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June 24 2013

13:42

How’d you find that hijacker story, Brendan Koerner?

Brendan Koerner‘s new book, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, dropped last week to critical acclaim. It tells the story of a pair of unlikely hijackers (a “troubled Vietnam vet;” a “mischievous party girl”) against the backdrop of American air travel in the 1960s and ’70s, when a hijacking occurred nearly once a week. Koerner writes:

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 11.29.17 AM

Koerner goes on to hold his readers in thrall. Of the book the New York TimesDwight Garner wrote: “…It’s such pure pop storytelling that reading it is like hearing the best song of summer squirt out of the radio. Both the author and his subjects are so audacious that they frequently made me laugh out loud.” Garner’s engaging synopsis:

The best move that Mr. Koerner makes…is wrapping all his information around one incredible single story, that of a veteran named Roger Holder and an imposingly beautiful would-be hippie named Cathy Kerkow, who in 1972 hijacked Western Airlines Flight 701, on its way from Los Angeles to Seattle, as a vague protest against the Vietnam War.

bookauthorpageThis event started small. It grew big and shaggy, as if a vision concocted by the director Robert Altman. It became the longest-distance skyjacking in American history. The plane ended up in Algiers.

Along the way, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver and Jean-Paul Sartre became involved. Astrology charts were consulted midflight, and a lot of marijuana was smoked while cruising over the American heartland. Mr. Holder and Ms. Kerkow joined the mile-high club. Did I mention that while they were in the air, a second plane was hijacked over American airspace?

The couple became folk heroes of a sort, Bonnie and Clyde at 33,000 feet. Later they would mingle in Paris with movie stars and the social elite…. 

Koerner, who writes for Wired and others, told Longreads how he came across the idea:

On the morning of October 11, 2009, I encountered the 616-word newspaper story that would change my life. It was a New York Times report about a man named Luis Armando Peña Soltren, a former Puerto Rican nationalist who had helped hijack a Pan Am jet to Cuba in 1968. After spending the next 41 years living in Fidel Castro’s socialist ‘paradise,’ he had decided that he could no longer bear to remain apart from the wife and daughter he had left behind. So at the age of 66, Soltren had voluntarily returned to the United States. He had been arrested the moment he stepped off his plane at JFK Airport; he now faced a possible life sentence if convicted of air piracy.

I was first struck by how much Soltren’s longing for his family had slowly swelled as the years flew by; it had taken him over four decades to muster the courage to risk his freedom for a chance to see his wife and daughter again. (I’ve always been drawn to tales of fugitives and exiles, who must often pay a steep psychological price in order to reinvent themselves.) But the more I thought about Soltren’s predicament, the more I was intrigued by its historical element—namely, the fact that he and two comrades had actually managed to hijack a Boeing 707 to Cuba in the first place. The New York Times piece gave the impression that such crimes were run-of-the-mill during the Vietnam Era. Given the airport security gauntlets we’re forced to endure these days, that seemed an almost unfathomable notion.

Read the rest here, on Longreads, along with an excerpt from the book.

Further Koerner reading recommendations:

—Koerner dissects Scott Anderson’s “The Hunger Warriors” for “Why’s this so good?”
—”How’d you find that secret-compartments story, Brendan Koerner?” in which he backstories a Wired piece.
Piano Demon: the globe-trotting, gin-soaked, too-short life of Teddy Weatherford, the Chicago jazzman who conquered Asia, via The Atavist

May 10 2013

15:46

How’s it going with The Big Round Table and other narrative ventures, Michael Shapiro?

