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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 10 2010

16:52

Andrew Rice on narrative and Niagara Falls: “It’s hard to believe that next to this natural wonder, there’s this amazing poverty”

We talked this week with Andrew Rice, whose “The Fall of Niagara Falls” is our latest Notable Narrative. Rice’s career has included stints at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Observer. He has also written a book, “The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget,” about a son’s search for justice for his father, who disappeared during Idi Amin’s rule in Uganda. In these excerpts from our talk, Rice elaborates on domestic vs. international reporting, what makes Niagara Falls different, and how at every length, the nonfiction pieces that have the greatest impact “have those same elements of storytelling, of character.”

Had you been to Niagara Falls before you wrote the story?

I’d never been to Niagara Falls before I did this story.

How long did you spend there?

I think about two or three days.

You have a lot of characters. When you’re talking about something as amorphous as economic development, how do you get a handle on what to include and what not to bring into the story?

This is of course, always a difficult thing to figure out in the editing process. My habit tends to be that I do a lot of reporting on all sorts of things, and a lot ends up on the cutting room floor. In this particular case, a lot of it grew out of Niagara Falls has been quite notable in New York state for some time. I was lucky in that there has been a lot of previous research done both by daily news, like the Buffalo News, and the Niagara Gazette, which are the two local daily papers there.

And also quite a lot of work done by SUNY-Buffalo and the Urban Design Project at the University of Buffalo. They had done very detailed investigations into the issue of economic development in Niagara Falls. And so the reports that were prepared by that group – which is run by a man named Robert Shibley – were really helpful in orienting myself before I ever went up there.

Finally, in terms of the issues with the Niagara Falls Redevelopment Company, there had been quite a few reports done in the local press over the years, but there had also been a report done by the New York state comptroller’s office, which had been an investigation of the city’s contract with Niagara Redevelopment, which basically laid out the whole history of conflict between the city and Niagara Falls Redevelopment.

So I’m thinking as a storyteller, you have all this history, all these pieces of information. How do you make them into a story that’s accountable to the facts but which keeps things moving?

This happened to be the sort of story where it originally grew out of a discussion between myself and my editor at Bloomberg Businessweek, Sheelah Kolhatkar, an excellent editor and someone I’ve known for a long time. She’s a really good writer herself, and she also happens to be from Canada. When we started talking about this idea of writing about urban blight somewhere in the United States – I can’t recall who came up with Niagara Falls first, but it made a lot of sense to her, because it was someplace she visited a lot growing up in Toronto. She said she had been on the Maid of the Mist like 20 times with various relatives.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that she gave me a lot of license to go up there and see what the story was. So I went up there for several days. I made arrangements to meet with local officials and got in touch with this fellow Mike Hudson, and was able to find a number of people who were willing to give me some time. Once you go up there, the story sort of opens up to you. Areas of the city are really beyond belief, if you’ve never been to a place that’s had this hollowing-out process. It’s hard to believe that next to this natural wonder, there’s this amazing poverty and hopelessness and burned-out buildings.

And so I think after spending a couple of days there, it became clear that the story was not so much a dry recitation of economic development statistics, but really about the people involved, people who were all in their own way involved in this question of “How do we reinvent Niagara Falls?” but who obviously did not agree with each other on the correct way forward.

You’ve written about economics and about Idi Amin’s tragic rule in Uganda and some of the legacies of that. In what ways do you approach those things similarly or differently? Do you have a constant way of approaching a story that bridges newspapers, magazines and books?

Every piece is different, but I think that there’s a slightly different way that you go about doing pieces overseas, which is just a function of the lack of good communications and structures, and the fact that really when you go to do a story overseas, you kind of get one shot at it. So you have to do a ton of advance preparation, and even then, after your preparation, things will never really turn out quite the way you expect them to. You generally have a limited amount of time before you get back on your plane and go thousands of miles back home.

With a story like Niagara Falls, it’s easier, because first of all, it’s a lot easier to call people up and to do a lot reporting prior to ever setting foot in the place. And second of all, once you leave it, it’s possible to do follow-up reporting. In a way when you’re doing a story that’s domestic, the stakes are a little lower in terms of getting everything you need out of one particular trip.

Ultimately, the thing is that it’s harder to do advance reporting for overseas stories, but in a way it’s more important to do advance reporting for overseas stories that maximizes your potential to get the things that you need once you get there.

In your work that I’ve read, you seem to favor a narrative approach. When do you think that storytelling approach works best?

