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June 17 2013

18:34

Whitey Bulger: the Twitter trial narrative, by the Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen

The Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen isn’t just live-tweeting the epic Whitey Bulger trial, he’s telling a true Twitter narrative. We’ve Storified his version of today’s proceedings, from the “All rise” until 12:57 p.m., when testimony broke for the day. In case you haven’t been following: On the stand today was prosecution witness John Martorano, an ex-hit man who killed at least 20 people, spent only 12 years in prison and then turned on Bulger, declining a spot in the federal witness protection program. The Globe’s Shelley Murphy, John Ellement and Milton Valencia wrote:

0

Whitey Bulger

(Martorano) called (Bulger and and cohort Stephen ‘The Rifleman’ Flemmi) “my partners in crime, my best friends, my children’s godfathers.’’

Martorano said he decided to testify against Bulger, Flemmi, and corrupt FBI agent John Connolly after learning that Bulger and Flemmi were informants for the FBI, handled by Connolly, during their criminal exploits.

“After I found out they were informants, it sort of broke my heart,’’ Martorano testified. “They broke all trust that we had, all loyalty.’’

Kevin Cullen

Kevin Cullen

Today’s testimony also covered the nervous breakdown of a retired bookie “Dickie” O’Brien’s daughter, Tara, who once had to meet with Bulger and Flemmi about keeping her father’s business running. The Globe’s reporters are all live-blogging the trial, but have a look at how Cullen’s tweets hold up as a standalone Twitter narrative. There’s cumulative arc (onward pushes the story of how the hit man says the crime boss operated), plus dialogue, narrative tension, detail, description — pretty hard to pull off in a 132-character tweet. (The #Bulger and, usually, a space, eat eight.) The tweets are written. They have voice. You know you’re in the hands of a storyteller with:

Followed Indian Al’s Mercedes, pulled alongside and Johnny and Howie opened fire. “We gave him a broadside,” Johnny says.

And:

Nicky Femia got six machine guns for them in New York. Southie and Somerville split the guns. “Whitey and his gang.”

And:

“I walked in and shot him,” Johnny says. “We had to get someone to bury him.” Joe Mac and Jimmy Sims were the men for the job.

Cullen is tweeting from his iPad and emailed us a few minutes ago to say he’s been working mostly from the overflow press courtroom, “which has a camera that shows the witnesses and Whitey alternatively. It’s actually much better for my purposes to be in the overflow room, where I can sit at a table and tweet quicker and see more of the courtroom, and see the faces of the defendant and the witnesses and lawyers.”

Read our full Storify here:

Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 1.24.10 PM

 

Cullen is a Globe Metro columnist and an alum of the Foreign desk and Spotlight team, and worked on the investigative team whose 2003 coverage of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal won a Pulitzer Prize. He is the author, with Shelley Murphy, of Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt that Brought Him to Justice. He’s a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard. You can follow him at @GlobeCullen.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

March 29 2013

14:24

Inside “Snow Fall,” the New York Times multimedia storytelling sensation

Snow Fall,” the widely celebrated New York Times multimedia narrative on a deadly avalanche in Washington State, won a Peabody this week for being “a spectacular example of the potential of digital-age storytelling.” The project packaged a six-part story by Pulitzer finalist John Branch, accompanied by interactive graphics, video and character bios of the expert skiers and snowboarders caught in the danger. It also marked the Times’ foray into the e-publishing of long-form singles.

“Snow Fall” opens with an otherworldly video loop of snow blowing across a mountain slope—functioning as a photo that moves—and Branch’s action-oriented lede:

UnknownThe snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.

Snow shattered and spilled down the slope. Within seconds, the avalanche was the size of more than a thousand cars barreling down the mountain and weighed millions of pounds. Moving about 7o miles per hour, it crashed through the sturdy old-growth trees, snapping their limbs and shredding bark from their trunks.

The avalanche, in Washington’s Cascades in February, slid past some trees and rocks, like ocean swells around a ship’s prow. Others it captured and added to its violent load.

Somewhere inside, it also carried people. How many, no one knew.

This week, Branch walked an audience through the project—conception to clicks—at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. (For the thread, search #SnowFallUGA on Twitter.) Click through for Storyboard’s Storified version of Branch’s talk about the reporting, organization, buildout, intention and editing behind one of the most ambitious storytelling projects in Times history:

Screen shot 2013-03-27 at 12.48.09 PM

August 02 2012

15:21

“You will always have work, and it will be the best kind of work” — Richard Rhodes on writing (Mayborn 2012, vol. 2)

Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and of 23 other books, delivered one of the keynotes at this year’s Mayborn Conference for Literary Journalism. Here are five top takeaways from that address, followed by an edited transcript of his talk and a snippet from the Q-and-A session that followed.

Verity is the new workhorse. It carries all the freight of fiction but adds the density of fact. Robert Frost, the poet, once famously described writing free verse, cadenced voice with rhyme, as playing tennis with the net down. Verity raises the net and draws it taut, adding a challenge to the game that the game is better for.

The real poverty of the textbook school of writing is its apparent ignorance of the power of language to re-animate the world – the world of history, of technology, of science, of people, the natural world, whatever the subject might be. Stripping a text of its resonances, its rhetoric, of its performance of itself doesn’t make it clearer; it just makes it deader.

The book in your head may be the platonically ideal book you could write, while the book you do write may seem a poor beast indeed, Caliban to your ideal book’s Prospero. But the book you write is real. And when you finish, you can hold it in your hands. And when you’re ready, you can share it with others. The world will be a little warmer place as a result.

The work of writing is fundamental to all the many other forms that follow from it, whether printed books, digital books, theater, or television documentary and drama, and film and all their digital elaborations.

If you learn to write, learn to write well, learn to make people and events come alive in words whether fictionally or veritably. You will always have work, and it will be the best kind of work, work that uses, work that demands everything you’ve got. Who could ask for more? 

And the full talk:

So verity: Let’s begin with that.

In Standard English, verity means “truth,” of the Latin veritas.

Veritas was a Roman goddess. A pure, young thing. She was considered so elusive; she was believed to reside in the bottom of a sacred well.

I borrow the word ‘verity’ as a term of art to replace the term “nonfiction.” I think “nonfiction” as a designation of a whole broad field of writing is dismissive, which may be why this conference qualifies itself as concerning “literary nonfiction.”

Nonfiction as a term has no long heritage, which surprised me when I looked it up. In its first published reference, hyphenated, it appears in the annual reports of the Boston Public Library in 1867. I imagine a librarian trying to decide the other books besides fiction, in order to put them in another place in the library, came up with the term “nonfiction.”

Rhodes

I dislike the word because it designates the kind of writing we do with a negative: non-fiction, not fiction, (reminding) us that we nonfiction writers dwell in the swampy depths beneath poetry and fiction. Well, poetry’s a special case. I’ve written fiction and I’ve written verity, and I can say with confidence that verity is in no way fiction’s foe. It’s actually more challenging to write than fiction, because it adds to all the challenges of writing fiction a further challenge of building the elements of the real world. Elements with external reference. Fiction you can just make up. Verity you have to verify.

The joke is on the Olympians, however. Verity is coming to its kingdom, leaving poetry and fiction behind. Poetry, like firewood, once heated and lighted the world so that Darwin’s grandfather, for example, had Erasmus lay out his theory of evolution in the form of a book-length poem. But poetry became niche material a century or more ago. Fiction is bifurcating into popular and literary, and if the popular kind is coal, pungent and sulfurous, the literary kind is charcoal: relevant and clean but rather a Sunday recreation.

Now, verity is the new workhorse. It carries all the freight of fiction but adds the density of fact. Robert Frost, the poet, once famously described writing free verse, cadenced voice with rhyme, as playing tennis with the net down. Verity raises the net and draws it taut, adding a challenge to the game that the game is better for. To extract meaning from the real takes imagination. It takes wit to find, as the art of finding similarities in seemingly dissimilar things.

If verity is craft, fiction is witchcraft.

If verity is science, fiction is magic.

Nothing wrong with a little magic now and then, a little witchcraft. We all like to feel the hair rise on the back of our necks sometimes. But with change accelerating and the future spilling into the present like a flood, there is value and there is joy in weighing and testing and making sense. It’s not as if anything is lost writing verity. You still have to think and feel deeply. You still have to read between the lines. The best work, like the best love, should use everything you have. Verity, if you do it well, not only uses everything, it depends on it.

The sad, ugly change that followed when nonfiction was divided off from fiction was that verity was somehow devalued. Or maybe the delineation happened in school when history was condensed to textbooks but fiction was left beneath its covers to be read intact.

As a thought experiment, imagine if fiction were treated in the schoolbooks like verity, simplified, paraphrased, burglarized, stupefied. If I were a librarian, I would dump it off as non-verity, too. The assumption apparently was that verity is a sort of pudding, studded with raisins called facts, and that the facts could be extracted from the pudding and contextualized much more tidily and literally by the textbook authors. Who needs Gibbon to go on for six volumes about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? Who needs the journals of Lewis and Clark when a filling-station road map will do? Who needs Jefferson’s notes on Virginia when he doesn’t have all the facts straight? Who needs Ulysses S. Grant on the Civil War?

Narrative, the historians of the academy announced, was inherently flawed. How was it flawed?

Oh my God, it introduced into history the methods of fiction.

Narrative filled the gaps between facts, facts being defined as bits of information anchored in documents; narrative filled the gaps with structure, opinion, even speculation. It made history a conversation, a humanistic enterprise.

Writing is writing.

As a craft, it’s highly abstract. You’re not throwing clay. You’re not carving wood. You’re organizing verbal symbols into sequences that convey meaning. Considering how elusive meaning can be, considering how far down in the holy well sweet little veritas crouches, hidden. It’s a wonder readers make any sense of it at all. Truth be told, they often don’t.

By actual measure, the language level of most New York Times best sellers is that of an eighth-grade reader. That’s one way best sellers sort themselves out from other books.

We don’t have an obligation to write at the eighth-grade level, but given the long, narrowing channel that stretches from our experiences to prose, and from our prose to the reader’s brain, we are obliged to help readers understand in every way we can. We do that by controlling the variables as well as we know how. By variables, I don’t only mean dictionary definitions. Ninety-nine percent of all the words in the language are metaphors. They have natural histories and they accumulate meanings as they evolve. Some of those meanings drop off along the way but most of them remain intact. If you’re oblivious to that, you’re not likely to communicate what you think you mean to say. That’s the negative.

The positive is that controlling as much as you have the gifts and the skill to control adds power, resonance, depth. The real poverty of the textbook school of writing is its apparent ignorance of the power of language to re-animate the world – the world of history, of technology, of science, of people, the natural world, whatever the subject might be. Stripping a text of its resonances, its rhetoric, of its performance of itself doesn’t make it clearer; it just makes it deader.

That’s what I mean when I said the historians of the academy put on their rubber aprons when they espoused a pseudoscientific historiography. They turned from restoring life to dead texts to autopsying them. Which means they turned from talking to the rest of us, to talking among themselves.

From time to time, I teach a two-hour master class at Stanford for students preparing to write their senior dissertations in international relations. In the advance of class, I tell them to send me several pages of their writing to review. I pencil-edit their samples to the standard to which I hold my own writing, and then we talk about them. I’m continually amazed at how few students, even at the senior level of a first-rate university, are aware that they use a fictional voice when they’re writing. They think, evidently, the voice in which they narrate their dissertations is their own voice, the voice of the self-talk that goes on inside their heads, the voice of their consciousness. But anyone who has ever gone through the exercise of actually transcribing his self-talk directly knows that it’s a mishmash full of half-thoughts, isolated words, sentence fragments, all the shorthand and code and private references we use to save time and energy when we’re mentally processing something.

Students I work with don’t seem to make that connection. They imagine they’re thinking directly onto the page, like the brainwave systems under development that will allow fighter pilots to operate their planes hand-free just with their thoughts. In consequence of this misapprehension, my students think style, point of view, rhetorical level and so on are basically decorative issues, issues that for some unknown reason seem to engage their instructors passionately but issues that have nothing to do with the serious business of putting their sure, unalloyed thoughts onto paper. Needless to say, my editing of their writing samples is usually quite a shock.

The truth is: Writing is translation, among other things. It’s translation because the rather alien, multi-dimensional, multi-sensorial, associative, only-partly-conscious mental processes that precede it are far too scattered and fugitive to make sense to anyone but yourself, and even yourself only listens by fits and starts. You have to wade into that glorious slough, start pulling up all the tangles of green underwater goodness, discard the dross, sort and shape and select and, yes, stupefy, to turn some of what’s in your head into those verbal symbols on the page that replicate something in the mind of the average passing stranger.

What’s in your head is seemingly infinitely richer than what you finally get down on the page. I think that’s why some people never actually get the writing done. They have a dream of a book in their head, and every attempt to write it down feels impoverished. The difference used to bother me until I thought about what the tradeoff was. The book in your head may be the platonically ideal book you could write, while the book you do write may seem a poor beast indeed, Caliban to your ideal book’s Prospero. But the book you write is real. And when you finish, you can hold it in your hands. And when you’re ready, you can share it with others. The world will be a little warmer place as a result. You’ll have added an invaluable bit of organized intelligence to the dissolving world. That’s the trade-off. It’s worth it, believe me, I’ve done it now for more than 40 years, across 26 books and several hundred magazine articles and book reviews. The real, you can hold in your arms. The real trumps the ideal, any day of the week.

It’s hard work, the best kind. Writing takes everything you can bring to it. Doing it well requires everything you’ve got – every gift, every skill, every sudden insight, every experiment, guess, throw of the dice, flight of fancy, and every trick of the trade.

Of course, I don’t mean making up the facts. I’m not of the school that believes embroidering your life history to spice up your memoir is virtuous. God knows memory is unreliable enough. Verity differs from fiction in that its facts can be checked with external reference. But that’s the only way, I would argue, that the two forms differed where the process of making them are concerned.

The opening of a book is an important moment when you hope to engage the reader’s passing attention long enough to draw her in. You have to set the scene and bring it alive and to some extent; you have to establish the level of rhetoric you intend to use throughout the book. If you write from beginning to end as I do, you may also be experimenting with the rhetorical level, and behind it with the voice you need to find to tell the story.

We will need all the skill we can muster in the years ahead. The practical world of publishing is changing with the advent of visual technologies, change that will be as revolutionary as the change that came to the world when Gutenberg’s invention of the movable type and all this minutiae devising that made books small enough to carry.

It isn’t at all clear to me how the research and writing of long-form texts will be supported. So far, print publishers have responded to the competition to visual by reducing advances to authors, making it increasingly difficult for independent writers without private means to find the time to write. In its panic of declining book sales, the publishing industry seems to be going the way of the film industry, which I have heard recently described as, and I quote, “now actually destroying itself” – this observer goes on – “because it’s harder to get financing and audience, companies are competing to make bigger, costlier films while eliminating risk, which is why ever more movies are based on intellectual properties.” In other words, they’re sequels.

The book counterpart to this observation is the increasing flow of advances to established best-selling writers and celebrity books, while advances to midlist writers have been cut by half or more. If a book proposal is even funded in the first place, as a midlist author my own work would hardly have been possible across these past 40 years without foundation grants, often usually from the Alfred P. Sloane Foundation in New York, bless its name, in my writing about science and technology. Not many foundations make book grants, however. And those that do necessarily limit themselves to books in specific subject areas. I might’ve written about many other book subjects in my career. One reason I’ve written so much about science and technology is that foundation grants have supported that work.

I don’t know the answer to this new fundamental, economic challenge. I bring it up in part to bond us together because the test of true journalism in a writer, I’ve observed across the years, is that when you get together with other writers, you don’t discuss actual literary matters. You bitch about your publisher.

This much I do know: The work of writing is fundamental to all the many other forms that follow from it, whether printed books, digital books, theatre, or television documentary and drama, and film and all their digital elaborations.

If you learn to write, learn to write well, learn to make people and events come alive in words whether fictionally or veritably. You will always have work, and it will be the best kind of work, work that uses, work that demands everything you’ve got. Who could ask for more? 

Q-and-A with audience:

Q: What writers have you found valuable? What has fed you?

Rhodes: I always have to think back to the particular best that other writers have sourced from me. Once you get into writing books based on documentary research, you spend 99.9 percent of your time reading those documents and previous books. I like to joke that books are made up of pulped-up previous books, and in a certain sense, they are. But as an impact over the years, the books that move me most deeply and really engage me and got me started in writing were, in particular, early on the works of Faulkner. Faulkner, Moby Dick and Herman Melville’s work; I was really amazed at Ralph Waldo Emerson, of all people. One of the jobs I had along the way to becoming a full-time writer was doing public relations for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, where I grew up and lived until I was 50 years old. We we developed a line of little gift books and they were all exactly 64 pages long, which made for some interesting editing. Most of all: Whitman. I still am just dazzled when I read his work. I keep saying to myself, as I’m sure every writer in this room does when they encounter work of a certain level, “How the hell do you do that?” And with Whitman especially because it sounds so conversational, seems so, so easy to do, and obviously, would still be with us and still resonating for us.

Q: One of the hallmarks in your work in science has been nuclear annihilation. One of our writers, Beth Langton, went out and spent some time with you, and she came away, after talking with you for several days, (with the idea) that you were trying to make your own sense of annihilation, that that was part of your motivation. I was wondering if you could talk about that: You grew up with this cruel stepmother who constantly inflicted terror in your life.

