&A.

Actually, these are forbidden words that you are reading right now. Bale is in the habit of requesting that his media interviews be printed in a Q&A format. He also prefers to conduct them at the same five-star luxury hotel in Los Angeles, and makes it known that he dislikes personal questions.

Both these interviews end up far afield from straight transcription. The interviewer’s after-the-fact insertion of connective tissue between segments of the Q-and-A shape the story arc and set the tone.

Very long long-form

Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of a Hedge Fund Manager” a book-length series of interviews, falls into an even longer-form category. Keith Gessen, editor of the political and cultural journal n+1, conducted a series of interviews in which a financial player chronicled the economic collapse and its aftermath.

In a phone conversation last month, Gessen described how in small and large ways, events in “Diary” began to take a narrative turn not just in chronicling the meltdown but in the hedge fund manager’s outlook and life. Asked to what degree he imagined the book as narrative during the interview process, Gessen said,

I was very much thinking of it in terms of Studs Terkel, and there’s another book that I read some years ago, an updating of Studs Terkel called “Gig.” That book is amazing. These people have these crazy jobs, and as they talk about them, details of their lives emerge.

With “Diary of a Very Bad Year,” initially, I just wanted to find out what was going on with the financial crisis. I knew I didn’t know what was going on, and I had this sort of acquaintance who I thought could explain it. After I did the first interview and transcribed it, I was surprised. It had a lot of information. He had a very charming way of explaining the financial system. Some very talented financial people need to be able to tell stories about what they’re doing – that’s just part of him being good at his job. He was so good at explaining it that you could see how he thought, his mind at work. I thought that was exciting.

At first, I just thought we’d put the interviews in the magazine. Halfway though, he became very frustrated with his job. At the end, he quit. I didn’t know for sure where we were going initially, but when he decided to quit, we had a whole narrative arc.

Contrasting doing long-form interviews with the kind narrative features he’s written for the New Yorker, Gessen noted the different goals of the interviewer:

I’ve done a fair amount of traditional journalism where you’re interviewing people. There’s a very specific way in which quotes are used in a New Yorker article. They’re partly there to be informative; they’re partly used to reveal the character of the person who’s being informative.

When you do those interviews, you’re looking for a particular thing, a particular moment, from that person. You more or less know what you want from your subject. And I wouldn’t say it’s manipulation – that’s too strong a word – but because the frame that you’re putting on the story has so much weight, your subjects become characters in the story and have particular roles to play in it. When you’re doing those interviews, you’re waiting for them to say a particular thing, as if they were fictional characters who were uncooperative.

With the hedge fund interviews, I wasn’t waiting for anything. I was waiting for him to be interesting. I wasn’t waiting very long. In a way, it was more pressure doing those interviews, because I wasn’t going to be able to write around him. So he had to be the one who was interesting.

Gessen was pleased enough with the hedge fund interviews that he searched out people from other fields, only to find not everyone was as engaging when it came to talking about work. But with the right interviewee, “to hear a live and intelligent and very particular human voice,” Gessen said, “that’s very exciting to a reader and very immediately accessible – as accessible as anything.”

Radio Q-and-A’s

Though they have a long tradition in print, interviews own a sizable share of other media, as well, and many of them are narrative. Lisa Mullins, chief anchor and senior producer for Public Radio International’s “The World,” makes it a goal to frame real-time narratives as she interviews subjects. Talking by phone last week, she outlined her approach:

When I’m preparing an interview, I want a beginning, a middle and an end. It may not stay that way when I actually execute the interview, but it always helps to have an arc to the story and have some kind of a narrative. Sometimes that narrative centers on a subject – meaning the issue that we’re talking about – or sometimes the narrative unfolds from the person’s own thoughts and history. It can go either way, but I like to have a start and a finish and then a takeaway – something that the audience will come away with at the end.

I honestly don’t believe that we always need a neat and poignant ending. We need some kind of end that doesn’t sound random. It has to be something that makes the interview whole, that gives it a sense of direction and gives listeners a sense they’ve taken a mini journey someplace, even if they haven’t gone anywhere, even if it’s just a Q-and-A on the telephone.

