Michael Kruse on monkey business and narrative writing: “if a story’s not moving, a reader is probably stopping”
We talked by phone this week with St. Petersburg Times reporter Michael Kruse, the author of our latest Notable Narrative. An unusual profile of a monkey on the loose in the Tampa Bay area, Kruse’s account comes at the story from the inside out, capturing both the celebrity of the monkey (who counts Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert among his fans) and the more alarming reality under the hoopla. In addition to his newspaper stories, Kruse has recently written a book on Davidson College basketball and articles for Charlotte magazine. Here are excerpts from our talk with him, in which he describes creating a “self-inflicted syllabus” for stories, using Twitter to find a loneliness expert, and writing an award-winning 5,000-word story for which he interviewed no one at all.
The monkey story seems like a very traditional assignment that any metro desk might have to cover, but you tackled it in a different way.
A couple months ago, there was a story by Emily Nipps, one of our reporters here. And Vernon Yates, this character of a trapper from Seminole, had a quote maybe ¾ of the way down the story. I’m not looking at it, so I’m going from memory—something like, “The monkey’s not necessarily having a good time out there, you know. For him, what this is like is if you were dropped onto a desert island with no other humans.”
I read that quote and thought, “That’s kind of interesting. I wonder if that’s true? Because I would look at the story totally differently if that were true.” And it made some sense—monkeys are like us.
So that’s what started my interest in the monkey. I would bring it up from time to time in our meetings for the enterprise team. “I want to profile the monkey. I want to take it real seriously.” And people would laugh. And I would sort of laugh. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it, but it was something along these lines: “Is the monkey lonely?” How can I get at that? Because obviously, I’m not going to be able to talk to the monkey.
At one point, you talk to a loneliness expert, which was great.
I got to the point where I was feeling good about the monkey, and I needed to know about what loneliness does to people and to primates. I actually tweeted and said I needed a loneliness expert. Pretty quickly I got a tweet back from one of our news researchers here, Shirl Kennedy, saying she had the person. He was this guy John [Cacioppo], from the University of Chicago—he’d written a book called Loneliness. So I scooted over to the local Barnes & Noble and bought their one and only copy and read that. Then I felt like I was ready to have a conversation with him.
The subject line of my email to him was “A story about a monkey.” I’m sure the nation’s leading loneliness expert has never gotten an email with that subject line. But he got back to me immediately and he was totally on board with the idea. There were some things in his book and in our conversation not just about primates but about Rhesus macaques—the effects of social isolation on that particular kind of monkey.
It’s easier to make the case that the monkey is isolated than to make the case that the monkey is lonely. The monkey is not going to go down to the bar and have a drink because he’s lonely. But the monkey is isolated, and the chances are good that he hasn’t seen another monkey of his kind since he’s been on the loose. So he’s definitely isolated, and that definitely has physiological effects on him—the same way it would have effects on us if we were dropped on a desert island or put in solitary confinement.
How long did you take to research and to write the story?
I’d say for two weeks, the monkey was my primary focus as far as reporting is concerned. I went up to a conference in New York then, too, but it was a couple weeks of reporting and reading and talking to people.
One afternoon, I took a few hours and drove the route of the monkey—where he’s been this calendar year. I started from the first address he was spotted at and drove from address to address, just to get a sense. Obviously, I’m driving on roads and the monkey isn’t, but I can kind of envision where he might have gone. That was really helpful. Looking at yards where he was spotted, patterns started to develop. The monkey likes the same kinds of yards, the monkey likes the same kinds of trees. That’s a little speculative, but at least it’s kind of an earned speculation.
The actual act of writing typically isn’t a huge commitment of time relative to the total time spent on a story, at least for me. At some point when I thought I was ready to go, I headed over to a coffee shop with Bill Duryea, my editor, and said, “Here’s what I’ve got, and here’s what I’m thinking.”
We almost never don’t do that. We talk about the story to work out kinks in structure before I ever put anything to the page. It probably took me a day and a half to pull it together. And then Bill, as he always does, came back at it with some wise suggestions and made it better than it was when I sent it to him. I basically wrote it on a Tuesday, and then Wednesday we went over it, and by Thursday it was sitting in the can ready to go.
You’ve done narrative in a lot of forms, not just for the Times, but also your book and feature stories for Charlotte magazine. Does a narrative approach come by habit now, or is there a mindset you have to work to get yourself into?
It’s kind of interesting to me that you wanted to talk about this story, because there are certainly parts of narrative in this story, but I don’t think it’s a “pure narrative”—whatever that is. There’s some essay in there, there’s some science in there.
But I think, to answer your question, anywhere there’s movement, there’s possibility for narrative. I knew I had that to work with—there’s nothing but movement: the monkey is moving from point A to point B to point C. So there were possibilities.
I guess at this point, it’s how I think about stories. I always want to have narrative components in a story, because that means a story is moving. And if a story’s not moving, a reader is probably stopping.