Rhodes: My wife is a clinical psychologist, and she likes to point out that her and her colleagues became psychologists by accident. They had issues, y’know? They were interested in exploring. I’ve only written one book-length biography, the book Audubon. Within the histories I’ve written are many biographies, are people, particularly scientists given what I’ve written about. It seems to me almost universal that they have their characteristic life preoccupations in place by the time they’re 12 years old, or maybe 16. Certainly that was true for the scientists I wrote about, and of course it was true for me. My mother committed suicide in the heart of the depression when I was a 13-month-old infant. And my father tried to raise my older brother and I in boarding houses in Kansas City, Mo.; he did a pretty good job until he married, eventually, a woman who decided that we were a good source of day labor and night labor. We didn’t get enough to eat, and we went through the usual kinds of mistreatment that children often go through in the world. We were lucky, I was lucky; my brother, a brave 13-year-old, went to the police when she was threatening him with a baseball bat one day. And even though it was 1949, when there was little social support in place in the United States to deal with children under those circumstances, we lucked out. We met a social worker later who handled our case, and she said, “We really didn’t know what to do with you boys. You had two parents. Which was definitely the standard at the time. But you were both so obviously starved.” Which we were. So we went, by luck, to one of those old farm schools, a private home for boys, and lived there for the next six years, until I finished high school. It was not a psychologically oriented institution, quite the opposite really; it was a farm. I lived in the natural world and planted things and saw them grow up, saw the cycle of life, learned to do rural things like butchering animals, which is a pretty shocking thing to learn. But even that had context for us, so it was a very healing institution to be a part of. Then I got a nice college scholarship and went off to my life.

So of course my preoccupations are with human violence and where it comes from and most of all what can we do about it and how do we survive it? And I suppose the most large-scale violence we as a species have ever been able to learn to inflict on ourselves is nuclear weapons, but I’ve also written a book about what makes individuals violent, based on the work of a criminologist I wrote about in the book, whose model of violence developments seemed so robust and well-supported by evidence. He interviewed about 200 violent criminals for an average of 10 hours each in prisons in California, where he was doing graduate work at Berkeley. I decided to see if it would fit another context and then wrote a book about the SS-Einsatzgruppen group, who were a group of men who shot Jewish victims into bits all over Eastern Europe; about 1 1/2 million people were killed that way.

So I looked into violence. All of this, I say somewhere in my book: You think you’re choosing a different subject. You think you’re writing something totally disconnected from the last book you wrote, but it all somehow bubbles up anyway. We really cannot escape our characteristic childhood preoccupations.

Einstein at the age of 5 was both fascinated and terrified by the question, “Where does the light go?” Later in life he said: “It’s really because I didn’t grow up.” I sort of remained a child, asking questions about these deep fundamental questions.

I’ve just turned 75, and I feel like I’m way beyond those years. But right now, I’m feeling like it’s time to get that big book on human violence done.

I used to try to write everything in this sort of 19th-century English historian style. Not everything of course, but the history I was working on. I deliberately chose that style for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, because I felt like it was a very large theme and deserved to be treated with that scale of language, if you will, to be embedded in that tradition so that the reader would feel she was reading something on the scale of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or whatever. But when I got to Audubon for example, writing a biography, I didn’t want it to be ponderous. Audubon was a wonderful, charming, light-footed man who could sing and used to teach dancing on the plantations of the Mississippi River and New Orleans. He could play the flute and the guitar, he could braid hair; he was just the most remarkable guy. To inflict on him ponderous periodic sentences didn’t seem appropriate, so what I did was, whenever my impulse was to hit the semicolon, I hit the period, and it worked very well.

In fact, I would almost go so far as to say you could style a narrative with something that simple. I also decided with The Making of the Atomic Bomb I would not use any contractions, so there are no don’ts or can’ts or ain’ts or whatever. I let everything go in its full range of language. But that’s not true with other books. Other books are written in different ways. The language in your book needs to be appropriate to the book you’re writing.

Don’t miss our other Mayborn coverage, including the talk, on voice, between GQ’s Jeanne Marie Laskas and Sports Illustrated’s Thomas Lake, moderated by Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery. Tomorrow: a final recap, featuring Pulitzer-winning author Isabel Wilkerson.

April 24 2012

14:43

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

Just shoot me now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 20 2012

14:44

Harding in the house: a Pulitzer-winning novelist on rhythm, revision, rejection and a hundred other things

We promote narrative nonfiction here at Storyboard but occasionally look outside the genre for storytelling inspiration. Paul Harding, who won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel “Tinkers,” visited our Nieman Foundation headquarters the other day in collaboration with the Harvard Writers at Work lecture series. He spent an hour and a half talking creativity with a standing-room-only audience of Nieman fellows and Harvard undergraduates, graduate students and faculty.

Nieman fellow Anna Griffin moderated the discussion. In keeping with this week’s Pulitzer theme, here’s the conversation, along with an excerpted transcript, edited for clarity and brevity, followed by an interactive index for the entire event. Enjoy! 

Griffin: It is a distinct pleasure to moderate this conversation with Paul Harding. Paul is an author, a teacher, a rock star. He grew up on the North Shore, graduated from U-Mass, has an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and, according to the Internet, which is never wrong, is a first cousin of figure skater Tonya Harding.

(laughter)

Griffin: Is that not – is that not –

(laughter)

Harding: No, that’s not true.

(laughter)

Griffin: He has redeemed the Harding name twice, first as a drummer with the 1990s (band) Cold Water Flat, which if you went to college in the ’90s, which a few of us in the room did, you probably heard play quite a bit on campus radio; and then as the author of a little Cinderella story of a book, “Tinkers,” which is kind of a tone poem, almost, about life in New England. It sat in a drawer for three years, was bought by a boutique publisher affiliated with NYU medical school, had a first run of 3,500 copies, and then won the Pulitzer Prize, which is the way it works for everybody.

(laughter)

Griffin: He is now finishing up on his second novel, (“Enon”), which, shockingly, did not spend time in a drawer for any length of time and will be published next spring by Random House. Paul’s gonna read a few things and then we’re gonna talk about writing, and then we’re gonna throw it open to the room for questions.

Harding: Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be here. You know I’ve read from “Tinkers” about seven million thousand times by now, so I figured I’d read a little bit from “Tinkers” and then give you a little bit from the novel that’s gonna be coming out next spring, and then just a little two-page self-contained piece, so it’s gonna be a buffet today. And then I’ll be delighted to have a conversation.

So “Tinkers” is about a guy who was a sort of peddler; he’s the tinker of the title, and he abandons his family. “Tinkers” is set in northern Maine in the ’20s and the protagonist abandons his family when he finds out that his wife is gonna have him committed to an asylum because he has epilepsy. His epilepsy is so disruptive to the family that the best thing (his wife) can think of to do is to have him committed. So he leaves the family. So this is just a brief passage, a couple of days after he’s had a grand mal seizure.

(Harding reads.)

Harding's readings copy (see "marginalia," in index below). Photo courtesy Harding.

Griffin: “Tinkers” began as a family story and became a short story that was part of your grad school application –

Harding: Mm hmm, yeah.

Griffin: – and then was turned into the novel. Talk about the writing process, to take something that’s like family lore and turn it into a short story. What was the short story and how did you expand that into the novel?

Harding: First of all, the basic premises of “Tinkers” are all based on stories that my maternal grandfather told me and my cousins and my brother about his life growing up in northern Maine. But I wasn’t interested in family history. I wasn’t interested in autobiography. It would be difficult for me to be less interested in autobiography. I’m not interested in myself; I’m interested in the fact that I am a self. So I just started writing about these family legends. The original short story version of “Tinkers” was 15 or 16 pages long, and it had actually what, if you look at the novel, is the beginning, the middle and the end of the novel. The whole story was there. And if you’ve looked at “Tinkers” it’s pretty elliptical and nonlinear, so if you can imagine 15 pages – it was impossibly dense and impossibly elliptical and obscure.

So enough people gave me encouragement to expand it. After I left the Iowa Writers Workshop I was fortunate enough to get a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which is a seven-month fellowship, to work on the book. So I spent seven months toiling and worrying that I was making a perfectly decent short story into a terrible novel. And so it was just a matter of expanding.

Griffin: So the original short story, it was George, Howard – it was both –

Harding: Yeah, yeah, the whole thing was there.

Griffin: Was it tiny font? How’d you get that into 16 pages?

Harding: I don’t know. I write in such a haphazard manner. It’s totally intuitive and fortuitous. It’s improvisational. It is sort of circumstantial, in a way, but in a way I write the way I used to drum. If I’m playing drums I just start to do whatever comes over the wire. Same with writing, you know? And I just kind of bop around the story. In some ways, I’m impatient – I wanted to know what the end of the story was and to move around the boundaries of it.

Griffin: You don’t outline.

Harding: No, no.

Griffin: On the Internet are scenes of you with index cards and napkins –

Harding: Catastrophe. Just absolute panic the whole time.

Griffin: You’re kind of a crazy man aren’t you?

(laughter)

Griffin: And then you tape them together, staple them together.

Harding: Yeah with “Tinkers” I literally did that. It’s funny, because I just finished the first draft of “Enon” and booked a couple of weeks at the Fine Arts Work Center, so I went back down to Provincetown and damned if I didn’t end up on the floor again with the whole novel, thinking, “How’s this gonna work? How’s this gonna come together?” And I think it did, but who knows. It’s such a strange thing. Being a fiction writer is not efficiency. I have to go through these incredible difficulties in order to fully realize the book, at least these first two. I hope that I’ll get better at it. Though it doesn’t seem to be a matter of getting better at it. It just seems to be this integral part of the process.

Griffin: How do you guard against getting so far into the story and looking up and going, “Oh, I’m trying so many different things I’m losing my reader?”

Harding: I never ever think about a reader. Ever.

Griffin: The readers love that.

(laughter)

Harding: No, no, no, no! Because on the deepest level it’s the deepest way to be solicitous of the reader. You just trust yourself that you’re writing something that you’d like to read. The problem with – this is not true for journalism or for genre-based fiction, but the worst thing you can do is try to write a novel in anticipation of people, first of all, who won’t like it. Don’t ever write your fiction for people who won’t like it. Just give yourself wholeheartedly to it and trust that the reader will like what you like. Because otherwise you don’t pay attention to the story; you pay attention to these voices behind your shoulder saying, “Oh well she didn’t have blue eyes in the first chapter.” And it’s like, a copyeditor will get that. That sort of thing. So it’s improvisational. So you just give yourself over wholeheartedly to the story. With “Tinkers” it’s 192 pages, it’s like 40,000 words. I cut 25,000 words, cut like a quarter of it.

Griffin: What did you cut?

Harding: The mother of the family, who’s gonna have her husband sent away, there’s a whole section of the book that was just all about her life before she was married, and I just couldn’t get it to work.

Griffin: How do you feel now about that?

Harding: Sad. I feel very loyal to her.

Griffin: Because one of the things that strikes me is that she’s not an overwhelmingly sympathetic character.

Harding: Yeah you know it’s funny. It’s one of these things – this is another reason why you don’t think about the reader, as it were, because the reader that you imagine – you don’t know who’s gonna look at your book. You have to trust your subject; you have to trust your characters and let them elaborate themselves, who they really are. A lot of the stuff that I wrote for this woman, Kathleen, that ended up on the cutting room floor, was trying to make her a sympathetic character, quote unquote, but for one thing if you ever met the woman on whom she’s based you’d think she’s an angel. The woman she’s based on is much worse than (Kathleen) is. You know, I had this strange experience – I was in Cape Town for a book festival and talking to a South African writer, and Kathleen was their favorite character in the book because she was like a strong African mother raising children in the township. They thought she was wonderful. So it was this sort of: Be loyal to your characters, be loyal to the story, be loyal to the subject – it possesses its own integrity.

Griffin: One of the things we talk about in journalism is that when you’re writing about something complicated you want to get simple – simple language, simple sentences. I’ve seen in interviews you talk about how because a lot of “Tinkers” is fairly abstract and it’s very sort of modernist – a lot of things happening in George and Howard’s heads – you talk about writing in concrete nouns and verbs.

Harding: When you’re writing fiction, one of the main virtues of fiction is that it be imminent. It’s about imminent things, it’s about action, it’s about things happening in this world. And one of the practical problems with “Tinkers” is that most of the book is about a guy who’s just lying on a bed like this. I realized I was going to have to find a way to embody a lot of things just to keep the book anchored in the real world, just so it wouldn’t lapse into rhetorical or theoretical language. But that specificity and precision and concrete writing is – that’s different than complexity. I do want to write with maximum complexity. I want to write books that accommodate the complexity of the human mind. I want to light up people’s brains.

Griffin: Talk about how you use language when you’re doing that, and ensure that you don’t lose your readers.

Harding: Again, I’m not thinking about the poor reader. To me, again, it’s all mutually reinforcing. To me the greatest style is precision. The way you don’t lose the reader is, you use language as precisely as possible. I taught writing a lot, and it was one of these counterintuitive things where writers would make things shorter and they would make them more simple because, “Oh, I don’t want to take up too much of the reader’s mind,” but that’s your job as a writer. You’re supposed to take up the reader’s time. So you presume somebody who wants complicated, beautiful, intricate, thoughtful, precise writing. You presume that readers are reading your book.

Griffin: As we heard in some of those excerpts you have a marvelous brain for detail and you write these lyrical paragraphs that are jam-packed with precise details. I have a friend who loves “Tinkers” who says, “This guy has more ways to describe how wind moves through the trees than a botanist.”

Harding: That’s a nice compliment.

Griffin: Are you out there writing down details as you see them? Are you walking through the woods taking notes? Or is that all just imagination at play?

Harding: I guess I kind of am. Like the landscape, the New England landscape particularly, I’ve spent tons of time up on the North Shore, just wandering around the Audubon sanctuary. I actually just bought a house that’s smack dab near the Ipswitch River Sanctuary so that I could be closer to the birch bark and the creek water with the sunlight in it. You know. Part of being a good writer, too, is just developing the muscles that have to do with being able to pay attention, and to sustain attention. The quality of attention – the closest possible attention for the longest amount of time so that when you climb down into your world you just sort of sit there very quietly and you watch and you listen and you smell and you just take down all the details. It’s imagining things as elaborately as you possibly can.

In my case, I’m interested in the people, the experience of being conscious. So I don’t write about far-flung places usually; I don’t write about remote times. I write about things that are right at my fingertips because I think of it as sort of the medium through which and into which I can precipitate the characters. So whenever I write about landscape, and if I can write about wind in 15 million different ways, it’s not because I’m writing about wind per se, it’s always because I’m writing about how a character experiences the wind. Character is always being refracted through description. What was the question?

(laughter)

Griffin: No, it’s very much like “Tinkers.” We went this way and we got there. A lot of beginning fiction instruction, like a lot of long-form narrative instruction that we talk about here, is all about scene – scenes upon scenes upon scenes.

Harding: Yeah.

Griffin: What would you say to a student who says, “So I want to write this novel, and it’s sort of this family story and I’m gonna change point of view most of the time, and I’m gonna change tense multiple times, and I’m gonna play with chronology, and I’m not gonna outline, and I’m gonna take all these pieces of paper and staple them together” – what would you –

Harding: God help you.

(laughter)

Harding: There’s all sorts of different very, very germane issues to writing, but one of them is that when you’re teaching writing, particularly fiction writing, one of the great temptations that as a teacher you have to resist, and that as a student you have to resist the influence of, is to present your process as normative. So much of grad school is: You just learn to be like your professor. You feel like there’s no independent thinking; you just inherit this datum. For example, one of my mentors was Marilyn Robinson. She has to write her books from the very first sentence of the very first chapter, and she has to write the book from start to finish, and if she screws up anywhere along the way she throws out the whole novel and starts again. And if I had taken that as the way that you have to write a novel, I’d be a plumber right now. The best writing comes from you consulting your own experience, not consulting an outside authority.

A lot of what I tried to do, as a teacher, was to get students to cultivate their own intellectual and aesthetic autonomy so that nobody could tell them what they were doing was right or wrong. I mean within reason – you have to edit, you have to have logic; you have to get them to be consistent with themselves. It also has to do with reading as widely and deeply as possible. Your writing can only be as good as the best stuff you’ve read. The other temptations with teaching writing – writing is tough and it’s wild and it’s feral and it’s dangerous, all these dramatic things, and the temptation is always to tame it and domesticate it so that it will be easy to teach. So you chop it all up and you’re like, “Today we’re gonna talk about character,” and “Today we’re gonna talk about point of view,” and “Here’s the third person.” And really those are just tools, you know?

Griffin: And some of (it) is knowing the rules so that you can break the rules.

Harding: Absolutely. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got, it was as I was leaving the last conference I had with Marilyn Robinson after my two years at Iowa. You know, I felt like I had the tiara, the roses – like, “Ah, now I’ve graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop.” I was leaving her office and she called out, she said, “Oh Paul, one more thing.” I said, “Yes, Marilyn.” She said, “You really should learn how to write grammatically correct English.”

(laughter)

Harding: I was like, “Grammar-schmammer.” But precisely. Because you need to know how to modulate and move around that way. Another reason that “Tinkers” does that is because it’s largely interior, you know. I’m not interested in plot. God bless plot, but I’m not interested in it. I’m interested in character, and plot emerges out of character. I’m just interested in consciousness. And so – I don’t know how far this metaphor works but you have these personal metaphors and analogies that you use to get you through your day – I think of plot as Newtonian physics. It’s mechanical. But I think of the mind, once you get into a character’s mind and it’s interior, I think of the mind as quantum. It’s supra-luminary. It just moves instantly. It’s instantaneous influence or whatever it’s called in quantum physics. Because that’s how consciousness works. So a book like “Tinkers” can be tougher to sort of catch the wave on, as it were, because it doesn’t work mechanically, it doesn’t work plot wise. But there’s a character-logical logic to it.

