Esquire‘s Peter Griffin on editing “The End of Mystery”
Excerpts from a September 2009 interview with Peter Griffin, deputy editor of Esquire, about an August story on a helicopter crash off the coast of Newfoundland:
Can you talk a little about your role in Chris Jones’ “The End of Mystery”?
This story was almost entirely Chris’s. He lives in Ottawa, and the crash of the Sikorsky was a big thing in Canada. It didn’t get much coverage in the U.S. Being in Ottawa where the Transportation Safety Board was located, he called days after the accident and said he wanted to do a story.
With most writers, we probably wouldn’t have pursued it, but because he’s Chris and he’s so good, we said, “Get on it.” And as quickly as he could arrange to talk to people and get out to the site, he did. When a writer you know well says, “This is a great story, and I want to do it,” you listen.
How much did you touch base during the reporting and writing?
We talked after every interview. The title of the story came out of a conversation we had then. He said, “I think this is the end of the mystery,” because the findings were coming so quickly.
When you get a piece, do you have a consistent approach to editing? Where do you start?
I suppose I do, though it’s not explicit or necessarily deliberate. Here at Esquire, we work mainly with a regular group of writers, so writers and editors come to know each other pretty well. But generally in the case of all the writers that I work with, you’re involved in talking through the story from the beginning.
Sometimes they’ll send in partial drafts, and we’ll comment. It’s often better when the draft is complete. You can sort of jam the writer if he’s not finished. Often it’s better to let them write it through, to get it down on paper, and then talk it out.
We usually do one significant rewrite, and then there’s back and forth on editing. Chris is usually very clean. By the time I see a piece, of course, he’s revised it four or five times himself.
Most narrative journalists credit their editors for the difference between a competent and a stellar piece. What do you look for an extraordinary narrative story to do?
The ones that work are almost always the ones where the writer takes command. We emphasize reporting here, but the reporting should be buried or embedded in the piece. We don’t care if there are a lot of quotes or not—the writers should have mastered their material. Many will sit down and write without referring to their notes. You want their voice, their command, their point of view, so that it almost reads like an essay. I think often the best narrative nonfiction feels that way.
We discourage first-person narratives. Sometimes it’s inevitable, but far too often magazine and newspaper journalism relies on the first person now. I think they’re trying to use it to add credibility or emotion to the story, but we discourage it. If the writer is good, his voice and presence is in each sentence. You don’t need the first person.
That’s not a rule about [first person]—more of a standard. It generally needs to be used sparingly or not at all. For most good writers, there’s no mistaking who a writer is. That’s what we look for and how we judge a writer: their ability to bring emotion and a distinct voice to the page.
I couldn’t help but notice that in the helicopter crash piece, the page breaks mirror the scenes, which made for smoother online reading than is possible with a lot of long-form journalism. And the scenes are true scenes. It struck me how each page has a lead.
One thing about the online experience here is that they’re very respectful of long-form stories. They want to replicate the reading experience on-line. They tend to use the natural story breaks. We’ll find that often the stories that we put online will draw unusually good traffic. It’s not always the case, but frequently we find that stories that are strong on the page are getting attention online, getting read online. They’re not just printing them out.
Chris is very craft conscious. And he uses sections and breaks very deliberately, which sometimes writers don’t. He was working on another story in which each section was a different stage in the passage of this soldier’s body home. Each one functions as almost an intact story, and begins around a person intimately involved with the movement of the solder.
He was very conscious of it. It was entirely his idea—the stories of these human beings who were the people who carried him. So you read a section, and they usually begin and end with something about that person. The breaks feel natural, and you can put a story down and come back to it if you need to.
In this story, too, he was quite deliberate in intermixing the stories of the people so that each section feels autonomous. But we have another writer, Mike Sager, who frequently does very intense studies, close observation, of one person, so that one person almost becomes a large subject.
Jones told me writing that soldier’s story so that it would unfold backward in time was your idea. It’s surely one of the strongest components of the story, that relentless march toward the moment of death. Do you ever regret not getting bylines or credit for these contributions?
The idea of doing that story was Chris’s. He’d seen a little wire story about the death of a soldier and how the guys had carried him back to the base. I suggested, “Let’s start with the gravesite.” But it’s one thing to say that and another thing to pull it off.
It’s one advantage you have as an editor: you can step back and look at the framing of a story in a way that a writer who’s intimately involved with it may not be able to. I don’t know if I had been writing that story if it would have occurred to me to write it backward.
If you work for a long time with a writer, a writer can feel confident taking chances, because there’s someone there to back you up. Editors feel that way, too—that they can suggest some things that are kind of out there, knowing a writer has the skills to back up the idea or make it work.
Here at Esquire, we like to keep writers and editors working with each other over time. It’s very hard for writers who don’t work consistently with an editor.
That relationship may be less common in today’s market. What advice would you give today’s freelance narrative nonfiction writers who may have to take a greater editing role on themselves?
It’s hard, and there aren’t very many outlets for it. And there are fewer writers who aspire to do it, unfortunately, and few editors who have worked places where they have much experience doing it.
Obviously reading is key. You [at the Digest] are providing a good source and examples. People can read great stories from the past and those that are still published today.
And then to the extent you can, you need somebody to work with—a spouse, a friend, an editor you know. You need the feedback, otherwise you just get caught in your own head, or you write the bland universal story. Often we’ll get submissions on spec, and we think, “This could appear anywhere.” It may be a worthy story, but a reader’s not going to stick with it because it feels so generic. We’ll do the same story, but it will have a different character.
A lot of the stories reflect the story of the writer and the sensibility of the magazine, and that’s what makes them work. They are grounded in a sensibility, a community, that gives them additional life. That’s very hard just writing for yourself or doing it on your own. Unfortunately, you have to do that if you don’t have an ongoing relationship. A relationship with an editor and a magazine makes a difference. It always has. It enables a writer to take it to another level. They don’t have to worry about pleasing anyone or selling the piece.
In addition to cheesecake pieces on starlets baking apple pies naked, Esquire is home to a lot of fabulous writing. Do you have a sense of how many people buy it for the articles?
The apple pie piece was Mary-Louise Parker. But yes, the online experience is much more heavily sensitive to having beautiful women and topical gossipy kinds of things. Which is probably why it’s gratifying to us that fundamentally the DNA of the magazine and its character are tied to its history with long-form journalism. We are blessed by our history, because you could not create a magazine like this today. We’ve been around 75 years, and it’s always been the character of the magazine to do stories like Chris’s.
It’s always been a mix of high culture and low culture. It started out with cheesecake illustrations in the ’30s and ’40s. That material has stayed with the magazine, but David Granger, the editor-in-chief, continues to edit long-form stories like these.
The person on the cover often has impact on whether or not someone will buy it on the newsstand, but to the extent we can survey, subscribers are generally coming back for the quality of the writing. You do get surprised sometimes. The response you get via e-mail may not be what you expect—some little story will make a big impression. But over time when we publish really good stories, we get mail saying “This is why I buy the magazine.” At bottom, that’s why we do the magazine.
I’m glad you’re highlighting [the helicopter story]. I think it’s a little gem—the kind of thing that Chris does well. He’s been writing for us for six, seven years. He used to be so intimidated because of all the great writers here, and now all the new writers look at him the same way.