As if longtime Columbia J-school professor Michael Shapiro didn’t already have enough to do, with Big Round Table launching in September: Yesterday he put 17 of his students’ stories online in a pay-what-you want experiment. Project Wordsworth runs for the next week. The idea intrigues us* and we’re interested to see what will happen. As of this morning Project Wordsworth had seen 5,000 page views and the writers, Shapiro said, had earned more than $1,000. Excerpts from a few of the stories:

W.125th to 99 Madison Avenue: 30 minutes on the 1 and N trains according to Google, which was five minutes off. Apparently, Google doesn’t account for 4 inch heels in their walking and transfer time estimations. Seat: Yes. Ambiance: 4. Time in transit: 35 minutes. The OpenData NYC meet-up was hosted at ThoughtWorks, one of the many Manhattan tech start-ups indistinguishable from each other with their fridges full of beers and vague mission statements. ThoughtWorks was unusual only in that its offices were in Midtown rather than the downtown corridor of the original “Silicon Alley.” (from “The Little Blue Book: The Worlds of Commuting Obsessives,” by Madeline K.B. Ross)

Sitting on a plastic bed in the in-patient/out-patient wing of the Weinberg Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins with an IV connected to a catheter that had been implanted in my chest, things were looking up. It was 2008 and I was 28 years old, and due to a recent battery of high-dose chemotherapy that had left me with maybe one white blood cell, which I’d named Melvin, I had to wear one of those surgeon’s masks at all times to keep the world’s germs out of my face. Here I was, if you can imagine, bald and eyebrowless with a paper mask over my mouth, a tube coming out of my chest, the picture of cancer, and things were looking up. Scans showed that the cancer (along with just about every other cell in my body) was disappearing. (from “Healing Me Harshly,” by Keith Collins)

Kathryn Denning spends a lot of time studying scientists who think about aliens. Denning, an anthropologist at York University in Canada, is fascinated by the idea of The Other in relation to humans. Her recent research has focused on how scientists think about the evolution of intelligence in relation to hypothetical extraterrestrials, ethical difficulties and the future of the human colonization of Space. A big reason we’re so drawn to space, she told me, is “its importance in traditional culture.” We all share the experience of looking up at the stars and trying to make sense of it all. “It tends to get intertwined with the heavens and Heaven and we think of it as a place of revelations and knowledge and dreams,” Denning said. (from “Cosmic Postcards: The Adventures of an Armchair Astronaut,” by Kamakshi Ayyar)

In the days and months that followed I replayed the incident in my head over and over again. It seemed so unreal that I often questioned whether what I saw actually happened or if I dreamed it all up. What always made it real again was not the image of a man jumping but the memory of the jolt the train made as it ran over his body. I needed to know who this man was. I looked in the newspapers but found very little. I learned that his name was Dwight Brown and that he was 27 years old. He lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Then the trail dried up. It was as if this man’s trace of life vanished. I thought if I could find more about this man, meet his family and friends, I would be able to make sense of that morning. (from “The Witness,” by Mary Ann Georgantopoulos)

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 4.51.05 PMShapiro also gave us a status report on his larger project, The Big Round Table, a Kickstarter-funded web-based publisher of longform narrative that attempts to crowd-curate storytelling by bypassing the “gatekeepers” of publishing and posting what readers say they want to read. Stories get greenlighted by a cooperative of journalists “committed to the future of big narrative ambitious nonfiction” based on the first 1,000 words. Writers earn $1 of every sale. We talked to Shapiro last night by email. Here’s some of the discussion:

Storyboard: You went big with the pitch: “There is a revolution taking place in journalism. With it have come possibilities for writers who despaired of ever finding a way to make a living at their craft. Writers are now freed from the constraints of convention in telling their stories and from the commercial needs of editors and publishers, who determine what tales get told. That, in turn, means a new era of creativity for authors of narrative nonfiction—new writers, new stories, new audiences waiting for a friend to say, Here’s a story you’ll want to read. The Big Roundtable is more than a digital publishing platform; it is a movement, one that we believe can expand the possibilities for writers, and readers.” Where’d this idea come from?

Shapiro: It came from, how best to put it, 35 years of writing for a living—in newspapers, magazines, and books, and seeing how the publishing world felt as it were shrinking, while all around it, the world was expanding. Believe me, I felt the pinch. There was ever more pressure, especially when it came to books, to come up with ideas that were sure to sell. Well, how is anyone supposed to know what will sell, other than genre fiction? At the same time, magazines were feeling ever more predictable, and had been for years. For several years I was a judge at the National Magazine Awards, and found ever more that while the stories I was reading while not bad, seldom lifted off the page. The writing had become so formulaic, so safe—anecdotal lede, nut graf, quote from eminent sociologist. It was ever harder to find a story that you sensed a writer needed to tell. And we all know the difference. We know what it is like writing a story that burns inside of us, and a story that is, well, interesting. The result was a landscape of predictability. Why were journalists, smart and eager journalists, constrained, when writers of creative fiction were freer to experiment and push? What happened to the New Journalism revolution? I cannot believe it peaked a generation ago. Where was the surprise?

