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May 29 2013

14:27

Get Pinterested, Storyboard style

Join Nieman Storyboard on Pinterest! We’re expanding our reach via categories on everything from reporting resources to tip sheets. Among our growing number of boards:

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 12.09.08 AMNarrative news: Fresh quick reads, pinned daily. Up now: How Twitter is shaping the future of storytelling, via Fast Company.

Nieman store: Links to details about the great and growing number of works published or sold by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, including our popular Telling True Stories anthology and The Future of News as We Know It, by Nieman Journalism Lab, one of our sister publications.

Inspired: Storytelling curios in journalism and beyond. Hemingway’s recommended reading list for young writers; the nine stages of story as told by a vase of flowers; a Dorothy Parker telegram proving all writers suffer; Henry Miller’s writing commandments; Harvard professor Stephen Burt on the intersection between poetry and news (from our sister publication Nieman Reports); former Nieman Fellow Megan O’Grady on the beauty of the counter-narrative.

Interviewland: Q-and-A’s on narrative journalism and more. Conversations, so far, featuring Joan Didion, David Finkel, John McPhee, Hunter S. Thompson, Janet Malcolm, Chris Jones, Joshuah Bearman, and Junot Diaz.

Gear: We’re addicted to great pencils and pens and notebooks and gadgets and organizational ideas — and we like to share. So enjoy that.

Best of Storyboard: Good pieces you might’ve missed, including, for instance, a rollicking storytelling talk with ESPN The Magazine‘s Wright Thompson, and seven storytelling tips from Nora Ephron.

Wish list: We’re hoping someone writes a great narrative about … at the moment, cicadas.

Also: Reading lists, class props, miscellany, tattoos, and more to come.

Have fun in there.

April 27 2012

14:39

Kevin Sack on kidney transplants, kickers, the myth of the daily/narrative disconnect and “The Little Mermaid”

For our latest Notable Narrative we chose Kevin Sack’s “60 Lives, 30 Kidneys, All Linked,” a New York Times story about an unprecedented chain of kidney transplants. We admired the story as a deft and moving example of explanatory narrative, and because Sack, a two-time Pulitzer winner, chose an unlikely protagonist, with deeply touching consequences. How did he pull it off? Here’s our recent telephone conversation, edited for length and clarity:

You were dealing with a huge amount of complicated information. Could you talk a bit about how you organized it, and how you presented it in such a graceful, moving way?

To report “60 Lives,” the New York Times’ Sean Patrick Ferrell, Kevin Sack and Nicole Bengiveno scrubbed in for six surgeries.

It sounds a little silly to say that a story like this wrote itself, but to some extent the material was so compelling that it made the job a little bit easier. There were certain things that I knew were going to have to be included in the roughly 5,000 words I was allotted. Pretty much from the beginning I felt there was going to be a certain logic to writing it in a roughly chronological way, or at least with an emphasis on the first link in the chain and the last link, and with the rest of the story composed of equal parts explanation of how the chains work – the medicine, and what I witnessed in the operating rooms – and the history of these chains, and the best human stories that I could find from within the chain. Before I started reporting, I assumed that at every link there would be a great narrative tale. By definition there had to be: Somebody’s giving up a part of themselves for a loved one. How uninteresting could it be? The challenge was gonna be to find out about as many of those links as possible in the time allotted, given the other things I was going to have to accomplish, and then picking out the best tales. When you look at the story there’s only a handful of stories in it, out of the 30 transplants. There were a lot of great stories left on the cutting room floor on this one, sort of by necessity.

The biggest decision I had to make in terms of how to structure and write it – I longed to simplify the story by focusing on a smaller number of people. I was concerned all along that even if I minimized the number of characters there would be too many characters. I didn’t want it to get bogged down in a long list of names. People wouldn’t be able to keep it straight. And the stories would start to dilute each other. Ultimately I decided that that was wrongheaded.

What do you mean?

The central character was the chain itself. And by definition the chain consisted not of a handful of people but of 60 people. What made it miraculous was that there were 60 participants and that these kidneys flowed relatively seamlessly from one link to the next. And so I decided that to focus on a central character kind of undercut what the story was all about. Once I wrapped my head around that, I think I got more comfortable with the notion of doing it the way I did, with a number of central characters. I kind of dip in and out of each of their tales rather quickly, mainly because I have to. As I was reporting the story, Amy Harmon’s great piece about the autistic couple in love ran, and I was envious because she was able to tell a story that essentially was about the socialization of autistic people through the eyes of a single couple. I was a little jealous and wanted to find a way to do that, but then quickly decided that the point of the (kidney) story is that there were 60 characters, not that there were two.

Where did this story come from?

I’m certainly not the first person to write about these chains. There was a New England Journal of Medicine article in, I think, ’09 that was about the first of these chains that were structured this way, with a Good Samaritan starting a donation to the waiting list and then non-simultaneous operations. So there was a flurry of stories after that, about these chains. I was covering Obamacare at the time. We were sort of in the thick of legislative battle, and it wasn’t something I was going to be able to get to at that point but I filed it away as being interesting.

I had a change of jobs back in the fall, where I got assigned to this new team of reporters created by Jill Abramson to do enterprise stuff on lifestyles. It was sort of broadly defined, and my part was that I going to continue to write about health-related issues. I had a list of story ideas that I put in front of my new editor, Adam Bryant, and he quickly got interested in the kidney-chain story. So I went out to see sort of what had been written, whether there was any room left to do something interesting, looking for, you know, an angle that would sort of give us a reason to do it, and to do it in a big way. My third or fourth call was to Garet Hil, whom I’d started to hear about and read about. He was in the middle of what was going to be the longest chain ever constructed. So I suddenly had my angle. I took it back to Adam and to others at the paper and there was a lot of enthusiasm about it and resources put into it quickly.

Such as?

A very quick decision to make it a big multimedia project. So: photographers assigned, graphic artists assigned, interactive designers assigned, a video journalist assigned. And sort of involvement from people on the masthead at the paper in terms of getting their attention and early signoff, an assumption that we’d probably do it at two pages long. All those things were in place pretty quickly.

Where in the chain was the transplant process at that point?

They were exactly halfway through. I found out about it in early November, and they were in the middle of this long bridge, as they call it, between donations. This was a point where a recipient had been transplanted – their paired donor had yet to donate, typically for some sort of logistical reason. This was the longest pause in the chain. It was from I think late September to early December, almost two months.

Which people in the chain? Could we look at it that way?

Identify which ones?

Yeah.

I think it was No. 16, Rebecca Clark. Yeah. John Clark, No. 15, had received his transplant, and his wife, Rebecca Clark, did not donate until Dec. 5. He had been transplanted on Sept. 28. My initial concern was, Well I’m not gonna be in on the beginning of this and that’s gonna be awkward, to do a narrative that way, because I’m gonna have some stuff that’s much more vivid than the rest of it. In retrospect, I think it ended up being an advantage. First of all, it cut the time of the project in half. For a project like this it was relatively quick: 3 1/2 months from conception to publication.

Wow.

And also, it made what I did see fresher, I think. It wasn’t that difficult to go back and reconstruct the first half of it. And the timing worked out kind of just right, because once I found out about the chain from Garet it gave me a month to get my ducks in a row before surgeries actually started again. So I was able to spend that time reconstructing the first half. I went to New York and spent a day with him at his office on Long Island. I interviewed a lot of doctors and people in the field, read a lot of journal articles, and also was able to get the rest of our team up and moving. They started collecting names and IDs and photos of people in the first half of the chain. Which was a process. So the timing worked out nicely.

I spent most of December kind of running. We had a sort of interesting decision to make: We had a meeting in New York with all the people involved – we had to make decisions about where we were gonna go in terms of actually being at the hospital and watching procedures and interviewing patients. Part of that was gonna be driven by who we thought was interesting given what I knew at that point about the chain, and part of it was gonna be driven by pure logistics. I knew that I wanted to be present for the end of it because I was going to highlight the last recipient. And there also was this great flurry of procedures on the penultimate day at UCLA. There were six surgeries from dawn to dusk that day. So I figured that would be a great place to be, and then fly with the last kidney to Chicago for transplant. But I was worried that what if the chain breaks before we get there, which definitely was possible.

One of the first things I did the first month was, Garet shared all the emails that he sent and received relative to the first part of the chain, and you could see all these different points where things had broken down for one reason or another, and he had had to repair breaches. So I knew that this chain that’s supposed to be 30 transplants long could end up being 17 transplants long and if I was going to be there for the last three or four I’d have nothing to write about. So we decided to pick a surgery early in December, when the chain first started back up, to go and eyewitness, and to focus on those participants so that if disaster struck we’d have something.

I don’t know if you’ve looked at all the stuff online or not –

It’s killer.

We ended up doing a video piece about Cesare and Josephine Bonventre – he’s from Brooklyn, she’s from Toronto, they’re mentioned briefly in the print story because they’re the only example in the chain of a compatible pair, meaning she could’ve donated to cousins, she could’ve donated directly to him, but by donating down the line instead he was able to get an even better matched kidney. Which is kind of the next wave in these chains: It expands matching potential by including compatible pairs. So the day before the surgery I went with a photographer (Nicole Bengiveno) and videographer (Sean Patrick Ferrell) to his place in Bensonhurst and interviewed the two of them at length, went with him to his final dialysis treatment at a clinic in Brooklyn – again, with cameras in tow – and the next morning we all showed up at the hospital at 4:30 in the morning and watched them from the beginning of the day to the end of the day, including both their surgeries. Then we had something in the can that we could use to construct the story if we had to. They’re sort of highlighted on the interactive graphic.

You guys do interactive so well.

It’s great to work with them. It’s real value added to what we do, particularly for a story like this that’s so graphic in nature.

The permissions on this must have been tricky, getting all 60 to participate – well, 59 – for their names to be used, for their photographs to be used. How did you handle that logistically? And why didn’t that 60th person, the one in silhouette in the grid, want to do it?

HIPAA obviously prohibits hospitals from releasing these names or anything about these folks without their express permission in the form of a signed, written waiver. There are 17 hospitals involved. So I went to each of the hospitals. From Garet, I had sort of a spreadsheet that showed the course of the chain with some detail: the gender of the donor and recipient, the year of their birth, a code name – no real names – and the hospital that they were gonna be at on the day of the surgery. That’s pretty much what I had. So I was then able to go to the hospitals, explain the story to them, get them to go to the patients, get the waivers and then put me in touch with the patients.

Wait a minute, though. It’s a miracle that you got any of these people, much less 60. Anytime you have other people asking permission for you, you know how that goes –

Right. The one advantage that I had in this case was that the people doing the asking had incentive to get people to yes. If they got people to yes it meant that their hospital might be mentioned in the story. And these were the PR people who were usually involved. So most of the hospitals were eager to pursue it. And I obviously did some coaching, to fully explain the story to people and what we were doing and how the information would be used. The other advantage that we had, a lot of people who go through this process become real zealots about it – they want to spread the word. They feel that they’re saving lives and that (Good Samaritan donation is) an underutilized strategy and if more people knew about it more lives could be saved.

The person that said no was one of the first that I pursued, because I was basically going in order. I called this hospital in New Jersey, Saint Barnabas, and they were just sort of stunned that this person had declined. They thought maybe he was just having a bad day. They thought it was uncharacteristic and unexpected that he would say no, so I sort of maintained hope. We continued on and you can imagine what it’s like – it’s sort of clerical. You send out these requests and some come back pretty quickly and others you have to follow up on three and four times and eventually they started to come through. But yeah there are 59 pictures and one blank.

It does speak to some people’s reluctance and fear about this whole thing –

Right. I mean, obviously I have no sense for his reasoning for not wanting to disclose. It could be any of a number of things; I respect all of them. I was surprising that such a high percentage of people were willing to put their names and faces out there. Sometimes people just don’t want others to know that they’ve been ill or – I mean there are all kinds of reasons for them to not join in. They just cherish their privacy and understandably so. But there was a bit of a mission-oriented feeling for this, I think, for a lot of the participants.

Beautiful writing. There’s this one sentence: “On and on the chain extended, with kidneys flying from coast to coast, iced down in cardboard boxes equipped with GPS devices and stowed on commercial aircraft.” That’s a whole procedure that you just managed to collapse as one gorgeous sentence. You’ve collapsed time, you’ve made procedure easy for the reader to follow.

one of Sack's notebooks

One thing I did that I don’t always do, even for long narrative projects like this, is, I outlined. I sort of methodically over a period of days went through my notes, kind of made a list of key points and key scenes and key characters, and then roughly organized them. And pretty much followed that structure. It certainly was deliberate, to try to write it in a restrained manner because the material itself was so strong and emotional and so potentially prone to purple prose. You do enough of those and you come to realize that if your material’s good enough you just don’t need to overwrite it. Not that there’s ever a reason to overwrite anything, but you know what I’m saying. Beyond that, I really do feel like I just sort of followed the outline and constructed these scenes. I had to show discipline in terms of what we included and excluded. The original draft was not that much longer than the final one – I think just a few hundred words, and lots and lots of editors touched it before it got in the paper. I must say, all made really good suggestions and improved the story.

There’s one interesting tale about all this. The last line of editing is (Executive Editor) Jill Abramson. On the Friday before publication – and I think it was the Friday that she was rushing out the door to fly to Beirut to console Anthony Shadid’s widow and children – but before she got on the plane she ordered that I change the kicker on the story.

Oh!

So here we are, it’s been through umpteen levels of editing at this point and everybody’s signed off on it, and the executive editor is ordering up a change at the last minute. The issue was – the initial kicker had to do with this story that the final recipient, Don Terry, tells, that I just found irresistible, about how in late November, before he knows that he’s getting this kidney, he’s out with his cousin and her two young children, and they go to this sporting good store because they know Santa is gonna be there for photographs with kids. And the kids get on Santa’s lap and then as a goof Don and the cousin get on Santa’s lap and Santa says, “So, young man, what do you want for Christmas?” And Don says, “Well, Santa, the only thing that I want is a kidney. That’s all I want.” And Santa sort of plays along, looks him in the eye and says, “I think you’ve been a good boy this year. I think you’re gonna get that kidney.”

Ugh.

And two weeks later he gets the phone call from the transplant surgeon saying: “You’ve got the kidney.” Jill thought it was too much, that it was over the top and melodramatic, even though it happened and was real. Her point was exactly yours. The rest of the story had been written in this restrained sort of underwritten way, to some extent, and this was going to be jarring to the reader. This was all communicated to me through deputies but I think her sense was that I’d just sort of gotten to the end and I just couldn’t help myself.

(laughter)

I just couldn’t get all the way through without letting one rip.

That’s awesome.

So I sort of resisted and kicked the dirt a little bit, but in the end it didn’t matter because she’s the executive editor and I’m not. But in retrospect I think she was probably right.

I think so too.

And we found a decent alternate.

You found a great alternate. It’s forward-looking, whereas a Santa ending would’ve been a dead end.

I hate to say it but sometimes the executive editor of the New York Times can be a smart person.

So, the response to this piece – what has been the impact so far?

Well, they got a nice surge of offers of Good Samaritan donors both at the National Kidney Registry and at transplant centers individually. The National Kidney Registry had 426 donor registrations, Good Samaritan donors, in February, when the story ran. That compares to 120 in January, 81 in December, 79 in November, 70 in October. And then they had 300 patient referrals to member centers. These are patients coming in with paired donors, and that was more than three times the usual number. There was lots of sort of media follow-up. Diane Sawyer did a big piece on ABC. Lots of local TV. BBC did a piece.

And then there was a recent conference involving the debate about whether to create a national registry.

There was this consensus conference near D.C. where a bunch of specialists got together – surgeons, transplant coordinators, nurses, patients, insurers – to discuss the future of the field and look at ways to increase the number who get transplants this way. One of the key things on the table is whether there should be a single national registry, which the mathematicians and to some extent common sense tell us would presumably increase the number of transplants made possible. The bigger your pool the more potential matches you can make. A committee of this group recommended doing exactly that, which for the moment is likely to mean exactly nothing. It’s purely a recommendation. It’s a sense of direction of a committee of this group.

There’s a lot of transplant politics involved. These different registries compete with each other. They have different philosophies. They’re all virtually unregulated by the government at this point and there’s nothing constraining them from operating the way they want to. It’s not my sense that there’s going to be much change anytime soon. Garet Hil, the guy that’s featured in my story, has the most successful of these registries and he doesn’t see much of a reason to change the way his is working. He feels like he’s got a model that’s getting transplants done, and he’s concerned that any sort of merger, particularly a merger that puts him more at the mercy of government regulation and oversight, is going to decrease the number of transplants he can accomplish.

Speaking of Hil, this isn’t a traditional narrative in that we’re not following one or two main characters, we’re not using a ton of dialogue, but you are following, as you said, the arc of the chain itself and then looking at these little narratives along the curve. But there’s this sort of overarching hero in Hil – the former Marine recon ranger with a background in quantitative math, who started the registry after his own kid got sick. Another writer might’ve decided that that guy was the narrative and folded the chain around his story. It was a riskier and much more complicated piece of storytelling, what you did.

I think I was driven by my interests – and they were varied – in this subject. I was completely captivated by him. I think he’s a fascinating guy. But I thought there were other fascinating parts to the chain. And to some extent, because he very much deliberately distances himself for ethical and legal reasons from the participants in the chain, if the story had focused more on him it would’ve been at the cost of the other parts of the process, which were all pretty darn compelling. I mean, until I wrote the piece he didn’t have names for these people, for the most part. So more of a focus on him would’ve meant it would’ve been harder to humanize the chain. It would’ve been more about the math of what he does and his personal story.

