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May 30 2013

14:25

Professor Hersey: one student, the iconic author of ‘Hiroshima,’ and 6 timeless takeaways

I would never presume to define “presence,” but I knew it when I saw it: the handsome, tall, man who’d just walked into the seminar room had it in…well, tweeds. With leather elbow patches. The face was tanned, a full head of carefully combed white hair looking, somehow, regal. He looked like a 62-year-old man at peace, the lines on his face speaking of a life that had not fallen into any of the predictable old writers’ traps of mania, abuse, depression. It was a portrait of inner peace, framed in high-WASP.

John Hersey

John Hersey

He’d entered the room only after we, his new students, had all taken seats around a huge wooden table whose scale seemed to reduce us to shrunken, through-the-looking-glass-size kids. Everything about his aura spoke of Serious. He wore an unreadable, impassive expression. No one dared speak; one doesn’t casually ask the visiting bishop how his day has been when he’s climbing up into the pulpit to deliver his sermon.

To gain entrance into John Hersey’s 12-student senior-year writing seminar at Yale you had to submit writing samples and something about “Why I should be in John Hersey’s seminar,” which, for writers, was the crowning class in school. I thought I’d have no chance in hell. I was not an English major; I had no interest in Yeats, Keats or ’eats of any kind. Yes, after many terms of creative writing instruction (including one with David Milch, who taught wildly, extemporaneously, in the same blue T-shirt, like a character from his cable series Deadwood, if Deadwood had been about academia), I’d written tons of stories, but like me, they’d always tended to be painfully self-indulgent.

John Hersey’s work was anything but. But there, somehow, I sat and, like everyone else in the room, watched him take his spot at the head of the table, which now seemed like the size of the deck of an aircraft carrier. His body language vibed that he cared less whether we thought him iconic, average, or a hack. Oddly, I sensed no ego. It would soon become apparent that the seminar was to be didactic in the purest Greek sense: He would teach because he was highly capable of it and qualified to do so; and because he had to, for the sake of the endurance of the literately written word.

I won’t presume to be exact in recalling the first thing he said to us (this was 37 years ago), but I remember it being very close to this: “If anyone in the room thinks of himself or herself as an artist, this is not a course for you. I teach a craft.” I remember his opening manifesto not only because its message shocked me — the artiste! — but also because of the measured intonation with which he’d presented it. Over the course of the next 12 weeks or so, I came to see how seriously Hersey took his spoken words — print was a medium in which he felt far more comfortable. Many of his words felt carefully considered: minimum verbiage for maximum effect, delivered in an even cadence, never rising high or dipping low; free of mellifluence or emotional emphasis.

Glancing around the room, I sensed that on a scale of Most Legitimate Yalie to Least, I was likely at the bottom of that scale, No. 12. At No. 11, I recall a spacey, cute girl across the table with unwashed hair (whom I immediately vowed to myself to seduce) and 10 other people, from our class of 1,500, none of whom I knew, and none of whom seemed like people I would know, and never did thereafter: probably a few Secret Society members; no doubt an editor of the Yale Daily News. Serious Yalies, some who probably subscribed to Granta, none who subscribed to boxing’s monthly bible, Ring Magazine, or kept an ounce of weed in his dorm drawer.

We were there because Hersey was iconic, of course, and had been so for 30 years because of Hiroshima, a feat of journalism so profound that it remains the only story to which The New Yorker ever committed an entire issue. The piece remains iconic simply because no one, in the ensuing seven decades, has threatened its perch as the finest piece of reportage ever. Once someone nails something, it stays nailed. It will endure as long as the written word (and the threat of nuclear annihilation).

Hiroshima’s subject matter was topical to my peers. We’d all been duck-and-cover grade-schoolers, obsessed with The Bomb. When I’d read, in 11th grade, his account of the effects of the first nuclear bomb used in warfare, as told through the accounts of six survivors, I’d been riveted on more levels than I could account for: The literary one. The reporting one. The human one. The horror one. The history one. To me, this was art, just as I’d thought Hersey’s novel A Bell for Adano, which I’d read in ninth grade, had been art.