Mullins doesn’t employ storytelling out of a sense of duty to tradition. Her motives, she admits, may be a little more selfish:

One of the reasons I really cherish the practice of interviewing as narrative is, frankly, ego. A lot of what we do is to convince people that they will be interested, entertained and edified by whatever we’re presenting. But it’s not a given. I don’t take that interest for granted.

So my goal is to give them what I know is going to attract any listener, a really interesting story, especially around an issue they didn’t know they could be interested in. By working with this rubric of storytelling and narrative, no matter what you’re doing, you’re going to get a much better interview for yourself, you’re going to have a more cooperative interviewee, and you’re going to get the listener paying attention. It’s not like they’re being spoon-fed; they’re just being informed and entertained in the most natural way of all, and that’s through storytelling.

Mullins also emphasized the real-time role of the interviewer and the importance of discipline when a Q-and-A is going to be the final product – not to block spontaneous surprises from emerging, but to string a narrative thread that the audience can clutch, giving listeners “a place to touch down.” Interviewers have a narrative role to play, even when they’re not the ones telling the stories.

[Check back tomorrow, when we'll post a list of tips for doing narrative interviews.]

November 10 2010

16:30

Augmented Reality Invades Newsrooms, Kids' Shows, Ads

You point your wireless device -- cell phone, iPad, whatever -- at a graphic on a box of unassembled furniture and then the instructions, complete with 3-D diagrams, instantly appear on-screen. Point at a piece of paper and it's suddenly a game board shared by friends across the room or across the world.

This is augmented reality, or AR. While still in its infancy, it's light years ahead of old-fashioned virtual reality. For one, you don't need bulky gear; you can use AR anywhere your wireless device can go. Plus, the environment is real -- only the graphics are simulated. All you need is a webcam or wireless device with the proper software and a nearby "marker," a graphic that activates the application.

"With augmented reality you can go around the real world and see information and data overlaid on top of anything out there," said Ori Inbar, co-founder of augmented reality firm Ogmento.

Inbar and AR experts from PBS, Qualcomm and Alcatel-Lucent spoke recently on a panel at FutureMedia Fest at Atlanta's Georgia Tech. They all agreed that AR is about to show explosive growth. It's already cropping up all around us.

AR By CNN

CNN debuted an augmented reality effect during its 2010 election night coverage. Instead of routine full-screen graphics, Ali Velshi strolled through a 3-D bar graph of exit poll results that seemed to hang in mid-air. Watch it here:

Anderson Cooper used a huge virtual Capitol to set the stage for the results. John King used a touch-wall election matrix to scroll through 100 races, showing the depth of the Republican incursion into Democratic incumbent territory.

"What we did [on election] night was actually incredibly complicated," CNN senior vice president and Washington bureau chief David Bohrman said the day after the elections.

While the effect looked seamless, Bohrman said it required a huge network of infrared lights, computers and of course, people. "What's important is that we're able to clearly explain what's happening," he said. "The election matrix was absolutely illuminating on the changes in Congress. It was one of the most revealing and informative graphic devices I think I've ever seen used anywhere."

The correspondents were indeed manipulating the graphics themselves, he says. Velshi, for example, controlled the graphics from an iPad app. "It made it much better," Bohrman said. "It's better to have the person who's telling the story trigger those things than have someone off-camera."

Bohrman, who also dreamed up the 2007 CNN/YouTube presidential debate and the virtual Capitol and hologram effect in 2008, is already planning for 2012.

Other News Media Applications

Ogmento's Inbar sees additional potential uses for AR by news organizations. "You see a big crowd and you don't know what's happening there -- you point your device and all of a sudden you get 'the president is visiting' or 'there's been an accident,'" he said. "It's kind of like Twitter but with a visual aspect to it."