When you described him as “Disney-hero handsome” which Disney character did you have in mind?

The one that I really had in mind – it ends up being the wrong one to have had in mind because as I thought about it more, he’s not a hero, he’s an oaf. In “Beauty and the Beast” I’m thinking Gaston, who is Belle’s pursuer. I’m extremely familiar with the story right now because I’ve just watched three performances of my stepdaughter in a middle-school production. But yeah, he’s got the same sort of cleft chin. Lots of hair. And he’s not heroic at all – he’s an anti-intellectual. Surely there were other heroes. Prince Eric maybe? In “The Little Mermaid?” I don’t know. Don’t you find Hil Disney-hero handsome?

Uh-huh.

He’s happily married.

Good for her, is what I can say about that. I love how you de-glorified Ruzzamenti by mentioning his carousing, and his “unsmiling presence at work,” and his “surliness,” and his inattention to his parents and grandmother. He’s real.

That’s what I loved about him. He’s such a quirky guy and would be the first to tell you so. We had a really good time interviewing him. I talked to him a couple of times by phone and then spoke to him at his home when we flew out to UCLA for the last part of the chain. He lives in Riverside, which is an hour or two away, so it was convenient. He’s just a real character. I’m not sure that I give the reader a real way to understand him because I’m not sure that I completely understand why somebody, who by his own admission may not be the sunniest or most giving person every moment of every day, becomes an incredibly giving person at this one moment.

Maybe it’s redemption. Maybe if you’re an ass your whole life and you get the chance not to be, you take it.

Yeah. I think there’s certainly – he didn’t want me to overemphasize the notion of his Buddhism and its impact on his decision, because I think he feels he had this in him before he discovered Buddhism, but there’s a certain karma for him. I don’t think he felt, “I’m gonna go do a good thing and it’ll pay off in the next life,” but I do think he has a sense that the good things you do in life at some point have an impact.

The play-by-play of Conor Bidelspach’s kidney removal was so descriptively written: “The slush in the blue bowl turned fruit-punch pink.” And you wrote about a plastic bag knotted shut “like a goldfish brought home from the pet store.” Clearly you’re the father of young children.

(laughter)

You were there for that, though, obviously. You scrubbed in?

Yeah, from beginning to end I saw six different procedures at three different hospitals: the nephrectomies, which is the kidney recovery, and then the transplants. In each case I had photographers and video journalists in the O.R. with us. We scrubbed in, we were in scrubs, with masks and hairnets and note pads and cameras. The doctors seemed to be completely unfazed by the fact that we were there. They’ve done the procedure 100 times a year. And I think two of the hospitals required that we have TB tests. One of them required us to sign various waivers in case there was any havoc in the operating room, any trouble that we caused. But it was all fairly smooth. We just sort of took turns stepping up on a little stepstool just behind the surgeons, peering over into the abdomens as they did their work. With the nephrectomies, there were these screens all around the operating room, showing what’s going on, because it’s all done laparoscopically and there’s cameras inside the cavity, showing what’s happening.

Interesting that you wrote that someone “poured” a kidney. Interesting verb.

I’ve got this vague recollection that that wasn’t the first word I used. An editor may have come up with that choice. I may have said “emptied” or something like that.

“Poured,” with reference to a human organ, is odd in a good way. Unexpected in a good way.

It definitely helped to see the procedures multiple times. The first time out you’re just sort of absorbing it and each time you see it you may think a little more in metaphor and imagery.

Getting back to a conversation you and I were having earlier: We were talking about long-form narrative versus daily reporting.

I’ve never seen the disconnect between hard news writing and narrative reporting and writing. I try to use the same skills. If I’m covering a hard-news story I’m looking for the same narrative elements and the same imagery and the same way of describing something metaphorically that I would when I’m reporting a narrative. I mean, I have the same opportunities to use it, depending on the story and how much space I’ve got. It’s always seemed to me that even the hardest news story is helped by narrative elements. Obviously you deal with them in different ways depending on your format. But I’ve just never seen the distinction. Both ways of telling a story are equally credible in terms of getting at the truth, which is ultimately our goal and our mission.

*Photos courtesy of Kevin Sack

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.

March 30 2012

14:59

Documentary photographer Lori Waselchuk’s “Grace Before Dying” and the ethics of narrative activism

Lori Waselchuk describes herself as a “documentary photographer and arts activist.” We’ve wanted to talk with her for a while about her latest project, “Grace Before Dying,” which focuses on a prison hospice program in Louisiana. In light of the recent discussions around visual documentary and accountability spurred by “Kony 2012,” we also thought she might address the ethical quagmire that documentary activists can fall into when creating stories in communities outside their own.

Waselchuk has worked as a freelance photojournalist for many major U.S. newspapers and magazines. In addition to “Grace Before Dying,” her long-term personal projects include years of gathering images in Africa and tracking the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We talked with her earlier this month by phone about how she approaches her work, and about simplicity vs. complexity in storytelling. What follows are excerpts from our conversation and images from “Grace Before Dying.”

You’ve done freelance photojournalism for Newsweek, Time, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times – and other Times that I’m probably not remembering. And then you have these portfolios of extended projects, like your work documenting a prison hospice program or a hurricane. How do you think of the short-term assignments vs. the long-term projects?

Usually, the short-term assignments are how I get out into the world and I get to learn more about what’s going on. I learn best when I’m face to face with things. And it affects me more deeply than reading about it. So usually my long-term projects come from assignments that I’ve done.

Hurricane Katrina was not just an assignment, it was my experience. So that work is coming from an entirely new place. Even though I did a lot of work for newspapers and magazines while I was working on longer-term projects about New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf, usually the assignments are where I can enrich what I know, and it provides access and introduction. And they also help me earn a living.

I’m particularly interested in “Grace Before Dying.” How did that project get started? Did it come from a photojournalism assignment? How long did you spend on it?

Yes, that started as an assignment. I was commissioned by Louisiana Magazine to do a story, which was unusual. They wanted a photo essay about this hospice program, and so that was my introduction. It took a while to get in, about three months. And then the deadline for the magazine was pushed back as far as they could push it back, but it still came up very shortly after I started working.

I realized after the magazine had published the project that I really wanted to do more work on this, so I asked for permission to come back, not with any publication waiting for work, but on my own to try to see how deeply I could tell this story that was incredibly beautiful and moving to experience and witness.

You did the short-term project, and then when you came back in a more free-form situation. Did you approach the people differently? Did you shift gears?

I didn’t come back as a different person or with a different attitude. I always had the same sort of goal, which was to try to say in photographs how important the work that the hospice volunteers were doing was, and to somehow show the complicated journey that these men were on, and the complicated space in which these men were doing this work.

So photographically, I went from a traditional 35 millimeter digital camera to using the panoramic camera as my main tool. I wanted to see if it could do close-up work. I think this camera is more traditionally thought of as a landscape camera, but I wanted to see how it would describe what I was trying to describe. I thought it worked very well, and so I changed completely how I was approaching the project photographically. I went to black and white film and pursued my personal vision of what the work could be.

Can you talk about exactly who you were photographing at Angola, and what Angola is?

Angola is the nickname given to the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It was given that name when the land that the prison was built on was a plantation, for a century and a half. It was nicknamed after the people who were brought in as slaves. Most of the slaves came from the Angola slave port. And it kept that name, but it’s really the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Louisiana’s maximum security prison.

The program I was photographing was the hospice program, where both the patients and the volunteers are incarcerated. The volunteers are incarcerated serving either life sentences or very long-term sentences, as are the patients. I was really interested in how you get to that place of incredible humanity and love and selflessness in an environment that’s designed to punish and isolate. And also coming from a history that was most likely filled with violence or hurt, they are extraordinary examples of what we are capable of as human beings.

I don’t mean to put them on a pedestal, because they definitely have their problems. They’ve got their difficult days. And they’ve got a terrible history, most of them. In spite of all of that, what mattered at that moment was someone else.

You work the humanitarian side with your projects, and the journalism side of things, too. Do you see yourself as a storyteller, an advocate or something else entirely? What are you trying to do with your work?

This is a very crucial moment for me, because I’m in the middle of what’s possible, and what’s survivable. Right now, I consider myself a storyteller, and I feel like that’s my primary mission, but I’m interested in placing my work in community.

When I’m shooting, I’m in storyteller mode, and that to me is creatively wonderful and challenging. With the “Grace Before Dying” project, I think about how important it is to have the conversation around the work.

So through that I’ve built this traveling exhibit that was designed for prisons, initially, and it continues to tour the country in all kinds of venues. It moves around through grass-roots efforts. So small organizations can bring it to their community, and they move it around their community, and they then take charge of how this body of work inspires the conversation they’re interested in maintaining and putting in front of the public.

It’s been a powerful example to me in how I can really direct thoughtful and engaging conversations based on my own work. It’s also let me research how other photographers are trying to do this kind of work and getting their work out in the world.

I guess I’m both. The storytelling comes in the gathering of images, and the advocate comes in asking, “How do we then put this in community and encourage an intellectual or an emotional conversation, or both?” You want people to be smart, and also to feel.

When you think of a print story that’s a narrative, something in the story usually changes over time. Do you think of your work as having a narrative component? How do you think of visual storytelling?

In the book, the sequence had sort of a narrative structure. It’s not about the same people, but I had different ideas and aspects of the program that I wanted to show. So I brought people through the care part, and I also wanted to describe the prison and then (go) into the final days. It felt very sequential.

I think it was important for it not to be cryptic. It’s such an emotional story, I needed to ease people through it. I approached care, the final days, and then the dignified funeral. In the book, that’s the way it went.

It went almost the same way in the exhibition. The exhibition came first and broke down the different aspects of the program. I built it for other correctional facilities to host, because I really thought people could use the information to trigger conversations on “How can we incorporate some of these things in our end-of-life care program?” or “Can we start an end-of-life care for our prison population?” So I really broke it down into the different programs and how they helped the families of the prisoners, and how they did their own caregiving, the different aspects of it. The exhibition started out as an emotional but informational project.

The film “Kony 2012” has been in the news a lot this month.

I’ve been watching it.

It’s spurred a lot of discussions about voice and who gets to document stories. As someone who has gone many times to Africa, how do you weigh the question of telling someone else’s story in pictures?

It’s been a fundamental question I have continued to ask myself. I was based in Africa for 10 years. I have been asking myself that since the beginning, and it continues to push me. And I think that, more than anything, pushes my personal projects. I feel like my personal work – I don’t make it for anybody but myself. I can control how it moves in the world and how it’s seen.

The “Grace Before Dying” project has been transformative in a way, in that I have been able to do what I do, which is make photographs that focus on human connection and empathy and have an understanding of the way I am inspired by our best – the best in us.  I’ve been able to jump outside of the working world and create something that has its own life, has its own distribution qualities. It continues to resonate with audiences.

I feel like even the traveling exhibits are collaborative. The quilts that travel with the exhibit are made by the hospice volunteers. So their hands, their work, their own visual art are part of the photographic story. That collaboration will influence my future projects. And as I think about future work, collaboration with community is going to be part of how I work in the future. How the work is placed is fundamental to an ongoing conversation that I have with myself about telling other people’s stories.

Who does it benefit? What is the value of the information of the issue versus the empowerment of the actual community being affected by the story? All of these issues continue to be part of how I work.

I think when I’m working on my own projects, when I turn the story about the hospice program into a personal project, with nobody needing this work from me, I’m able to pursue a more honest line of thinking and produce work where I can slow down and have conversations with people, like the guys at the prison.

For people just coming up, who maybe haven’t had as much time to ponder these issues, one clear suggestion that rises out of what you just said is to think about what kind of role your work will have in the community and collaborate with the community. Do you have other tips for how people can approach something like a “Grace Before Dying” project?

Look outside the traditional field of journalism for inspirations on how to get your work out. Right now I’d say the Internet can be considered traditional. To me in journalism, your feet have to be on the ground. You have to be interacting with people. You can’t report without coming face to face with people and feeling as well as hearing as well as seeing. How can you honestly translate that in different ways?

Think of a way to get your project out in different directions. You can publish in a magazine. You can publish online. You can put prints up somewhere. You can have a conversation with your subjects about how they might want to see it.

Certainly “Grace before Dying” has been published around the world by magazines and newspapers, but nothing can compare to the way an exhibit creates conversation out in the community. It gathers people around a topic in different ways and inspires different kinds of conversations. But always the conversations are intense and, I think, enlightening.

Can you talk more about “Kony 2012”?

The great thing about it is that it’s an in-your-face example of so many things. I can list like 10 things off the top of my head.

Do you want to talk about some of those things?

I was alerted to this by my 13-year-old daughter, as it seems like many people out in the field were. She came to me and talked about it. Ten years ago I (had done) a story on the reintegration camps up in northern Uganda, so I told her about my experience.

Then the emails (about “Kony 2012”) started coming in, with all kinds of different conversations: “This is good,” because now everyone knows about him, or “This is bad,” because it doesn’t really represent the situation. It got very interesting. There were people who tried to look at it broadly.

Very few people talk about who’s funding the Invisible Children, besides all the people who want wristbands to demonstrate their concern for another continent’s conflict. The source of funding is always something that needs to be gone to first, but it still hasn’t reached that point. The self-serving documentary where the subject is not the actual issue, but the person who made the documentary is the issue – you can’t get a clearer example of having a documentarian incorporate himself in a story. That was to me truly bizarre.

I struggle with the viral video a lot. I don’t see a lot that’s helpful, except for how it helps this organization. And a lot of people disagree with me, but I think that part of the thing that I like to do with my work is to introduce complexity in a way that people can absorb it and maybe start to think about it and not decry a situation by making it simple, with a good guy and a bad guy.

I hope that’s what “Grace Before Dying” does, because these are the last guys on earth that we would consider to be heroes. They’re serving life sentences in Louisiana’s maximum security prison. So I think that trips people when they see this story – and angers some, but I really believe that we are more than our worst act. We have to be.

Here I’m coming into the advocacy thing – I think our prison system is unwieldy and overarching. We need to find a way to reduce sentences to make them more in line with international standards, reduce our incarceration rate and find a way to reintegrate felons and people who have served prison time, so our prison system gets reduced rather than continuing to grow.

What do you say to those people who argue that to convey a story to a big audience, you have to take off the rough edges of the complexity? That you have to tell the truth but not get lost in the complexity?

I do think you can take off some of the rough edges, but I also really think you can draw people in with a universal. We are connected to each other in really fundamental ways, and in order to tell stories that will connect with others you have to use those tools and look for common ground.

You can start with that, but you have to deepen the conversation, and you have to be honest about who this is serving, and what your goals are. If the goal is to inform people about the ongoing war and terror that the Lord’s Resistance Army is wielding against people in East Africa, you can certainly boil it down to a few facts, but you probably need to be more specific about what’s going on and clearer about those facts. One of the things that upsets me is that I don’t believe that their goal of capturing Joseph Kony is really their goal. I’m suspicious of it. The movie was just too self-serving. I think they themselves were surprised, but I think their goal was to continue to raise funds for their organization.

I’m kind of cynical, but I just can’t imagine creating a documentary without having the research and understanding the depth of the issue. It was built for the Internet, it wasn’t built for broadcast. It was built to be something they could put up without having any sort of scrutiny before it went out in the world. There was nobody it needed to pass by before it was published; they just put it online. It just makes me wonder what their real intentions were.

All images appear courtesy of Lori Waselchuk.

January 20 2012

16:22

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

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

How did you find the story of Hannah and Andrew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have actually never (outlined) it like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 12 2012

18:59

“Watching the detectives” at the New Yorker Festival

We were sad to miss the New Yorker Festival a ways back, but have finally had a chance to look at some videos from the event, and wanted to deliver a few highlights relevant to storytellers. There were a lot of tempting sessions – Atul Gawande! Janet Malcolm! David Remnick! – but given the number of people who highlighted David Grann’s work on their Longreads end-of-year lists, we took a cue from them and focused on his panel for this post.

Grann hosted a talk with a collection of investigative types – not investigative journalists but people whose careers require them to delve into other peoples’ business. (You can see a free preview of part of the session here). The panel included

Grann noted that he had assembled an unconventional combination of participants but swore some patterns would emerge. And sure enough, a lot of the things that were said about how to approach sleuthing in different fields are relevant to storytellers, even if those of us who aren’t calling out French SWAT teams to make high-security arrests or chasing down murderous mafiosi.

Schiff, when asked what drew her to the art of detection, quoted the adage that “all biography is high-class gossip.” She talked about sneaking from her desk at a publishing house to the New York Public Library on her lunch hour to look at material on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a project she orginally thought she would find someone else to write for the company. She had heard that one of the biographies, perhaps the best one, had been written by his mistress but published under a male pseudonym. Hoping to identify the mistress, she sat at a table with the various accounts piled around her. Eventually it dawned on her that the mystery biographer was the one who had avoided any discussion of his marriage. A lot of biography, concluded Schiff, “is reading the silences.”

Former detective Oldham addressed assessing information in a way that will surely seem familiar to many narrative journalists:

No matter what you’re presented with, half of it is unlikely to be germane to what you’re looking at or what you’re looking for. So you learn to dismiss what seem like perfectly good clues and concentrate on the clues that actually have some meaning.