That one had been fiction and one nonfiction mattered little; to Hersey they were both examples of a craft. He was going to teach us how to write. Period. And if that’s where we were starting, without art, then, what the hell, I might as well go all-in. I knew I’d never be a good novelist; even then I knew I would always be too egocentric ever to tell a universal tale. But I also thought that, at the very least, with my one tool (despite being the son of two people with the cultural curiosity of Pop Tarts, I’d been genetically endowed, somehow, to put together evocative sentences) maybe I could make a living as a journalist, and a living would be a very good thing to make.

Peter Richmond

Peter Richmond

I immediately felt, on that first day, as if I knew the man. We’d both been veterans of prepIvyworld. And even if my hair rested on my shoulders and I dressed like my hero Kerouac when he was taking his first hit of cheap tokay in the Tenderloin on a Saturday morning, I was a rebel with a cause: I was going to be a Writer. My Tom Wolfe wasn’t the Kandy-Colored “New Journalist.” It was Thomas Wolfe, looking homeward. I drank Dreiser’s prose; Melville is still my god. Whatever was going to happen to me in life, it was going to have to involve laying my words somewhere, for bucks, like a bricklayer laying his bricks.

And the man standing before me was the epitome of Writer, in his prime. He was not here for himself; this was man so private he had literally never given an interview. I was now granted a private audience. For three months. In a sanctum sanctorum. To this day, memory suggests that I seldom — if ever? — saw him smile. If I did, it was a very subtle slight upturning of the corners of his lips, not really enlisting the rest of his face. Eventually, I came to think that he figured if we didn’t perceive him as serious, we wouldn’t take the business of writing seriously enough to be writers.

What else did he say that first day? One thing stuck with me, and has never unstuck: “It’s not about what you choose to put in, it’s about what you choose to keep out.”

The textbooks? As I remember, one: The Writer’s Craft, edited by John Hersey. A lot of essays about writing by writers who’d likely been more than happy to earn a few bucks by laying down some truisms. I’m sure that many of them were instructive; I remember none. I do remember that some of them preached things that we 12 already knew instinctively, like using active verbs, and asking yourself, after writing a word, whether, with more thought, a better word might offer itself.

The first assignment? Write a story; same as every week. I spent the next few days writing the best short story of my life (not that I’ve written many, or published any) on a legal pad, in pencil, with lots of cross-outs and erasures, taking out a whole lot of stuff, before typing it. It was about a kid who was fascinated by the Chrysler Building’s Deco majesty before a distant aunt took him inside the place, to a board meeting in the Cloud Club on the 66th floor, where he spent two hours listening to masters of industry bore themselves to death. The yawning aunt begged an early exit, for she knew the lesson had been implanted in the kid as they rode down in the ebony-and-rosewood-inlaid elevator: Majestic monuments to power are simply temples to cruel illusion. It’s character that counts in the end.

It was just minor-league-Dos Passos-y stuff, but it was okay, probably because, as someone with barely an ounce of the stuff — character — I’d nailed the theme. Then the worst thing that could have ever happened happened, although in the end, it proved to be a blessing. The next week, Hersey came in and said he was going to read aloud the best story that had been submitted, and it was mine. And in the space of 39 seconds of hearing John Hersey read my story, I went from being stunned to fatally cocky.

***

Having been certified by an iconic writer, I wrote the next few stories in about an hour each. The fourth was about a kid who skipped his classes for a day, dropped LSD, drove to Aqueduct racetrack, lost a lot of his parents’ money, but had a conversation with Cab Calloway, who was handicapping from the Racing Form in a corner, and so the kid’s day was a success. This was based on an actual day, although a) it was only weed, and b) I broke even. But Calloway had been there, which was cool.

Hersey called me into his book-laden office for a private conference. Now, I knew the story sucked, and I was ready hear so. I sat down, across from his desk. He was no less imposing for being seated; he sat straight. His desk’s contents had ordered themselves. As usual, he wore coat and tie. Memory suggests a lit pipe, but maybe I’m just making that up. My story was in front of him, with the typical finely penciled notes in the margin. I expected him to say, in his own language, “What happened to the guy who wrote that great story last month?”