Aside from CNN, another TV operation in Atlanta has already adopted AR. WXIA-TV 11 Alive will beam the day's headlines at you if you click on a graphic next to the Twitter and Facebook icons on its website. The station will also use AR at two upcoming public events. The audience at a Social Media Atlanta 2010 discussion about the Democratization of News will be able to receive information and videos about the panelists on their phones. (Disclosure: I am providing public relations services for that conference.) The station will also put a marker in a printed program for a holiday lights display to give visitors traffic updates in order to help them get home.

Magazines dove in last year when actor Robert Downey, Jr. leapt off the cover of Esquire's December "augmented reality issue":

A fashion spread inside the issue also let readers change both the weather and Jeremy Renner's clothes. Floating animation surrounded actress Gillian Jacobs as she told a joke.

AR For Kids and Ads

Aside from the world of news, it also has tremendous potential for education.

"Every new technology is an opportunity for learning," said PBS Kids Interactive vice president Sara DeWitt, who notes that one of AR's most exciting aspects is its ability to connect kids to the real world. "We see some real possibilities for young kids to interact with these 3-D objects in a way that they normally wouldn't."

PBSKids.org recently launched Dinosaur Train Hatching Party, an augmented reality game for 3- to 5-year-olds. An adult prints out a colorful graphic and when a pre-schooler holds it in front of a webcam, a 3-D dinosaur egg appears on-screen. Because eggs need the warmth of the sun to hatch, the toddler turns the paper so light hits it from different directions. A baby dinosaur cracks open the egg and asks the child simple science questions he or she answers by touching the paper.

AR also opens up a whole new world for advertising. This spring Calvin Klein Underwear partnered with GQ to present AR underwear ads. In July, Gannett subsidiary PointRoll and marketing company Oddcast announced they'd bring AR to banner ads. The press release cited a possible use case: "a car manufacturer can create an AR environment that mimics a new car model's interior where users can examine the interior freely, almost as if they were physically sitting inside the car."

More gee-whiz uses, especially in gaming, could be coming soon. On October 4, Qualcomm announced it was giving away its AR Software Development Kit for Android smartphones in order to encourage developers to build new applications. Then, of course, there is the potential for AR to integrate with and impact the world of social media.

"I think social media is inseparable from augmented reality," Inbar said. "You're in the real world and you want to interact with your real friends. In a sense it's going to be an integral part of any AR experience in the future."

There are still barriers to be overcome before AR is commonplace. On the panel, Jay Wright, director of business development at Qualcomm, joked that augmented reality is a battery's worst nightmare due to its power-draining abilities. Much more work is needed to make AR reach its potential on devices. User adoption is another significant challenge.

While it could take years to enter the mainstream, augmented reality is clearly gaining momentum. It's only a matter of time before it enters a classroom -- or a newsroom -- near you.

Terri Thornton, a former investigative reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

August 20 2010

06:19

THE HARVARD TABLET SUMMIT (2): HEARST MAGAZINES OPENS AN APPS THINK TANK

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Hearst magazines launchs of an “Apps Think Tank”.

While the free iPhone app of Esquire got more than 100,000 free downloads and produced more than 1.000 subscriptions to the magazine, the$1.99  iPad app of Popular Mechanics got only 40,000 downloads.

So Hearst is trying to develop an in-house”App Lab” to improve all these numbers.

Hearst Magazines has created nine iPhone applications; all of its titles are available on the iPad via the Zinio application; and by the end of the year, the company expects to have at least 35 iPhone, iPad and Android applications for its brands.

As Kenneth A. Bronfin, president of Hearst Interactive Media says:

“There is no such thing as the ’status quo’ in interactive play–or business. Our business reflects our ever-evolving communities of users–both on the Internet and throughout Hearst Corporation. We are innovators who change the landscape and challenge the status quo.”

All this shows that readers, advertisers, software companies, designers and media publishers are desperate looking for new and moire exciting ideas.

As one readers comments in the iTunes iPad store about Esquire magazine:

“Been a subscriber to the mag for years. Not going to pay for the same content I already pay to have delivered to my door.”

That’s the challenge.

And this will be the main objective of our next Harvard Tablet Summit (Cambridge, December 2-3, 2010)

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