Maybe I’m less wedded to the idea of narrative for the sake of narrative than some people are, but I think it’s the most natural, most obvious way to tell most stories. I’ve done what lots and lots of people have done—read the people who do this the best, go to conferences to hear the people who do this the best, pick the brains of the people who do this the best, and hopefully over time, some of that rubs off.
Your story has some clearly narrative elements but could have run in any of a number of papers around the country. It seemed like a good model for journalists interested in doing this kind of writing but working for papers that may not encourage it.
I don’t know the end inch count on this. It’s long-ish for some places, but it’s not overly long. It’s certainly not long for us.
There’s an idea behind this story, and that’s something that is really stressed here in St. Pete. And I feel like I’m really lucky to work in a place where that is encouraged, where the editors I get to work with are always pushing it. Mike Wilson always says, “What’s the big idea?” I guess the big idea here—if it’s not too presumptuous to call it that—is the tradeoffs we all make between wanting to be free and wanting to be part of a greater whole, whether that’s valuable space in a community or a healthy, loving relationship.
You brought up my Charlotte magazine work. There was a story that I did in it last year called “After the Crash.” That story is totally an idea story, to a point that is unique for any story I’ve ever done. I didn’t talk to anybody, not a person—I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s a 5,000-word idea story that was reported by reading for months, on and off: NASCAR coverage, NASCAR books, magazine stories about NASCAR, stories about the housing crisis and economic collapse, and American studies. And then going to Daytona for the weekend and just walking around with a notebook, just walking and walking and literally resisting the urge to talk to people. Some people liked it, some people didn’t.
Why did you decide to take that approach?
Because what am I going to ask people? What am I going to ask the man on the street? “Can we have a conversation about the ways in which NASCAR at this current moment is similar to the housing bubble?” How do we even start that conversation? I just had to recalibrate my idea of what reporting is, or was, for that story.
This is something that I’ve been having some internal conversations about recently: the idea of thinking as reporting, which sounds ridiculous when I hear it come out of my mouth. Because of course you think when you report. Sometimes I think the more people I talk to, the better reporting I’m doing. Well, maybe. And for some stories, the more conversations you have, the more you’re learning.
But to really stop and consider the whys and the whats: I felt like I was getting the whats over the weekend and over the course of reading for that story. What I had to do was to start to tying together the ties of the whys. That was something I had to do on my own, in my head, and I had to organize it in a way that worked for that story.
What is your process for tying together the whys?
I brought up the NASCAR story because it is the most extreme example. I think the monkey story is definitely an example, too—it’s just they’re two different stories, two different approaches. In both cases, it was, as it always is, important to learn as much as I can about those different pieces of the story, those dots. For the NASCAR story, those dots are—I’m painting with a broad brush here—NASCAR, the economy, the highs and lows of American real estate. For the monkey story, those dots are rhesus macaques as a species, this rhesus macaque and loneliness.
So whatever it takes to learn as much as you can about those dots, that’s what you do. For the NASCAR story, it wasn’t talking to people, it was reading, reading, reading, and then really observing that weekend, walking in Daytona with a notebook.
For this piece it was also plenty of reading, but it was also visiting the yards where the monkey’s been spotted, talking to experts. Once you have all that, you can start putting some meat on those connections. You have a sense of where those connections might happen, but you can’t support those connections without that learning.
That’s maybe one difference in how I approach stories now versus how I approached stories five or six years ago—now I’m reporting stories as little self-taught, self-put-together seminars. I’m making a syllabus as I go along. And once I feel like I’ve learned the material on that self-inflicted syllabus, I can then make those connections and tie those ties of the whys in the most illuminating, most concise ways.
“What” is everywhere—more than it’s ever been. It’s still our role, but one of our additional roles, perhaps more than before, is making sense of the whys, or the reasons.
What journalists are most inspiring or most interesting to you these days?
I really like reading Michael Lewis, because I feel like he combines some of those things: narrative movement, big ideas, characters, and does it in an enormously readable way. I’m unbelievably lucky to share an area of the newsroom with people like Ben [Montgomery] and Lane [DeGregory] and John Barry. Somebody that I read a lot of and admire who used to work here is Tom Lake, who’s now at Atlanta magazine.
There are so many people, and you start throwing names around, and you don’t want to leave anybody out…
Like the Oscars. You don’t want to forget to thank somebody…
There are so many different kinds of work. I love Gary Smith’s long stuff in Sports Illustrated, and I love Tommy Tomlinson’s short stuff in The Charlotte Observer. They’re almost two different forms, but they end up doing the same thing—they make you think and they make you feel. Charlie Pierce is one of those journalists—I don’t care if he’s writing in Esquire, for The Boston Globe, or on his blog. I don’t care what he’s writing about. I read everything he writes.
There are others, like Elizabeth Gilbert—pre-Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert. Not that I didn’t enjoy and read that, and her last book, Committed, too. I’ll read everything she writes. But some of her work from 10, 12 years ago—magazine work—I just pick that up from time to time and reread it. The people who hide—maybe that’s the wrong word—big ideas and big stuff in unbelievably readable stories, that’s what we’re all trying to do.——
[For more, check out our commentary on Kruse’s monkey story.]