You had a $5,000 Kickstarter goal and took in nearly $19,219, from 220 backers. Who gave, and why?

People we know—God bless them. And a lot of people we’d never heard of who contributed generously and who sometimes wrote to say, Hey, cool idea. I have a story. Can I send it along? The answer was, and is, always yes. (Pitches should go to TheBRTable@gmail.com.)

“Now everyone can be a writer and a publisher,” you said in your campaign. Please explain. 

I suspect every writer falls asleep and dreams that come the dawn they will become the next Amanda Hocking, that from the acorn of a few sales via Amazon to friends will spring the mighty oak of best-sellerism. Pretty to think so, no? The problem isn’t one of production or dissemination; no one needs a publisher to print and sell. The problem is audience. How do you find one, and make people feel as if their lives will be lessened if they don’t read your work?

But hold on: There’s still a gatekeeper aspect, because BRT ultimately decides which stories move forward. No?

Shapiro

Shapiro

Yes. But. The gatekeeper is not me. Lord knows if it were me there would be a surfeit of baseball stories. Who is to say that my taste, or any other individual’s tastes, is superior? I may be skilled at seeing where a story slips and can be improved. But I enjoy no monopoly on taste, and nor does anyone else. And so, we’re experimenting, yes experimenting because in a venture like the BRT we are in a permanent state of beta, with the idea that if you ask a small group of readers what they think about a story, you improve the chances of achieving that rarest and most sought after quality in a story: surprise. In an early—call it alpha—version of the experiment, we asked people to read full drafts. Huge mistake. Because presented with a story, writers cannot help but take out their red pens and try to fix things. So, we wondered what would happen if we asked those same people to read, say, the first 1,000 words. Takes five minutes. You can do it on your phone waiting for your tall soy latte. All we asked was: Do you want to read more, or no thanks? Quick response, and much more useful. It told us whether the story had an audience. Why 1,000 words? Because—and here, I am drawing more on experience than data—if you can nail the first 1,000 words of a story, the odds are good that you’re on your way.

Curation is the thing right now—Longreads, Longform.org, etc. You describe the project as a platform “through which writers of nonfiction stories too long for most magazines, and too short for most publishers, can find their readers,” but that also describes, sort of, platforms like Byliner and, to some extent, Kindle Singles, which publishes stories too long for a magazine and too short for a book. How does BRT differ from those?

All our content is original. Byliner does some original work, but mostly curated; they’ve been very kind about curating my stuff. I know David Blum, who edits Kindle Singles, and think he is a very smart editor. But in the end, David, talented as he is, is the gatekeeper. We’re trying something different.

The idea is that a happy reader will (and can) share the story with three friends, which is encouraged through the BRT model. The sharing aspect seems central to this concept. Why the sharing? 

Think about it: When you choose what you read for pleasure is on the basis of a) a review, b) something you heard or read about, or c) because a friend, not a Facebook friend but a living breathing want-to-get-dinner-this-week friend, said, You Have to Read This! I’ve asked this question many times to many different groups of people over the past year and the answer always comes up C. It is all about sharing. The question is, How do you replicate that moment at scale? That, in the end, is what this is all about. Again, it is all about increasing the chances of finding under your nose a story that is surprising.

Writers will make $1 per sale. How will you handle the operational transparency aspect with writers? How will writers know precisely how well their work is doing and whether they’re getting their fair share? 

We will do so contractually—no writer should ever for a moment think, Jeez, these guys aren’t being straight with me. That would be bad on so many levels.

You use the term “nonfiction novella,” the kind of language that makes a lot of people nervous. What does that term mean, from BRT’s perspective?

