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January 20 2012

16:22

Pamela Colloff on storytelling, justice and letting readers think for themselves

Our latest Notable Narrative, the story of a mother convicted of killing her adopted son with salt, comes from Pamela Colloff of Texas Monthly. A two-time National Magazine Award finalist, Colloff has been at Texas Monthly since 1997, and her work has also appeared in The New Yorker and three editions of “Best American Crime Reporting.” In recent years, she has developed a reputation for drawing national attention to problematic convictions. She talked by phone with us this week about how she picks cases, writing about guilt and innocence, and the Skip Hollandsworth method of drafting stories. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

How did you find the story of Hannah and Andrew?

This has never happened to me before, but a reporter with the San Antonio Express-News called me out of the blue one day and told me about Hannah’s case. I’ll back up for a second to say that I wrote an article in 2010 about a former death row inmate named Anthony Graves, and that story was partly credited with helping eventually win his freedom, with the help of his attorneys and a special prosecutor.

Because of that, after that story came out — and this continues to this day — I get letters and calls literally on a daily basis, usually from inmates but sometimes from attorneys. This is the first time it came from another reporter. People will come to me and say, “There’s this innocence case, and I really wish that you would look into it.” It has gotten somewhat overwhelming, with letters piling up.

But in this case, this reporter from the San Antonio Express-News, John MacCormack, who is one of the best newspaper reporters in Texas, called me. John and I didn’t know each other, but I’ve been following his work for a long time. He said, “I’ve been writing about this case out of Corpus Christi, and I’ve done as much as I can do with it on a newspaper level. It’s a really important case, and I wish you would look into it.”

John ended up driving to Austin and giving me notes and documents. Again, I’ve never had anything like this happen before. And four days after John called me, a TV cameraman who I was talking to for other reasons said, “There’s this case in Corpus you should look into. It’s the case of Hannah Overton. To have two different media people tell me this was an important case, obviously, I was going to look into it.

About these calls and letters you get: Do you weigh stories now in a different way than you did before the Graves story?

I think one of the things that’s hard is that part of my job is to be a storyteller. There are many innocence cases or potential innocence cases that I see which are very interesting from a legal perspective but aren’t interesting from a narrative perspective. I can’t write a story about every one of these cases, and so I have to find the ones that are compelling from both a legal standpoint and a narrative standpoint.

One thing that I’ve done in the past month is that I’m partnering, if that’s the right word, with Anthony Graves’ attorney, Nicole Cásarez, who’s an attorney and also a journalism professor at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston. All letters that I get from inmates I forward to her. And she and her students — she runs an innocence clinic — look into the ones that they feel have the most merit, or the ones they can do something with. Our hope is to look at these things together and try to pick out the ones that are the best for us to write about, for her students to investigate, and try to make more of a difference that way.

I write three to four big stories a year, and there are so many of these cases.

It’s interesting that you note the line between what’s an engaging case and one you can tell narratively.

Part of being a long-form journalist is that you are sometimes an investigative reporter, but you are also a storyteller. Is this a narrative, if you’re going to write it at 10, 12, 14,000 words, that is interesting enough to keep the reader going through it? That’s something I have to consider, which is sometimes hard.

I noticed that each section very clearly captures one thing. You introduce Andrew, you introduce Hannah, you bring them together, you take them apart. She’s charged with his death, she’s convicted of his death, and then family tries to cope. This is just the spine of events, of course.

I have actually never (outlined) it like that.

That’s what I wanted to know. Do you lay things out ahead of time before you write, or do you impose structure on something messier as it evolves?

I picked this up from Skip Hollandsworth, my mentor here at the magazine, who is a wonderful writer. He’s done a lot of crime stories. I have one Word document that I dump everything into — all my notes, interesting quotes, references to documents, everything. It’s a master document that I can do a word search on and hopefully everything’s at my fingertips. As I start to input information into the document, it starts to take its own organic shape. Information is grouped together spontaneously, and at some point it starts to take a shape. Now, admittedly, that’s not always the right shape to write the story in.