Instead, looking me in the eye — and again, in my language, not his — he said, “Are you okay? Are things okay? I hope you’re not getting yourself in any sort of trouble.” I’d like to say now that this time the face was a tad less impassive, but perhaps I’d be transferring false affect onto distant memories. If it were fatherly in any way, in no way did it express overt concern. Put it this way: He didn’t faux-earnestly look me in the eye, with fingers entwined, and lean across the desk or anything. The words, his precious words, had said it all.

I said something like, “Oh, that’s not me, that character,” although, of course, it was, and, obviously, he knew it. Then I stammered something like, “I’m fine, sir, thanks, I really enjoy the course, and I will try and do better,” and tried to leave his office with a shred of dignity intact.

I was devastated. I had desperately wanted his approval from the day I’d learned I’d made his cut, but I hadn’t been willing to do the work to earn it. Given a chance to study at the feet of a man who’d won a Pulitzer, had written for a TIME  magazine staff that included the likes of James Agee, I’d taken him no more seriously than my freshman fall-term teacher, a guy whose claim to fame had been organizing a retro do-wop band called Sha Na Na.

Or David Milch. Who now writes killer, like, fuckin’ dialogue … for series that get cancelled after three weeks.

***

That was the bottoming out. I had let The Master down, and, very subtly, he’d let me know it, without having to say so. He was now finally teaching me. And, thankfully, would continue to.

Less than two months remained. I had started at the highest high, plummeted to the lowest low. Now the only sane option left, since I’d decided not to squander my limited time on a hallowed campus, would be to osmose the man’s wisdom by listening and watching and taking accurate notes. The classes were instructive enough, since by now, most of my colleagues had gained enough confidence to add their own insights (and these were pretty damned astute kids).

The conversation became more free-flowing each week, as Hersey said less and less. He knew how to prime our pumps. The student stories got better, too. More and more, I looked forward to the class for all the right reasons; ego, indeed, gradually sapped itself out of the way. Hersey was no longer The Voice; he was now the editor of an oral, ongoing, 12-voice story.

I’d stopped reading the essays entirely because I had come to understand, and have understood ever since, that the only things worth reading if you want to learn how to write are well-written stories — like “Into the Valley,” Hersey’s account of being on patrol with a company of First Division marines on Guadalcanal.

My father had been a company commander in the same division, on the same island. He’d died when I was 7, so I had no idea what had happened over there. And so I read Hersey’s account halfway through the seminar. It was so vivid that I could smell the jungle undergrowth, and hear the whistle of the sniper’s bullet from the top of the banyan tree.

Of course, I lost the notes from those last half-dozen classes, as (thankfully) I have lost all of my stories. But here’s a handful of thoughts that are directly traceable to what I learned from John Hersey the rest of the way (during which time none of my stories, rightfully, were ever again read aloud):

1) In good fiction, the reader absorbing a compelling narrative never notices the writer as intermediary. In nonfiction, that translator’s presence is inevitable. Since the former is the ideal relationship with the reader, the more you can bring that non-point of view to nonfiction narrative, the better. In other words, as a writer, no matter what the hell you’re writing, do your best to kill your ego, even if those are mutually exclusive ideals. (i.e.: He could have told the story of the effect of that atomic bomb on an innocent city by telling us what he found when he went over there, and it would have been a good piece. Instead he gave the story over to the six survivors, and it earned a place in immortality.)

2) Let the story, invented fictitiously or real-world, speak for itself. Do it honor and justice by re-presenting it. If you have to writerly-ly enhance it, hammer its meaning home, it is not worth telling.

3) Editors are there for a reason: not because they aren’t good writers, but because they are very good at what they do. It is their craft. Get to know them, and always respect them. (In one of the countless drafts of Hiroshima, Hersey described an atom-bombed bicycle as “lopsided.” One day Wallace Shawn questioned whether the word “lopsided” was the best possible word. Hersey lay awake that night, and then scrolled the word “crumpled” on a piece of paper. The next day, arriving at the magazine’s offices to resume editing, he found the pages from the day before, and found the page in question. The night before, in the margin, Shawn had written, in the margin, “crumpled?”)

4) If what you leave out is essential, then the details you choose to leave in must be essential. (i.e.: The dank, decaying, ominous scent of a jungle is relevant if the man smelling it might be about to die from an unseen bullet, but maybe not if your story is of the prison road gang laying a highway through it).