It means too long for most magazines and too short for a conventional book. Say, 5,000 to 30,000 words. Loosely. There are so many times I wished I had more space—and I have written 17,000-word magazine stories. I also can look at my books and think, you know, I think this would have been perfect at 40,000. If my publisher reads this they will not be pleased. Sorry fellas.

Where does this project live? Looks like you’ve got Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter covered.

It lives on the Internet because we live in a world where it is ever clearer that the Internet—and by this I mean the great amorphous amalgam of feeds and inboxes—decides what shall thrive. There is a terrific book by the sociologist Duncan Watts called Six Degrees—as in, yes, six degrees of separation—that captures as well as anything I’ve read the science of social networks. Watts is a pal of Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed and HuffPost fame, and they take different views of network creation. Peretti, a born optimist, believes that it is possible to tweak a budding network into something larger. Duncan takes a less sunny view. I fall someplace in between but veer toward Jonah. The Internet feels to me like a lava lamp, bubbling around, waiting for someone or something to tip it and get all that action flowing a certain way. Does this analogy make me sound like a Dead Head?

Yes. In a good way. The first story runs in August. What’s in the lineup? Can you give us some idea of the first few pieces?

Some great ones, and I will do so as cryptically as I can, so that people might think, “cool:” Inside the Albanian Mob; My Weekend at Adolf’s; How Disco Never Died; The Mother of Creedmoor; Of Inmates, Fire, and Death; The Miracle on Molokai. And those are but a few.

Generally speaking, are BRT stories those that got rejected elsewhere?

Maybe. We look at the stories as stories. We don’t ask them to come with a CV.

It can be hard enough getting phone calls returned when you’re on staff, but when you’re working without an institution attached to your project, how do you represent yourself? How would you advise a prospective BRT author to identify herself?

I am a writer with a story to tell. Here it is. Our promise is that people will read the first 1,000 words.

Will the authors report/write the whole piece on spec and then hope the thing flies with readers? So much of great storytelling depends on the reporting. You need to report enough to write a great top, since readers will green light the piece (or not) based on the first 1,000 words, but that puts writers working without a net. Say you spend three months reporting enough just to get a great opening, but then nobody bites. That’s three months you just spent, for nothing. Or no?

Out there, as I write, I know, just know, that there are all these wonderful writers with stories burning in their notebooks who are thinking, “There is more to this story than 700 words.” Maybe the New Yorker? The Times magazine? Maybe. But the odds aren’t good. I know this because I have been that writer and I wanted to tell that story and yes, I wanted to be paid for it. But I needed to tell it. And to put my money where my mouth is, I’m working on one now for the BRT. I really need to tell this one. No advance.

Who is your envisioned audience?

Ah, that is the $64,000 question. We have an incredible story in which a woman recounts her banker father slowly drinking himself to death. (Trust me, you cannot put this one down.) Is that only for an audience of children of alcoholics? Or will others, for whom this bears no direct connection to their lives, nonetheless see in the story a quality that speaks to them, that surprises them?

Who will edit the stories? Will there be fact checkers? Copyeditors? How will the actual editorial process work?

We have my all time favorite editor working with us, Mike Hoyt, the longtime editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Best hands, as they say, in the business. If we don’t have terrific stories, and yes fact-checked stories, we are nowhere. But it is not Mike’s job to choose. It is his job to lift those stories, with the author.

You have a stated goal of studying “how people find, read, fall in love with a share stories” and becoming “the research lab of the longform revival” by gathering data that “will at long last illuminate what happens when one friend feels compelled to share a story with another.” There’s a longform revival?

Don’t you think so? Look at all these ventures—Atavist, Longform, Longreads, to say nothing of these heretofore impossible to imagine stories in the Times and elsewhere.

We like “longform” without the hyphen. Looks like you do too.

Cleaner, no?

You’ve said a paid staff will produce BRT. Paid how? Who’s on the masthead?

We have some money from Kickstarter and hope to start getting more—grants, we hope. We have a small staff: Mike, me; our product manager is a journalism school grad, Anna Hiatt. We’re being assisted by Rashmi Raman, who is our engineer, Anna Codrea-Rado, who manages the audiences and our designer, Eleonore Hamelin.