Griffin: I might argue – it’s your book so feel free to disagree – but the plot of “Tinkers” is pretty simple and straightforward. It’s everything else that informs the plot that’s important.

Harding: Yeah. Well, I just started with a very simple – what I find compelling are just those circumstances in which people find themselves that are actually impossible. Suddenly what you find is impossible is the case in your life. And so the very first thing I wrote in “Tinkers” – there’s a scene where Howard, the tinker, suddenly becomes conscious of the fact that instead of turning into his driveway or wherever his house is, he’s actually gone past his house. And he realizes that that means he is leaving his family. And I just remember the first day of writing it just thinking: “If he’d allowed himself to be conscious of it, (the act) would’ve been impossible, because it would just be too terrible to leave your family.” So I built that kind of double consciousness for him. And the reason I wrote about in the second book – it’s about a father losing his only child – is because that seems to me impossible. And I know people who have suffered losses like that, and I see them survive and stay beautiful, kind, generous, merciful, loving people, and I just do not know how they could do it. I don’t want to write about anything in which anything less than everything is at stake. Why bother making art?

Griffin: One more question and we’ll throw it to the crowd. Was the process on “Enon” any different from the process on “Tinkers?”

Harding: It was very fascinating because with all the stuff that happened with “Tinkers” – you know, I had this perfect record of non-publication and perfect obscurity with “Tinkers,” so I was able to work on it for 10 years. And so now I have written a novel that is a little bit more than twice as long as “Tinkers” in a little bit less than a third of the time it took to write “Tinkers.” So in that way it was interesting to see if I could compress all that work into three years. Turns out I can, but that’s why I’m ready to jump out of my socks right now, because it’s just been so intense.

And it’s been fascinating to see in retrospect what I did in “Tinkers” that was real process and what was sort of sheer ineptitude. One of the strangest things about writing the second (novel): Just because of the things that happened with “Tinkers,” the Pulitzer and stuff, I went from zero to 1,000 miles an hour in an instant, so I wrote most of “Enon” in hotel rooms and on airplanes. So that was really weird. I had to learn how to put the blinders on. Luckily, though, when “Tinkers” won the Pulitzer I had already sold “Enon” to Random House based on the first 50 pages of it. So I knew that Random House didn’t just love me for my Pulitzer. And it turns out the editor who bought “Enon” bought it without having read “Tinkers.” So that was just what I’d been holding onto: This book has its own integrity. Because “Tinkers,” first novel – everybody’s just like, “Oh, God, the second book by definition has to suck, right?” No pressure.

(laughter)

Griffin: But it doesn’t suck, right?

Harding: I hope not. Who knows. Fortunately what I’m learning, too, is that it’s not my job to like my own books. It’s my job to be like: You’ve gotta be better. But because of this worldly phenomenon that occurred with “Tinkers,” “Tinkers” exerts a huge gravitational pull, and so what I had to keep doing, whenever I was stuck with “Enon” I had to resist the temptation to drift over to “Tinkers” and use what worked and import it back into “Enon.” “Enon” had to have its own critical mass, its own center of gravity, its own integrity. Sometimes what came out on the page looked to me radically different than “Tinkers,” so I second-guessed myself. For example, people talk in “Enon.” There’s dialogue in “Enon.” And there’s quotation marks, you know? I thought, “I don’t have dialogue. I don’t use quotation marks.” But it was one of those things where you have to submit yourself to the work.

Griffin: Part of what’s unique about “Tinkers” is that so much of it feels experimental, almost like a jazz riff, and I can see that being a benefit of 10 years to work on something. Does the truncated time frame and the fact that you’re writing it for Random House change any of it? Does it put any additional pressure on you to not worry about readers?

Harding: No, the editor I’ve been working with at Random House has been absolutely wonderful. She bought the book two or three years ago – like I went and had lunch with her and we sort of convinced each other that we were right for each other, that sort of thing, sort of the editor coming a’ courtin’, and once we decided to do the book together I didn’t hear from her for three years. She just sort of left me alone. My agent would once in a while say, “How’s it going?” and I’d say, “Fine.” But she just laid off. And I presented her the book two or three weeks ago and she said, “Great. There’s maybe 10 or 15 pages of stuff I want to do.” “Enon” is written in first person, as opposed to “Tinkers,” which goes all over the place and there are just some inherent difficulties with first person, like the rest of the real world can go away when there’s just one character in mind, so it’s a little bit of – I just have to do some objective world stuff, 10 or 15 pages of that.

Griffin then opened the floor to questions. Discussed:

Associated Press, the, time stamp 01:23:29
Car chase, unlikelihood of, 00:50:29
Chamber music, pleasantness of, 01:01:15
Characters, whininess of, 00:53:51; writing from, 00:53:30
Colonial Mexico, 01:11:02
Coltrane, John, 01:01:23
Conroy, Frank, life-altering vision of, 01:09:10
Consciousness, fascination with, 00:58:05
Cutlass Ciera station wagon, 01:20:57
Delta Delta Delta sorority, 01:21:30
Drumming, as metaphor for controlling plot, 01:05:12
Duct tape, 01:20:57
Electron microscope, 1:00:10
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, influence of, 01:03:19
Flatness, handling of, 00:53:10;
Fuentes, Carlos, 01:07:25
Fundamental principle of composition, secret of, 00:54:24
Harvard Extension School, teaching background in, 00:55:53
History, grasp of, 00:58:05
Imagination, 1:00:10
Influences, 01:03:02
Iowa Writers Conference, 01:06:50
Irving, John, 01:02:52
James, Henry, influence of, 01:09:29
Jones, Elvin, sick drumming skills of, 01:05:10
Kant, 00:58:22
Kitteridge, Olive, 01:22:10
Language, blissful imperfection of, 01:20:06
Life, ideal description of, 00:57:00
Magical realism, influence of, 01:07:25
Mann, Thomas, influence of, 01:09:29
Marginalia, tendency to commit, 00:57:08
McCracken, Elizabeth, “mind-bogglingly wonderful” teaching skills of, 01:10:03
Mozart, 01:01:19
Muse, necessary rejection of, 00:56:10
Naps, dreams of, 00:57:19
Perception, writerly use of, 00:58:05
Philosophy, interest in, 00:58:17
Plot, disinterest in, 00:51:12
Potter, Harry, 01:18:32
Reading, importance of, 01:09:22
Regatta Bar, 01:05:17
Rejection, dealing with, 00:50:00; William Faulkner handling of, 00:51:27
Revision, dangers of, 01:19:18; endless application of, 01:15:20
Rituals, 00:55:31
Robinson, Marilyn, influence of, 01:07:48
“Sound and the Fury, The” stubborn creation of, 00:51:27
Stevens, Wallace, influence of, 01:03:24
Time, fluidity of, 00:58:29; obsession with, 01:04:43
Unemployment, pre-Pulitzer experience with, 01:20:48
Unsworth, Barry, influence of, 01:10:03
Wharton, Edith, influence of, 01:09:29
Woolf, Virginia, influence of, 01:09:29
Writing, difficulty of, 01:11:53; learnable nature of, 01:11:48

*The Nieman Foundation’s co-sponsor for this event, the Harvard Writers at Work lecture series, is supported by the Harvard College Writing Program, the Harvard Extension School’s master’s degree program in journalism, the Harvard Review and the Harvard College Program in General Education.

13:58

This Week in Review: Digital journalism’s big Pulitzer win, and ebook concerns shift to Amazon

The Pulitzers and HuffPo’s arrival: The Pulitzer Prizes were awarded this week, accompanied as usual by tears and impromptu speeches in newsrooms around the country (documented well by Jeff Sonderman on Storify). On the meta-level, the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple criticized the awards’ secrecy, but Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review offered a defense of having such publicly celebrated industry awards in the first place, arguing that during an era when news organizations have become so adept at measuring journalism quantity, the Pulitzers are one of the few barometers left for journalism quality.

As for this year’s awards themselves, the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder pointed out that while the Pulitzers are usually dominated by a few heavy hitters, this year brought several feel-good stories. One of those was the Pulitzer won by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the once-great paper that has had an extremely rough last several years and was sold yet again for a bargain-basement price just a few weeks ago. Poynter’s Steve Myers reported on the award’s impact, which one reporter called “a wonderful burst of hope.”

Another remarkable Pulitzer winner was Sara Ganim of the Patriot News of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who at 24 became one of the youngest Pulitzer winners ever for her reporting on the Penn State sex abuse scandal. Poynter’s Mallary Tenore explained how she took the lead on the story at two different papers. Not all the news was heartwarming, though — there was no prize for editorial writing. Erik Wemple explained why (nothing personal!), but Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan loved the decision, calling editorials “a worthless anachronism in this modern media age.”

But the biggest theme in this year’s Pulitzers was the prominence of online journalism: The online-only Huffington Post and the very online-centric Politico both won prizes, which the Lab’s Adrienne LaFrance called a victory for their fast-paced, aggressive editorial models. Additionally, Twitter played a big role in the tornado coverage that earned Alabama’s Tuscaloosa News a Pulitzer, as Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman detailed.

Of those online-oriented Pulitzers, the Huffington Post’s drew the bulk of the attention. HuffPo’s Michael Calderone and Poynter’s Mallary Tenore both told the story behind HuffPo’s award-winning story, and in an AP story, Ken Doctor called it an arrival of sorts for HuffPo, while VentureBeat’s Jolie O’Dell called it a win for quality blogs everywhere. PaidContent’s Staci Kramer said HuffPo’s win shows the old guard has finally learned that the work, not the medium, is the message. Both GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and NYU prof Jay Rosen (in Calderone’s article) pointed out that this isn’t as much of a “new media vs. old media” win as people might think; traditional news orgs and digital outfits have been looking more and more alike for quite some time now.

There was also quite a bit of other talk about HuffPo’s model this week, though most of it wasn’t directly related to the Pulitzers. Media blogger Andrew Nusca expressed his frustration with the parade of “awful posts and shameless slideshows” that populates most of HuffPo and its competitors, and the Columbia Journalism Review published an in-depth story on how HuffPo developed its distinctive model and why it works. Meanwhile, the Lab’s Justin Ellis wrote on HuffPo’s refusal to employ false balance when covering climate change and Folio reported on its coming magazine iPad app.

Amazon under fire: A week after the U.S. Justice Department sued Apple and five major book publishers for antitrust violations (paidContent’s Laura Hazard Owen has a good description of what it means for readers), most of the attention shifted to the biggest ebook player not involved in the lawsuit: Amazon. The New York Times reported on a small publisher that has removed its titles from Amazon out of frustration that the retailer’s low prices were undercutting its own booksellers.

CNET’s Greg Sandoval talked to other small publishers who see Amazon as a much bigger threat than Apple, and at the Daily, Timothy Lee urged the U.S. government to change copyright law to allow Amazon’s competitors to convert Kindle books to be compatible with other devices. The New York Times’ David Carr gave the most ominous warning of Amazon’s below-cost ebook pricing’s effect on the publishing industry, saying that with the suit, “Now Amazon has the Justice Department as an ally to rebuild its monopoly and wipe out other players.”

Novelist Charlie Stross went into the economics of Amazon’s ebook strategy, comparing it to big-box retailers that wipe out mom-and-pop stores with their extremely low pricing: “Amazon has the potential to be like that predatory big box retailer on a global scale. And it’s well on the way to doing so in the ebook sector.” Forbes’ Tim Worstall pushed back against Stross’ characterization, arguing that Amazon doesn’t have a monopoly on the ebook market because it’s still extremely easy to put ebooks on a server, achieve some scale and contest Amazon’s dominance.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, for his part, released a letter to shareholders last Friday that asserted that “even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation.” Techcrunch’s John Biggs said this philosophy makes sense in the world of networked information, but Wired’s Tim Carmody said Amazon is really trying to draw a contrast between its own infrastructure-based model and the product-based “gatekeeping” model of its chief competitor, Apple.

Google’s open web warning: A few nuggets regarding Google: In an interview with the Guardian, Google co-founder Sergey Brin warned of “very powerful forces” lining up against the open web around the world, referring both to oppressive governments like China and Iran and to Google’s competitors, like Facebook and Apple. Tech blogger John Gruber noted that Brin seems to be assuming that the open web is “only what Google can index and sell ads against,” and Wired’s Tim Carmody took that point deeper, arguing that Google is part of the continuum of control and closure of the Internet between governments and corporations, not separate from it.

Elsewhere, Ross Douthat of the New York Times used Google’s recently unveiled Project Glass, which would bring all the information of a smartphone in front of our eyes in the form of glasses, as a warning against the possibility of a sort of hyper-surveillance techno-tyranny. Web philosopher Stowe Boyd ripped Douthat’s assertion that Google’s glasses are a reflection of our growing loneliness. (Slate’s Eric Klinenberg wrote a more thorough takedown of the “we’re getting lonelier” hypothesis, targeting Atlantic’s recent article on Facebook.) And late last week, Google’s news products chief, Richard Gingras wrote at the Lab about the questions that will define the future of journalism.

Reading roundup: It’s been a fairly slow week, but there are still a few interesting items to keep an eye on:

— Facebook has begun testing “trending articles” as a way to get more people to use its social news apps, though ReadWriteWeb’s Jon Mitchell said those apps, and the “frictionless sharing” they depend on, aren’t working. Meanwhile, the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal said it’s time to get past the Facebook mentality of social networking and figure out what’s next for the Internet.

— NYU prof Jay Rosen wrote about a fascinating question that’s been puzzling him for years — Why does the American public trust the press so much less than it used to? — positing a few possible explanations and asking for more ideas. You can also hear Rosen talking about the state of the media and the public in this Radio Open Source podcast.

— Two more intriguing entries on the ongoing series of posts on how people get their news, these from News.me: Digital media researcher danah boyd, who talked about young people’s news consumption, and former New York Times digital chief Martin Nisenholtz, who talked about the Times’ transition into a digital world.

— Finally, the Times’ Brian Stelter wrote a thoughtful piece on the fleeting nature of today’s information environment, and the ephemeral, hyperactive common conversation it gives us.

April 19 2012

14:26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“Maybe he could use that love against them.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow it survived an explosion the soldier may not.

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

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

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

It says the soldier’s name is Eddie Ward.

It says he is 19 years old.

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

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

And, suddenly, Boogaard started to win fights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 10 2012

14:52

“Why’s this so good?” No. 27: Christopher Goffard tracks love in flight

One drawer of my desk – the largest – contains a mound of stories, the best I’ve found in newspapers and magazines over the last 20 years. In addition, three or four “great writing” folders float around the top of my work space; faux-wood fragments of the desktop are seldom visible.

Then there are a handful of individual stories I value enough to keep beside my keyboard at all times. When I’m struggling, when writing feels like running in mud, I go to one of these stories, start to read a page or two and then end up reading the whole thing. For some reason, it helps. Amazing work is possible, even if it feels beyond my own grasp.

Since I first read it in May 2009, Christopher Goffard’s narrative “Fleeing all but each other” from the L.A. Times has been among the treasured handful. I remember reading it, handing it to my wife and saying something like: You have to read this now.

So why do I reread it every few months, and why does it inspire me each time?

The story, about a young couple who hop trains together, seeking an alternative to an adult life of routine and responsibility, is tightly written – just 2,401 words. Early on, in just a few brush strokes, Goffard makes the two main characters, Adam Kuntz and Ashley Hughes, real:

He was 22, tall and rangy, with a goatee, wild black hair and a disarming smile. She was 18, with blue eyes and dishwater-blond hair. Crudely inked across her fingers was the word “sourpuss,” advertising the side she liked to show people: the rebel and sometime dope fiend who bristled with free-floating anger.

But he saw another side of her too: the frightened runaway who, like him, found a tramp’s dangerous, hand-to-mouth life less terrifying than the adult world.

Goffard jumps right from there into the first of several memorable scenes:

They were curving through the Tehachapi Pass, seriously drunk, when a feeling overcame him. The words were unplanned, like everything else in their life.

Hey, you should be my wife, he said.

OK, she replied.

It takes great discipline and skill to render a vivid moment in so few words.

Goffard ends the opening section of the story with a masterful cliff-hanger. The larger group of kids that includes Adam and Ashley decides to jump from the train while it’s still moving, so they can fill their water jugs at a Wal-Mart. The last line of the section is a great example of foreshadowing:

Naturally, it was Ashley who suggested they try it.

Most of the story maintains this spell, allowing you to forget it’s a newspaper article you’re reading. Only one paragraph departs briefly from the narrative. It’s the kind of nut graph, wide-angle view editors request in order to reassure the audience that a small story has some larger context. I’m not fond of such paragraphs, because they break that spell, but here Goffard slips it in so deftly and with such craftsmanship that none of the narrative momentum is lost:

Trains run right through the heart of the American story, a symbol of industrial prowess and physical vastness and unfettered movement. For the broke and the discontent and the wanted, they are also a place to disappear, a mobile refuge where nobody cares where you’re going or what your real name is.

The story walks a difficult line, explaining the appeal of this nomadic existence without glamorizing it. By quoting Ashley’s MySpace page, Goffard shows us what she liked about this life. He also shows us the letters she wrote that revealed her second thoughts, her regrets about the life she was trading away.