Furthering the idea was art historian Kemp, who suggested that it’s easy to see what you want to see.

The key thing to me is not to believe your first idea too strongly. Always look for the thing which will erode it. Even if 10 things are good about it, at the 11th thing, you have to say, “If this doesn’t fit, then start again.”

That’s essential, just hard looking, just serious hard looking. That’s a very difficult thing. I was trained as a biologist. Once we were dissecting an animal, and the biology master said, “Let’s look for the gall bladder.” And he said, “How many people have found the gall bladder?” All the arms go up. “Funny thing: This animal doesn’t have one.” Looking is important.

Panelists mentioned peoples’ willingness to lie when questioned, but more than one member pointed out how sources typically viewed as more reliable have their own problems. Grann quoted Schiff as explaining how “documents can be as deceptive as people.” Former CIA agent Baer said that even using what seemed like crystal-clear phone intercepts had backfired, explaining how he once heard a target call for a delivery, giving his hotel room number and verifying that he would be there for a set period of time. After mobilizing the French police to do a midday hotel raid to capture the suspect, the agents crashed through the windows of the room number he had given, only to startle an innocent Spanish family eating lunch.

Kemp addressed sourcing by talking about the process for evaluating a work of art and its provenance:

The job I do is rather simple. We say, What is the source? What is the quality of the source? Is it trustworthy? … You cut back to the most reliable possible sources you can find. And then you assume that the most likely explanation is true. (If) that one breaks down, you go on to the next most likely one.

On whether misinformation is a more serious matter today, digital sources took some heat and then Schiff stepped up to defend the Internet, tracing the role of disinformation going back to Benjamin Franklin and the Revolutionary era (another subject she has treated).

Even with an established set of facts, Schiff noted, it’s not as if the truth comes with a bow. Another biographer had access to the very same material she did – personal letters – and drew very different conclusions from them. “I do believe that every biographer is like a child who impudently connects the dots a little bit differently,” she said, “and that your own personality will somewhat come into play.”

Even though journalists are rarely cast in the role of experts and are more likely to investigate CIA activities than to participate in them, there’s more than one profession from which we can cadge techniques, turning relentless sleuthing into great stories.

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.

January 06 2012

15:15

Ben Montgomery on a cold case: building a story and taking names

This week’s Notable Narrative recounts the murder of Claude Neal by a lynch mob in 1934 and introduces his family, which has been waiting for decades for someone to name the killers and hold them to account. Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery talked with us by phone this week about reporting and writing “Spectacle: the lynching of Claude Neal.” Here are excerpts from our conversation.

There was a line in your piece that made me think you had been working on it since 2009, when you were in Marianna doing “For Their Own Good.” Is that true?

It is. I was spending a lot of time in Jackson County then. You talk to enough people, and pretty soon that story surfaces.

So you don’t remember where you first heard about it?

It may have been as simple as the Marianna, Fla., Wikipedia page. I can’t really recall. I do remember originally thinking it was potentially a story when I was in a hotel room in Jackson County on a “For Their Own Good” reporting trip, and I was just doing some research online. There’s a branch of CNN’s website called “iReport,” or something like that – it allows some kind of citizen interactivity. It was a solitary, random post from Orlando Williams saying, “We need a reporter to take a look to try to figure out who is responsible for the 1934 lynching of my uncle Claude Neal.”

Montgomery working on “Spectacle.” (Click to enlarge.)

I thought, “Well, there’s a willing descendant who could maybe help me tell the story.” So I emailed him originally, and he was completely on board. I was shocked to learn that this had such a large impact at the time. It ran on the front page of the New York Times but had been almost forgotten. Nobody had ever been brought to account for this barbaric act of terrorism. I thought maybe I can take a shot at it, all these years later.

Had the paper already committed to a story on it, or did the FBI involvement in 2011 make the difference?

No, no. We didn’t know anything about the FBI until I had already spent about – obviously I work on different things all the time – but I had invested about a year of reporting on Claude Neal before I heard anything about the FBI’s involvement.

It’s useful for people to know about the time in. It’s not like you can go down, spend a week, and come up with a story like this.

We thought it was a story from the very beginning. It randomly happened that the FBI decided, for the first time in 76 years, to open the case.

When it came to writing, did you think a lot about how to describe the place, the setting?

It’s one of the great challenges in doing historic narrative nonfiction, connecting people in 2011 to a small town in Florida in 1934. How on earth do you do that? So we started in the present, but I wanted, in that section where we kick it back to ’34, I wanted to very quickly, in almost a pretty way – it’s not necessarily poetic, but in some fluid, pretty way – to rattle off this list of items that might help people connect to that time period. … I wanted in this tangible way to immediately stick people in that time period, sort of creating a mental collage of items from that era, with prices as well, give a sampling of what it was like, of how they existed.

Do you think of a bright spine for the story, a main arc? How do you fold in the complicating elements so they become part of the story without running it off the rails?

In my mind, originally this was a story about the lasting effects of a traumatic event, and how trauma is inherited. Because the most surprising thing to me was that 76 years later, Claude Neal’s descendents – even those who never knew him and weren’t born at the time – still deal with the effects of that barbaric mob daily, in real ways. His daughter is wheelchair-bound because of the physical effects, but others still bear these incredible emotional scars.

The original arc was that even though we’ve all forgotten about Claude Neal, there’s a family that was left scattered and destroyed in many ways because of that event. They had finally found a way to reconnect, and they had finally found someone to listen to them.

Meanwhile, there’s another arc; that’s my inquisition. It’s not first person, but hopefully, readers felt the sense that I was taking them along to investigate this old unsolved crime. In a way, that’s the secondary arc in my head. And it’s unfortunately an arc that never gets resolved. If I had gotten someone on the record with the names of those six people, I think that would have become the primary arc, and there would have been a nice big bow on the end of the story, instead of this kind of open-ended finish.

Can you talk about how you approached the ending without a bow?

We had the FBI come in very late in the game and announce that they had opened the case. So in a way it was passing the baton to a government that had failed to do what was right for many, many years. It was such a hard thing to deal with, too, when I learned the FBI was investigating, back in…

I think it was May in the story.

Yes, May. Orlando immediately called me and says, “Guess who was at my house? The FBI.” And I thought, “Oh, my goodness.” I thought about doing a daily story. It was that newsworthy.

We talked about it here and decided no one would connect with that. In some ways, if we were trying to pull off a daily, it would have cheapened the full story. And so we decided to hope that no one else caught wind that the FBI was investigating. We decided to hold onto it and let the thing run in October when we had it all finished.

Did anybody else do any real coverage?

No.

What was the most challenging part of writing the story, not the reporting but the writing?

It was really challenging trying to choose a main character. In many ways, I fell in love with Allie Mae Neal. She’s maybe the sweetest woman besides my own grandmother that I’ve ever met. She’s also a person who was really has become comfortable with not knowing who is responsible for killing her father. While she deals with the incredible pain from growing up without a dad and knowing that this event set her life on its particular haunting course, she had at some point decided that she’ll never know, and that’s okay. She chose to exist in those circumstances and attempt to be as happy as possible.

So she didn’t have an intense motivation to know who killed her father. Orlando did. But Orlando is a step removed from the story, from Allie Mae. Orlando wasn’t alive when Claude Neal was killed. He inherited the trauma because his mother dealt with demons for her entire life, stemming from that incident.

His life was affected because of how she lived, and how she was haunted. He was incredibly motivated. He had a desire, while Allie Mae didn’t really. But he wasn’t quite as appealing of a character as Allie Mae. We talked for a long while about who to go with. We opened with Allie Mae, but we bring Orlando in, and he gives the family its motivation to figure out this crime.

You want a main character to have a wish, and a main character that you can sympathize with. So they kind of both served that main character purpose.

This is the part of this kind of discussion that always makes me uncomfortable: talking about people as characters. These are real folks who are dealing with some heavy shit. And I hate to refer to them as characters, but for the mechanics of storytelling, I guess that’s important.

Picking the main character was hard, but probably harder than that was dealing with this really complicated situation which I couldn’t get anybody to give me those names. How do you deal with that? It kind of cast me in the same role as – put me in a similar ethical situation as – the historian, Dale Cox.

I heard the names, six last names, in conversation, and it was off the record, and it was from someone who couldn’t confirm and wasn’t directly connected. I tried like hell to put faces to those last names, to contact family members of people who might have been there, who had the same last names as the six men whose names I heard, and I couldn’t do it. No one would go on the record with that information. And so it was a really uneasy feeling and a quandary when writing this story. In a way, the fact that the FBI had opened the case salvaged the story. Otherwise I might still be out there, trying to figure out who those six people were.

You might have been out there hunting forever.

But then we thought, “Let’s put it in the paper. And when the FBI releases its finding, we’ll come back and hopefully be able to provide people with those six names.”

And if not, the mystery continues.

December 01 2011

15:11

Chris Jones on reporting for detail, the case against outlining and the power of donuts

Esquire feature writer Chris Jones came to the Nieman Foundation in November as part of the Narrative Writing speakers series I started at the foundation last year, and spent a couple of hours talking about craft. Jones began his career as a sportswriter for the National Post in Toronto, where he covered boxing, which became the subject of his first book, “Falling Hard: A Rookie’s Year in Boxing.” Without a single magazine byline, and with a whole lot of hubris and a box of donuts, he famously talked his way into Esquire, a legendary home for narrative journalism.

Williams & Jones (photo: Jonathan Seitz)

Now Esquire’s writer at large (as well as ESPN The Magazine’s new back-page columnist), Jones has written about presidential candidates, astronauts, soldiers, movie stars and game shows, and has won two National Magazine Awards, the highest honor in magazine writing. One ASME award was for “The Things That Carried Him,” about the return of a soldier’s body from Iraq, and the other was for “Home,” which became the basis for his nonfiction book “Out of Orbit: The Incredible True Story of Three Astronauts Who Were Hundreds of Miles Above Earth When They Lost Their Ride Home.”

“When you read one of his stories, you’re putting on the Chris Jones suit of clothes and walking through this world, and you’re seeing and feeling things the way he does,” his Esquire editor, Peter Griffin, told me the other day. [Read our 2009 interview with Griffin here, for Jones’ “The End of Mystery.”] “But it’s frictionless. Part of the reason is, he’s obsessive. He works a story until he gets it right.”

On his second day visiting Harvard, Jones appeared with Gay Talese (we’ll post that talk soon). But his first day on campus he sat down with this year’s Nieman fellows to share details about his career and thoughts on writing. What follows are some excerpts from my conversation with him and the discussion with fellows that followed.

You’ve worked in both newspapers and magazines. What adjustments did you have to make in order to move from newspapers to magazines, from the daily news beat?

When I started at the paper I was a beat guy, so I did the 600-word sports stories, mostly about baseball and boxing. Then I started working in features. The paper I worked at was a paper called the National Post, which at the time Conrad Black had sunk a bajillion dollars into, and [it] had exactly no ads, so you could write a 3,000-word feature, and you could pitch anything. I remember we sent one reporter to Mongolia to watch a meteor shower, and it was cloudy so she got no story. And that was my impression of newspapers; that was my first job ever, so I was like, This is how it is. I just didn’t know any better. So I was a feature writer. But then when I started at Esquire my very first sit-down with my new editor was – and this is no insult to anyone who works in newspapers – he said, I don’t want to read a single sentence in your stories that I could have read in a newspaper.

What did he mean by that?

I think sometimes in newspapers you sort of fall into that, you write a paragraph you put in a quote, you write a paragraph, you put in a quote –

Formula.

– formula kind of template-y stuff, and you also write thinking they might cut the last four inches off the story. With a magazine you probably don’t put that many quotes in, the story has more of a full-circle feeling to it. At Esquire if you get assigned 5,000 words you’re gonna have 5,000 words of space. There’s no cutting for space. So it wasn’t so much a language change, it was more a structural change, how the piece fits together.

And I think what you also get in magazine stories that you don’t always have time to do in newspapers is, the story might be about something on the surface but a great magazine story is also about something beyond that – an idea; there’s a theme to it. The story about Joey Montgomery was about his body coming back, but really that was a story about war, and he was one guy representing everybody who died there. In newspapers you maybe don’t get the time to craft that kind of narrative.

Newspaper writers sometimes think, “Oh if I could only write for a magazine I’d have all this freedom,” but then you get into magazines and –

It’s a different kind of hard.

Yeah.

Newspapers weren’t a great fit for me because I always wanted to spend more time on a story. I hated writing on deadline. I always lay awake at night worried that I’d made a terrible mistake, that I got the score wrong. The nice thing about working at newspapers is the immediacy of it; if you don’t like a story you’re working on you’re done the next day, and you do something else. The other nice thing about newspapers is, if you write five stories a week and one is really good and three are fine and one is kind of crappy, that’s not a bad average. With Esquire my contract is six stories a year; I can’t have a dud.

Six features a year. What sort of average length are we talking about?

Our minimum would be something like 3,000 words. I’d say average real feature is around six. Celebrity profiles are around three, and those count as features.

The longest you’ve written was the war piece, wasn’t it? Like 12,000 words?

It actually ran at 17,000, and was assigned at six. I delivered 22,000.

Did you let them know they were getting 22,000?

Yeah, it was an awkward conversation with Peter, actually, because – that story’s in sections; there’s like 13 sections. I wrote it in the order that I had the material, I didn’t leave it all till the end. So I wrote the first section, which was the section where they fly Joey back from Dover, they fly to Seymour. I wrote that section and it came out at like 2,000 words, and I thought, That math is not good. So I called Peter and said it might be more like 10. I blew past 10 and said, It’s gonna be more than that. He said, Listen, just write it and we’ll figure it out. To Esquire’s credit they just burned that whole issue.

Like Hersey and Hiroshima in The New Yorker.

We had a Jessica Simpson story, [it] was the other story in that issue.

Well, the world thanks you for burning –

Oh no, it got in. It was the cover.

So you cut 5,000 words. Did you cut it or did they?

We cut it together. One of the great things about working there, my editor Peter, we’ve been together for eight years now; you only write for one editor. Like that’s your relationship and no one else touches the story.

It doesn’t go up to [Editor in Chief David] Granger?

Well he’ll read it, but there’s no changes.

[At some other magazines] everybody gets their fingerprints on it.

And stories inevitably suffer. I think that’s a bad process. Peter and I just have this – we know what each other is looking for. If I bumped from editor to editor I’d have a hard time. You just develop a trust that I think is important to doing the best work you can.

What, then, for people who don’t get the pleasure –

Totally screwed.

[laughter]

Newspaper reporters – sometimes you’re working for different sections –

No, it’s hard. I like being edited. In newspapers I was writing sports stories at 11 o’clock at night, it just went in. I never got edited. And I didn’t like it. I know some people think of editors as evil and they’re messing with your art, but for me Peter is – I mean he’s a fantastic editor. I tell students all the time: You’ll never do your best work until you find that editor who is your perfect match. By a series of flukes I got Peter and we work perfectly together. My stuff would not be nearly as good without Peter.

How long did you spend on that [war] piece?

I spent maybe eight months on that story.

Exclusively?

In the middle I did a Scarlett Johansson feature. I flew from the mortuary at Dover to sit with her at a diner [in California]. It was a surreal juxtaposition.

A lot of what makes that story work so well is the detail. Every passage is so tight, every sentence almost seems to be built with a specific mission in mind. How’d you wind it up so much without ruining it?

Once I realized how long it was going to be, my standard for a sentence was it had to have a fact. And the way I structured it in the end – I thought, It’s so long and the material’s so difficult that people wouldn’t read it in one sitting, so every section starts with a different person. It goes from person to person to person, and the last section is Joey. Then I tried to find little details that would help guide you, because it was backward and I was worried about losing people. So there’s things like the girl in the flowered dress, little cues that I hoped would sort of ground people.

But then Peter, when we took those 5,000 words out, really tightened it – I mean we cut a feature. A simple line edit with a story that length, you can lose a thousand or two words. We lost some whole scenes, which at the time was like – there was one scene that I spent months reporting; it was the funeral they held in Iraq. The soldiers have their own memorial service in Iraq. Soldiers are tough interviews and it was a tough scene, you know? It was hard all the way around. It was probably about 1,500 words, and I spent a long time writing it, and we just cut it.

How do you report your scenes? That’s something we talk about in class – when you’re reconstructing scenes and when you’re at the mercy of people’s memories and at the mercy, in this case, of soldiers who are sort of programmed to talk like athletes, who say a lot without saying anything –

Any interview I do for a narrative story, particularly with people who don’t speak to reporters normally, I usually have a preamble where I talk about the questions I’m going to ask. I tell them, A story like this relies on details, I’m going to ask you what might seem like some really strange questions. If you don’t remember, that’s okay, don’t force yourself to remember things; don’t think anything’s stupid, if I ask a question you don’t like, tell me you don’t like it. Like with Joey’s story people were worried that I was gonna do it dirty on him, that I was going to somehow sully his memory. All you can do there is try to convince them you’re a good person. It’s a lot easier if you actually are a good person. I like to think that I’m a good person. So I told them: You can trust me. And when I said it I meant it: I’m not here to mess with Joey. And if you spend enough time with people they get comfortable. And two very important things with that story: I had the time, and I did every interview in person.

Oh wow.

Which I think makes a huge difference.

So do I.