5) Storytelling is so universal that, for the several centuries when writing disappeared in the Aegean, The Odyssey survived orally until it could be written down. Never veer far from the story.

6) As the possessor of a craft, having now served something of an apprenticeship, we owed it to the world to practice that craft.

The coda to this tale is very weird, and Hersey would appreciate it. In 1988, he was accused of plagiarism. In the 76th time of the 63-year history of the magazine, The New Yorker ran a “Department of Amplification” — a fancy name for a correction. He’d written a piece about Agee, and an Agee biographer claimed very publicly in various interviews, and through his lawyer, that Hersey had ripped off several sections of his book — if not word for word, then certainly beyond accepted decorum, since Hersey had not credited the biographer for many anecdotes. I was hugely disappointed.

Three years later, I was hired on staff by GQ and, as had been the case in Hersey’s seminar, my first major piece was good enough to eventually be included in Best American Sportswriting of the Twentieth Century, edited by David Halberstam. Part of me wanted to send that story to Hersey, on the Vineyard, to prove that he’d made me a writer. But I didn’t, because the “Amplification” had colored my lens. A year later, he died.

In the ensuing years, very good writers I knew and very good writers I didn’t know were also accused of plagiarism. A fellow staffer at GQ even wrote a book on the matter, wherein I came to be something of a student of what a strange swamp we were mucking about in. The likes of H.G. Wells, Alex Haley and Doris Kearns Goodwin had been wading in it. In the Agee piece, Hersey had not lifted more than a few words; he had certainly not lifted the other writer’s ideas. He simply had not said, in his magazine piece, where he’d gotten some of the information. In his piece, it’s clear that he hadn’t pretended to have gotten much of the stuff firsthand; he just didn’t give attribution, when he should have.

Now: As I write this, what I’m supposed to be writing are the final chapters of the biography of a man who has written several autobiographies and has already been the subject of a biography. He is not talking to me. I have used several anecdotes from those several books. And I am going to give everyone I drew from all the credit they deserve. Which means that Hersey is still teaching me. And more importantly, I can finally see him as what he was: not just a scarily imposing teacher and frighteningly talented and ambitious writer, but a human being possessed of frailties, flaws — and incredible, estimable, enviable talent at a craft. Pressured by a Hotchkiss-Yale-Luce pedigree to excel at the highest.

Craftsmen — writers, bricklayers — make mistakes. “Artists” need not worry about such scrutiny, such vigilance, such oversight. They can indulge their whims. And I think Hersey would agree when I say: More’s the pity for them.

Peter Richmond holds a B.A. in philosophy from Yale and has been awarded Moravian College’s first annual fellowship to pursue a Masters of Arts in Teaching, beginning this fall. His work has appeared in periodicals including The New Yorker, the New York Times magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Parade, GQ, Details, Architecture, Parade, ESPN the Magazine, TV Guide and Grantland. His journalism has been included in more than a dozen anthologies, including Best American Sportswriting of the Twentieth Century. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Class of ’89. He has published five books and is working on two others, each for an imprint of Penguin. He lives in Dutchess County, N.Y., with his wife, wine purveyor Melissa Davis, three chickens and a cat.

 

 

 

April 04 2013

14:20

August 23 2012

14:17

August 14 2012

14:30

“Why’s This So Good?” No. 54: John Jeremiah Sullivan and partisan politics

Politics should, in theory, be the subject of some of the most compelling narrative journalism. There’s built-in drama! There are winners and losers! The stakes are high! That’s why it’s so depressing that most politics stories, even those of the narrative variety, are painfully boring. They tend to fall into one of two traps – and I don’t mean right or left. Sometimes they’re “objective” to a fault, stripped of all perspective and written as a description of an ideological Pingpong match in which the reporter, if she gets too close to the action, reduces herself to an awkward ghost. (“A visitor was offered a glass of water.”) Then there are pieces with the opposite problem: The writer, seemingly by design, uses every quote and detail to confirm her assumptions about the people on both ends of the American political spectrum, and does little more than recite familiar arguments and retrace caricatures that were first doodled decades ago.