You’ll sell directly from the BRT website rather than through a distributor like Amazon. Why?

Because Amazon does not share all its data. And we want, need, to be able to see and test and iterate.

Whom do you envision as your typical writer?

The writer with a story he or she is burning to tell. Really, it is that simple.

The goal is to understand how readers find, read and fall in love with work, and share it. Assuming you figure that out, what next?

Heaven knows. We’re making this up as we go along. I am learning what it means to be involved in a startup.

 

(*having had some experience with it ourselves) 

August 23 2012

14:17

May 03 2012

13:35

May 26 2011

17:00

#Longreads is becoming more social (and making a play at sustainability)

Last month, Rolling Stone brought three of its reporters to a Manhattan bookstore for a standing-room-only conversation about long-form journalism. The event was co-hosted by a hashtag.

At the time, #longreads, along with its associated Twitter feed, had just reached its second birthday. Founder Mark Armstrong had made the tag ubiquitous as a source for great nonfiction, helping to prompt the media business’ startled realization that people will actually read long stuff on the Internet. But could Longreads’ crowd of nonfiction fans, nearly 25,000 strong on the web, be mobilized to help support the creation of the stories they loved?

It’s a question that Armstrong is still working on, as he continues Longreads’ development from media-geek favorite to industry standard. (NYT Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren used the tag Wednesday morning to announce the magazine’s latest cover story.)

Longreads’ beginnings were simple: Back in 2009, Armstrong had a 40-minute commute each morning, and he was looking for more stories to Instapaper. (As Oscar Wilde noted, “One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”) Since then, the number of Longreaders has continued to grow. Roughly 80 percent of the articles posted on the feed each day come from user recommendations, Armstrong said. And the hashtag is starting to be used in new ways, including to recommend short fiction.

Armstrong and his three-person design/programmer team recently introduced “Longreads Pages,” which allow readers to browse longform recommendations according to the Twitter handles of the recommenders. (Armstrong compared this to the voyeuristic pleasure of going to someone’s house and checking out his or her bookshelves.) The pages automatically aggregate #longreads tweets from individual users — @michellelegro or @alexanderchee, for instance. ”There are a lot of very diverse takes and personalities, and we wanted to find new ways to highlight that,” Armstrong said.

Under the Pages framework, publications that use the hashtag, including The Atlantic, the New York Review of BooksSlate, Time, and the Boston Review, also get their own pages. According to proper Twittiquette, these magazine feeds usually include some recommendations from fellow publications, as well as their own #longreads offerings. (And at least one publisher — Farrar, Straus and Giroux — is using its Longreads page quite deliberately to tout its authors.)

Armstrong said Longreads’ new social-sharing focus will continue in real life, as well.  He has a few more events with other publishers in the works, he says, and aims to make social gatherings a regular part of the Longreads experience. Having assembled a group of enthusiasts, Armstrong wants to explore different ways of bringing them together.

The big goal of this kind of community-building would be to use Longreads to help with longform’s supply-side woes. “Up to this point, the way we’ve viewed support is simply eyeballs and attention,” he said. So “the question on everyone’s minds is how to financially support the continued creation of that form of storytelling.”

We’ve talked about the long-form conundrum at the Lab before. Long stories often top publications’ most-read lists, but they are also some of the most expensive, time-consuming kinds of journalism to produce. And the number of magazine pages available for long-form has shrunk along with ad revenue.

“Long-term, without getting into specifics, we want to make this more sustainable,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong is enthusiastic about the new, online-only purveyors of longform, including The Awl. At the same time, though, as he told The Atlantic Wire earlier this year, “Traditional publications are still the main source of the most ambitious nonfiction storytelling you’ll find online.”

Still, he’s optimistic. “From what I’ve heard anecdotally, publishers are seeing value in producing longform,” Armstrong said. “They’re seeing traffic.” And that’s in part because “these are stories that are timeless. They are still enjoyable weeks, months, even years after they’re created. You’re creating something with a lot more durability over the long term.”