But with Hannah and Andrew, I really struggled with whether to begin with him or her. And I just kept returning to that case file of his, which was really all that I had. I had a couple pictures and maybe 30 pages, most of which didn’t mean much to me. But I just kept leafing through that, trying to understand him, and I thought, “Well, readers are going to be in the same position. He’s our main character, but I’ve never met him.” And our readers will never meet him. So how do we handle that? My idea was to put him front and center, and go from there.

As far as mapping it out that way, I actually didn’t. So it’s really interesting to hear what you just said. That helps me – I need to diagram my own stories! The main goal I have in the thick of writing is simply – I have such a short attention span, I have two kids and almost no reading time – so I try to put myself in the reader’s shoes. I try to end each section with something that is going to keep you going, if possible.

But you don’t outline ahead of time? You just use the Skip Hollandsworth Document Evolution Method?

I would call it a loose outline. When I’m writing the beginning of the second section, I don’t yet know what the beginning of the sixth section is. But I do have a general sense of where I’m headed. I always know what my last scene is. For some reason that’s the easiest thing. I always know what my last few paragraphs are, and I’m trying to get there as efficiently as possible.

You have all this information, particularly with something that’s a legal case: the trial, the child protective material. There’s a lot of stuff you’re not going to tell the reader. One section opens with you explaining “the most unsettling aspect” of the case against Hannah. When you write that, are you thinking of helping readers know where to focus?

That’s so funny that you focused on that. That was the section I had the most difficulty with. Her trial was a three-week-long trial. So just reading the transcripts of the three-week trial took me so long. There was so much information in that trial, a lot of it was extremely technical medical testimony. I struggled in how to present that to the reader – to do a blow-by-blow account with the trial with its dramatic moments wasn’t going to work in this case.

I probably spent more time on that paragraph that you just mentioned than anything else. Okay, we can’t go through every hour of the three-week-long trial, but what’s the most important thing for readers to take away from what happened at the trial? What lens should they view the trial through?

What really jumped out at me – and there were many lines from the trial I didn’t even get to use – but to say that Hannah was vilified at trial would be an understatement. It was every mother’s nightmare, I guess, to have every aspect of every decision she had made as a mother held up to scrutiny and made to look sinister. That’s what I hoped readers took away from the trial without getting too lost in the details.

I think a lot of people might think of the trial as the real potential for drama. Why not use the trial for drama and fold everything into that? Can you talk about when you would or wouldn’t do that?

This has been true with the Overton case, with the Graves case, and it’s about to be true with another piece I’m working on, in which another person was exonerated with DNA evidence. There is so much you can’t tell in a courtroom. There’s so much context you can provide in a magazine narrative, that for good reason you can’t present in a courtroom, but that still matters. Someone’s character, someone’s history over time, in this case with children, someone’s capacity for dealing with stress and difficult things, like Hannah did with Andrew – there’s so much you can present in a magazine story that you can’t at trial.

To me, when I go back now, having written the story, and read the trial transcript, it’s sort of like reading one fragment of the story. There’s so much that’s left out, there’s so much the jury doesn’t know. It would be too limiting to just tell a story through a trial. To me what’s most interesting is what gets left out of the trial.

Outside of the debates over her contact with Andrew, Hannah is so overwhelmingly a force for good in your story. Everybody who actually knew her said such positive things. Did you worry that would seem unrealistic?

What was challenging – and it’s rare that I’ve run into this to this extent – no one from the DA’s office would talk to me. No one at the police department would talk to me. So I knew heading into this story that whether I wanted it to be or not, that it ran the risk of being one-sided. I would have loved to have had quotes in there from the cop, from the prosecutor. I tried to quote them as much as I could from the record.