And every interview was often somewhere very awkward. Like Aunt Vicki, I talked to her over lunch at a Cracker Barrel, and so we’re both sitting in this Cracker Barrel, and I was bawling, she was bawling, and everybody in the room going, What the hell? But it was not sitting in a house. It was almost like a date. We met at the restaurant; it was the first time we met. It was just easier that way.

I think the key to reporting a story like that – and I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant – you gotta see when people are giving you little windows. There’s a scene in that story – the girl in the flowered dress, the National Guard people who carried the casket from the plane to the family. There, I interviewed them in a group; there were six of us sitting around a table. My starting question was How do you keep your game face? That’s what they call it when you don’t show emotion. It was a general question, so they gave a general answer, which was, You don’t look at the family, you look at something else. I said, Do any of you happen to remember what you were looking at that day? The first guy, Schnieders, said, I was looking at the logo on the sheriff’s car. Then these two female soldiers started whispering together, and I said, What are you guys talking about? And that was the girl in the flowered dress, where one of them had said, Look at the girl, look at the dress, pick out a flower on the dress.

For me the girl in the flowered dress is my favorite detail. And this started with How do you keep your emotions? and gradually whittled down to this moment. So you’ve got to be aware of when somebody is giving you an opening. And then you winnow it down.

In narrative you have to be on, all the time, because every moment might matter. It’s almost like being hyper-vigilant. You just can’t be asleep.

Yeah and you have to really listen. You know, when I started that story I was worried that I’d be doing so many interviews that I’d forget stuff. But when you’re doing stuff like that, you don’t forget stuff.

But you’re thinking long term too – it’s almost like you can see the story in the making, and how certain details will serve the narrative.

Yeah. You gradually develop an instinct – this is gonna sound crass as hell, but literally I have a cash-register sound that goes off in my head. Like, cha-ching. It’s annoying. Like, the girl in the flowered dress was cha-ching. I knew that was going in. You know, it’s a spidey sense. When I first sit down to write even a story of that length, I figure if I can remember it, then it’s an important detail.

When you’re talking about details [writers] sort of over – “he was wearing a gray sweater” and there were these pants and – those don’t really matter. At Esquire our goal is always to report the story so well we can sit down at a bar and I can just tell you the story. I did 101 interviews for that story and I could go through that story right now and tell you everyone who’s in it. You just remember. You remember the stuff that counts. So a lot of [writers] are like, I’m worried I’m gonna miss something great; well if you’ve forgotten it, it probably wasn’t great. And that’s how you know the details that are great and the details that aren’t. Then you go back to your notes and tapes and make sure you’re right.

The idea of detail that doesn’t move the action forward, that doesn’t advance any ideas – gratuitous detail –

It’s just clutter. The detail has to have some purpose to it, it has to mean something. Even if it doesn’t mean anything right away, it gradually builds some picture in your head gets you where you’re going.

And nothing’s a throwaway, because you might need it. It might come back in some way.

Yeah. This is a very hard thing to explain but – I’m gonna backtrack. I don’t outline. And I know this is a great debate in narrative. Like, Gay Talese, if you come tomorrow, Gay Talese outlines in ridiculous ways, for me. He will have 17 shirt boards with the story mapped out, and for me the risk of outlining is you miss those little connections that you maybe wouldn’t see if you were sitting there thinking, How am I gonna tell this story? I love when you’re writing and you see this little connection that you wouldn’t have seen [otherwise] – little echoes that count again later when you come back to it. Sometimes I’m asked, How did you know – I didn’t know that. It was only once I started writing that I saw it. Sometimes I see Gay Talese’s outlines and I think I’m doing it wrong, but I think what you might lose then is that sort of spontaneous connection.

And you can’t teach that. You can teach people to be aware always, and to look for opportunities, but it’s like teaching an ear – do you think that’s true? You can teach writing, absolutely, but the music, and those ghostly things that happen in Story –

I don’t think you can take a bad writer and make them great. I think you can make a bad writer passable and a passable writer good and a good writer great, but you can’t make massive jumps. It sounds harsh, but, excluding me from the conversation, there’s kind of an “it,” or whatever, that [good writers] just have. Like music. I’m tone deaf. You can never make me a great pianist. It would never happen. Writing is a similar kind of thing.

Okay.

It’s a terrible thing to say.

No it isn’t.

I mean you guys know: This is a tough business and there are a lot of effing good people at it, and there are lots of good people who can’t work. If you’re not good you’ve got no shot. I mean maybe you want this, you want it so bad, but if you’re not good at it, it’s not gonna happen. And you just have to be honest. It sounds brutal as it’s coming out of my mouth.

No it doesn’t.

But I don’t believe in false hope. Or there’s a sweet spot for different [types of writing] – you gotta find that spot. If you want to be a journalist, which is such a huge field, you’ve got to find your sweet spot.

Let’s talk about the origin of stories. You see Story in places where other people don’t see it.

[In magazine writing] you gotta find those stories that don’t change, and yet that no one else has written about. You’re always on the lookout for the stuff that fell through the cracks. If you’re pitching magazines, you can’t pitch a story that’s happened and that everyone’s writing about, or that’s happening in two months. For me, I get most of my ideas from newspapers, where the reporter I used to be – some poor dude only had three hours and 400 words to tell a story and you can see –

The bigger story.

The bigger story. So “Home” was a 400-word story about [the astronauts’] return. The soldier story was a 600-word piece on CNN.com. The Price Is Right was my own obsession. Roger Ebert was, like, his blog, which was just out there. No one had asked Roger Ebert to do a story – it was just sitting there. Those are the things you gotta find when you’re doing magazine stuff.

Yeah.

The great magazine stories you’re like, How the hell did no one else write this story?

That hardly ever happens though.

That hardly ever happens. I’ve been at Esquire for nine years and probably have done five or six stories that I think were good, just because it’s so hard to find that perfect mix of idea, material, your writing was good, everything worked.

It takes a massive amount of organization to keep track of the material for stories like “The Things That Carried Him” because you’re dealing with different characters, different points of view, different time periods, different countries. How do you organize everything and at what point do you write?

Because that story was so big, I wrote it in chunks, and that’s why it almost reads like a collection of little stories. With a regular story I often don’t write it front to back. Usually I know my ending, and often I’ll write my ending first. That’s from school. I had a professor telling me, How do you know how to get there if you don’t know where you’re going? That stuck with me for some reason. I also think endings are the most important part of the story. From my newspaper days I got scarred because all my endings got cut off. But with magazines, for me, it’s your finishing note; it’s how you’re leaving company with people. Ideally your story has built to this sort of crescendo and it’s like, here’s your moment. So I usually know what my ending is, and then I’ll start writing wherever I feel like writing.

But the sheer reporting. What are your tools? I didn’t realize you don’t record anything.

I record sit-down interviews. And in the soldier story I recorded – [at Esquire] it’s the only time they let you use the interns, to transcribe your tapes, but I never do it because I don’t want them to hear me stumbling and bumbling through my crap. The humiliation factor is just like – I don’t want anyone listening to this. It’s like what I do in the bathroom, you know?

Great.

So what I work toward in the reporting – I mean I sort of have two rules. For me writing is pretty hard, so my attitude has always been – my great fear is sitting down to write a 5,000-word story with 3,000 words of material. Like that’s my death. I’m not a very flowery writer. There are a lot of writers who could get away with that but I have no imagination. I think everyone would see this is where he ran out of shit and now he’s lying. I report as hard as I do so I can avoid that oh-crap feeling where you sit down and go I don’t have it. The other thing I sort of work for – Esquire’s fact checkers are beautiful, beautiful people; they are insane. My favorite fact checker story: I was writing about a fight, and I had a little joke, Shaquille O’Neal tripped over some lighting cables. The [fact checker] spent days trying to make sure they were lighting cables and not sound cables. And I was like, Dude, we can just call them cables. And he was like, Well, shit.

[laughter]

Fact checkers also make you feel like the least funny person on earth. Because you have to explain jokes. I had this basketball player who had like 17 different devices on his waistband so I was like: The Motorola fax/pager/copier on his waist – and the fact-checker was like, Well I called Motorola, and they don’t have a fax/copier/pager that goes on the waist – and I’m like Shit, dude, that’s not a real thing.

[laughter]

I love fact checkers; they allow me to sleep at night. But fact checking is torturous, and on a 17,000-word story it is hell. So that story in particular I kept ridiculous notes. I kept every phone number, every name, so they could verify everything easily – you just have to do it –

Well not all writers do it, though. You’re probably beloved for that –

I always warn them when I’m coming: Sorry guys, I’ve got another one coming down the pipe.

Annotating is your friend.

Again, going back to my newspaper days I’d have killed for that. I like that part of the process. So as long as I can get through those two things I’ve done my job and then I can write.

Dina Kraft: I have a question about structure on “The Things That Carried Him.” Were you working with a spokesperson for the Army? Did you think, This is a good possible [story subject] for me, I’ll jump over to Indiana?

Well I saw the story on CNN and that was Joey. Really it was about life at the forward operating base and it included a vignette on carrying the body back, and it turned out to be Joey. I spent probably a couple of weeks – this sounds ghoulish – but looking at other possibilities. And I kept going back to Joey. I liked that he was from a small town in Indiana; I just thought it was better than New York or L.A. And I felt sort of a weird connection – we had similar sort of adolescences. I felt like I kind of understood him. The very first thing I did was call his mom. No matter who we did, I wanted the family’s permission. So I called his mom, and it was terrible. I thought I was calling her at home. I thought, I’ll call her in the middle of the day, I’ll leave a message on her home machine and she’ll call me back if she wants. But the number I’d been given was her work, and she answered.

This is something that’s really hard to explain but, what do you say? So I was like, Hi I’m Chris, I write for Esquire magazine and I really want to write a story about how a soldier is returned from Iraq and I’d really like that soldier to be Joey. And she just started bawling. I felt so bad that I’d ruined her day, but we ended up talking for probably an hour and a half. At the end she said, You can do it, but I want to be [interviewed] last; if this story falls apart anywhere along the way I don’t want to have gone through it for nothing.

At that time there were a lot of stories about how hard it was – you couldn’t take a photo of a flag-draped casket. I thought, This is gonna be really hard. So I called the mortuary in Dover and they said, You need Pentagon approval. I said, Well who is the Pentagon? They gave me a name. I called him up and did the same schpiel. He said okay. I was like, Okay what? He said, You’ve got Pentagon approval. I said, You sure? And that was it. And I never once had a roadblock. Everything just fell into place. It was one of those spooky – I have countless examples of moments where I was like, That’s nuts. When I went to Dover – they pray over every planeload. Chaplain Sparks had done 700 planes and he said, I do a different prayer for every plane. And I said, You have no idea what you’d have said [at Joey’s]? And then he went back to his desk – and this was months later – and sitting on top of his pile was the prayer he said on Joey’s plane. He had the manifest and on the back was the prayer. He came back and looked like he’d been hit by a board. And there was countless moments of stuff like that.

The last thing I did was go to Scottsburg. The other nice thing about doing it that way was, I could tell [Joey’s family] what I knew.

Did they ask?

They asked. And one of the lessons about that story for me was, I was really worried about Gail reading it. She’d lost two husbands, her son, just this litany of tragedy, and I didn’t really want to add to it. And when I wrote the scene in the mortuary the first time I wrote it Peter called and said, You’re hedging, you’re holding back; every other part of the story is so detailed and here you’re kind of skimming it. I was like, Yeah it was really gory and I didn’t know how much detail to go into. He said, You’ve gotta go all the way with it. I was like, Okay.

Gail didn’t know Joey had lost his legs. I called her before the story came out and said, Gail, you might not want to read this, there’s stuff in there you might not want to know. She was like, Give me an example. I said, Joey didn’t have any legs. That was sort of the big – and she was okay. You know? And it’s true about writing about yourself: If you write about yourself you’ve gotta be 100 percent honest; people know if you’re holding back. And with this, Peter picked it out right away: You’re not telling me everything you know. And if you’re gonna write a story like that, you’ve got to go 100 percent.

Carlotta Gall: That’s interesting because that’s the one passage I would have cut if I was your editor.

It’s definitely the most technical. And it’s the least detailed. There you can’t say to the mortician, Do you remember that particular – there’s four morticians who’ve done thousands of bodies. It’s definitely the weakest section, it always was. You just couldn’t get the girl in the flowered dress in the mortuary. It just didn’t exist.

Claudia Mendez Arriaza: What makes Peter a great editor?

I’ll call Peter a lot when I’m reporting, and I’ll tell him I had a cash register moment, or if I’m having a problem. We’ll sort of talk it out. I think a great editor is almost part therapist in some ways. You know, writers spend a lot of time by themselves, and I’m on the road by myself a lot, so he’s just a good guy for me to talk to me about stories. I think my favorite thing that Peter does is his cuts, his actual removal of things. Like Paige was talking about with “The Things That Carried Him,” the tightness of it, that there’s no sentiment in it, that’s because of Peter. The very first section of that story, now it ends with something like, “They spend a lot of time like that.” I talk about Chaz walking out, holding hands, and they’re not talking, they spend a lot of time like that. I had, “They spend a lot of time like that, talking only with their hands.” And just that little cut makes that story better. So he’s like that 10 percent restraint, like a reining in. If I go too far with the sentimentality or the emotion he pulls it back. It’s very nice when people talk about the restraint in my stories, but that’s Peter, that’s not me. Because it’s really hard to know where the line is for the emotional.

Rema Nagarajan: Is there a time when you don’t agree with him and then what happens?

Yeah, you know that old cliché about you read your story and find your favorite line, and that’s the line you should cut? It’s kind of true. Peter has a way of [lots of sound effects here meant to represent Peter cutting, and also the sound Jones likens to being waxed].

You get waxed often then?

Yeah, all the time. It’s better not to be super-hairy.

[laughter]

It goes back to the trust thing. If Peter does it I’m like, well Peter is my swami, and he is totally correct. But yeah, he’s part therapist, part cheerleader and a hard-core ass-kicking editor.

You don’t call in wringing your hands.

I don’t often call him with a problem. I usually call Peter when I’m excited. I usually call Peter when I have that moment where I’m like, Oh this is actually gonna work, especially when it’s a story that I’ve pitched hard and I’m nervous about. The Price Is Right story, I called him after the Drew Carey interview, which was one of the great interviews of my life. We’re backstage and he just went off, like F F F F F. There was this publicist who’d been a pain in my ass – CBS was worse than the Pentagon. She was sitting there and she wouldn’t leave, and she said, You cannot ask about Terry rolling The Price Is Right. So I’m sitting there with Drew, and he kind of brought it up. He says, There’s this guy – I’m like, Yeah, Terry. And I hear behind me like a thunk, and I turn around and her head’s on the table. As soon as I was in the parking lot I called Peter and said, I got it I got it I got it. I don’t call him saying, It’s not working.

He also told me you sometimes call and say, I’m gonna go another way but I can’t tell you what it is. He trusts you to just go do it.

See I’m a writer because I can’t really talk. Like I can’t explain – so something will come up but I can’t –

Articulate it.

So it’s like, Let me try it in words. It’s like instead of me trying to explain this let me just write it. If you don’t like it, fine. Like the Price Is Right we went into it not knowing the twist about Ted, the guy in the audience who was yelling out the numbers. Instead of telling all that to Peter, I just said, Listen there’s a thing, there’s this guy Ted, I’m just gonna write it and you’ll see. That’s how we dealt with that.

No surprises.

I feel like if I’ve sold it as something I’ve gotta – it sounds like I’m bragging about the length of “The Things That Carried Him,” but I felt bad. Usually I’m within 100 words of my assigned length. I try very hard to hit that. People get offside about this, but journalism is a business. You’re expecting people to buy a product. You’re being paid for your work. Your editor is a customer; your readers are customers. So I feel this responsibility – I don’t think of it as I’m conducting my orchestra, and I’m doing my art and blah blah. For me it’s a contract. You’re paying me to do a job. I’m gonna deliver on time, I’m gonna deliver at the length you’re asking for, I’m not gonna be a pain in your ass, if you don’t like something I’ll fix it. I try to be –

Professional.

Is that the word?

I don’t know.

I try to do the job. So the soldier story was a weird – I just can’t see how you’d do it in 6,000 words.

Tyler Bridges: You said earlier that you don’t see yourself as a lyrical writer, and I’m certainly not a lyrical writer either, and if I do something that’s okay, it’s because of the reporting. But you take reporting to an extra level and I’m wondering if you have to constantly remind yourself what the person’s wearing, what the weather’s like – whether you have little tricks or it’s so natural now that you are able to get all these details –

I think it’s gotten more natural. One thing I still do is ask the people, Can I call you back? Like, If I go home and start writing and I need a little spackle can we talk about it? Because sometimes you don’t know until you’re writing it that you need this little bit that gets you from this paragraph to this paragraph. I think it’s okay not to get it all on the first run.

Bridges: Do you have little tricks to make sure you’re attendant to everything that’s going on or is it just natural to do that?

I don’t really know how to talk about this stuff without sounding like a jerk.

Just say it.

Well, I’m mildly autistic. It was a hindrance as a child, but as a reporter it’s kind of helpful because I find myself noticing things. And I think I have a good memory. So things will just sort of jump out sometimes, things I’m maybe not supposed to be looking at.

Bridges: I have trouble describing what someone looks like.