Friedman

The exceptions tend to be stories written by journalists who don’t usually cover politics. Recently, when the Supreme Court ruling that upheld Obama’s health care bill eclipsed the election as the dominant political story, I reread John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “American Grotesque,” a reported but essayistic GQ piece on the political ramifications of Obamacare. From a major tea party rally in D.C. to a quieter controversy in rural America to an even quieter familial fight over taxes, Sullivan manages to capture the political moment. It’s because he doesn’t just describe the debate; he engages with it on a personal level.

At first you think it’s going to fall into the second category of political narrative – one that is designed to confirm stereotype. Indeed, this piece has several details we’ve all read a million times, like this description of an offensive tea party sign:

A guy behind me is holding an ingenious sign he’s made. He’s cut out the mouth from a giant cardboard poster of Nancy Pelosi’s face, creating a hole, a gaping maw, and attached a bag to the back of it, like a corn hole at the fair. He’s handing out Lipton tea bags to people and urging them to “tea-bag Nancy Pelosi.” People are doing it and laughing, even ladies. Pelosi, with her giant crazy eyes, gulps the tea bags eagerly.

But the entire rally scene is written in the first-person plural. From there he continues:

It’s only fair. Liberals made fun of us because, at first, some of us didn’t know what “tea-bagging” meant—that it meant dipping your testicles into a woman’s or, if you lean that way, another fella’s open mouth—and a few of us, the older ones, may have referred to ourselves for a brief span as “tea-baggers,” in ignorance and in innocence. Now we’re turning the joke back on them. No one who has any sense of humor gets hurt.

It’s not just that we’re there. We’re marching. Sullivan identifies himself – and the reader – with these people who, let’s face it, are probably not GQ subscribers. It’s …  jarring. I was at that tea party rally. I did not feel like one of them.

But where this piece really begins to diverge from the template is when Sullivan starts writing about his family. Sure, we all know that where politics gets interesting is where it intersects with the personal. But rarely does such an intersection make its way out of the personal essay and into a reported piece of journalism. When Sullivan is hanging out with his much-more-conservative cousin, perched high above the National Mall, that’s when, finding it tough to suppress his own ideological leanings, he chooses to break reporter-character:

My cousin told me a casual story about a breakfast three months earlier with a leading Republican senator, by the end of which this senator had vowed to “make the public option radioactive.”

Suppressing screams, I said something about recognizing people from home on TV, and we laughed.

People from home. The other great thing about this piece is that he manages to say unexpected things about not only the ideological divide in America, but the geographical divide as well. Our next stop is Kentucky, a stand-in for the far-flung places from whence many of these ralliers came. And yeah, it’s far from Washington, but subject to the same fights, the same assumptions. A census worker has been found dead, and reporters have descended on this rural county. Sullivan runs into a sheriff on a near-deserted county road near where the body was found:

When I pulled away, I saw he hadn’t moved far. It was a sheriff’s deputy, parked in the middle of the road. His finding me here in all of Clay County, unless he’d been watching the graveyard day and night, seemed Stephen Hawking-size, oddswise. Was I supposed to stop and get out? I sat behind him with the engine on awkwardly.

I decided to pass him. As I went by, we waved. A smiling gray-mustached man with glasses. “Come on back,” he said, and just let me go by.

And most journalists would leave it at that. End on the quote. But Sullivan overthinks it. What really sets him apart as a writer is his ability to take details that appear minor and explore them, turn them over and over and inside out, in a way that doesn’t feel overwrought. These three words – “Come on back” – are the prompt for a great paragraph on how Americans don’t really bother to get past stereotype, political or otherwise. About how most of us are just visitors in other people’s comfort zones, about how we don’t attempt to really get to know what it’s like there. It’s an insight into the nature of American politics, but it’s also instructive for political journalists.

Ann Friedman is an editor and writer. Formerly the executive editor of GOOD, she’s now hard at work on a crowd-funded magazine called Tomorrow. She curates the work of female journalists at LadyJournos!, makes hand-drawn pie charts for The Hairpin, and dispenses advice about journalism using GIFs. In July 2012, the Columbia Journalism Review named her one of 20 women to watch.

For more installments of “Why’s this so good?” see our archives. And check back each week for a new shot of inspiration and insight.

 

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.