I admire the way Goffard shows in a short space the growth of the relationship between Adam and Ashley – the way he leaves his dog with her when he’s hauled away by the cops, the way she’s waiting with the dog when he’s released a week later, the fact that he gets her off heroin, yet what he loves most about her is her wildness. It isn’t by any means a perfect relationship, but it’s a real, loving relationship. It’s hard to write about love in a way that nods toward the messiness of it.

One final element that makes this story great is an underrated quality in reporting: patience. Patience on the part of both reporter and editors. I asked Goffard how the story came together. Like so many good narratives, it began with a newspaper brief. Another reporter had passed on it. It took months. Adam’s lifestyle made it almost impossible to track him down, Goffard said. He started with a police report that led him to Ashley’s grandmother, who sent Ashley’s diaries.

Goffard probably could have written a version of the story at that point, but it would have been missing so much. He needed to talk to Adam, but when he phoned Adam’s parents, month after month, the news was always the same: Adam was on the road, and they didn’t know when he’d be back. Goffard and his editors obviously made a decision that this story was worth waiting for. It was more important to tell the story right than to get it into the paper quickly. This is a lesson worth remembering whether you work at a small paper or a large paper, whether you’re a reporter, an editor or a photographer.

Goffard said he went through many drafts and changed the ending in a significant way. I won’t give away what happens, but when you read it, the saddest moment is the one Goffard originally intended to end with. I think where he chose to end was much better.

Mark Johnson is a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting as part of a five-person team telling the story of a boy with a rare genetic defect.

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

December 21 2011

18:00

Steve Buttry: From a dropped paywall to a social media Pulitzer, expect a year of transformation

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is longtime digital journalist Steve Buttry, the director of community engagement and social media at the Journal Register Co. & Digital First Media.

We will see more newspaper-company transactions in 2012. After a few years where no one wanted to sell at the price the market had dropped to, we’ve had Journal Register Co., the Oklahoman, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Omaha World-Herald (am I forgetting one?) sell in the second half of 2011. I believe those sales have helped set the market value, and some people who were refusing to sell will swallow their losses and get out of the newspaper business.

In the transactions mentioned above, people with sufficient wealth appear to have bought the companies outright, taking on little or no debt. (Take the World-Herald, which was bought by the ultimate rich person, Warren Buffett, at the helm of the ultimate public company, Berkshire Hathaway.) I believe we’ll see more transactions involving publicly held companies in 2012. We may also see more creative transactions that fall short of a sale, such as the Journal Register Co./Digital First Media deal to manage MediaNews Group.

I think Google+ will add a new feature (probably more than one, but one will get all the attention) that will make more of a splash than the initial launch of G+ did.

At least one Pulitzer Prize winner (most likely Breaking News Reporting) will have used Twitter and/or Facebook significantly in its coverage and its entry, and the social media use will be cited by the judges (or their refusal to cite it will be glaring).

The winner of the 2012 presidential election will work harder on reaching voters through social media than through the professional media.

Gene Weingarten will write a disapproving column about the changing news business that is funny but dead wrong. (After last year, I had to throw in one sure thing.)

Those are third-person predictions about what other people/companies will do. This last new prediction should carry the disclaimer of obvious self-interest, since I am leading community engagement and social media efforts for the company — but I am confident that Digital First Media will continue to lead the way in transforming the digital news business.

Beyond that, I will re-offer last year’s predictions, since they largely didn’t happen in 2011 (I suppose I can claim #newnewtwitter as being partial fulfillment, though it doesn’t include the features I mentioned):

  • Twitter will make some notable upgrades, including targeting and editing of tweets, historical searching, and some innovative commercial uses.
  • A leader will emerge in location-based news, social media, and commerce.
  • We will see some major realignment of journalism and news-industry organizations. Most likely: the merger of ASNE and APME, mergers of some state press associations, mergers of at least two national press organizations, and mergers of some reporter-beat associations. One or more journalism organizations will close.
  • At least one high-profile news organization will drop its paywall.

July 06 2011

16:58

Lane DeGregory on diving into Florida dreams

Our first Editors’ Roundtable of the month looked at a story from Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg Times, in which a young couple arrives in Florida hoping to start a new life. DeGregory won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2009 for “The Girl in the Window” and has received many other awards during her years at the Virginian-Pilot and in St. Petersburg. Even though she insisted that her editor, Mike Wilson, “carves the story from the block of wood I give him,” DeGregory agreed to speak with us by phone last week about her work. In these excerpts from our conversation, she talks about chasing a story all the way into the “ocean,” the value of riding the bus, and the sad aftermath of Dan and Jenna’s tale.

How did you find Dan and Jenna, the couple fleeing Wisconsin to make a life in Florida?

We were actually with one of the girls we’ve been following for this project about drug court. She rides the bus to work at this pizza place every day. She said, “Hey, you should ride the bus sometime with us and see all the people pushing pills.”

So we just hopped on the bus with her one morning. Of course it takes an hour and a half to get 20 minutes down the road. But we were sitting on the bus watching the world go by. This couple was across from us, and they kept kissing and kissing. They were really young and cute and as pale as could be. They each had a little duffel bag and a backpack. She kept asking questions: “What kind of bird is that? Is that a gulper bird? What kind of tree is that? Oh, my god – do oranges grow on trees?” She was so in awe of the world going by.

So John [Pendygraft], the photographer, was sitting next to me, and he snapped a picture of them kissing. They looked up and smiled, and I introduced myself. They told us, “We just got to Florida for the first time. We’ve been on the Greyhound for three days.” They had switched from the Greyhound to the city bus right when we got on.

We left our drug court girl at her pizza place and followed them. They said, “We’re going to go find the ocean today. The first thing we want to do is find the ocean.” Of course, we don’t have the ocean here; we have the gulf. But we looked at each other, and went “Hmmm.” We asked if we could come along. So we spent the rest of the day following them, changing buses – basically doing the journey that’s in the story. We left them after they got into the water about 4:30 or 5 that evening.

So it was one day of contact?

One day of reporting. And we got his aunt’s cell phone and called back and took them out to lunch and ferreted out more of the story. But we didn’t know until after that initial day that he was on probation. That came up after we backgrounded him the next day.

Did you ask him about it?

Yes. That story happened on a Friday, which is also perfect. We backgrounded him Monday and said, “Ay-yi-yi.” I asked my editor, “What do we do with this?”

My editor said, “Ask him about what happened.” Because most of the stuff that he had done was pretty minor. It’s not like he was an ax murderer. So we took him out and talked to him about it, and he said, “Yeah, I did some stupid things when I was young.” He went through the litany of each of the things. The worst thing he had done was steal a car. He told us vignettes about each one of them, which matched up with the police report we’d pulled. He said, “I just need to check in with my probation officer. I should have done that, but he’s not going to come looking for me.”

We said, “Well, do you want us to still do the story?” It was supposed to be a happy story, sort of a Florida fairy tale story. And so many people are running from something. My editor said, “If we’re honest about it, and he’s cool with it, we’ll put a line in there, saying we know he’s on probation, so we don’t get caught looking like we weren’t aware of that.” That’s where we left it. It was totally up to him if he wanted to do the story, and he did. He was excited about it.

In terms of the story itself, you weave in their backstories, but mostly you keep focused on this moment in which they’re suspended between the past and the future – a very narrow slice of time. Did you know from the beginning that you would frame it that way?

Yeah, I did. We have a thing in the Times called “Encounters” that runs on the front page. They’re usually 20 inches, but this one was a little longer. It’s just a moment when something happens, someone is on a precipice, or something is about to change. So from the first time they said, “We’re going to go to the ocean today,” I thought, “That’s a great Encounter.” They’re on a quest. It’s going to end – either they find the “ocean” or they don’t. It can be self-contained on this bus and this journey.

Some people commented and asked if I had ridden with them all the way from Wisconsin. Dang, I would have loved to do that. I had a lot more about their journey before they got here, but my editor thought I should frame it as tightly as possible and start from that moment they arrived in Florida – which I think was the right decision.

You create two levels of experiencing the story. On one level, we’re right there with Dan and Jenna, seeing Florida for the first time. And then there are two sentences tucked into the middle, where you speak directly to the reader, to the Floridians who read the paper. Can you talk a little about that?

I had more of that that got edited out, which in the end was probably a good thing. I had a whole section where I waxed about how Florida has hardly any natives. If they’re native, they’re my mom’s age – they haven’t been here for eight generations or anything. And most everyone has a story about the first time they visited Florida, and they fell in love.

That’s why I thought this was such a Florida story. Unlike any of the other places I’ve ever lived, there’s something magical about the first time you see a palm tree or the first time you put your toes in the sand. But when you live here for 10 years, and you don’t want to get sunburned, and you have kids’ soccer, and homework, and work, you forget. It becomes part of the background. So I wanted to incorporate some of that, something that would turn the camera away from them a minute and toward the reader and say, “Remember that? Remember what that was like?”

The kids seemed like everyman characters. I got lucky and ran into them on a bus. I couldn’t have gone out and found them, but every day there’s someone like that who lands here. I wanted it to be about the experience of coming to Florida as much as it was about those kids experiencing it.

What happened after the story ran?

It was actually really unsettling, the way things played out. The story ran on Memorial Day, which was a great beachy day for it to run. We had the day off. That morning I was with John, the photographer, at the beach. The kid in the story, Dan, called. He loved the story. It was maybe 10:30 that morning. He was asking if we could get extra copies. Could we bring him some pictures?

That afternoon he called back, and there were like 60 or 70 comments online. All of them were snarky and negative and saying his girlfriend was going to end up dancing on a pole, and they would end up pushing drugs. Readers can be mean sometimes. A lot of it had to do with the fact that since he’s on probation, “Do we want another loser living in Florida?” He got really upset about the story. We tried to talk to him about it, and we got the comments shut down and taken offline, so that wouldn’t be part of the context of it.

Before we published the story, I had called his probation officer. He said, “I know he’s in Florida. His boss called from Wendy’s. He’s not a big deal, he just needs to go register with the Florida probation people down there and let him know he’s there.” That was before the story ran.

They held it for a couple weeks – I don’t know why. They probably wanted it to run on Memorial Day. In any case, Jenna called me like three days after the story ran and said, “Dan’s in jail.” And she was crying.

We couldn’t figure out how that played out. She said, “You all turned him in.” I said, “No, we didn’t.” I was careful not to put his aunt’s last name or where they were staying in the story. I didn’t put where he was working or anything identifiable in there. Come to find out that his aunt actually turned him in. I don’t know whether that had anything to do with the story or not, but she turned him in for violation of probation, and they sent him back to Wisconsin.

You had talked to his probation officer before, but as far you know, it was due to his aunt making some more formal complaint?

As far as I know. And he also had missed a court date. He had up until his court date to register in Florida. You can just change your state, if you’re on probation – at least for some things. But he hadn’t done it. He hadn’t called in. I think that when he missed his court date, there was also some flag that went up – one that wasn’t issued by his probation officer but was issued by a judge.

It felt terrible. John and I were both so upset that this had happened, because it was never our intention.

You’ve done a lot of different stories over the years. Was there anything with this story that would make you approach reporting or writing differently in the future?

I think if I had known from the beginning that he was on probation, I might not have been as enamored with the “happy story” idea. I might not even have done it if he had told us that day on the bus. It doesn’t make me want to do these stories any less, and I’m really glad we backgrounded him. It would have been worse if his aunt had turned him in, and we hadn’t known he was on probation, and then we had to write a follow up.

It was hard not to feel guilty that in some way we had affected this kid, but once I found out it was his aunt and not some random reader or bounty hunter that had tracked him down, that helped a little bit.

These stories are out in our communities all the time. I give this little talk at newspapers and colleges about how to find stories. The first tip is to ride the bus. You can always find stories on the bus. People so often are at some kind of crossroads, and obviously, they’re on a journey if they’re on a bus. You have time to talk with them. It’s a whole different demographic than a lot of the people we write about.

I think it happens a lot to reporters, where you’re out on one story, and you see another story that’s a little bit more intriguing, or it’s something you’ve been thinking about for a while. You have to be able to turn the corner midstream.

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

One thing that’s hard to do when you’re on a story like that is to not interfere. We kept wanting to help them find the beach. It was really hard to let them take all these wrong turns. It was 100 degrees out and we were all dying to get out to the water.

Also, following the story in the moment is so important. We had other things we were supposed to do that afternoon. I was in a dress. I lost my watch that day. John got his camera wet. We were both in the water up to our chins in our work clothes just following them in for that last moment. It was so much fun. I was thinking, “Oh, yeah. This is how you go find a story in the world instead of sitting through another meeting and trying to pull something out of that.”

I think just being open to stories when they happen around you is probably the most important thing.

You went into the water up to your chin in your work clothes?

Oh, yeah. We wanted to hear what they were saying. John followed them way out – he was soaked. We ended up two hours away from our car. I had to call my husband to come pick us up, and we got the car full of sand and salt water. But it was just really fun. And it was great to see it through their eyes.

That’s why I think the unhappy ending made it that much harder. You don’t find a story like this every day.

Do you regret writing the story?

I regret what happened to Dan, but I don’t regret writing the story.

May 24 2011

17:46

The power of place: Robert Caro on setting at the 2011 BIO Conference

“Show, don’t tell” is a mantra of narrative writers everywhere, but even the most useful adage can lose meaning with repetition. Before a lunchtime audience of writers at the Second Annual Compleat Biographer Conference on Saturday, legendary biographer Robert Caro reinvigorated the concept.

How did he do it? With a vivid evocation of the way that place can reveal motivation and illuminate character – making direct explanation completely unnecessary.

In a National Press Club banquet hall, Biographers International Organization President Nigel Hamilton presented Caro with the 2011 award for lifetime achievement in the biographical arts. Hamilton noted that the prize honored what Caro has done “not just for the craft of biography but for the standing of biography itself in our society.”

Caro thanked his wife, Ina, as the sole member of his research team during the many decades of his career. Then he quickly got down to a lesson on craft. Setting, he suggested, plays a vital role in timeless fiction:

“The greatest of books are books with places you can see in your mind’s eye: the deck of the Pequod while the barefoot sailors are hauling the parts of the whale aboard to melt them down for oil. The battlefield at Borodino as Napoleon, looking down from a hill on his mighty imperial guard, has to decide whether to wave them forward into battle. Miss Havisham’s room, the room in which she was to have been married, the room in which she received the letter that told her that the man she loved wasn’t coming, the room with the clock stopped forever at the minute she got the news, the room with the wreckage of the wedding feast that has never been taken away.”

Yet he noted that few reviews point to the power of place in nonfiction. The value of place, widely acknowledged as a key component of literature, Caro suggested, is often overlooked in biography:

“If the place is important enough in the character’s life; if on the most basic level he spent enough time in it, was brought up in it or presided over it, like the Senate, or exercised power in it, like the White House; if the place, the setting, played a crucial role in shaping the character’s feelings, drives, motivations, insecurities, then by describing the place well enough, the author will have succeeded in bringing the reader closer to an understanding of the character without giving him a lecture, will have made the reader therefore not just understand but empathize with a character, will have made the readers’ understanding more vivid, deeper than any lecture could.”

Caro won the Pulitzer Prize twice, first in 1975 for his biography of Robert Moses and again in 2003 for the third installment of his four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson (the final installment is still in process). To illustrate his point about the power of setting, Caro talked about his research on two key places in Lyndon Johnson’s life.

Johnson had grown up outside Johnson City, Texas, and when Caro first started mining his subject’s life, he knew there was something he was missing about the place. To get a better understanding, he decided to move there. He took a sleeping bag into the hills to spend an entire day alone, to sleep alone and wake up alone. What he came to realize over time was how empty and inhuman the landscape was.

During interviews with area residents, women would pull out the wooden yokes they had used to carry gallon after gallon of water from the well to their homes – water that wore them out and warped their spines. Over time, Caro came to realize just what it would mean to deliver electricity, to “bring the lights,” to that isolated corner of the world. And he developed a different understanding of Johnson’s first congressional campaign slogan, which urged voters to vote for him “so you won’t look like your mother did.”

Caro contrasted the place Johnson grew up with Capitol Hill, where Johnson came into his own and made his career. As with the Texas hill country, Caro felt that something was missing from his understanding of the place. He talked with an early co-worker of Johnson’s, who had been an administrative aide on Capitol Hill with him when he was new to Washington. She described watching Johnson come across the length of the Capitol on his way to work in the morning, and mentioned that he always seemed to be running. At first she had thought it was because he didn’t have a warm winter coat, but she later noticed that he did it even in summer weather.

Caro wondered about the draw of the place for Johnson and spent time on the Capitol grounds, taking the walk that Johnson took on his way to work again and again, still looking for something. Then he recalled that Johnson and his co-worker were from farm country and headed to work early in the morning. So he tried again at a much earlier hour and found that just after dawn, the east side of the Capitol building was lit up and glowing.

To show how he made use of the discovery, he read the audience a passage from his book, describing Johnson coming to work:

“When Lyndon Johnson first came to Washington, he lived in the basement of a shabby little hotel, in a tiny cubicle across whose ceiling ran bare steam pipes. Its slit of a window stared out across a narrow alley at the weather-stained red brick wall of another hotel. Leaving his room early in the morning, Lyndon would turn left down the alley, walking between the red brick walls of other shabby hotels, but when he turned the corner at the end of that alley, suddenly before him at the top of a long gentle hill would be not brick but marble, a great shadowy mass of marble. Marble columns and marble arches and marble parapets, and a long marble balustrade high against the sky. Veering along a path to the left, he would come up Capitol Hill and around the corner of the Capitol, and the marble of the eastern façade, already caught by the early morning sun, would be a gleaming, brilliant, almost dazzling white.