That is hard. That was one of my early lessons, that you always have to include a paragraph of description of the person because you can’t pretend that people know what people look like. In the Scarlett Johansson story I have a paragraph describing her face and it’s easily the most overwritten thing I’ve ever written. Because I mean how the hell do you describe a face? I mean you start with the forehead – I don’t know, big? Nose? It’s nose-like. So you kind of come up with all this language, and that’s when it gets fussy for me. Probably every other writer at Esquire is a much better writer than I am. Tom Junod could write 3,000 words about Scarlet Johansson’s face, but I can’t, so I try to get by with other stuff.

John Diedrich: I covered the military, great job on this piece. I’m curious about when you survey what’s been done on a subject area, and when you detect –

Jim Sheeler.

Diedrich: Jim Sheeler. He was covering it from a different angle. But how far will you read something – do you read everything that’s out there?

No I don’t read everything. I read Sheeler’s piece, and it’s a great piece. I mean it won a Pulitzer, right? It’s the definitive piece about the messengers. For me, it’s not good for me to read other stuff, not so much because I worry I’m gonna steal something but because I’m pretty naturally insecure. Like reading Sheeler’s piece was like, Shit, but it was good because it was a boot in my butt. I was like, Well, if that’s the bar. But no, I won’t sit there and survey the landscape because I don’t know what good could come from it.

Diedrich: So would you stay away from that aspect?

I didn’t purposely stay away from it. It was just different from the start. I mean I included the moment of notification. What was strange in this case is after reading Sheeler’s story I thought, Oh this is what this scene is gonna be like, but it wasn’t like that, because she found out from her sister. So that’s the one part of the process I thought I knew, and it was totally different. I mean if you’re doing certain stories you have to read to get the knowledge. If you’re doing a geology story you have to read about geology.

Samiha Shafy: I would like to hear the story about how you talked your way into Esquire with a box of donuts. The second is, you said you’re writing six stories a year, which doesn’t sound like a big number but considering the effort you put into each story how do you make sure you pick the right stories, and is it like two months per story or four months for one or?

Yeah, it can be six weeks – a celebrity story you might spend three weeks on and another story you might spend six months on. I’ll answer your second question first. So the hardest part of the job is the idea. You can take the best writer in the world and give them a crap idea and they’ll come out with a crap story, and you can take an awesome idea and give it to a not very good writer and they’ll probably come out with a pretty good story. Again this is part of the editorial process – pitching and pitching and pitching. So many stories I really like I had to pitch for a long time. Ebert I pitched for eight or 10 months. The space story I pitched for close to a year. The Price Is Right, I had to make that bet. [[The editors weren’t interested in the Price Is Right story at first. Convinced it was a good story, Jones bet Granger: He’d pay his own expenses and eat them if it turned out to be a non-story, but if Esquire ran the piece the editors had to pay him double his expenses. Which they did./pw]]

I think one of the tests at Esquire is if you can’t let it go, that’s when they’ll finally say yes. Like Ebert happened – I was supposed to write about Taylor Swift. At Esquire – I’m 37, I’m the young guy, so I get Taylor Swift. I’m still 37 trying to write about some 17-year-old girl, so I’m gonna be the pervert in the corner of the room. Luckily she canceled at the last minute. I was like, How about Roger? And that’s when I finally got to do it.

The donut story: So this is because I’m an idiot. I’m not very socially aware. When I was still at the National Post I really wanted to work for Esquire –

Having never written for a magazine before.

Having never written for a magazine. I got my job at the National Post having never written a published story before, so for me this was how it works. Actually I’m gonna tell my National Post story. So when I got my paper job there was a magazine in Canada called Saturday Night. I got my degree in urban planning. I thought it was gonna be like Lego. It’s not. It’s super-bureaucratic and terrible. So I had this headmaster who was a journalist and who set me up with a job interview with this guy named Ken White, who was the editor in chief of Saturday Night, which is like I guess our New Yorker. So I went for a job with Ken White and he kept saying newspaper, and I kept correcting him, saying, This is a magazine. It was like the worst job interview ever. Afterward I called my parents and said, I don’t know what that was but I’m not gonna be a writer.

And then they offered me a job at the paper. The paper was brand new. They stuck anyone with no experience, like me, in this bureau in Toronto, and if you were good enough you got pulled up. I started getting phone calls from the news editor and the sports editor, and in my head I’m like, They’re fighting over me. Meanwhile up at the paper Ken White was going, One of you has to take him. Years later I found this out. Finally I went to Sports because I wouldn’t count against their hiring quota. And I literally sat there for three months doing nothing, just sitting at my table, like ballast.

But the magazine – I walked into the Esquire building –

Wait, you flew to New York?

I was already there anyway, doing a Mets/Blue Jays series. And I walked in the building because I assumed that David Granger, the editor in chief, would want to meet with me. I was like, Clearly he’ll say yes. So the security guard was sitting there at the desk. I said, I’m here to see David Granger. He said, Do you have an appointment? I said, Nope. He said, Well, no. I was like, Can I make an appointment? He said, No, no, I don’t think you can.

So I was leaving and there was a janitor sweeping the lobby and he said, Do you want a job at Esquire? I said, Not as a janitor.

[laughter]

He said, No, no, no, there’s an editor, Andy Ward, young guy, really good guy, loves sports, you need to talk to Andy. So I went back to the security guard and said, Can I call Andy Ward? So I called up Andy, and he answers and I say, Hey I’m Chris, I write for a newspaper, I really want to work for you one day, I wonder if we could meet. He was like, Oh, when are you coming to town? I said, I’m in your lobby, the janitor said to call you.

[laughter]

And Andy said, Well, I’ve got this meeting to go to but come back at two.

And Andy’s the nicest dude on earth.

The janitor was totally right – he knew the guy I needed to talk to. So I got two boxes of donuts. I got one for the janitor, [and] was like, Thank you. I took a box of donuts to Andy, and some clips. [[I later asked Andy about this, and what kind of donuts Jones brought. Andy said Krispy Kreme, because Jones wanted to make a point that Krispy Kremes are better than Dunkin’ Donuts. Which, sorry Boston, they are./pw]] And again going back to the socially awkward thing I’m sitting there with Andy, we’re talking, he’s very nice, and I said, Can you read some of my stuff? He said, Yeah, I’ll read it. And I said, Can you read it now? He was like, While you’re sitting here? I was like, Yeah, I just kind of want to know is this even possible. So he’s reading and he’s like, Yeah, we wouldn’t use so many one-sentence paragraphs but it’s not bad. I said, Okay, great.

So, I kind of forgot about it. I quit my job at the paper, was traveling around. I ran out of money in Arizona, I was in Flagstaff. Got an email from Andy saying, We’ve got a job, 10 guys are gonna write a story, best story gets it. And this is the job I want more than anything. And I was flat broke. I mean I was busted. I had left the paper in a hissy fit, which was a terrible mistake  – and I wanted that job so bad, so I wrote my story

What was the story?

I wrote about Barry Zito, the baseball player –

You could choose any story?

I had to pitch 10 stories – this was specifically to be the sports columnist. That’s how I started at Esquire. And it was only years later that I found out the competition was bullshit. It had never happened. I spent years trying to find out – because the business isn’t that big – who are these other nine people? I was asking around, Are you one of the people? So whenever students ask how to get a job in journalism: Well, you act like an idiot, you go places you’re not supposed to go, you bring donuts, you run out of money and get super lucky.

Jonathan Blakley: With Roger Ebert – I love that story – one of the reasons I really loved it is, I’m a little older than you but I think we both grew up watching him. Suddenly you’re there. Was that one day with him?

No, parts of four days. And Roger was also awesome in the sense that, when I first emailed about doing the story he said, You know, I can’t talk, so we should probably do this by email, and I said, Well it would be better if we actually met. Roger actually started his career as a feature writer, including stuff for Esquire, so once he got past the idea of me coming, which did take some convincing –

Gosh – sorry to interrupt but that surprises me that he wouldn’t get that you needed to be in the room –

He hadn’t really been out at that point. He didn’t want people seeing his face.

Still –

Yeah. Once he got on board he was like, Oh he’s gonna need scenes – we’ll go out for dinner. All I said was, I want to go to the movies with you. Everything else was him. He knew what I needed. It’s funny – we talked afterward, and he had written the story. He was like, I’m surprised you didn’t put this in.

[laughter]

And there was a great moment that I didn’t put in, because in order for it to work I had to be in there, and I didn’t want to be in the story.

What was it?

They were cleaning the house before I got there and Chaz, his wife, had their wedding album out and Roger was like, Why the hell do you have the wedding pictures out? And she put it away. And after I’d been there maybe 15 minutes he was like, Chaz, bring out the wedding pictures! Anyway, he was like, I would’ve led with that, and …

[laughter]

I tell you the hot-sweat moment – he was mad about the picture. He was like, I’m kind of surprised you did the full face, like a whole page –

Bridges: Oh, but it’s such an amazing photo, though.

But all he sees is the damage, right? And it was a full page in the magazine. And he said, I’m surprised you spent so much time on my sickness.

Really?

And I was like, Oh shit. I said, Listen, if we don’t have the photo people are gonna spend the whole story wondering what you look like and they’re not gonna read the story. So you get that right out of the way. And with your sickness, nobody knows about this stuff. It’s important to establish why you can’t talk.

Bridges: Do you read stuff to Roger Ebert or whoever?

Oh no, no. This is always a tricky situation. I wanted Roger to love the story. I really like Roger. For me that was – I’ll never be able to relate what it was like to be sitting there pulling Post-It notes off his fingers. Like, I went there – I’d had this waffly kind of bad-head period where I was depressed or whatever, and I left there and thought, What the hell. I’m gonna leave here and I’m gonna have a root beer, and that moment on its own – it was a transformative experience, doing that story. I wanted him to like it, but you have to play this game where, I hope he likes it but I can’t be writing it for him.

And the fact checking – oh God I had this awful moment where I described the hole in his face. Originally I had it as the size of a small fist. And the fact checker called him and said, Roger do you have a hole the size of a small fist? And he immediately emailed me going, What are you talking about, this hole? I said, You have this hole, it’s there. I made it a plum, I think, in the end. But he was upset, and that kind of stuff bothered me. The reaction to the story was so positive he got on board.

Diedrich: The headline for “The Things That Carried Him” is clearly a nod to “The Things They Carried” – how aware are you when you’re writing that you’re in this legacy of people who’ve written about soldiers?

The title is a funny – I always put a headline on my stories because I find it helps me –

Focus.

If I find myself drifting I can go back to the headline. If it’s hard to write a headline for your story your story is probably unfocused. My headline was “The 3,431st.” I thought it sounded vaguely military, I thought it got across the idea of one of these thousands. Then Peter put that headline on it and I was like, Argh. Like “The Things They Carried” is one of the great pieces of war literature of all time, and when he put that headline on it I thought it sounded like hubris. But again, it was that 75th anniversary year, the original “The Things They Carried,” the short story, was in Esquire. I still never quite loved the headline. I really like headlines like “The Body.” There’s a story in the current issue that’s just called “Hood.” I like headlines like that. Very rarely is the headline that I put on my story the headline. Like this one, Roger Ebert, was [ultimately] called “The Essential Man,” or something. I like having a headline as my compass point.

August 03 2011

15:58

“Why’s this so good?” No. 6: Alma Guillermoprieto’s view on Bogota

I first read “Letter from Bogota” in a Latin American History class in college. About 50 kids were crammed into an old, long lecture hall, the kind you see in movies about blue bloods and their schools: the dark wood floors, the lead-paned windows and the reading nook tucked into the back wall – the one that’s always a bit too small for any modern human.

It was a strange place to be reading about cocaine, bombs and Pablo Escobar, but in some ways, it was oddly appropriate to be sitting in such a relic. Readers – especially writers who are first and foremost readers – are the most shameless about nostalgia and its curios. (Why else would a first edition be worth anything to anyone?)

And although my toes curl with embarrassment to admit it, a weird alchemy surrounds that moment when you read something for the first time and realize that you will never think about writing, or reading, in the same way again. I am sure there are poets who can recall with startling detail the first time they laid eyes on a Robert Lowell poem. Or novelists who can tell you exactly which class they were skipping when they read the opening line of “On the Road.”

Our professor was a Mets fan who doubled as a sentimental lefty. If memory serves (mine, not his), he had spent a good portion of his 20s in a van, driving around Mexico and Central America, eventually landing in the academy. He remains the most enthusiastic academic I have ever met. He was enthusiastic about the Cuban Revolution, he was enthusiastic about the Porfiriato, but more than anything, he was enthusiastic about Alma Guillermoprieto.

When he asked us to read the first essay in “The Heart That Bleeds,” his face lit up, and before any of us had the time to get through the first paragraph, he burst out with, “Good lord! Look at how she starts this piece! Window fitters in Bogota! She was asked to write about one of the most violent scenes in modern history, much of which she witnessed firsthand, and she is talking about window fitters!”

Since then, I have read the opening paragraphs to “A Letter from Bogota” maybe a hundred times, marveling at the clarity of the choices made, the muscularity of the sentences and the intelligent detachment with which Guillermoprieto describes the routines of the glaziers of a place where extreme violence has become routine. Her opening sentence:

Among the few people to have benefitted from the current faceoff between the government and the cocaine traffickers are Bogota’s windowpane fitters.

There it is! If there’s a better, “Wait, what the fuck is she talking about?” hook, please let me know.

The man said his name was Carlos Lopez, and added, as he and his partner eased another pane of glass out of their truck, that he expected to be extremely busy that day. Eleven bombs had gone off the previous night, most of them in this neighborhood, which is called Teusaquillo and is one of the pleasantest in Bogota. It dates from the nineteen-thirties, and if the orderly rows of red brick houses with tile roofs don’t quite achieve the English look that was so clearly intended, it is partly the fault of the vegetation – splendid purple-flowered sietecueros trees along the curved streets, and blood-red begonias and blue agapanthus crowded into the narrow front yards.

I’ve never been to Bogota, but if I go, the first place I’ll ask to see is the Teusaquillo. It’s a sign of great writing when you read about a place, and the picture in your head is so clear that your inner cynic wants to see what’s being described, just to double-check.

Because the streets here are not very wide, the detonations shattered an inordinate amount of glass, some of it as much as two blocks away from the target sites. Thus Carlos Lopez’s euphoria as he saw himself surrounded by buildings full of business potential.

A less gifted writer, even if she had chanced upon the genius of starting this piece with glaziers, would have taken a more somber tone. The question “How are these people living like this?” would have resonated throughout the piece. In Guillermoprieto’s hands, the glaziers retain their humanity, their humor and their ambition. They are not sacrificed to clumsy invective about foreign countries and George H.W. Bush and Pablo Escobar and who is at fault.

It takes a hell of a reporter to write about violence with confidence and an appropriate level of humor. If nothing else, Guillermoprieto’s reports from Latin America in The New Yorker are a primer on how to shrug off the early, easy angles (those dripping with significance) and find the guts of a story.

I doubt I’ll ever make a choice as stunning as starting an essay about Pablo Escobar and narco-violence with a window-fitting. The standard is too high. But thievery is part of every writer’s job and the passages you love, especially the openers, have a way of embedding themselves in your head. Whenever I sit down to start writing anything, the question “Where are the glaziers?” is never far from my mind.

Jay Caspian Kang is a columnist at Grantland. His first novel, “The Dead Do Not Improve,” will be released in 2012.

July 28 2011

13:41

Memoir’s truthy obligations: a handy how-to guide

How true does a memoir have to be? That question has been the basis of an ongoing debate kicked off by the revelation, five years ago, that much of James Frey’s bestselling “A Million Little Pieces” was made up.

Unfortunately, it has never been adequately answered. Commentators have tended to gravitate to oversimplifications: one side asserting that every word in a book sold in the non-fiction section of the store must be fact-checked and airtight, the other that “memoir” implies memory, which implies a not-the-truth-but-my-truth subjectivity bordering on carte blanche.

A better, more nuanced answer would recognize the complexity of the issue. Here’s a try: Inaccuracy is a problem in a memoir based on the extent to which it gets details as well as larger truths demonstrably wrong, depicts identifiable people in a negative light, fails to recognize the limits of memory, is poorly written, is self-serving, or otherwise wears its agenda on its sleeve. The more of these things it does and the more egregiously it does them, the bigger the problem is.

A rating system for memoirs

We decided to devise a way to apply these standards to the truthy aspects of memoir. Here’s the (half-facetious, but also half-serious) scoring system we came up with:

The charts below, analyzing some recent and not-so-recent memoirs, attempt to quantify the process; selected annotations have been added. Obviously, the charts themselves have a strong element of subjectivity, both in some of their metrics (especially E) and in the interpretation of the final scores. For us, a memoir “passes” if it scores 65 or more (the “Yagoda Line”). For others the threshold may be 40, or 80. In fact, such a notion of personal judgment is part of the point.

Clear-cut cases exist only on the extremes, the completely discredited “Love and Consequences” (that’s the one in which an upper-middle-class white author fabricated a childhood in the L.A. ’hood) on one end, Rousseau’s “Confessions” on the other. In the large middle, an informed reader has to make the call.

Interested in making a pre-emptive strike for truthy writing? Memoirists can use our convenient printable one-page PDF worksheet to evaluate their own work alongside some of the most famous and infamous examples in history.

