Interview with Chris Jones: Building a mystery
Excerpts from a September 2009 interview with Chris Jones on “The End of Mystery,” in which a team of investigators recovers bodies and determines the cause of a helicopter crash off the coast of Newfoundland:
Q: How did you find out about the investigation into the Newfoundland crash?
A: I live in Ottawa, Canada. This was a big story in Canada—it led the nightly news for the better part of a week. But I figured it hadn’t made as much news in the U.S. From the beginning, it was a very literary sort of accident, because there was initially one survivor, one body, and 16 people missing.
The kind of story I like is one where you find something that other people might ignore. What struck me was that they said the black box was sent to Ottawa to investigators. I wondered who would get the black box and what it would tell them.
Q: At what point did you know how you would structure this story?
A: I can’t say I really knew until I started writing it. I didn’t make an outline for it. I just sort of started writing. I almost wanted the reader to follow the path of the investigators, moving from the big picture to smallest possible details.
When I was talking to Allan Chaulk, and he mentioned finding the rolled-up paper at the bottom of the ocean, I got goose bumps and figured that would be my lead. You’re in the dark, and all you have is these clues. Ultimately, I wanted to the reader to understand the process. I was amazed that out of all the wreckage and carnage, they found these little titanium studs.
Q: In the helicopter crash story as well as your earlier piece “The Things That Carried Him,” you stick to a relentless structure. One moves forward in time, trying to solve the mystery of the crash, while the other moves backward. How do you decide what to leave out?
A: “The Things That Carried Him” was originally supposed to be 6,000 words, which is standard for an Esquire feature. But as I was working on it, I still thought that was possible. But there are 11 sections, and I had written two when I realized it was going to be way over 6,000 words.
I called my editor, Peter Griffin, who is the great editor—I mean that—he is always right. I called him up and said, “Peter, I think this might be a little long.” It ended up being 22,000 words, and then we cut it back to 17,000. It’s funny to talk about that story being tight, because it’s massive. I don’t think I’m good at staying on point. Writing [the story] backward was his idea.
With the crash story, it was a little easier. To Peter’s credit, this story did get cut quite a bit. For instance there was another oil rig accident in which guys were lost, and I went into the difference between having the bodies and not having the bodies. He suggested we just get rid of that.
Q: Your scenes stand out as stories in miniature, each with a lead and a kicker. Can you talk about how you approach beginnings and endings of your scenes?
A: I’ve always felt that narrative relies on scenes. The best advice I ever got on writing was from my mom: to always think of my stories as movies. When I read them back to myself, I think, “Does it make sense? Does each scene fold into the next scene properly?”
That probably sounds really gross to people who are into literature, but for me that’s the best way to figure out if I’ve got the scene right. Because I want the reader to picture himself in that situation. I want the reader to be on board the Atlantic Osprey when they find the bodies.
The other thing is section breaks—they should have a lead and a kicker. I’ve always believed that endings are more important than leads. I view each section as its own little chapter. Grab the reader and keep the reader going. I want to give them every reason to continue. I don’t want something lame or clichéd.
Q: Your writing style seems to be plain description that lays out all the elements in the piece and then links them in these emotional moments of discovery. Have you always had the confidence to take chances—to have faith in your readers to make those leaps with you?
A: Faith is the wrong word—maybe “hope” is better. You know, as a writer, when I started at Esquire, I was replacing a writer named Charlie Pierce. He was my favorite writer growing up. When I started, I had this feeling I had to write like Charlie Pierce. After three stories, I got a call, and my editor said, “Stop trying to write like Charlie Pierce.”
So I have always written fairly plainly. I got so much praise for “The Things That Carried Him,” but I believe that anyone could write that story. If you do the reporting, the writing is really basic. I don’t do flourishes.
Q: Really? What about your powerhouse ending about the lone survivor of the crash—where you revisit the ideas that babies float and talk about the “cause and manner of life”? It read pretty literary to me.
A: Okay—very occasionally I might do that. I think those paragraphs stand out because they’re different than the rest of the piece.
But I’ll admit that very little of what I do is conscious. I’m working on this book about the golfers who have shot 59. 59 pushes a golfer from the subconscious into the conscious, and some of them can’t get back in their game after they do it. I’ve been totally paranoid that working on this book is going to do that to my writing.
That last graph in the helicopter story just kind of came to me—it just sort of popped out. And I don’t know why, but the “babies float” thing was one of those moments during an interview where it wedged somewhere into my brain. Where I get credit for my writing, it’s for these connections, but I don’t consciously make them.
Because I believe endings are so important, sometimes I do them first. But this story, I just started writing. When you do that, sometimes you get these happy moments or surprises that work.
I think the reason I don’t like a lot of my stories may be that I’ve never made an outline. And I’ve often been self-conscious about that. Five or six years ago, Esquire re-released the Gay Talese story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” And they included Talese’s outline for the piece. It’s immense. And I thought, “Okay, I’m just a hack.”
David Foster Wallace wrote a piece about a child prodigy who became this great tennis player. He was so frustrated because she couldn’t explain anything about what she did. I’m teaching this year, and there are a couple professors here who can dissect a story—break down its architecture. I can’t do that. It sounds so bad, but in some ways, I don’t really think about it. I just try to ask as many questions as I can, and then I try to sit down and write a story that people will want to read.
Q: What do you think of narrative today?
A: Because journalism is in flux, we’re all talking about the death of news, how every journalist is poor and will live life in a hovel. I just don’t believe that’s true. I don’t know how to artfully make my case, but I believe to save ourselves, we’ve got to do good, long, true stories. Very few people can do them well.
I think it’s the out for individuals and it’s the out for newspapers as well. So many magazines and newspapers are making the mistake of going small. But the internet will beat you every time on small. I love [the Narrative Digest] because it makes me feel like so much good stuff is still happening. You forget about it sometimes.
But I still believe that if you write a really good story people will read it.
Q: How did you learn how to write?
A: I read a lot. My parents were both professors. Everything I wrote, my mom went over with a red marker—as a child for sure, and even as an adult. I had teachers tell me I should be a writer, but because I was a little asshole, I resisted. But I always liked words and sentences.
Q: Who do you read?
A: I love Tim O’Brien. And this will sound lame, but I really like Malcolm Gladwell. The thing that he doesn’t get credit for is his writing. “The Ketchup Conundrum” about how there’s a 1000 kinds of mustard but only one kind of ketchup.
I like when things read easily. I don’t like to see sweat on the page. When I was a teen, I loved Ernest Hemingway, because I was a clichéd young writer. In the long run, I think that was a good thing for my writing, though.
I also love Tom Junod’s “Mercenary” from a year or two ago. It was about a guy he met who claimed to be a kind of Blackwater guy, now hired to do security for a nuclear power plant. He wrote the story, and when then the fact checker started working on it, there were holes. The guy had lied about everything. And Tom wrote the story in such a way—he had to rewrite it of course—that he could reveal that the guy was a liar—but slowly. You come to the realization that the story is wrong. And there’s this creeping dread. He took a situation that could have been a complete disaster and turned it into a great story.
I still read stuff like that all the time, where I feel totally useless as a writer, because I wouldn’t be able to write that piece. I’m lucky that I can pick pieces that I can actually do. You have to know what you’re capable of, to be brutally honest with yourself about what you can and can’t do. And occasionally go back and do the other stuff just to remind yourself why you don’t do it.