Longreads itself has a “long tail” of engagement on Twitter, with tweets and retweets still going out months after a story is initially posted. There’s also not very much  difference, he noted, in the enthusiasm and readership for very old #longreads as opposed to very new ones.

But the supply-side problem will not be an easy one to fix, at least for the highest end of longform. Former NYT Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati once noted that the magazine’s cover stories regularly cost upwards of $40,000. At that rate, per my speculative math, even if every single @Longreads follower donated $10 a year to pay for new stories, their joint purchasing power would only fund about six longform projects. That would be great, of course, but on a typical day, the feed posts at least four or five.

Armstrong’s first financial experiment is more basic: finding out whether #longreads aficionados might be willing to voluntarily shell out some cash for the support of @Longreads itself. He is asking for voluntary members at $3 a month, or $30 for a year (plus a Longreads mug). Since the membership push is new, Armstrong wasn’t willing to talk numbers yet (or to provide a size-related adjective). Same deal with the particular perks of membership. “The perks are fairly minimal right now,” he noted. “We hope to add more perks over time, but we don’t want people to come in with that expectation.”

That “no expectations” attitude could transfer to longform more broadly. Despite the heightened media attention to the future of lengthy nonfiction, questions about the fate of the form can be as common as answers. At last month’s Rolling Stone event, managing editor Will Dana said he believed that longform has a crucial place in today’s 24/7 media culture. And yet, as Yahoo’s Joe Pompeo reported, “Asked how he could be so sure of that, Dana hedged. ‘I just think we have to have a basic faith that quality will win out in the end.’”

May 12 2011

15:15

What we’re reading: Hitchens speechless, marathon lunacy and a problematic police sting

From Leslie Jamison’s account of the extreme, bizarre Barkley Marathon to Christopher Hitchens’ meditation on what it means to lose the thing that has helped define him as a writer, here are some of the most interesting things that have been sent to us or that we’ve stumbled across so far this month.

The Immortal Horizon,” by Leslie Jamison in The Believier (via @longreads/@gangrey). The craziest race you’ve never heard of and don’t want to run.

The first race was a prison break. On June 10, 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who shot Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and fled across the briar-bearded hills of northern Tennessee. Fifty-four hours later he was found. He’d gone about eight miles. Some might hear this and wonder how he managed to squander his escape. One man heard this and thought: I need to see that terrain!

Over twenty years later, that man, the man in the trench coat—Gary Cantrell by birth, self-dubbed Lazarus Lake—has turned this terrain into the stage for a legendary ritual: the Barkley Marathons, held yearly (traditionally on Lazarus Friday or April Fool’s Day) outside Wartburg, Tennessee. Lake (known as Laz) calls it “The Race That Eats Its Young.” The runners’ bibs say something different each year: SUFFERING WITHOUT A POINT; NOT ALL PAIN IS GAIN. Only eight men have ever finished. The event is considered extreme even by those who specialize in extremity.

The Long Con,” by Brendan Kiley in the Stranger (via @somethingtoread). Underground culture, conspiracy, and a sting operation that stretched on for years.

Because this story has to start somewhere, let’s begin on any given night in early 2009. It’s probably drizzling, and a cluster of people is standing outside the wooden apartment building on the corner of 11th Avenue and Pike Street, the one with motel-style exterior hallways and severely chipped paint. A lightbulb above one door is glowing green, a signal that visitors are welcome. When the lightbulb glows yellow, visitors are supposed to come back later. When the lightbulb glows red, they are supposed to keep away.

Sometimes when visitors enter the apartment, they’re asked to hand over any weapons they might be carrying—hardly anybody ever is—and sometimes there’s a cursory pat-down. Inside the apartment are a lot of artists, plus a military guy or two on a night away from the base. Some are sitting around a card table playing poker. Others are sitting on couches and chairs, smoking and drinking.

They’re all being watched, but only one of them knows it.

Unspoken Truths,” by Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair. Hitchens, still not going gentle into that good night, talks about what it means for a writer to lose his voice.

To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.

Rewrite,” by Robert Sanchez from 5280. The bitterness and hope of life after death.