A new line of columns, towering columns, marble for magnificence and Corinthian for grace, stretched ahead of him, a line of columns so long that columns seemed to be marching endlessly before him, the long friezes above them crammed with heroic figures. And columns loomed not only before him but above him. There were columns atop columns, columns in the sky. For the huge dome that rose above the Capitol was circled by columns not only in its first mighty upward thrust, where it was rimmed by 36 great pillars for the 36 states that the union had comprised when it was built, it was circled by columns also high above, 300 feet above the ground, where just below the statue of freedom, a circle of 13 smaller, more slender shafts for the 13 original states created a structure that looked like a little temple in the sky, adding a grace note to a building as majestic and imposing as the power of the sovereign state that it has been designed to symbolize. And as Lyndon Johnson came up Capitol Hill in the morning, he would be running.”

“Of course he was running,” Caro said, adding that he didn’t know if he had succeeded at what he was trying to do but still believed that working hard to convey a true sense of place could illuminate something profound about a subject. He hoped, he said, to explain what Johnson was striving for “not by lecturing the reader, but by showing him what Lyndon Johnson saw.”

May 20 2011

17:26

Amy Ellis Nutt on writing a Pulitzer-winning story: tell “readers something they don’t know”

The Star-Ledger’s Amy Ellis Nutt won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for feature writing with The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” her five-chapter story on the sinking of a scallop boat off the coast of New Jersey. An adjunct instructor with Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a former Nieman fellow, Nutt has long been devoted to narrative journalism. We spoke by phone with her this week about the Lady Mary and her earlier project, “Jon Sarkin’s Story: The Accidental Artist,” which was a Pulitzer finalist in 2009. In these excerpts from our talk, Nutt describes combining technical information with storytelling, explains how she organizes her stories, and shares one phrase everyone should know.

How did you first come to the story of the Lady Mary?

The first piece was hearing about it as a news story. Because we’re based in Newark, which is just eight miles outside of New York, and Cape May is at the very opposite end of New Jersey, we don’t carry a lot of cape news.

I followed it over the weeks mainly as a news story and realized when men were still missing that there was confusion about what exactly had happened. I became intrigued with the idea that if six men had been killed in a car accident, there would be a lot of front page stories, a lot of public outcry to find out what happened. And the more I looked into what happens to fisherman at sea, the more I realized I wanted to do a story that looked not only at the dangers and the lives that these men lead, but tried to solve the mystery of what happened.

Have you done this kind of in-depth investigative reporting before, or is that a new hat for you?

I have to say it is. It was totally thrilling and absorbing. It took over my life, and in some ways, I’m still living it, because the Coast Guard has not yet released its report, more than two years later.

But I’ve done a mixture of things in the past few years. Most of my projects have been typically explanatory. My last one, though, “The Accidental Artist,” was definitely a combination of some explanatory and a lot of narrative.

So this was a very different beast for me, and frankly, if there’s a place for narrative investigative journalism, this was the perfect story. The drama of this story lent itself tremendously to a narrative approach. There was the background on these men and their lives and their last moments. There was also a wealth of documentation about phone calls and where the boat was, as well as the record of the Coast Guard – what calls were made and when – that I could use as a narrative framework.

Did you struggle with the structure of the story?

Not as much as I have in the past. I knew very early on where I wanted to begin the story, and that was with José in the water. And then I knew I would go back and tell the story chronologically. The difficulty of switching gears and going into the more investigative and explanatory stuff – I knew I couldn’t wait on that until the very end, that I had to weave it in earlier.

But ultimately it didn’t prove to be that difficult. The fact is that I have terrific editors: the editor of the paper, Kevin Whitmer, and most importantly the editor I work closely with, the managing editor, David Tucker, who is just a marvel at both narrative and investigative journalism. He was the perfect editor to lead me through this.

Did you know right away that you’d say that all the men aboard except José Arias had died? That information comes really early in the story.

I went back and forth with my editor on that: “How much do we tell the reader?” The fact that we tell them they died, does that reduce some of the power of the story? The more I looked into the story of what happened and some of the terrible coincidences and tiny mistakes that contributed to this tragedy, I realized that I could tell this story in a compelling way, that even though people knew six men had died, it was why they died and how they died that would keep people reading.

The Sarkin story [“The Accidental Artist”] is a look at a single human, almost from his point of view, while the Lady Mary story is a sweeping account of a shipwreck. Do you have common ways of thinking of stories, or did those projects feel completely different when you were working on them?

Obviously, you use the same tools. First of all, I’m a complete geek. One of the things about journalism that I love is doing research. With “The Accidental Artist,” I had written about neuroscience before, so the subject matter of mind and consciousness was very familiar and interesting to me. But I loved delving deeper into finding out about the brain along with Jon and his search.

It was the same way with the Lady Mary. Frankly, I’d been out on a sailboat once, and I’d never been out on a scallop boat until I did the research for this story. My port and starboard were mixed up because I was a rower in college, and you row backwards.

If anything, I started with a deficit, so I loved doing that part of the research, before I even started writing: interviewing fishermen, learning about scallops and the life of fishermen, government regulation and the history of safety regulations. And then there’s learning about the mechanics of a boat at sea and the tremendous complexity of that. We talked with experts in rudder design, in buoyancy and how ships sink. That was almost overwhelming, because of the sheer complexity of how difficult it is to reconstruct these things.

But my approach to both stories was very similar, in so far as I knew that I wanted to take a very personal, intimate look at, in one case, one man’s life with his family and how things changed, and in the other case, the men on the boat and who they were. It’s being able to interweave the personal with the technical – in one case, the neurological, and in another case, the maritime.

I always go back to something that Jim Willse, the former editor of The Star-Ledger, told me before I did my first series some years ago. It involved a lot of science writing, and he said, “The success of the story will rise or fall depending on your ability to make analogies.” If I have a talent, I think it’s being able to do that, being able to simplify things, not so much that you talk down to readers but enough to make it understandable.

In the Sarkin piece, I think I remember you describing a blood vessel as thin as a thread and as short as a stitch. Is that the kind of analogy you’re talking about, or are you talking about bigger metaphors?

Both, really. It’s always important to make something as real and as visual as possible to a reader. So you could say “a really tiny blood vessel,” or “800 mm wide,” or something like that, but if you can compare it to something that everyone can relate to, that gives readers a much more palpable sense of exactly what you’re talking about.

On the other hand I’m always looking for larger metaphors. In Jon Sarkin’s life, the sea itself plays a big role. It also conveys the sense that things are always changing even as they stay the same. In many ways that’s also true of “The Wreck of the Lady Mary.” I think that my background in poetry, which is a lot of what I studied in college, along with philosophy, helps. Poetry is still a strong thing in my life. David Tucker is actually a very accomplished published poet. That way of thinking in larger metaphors and images very much helps in narrative writing.

On a more mundane level, how do you work? Do you type on a computer with an outline, map out your stories on posterboard, use index cards?

It can vary a bit. I did a project a couple of years ago on a 12-way kidney transplant. I definitely used a dry eraser board for that. But in most of my stories, I know early on where I want to begin and where I want to end. And then after I’m pretty far into the research and the interviews, I get a sense of how it needs to be broken down into chapters. I’ll outline that and say, “This is how the first part needs to end and this how it needs to begin.” And I’ll do that for each part.

A lot of writers that we’ve interviewed say that once they’ve done the bulk of the reporting that they’ll often read through everything for a section and then set it aside and write without that material there, so that they can keep the narrative arc of the story going. Is that how you work?

That’s very much how I do it, so that when I’m writing I’m really writing. I’ll know sometimes, “Oh I’ve got to fill in more information here.” And when I’m through writing that section, I’ll go back and fill it in. By the time I’m ready to write, it’s really pretty much in my head, and I know where I’m going. But I will go back and flesh things out, especially details.

People talk about stories different ways. What do you want a story to do?

With “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” there were a couple things I really wanted. First, I wanted for people to connect with these men, who were, by and large, deeply flawed, simple human beings who did one thing really well. I wanted people to connect with them, because you live in a place like Boston or New Jersey, and you live on a coast, you hear stories all the time, “Oh, a boat went down,” and that’s all you ever hear. Sometimes you get a TV interview with the wife waiting at home, but that’s it.  I obviously wanted to fill out the lives of these men, what their lives are all about.

At the same time, I very much wanted there to be a sense of outrage that readers would have and hoped that it might spur the Coast Guard or someone else to take a deeper look.

And with the Sarkin story, what were you looking to do?

With that, it’s a story of one man and his family, and it’s an odd, close-to-unique, rare kind of story. However, there are a lot of things that I would hope a reader could take away from that. You hear it often, “the resilience of the human brain.” It is a remarkable thing that a brain can suffer so much damage, that a person can lose so much and yet not only survive but flourish, and that relationships can radically change, that losses can accrue, and yet people stay together and learn how to love one another differently.

So what would you say to the thousands of wannabe feature writers and current feature writers who hope to win a Pulitzer one day? Is there one lesson for writing a fabulous true story?

Honestly, no one ever sets out to win a Pulitzer Prize-winning story. I knew I had a great story here, but there was a mystery that I wanted to solve. You want to impart to readers something they don’t know, something they’re not familiar with, something that will open their eyes or their hearts or their mind in a new way. That’s what every writer would love to be able to do: to tell a story well enough that someone says, “Wow, I never knew that” or “That makes me think differently” or “I want to know more about that.”

I tell young journalists – in some ways, I still feel like I am a young journalist, because I started a little bit late in my life – there’s no greater profession. The personal satisfaction of being able to tell other people’s stories is a gift, and one that I never forget. And the fact that I can make a living doing that is still remarkable to me.

I also love the fact that I never know what I’m going to be working on day to day. That’s a pretty exciting way to come to work.

Whose work has inspired you? What are you reading now?

When I’m working on a big project, to get inspired and get into the mood, I’ll read a lot of literature. For instance, when I was working on a memory series, I read Proust for the first time and fell in love with it. When I was working on the Lady Mary story, I read Joseph Conrad and Melville.

But what have I read that’s inspired me? So often I read a book and then forget it. One thing I did read recently that I hadn’t read in about 30 years was “This Side of Paradise” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is a big hero of mine. What I’m reminded of and inspired by is that it is a brilliant book but really deeply flawed. It’s his first work, and so he throws everything in there. And you can see his brilliance, but you can also see that it’s a little all over the place. Knowing where Fitzgerald ended up, at least writing-wise, it inspires me to know that even the greatest writers start out hot and glorious but still need a lot of work. That’s how I approach what I do.

Hot and glorious?

Gosh, no! [Laughs.] I learn something from every story I write, and I get better. I tell young writers, “Just keep writing. You’re not going to get worse. You can only get better.” Maybe there are some people that never do, but you’re not going to get worse.

If I didn’t have an editor to save my ass, I’m frightened to think of some of the things that would have gotten in the paper. I said to this book editor of mine, when I published my first book, “You know, I’m a good writer, but I’m a really good rewriter.” I take instructions really well. When there’s a good editor who tells you what you need, what you don’t have, and what you need to take away, I love that. There’s nothing better for me than someone to tell me, “All right you’ve got something here, but it needs work, and this is what you need to do to make it better.”

Anything else you want to share with our readers—maybe you have a secret obsession with Marilyn Monroe?

Klaatu barada nikto. You always need to know that.

May 05 2011

15:17

Ben Montgomery explores a mystery: “This is a story about grief”

Yesterday our Editors’ Roundtable looked at “When a diver goes missing, a deep cave is scene of a deeper mystery,” by Ben Montgomery. An enterprise reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, Montgomery was a 2010 Pulitzer finalist with the Times’ project “For Their Own Good,” which we featured on this site. He talked with me by phone about his latest story while the editors were in the midst of making their comments on it. As a new part of the Roundtable process, we’ve also invited him to respond to the editors’ comments at a later date.

How did you first hear about Ben McDaniel, and at what point did his disappearance become a story?

In late February. I’m trying to read the papers out of the Panhandle, large and small, because of my work on Dozier [School for Boys] and also because there are places along Florida’s hidden coast that are untapped. There’s very little news coverage, and what’s there often gets overlooked. It’s golden for someone like me who has the freedom to go up there and do work. I caught a small story in, I think, the Jackson County paper.

McDaniel’s family, Patty and Shelby, had announced a $10,000 reward, and the story was about Edd Sorensen, who in fact is in my story. He’s a pretty fantastic recovery diver and cave diver. Sorensen had told the local paper that this was dangerous – basically, “I can understand them wanting to find their son, but they’re going to get someone else killed by putting up this money.”

I immediately recognized that this was a pretty fantastic story, and that if the material held up, it could be really great. You have a mystery, first of all; the guy went in and hasn’t been seen since. Hanging onto that mystery, you have some really interesting human conundrums: the grief of the parents and friends, and the risk for the cave divers.

Pride was involved as well, for the divers who’ve gone in and come out empty-handed. They’re saying, “Look, take our word for it. Trust us. We’re the best of the best, and Ben’s not in there.” They felt like the McDaniels’ insistence that Ben was in there was sort of an insult to them: “They don’t believe us. We’ve told them, and now they’re putting up this reward.” There were strong feelings of hurt and embarrassment as well on the part of the divers.

So it seemed like this whole mess of emotion swirling around this great mystery. I kind of held onto it for a little bit. I think I brought it up at one of our weekly meetings, just to see how people would react to it and whether they would have the same reaction that I did, which was “Wow, this has real potential.” I heard that out of the people in the room, so I took the opportunity to go out and do some real reporting.

How long did you take to report and write the story?

I was working on some other things at the time. I’d say probably I took a trip up there for three days. And then maybe another four or five days on the phone back home, reporting. And maybe four or five days writing. So two weeks, 2 1/2 weeks in all.

When you sat down to write, you had this material – I don’t want to ruin it for any readers – but when you sit down to write, you have a mystery without a simple solution. How did you approach structuring the story?

That was cause for great anxiety in the beginning, because I had the ambition to find Ben McDaniel myself. That was a real desire. I was thinking, “Maybe if I talk to enough people, I can find this guy.” Or at least find some evidence that he met his demise or that he still exists. That was the mindset that I went in with.

Three-quarters of the way through the reporting I was like, “I still don’t have an ending. I don’t know where he is, and people are still going to be disappointed if they read this story and then get to the end and there’s nothing to tie it up. It’s still as much of a mystery as it was in the first section.”

So driving back from the Panhandle, I called a friend, Michael Brick, who is down in Austin. We talk about stories a lot. I kind of called to hear myself tell him the story, to see where it went. We had really bad reception. Because of the spotty reception, I had to be brief. We kept getting disconnected. And so each time I would be like, “Forget all that. Dude’s missing. I don’t have an ending.”

And at some point I started to think of this story in a different way: This is a story about grief and how the dominoes fall when a man goes missing. And that helped, because then it became not a story about Ben specifically, but a story about all the people left behind to try to solve the mystery. Then it was just thinking about the story through that prism. Because there’s no ending with Ben, it gave the rest of us the ending.

You focus on Emily. Did she give you that ending herself?

Gene Weingarten sent me an email yesterday, and I think [Tom] Shroder may have put him up to it. Weingarten loved the ending, and he was wondering if that was mine, or if I just went there.

It came from her, but I felt like quoting her there would have screwed it all up. She is thinking very seriously about diving into that hole to see for herself if Ben is in there. She’s an open-water diver, and it takes a long while to get cave-certified. She’s thinking seriously about saving up the money to get cave certified and to go down in search of him. That came at the end of our talk.

We were supposed to talk at 7 on a Wednesday night. We had a hard time getting in touch. Our conversation wrapped up about 11:30. So 4, 4 1/2 hours on the phone. She and Captain Hamilton and Ben’s parents, they all entertain these theories. They’ve entertained some really wild theories: “Could he be in witness protection?” “Could his ex-business partner have followed him to Florida and killed him?” But after they run through the theories, it all circulates, and one theory leads to the next.

Near the end of our conversation, she was going back and forth about whether Ben had the capacity to commit suicide through going through the hole, or whether he had the capacity to leave and put everybody through this incredible grief. She was saying, “If only we could see down in that hole, then we could rule that out as a possibility.” It struck me to ask, because she had mentioned that she was a diver, “Have you ever thought of going down there?”

She said, “Yeah, I sure have. I know it would take a lot of money, and I know it would take some time, but that’s a serious part of my thinking right now.”

When I heard that, it gave me that – I don’t know how to articulate this, but there’s a spot that I hit sometimes in reporting… It’s like I have to stand up. It’s almost a mix of anxiety and happiness and sadness, these things that typically exist on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. But I felt that, and the light came down on me, and I thought “That’s perfect.” If the possibility exists that Ben went through the hole because of his brother, then the possibility exists that she’s going to go through the hole and pursue Ben. It just felt like the right way to end the thing.

So you realized that was an important moment right then?

When she said it, when that came out of her mouth, I thought, “That’s the end of the story.”

I noticed that midway through the story, you start throwing out questions. There are no questions asked in the first half, but the second half has 13. It’s an unusual approach to writing a mystery narrative.