To me, what was so fascinating about this case was that people either viewed her as almost saintly or almost demonic. There was no gray with her. People either felt that she was the most wonderful mother ever, or that she was a child abuser and the worst of the worst, that she had murdered a child. That you could look at the same person and sometimes the same set of facts and come to two such different conclusions was so interesting to me.

One of the things I tried to do in the story was to show how all the little disparate details taken together, if you didn’t know the Overtons, looked bad: the bed sheets and the fire pit. There were a couple different things that all put together seemed very strange and seemed like this was a place where abuse could be happening. That duality, that perfect mother vs. evil mother – I’ve never really run into something like that before, and hopefully I presented each side as fully as possible.

You mentioned the people who wouldn’t talk to you, people who normally would. You had some people who backed off their involvement with the case or changed their mind about their role in it. Did this case have an unusual degree of that kind of reversal?

It was a very unusual degree of that. There were people who talked to me off the record who I obviously couldn’t quote in the story. But there were people who had been involved in this case who had made dramatic changes of opinion about this case.

You’re an investigative journalist, and you’re a storyteller. Whatever your intent, with these kind of stories, there’s almost an activist or advocacy effect that trails in their wake. How do you think about your role as a journalist in relation to activism or advocacy?

I think in both the story about Hannah and the story about Anthony Graves, the stories were better the more I pulled back. There was an early version of the Graves story that was an advocate’s draft, and it didn’t work. It was too obvious from the beginning what my thoughts about the case were. I tried, and I think I succeeded, with the Overton case to not make that mistake again, and to lay out the facts so that a reader could come to his or her own conclusion.

I think with the Overton case there are ways in which we can see that there were mistakes made. It’s clear the Overtons waited too long to take Andrew to the hospital, things along those lines. I don’t think they did so maliciously, but I thought it was important to explain to readers that his health had been deteriorating for a while before they took him to the hospital, that it was important not to smooth over the difficult facts of the case. I knew that some people would read this and think that an injustice had happened, and that other people would read this and think, “I wouldn’t have made those same decisions, and of all the cases out there, this isn’t one I’m going to feel sorry about.” So hopefully, it lays things out in a way that people can come to their own conclusions.

When you start to veer into advocacy, you can do your subject a disservice. If you show the warts, if you show the problems, I think that makes the strengths of the story better anyway. The reader knows, hopefully, that you’re being candid and telling them all the facts that you know.

One more thing – with the Graves story and the Overton story, with both of those stories, I had extensive letters, interviews, many, many hours from Anthony’s perspective in the Graves story and from Hannah’s perspective in the Overton story. In both those stories I waited until the last section for the reader to hear from them, and that was very intentional. The reason for that is, of course, if you go through those cases, they see themselves as innocent, and they narrate as such: “I had no idea why the police were there.” That’s not the way to take the reader through the case. You have to present things in a more clinical way before getting to what the subject of the story thinks.

You’re sort of resisting the scenic narrative, the most intimate version, which would have been through their eyes.

Which I could have done in both stories, which I could have done in great detail, but which I resisted because I thought that would be too much and that doesn’t give the reader all the information.

I suspect that a lot of editors giving general advice would say to find the most intimate perch you can, because that’s where you’ll have the most power.

The other things I’ve been spending a lot of time on the last couple of years have been oral histories of important moments in Texas history, like the Whitman shootings in 1966. I did an oral history from the perspective of the victims and people who were on campus that day. That is the exact opposite of what you and I are talking about; it’s nothing but what someone saw from their perspective, and the emotion of that moment, and that’s very gripping, too.

I’ve never really thought this out before, but in a story where someone’s guilt or innocence is in the balance, to me if you told the story from the perspective of the defendant the whole way through, it would be as misleading as telling it from the perspective of the prosecutor the whole way through. You have to somehow have a perfect medium, if you can, though I doubt you can. You have to present things to the reader almost as if they are the jurors, in a sense, but with more information, often, than the jurors received in the actual case.

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