July 05 2011

16:00

Condé Nast’s Scott Dadich on reinventing mags for the iPad and why partnering with Apple matters

As the man tasked with giving new life to magazines on new platforms for Condé Nast, Scott Dadich says there are some things, old-school things, that don’t change whether you’re dealing with print or tablets.

“The cover. As magazine makers, we see the cover as the one and only ad we have for your purchase and your time,” said Dadich, Condé’s vice president of digital magazine development. “It’s an inducement to pick it up and give us your time.”

The magazine cover may be ascendant once again thanks in part to the debut of Apple’s Newsstand for iPad and iPhone. Combined with Apple’s subscription policy, the Newsstand could potentially be the bridge to the wider adoption of magazines on the iPad that publishers have been hoping for.

“To have a dedicated container on a tablet device, the iPad, where covers are the primary means of purchase and browsing is something we’ve been looking for for a long time,” Dadich told me.

But the future still remains imperfect for publishers, some reluctant to give Apple its 30-percent cut, others wanting to get their hands on precious customer data without interference from Apple. Condé Nast is already onboard with Apple, though, with more than 30 apps and almost 10 magazine editions on the iPad and digital subscriptions available for the big titles. Dadich is a true believer in tablets: He lead the team responsible for Wired’s first iPad app. Still, he hedges that idealism with heavy doses of pragmatism. In an interview that covered everything from publishers’ relationship with Apple to developing a new design guide for the tablet, Dadich outlined a future that will find magazines thriving again.

“It’s not that far-fetched to imagine 20 to 25 percent of magazines’ readership existing in a digital platform three to four years from now,” he said.

Apple: “They have the marketplace, they built the store”

Partnering with Apple is a necessary element of experimentation right now, Dadich said. Instead of getting hung up on debates over divvying up revenue and ownership of data, companies could be spending that time trying to reinvent themselves. Besides, as Dadich sees it, media companies have always had to make friends in order to deliver their products on time. Apple’s just the next step in that.

“Look, they have the marketplace, they built the store, they have the credit cards and the eyeballs,” Dadich said. “We definitely want to be in front of those folks.”

Apple, he said, offers a new kind of delivery and distribution chain, one that could eventually cost publishers less than the analog model of printing press/delivery truck/mail box/newsstand. And the benefits extend to consumers, he pointed out: With Newsstand, in the same way you can be confident that your copy of GQ will arrive in the mail the second Monday of the month, iPad editions deliver content on time, every time. Instead of having to rush to download the latest New Yorker before a flight, it’ll just be there.

The “Design Fidelity Spectrum” for news apps

The idea of a world where everyone’s favorite magazines are delivered seamlessly is great, but not a reality yet. Tablet adoption remains far from universal, and converting readers, even the faithful ones, can be a complicated dance. Or, maybe, a game of whack-a-mole. Even with lower pricing on digital editions, a better subscription system in place, and improvements to file size and downloading (Dadich told me Condé’s digital editions now have a progressive download, which allows subscribers to read part of an issue as the rest downloads), there’s still a raft of readers not using the iPad. “One hundred and ninety million people read magazines in this country,” while “there’s 25 to 30 million iPads out there,” Dadich said. The goal is convincing people “that these magazines they love are just as good or better under a piece of glass.”

Which is where the design element comes in. As we already know, taking one form of media (newspapers and magazines) and trying to graft it wholesale onto another (the Internet, mobile devices, tablets) doesn’t generally work. But even within magazines, there’s no one right answer. While Dadich and the team at Wired were lauded for their success with launching Wired’s app, the same principles wouldn’t apply to, let’s say, The New Yorker. Different publications, different design needs.

For a company like Condé Nast, differentiating its titles on tablets is as much about the brand as it is about the reader — which is why Dadich relies on something he calls the “design fidelity spectrum,” a concept that slides from rigid faithfulness to the original product on one end to a completely new and unique look on the other. Most newspaper and magazine websites, and to an extent mobile apps, have little in common with their print counterparts. Conversely, The New Yorker and GQ, even with the addition of audio, video, and animation, still track fairly closely to their origins. Finding the right spot for your title, and determining how it meets up with your readers’ needs, is the big question, Dadich said.

