The Oregonian‘s Shawn Levy on how to find the story
At last weekend’s American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors conference, speaker Shawn Levy spoke about “getting the story” and the connections between writing books and journalism. The film critic at The Oregonian, Levy has written five books, including King of Comedy, about comedian Jerry Lewis, and his most recent biography—Paul Newman: A Life. In addition to his work at The Oregonian, he blogs about film and professional soccer, and tweets compulsively, suffering from what he calls “monkey brain.”
Newspaper work is the foundation of my writing. There are enough commonalities between the two types of writing that my books would have been drastically different if I were not answering to the daily newspaper. One of the things I learned was how to dig for a story. Learning from people breaking public service news about what they do, what their methods are, and looking around at the research tools on the homepage at the newspapers. Looking how to search tax records in Connecticut, military records, census responses from [Paul Newman’s] family. You can only find these things out through what’s normally found as shoe-leather reporting. You just happen to be doing it about things that happened 85 years ago.
There are Web sites dedicated to special collections at research libraries. Among the things I found was a single-spaced 90 page Q&A with Newman from 1959. I knew from the first page no one had ever written about this document. I don’t see how you could write nonfiction without using the tools of journalism.
Another thing essential to a project like the Newman book is the cross-referencing—finding the organizational connections between things. It’s the foundation of storytelling—that you always know what happened next. Here’s what he was doing at this point as an actor. What was he doing as a race car driver? As an actor? As an entrepreneur? As a dad? I want to emphasize that it’s the organization of the raw materials.
The other thing—it doesn’t sound important—but when I think of writing a book, I think of a publisher in New York cutting a check, saying “Where’s that manuscript?” That’s no different than my editor wanting copy on deadline.
How do you find what you need? Look high, look low, and look sideways.
Look high—the special collections library at Columbia University was very useful. The New York Public Library at Lincoln Center has a massive library of clipping files. You can ask them about someone, and they will bring you out boxes filled with clippings, from papers going back to the Thirties and Forties—that’s as far back as I’ve ever looked. You can track someone’s life as they’ve appeared in the print media.
I found one of Newman’s first interviews from 1954, with Sidney Skolsky, a hollywood columnist, in which he mentions that he’s especially proud of his salad dressings. So when he started marketing those dressings later, I knew that wasn’t new.
Kenyon College had his handwritten application to college.
Look low—I found old Hollywood magazines that talked about Newman and rumors of an affair. Most of the stories would bring it up and then dismiss it. But one story seemed different and had specifics, with a woman saying, “Yes I did have an affair with him.” [Goes on to detail finding and interviewing the woman, who led him to someone who could corroborate her story.]
Look sideways—get a sense of what the person was thinking at the time. What else was going on? At the time of his father’s death, Newman had wanted to be an actor. He was working as a field hand in Illinois. He had to go work at the family sporting goods store. He had to give up acting.
A biography is a chronology of life. I’ve done two books with multiple biographies, with several lives going at the same time, but in a biography of single person it’s just one damn thing after another that happened to this person. It’s a clothesline—a straight line going from beginning to end. And it’s not very interesting—a list of dates and deeds.
But you can hang things on the clothesline that make it interesting. When I landed on the subject of Jerry Lewis as the subject of my first book, no one had written a book on him in more than 20 years. There was a hole that I could fill. But it had to be a person interesting enough to write about and research. With Jerry Lewis, I could see five or six things to hang on that clothesline right off the bat: the work with the Muscular Dystrophy telethon, his back injury, an addiction to Percodan that cost him his marriage, the stuff with Martin, the Borscht Belt.
So there are two models: a clothesline and a list. But in the clothesline model, you can just hang stuff, and hang stuff and hang stuff.
If you break it down into pieces, it makes it possible to write. Work a little bit every day and then you’re done with that piece. I would tell myself, “Today, I’m going to write the beginning and the end of the making of The Sting.” There really, really is a strong connection between journalism and books. I think of writing as an activity like running or playing golf—the more you do it, the more easily it comes to you.