That’s news to me, that there’s such an extreme change. I do know that up to a point, we know exactly where Ben was leading up to his disappearance. We have an unlimited amount of facts about the days and hours leading up to that dive. And after that it’s eight months of questions. So it’s not surprising to me that the story changed in that regard, because the rest of the story can be one giant question mark. It’s just a matter of handing it over to the readers to entertain the same questions that I had and the same questions that Ben’s family and the people trying to find him had.

Did the story change drastically in the process of writing or editing it?

The one big change was really just a matter of adding a line of the section about three-quarters of the way through the story that solidified the idea that if Ben was grieving his brother’s death so much that he abandoned this life, whether purposefully or with disregard for his own safety, if he went through the hole to deal with that grief, then it’s the same kind of grief that might bring Emily into that hole.

I wanted to make that as clear as possible without being ham-fisted. And so I added a line about something his parents had entertained and said, maybe not directly but close: maybe Ben wasn’t running from something; he was running to something. I wanted to put that thought in the readers’ minds before I hit that beautiful monologue that Chuck Cronin delivered about why people go into these crazy caves, and then sort of bring it down with the powerful ending that belongs to Emily. So it was just a matter of adding that line.

I overwrote the thing, which I always do, I think the first draft might have been 6,000 words, and it ran at 3,400. It wasn’t Bill [Duryea, my editor,] who cut a lot out of it. It was just me trimming a lot of stuff and removing the scaffolding – a lot of self-editing. And I had turned it over to some people, which is not uncommon, for general thoughts.

I got some good advice from Jon Jefferson, who’s half of the writing team of Jefferson Bass. He regularly makes appearances on the New York Times bestseller list for a series of books called “The Body Farm.” He writes with the guy who started that body farm at the University of Tennessee, Bill Bass. Jon just has a way of applying fiction techniques to nonfiction that I’ve come to appreciate. He offered some feedback and some good advice.

You mentioned overwriting. There are so many approaches writers take to organizing their stories, from meticulous six-level outlines to just sitting down and starting. How does overwriting fit in with your approach?

I outline, so I had an outline. I knew where I wanted to go. It’s weird, because the overwriting is not the excessive use of adverbs for me. It’s including too much information, stuff that might be unnecessary distraction. For instance, the first draft included the theory that Ben could have gone into witness protection, which is something his parents were leaning toward for a while. I reported that out, and figured out they don’t do that. The federal government doesn’t fake death to protect people. And beyond that, there’s nothing in Ben’s history to suggest that he may have needed to go into witness protection.

That theory was pooh-poohed, but I included it in there, because I thought readers might have the same question themselves. It was just four or five paragraphs going down that rabbit hole, and then shutting that idea down. So going back to trim, it seemed unnecessary. I thought, “I’m not sure people will make that jump, and if they do, that’s OK, I’ll just disregard it in its entirety, not even bring it up. It’s not going to hurt the story.”

There were a couple paragraphs in the first draft about why north Florida has so many underwater caverns. I talked to a geologist at Florida State University to set the scene a little more, including this chunky bit about how these caverns are formed over the years. I was trying to teach people about geology that I was curious about. And then I thought, “There’s not a place for it. I want it to be really tight.” Even if it’s 3,400 words, I want it to read like it’s 20 inches. It’s a lot of cutting and stripping away everything that is unnecessary.

Anything else you’d like to say about the piece or about narrative journalism more generally?

I find it so incredibly useful, beyond the editors who work at the St. Pete Times, to have a team of people who aren’t going to bullshit you, who don’t mind taking a look at what you’ve written and giving you feedback. I think I sent this [Michael] Kruse, Konrad Marshall, who is in Australia now but is a great feature writer. Wright Thompson read it. Jon Jefferson read it. And each of them had a different thing to say about it, like “in this part, I think you should go here.” “I need you to establish better the dimensions of the cave at the restriction.”

This is before I even turn it over to Bill. At the point that I feel like I have a solid draft, I want feedback from people who aren’t reading it for grammar mistakes or for style and spelling. I just generally want to know “How did this story make you feel? How could it be better?”

Some of it you use, and some of it you disregard. I don’t know if I’ll ever turn in a story that I feel might be important without having distributed it to a few trustworthy friends to offer feedback early. I want to make that a regular part of this process, because I found it to be really useful.

That’s a new part of your process then?

It’s not totally new, but I think I probably sent this to more people than I have before. Normally, it’s one or two. Kruse is my regular go-to guy for feedback; we talk stories all the time. But sending it to five people? At first I thought that everybody would say something different, and it would confuse me. That’s not the way it went at all. Everybody did have some different thing to say, but I found it all useful.

April 22 2011

14:00

This Week in Review: The Flipboard dilemma, Trove and News.me arrive, and a paywall number for the NYT

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Is Flipboard a competitor or collaborator?: Flipboard has quickly become one of the hottest news apps for the iPad, and it continued its streak last week when it announced it had raised $50 million in funding. Flipboard’s Mike McCue told All Things Digital’s Kara Swisher he’d be using the money to hire more staff and expand onto other devices, including the iPhone and Android platform. But he also talked to TechCrunch about using the money to fend off a rumored competitor in development at Google. (The Houston Chronicle’s Dwight Silverman told Google not to bother, because Zite already does the trick for him.)

All this prompted a fantastic analysis of Flipboard from French media consultant Frederic Filloux, who explained why Flipboard’s distinctive user-directed blend of news media sites, RSS feeds, and social media is so wonderful for users but so threatening to publishers. Filloux argued that every media company should be afraid of Flipboard because they’ve built a superior news-consumption product for users, and they’re doing it on the backs of publishers. But none of those publishers can complain about Flipboard, because any of them could have (and should have) invented it themselves.

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram advised media companies to be willing to work with Flipboard for a similar “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” reason: Its app has their apps beat in terms of customizability and usability, so they’re better off trying to make money off of it than their own internal options. ReadWriteWeb’s Dan Rowinski wrote about the possibility that Flipboard could be a better alternative partner for publishers than Apple, and Marshall Kirkpatrick wondered why publishers are up in arms about Flipboard in the first place.

Traditional media’s personalized news move: One of the reasons that media companies might be less than willing to work with Flipboard is that some of them are building their own personalized news aggregation apps, two of which launched this week: The Washington Post Co.’s Trove and Betaworks’ News.me, developed with the New York Times. INFOdocket’s Gary Price has the best breakdown of what Trove does: It uses your Facebook account and in-app reading habits to give you personalized “channels” of news, determined by an algorithm and editors’ picks — a bit of the “Pandora for news” idea, as the Post’s Don Graham called it. (It’s free, so it’s got that going for it, which is nice.)

All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka suspected that Trove will be most useful on mobile media, as its web interface won’t be much different from many people’s current personalized home pages, and David Zax of Fast Company emphasized the social aspect of the service.

News.me is different from Trove in a number of ways: It costs 99 cents a week, and it’s based not on your reading history, but on what’s showing up in other people’s Twitter streams. (Not just what they’re tweeting, but what they’re reading — Betaworks’ John Borthwick called it reading “over other people’s shoulders.”) It also pays publishers based on the number of people who read their content through the app. That’s part of the reason it’s gotten the blessing of some media organizations that aren’t typically aggregator friendly, like the Associated Press. [Note: We're one of the publishers licensed in the app. —Ed.]

Since News.me is based so heavily on Twitter, it raises the obvious question of whether you’d be better off just getting your news for free from Twitter itself. That’s what Business Insider’s Ellis Hamburger wondered, and Gizmodo’s Adrian Covert isn’t a fan, though Martin Bryant of The Next Web said it could be helpful in stripping out the chatter of Twitter and adding an algorithmic aspect. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram looked at both services and concluded that they signal a willingness by some traditional media outlets to adjust their longtime broadcasting role to the modern model of the “Daily Me.”

A good sign for the Times’ pay plan: The overall news from the New York Times Co.’s quarterly earnings report this week wasn’t good — net income is down 57 percent from a year ago — but there was one silver lining for online paid-content advocates: More than 100,000 people have begun paying for the Times’ website since it began charging for access last month. (That number doesn’t include those who got free subscriptions via Lincoln, but it does include those who are paying though cheaper introductory trials.)

As Advertising Age’s Nat Ives pointed out, there’s a lot that number doesn’t tell us about traffic and revenue (particularly, as paidContent’s Staci Kramer noted, how many people are paying full price for their subscriptions), but several folks, including Glynnis MacNicol of Business Insider, were surprised at how well the Times’ pay plan is doing. (Its goal for the first year was 300,000 subscribers.) Here at the Lab, Josh Benton looked back at the numbers for the Times’ TimesSelect paywall and concluded that an initial influx of subscribers doesn’t guarantee continued growth after launch.

Those numbers are particularly critical for the Times given the difficulty its company has had over the past several years — as Katie Feola of Adweek wrote, many analysts believe the pay plan is crucial for the Times’ financial viability. “But this means the paper’s future rests on an untested model that many experts believe can’t work in the oversaturated news market,” she wrote. “And the Times has to pray the ad market won’t decline faster than analysts predict.”

A few other paid-content tidbits: Nine of Slovakia’s largest news organizations put up a paywall together this week, and the pope is apparently pro-paywall, too. At the Guardian, Cory Doctorow mused about how companies can (and can’t) get people to pay for the content online in an age of piracy.

Google’s hammer falls on eHow: When Google applied its algorithm adjustment last month to crack down on content farms, Demand Media’s eHow actually came out better off (though others didn’t fare so well, like the New York Times Co.’s About.com, as we found out this week). Google made a second round of updates last week, and eHow got nailed this time, losing 66 percent of its Google juice, according to Sistrix.

Search Engine Land’s Matt McGee speculated that Google might have actually been surprised when eHow benefited the first time, and may have made this tweak in part as an effort to “correct” that. Demand Media, meanwhile, called Sistrix’s eHow numbers “significantly overstated,” though the company’s stock hit a new low on Monday. Mathew Ingram said investors have reason to worry, as Demand’s success seems to be at the mercy of Google’s every algorithm tweak.

A Pulitzer first: The Pulitzer Prizes were announced this week, and while the awards were spread pretty broadly among several news organizations, there were a couple of themes to note. As Felix Salmon and others pointed out, an abnormally large share of the awards went to business journalism, a trend the Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman opined on in a bit more detail.

The biggest prize from a future-of-news perspective may have gone to ProPublica, whose series on some of the machinations that worsened the financial crisis was the first Pulitzer winner to never appear in print. The Lab’s Justin Ellis noted that other winners are including significant multimedia components, perhaps signaling a shift in the emphasis of one of journalism’s most elite institutions. If you were wondering where WikiLeaks was in all this, well, the New York Times apparently didn’t submit its WikiLeaks-based coverage.

Reading roundup: No huge stories this week, but a few little things that are worth noting:

— Your weekly AOL/Huffington Post update: Jonathan Tasini came out swinging again regarding his lawsuit on behalf of unpaid HuffPo bloggers, Business Insider’s Glynnis MacNicol responded in kind, Eric Snider told the story of getting axed from AOL’s now-defunct Cinematical blog, and HuffPo unveiled features allowing readers to follow topics and writers.

— Missouri j-school students are chafing against requirements that they buy an iPad (they previously had to buy an iPod touch, and they called that plan a bust). Meanwhile, Ben LaMothe of 10,000 Words had three ideas of social media skills that j-schools should teach.

— A weird little fake-URL spoof turned into an interesting discussion about the possibility of libel through fake URLs, in thoughtful posts by both the Lab’s Andrew Phelps and TechCrunch’s Paul Carr.

— Two interesting data points on news innovation: A group led by Daniel Bachhuber put together some fascinating figures about and perspectives from Knight News Challenge grant recipients. And journalism researchers Seth Lewis and Tanja Aitamurto wrote at the Lab about news organizations using open API as a sort of external R&D department.

April 21 2011

14:00

The newsonomics of a single investigative story

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

It’s a week to celebrate great investigative work. ProPublica made some history with its Pulitzer for online-only work about the financial meltdown, and the Los Angeles Times crowned its success with the larger-than-life Bell corruption tale, winning its own top prize. Both well deserved.

Meanwhile, as journalists sat around their terminals awaiting the Pulitzer bulletin, an investigative series broke across California, perhaps reaching more audience more quickly than any previous investigative piece. There were no bodies to count, nor billions or millions of ill-gotten gains to uncover.

Rather, California Watch’s “On Shaky Ground” series is aimed at preventing disaster, getting ahead of the Grim Reaper. The series took a big look at the likely safety issues in the state’s schools when (not if, right?) The Big One hits. It found, not surprisingly, that although state law mandated seismic preparations, all kinds of bureaucratic nonsense has contravened that intent. It found that about 1,100 schools had been red-flagged as in need of repair, with no work done, while tens of thousands of others were in questionable and possibly illegal shape. The so-what: Some of the very institutions providing for the kids of California have a certain likelihood of actually falling on top of them and killing them.

It’s old-fashioned, shoe-leather, box-opening, follow-the-string journalism, and it is well done.

While it’s fun to celebrate great journalism, anytime, it’s vital to look at the newsonomics of this kind of investigative journalism. What did it take to get it done? How much did it cost and who paid for it? And, to look at the plainly fundamental question: How do we get lots more of it done in the future?

The series took more than 20 months to complete. The interactive timeline, “On Shaky Ground: The story behind the story,” tells that tale with tongue in cheek; it’s a great primer for any beginning journalism class. Corey G. Johnson, freshly hired from North Carolina and part of a young reporting contingent that has been mixed and mentored well by veterans like editorial director Mark Katches, stumbles on a list of 7,500 “unsafe schools” as he’s doing a routine story on the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

Along the way, the story grows in import and paperwork. California Watch, the less-than-two-year-old offshoot of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Journalism (CIR), adds other staff to the effort, including reporter Erica Perez, public engagement manager Ashley Alvarado, distribution manager Meghann Farnsworth, and director of technology Chase Davis, among other reporters.

In the end, the series rolled out in three parts — with maps, databases, historical photos, its own Twitter hashtag, a “My Quake” iPhone app — and a coloring book (“California Watch finds a new consumer group, kids“), intended to reach kids, the most important subject and object of the reporting. Already, the state legislature has scheduled hearings for April 27.

The reach of the roll-out is one of the new lessons here. Six major dailies ran at least some part of the series. ABC-affiliate broadcasters took the story statewide. Public radio news leaders KQED, in the Bay Area, and KPCC, in L.A. ran with it. KQED-TV. The ethnic press signed on: La Opinion ran two seismic stories Sunday and Monday, while at least two Korean papers, one Chinese paper, and one Chinese TV station included coverage as well. More than 125 Patch sites in the state (California is major Patch turf) participated.

A number of the distributors did more than distribute. They localized, using data from California Watch, and reporting on their local schools’ shape. KQED-TV produced a 30-minute special that is scheduled to air on at least 12 PBS affiliates in the state.

San Francisco Chronicle managing editor Steve Proctor is frank about how priorities and resource use have changed in the age of downsizing. When Proctor came to the paper in 2003, he says, the paper had five to seven people assigned to a full-time investigative team. Now there’s no team per se, with the Chronicle investing investigative resources in an “investigate and publish” strategy, getting stories out to the public more quickly and then following up on public-generated leads they create. It’s an adjustment in strategy and in resource allocation — and the California Watch relationship makes it even more workable. “We’ve been pretty sympatico with them from the beginning,” he said. “We’ve used the majority of what they’ve produced.”

So let’s get deeper into some numbers, informed by this series, and see where this kind of work can go:

  • “On Shaky Ground” cost about $550,000 to produce, most of that in staff time, as the project mushroomed. That’s now a huge sum of money to a newsroom, even a metro-sized one. Ask a publisher whether he or she is willing to spend a half a million on a story, and you know the answer you’ll usually get. It’s a sum few newsrooms can or will invest. Consequently, the economics of getting a well edited, well packaged series for a hundreth of that price is an offer few newsrooms can (or probably should) refuse.
  • California Watch, not yet two years old, runs on a budget of about $2.7 million a year. That budget supports 14 journalists, whose funding takes up about 70 percent of that $2.7 million number. That’s an intriguing percentage in and of itself; most daily newspaper newsrooms make up of 20 percent or less of their company’s overall expenses. So, disproportionately, the money spent on California Watch is spent on journalists — and journalism.

The project is about midway through its funding cycles. The ubiquitous Knight Foundation (which has contributed about $15 million to a number of investigative projects nationwide through its Investigative Reporting Initiative), the Irvine Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation, all of which have provided million-dollar-plus grants, are reviewing new proposals.

The key word, going forward here, is “sustaining.” Will foundations provide ongoing support of the “public good” of such journalism? There’s lots of talk among foundations, but no clear consensus among journalism-facing ones. “There really isn’t a foundation community that thinks with a common brain — same situation as in the news community,” Knight’s Eric Newton told me this week. “Each foundation makes its own decisions using different criteria. Some foundations see their role as launching new things and letting nature take its course.” CIR executive director Robert Rosenthal is among those trying to find a new course. Although he’s a highly experienced editor, he finds that most of his time is found fund- and friend-raising.