“To say we have the answers would be lying. We don’t,” he said. “Apps like Flipboard and Zite, the feed-based apps, allow users to shape the news and reading they do. But I feel like, and numbers confirm, there is a place for editors still.”

Attacking on multiple fronts

Because media apps now compete not only with each other, but also with aggregation, reading, or social news apps, Dadich said it’s become more important to experiment with the way you package your content. While the iPad offers the opportunity for magazines to recreate an immersive, intimate reading experience, the iPhone can offer a different scale of opportunities, he said. “The completeness of an entire issue isn’t the attraction on the phone, but the service-oriented content is,” he said.


Gourmet Live, the departed magazine reinvented in app form, is one example, placing an emphasis on recipes and curated meal ideas. Dadich said he could easily see similar spinoff apps, things like a branded New Yorker listings app, which would take all the front-of-the-book material on goings-on around town and repackage it. Dadich’s strategy is one that calls for an attack on multiple fronts, a reinvention (and reclamation) of what it means to read a magazine. “Ultimately, a subscription to a magazine is about the relationship you have with it,” Dadich said. “If we can transform that into something that lives with you in your pocket all the time, we’re going to try that.”

Image by John Federico used under a Creative Commons license.

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.

February 24 2011

14:43

The People V. Football: the case for the prosecution

In our latest Notable Narrative, “The People V. Football,” Jeanne Marie Laskas follows former NFL linebacker Fred McNeill into the abyss of his ruined life. Touching intermittently on the larger conversation about brain-damaged players and their short-circuited lives, Laskas returns relentlessly to what existence is like for the injured McNeill.

Laskas brings together two classic narrative strategies to impressive effect: she tackles big issues though attention to tiny details and tells her story largely through dialogue. The story opens and closes with extended conversations between McNeill and his wife, Tia, who left him in 2007 but still coordinates much of his care. In between, we get comments from an online message board, a discussion between commentators on “Monday Night Football,” and interactions between Fred and those who document his diminishing mental capacity.

The dialogues with McNeill are doubly useful. As with any story, they reveal his character and let us see him engage with others. In this case, they also allow us to watch his mind sliding down the slope from intellectual prowess – he was an accomplished lawyer who graduated at the top of his class at law school – to utter dementia. Even in his current state, occasional lucidity allows him to carefully outline the challenge facing the NFL.

Laskas’ most striking accomplishment here is a subtlety with humor that scores big. She will not let the reader off with pity alone but deepens the connection by going for ironic and rueful moments that humanize everyone involved. McNeill’s wife is grateful that he has a girlfriend who takes him to karaoke during the week, relieved that someone else is also looking out for him. The end of the story provides a particularly comic moment between Tia and her husband, one that turns heartbreaking as it foreshadows what will happen in the long run. If “The People V. Football,” is an indictment, Fred McNeill is Exhibit A for the prosecution.

Scanned image courtesy GQ; photograph by Robert Maxwell.

June 21 2010

14:21

GQ takes home two Maggies including Overall Winner

Men’s fashion magazine GQ was recognised twice in this year’s Maggie Awards, which celebrate the magazine industry’s best covers.

GQ won the top prize of Overall Winner, and the magazine’s September 2009 issue cover, which featured Sienna Miller, claimed them victory in the Fashion category.

Judging panel chairman Jim Bilton said the winning cover, which fronted one of the magazine’s most successful issues of the year, was “a textbook example of great cover design”.

“So good, it looks completely effortless, but a great deal of skill has gone into the execution of a cover which combines beautiful photography and strong coverlines,” he said.

Other winners included Metal Hammer in the Entertainment category and Beano in the Youth category.

Over 40,000 votes were cast to decide the winners.

See the winning covers here….

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December 21 2009

17:48

Condé Nast launches monthly GQ iPhone app

Following in the footsteps of the Guardian, GQ’s magazine has announced its first monthly application for the iPhone.

According to a report from paidContent.org, the application, which offers an exact replica of the magazine, the US version of the app has been approved by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), which means purchases of the app will count towards the magazine’s circulation figure.

Unlike the Guardian, where a one-off fee is paid for unlimited access to content, in the UK GQ is charging £1.79 for each edition.

Publisher of GQ, Conde Nast, is also reportedly planning more iPhone apps for its other magazine titles.

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