Todd woke up three weeks after the accident in the intensive care unit at Littleton Adventist. He regained a bit of weight and was transferred to Craig Hospital in Englewood, a world-renowned center for spinal cord injuries. Six weeks after the crash, he was relearning how to walk and could speak well enough to carry on a conversation. His parents thought he was finally ready to know.

One morning at Craig, Todd Sr. led his son, still in a wheelchair, into a conference room and closed the door behind them. Maryanne was already there. A social worker and a psychiatrist, both from Craig, were also there.

Todd’s father spoke. Three friends were with you: Tony. Michael. Sean. You hit another man in a car. They’re all dead. Todd, they said you were going 93 miles per hour.

Church Burners,” by Pamela Colloff in Texas Monthly. Ten churches burned down in six weeks. Who would do that?

The catastrophic damage caused by fire typically leaves little forensic evidence behind, making arson cases notoriously difficult to solve. (Almost three years after the Governor’s Mansion was nearly destroyed with a Molotov cocktail, no arrests have been made.) ATF agents working on the church fires case had only one advantage: There were ten different crime scenes to be plumbed for clues. By meticulously sifting through the remains of each conflagration, they hit upon a few critical pieces of physical evidence. Culled from the ruins were two distinct sets of shoe prints, a lone fingerprint on a piece of glass, and two microscopic samples of genetic material: skin cells that had been left on both a brick and a rock, each of which had been used to smash in a church window. But who, exactly, this evidence pointed to remained a mystery.

March 08 2011

18:21

What we’re reading: death in all its guises

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

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

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

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

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

THOUGHTS ON WRITING

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

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

February 15 2011

16:46

What we’re reading: the long arc of reporting on Scientology, a different kind of drug war, and a new narrative collaboration

The long-form buzz this last week has been all about Lawrence Wright’s piece on Scientology for the New Yorker, “The Apostate.” It’s ostensibly a profile, but it’s also investigative journalism and a compelling narrative. Wright’s deft storytelling was recently addressed on this site by Roy Peter Clark, who looked at a passage from “The Looming Tower,” Wright’s account of the run-up to the 9/11 attacks.

Wright once again delivers the narrative goods with a 25,000-word story that takes a long time to read, making you miss a meeting or two and maybe skip lunch. The kicker alone is worth the time investment, but there are lots of other elegant moments along the way.

Like many big pieces, the story didn’t happen overnight. Listen to Wright’s podcast about the story and see a sample of disputed documentation from the piece for more clues about the back-and-forth with Scientologists.

Wright himself mentions some of the prior reporting that helped pave the way. The St. Petersburg Times’ three decades of investigating Scientology began in 1979 with coverage that won the paper a Pulitzer the following year. Those efforts continue today, most recently in an ongoing project from reporters Joe Childs and Thomas Tobin. This tireless stretch of reporting laid a paper trail and provided an opportunity to use the church’s earlier responses to dig deeper.

Just how much synthesis and narrative work Wright and the St. Pete staff have done becomes apparent upon reading this impressive but jargon-heavy account from a woman named Bea, who says she spent decades serving Scientology before leaving the church. It clocks in at almost exactly the same length as Wright’s New Yorker piece, and must be invaluable for those investigating the church. At the same time, it shows just how much translation and anthropological work anyone trying to write a general audience piece about Scientology has to do.

For those looking for non-Scientology material to read, we were impressed with the clean, insightful writing of Jennifer Senior in her recent New York magazine piece, “The Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Effexor, Valium, Klonopin, Ativan, Restoril, Xanax, Adderall, Ritalin, Haldol, Risperdal, Seroquel, Ambien, Lunesta, Elavil, Trazodone War.”

We discovered Senior’s story because of a new collaboration between Longreads and Mother Jones magazine. Each week, Mother Jones will feature a top 5 Longreads list for narrative nonfiction junkies everywhere. The partnership has just begun, but we’re already impressed with many of the choices. Check out the lists for Week 1 and Week 2.

Photo of Scientology leader David Miscavige by Robin Donina Serne of the St. Petersburg Times.

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