Ben Yagoda is an English professor at the University of Delaware and author of “Memoir: A History.” He blogs at britishisms.wordpress.com. Dan DeLorenzo is a journalist, cartographer, infographics artist, photographer, painter and ping-pong enthusiast living and working on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

July 27 2011

15:08

“Why’s this so good?” No. 5: Raymond Chandler sticks it to Hollywood

We tend now to think of Hollywood’s hackneyed, would-be blockbusters as a new phenomenon, one borne of desperation, unprecedented cynicism and the rise of narrative television. But Raymond Chandler’s wonderful 1945 essay-screed “Writers in Hollywood” reminds us that the motion picture industry was, by and large, as uninspired and ridiculous 65 years ago as it is today.

Writing for The Atlantic Monthly, Chandler brought to bear on his subject all the fury and surprising insights of the novelist who wrote “The Big Sleep,” the gimlet-eyed practicality of the storyteller whose first publications were for pulp magazines, and the staggering self-absorption of the depressive alcoholic.

There is, Chandler says, “no such thing as an art of the screenplay, and there never will be as long as the system lasts, for it is the essence of this system that it seeks to exploit a talent without permitting it the right to be a talent. It cannot be done; you can only destroy the talent, which is exactly what happens – when there is any to destroy. Granted that there isn’t much.”

As in the essays of Twain, Mencken and Vonnegut, the language doesn’t date. Chandler is straightforward, he is disgusted, and he is hilarious, and his rapid-fire insults are unmistakably his own. Even the most talented screenwriters, he says,

devote their entire time to work which has no more possibility of distinction than a Pekinese has of becoming a Great Dane: to asinine musicals about technicolor legs and the yowling of night-club singers; to “psychological” dramas with wooden plots, stock characters, and that persistent note of fuzzy earnestness which suggests the conversation of schoolgirls in puberty; to sprightly and sophisticated comedies (we hope) in which the gags are as stale as the attitudes, in which there is always a drink in every hand, a butler in every doorway, and a telephone on the edge of every bathtub; to historical epics in which the male actors look like female impersonators, and the lovely feminine star looks just a little too starry-eyed for a babe who has spent half her life swapping husbands; and last but not least, to those pictures of deep social import in which everybody is thoughtful and grown-up and sincere and the more difficult problems of life are wordily resolved into a unanimous vote of confidence in the inviolability of the Constitution, the sanctity of the home, and the paramount importance of the streamlined kitchen.

More than a dozen shots in a single mammoth sentence: who else could fuse so many complex condemnations so elegantly and vividly – so, dare I say, cinematically? The semicolon here does the work of the quick cut.

Yes, the argument wanders in places; sometimes he contradicts himself. (As Marilynne Robinson once said of a book by Richard Dawkins, truly this screed is a sword that turneth every way.) But the energy is remarkable. I enjoy every below-the-belt jab and noiresque condemnation. “Let me not imply that there are no writers of authentic ability in Hollywood. There are not many, but there are not many anywhere. The creative gift is a scarce commodity, and patience and imitation have always done most of its work.” It’s not hard to imagine this last bit issuing from a partly-shadowed Humphrey Bogart in one of Chandler’s own films just before he leaves the villain to stride down some dark hallway.

In the heyday of the Hollywood novelist-screenwriter, a slew of literary talents – Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker and Aldous Huxley, to name just a few – did time writing film scripts because they were easy money. Now, in the new narrative TV landscape, it’s cable companies that are signing novelists and memoirists in droves. Jonathan Ames, Jennifer Egan, Sam Lipsyte, Sloane Crosley, Salman Rushdie, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are just a few recent hires. Given that fiction writers like Richard Price and George Pelacanos helped shape “The Wire,” arguably the most interesting story of our time, the focus on novelists makes a certain amount of sense. But how much creative control will they have? And will cable TV, too, eventually become too rigid to allow innovation?

Chandler was born well over a century ago, on July 23, 1888. But we still think of him as a contemporary writer because so few since have managed to ridicule the absurdities of modernity with such precision and wit.

His complaints offer a fascinating snapshot of what it was like to write for pictures at the end of the Second World War. Yet his concerns about the way storytelling by committee tends to impede creativity and destroy narrative are timeless. “The volatile essences which make literature cannot survive the clichés of a long series of story conferences,” he writes.

And ultimately this Hollywood essay derives its power from Chandler’s language itself: its intensity and humor and its withering metaphor. The “egocentric geniuses” who depart Tinseltown in a huff, we’re told, “leave behind them nothing but the exquisite aroma of their personalities.”

Maud Newton is an editor and writer for Thomson Reuters whose criticism, essays, and prize-winning fiction have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Narrative Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, Granta, The Awl, and many other publications.

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

July 25 2011

15:02

Tidbits from this year’s Mayborn Conference: how deep is too deep?

Hanging out at orgies with people who smuggle lizards in their pants. Befriending a convict with an Anne Frank tattoo. Doing drugs with a source. You never know what you’ll hear about – or which writers will surprise you – when you go to Texas for the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

Immersion journalism was the theme of this year’s Mayborn. Attendees heard accounts of journalists being pushed, falling or jumping into stories, courting the unexpected consequences that make immersion narratives riveting – and sometimes problematic. We’ll be writing up several of the sessions in the coming days and weeks, but here are a few highlights:

Gene Weingarten presented the audience with real-world ethical case studies, using moments from two stories in his own career. In one he said he was offered (and took, and smoked) a source’s hash pipe, which he knew constituted a firing offense. In the other, he extracted evidence of corruption and bribery from a delusional patient in the hospital, a man who believed Weingarten was a doctor even after he had explained that he was a reporter.

Joshua Foer entered a memory competition for a story he was working on – and unexpectedly won the contest. “I had been approaching it thinking I was writing about this bizarre subculture of weirdos,” he said. “And now I was their king.”

Mandalit del Barco played an NPR piece that rose out of her carrying letters and gifts between Haitian and Los Angeles County schoolchildren after the 2010 earthquake. Using storytelling soundscapes, she showed how audio paired with a story script can carry listeners into another world. “If you close your eyes now, what can you hear?”

Ted Conover talked about traveling an unpredictable path from observer to participant: riding the rails with hobos, crossing the border with coyotes, and getting slugged by an inmate during an undercover stint as a prison guard. “This doesn’t require an advanced degree,” he said, “just the willingness to do something crazy.”

We think the subtitle for this year’s conference should have been “When Things Get Messy.” Stay tuned for in-depth posts on these presentations and more.

July 21 2011

16:57

July Editors’ Roundtable No. 2: The New York Times probes a murder in South Africa

For the second Roundtable of July, our editors looked at “Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man” by Barry Bearak of the New York Times. Bearak has spent the last three years as co-bureau chief of the Times’ Johannesburg bureau, and his June 5 story investigates the death of a young man at the hands of a mob in the beleaguered settlement of Diepsloot.

Our editors didn’t read each other’s comments as they wrote or see the email conversation between Storyboard and Bearak about his narrative. (We’ll publish that Q&A tomorrow.)

For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

On using the first person:

Journalists tend to have strong opinions about whether we should put ourselves in stories. Some support first-person reportage depending on the circumstances; others suggest they’d rather dine on dung than appear anywhere in a piece of work, despite the fact that first-person presence has a solid history and an important place within the craft. Whenever I give a little quiz asking students to match short first-person passages to the author, even practiced journalists are surprised to find the writers are Dickens, Orwell, Gellhorn, Didion…

In the right situation, readers connect powerfully to story via the personal pronoun “I.” A writer should deploy the “I” as carefully as a surgeon chooses a scalpel. The device itself lends nothing without legitimate intent. To me, first person works in Barry’s piece for three reasons:

It isn’t gratuitous. The narrative/personal quest depends upon use of the first person and especially upon the author’s relationship with Golden, a trusted source and keeper of the pivotal crime-scene video.

It allows for authoritative class contrast. By revealing details about his own lifestyle Bearak puts less fortunate residents’ economic circumstances – and the larger societal issues of law and order/mob justice – into a more intimate context than readers would’ve read in a depersonalized account.

He keeps the spotlight on others by remaining a minor character and keeping a respectful distance. While the author’s journalistic quest clearly drives the narrative, being present in the story allows him to bear witness in a quiet but powerful way and to authenticate what otherwise would have been a secondhand account of a horrific event.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

On structure:

Structure is one of the peskiest challenges facing writers. Once you move past the basic (and backwards) logic of the inverted pyramid, questions of order and placement plague rookie and veteran alike. What stays in? What comes out? What goes where? Constructing a complex story can be like building a jigsaw puzzle of multiple dimensions, with images on all sides, ill-fitting tabs, no edge pieces and no box cover picture to follow.

In “Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man,” Barry Bearak does the most sophisticated thing a writer can do when confronted with that complex puzzle: He gets simple. Not that his story is simple. Far from it. Bearak leads us through more than 7,500 words, takes us deep into several distinct and difficult subcultures, introduces us to more than a dozen characters, weaves between present and past, and includes both intimately detailed narrative and sweeping social context.

It would be instructive (and fun, in a word-nerdy way) to diagram Bearak’s entire piece.  Lacking time and space for that, I’ll note these points:

Chronology is the core. That’s what I mean when I say Bearak gets simple. He starts in a searing moment that puts us in the scene and sets the stage for everything to come. After two paragraphs of narrative he pulls out into some establishing context. Then he quickly returns to the narrative through the first long scene, ending with a cliffhanger. But after that, the piece builds along a fairly straight chronology. We are pulled into the story in the same way Bearak was ­– through the video of the murder – and then follow him step by step as he tries to untangle the thicket of questions and characters he confronts. Pay attention to the places where Bearak uses a fairly direct time stamp to hold the story together: “… each day, widening the arc of our meander.“ “Within a week, Golden and I had become a marked pair.” “One recent Sunday afternoon…”

A quest drives the story forward. That’s true of any gripping narrative: The writer sets up a core question, then spends the rest of the story answering that question. (This is different than a story’s core meaning, or theme.) What makes Bearak’s story a bit different is that the quest is his. We are taken along on his search for answers. (A literary friend once told me there are only two storylines in all of human history: A stranger comes to town, and a man takes a journey. Bearak’s story encompasses both, and he is both the stranger and the man on the journey.)

Narrative is woven rather than broken. In complex pieces such as this, one successful approach can be a “broken narrative”– a structure that goes back and forth between narrative or action scenes and contextual or expository scenes. Bearak takes that foundation and makes it more elegant by weaving context directly into the narrative.  He slips a line or two of geography or history into the running story. As I read, I imagined a French braid with strands constantly being worked over, under and through. If you re-read the piece just to see how characters and their backstories are introduced, you’ll see that braid. Bearak is able to pull off that intricate weave because the core chronology is straightfoward and strong.

Characters are clearly identified. It’s tough for readers to follow this many characters in a piece. Yet we never lose track here because Bearak remembers to provide some brief reminder of who each person is. That’s just one of the ways Bearak answers the readers’ question when the reader needs the answer.

The story comes full circle. The chronology drives relentlessly forward, following Bearak’s quest. It ties together – is made whole – by ending where it began, with the boy who fingered the murder victim. This is also a tried-and-true structural device. But what makes Bearak’s use of it so stunning is that he comes back to Siphiwe not where the story started, but where the story took Sipihwe – to a place of defiant and inevitable despair. As such, Siphiwe was able to speak for the much larger defiance and despair of a country and a culture.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

On a sense of place:

Barry Bearak knows that evoking a sense of place isn’t just a matter of presenting a background landscape. He uses carefully selected sensory details – sights, sounds, smells – and movement to transport readers to South Africa.

“Put me there,” is a simple way an editor can encourage writers to think about the sense of place. The writer can provide context to the story by showing, rather than telling. She can also create a mood that permeates the story – anger, joy, sadness.

Bearak does this sparingly in his murder story. That’s important, because, at least in this story, we don’t want the plot to slow down and linger too long. Let’s pay attention to Bearak’s sketch of the South African township. We hear music; we watch women pinning laundry and storekeepers brushing away flies; we smell garbage and sewage; we learn that some of these areas have bureaucratic names like Extension 1 and Extension 2.

The road abounded with township life: good music playing over bad radios, women pinning laundry to droopy clotheslines, storekeepers brushing aside plump flies in the butchery. People were curious about the mob’s intentions, and some followed along as if dutifully joining a militia. In a few blocks, the pavement of Thubelihle gave way to hard-packed dirt and stones. A busted pipe had gone unrepaired for months, and the escaping water cut a trough in the ground that now carried a stream of garbage and sewage. The odor was bracing, but there was open air ahead, a large, marshy field that separated Extension 1 from the squatter camp in Extension 2…

What we see is that life goes on under some outrageous conditions. And we get a hint about why these conditions are a factor in the violence. People are curious. They don’t see things getting any better. They start to follow a mob. Who knows how ordinary people will act as the mob grows violent?

Bearak uses a second sketch to show the economic disparity in South Africa, the wide gap between the townships and the gated communities with beautiful names.

I live in much different circumstances, renting a house in the Dainfern Golf and Residential Estate, one of dozens of gated communities built in a city overwrought about crime. The perimeter is fortified with high walls topped by electrified wire; guards patrol the landscaped roadways and roundabouts. Houses are large, and many front entranceways are ornamented with waterfalls and fish ponds…

He’s also showing us this place because he wants to be honest about his comparatively (and understandably) sheltered life in South Africa. He may not be able to fully understand what life is like in the townships, and he’s being straight with us about that. He uses a sense of place not just to set a scene but to help define and explain the dynamics of his story.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

On keeping the reader engaged in a depressing story:

Everything about the subject of this piece – a mob in a crime-ridden squatter’s village randomly settling on an innocent man to vent their rage – screamed “Don’t go there,” and yet, go I did. Why?

Or to rephrase the question: When a writer wants to explore unremittingly depressing material, how can he keep the reader’s attention and deliver something that feels like enlightenment rather than a fist to the face?

Bearak accomplishes that here, through what I would call “elevation.”

I mean this almost literally. The reader is raised to a great, almost godlike height and allowed to view these hideous events as if from a mountaintop. Every piece can be seen in its relation to other pieces. What seems nasty and brutish on ground level is still nasty and brutish, but from the mountaintop it plays out on a scale so grand that the meaningless becomes meaningful, and the horrific becomes tragic. It’s the difference between watching a slasher film and Macbeth.

A word of caution for those of you who may want to try this at home: It is impossible to make a reader feel as if she is getting the Big Picture unless the writer has gotten there first, with full focus and resolution. It requires a mastery of the subject so complete that every detail, every factoid and quote, snaps into place.

But even that’s not enough. The writer has to find the right voice, the voice that communicates a buffering distance without sacrificing any of the intense reality. This is what Bearak does superbly here.

From the very start, he speaks in sweeping statements that never stray into overgeneralization. The central antagonist is “a bad boy wanting to become a worse boy,” and “an unlikely guide to lead [the growing mob] into their dark work.” These sentences are simultaneously simple and mythic, like those in a fable.

That same calm certainty continues throughout the piece, making the tale unfolding seem like the most natural course of events in the world, instead of a living nightmare. That works because, seen from the mountaintop, evil IS a natural part of our world; it has prime causes and immediate causes, and it flows downhill like a creek becoming a river. Consider this introducing paragraph that stays focused on the flow, even as it elevates to get the longer view:

A few men lifted him onto their shoulders so that the crowd, already in the hundreds, could see him better. Then an older man, wiser about these things, said to put the boy down. More than likely, they were about to kill someone. No one in the mob ought to be too conspicuous.

Elevation is again expressed by the impressionist dabs of paint with which the context is painted:

The road abounded with township life: good music playing over bad radios, women pinning laundry to droopy clotheslines, storekeepers brushing aside plump flies in the butchery. People were curious about the mob’s intentions, and some followed along as if dutifully joining a militia.

“Good music playing over bad radios” is classic, an observation wrapped in a description, and like any precise yet poetic observation, it becomes a metaphor for the larger reality. The elevated distance in the perspective is expressed time and again in word choice. When the mob emerges into a field with a busted sewer pipe, the odor is described as “bracing,” an obvious understatement that communicates the idea that living with filth is simply something to be endured.

Bearak is constantly choosing precise understatement over hyperbole. Notice the low temperature of the language when he places the immediate in the context of the general:

Mob justice is not uncommon in Diepsloot, and most often it involves the swift capture of a supposed criminal, the villain there to beat up, to stone, perhaps even to wrap in a petrol-soaked shroud. But this undertaking was something entirely different. The vigilantes had walked a long distance on a hot day in the uncertain pursuit of unspecified thugs — all on the word of this talkative boy.

The elevated view allows us to watch these horrors unfold and see for ourselves how a quest for vengeance and some kind of justice so effortlessly turns into simple thuggery. Note how Bearak refrains from labeling this transition point, but lets our Olympian ability to see inside the perspective of the participants do the work. Pay attention especially to his use of the word “despicable” in the following:

Siphiwe led the way, back along the dusty paths between the shacks to the edge of the marshy field. The spaza shop was locked, and though empty of people, it was actually well supplied with soft drinks, biscuits, beer, toiletries and paraffin. The mob nevertheless busted through the walls, and Siphiwe rooted around in a back room, collecting for himself two pairs of sneakers, a Nike track suit and a nylon jacket. The shop was set ablaze, again to the noisy approval of the crowd, though this, too, seemed scant retaliation against murderous thugs. Where were those despicable people?