Well, I guess I’m biased in that I think that narratives are the things I most like to read. I like telling the stories that can be told as narratives, so I guess it’s a little bit self-selecting. These days I try to direct myself towards finding articles or subjects that I think can be told through a narrative of one person or another. Of course, when I worked at a daily newspaper and when I moved on to the New York Observer, which is a weekly, I had a different approach. But I do think that even in newspapers, the stories that are the most interesting and have the most impact have those same elements of storytelling, of character. Those stories might be 15 inches or 20 inches, but it’s amazing the amount of narrative you can pack into that as a skilled journalist. I was lucky when I worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer and then the New York Observer, to meet people who had been able to develop the ability to tell a real story in the constricted form of newspapers. If you can pull that off, then the longer stuff really comes naturally.

Are there any other writers who inspire you?

There are many. I think that probably the first writer that really inspired me in terms of the overseas writing was a guy named Blaine Harden, who was at the Washington Post. He wrote a book called “Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent,” which I think is out of print now, but which is one of the most outstanding examples of overseas reportage that there is. He’s somebody that I read before I ever went to Africa, and who I tried to model the work that I was doing there on.

He was kind enough to meet me before I went to Africa, and he gave me a piece of advice. He said, “Try to write just one story. If you can write just one story to tell out of this, try to seize on that and focus on that.” That piece of advice eventually became the germ of the idea for my book. So Blaine Harden is somebody that I respect a good deal.

There’s a guy I worked with at the Philadelphia Inquirer named Ralph Vigoda. He could use daily journalism to tell a good story on 15 to 20 inches on a five o’clock deadline. He was a lot older than me then when I first started out, and I think he was a mentor to a lot of young people who have gone on to great success. Unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago.

In terms of people that I admire from afar, I’ve always loved Mark Bowden’s stuff. He’s also a former Philadelphia Inquirer guy who went on to great things. David Grann, who is somebody I crossed paths with very briefly when I worked in Washington. His work for the New Yorker has been incredibly inspiring, and I admire it because he has a real knack for picking unexpected subjects and subjects that aren’t necessarily related to each other and telling wonderful stories about them.

That kind of versatility is something I would aspire to emulate. Philip Gourevitch’s work on Africa has been very inspirational to me and is something that I’ve since tried to emulate to some degree what he’s done. And another person whose work is really fantastic is Nick Paumgarten, who was an editor of mine at the New York Observer. He’s now at the New Yorker as well. He’s also somebody whose work, every time I pick it up, I really enjoy it. There are so many other people.

Is there anything else you want to say about the story?

The Niagara Falls story is one that’s been hiding in plain sight for some time. I was really surprised to find that the plight of the city had gotten relatively little attention. Well, there was a book by this woman Ginger Strand.

You mention her in your piece.

Yes. So it’s not that no one had paid attention, but I was sort of surprised that it had gotten as little attention as it had, and I think that it speaks to the fact that there are many communities like this that have been forgotten and have been wasting away for a long period of time. Even when the rest of the country was in prosperity, these places were still suffering.

One thing that was really striking that the mayor told me was that Niagara Falls had a hard time qualifying for some of the stimulus programs because they had hit bottom so long ago they didn’t really meet some of the criteria in terms of being able to show a recent decline in response to the recession. The suffering of Niagara Falls has been hiding in plain sight for so long. It was fascinating to go and spend a little time talking to people about it.

I hope one thing that comes through is that the place has great deal of potential and that our government should be looking for ways to harness this natural potential, this majesty of the falls, to make life better for people in that area.

Niagara Falls, of course, is a singular kind of place, but its story isn’t uncommon. So many places have been struggling a long time. How do you keep that story compelling and engaging?

Niagara Falls itself is just interesting. I think Ginger Strand is the one who said it, but the place draws these people who are inherently interesting. Paul Dyster, the mayor, was an international relations professor at Catholic University, and an arms negotiator for the Reagan administration. Here you’ve got this guy who faced down the Soviets but still can’t quite manage to face down city council. I thought it was telling. And Mike Hudson, the editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter, was the lead singer in this seminal punk band the Pagans. Here’s this extremely salty and voluble fellow as a kind of tour guide to the seamy underside of Niagara Falls. Maybe if you went to Flint, Mich., or Youngstown, Ohio, you’d find a cast of characters like this. But in a way I think that Niagara Falls has a magnetic attraction to interesting people.

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