  • California Watch is building a syndication business, feeling its way along. Already, six larger dailies — the San Francisco Chronicle, the Sacramento Bee, the Orange County Register, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Fresno Bee, and the Bakersfield California — are becoming clients, paying a single price for the all-you-can-eat flow of daily and enterprise stories California Watch produces. They, a number of ABC affiliates (L.A.’s KABC, the Bay Area’s KGO, 10 News San Diego, 10 News Sacramento, KSFN in Fresno), and KQED public radio and TV in the Bay Area are also annual clients pay between $3,000 and $15,000 a year each. A la carte pricing for individual projects can run from $3,000 to $10,000. The California Watch media network, just launched in January, is an important building block of the evolving business model. It is clear that while syndication can be a good support, at those rates, it’s a secondary support.
  • So, if California Watch were to be totally supported by foundation money, it would take an endowment of $54 million to throw off $2.7 million a year, at a five percent spend rate. Now $54 million raised one time isn’t an impossible sum. Consider just one gift: Joan Kroc left NPR more than $200 million eight years ago. Consider that the billionaires’ club started by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (encouraging their peers to give away half of their wealths) is talking about newly raising a half a trillion dollars for the public good. Last summer, I suggested the group tithe a single percentage point of the club’s treasury for news-as-a-public-good. It seems to me that stories like “On Shaky Ground” make that pivotal education/health/journalism connection; send “Shaky Ground” to your favorite billionaire and urge him to sign on.
  • Let’s do some cost-benefit analysis. How much is a single child’s life worth? How about a school of 250? We could consult a liability lawyer, who undoubtedly would put assign a six- and seven-figure number per life, and then tie up the courts, post-disaster, making the math work. So if California, bereft as it is of capital, were to invest in the infrastructure, per its own laws, wouldn’t it be ultimately cost-effective? Of course it would be, and in this case we see in microcosm, the question of American infrastructure writ large. Are we a country that will let more bridges fall into mighty rivers, more schools fall onto our children and more poor roads cause preventable injury and death? You don’t need my political rant here. Rather, let us just make the point that journalism — old-fashioned journalism, newly digitally enhanced — is a key part of forcing America to face its own issues, whatever the solutions.

In this project and in California Watch generally, we see the reconfiguring of local media. An owner — whether AOL, Hearst, or private equity — can hardly reject the offer of paying one-hundreth of the cost for space-filling, audience-interesting content. Welcome to a new kind of content farm, to use that perjorative for a moment. Yes, California Watch operates on the same Demand Media-like principle of create-once-distribute-many, realizing the digital cost of the second copy is nil. Let’s consider it the organic, cage-free content farm. It makes sense for a state the size of a country (California = Canada); smaller versions of it make equal sense for Ohio, North Carolina, or Illinois.

Older media outsources journalism and in-sources (affordable) passion. There are lots of lessons here (“3 Reasons to Watch California Watch“), but that fundamental rejiggering of who does the work and how it is distributed and customized is a key one. As Mark Katches points out, “They [distributing partners] put their voices on our story.” That’s a new system in the making.

Old(er) editors can learn new tricks. For a good show-and-tell of that principle, check out Rosenthal’s talk to TEDxPresidio two weeks ago. I first saw him give the talk at NewsFoo in Phoenix in December. Amid more tech-oriented talks, his stood out and was much applauded. It’s a clarifying call for real journalism, perfected for the digital age. Share it.

April 18 2011

20:14

Another online milestone for the Pulitzer Prize

It’s prize season for journalists, and today came the biggest of them all: the Pulitzer Prizes. And the trend toward online-only news organizations playing a part in what has traditionally been a newspaper game continues.

In the journalism categories, of the 1,097 total entries, about 100 came from online-only outlets, according to Pulitzer officials. Those entries came from 60 different news organizations. That’s a healthy growth curve, considering that in 2009, the first year online entries were welcomed, 37 organizations submitted 65 entries.

In the winner’s circle again is ProPublica, which took home its second Pulitzer this year. But unlike the nonprofit’s last prize, which was for a story published in The New York Times Magazine, this year’s prize (for reporters Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein) was for work that didn’t move through a partner newspaper (although they did partner with radio’s Planet Money and This American Life). As ProPublica chief Paul Steiger wrote, “This year’s Prize is the first for a group of stories not published in print.”

ProPublica’s win follows on the heels of last year’s Pulitzer for Mark Fiore and his animated editorial cartoons, which had a home on SFGate, not in the San Francisco Chronicle, and the ground-breaking Pulitzer for PolitiFact in 2009.

At the same time more online-only content is receiving a nod from the Pulitzer committee, it’s also worth noting that more projects are entering the awards that include a digital component. In this year’s journalism entries nearly a third featured online content, which is up from just one fourth last year. Of the finalists digital content was featured in seven winners, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s award for Explanatory Reporting and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s Investigative Reporting prize among others.

A hearty congratulations to all the winners and finalists — especially the three past or present Nieman Fellows to be honored. They are current Nieman Fellow Tony Bartelme (finalist in Feature Writing), 2005 Nieman Fellow Amy Ellis Nutt (winner in Feature Writing), and Mary Schmich (finalist in Commentary). Nutt’s win is the 107th Pulitzer (if our quick count is right) to be won by a Nieman Fellow.

April 04 2011

15:10

Isabel Wilkerson on the Great Migration, structuring an epic narrative and the challenges of writing nonfiction

Continuing the spring flurry of awards, Columbia University and the Nieman Foundation announced last week that the 2011 Mark Lynton History Prize will be awarded to Isabel Wilkerson for her book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” Currently the director of narrative nonfiction at Boston University’s College of Communication, Wilkerson previously reported for The New York Times, where she won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1994. We had a chance to talk with her near the end of March, and in these excerpts from that conversation, she discusses the thousand-plus interviews she did to research her story, the process of structuring a multi-strand narrative, and what she always knew would be the heart of the book.

You follow three main characters throughout your book – all of whom migrated away from the South. How did you come to select those three?

Those three were chosen after I spent about a year and a half traveling the country – North, Midwest, and West – interviewing, and in some ways auditioning, the protagonists who would ultimately provide the major strands of the narrative. I went to senior centers and AARP meetings, to quilting clubs and to the various state and city and town clubs that represented the southern cities and towns that the people had originally come from. There are Mississippi clubs in Chicago; there are Louisiana and Texas clubs in California; and there are Baptist churches in New York where everyone is from South Carolina.

So I went to all those different places and interviewed over 1,200 people in order to narrow it down to the three protagonists through whom I would tell the three main threads of the narrative. In the process of interviewing all these people, I heard many other stories that helped to clarify my understanding of the phenomenon I was writing about, expose me to a lot of different ways of looking at it, and gave me a general experience of the people who had gone through this.

There were people that had amazing singular experiences that caught my attention. There were people who had incredible stories of hardships during childhood or the journey itself – there was a woman who was actually born on the train to California. But I needed to have people whose stories would be strong, beginning, middle and end.

And of course, for narrative journalists, one of the major things that we’re looking for is someone who is open and candid, willing to cooperate with some level of almost investment in being able to share and take the time to tell the story – in other words, access.

Based on the structure of the narrative itself and the overarching story I was trying to tell, I needed to have three people, each of whom would represent one of the three major streams of this great migration – the one up the East Coast, the one to the Midwest and the one out to the West. I needed to have people who had left in different decades to show the breadth and scope of this migration. I needed people who had different reasons for leaving, different motivations and circumstances for going, and three different outcomes in the places they went.

Also from a narrative perspective, I needed people whose voices would be distinct enough so that as a person was reading the book, they would be able to discern from hearing or seeing a single comment from them, “Oh, yes this is Ida Mae,” or “This has got to be George,” or “I recognize Robert.” Each of them had to be distinguishable from the other, because theirs were going to be interlocking stories, stories where you follow them from the beginning of their journey in life and also in the migration until their arrival elsewhere and then their old age.

You wrote in your book that you set out in the mid-1990s to search for people, but it sounded like you had already read about and researched the migration by then.

That’s interesting, because it appears that way, but I had only had a general knowledge of the migration when I began. I could not have known all I would know at the end of the process. When you’re starting a story, you do some initial research, but I had not done a tremendous amount of research into all aspects of the migration when I began.

In fact, the kind of narrative writer I am moves from the ground up. I get the stories from the people I meet; I get my energy from the people that I’m interviewing. I don’t like to have any preconceived notions when I’m going in. I like to hear the story as it unfolds in front of me. Particularly with narrative, it’s got to be about the story that’s being told, it’s got to be about the character, the protagonist whose story you’re hearing. If you go in with a preconceived idea or too much information, you might miss something, because it doesn’t sound as fresh or as new to you, because you kind of know it already. I wanted to be able to have the discovery of learning about it ultimately in the same way the reader would. As I’m hearing it from their mouths in front of me, right there, in the middle of the discussion, I wanted to be able to respond to it with freshness in the same way I hoped a reader would.

When you do this kind of work, you have to make a choice. Are you going to spend the many, many, many months that it would take to do the archival research for something this big? I mean are we’re talking 6 million people over the course of a 55- or 60-year period of time, one that encompasses much of the 20th century.

There were many references to the migration among economists who were looking at it, sociologists who were looking at it, anthropologists who were looking at it while it was unfolding. You could look at census records and census analysis. Editorialists were among the main sources when it came to journalism. A lot of time could be spent doing that, but I chose to focus on the people first, because the people were getting up in years, and it was kind of this race against time to get to them before it was too late.

I had to make the logistical, methodological decision to go for the people first without truly having done all the research that I might have preferred to have done starting out. The people came first, and then the archives, because the people would not always be there, but the archives would. So for this particular narrative, it was the wiser choice, really in some ways, the only choice, to make.

You have a lot of demographics and legal battles and Jim Crow information and riot history folded into the narratives. Did you have a strategic way you approached bringing those things together – the story with the facts and data?

It became clear to me fairly early on that in some ways the book is multiple books in one – each one of the characters could have been a book unto him- or herself. Then there’s all the archival, historical, demographic data that also had to be folded in – that’s almost a book unto itself. Then there’s the weaving in of the other stories, the secondary people who would have been the runner-up candidates for the protagonists’ slots. They’re all folded into the book, too. It’s multiple narratives, multiple books, in one.

It’s so close in and intimate when you’re in the moment with these people, as they’re preparing to leave or learning the rules of the caste system as children or growing up in the South during that era. You needed to stay with those individuals in that moment, because it’s a rare thing to be able to get that close in on someone’s life, particularly of an era that is hard for us to imagine today. To bring in some demographic data at an intimate moment seemed out of key, you might say, with where you happened to be with that individual.

I was writing it separately anyway, because I wanted to stay with each individual story as I was telling it. I was really inspired by the structure of “The Grapes of Wrath,” which also was an inspiration on multiple levels. It’s about a migration; it’s about getting inside the hopes and fears of people who were leaving the Dust Bowl region of the United States at the exact same time that Ida Mae was leaving Mississippi. It struck me how those parallel migrations were going on, but they were recorded differently at the time.

The idea of how to fold in the intimate stories of individuals going through this journey while also reminding the reader of the larger canvas on which this was occurring – “The Grapes of Wrath” was an inspiration for doing that. Now, obviously that’s fiction, though he had been a journalist, which I think all of us should be inspired by. But that book has inter-chapters, and the inter-chapters are absolutely magnificent.

Did you start out with “The Grapes of Wrath” as a model, or did you light on it at some point?

I paid closer attention once I was in it. A lot of the research that I did was on works of the era. I spent time in the world of that moment. I read books that came out in the 1930s, John Dollard and Hortense Powdermaker. I read work from economists in the 1910s and up, looking at the language that was used by writers and by scholars of the day. I wanted to know how they looked at things. How was it perceived at the time that it was unfolding? What do you even call some of the things that we don’t have names for today? I spent a lot of time, and clearly Steinbeck was going to be crucial, because “The Grapes of Wrath” is one of the best-known narratives about a journey ever written in the United States.

There is so much hope in the drive toward a different world, or a broader world, but there’s a lot of sorrow in the three lives you focus on, even after they make it out. Was that part of the reason that you picked the people you did, or did it just come out that for the people that you wanted, that’s where their lives went?

I think that they are reflective of the experiences that the majority of these people had. The experiences of people in these cities would have been very similar.

I don’t know how to answer the question on some level, because I think their lives began with heartbreak and sorrow. I also think that on leaving, their goals were quite modest. They had a lot of hope, but they knew that they were not going to become CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies or build skyscrapers. They’re representative of the reality that they all faced on arrival.

Putting myself back in the moment of making a decision about which three people would be the protagonists, at that time, I didn’t know what the end result would be in their lives. So I had to look at the limited information based on the interviews that I had done with them. Then the work began to truly know fully what happened in their lives. You might look at it and think, “She knew this, this, and this, and that’s why she chose them.” But there’s a lot that I didn’t know. It took years in order to hear all the things that had happened to them. They didn’t just tell me everything in one sitting, nor did they tell me everything the first time something came up, or after the first question. It took many, many months and ultimately years with some of them for all these things you see in the book now, for these things to reveal themselves.

One thing that surprised me, though I’m not sure why, was how many pages you spent on the actual migration. Now that you’re talking about “The Grapes of Wrath,” I see the parallels. There’s so much attention to the departure and even the planning to get away, which illuminates a lot about their lives. When did it strike you that the actual travel narratives of their leaving would be so important?

Thank you for so much for saying that. You spend so much time on the work itself in a cave, and how people will perceive it upon completion, you just can’t know. But that was probably the driving question – no pun intended – for the narrative. I was absolutely drawn to the act of leaving. If there was any one thing that was motivating me, that I wanted to bring to life, it was what it took for them to leave. That decision and their departure had such an impact on the country as a whole; that becomes in some ways the central moment that was going to change the northern and western cities as we know them. That’s what I wanted to understand.

Getting to the central core of the story was the decision itself and how they carried out the decision. For that reason, I interviewed a lot of people who were the children of the migration. These people were retirees already. I enjoyed hearing their stories, and it was all part of the reporting process and part of my own education. It was a living archive, interviewing real people over the span of the time that I did was like combing a living archive.

But the children, of which there were many, from a narrative perspective were going to be disqualified from being protagonists in the book, because I was looking for the people who were driving the car, not the lap children or the children in the back seat. I interviewed a lot of the lap children and the children in the back seat, and that gave me a fuller understanding of the larger story, but that was not who I thought should be the protagonists for this story, because I wanted to understand the decisions that went behind the change that would ultimately occur in all these cities. It ended up being, in my view, the heart of the book. It was always my intention that it would be the heart of the book.

The conditions under which they make those trips – there’s a real feeling of going into the unknown with them: the way that Robert Foster is driving and driving and desperately trying to find a place to sleep. The larger context is something that we’ve heard and read about before, but the idea of him at this moment in his life, leaving the South to go West is very compelling.

It shows you the power of narrative [laughs] – and I’m not saying that because of our conference! I’m saying it because the goal of all that we do is to pull readers in so that they can picture themselves in the role of that person, to picture themselves as that person. Many people have told me that they’ve experienced a range of emotions, particularly during that central section of the book, where they felt worried for him, fearful for him – for all of them.

That was the goal. The goal of all that we do is to bring the reader in so that they can imagine themselves in that situation, so they can wonder “What would I have done if I had been this situation?” That’s the power of building a narrative that so draws readers or viewers in, so that they feel they are these people.

Of course with narrative nonfiction, it takes so much effort and time to draw close enough to individuals and have them trust you enough to share what you need to make it come alive for a distant reader who will be absorbing this from far away or totally different circumstances. It is really a magical thing when you think about it.

I once heard an editor explain that when he was working with a first-time book author who was an experienced journalist, he had to tell him to write with “the voice of God.” That comment came to mind, because there’s almost a Biblical tone to the stories as you tell them. Was that you reflecting their voices, or were you thinking in an epic fashion as you were trying to give a tone or voice to the book?

Hearing all those stories, I in some ways absorbed them into my very being. It just became a part of the way I thought about this entire experience. I think that all of those voices, absolutely all of those voices – the children in the backseat, the voices of the anthropologists who had been traveling in the same parts of Mississippi where Ida Mae grew up, the economists who were looking at it from Chicago – all of those voices get inside you, those perspectives and the language of all those writers, speakers, scholars and editorialists, of all those multiple eras. It all gets inside you, and you distill it, and out comes your own voice almost in a new language.

It takes the infusion of all those different voices to help you come up with your own. They all counterbalance each other, and once you have been exposed to all that, then and only then, can you write with the authority that you need to, because you have read enough to speak as an author. It’s interesting that the word author can be found within the word authority. You only have that authority when you’ve done the research.

What else should we know about the book now that it’s in the world?

From a narrative perspective, I am really happy that the structure seems to have worked. I spent a lot of time on the structure. It was a challenge to take three different people in three different decades from three different states who take three different routes to three other states and weave in the contextual archival detail and give it all meaning.

There was the tremendous challenge of trying to harness literally file cabinets full of material. I have railroad timetables from the Illinois Central Railroad that I got off eBay. I have photographs of actual advertisements and specs for the car Doctor Foster drove, his Buick Roadmaster, so that I would know exactly what it looked like inside and out. I didn’t even make that much use of everything I had, but I wanted to have it. I bought a green book, one of the books that African Americans who were driving would have used in that era, because they couldn’t be assured of being able to stop when they were making these long drives. They had these little guidebooks, like an AAA guidebook, with the names, addresses and telephone numbers of places that had agreed to permit them to stay. And they would use that on their journeys. I wanted a copy of that.

There was so much work to gather the material that would become the basis of the narrative, but I think the greatest challenge from a writing perspective was how to bring it all together in a way that the reader could follow it. The fact that I don’t get asked about it a lot may be the best commentary of all, because that was a lot of work.

I’ve been asked if I had an outline or a master pattern to spread out the story, but it ended up being an organic process, because I found that an outline seemed like an artificial imposition onto the narrative. I found that it was not working if I tried to superimpose some order onto the experiences of the people as they were unfolding. So I made a decision not to use an outline. Does that surprise you?