“Elevation” does not mean glossing anything over. To the contrary, it means being able to look at things with the unflinching, unblinking acuity of an eagle’s eye. Note the calm tone, the accumulation of simple words and sentences that seduce us into watching, instead of turning away, as a very uncomfortable truth about the nature of human beings plays out before our eyes:

The video shows Farai already on the ground, using his left leg to try to block the blows of a man swinging a heavy piece of wood. Others are pelting him with rocks from behind and hitting him with sticks. At this point, it is still possible to imagine the young man’s escape. He can speak; his movements are spry; there is barely a smudge on the lilac of the shirt. But by the next scene, he is sapped of strength and badly injured. His frantic efforts to get away have failed, and he has landed in a filthy, water-filled ditch. As he crawls out, his hands groping at the dirt, a man in blue pants kicks him in the chest, and Farai flops backward with a splash. Some in the crowd, including children, scoot around to get a better look.

The video then jumps ahead. Farai is again on dry ground, lying on his back, seemingly near death but still breathing. Blood is leaking from his head. He barely raises his left hand, and this trivial movement somehow becomes a cue for the beating to resume. A man wearing a white cap wallops him seven times in the face and neck with a plank, the assailant’s arms reaching high to amplify the force of his swing.

—-

Check back tomorrow to read our interview with Barry Bearak. Or take a look at some of our previous Editors’ Roundtables.

Is there a story you’d like the Roundtable to tackle? If so, you can send a link to us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org.

July 11 2011

17:39

The implications of plot lines in illness and memoir

Narrative therapy uses a client’s life story to shine a spotlight on how he understands his experience. The concept of an “illness narrative” emerged not in a literary context but over the past two decades in the fields of psychotherapy and medicine. I have pondered illness narratives from the point of view of a depressed parent with a profoundly sick child, and I have examined them from the perspective of a professional writer and teacher of memoir. It is my belief that ideas that have developed within the field of medicine about these narratives can help those who wish to write powerful stories about their own – or others’ – illnesses.

Illness narratives and healing

In medical schools, the illness narrative concept has been applied to the training of doctors, teaching them to communicate better with patients by understanding the various meanings patients give their illnesses and helping them change their narratives toward more successful outcomes. Through this adaptation in a clinical setting, it’s been found that a patient’s choice of illness narrative can have a real impact on treatment and survival.

Studies show, for example, that when a wife includes her husband in the story of her breast cancer, in effect changing the protagonist in her narrative from “I” to “we,” treatment becomes more effective and her chance of survival improves. In psychotherapy, when a client sees a redeeming value in the abuse he suffered in childhood – usually that the hardship has made him a stronger person – studies by Dan P. McAdams show that this “redemption narrative” provides the client a higher level of life satisfaction.

As a memoirist and teacher of memoir writing, my major focus for understanding and applying the illness narrative concept is in my writing and teaching life. Many memoirs, including my own (“A Lethal Inheritance”), chronicle one person or family’s experience of mental illness. Given their popularity, these psychologically driven true-life accounts define much of our cultural representations of mental illness. These accounts also follow certain templates that help determine the narrative arc of the stories being told.

The wounded storyteller

Arthur W. Frank is a sociologist who first developed the concept of the illness narrative in his influential book “The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics.” Using his own cancer and recovery as inspiration, he begins by describing life as a journey and serious illness as a “loss of the destination and map that had previously guided the ill person’s life.” He emphasizes that “Ill people learn by hearing themselves tell their stories, absorbing others’ reactions and experiencing their stories being shared.”

Frank views an illness narrative not as an externalized construct but as an interactive experience that the ill person enters. From within this story, the patient then finds others – patients like himself, medical providers, caregivers – with whom he interacts, using the illness as a primary focal point for those interactions. How family and friends react to an illness affects the stories a patient tells himself and others. For mental illnesses, addictions, or the more mysterious physical sicknesses – for example, chronic pain syndrome – there is often a stigma attached. This stigma can then shape our personal narratives by adding guilt or shame to the mix, which in turn can make someone avoid treatment, stymie recovery. In a literary context, these sentiments turn us into unreliable narrators.

Three common plot lines for an illness narrative

Frank defined three types of illness narratives, seeing them as the framework or plotline that the ill person uses first to understand and then to explain her illness. If you are writing a story about illness, you will probably discover that one (or more) of the following three narratives mirrors the storyline you once lived or are now telling about someone else.

The restitution narrative

This is the most familiar and socially condoned type of illness narrative. A restitution narrative tells the story of a patient being restored to good health due to the marvels of modern medicine. These are the gee-whiz recovery stories that we often read about in the popular press. In this story model, the illness is seen as transitory. As Frank put it, “It [the patient's thoughts, feelings, and actions] is a response to an interruption, but the narrative itself is above interruption.” It is all about the body returning to its former image of itself, before illness. The illness has been managed, the body likened to a car that has broken down and been repaired. If, for example, you had one of the many types of cancer that now have a high rate of remission with early treatment, or a mental disorder that responds well to a brief course of therapy or medication, a restitution illness narrative could be the appropriate plot structure for your story.

The chaos narrative

In contrast, the narrator in a chaos illness narrative takes a radically different and more unsettled path. The illness moves randomly, so the patient goes in a zigzag story line, one that progresses from bad to worse and back to bad before getting worse again. The storyteller may be without hope; he imagines his body and life never improving.

If you construct a memoir about your years in a downward spiral dealing with a more mysterious ailment such as chronic fatigue syndrome or a case of major depression that doesn’t respond to antidepressant therapy, you would probably be writing a chaos narrative. Chaos narratives describe the experience of having a disease with no cure and perhaps only unreliable treatments. It is the story of AIDS in the ’80s and early ’90s. It also describes the old medical model used for treating severe mental illness or long-term addiction, which aimed for maintenance, not improvement, as the goal of treatment. For many in mental health care, this old model has been replaced by a recovery model. A patient shifting between these models can be seen as moving from a chaos narrative to a quest narrative.

The quest narrative

Frank described the quest illness narrative as when “the ill person meets suffering head on; they accept illness and seek to use it. Illness is the occasion of a journey that becomes a quest.”

The narrator in a quest narrative shows us what it’s like to be in pain. She shares her hopes, and fears, and sense (or lack of sense) about the meaning of suffering and the possibility of death. Rather than telling others what they should do in order to return to their former state, quest narratives bear witness to the experience and share wisdom. It’s not that the person doesn’t wish to be well. She might in fact achieve wellness; but, more importantly, she accepts what is. Wellness is not defined as the state the ill person occupied before the illness struck. It represents the claiming by the narrator of a newer, wiser state.

Frank demonstrates the quest narrative in action when he writes to his younger self, the person he was before the onset of the testicular cancer that inspired this theoretical work: “For all you lose, you have an opportunity to gain: closer relationships, more poignant appreciations, clarified values. Your are entitled to mourn what you can no longer be, but do not let this mourning obscure your sense of what you can become. You are embarking on a dangerous opportunity. Do not curse your fate; count your possibilities.”

If you’re writing a memoir about an experience of medical or mental illness, it’s important to think through whether your plotline fits one of the narrative plot structures Frank outlined. Your story may begin with one plot, perhaps restitution, and then, as the illness takes an unexpected turn, become a story marked by chaos.

The illness narrative and the writer-reader experience

The story of mental illness I tell begins as a restitution plot. In 1998 when my then-17-year-old son is diagnosed with schizophrenia, I want only to be told how his doctors plan to “fix him.” When I’m told his disease is incurable, his future bleak, I descend into confusion and fear. This state of chaos gets dramatically worse when acute symptoms of my lifelong depression and a younger son’s anxiety disorder can no longer be denied. Thus what began with single illness in one child becomes an unnamed “family illness” with roots several generations in the past.

When I ultimately reject my son’s bleak prognosis and begin my search for alternatives to the medical model, I change the illness narrative with which I’m framing our now collective experience once more – to the quest plot line. As I wrote my memoir, Arthur Frank’s theoretical work with illness narratives helped me get a handle on how to structure it. This conceptual framework was especially valuable as I asked my readers to trust me on a journey that would take them into an unusual pairing of personal experience and scientific research. In the end I believe it is the power of the personal illness narrative that helps readers digest the often dense research findings.

It took 10 years for my family to reach recovery and for me to write my memoir. Now that I’ve gone “on the road” to talk with people about my book, I’m struck by the intimacy of the discussions I’m having.  The relational nature of the illness narrative concept is strikingly similar to the bond that exists between a memoirist and her readers, especially, I believe, when the focus of a memoir is on a mental illness or addiction. The reader becomes another important player in the particular illness narrative the writer chooses for her story. Does the reader accept the writer’s diagnosis and treatment choices? Are readers rooting for her recovery? The range of possible responses to the mentally ill person’s story in book form mirrors those she encounters on a daily basis in real life. The fundamental fact of the memoir as a record of true experience changes everything about the writing and reading process – bringing it full circle, from life to art and back to life.

Victoria Costello writes popular psychology and blogs at MentalHealthMomBlog.com. Her memoir, “A Lethal Inheritance: A Mother Uncovers the Science Behind Three Generations of Mental Illness,” will be published in Jan 2012. Her “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Memoir” will appear this December.

July 07 2011

18:11

“Why’s this so good?” No. 2: McPhee takes on the Mississippi

When the Mississippi River recently surged down through the middle of the country, a lot of people I follow on Twitter took the opportunity to point to John McPhee’s marvelous 1987 article “Atchafalaya.”I took their advice and revisited the piece.

After 24 years, the story is still valuable simply as a guide to the risks faced by people who live along the Mississippi. But it would be ridiculous to think of McPhee’s articles as nothing more than service journalism. Over the past four decades, McPhee has plunged into a series of obsessions – with plate tectonics, athletes, shad fishing, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, the entire state of Alaska. At its best, McPhee’s work feels like a journalistic version of an Iron Man competition. He pushes long-form journalism to the extremes, to encompass the world in staggering detail. And “Atchafalaya” is particularly staggering, because its subject is nothing less than the endless, spectacular, and sometimes absurd struggle of modern civilization to control the natural world.

As I reread “Atchafalaya,” I tried to reverse engineer it to figure out why it’s so good. At its core is a journey McPhee took down the Mississippi in a towboat, accompanying some of the members of the Army Corps of Engineers. For most journalists, that would be more than enough material enough for an excellent article. For McPhee, it is only the start. The river, after all, was not just what he could see in 1987. It was also the product of history – the geological history of the region, and then the human history overlaid on it – history that includes politics, warfare and centuries of engineering. McPhee mastered this vast backstory, but he was not yet done. He also became intimately acquainted with the colossal system of levees and weirs that line the Mississippi: a grand construction that is both longer and wider than the Great Wall of China.

I get the sense that McPhee spends every waking hour gathering observations, stories and plain facts that he stores away for articles he may not write for decades to come. In “Atchafalaya” he smoothly slips away from his journey down the Mississippi to recall earlier experiences – flying over the river, running lines with a Cajun crawfisherman.

Once McPhee assembled this mountain range of raw material, he mined it to build a 28,000-word article. McPhee builds articles like few other journalists can. He scrupulously avoids all stock tricks. His paragraphs encompass worlds. He writes from a dictionary full of strange words: revetments, whaleback, distributaries. They’re not obscure words McPhee chose to make the reader feel undereducated, but the precise language required to describe something most people know little about. It takes time to submerge into this language – this is not a story to shave away one iPhone screen at a time.

If there’s any weakness in “Atchafalaya,” it’s McPhee’s portraits of people. We meet engineers and pilots along the river. McPhee records plenty of exquisite details about their backgrounds. And yet I couldn’t recall any of them as individuals later on. They all talked about the great river, but interchangeably. McPhee knows how to write a great profile (I’m thinking of “Levels of the Game,” a book-length account of a U.S. Open tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner). So I can only assume that he has made a strategic choice in “Atchafalaya” to let the people in the story blur into a wall of humanity massed against the river.

Still, this remains a great piece of writing. By that I don’t mean that it’s an exemplar of what all journalism should be. It is McPhee excelling at being McPhee. It’s impossible to steal tricks from a piece like “Atchafalaya,” because you just end up sounding like a bad imitation of someone else. Instead, it sends me flying back to my own work, re-energized to dig as deeply as I can into the subject at hand, and to craft out of it something distinctively my own.

Carl Zimmer’s science writing has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Time and Scientific American, among other publications. He lectures at Yale University and has 10 books to his name, the latest of which is “A Planet of Viruses.” He is on Twitter at @carlzimmer.

[For more from this new collaboration with Longreads, check out the first post in the series, written by Alexis Madrigal. And stay tuned for more inspiration and insight from fabulous writers in the coming weeks.]

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.

July 05 2011

17:07

July Editors’ Roundtable No. 1: the St. Petersburg Times’ snapshot between before and after

For the first Roundtable of July, our editors looked at “Diving headlong into a sunny paradise” by Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg Times. The story follows a young Wisconsin couple on their first day starting a new life in Florida. Appearing in print on Memorial Day, DeGregory’s piece was edited by Mike Wilson, the St. Petersburg Times’ managing editor for enterprise.

Our editors didn’t see each other’s comments as they wrote and haven’t yet read our interview with DeGregory about her story. Tomorrow we’ll post that interview.

For bios of the Roundtable editors, see our January post.

Kelley Benham
Enterprise editor, St. Petersburg Times

On reporting that nails the story:

[Full disclosure: I work with Lane, and while I’m not her editor, I have edited some of her stories in the past. I was on leave from the paper when she wrote this piece, so I wasn’t involved with it.]

When I was a new reporter, my editor had the good sense to give me the desk next to Lane DeGregory. He knew I’d learn just by eavesdropping over the half-wall of the cubicle.

The first thing I noticed was that I spent a lot more time at my desk than she did. She was always out chatting up convenience store clerks and truckers and God-knew-who. She couldn’t walk three blocks without making a new friend and arranging to follow them home. So when I saw this story in the newspaper, I could picture clearly how it came together.

Lane was on the bus.  Of course she was. She goes where the story is and soaks it in. Lane’s stories always seem to unfold in places suggesting stale odors and crumpled lottery tickets. Lane doesn’t think she’s better than anybody. She genuinely loves people, and especially people who could use a break. That open spirit leads her to stories others overlook. Lane’s people are barflies, carnies, lost souls and anyone who gets nervous walking into a bank office. Her people ride the bus.

She recognized the story in front of her. If I’d been on that bus and noticed the pale people smooching, I would have smiled and tried not to stare. Not Lane. She got their story – they were escaping the frozen north and seeing Florida for the first time – and recognized what it represented. She was witnessing the mythic tug of the Florida dream, of eternal sunshine and oranges you can eat right off the trees. Forcing yourself to identify the larger idea in your narrative early on provides a clear mission for the reporting and writing.

She followed the story where it led. Lane and photojournalist John Pendygraft tagged along as the couple searched for the beach. They were willing to have their day hijacked by the unexpected story. They made room for serendipity. They recognized that their narrative was a quest, and to tell it they would need to report for action and allow it to unfold. Being there allowed Lane to capture moments like:

“What’s a pelican?”

“You know, like on Finding Nemo.”

She filled her notebook with detail and dialog. I like to deconstruct stories like this, to try to figure out what questions the reporter asked, and what she might have written in her notebook. She wasn’t with the couple as they packed and pulled away from Wisconsin, but her smart questions allowed her to maintain the narrative and her characters’ perspective as she weaves the backstory. Some questions Lane probably asked: What did the postcard look like? (A pelican on a piling …) Do you have it? Can I see it? What’s in your pocket? ($141, a half-pack of Marlboro reds) Can I look in your bag? (Jenna slipped a photo of her mom into a sock.)

Back at the office, she nailed down the rest of the story. Lane backgrounded her characters and discovered Dan was on probation. She had to decide whether that changed the nature of the story, and find a way to work it in without disrupting the narrative. (Jenna knows all about Dan’s past …) She researched the town they escaped. (Nine square miles of prairie, with 9,728 people and a prison.) She found the temperature in Wisconsin when they climbed on the bus. (39 degrees.) And every piece of background that she worked into the story helps explain how Dan and Jenna ended up in St. Petersburg.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary:

[Full disclosure: I worked with Lane at The Virginian-Pilot in the early ’90s.]

Lane DeGregory notices characters and events that most other journalists pass by. She pays attention and lets curiosity guide her. She often recognizes a profound story lying just under the surface.

In following Dan and Jenna, Lane explores what draws some people to St. Petersburg. Sometimes, those reasons are random, romantic and irrational.

There’s no overarching trend in this story. No hard news nugget. No statistics graf. Instead, Lane steps out of the action and uses her narrator’s voice to underscore the universality of Dan and Jenna’s story. This is crucial: Lane helps the reader identify with the couple.

She does so by touching on the broader theme of escape:

Millions of people have done this, decided all their troubles would disappear, all their dreams would come true, if they moved to the land of eternal sunlight.

Dan and Jenna set out for the same reasons folks have flocked to Florida for more than a century: To stop shoveling snow. To escape. To start over.

They weren’t worried about unemployment rates or hurricanes or oil spills. They were young and in love and they had each other. All they needed were a few waves. And a tan.

If you remember what it was like to be young and in love and wanting to escape, then you understand Dan and Jenna’s story.

Lane also reminds us about how, after we’ve lived in a certain place for a long time, we no longer notice the extraordinary things around us. She gently tells her St. Petersburg readers to open their eyes: “After we have been here for a while, it’s easy to forget what a weird, wonderful place we live in, where blue herons wander through gas stations and bushes bloom all year.

We crank up the AC, close our blinds and watch TV. Instead of venturing into the Eden outside.

In the final scene, Lane uses Dan and Jenna’s kiss in the Gulf waters to return to the theme of escape and starting over – water is a symbol for birth and rebirth: “All their lives they had been surrounded by land, the whole country hemming them in. Now, they were at the edge of everything, about to dive in.”

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

Gaining the trust of your subjects:

[Full disclosure: Lane was one of my writers here at The Pilot before she joined The Times, and she remains a close friend.]

Lane DeGregory is an editor’s dream for many reasons, but one in particular is how she manages to get people to share details that they wouldn’t tell their best friends. All narrative writers should strive for that intimacy.

People expect reporters to ask them basic questions, the who, the what, the when. With stories like this one, the reporting is much more involved. Notice that Lane pulled from this couple the details of their trip, what they took, how they left, what they were thinking. She found out what inspired them to go south, what they were hoping for, what they did once they arrived. She drew out emotions and reactions and gestures.

This is a story about a journey, and Lane wasn’t sitting next to them on that bus from Wisconsin, but she needed us to feel like she was. The only way to accomplish that was to get this couple to open up about everything, including their baggage – emotional and otherwise.

I haven’t talked to Lane about this story, so I don’t know exactly what she did to deserve their trust. But I know Lane, and I bet she did a few of the things she always does.

She was drawn to these guys. Lane has no interest in celebrities or politicians. She enjoys reaching out to people on the margins – even oddballs – to those other reporters ignore.

She asked them to share their story. I’m sure Lane treated them with dignity and made them feel important, like their experience was worthy of a headline.

She listened carefully and patiently. Anyone who wants to reach deep into someone else’s experience needs to not only draw out the details with good questions but also be quiet.

She was genuinely curious and compassionate. Lane always is. It’s second nature. She would have made a great bartender, too.

Laurie Hertzel
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune

Gaining the trust of the reader:

This is an unusual newspaper story – no nut graf, no news peg, no experts. What is it? (I can imagine many editors asking.) It is a brilliant moment in time, skillfully sandwiched between bad moments of the past and bad moments almost certainly yet to come. It is reminiscent in many ways of Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” How did Lane DeGregory do this? How did she pack so much pathos, hope and dread into one short piece? How did she make us believe it?

Sneaky attribution. Readers need grounding. We want to understand how the writer knows what she tells us. DeGregory tells us so sneakily we don’t even notice. Right up top, in the first graf: “He remembers every detail.”  And, later, “Jenna knows all about Dan’s past.”  The attribution is there throughout, just camouflaged.

Just enough context. There’s no nut graf in this story, but it is studded with context and meaning. Every so often DeGregory falls back from the action and reminds us that this story is not just about Dan and Jenna, but about all of us – about America, that great theme of striking out on one’s own and starting over. But each time she does this, she does it swiftly, and then immediately brings us back to our main characters.

Examples:

Millions of people have done this, decided all their troubles would disappear, all their dreams would come true, if they moved to the land of eternal sunlight. Dan and Jenna set out for the same reasons folks have flocked to Florida for more than a century…

and

After we have been here for a while, it’s easy to forget what a weird, wonderful place we live in, where blue herons wander through gas stations and bushes bloom all year. … This young couple had journeyed more than 1,350 miles to find Florida. Now that they were here, things seemed so surreal.

and

All their lives they had been surrounded by land, the whole country hemming them in. Now, they were at the edge of everything, about to dive in.

No trauma, no extremes, no tragedy. Newspapers dwell in the world of extremes: The brave cancer patient, stoic to the end. The brutal murderer who kills someone in cold blood.  This story resonates because these kids are so ordinary. It’s easy to believe the story, because it’s so easy to identify with it. We’ve either done something like this ourselves, or know someone who has.

Details provide credibility. The more you learn about Dan and Jenna, the more you can picture them. The more you see them, the more you believe them. And so the details – Jenna blinking in the too-bright sun; her Hannah Montana purse; her vari-colored fingernails; her hoodie sweatshirt; the way she hid a photograph of her mother in a sock. Dan’s haircut; his inky tattoos; his crooked smile. I wrote that list without referring back to the story because DeGregory had made these people so real I couldn’t forget them.

Check back tomorrow for our interview with Lane DeGregory, in which she discusses how she found Dan and Jenna and the hard-luck epilogue to the story.

July 01 2011

14:08

A new way into an old story: Adam Hochschild on “To End All Wars”

Adam Hochschild, a longtime supporter of the Nieman Foundation’s narrative program, published a new book last month, “To End All Wars.” A former editor of Mother Jones magazine, Hochschild lives in San Francisco and teaches writing at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He has also written several narrative books about history, ranging from the abolition of slavery in England to King Leopold II’s devastation of the Congo more than a century ago. We talked with Hochschild by phone about his latest book and some of the narrative strategies he used to tell the story. The following excerpts from our discussion have been lightly edited for clarity.

You have a history of writing about historical issues related to human rights and dissent. When did you decide to write about the pacifist movement in World War I?

I had always been interested by these people. The first time I began learning about them was when I was a teenager. Bertrand Russell was a big hero of mine, and I read a biography of him that described how he went to jail for his opposition to the war. Somehow that moved me and stuck with me and remained there in my memory as I learned a little more history and realized how terrible this war was, and how brave someone had to be to defy the patriotic hysteria in the air.

The more I learned about how the First World War really did shape the 20th century and remake our world for the worse in every conceivable way, the more I got fascinated by the people who refused to fight or who spoke out against the war – like Russell and E. D. Morel, the crusading journalist who was a hero of King Leopold’s Ghost, who were beyond draft age but who nonetheless spoke out very clearly and went to prison for doing so. Of course they existed in all of the warring countries. But for various reasons there were a lot more of them in England than anywhere else. So that’s where I decided to focus.

Could you discuss a little how you identified Charlotte Despard and John French as two of your main characters for this book?

I knew that there were two types of people I wanted to have in the book. One was the pacifists and war resisters, people who refused to fight, or people who spoke out against the war and of course almost all of them suffered in one way or another for it. I wanted to have them in the book, but I also wanted to have the generals, the cabinet ministers, the people who actually fought the war, and the propagandists who were part of the crusade, who helped shape public opinion and felt the war was noble and necessary and had to be fought. For the longest time I knew that these were the two character types that interested me, but I could not figure out how to get them into the same book.

I didn’t want to do a series of portraits, first one type, then the other, because that’s kind of boring. I think what makes people read history – or at least one thing that makes them read history – is if you can talk about a period of time or a movement or a phenomenon through a group of people who are connected to each other in one way or another.

Then one day I was reading about Charlotte Despard, ardent pacifist, a radical who joined every progressive cause of the day, a big backer of independence for Ireland and independence for India, went to jail four times in the battle for women’s suffrage, spoke out very loudly against the war, wrote a pamphlet that sold 100,000 copies. In this very dull scholarly article I was reading, the writer in one sentence, in passing, said something like, “Of course these activities were deeply upsetting to her brother.” And the writer mentioned his name, Sir John French, which of course I recognized – he was British commander in chief on the Western Front! I thought, “This is a relationship that I can really have some fun exploring.”

The moment I saw this, I thought, “Divided families – that’s the way to do this book.” I knew that I could find divided families because in Britain, because there were more than 20,000 men of military age who refused to go into the army. Many of them as a matter of principle also refused the alternative service that was offered to conscientious objectors, driving an ambulance at the front or working in a war industry. More than 6,000 went to prison. I knew those people had to have friends, brothers, family members who felt differently than they did. My job was to find divided families and to tell the book through them.

Your sympathy for the pacifists’ cause becomes apparent in the course of the book. Did you have to work to maintain sympathy for those who fought, in terms of keeping them human?

It’s funny. On a personal level, there are at least one or two of the warmongers whom I would much more enjoy spending time with than some of the pacifists. Among the pacifists, Charlotte Despard was totally indiscriminate in the causes she embraced, including, unfortunately, the Russian Revolution, which she was totally star-struck by. She thought that paradise had appeared in Soviet Russia. I’m not sure how interesting a person she would have been to hang out with.

On the other hand, her brother, the field marshal, seems to have had a great deal of charm, a real common touch, an ebullience and enthusiasm that would have made him a much more enjoyable dinner companion than his sister.

I think you do have to have a certain human sympathy with your characters even when their politics are not your own. In this story, the two young men whose deaths I talk most about are George Cecil – grandson of a former prime minister and the son of one of my major characters – and young John Kipling. Both sets of parents were totally in favor of the war but were absolutely devastated by their sons’ deaths. How can you not empathize with that? Poor Rudyard Kipling was so distraught that he got British fighter pilots to fly over the German lines and drop leaflets asking people to get in touch if they knew anything about where his son’s body might be found. A poignant, poignant story. You can’t help but sympathize with someone who’s bereft or grieving.

You have these large characters – Kipling, Bertrand Russell and Arthur Conan Doyle – who make appearances in your book, sometimes more than once. How do you balance the celebrity cameos to energize rather than upset the applecart of your narrative?

Generally, I tried in the book to focus on people whose lives were not familiar to most readers, especially most American readers. So that’s why in focusing on people like Despard, French, the Hobhouse family, and Alfred Milner, I hope I was bringing something fresh to American readers, even those who are familiar with the First World War. But I wanted to have a few well-known figures in there as well. Like Winston Churchill, for instance, who invariably pops up in the middle of any great historical event that happened during his lifetime, and who always has something marvelously quotable to say.

There have been a lot of good books written about the First World War. I think some of the best in recent years have been done in fiction. Pat Barker has done some extraordinary writing.

She’s amazing.

Yes, wonderful. But I stayed away from the people she talked about, because she’s written about them so beautifully that there’s nothing more to add. Those people are familiar to readers now. I’d rather introduce people to characters they don’t know about, like my wonderful lion tamer John S. Clarke, for example. You couldn’t invent somebody like this. He’d been the youngest lion tamer in Great Britain when he was a teenager, then went into radical politics, opposed the war, went underground, and published this clandestine newspaper. And then in his old age, whenever he got bored with politics, he went back into the ring and was the oldest lion tamer in Great Britain. I take great pleasure in introducing somebody like that to readers.

You have a war of several years, with activities on at least three continents. And so much of the war was this static thing in which people were continuously dying, but not much larger change was going on. How did you work to keep the narrative pacing so that those long static years on the battlefield didn’t slow the book down?

Even though it was indeed static, and the front line on the Western Front really didn’t really move in a big way in more than three years, when these great battles started, like the Battle of Loos, where John Kipling was killed, and the Battle of the Somme in 1916, everybody expected and hoped that this was going to be the big breakthrough. You can use that to build a certain tension and suspense. You can quote peoples’ letters, saying, “This is going to be the smashing blow that will win the war.” You can build the suspense and not reveal right away that it isn’t how things turned out.

But there were so many other things going on that I felt I could use to generate some suspense and narrative tension. For example, just in the weeks before the terrible Battle of the Somme began, there was the group of some 50 British conscientious objectors who were forcibly taken to France and threatened with death. Their friends and family and supporters in England had no idea whether they had already been shot, whether they would be shot, whether they would be saved.

Anytime in real life where there’s a period of days or weeks when people don’t know something desperately important like that, a writer can very easily use it to generate suspense in the narrative. There were so many things like that that I felt allowed me to build narrative tension. Similarly, when the Russian Revolution, or revolutions, the February Revolution and the October Revolution, happened, in each case it was greeted with enormous enthusiasm by the pacifists and war resisters, because they hoped it would finally be the thing that would end the war. So I show that enthusiasm without of course immediately revealing that it didn’t end the war, although the reader probably knows that to begin with.

Did you always approach writing nonfiction using narrative devices from fiction, or did you have a conversion on the road to Damascus?

I have always liked the idea of trying to write as interestingly as I could, in a way that would hold people’s attention. And I think that anybody who does that very quickly sees that he or she needs to steal techniques from the novelists, because they know how to do this better than anybody. Someone writing a news story for a newspaper or a piece of reportage for a magazine will always get some people to read what they write because even the most poorly written story, if it’s got information you want, you might read it. But novelists have a higher standard, I think, because they have to make readers care about people that they don’t know and aren’t interested in to start with. So there’s much more to be learned from studying them.

I can think of one episode on that road to Damascus. My third book, “The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin,” was about how people in Russia were dealing with the Stalinist period. It had become possible in the late 1980s to dig up the buried bodies, to read the forbidden books, to think about what had happened. The book contains a long series of interviews with people across the country and was structured as a journey to the far northeast corner of Siberia, where the worst of the Gulag concentration camps were. It was a reasonable structure for a book; a narrative based around a journey is certainly an ancient way of telling a story.

But you think another approach might have worked better?

Near the end of that journey, I suddenly realized that I should have done it differently. That realization came when I went to a place in Siberia where a river had overflowed its banks and disclosed a mass grave. The mass grave was under the site of a secret police prison from the 1930s. And the village was still full of people who knew men and women who had been arrested then, and now their bodies had been disclosed by this overflow of the river.

I interviewed two people from the village whose fathers had been shot in this prison and were in the mass grave and another woman whose father had been the secret police commander of the prison. These people knew each other. And I realized, “Wait a minute. I should have done this whole book based on this town.” In one small town, I could have told the entire story of Russia experiencing this horrible self-inflicted genocide in the 1930s and then dealing with it today, could have told it all through a network of people who knew each other in this particular place.

Unfortunately, this discovery came at the end of six months of research, and I knew I was not going to be able to persuade my tolerant and forgiving family to continue to live in Russia for another six months. And I didn’t want to throw away six months of research. So I told the story the way I had first designed it. But the idea of talking about a piece of history through an interconnected network of people in one place stuck with me, and that’s what I ended up doing in my three subsequent books.

For more on craft from Adam Hochschild, see our four-part series taken from a talk he gave at Vanderbilt University earlier this year.

June 27 2011

14:11

“Why’s this so good?” No. 1: Truman Capote keeps time with Marlon Brando

Truman Capote’s profile of the depressive, incoherent, brilliant Marlon Brando is one of the greatest of all time. Published in 1957 in The New Yorker, it nominally takes place one evening in the Miyako Hotel in Kyoto.

One could point out many things about craft in the piece. The descriptions of characters are finely observed and sticky. A director “is a man balanced on enthusiasm, as a bird is balanced on air.” Or check out his description of how Brando transforms into Kowalski: “with what chameleon ease Brando acquired the character’s cruel and gaudy colors, how superbly, like a guileful salamander, he slithered into the part, how his own persona evaporated – just as, in this Kyoto hotel room 10 years afterward, my 1947 memory of Brando receded, disappeared into his 1957 self.”

But all that verbiage needed some infrastructure on which to run. Rhythm, narrative or otherwise, is a pleasing regularity in time, and Capote bangs away like a drum major to keep it.

There are two Russian critical terms that are helpful here: fabula and syuzhet. The fabula is the real chronology of a narrative: Brando was born at such and such a time, grew up, and meets up with Capote in 1957. The syuzhet is how the story is told, its internal narrative time. How you convert fabula into syuzhet is storytelling, and Capote is dazzling. He weaves big time (a life) into little time (the hours), always working at two scales. For all its descriptive frippery and meandering actor monologues, the profile is set in reassuring 4/4 time. We never really leave that room in Kyoto even though Capote sweeps across Brando’s entire life.

The first layer of structure is simple, and it’s the one most of us take when we approach long form. Capote starts and ends in the same place. The first graf is knocking on Brando’s door; the last graf is leaving the hotel and walking home. OK, 101. Much of the rest of the work, particularly in the latter half of the story, is done through a remarkably clever rhetorical gadget. Here’s how it works.

About 1,000 words into the 14,000-word profile, Brando’s nominal screenplay co-writer, the pseudonymous Murray, leaves to go to dinner with a promise to call three hours later to do some work.

Murray shook his head; he was intent on obtaining Brando’s promise to meet with him again at ten-thirty. “Give me a ring around then,” Brando said, finally. “We’ll see what’s happening.”

By Chekhovian logic, we know the phone will ring before the story is over; such a call might even end the story, so we’re watching for it. The telephone actually rings four times in the course of the rest of the piece, and each time, we zoom back from wherever we were to the room where Brando is sitting with Capote. The first ring whips us back from the strange James Dean-Marlon Brando relationship. The second ring interrupts Brando’s detailed, inarticulate descriptions of his acting. The third ends an inquisition into whether Brando makes real connections with anyone. And the fourth stops Capote’s masterful description of the actor’s family.

If you plotted the movements with time on the x-axis and distance from Brando on the y-axis, Capote’s perambulations would resemble the elliptical orbit of comets, reaching away from the dinner to various distances, but always returning to late 1957.

That’s how Capote handles big time, always grounding us back into his narrative present and giving his piece the reassuring rhythm that he’s got all Brando’s history firmly under control.

But there’s another aspect to his ploy. Each time the phone rings, some nearly arbitrary amount of time has passed. The first time Murray calls, we know it’s been three hours, though clearly three hours haven’t been described or felt by the reader. In another instance, “an hour seemed to have passed,” in the course of a thousand words. The passage of time roughly tracks with the word length, but not precisely so. And that’s the real trick. By forcing us to pay attention to the real time (the fabula) every so often, Capote is free to play with narrative time (syuzhet) at will, tunneling back to childhood, zooming in on Brando on the stage or on film, stopping, starting, reversing, slow-mo-ing. He’s like a magician distracting us with unnecessary information so that we don’t notice the mechanics of how he pulls the trick off.

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic and author of “Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.”

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