I felt a pattern in the narrative, but I didn’t know if it was one that was planned, or one that emerged. It seemed like a fairly simple structure – my sense was that you were taking us through a scene from each of the characters’ stories with inter-chapters. Very occasionally you would return to somebody’s story without rotating through all the protagonists first. It did read seamlessly, though, so I know our audience would like to hear any other thoughts you want to share on structure.

As nonfiction writers, we have to adhere to the facts that we have obtained. If you were writing fiction, you could decide “I want to do this or that.” But you’re dealing with actual facts and real people and whatever it is you have from them and from the archives, and you have to think about how to structure that and how to organize that, where to stop and where to begin. You may not have enough from this person in this particular year, but you have a lot from this other person. That’s just the reality when you’re dealing with nonfiction.

Sometimes you hear fiction writers say, “I was in a zone, and the character told me what to do.” As journalists, we don’t have the luxury of experiencing that, but having this volume of material may be the closest we can come to it. You do have a wealth of things to choose from, and you can learn how to make the best use of what you have. You may not have everything you want, and you may not have everything you need to make your initial idea work, but somehow you have to make it work.

If it seemed like it was natural, I can say, on some level, it was organic – but it was not natural. This is really hard work. It is really, really hard work.

Anything else you want to say about how to manage that work?

I’m still absorbing that I got through it, so there’s no one bit of advice that I could give. Unfortunately, each project is different, so maybe there are things that would be applicable to this one that wouldn’t work for another one.

This is one thing I would say: something this big can seem so daunting when you’re about to begin it that the only way to do it is to do it in small steps. Otherwise you would never do it – it would be too overwhelming. In some ways, it’s like preparing a meal: it all starts with the flour, the baking powder, the spices and the garlic. You start small. You don’t think about the big thing you’re undertaking. Thinking about the big thing can stop you in your tracks. That’s how I got through it, by looking at just what is in front of me to do today: “I will be writing about Ida Mae and her arrival in Chicago.”

It’s nonfiction, and we have to go with what we’ve got. So, first over-reporting is what I do, and it’s what a lot of people do. There’s a lot on the cutting room floor when you do this kind of work – as well it should be. Not everything you get needs to go in, and not everything you get is the reader going to be interested in. There’s way, way, way more things that didn’t get in than got in. That’s a good thing; that’s how it should be.

Have as much as you can, so that you have choices once you begin cooking. And then you start small. You start by chopping the onions, or you peel the garlic. Or you measure the corn meal. That’s how you begin it. I think focusing on the task in front of you is what gets you through it. It seems so big at the end, but it’s all one piece coming together with the next, with the next, with the next. And you have a narrative.

March 11 2011

16:15

David Barstow on being fair, bearing witness and “doing something bigger with the story”

We spoke this week with The New York Times’ David Barstow, who wrote and helped report our latest Notable Narrative, “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours.” The project, a fine-grained look at the crew’s last moments aboard the doomed oil rig, ran at the end of December, and we learned through Barstow that Summit Entertainment has recently picked up film rights to the story. Barstow’s prior work has twice been awarded a Pulitzer Prize (one in partnership with Times reporter Lowell Bergman), and he has a long history with investigative reporting and narrative. In these excerpts from our conversation, he talks about applying narrative techniques in an investigative framework and the importance of bearing witness.

When did the Times commit to doing the Deepwater Horizon project?

I had written, with some other reporters, a very long piece that ran in June of last year that really zeroed in on the blowout preventer. After that piece, I think a number of us felt like there was still more to be done, but we weren’t really sure what that was.

So it wasn’t until probably August when the big conceptual breakthrough occurred, which was that we thought that there was a really great story if we focused very narrowly on the crew and the last hours of Deepwater Horizon. We wanted to focus not on what everyone else was focusing on, at least in those summer months, which was “What caused the blowout?” – which inevitably took you into a very dense thicket of questions about well design and about cementing and all the things that happened below the rig, all the way down to where they were tapping into the oil two miles beneath the surface of the ocean bead. Instead, we focused on the rig itself and understanding the crew that worked on this rig, and understanding the systems that were engineered and were incorporated into the rig to protect these people from the very thing that occurred: the blowout.

There were three bylines on the piece, and a note about contributing material from another reporter. What were the mechanics of the story? Who actually wrote it?

I wrote every word of it. I think the byline in the paper was clear on that point. It was written by me, with reporting by myself and David [Rohde] and Stephanie [Saul]. The reason I make that point is that this is a narrative, in a way. And I think that we all realized and could see the importance of having a coherent and single voice carrying this story. It’s been all of our experience that at the end of the day, you can’t write narrative by committee. So I took on that task of being the writer, and then of course, we all divvied up various aspects of the reporting.

I noticed that in the actual structure of it, loosely speaking, a third of it leads up to the blowout, and then a third is that nine minutes between the blowout and the explosions, and the last third is wrapping up. Did you divide it that cleanly on purpose? How did you decide on the structure?

I think the biggest thing that drove the framing of the story was actually that “nine minutes” idea. There was this period of time when a whole bunch of things could have occurred or maybe should have occurred that might have saved lives or prevented explosions or minimized explosions. That was the absolute crucial period of time: the time between when the crew had the absolute first obvious evidence that they were experiencing a blowout – which was actual mud and oil coming up on the rig itself – and when the big cataclysmic explosion occurred that basically eliminated any chance of the rig coming out of this OK.

And yet, what made this particular narrative extremely challenging is No. 1, you’re dealing with an awful lot of technology, a very complex system. The fire and gas alarm system alone has a phone book-size instruction manual. That’s just one. There’s the ventilation system, and the systems that allowed the crew to communicate, and the warning system, and the gas sensor – all of that stuff was really important to the story.

Handling the complexity of the technology, along with the number of different characters on this rig that in and of itself is a foreign place for most readers, this was the narrative challenge. How do you structure the piece so that you create a sense of pace and narrative and keep people going through this experience and put them as much as possible in the shoes of some of the people on this rig during this couple-hour period of time?

The way I tried to deal with that was keeping the focus relentlessly on the one day and on this one 9-minute period of time. That was the frame that helped anchor the piece.

You have this chunk of technical material you’re trying to get across, and then you have all these narrative details. Inside that larger frame, how did you approach bringing the technical material and specifics available in hindsight into the story about the people?

It’s not like there was some master narrative out there somewhere that said when one event happened compared to some other event. So in fact, part of the challenge was constructing that narrative and knowing what went on in that nine-minute period of time with over 100 people on the rig reacting and doing different things. One of the most important challenges for us was, through the reporting and interviews we did with more than 20 of these crew members and a really careful sifting through of all the public testimony, putting together an incredibly extensive narrative that zeroed in on this very compressed period of time.

Once you have that, of course, it makes it a lot easier to zero in on the moments that seem most critical. The trickier part was how to hit the right tone, where you’re looking at the actions of members of this crew who in some cases froze in the moment or were overwhelmed with the complexity of the systems they were trying to operate.

You could make them look like idiots. There are a lot of ways you could slam people with 20/20 hindsight. For me, it felt more important to try as best I could to put myself in their shoes and take into consideration and into account the chaos and the horrific circumstances under which they were asked to make rapid decisions – sometimes with incomplete information. And all the while worried that everything around them was going to blow up. On the one hand, it was about being fair to them and trying to bear witness, but also doing something bigger with the story.

In terms of which narrative details you chose to use, did you have any concerns about what is sometimes called disaster porn?

I didn’t worry about that because I felt like there was an enormously consequential story at the heart of this. That story is one that I think ought to really inform our discussion and debate going forward about deepwater drilling.

In this particular case, if there was one overarching narrative that emerged in the first month, it was this idea that BP as a corporation was cutting corners and sacrificing safety, and that was the root cause of what happened there. To an extent, people would look at the Texas City explosion in Alaska and say, “Here’s this rogue corporation cutting costs, and then there’s this disaster.”

What was interesting in terms of what emerged from our reporting is that it’s a more difficult problem than that. If you have one rogue company, you can force change on the part of that corporation, but in this case the Deepwater Horizon rig was a Transocean workplace. Transocean owned the rig. There were only a couple of BP employees on the rig. It was a culture shaped by Transocean.

What was significant to us was that when it comes to deepwater drilling in the Gulf, this is the best of the best, the A team, in theory. It was a sophisticated rig with an experienced crew on board. Despite that and despite having a potent safety culture and having the best technology that exists to prevent a blowout and an explosion that could kill people, there were failures. And that raises questions about our ability to do deepwater drilling in a safe manner. That issue was at the heart of the story, because it raises an important question as we go forward with deepwater drilling.

You’ve done a lot of narratives, as well as large investigations, at the St. Petersburg Times and The New York Times. Did reporting or telling this story present any particular problems that you hadn’t faced before?

Coming out of the St. Pete Times, I sort of grew up journalistically around people like Tom French, Anne Hull and David Finkel. What I’ve spent the bulk of my career trying to do is to take as much narrative storytelling as I can into the traditional investigative reporting mindset. You’ll see a similar kind of thing in a lot of my stories.

This one actually felt like a really comfortable fit with that approach: going in a tough-minded and investigative way to understand what went wrong and hold accountable the various actors in this story and the forces that contributed to this disaster. And trying to do it through a narrative that can help people not just absorb the information at an intellectual level but feel it at a gut level, in a way that hopefully a reader comes away from the piece with a much clearer detailed, vivid sense not just of the kind of people who worked on this rig and the culture of this rig but the very complex sequence of events and technical failures that fed into the tragedy.

Do you have any suggestions for reporters tasked with telling a story that has already been covered by so many outlets?

Yes, a couple. There’s one easily overlooked point about this story: the point about space. This story really couldn’t be told if the newspaper weren’t willing to open up, in this case, four full pages. We had these amazing photographs, but the story needed space, too.

The thing I would tell younger reporters is that if this were a 2,000-word story as opposed to an 8,500-word story, you couldn’t even think about it. The most important point, the most obvious point, is that in this case, we were able to persuade our editors here to give us the space. We don’t run many double trucks, and this was actually a quadruple truck. You have to get that kind of space, and to understand how space does or doesn’t limit what you do as a storyteller.

The other thing I would say is that sometimes even when stories are covered quite intensively for a couple months or similar period of time, if you’re paying close attention and looking at the way the story is being covered, sometimes you’ll see things that weren’t doable in the first months become doable over time.

In this case, the flow of coverage organically shifted to things like the cleanup, the extent of the pollution, the effects of the pollution, and then to BP and BP’s safety record – and to what caused the blowout, the well design, and the cementing job. I remember thinking at one point, “It’s weird after all this that I don’t think I’ve read or seen something that put me on the rig in the lives of the people there on that last day.”

You set out, and maybe the people who didn’t want to talk in the first week – maybe they were traumatized, hunkering down or finding lawyers – some of those people with time, you can get them to open up. It’s good to look and be thinking about any new layers that can be peeled back once you’re past the immediate aftermath.

February 18 2011

20:37

Lawrence Wright on Scientology, legal pads and creating a “universe of possible sources”

The New Yorker put the “long” in long-form this week with “The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology,” a piece by Lawrence Wright that weighs in at around 25,000 words. The article has generated a lot of buzz for its compelling storytelling as well as its subject matter: a week later the story still sits atop the magazine’s most popular and most emailed lists. In addition to his magazine work, Wright has a half-dozen books to his name. He won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2007 for “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” which was also awarded the Nieman Foundation’s J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. In what passes for spare time, Wright plays (and blogs on) boogie woogie piano. We spoke by phone with him this week about his story. Here are excerpts from our discussion, in which he describes an eight-hour meeting with Scientology officials, his fondness for index cards and legal pads, and the benefits of getting paid by the word.

You wrote in your piece that you first sat down with Paul Haggis last March. How did you get to the point of sitting down with him? Where did the story come from?

I’ve been interested in writing about Scientology for quite a while. I’m always intrigued by various religious beliefs and what draws people to them. I had noticed that Haggis had dropped out of the church, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to write about the experience of being in Scientology through the eyes of a believer.

People have been doing great reporting on Scientology for a long time. What did you think or hope this piece would do that hadn’t been done already?

Most of the pieces that have been written in the past were really exposés. I didn’t see the need to expose Scientology so much as to understand it. Obviously it has an appeal, and it offers people something. That was what was missing and mysterious to me in all the previous reporting.

When you first started, did you have any idea that the piece would approach 25,000 words?

Well, I get paid by the word [laughs].

So it was on your mind at some point.

The New Yorker is one of the few places where you’re allowed to range, and that’s why it’s such a good venue for doing an article of this nature. It gives you enough room – although this was an extraordinary amount of room.

Have you written a piece this long for them before?

I think so. I had a two-part series for them in 1992 called “Remembering Satan” that became a book. I tend to specialize in longer pieces. I did a long piece on Jonestown and a long piece on teaching journalism in Saudi Arabia. I don’t actually know how many words each of those was, but they were long. Maybe this was the longest.

You’ve written shorter magazine pieces, long magazine pieces and several books as well. Do you take a different approach depending on what you’re writing? How do you think about putting a story together?

I don’t really have a different approach. When I get into it I already know, generally speaking, how much I want to write about it. I knew that Scientology had a lot of lore. I love to write about the lore and the culture of different belief systems, so I was prepared to take a deep breath and really dive into this.

The way I go about it is I assemble a list of names – usually the most obvious people at the beginning. I write their names on a legal pad, and when I get their telephone numbers or their email addresses, I just fill the little left-hand column on a legal pad. I write their telephone number in that margin, then when I interview them, I take a highlighter and mark them off.

And whenever I interview somebody, I always ask at the end of the interview “Who else should I talk to?” so I develop more contacts that I haven’t heard of. That way the roots go deeper into the soil, and I begin to populate the universe of possible sources.

So you’re sort of creating from this list. But when you start to write, how do you normally begin? Do you use outlines, index cards, or are you one of those people who just sit down and start writing?

I am an index card person. I never found a better way of organizing the material. I know it’s retro. Of course the cards are all on my computer as well, but I physically print them out and file them, because I find that first of all, the classification of the cards is a way of outlining the piece that I’m working on. In other words, I divide it up into areas of interest for me.

It’s a very intuitive process. I just find that out of all the interviews and all the reading that I do, I have to have some way of retrieving the information, and note cards have been, for me, the best way of doing that. If you were in my office, you would see many, many, many boxes of note cards.

Do you just keep your current project on hand?

I’m dying to get rid of the note cards from al-Qaida. They’re occupying way too much space. They’re still there, so I need to make room for my Scientology note cards.

So you see yourself doing more with this? Will this be a book?

I am going to write a book about it. It’s a very rich subject, and there’s a lot more to be said about what draws people into Scientology and also about the nature of religious belief.

You’ve been reporting and writing for 40 years now. Obviously, you always have the standard of truth to bear as a nonfiction writer, but can you recall another piece that you knew in advance would be as dissected and subject to potential legal action as this one?

No, this is unique in terms of the care we had to take in order to walk this very thorny legal path. You can see that the piece is beset with legal disclaimers, and we have innumerable legal letters from the Scientology lawyers and other people that figure into the story. All of those things had to be very carefully taken into account and gauged in terms of the liability that each word in the article might incur.

Did knowing in advance that there’s this extensive history of lawsuits make it any harder to write a good story?

It’s always hard to say things exactly. And this was a particular exercise, because it had this additional legal component. Fortunately, The New Yorker had a tremendous commitment to this story. We had a fact-checker on the story – I started the story in March, and in August, I turned in the first draft. The New Yorker had two checkers on it then, and then one of those checkers stayed on it full-time from August until we published it in February.

At the end, we had five checkers. Even the head of the fact-checking department pitched in a little bit. It was an extraordinary effort on the part of the magazine. Of course our lawyer read innumerable drafts of it. It was extremely carefully vetted. It was quite impressive to see the resources deployed in that way.

After 40 years, maybe you just don’t get intimidated, but did all that not in any way stymie or hamper your attempt to make a good story out of it? Did it make any difference at all before the fact checkers came in, when you were just starting to think about how to tell the story?

I feel like as long as you can write the truth, then having lawyers carefully reading the piece for any vulnerability is not really – let’s just say that I would want whatever I write to be accurate. Certainly, it’s challenging to be writing a piece that is going to be so carefully scrutinized, but I would like to think that was possible for all of my work to stand up to that kind of scrutiny. In that sense, I don’t think it was different.

The disputed war records make a wonderful ending to the piece. Without you having to say so directly, the evidence suggests that the mythology of the church has corrupted the facts reaching all the way back to before Hubbard even founded Scientology. When did you know you would close with that?

When they came to The New Yorker. It was an amazing scene. It was one of the most amazing scenes I’ve ever experienced as a writer. The chief spokesperson of Scientology, Tommy Davis, and his wife and four Scientology lawyers appeared with 47 volumes of supporting material to respond to our 971 fact-checking queries. I had been trying to interview Tommy Davis since I began the story, and he wouldn’t talk to me. Finally, I had my opportunity to talk to him.

But of course it’s in this audience of their delegation, plus me, our two checkers on the story at the time, the head of the checking department, my editor [Daniel Zalewski], our lawyer and David Remnick, who appeared in the room to welcome everyone then sat down and did not get up until eight hours later because it was such a riveting day.

I was wrung out at the end of it, but it was my one chance to have the opportunity to really talk to Tommy Davis and church officials and try to get as much information as I could. I wanted to make the most out of it. But the scene itself was quite striking, and I had the sense immediately that it would figure into the story.

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