Thomas Lake on mythical storytelling and the editing process: “sometimes it’s hard to kill your darlings”
We spoke by phone this week with Atlanta magazine senior editor Thomas Lake about his story, “The Golden Boy and the Invisible Army,” our latest Notable Narrative. Lake, who also freelances for Sports Illustrated and is a regular commenter over at Gangrey.com, has previously worked at the St. Petersburg Times and The Florida Times-Union. His stories have appeared in Best American Sports Writing and won a first-place award from the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors in 2008. In these excerpts from our talk, he explains how he wrote his latest story, fesses up to which celebrated novels he can’t seem to finish, and addresses the painful process of editing.
How did you first hear about John Behnken?
I started to work on this story from a place nowhere near John Behnken. Basically, we knew that the CDC was here in Atlanta, and people didn’t write about what happens there all that much—or at least we hadn’t at the magazine. I called up their media people and asked if I could take a tour. At the time, the H1N1 flu scare was in full swing. They were telling me some about what they had done to develop the vaccine, and I thought, “What an interesting idea. Maybe we could try to do a science-related narrative that talks about how this all came together.”
As the story developed, I found myself having a harder and harder time getting a single really compelling character from the CDC, because I talked to a whole bunch of scientists for just a few minutes at a time. They’re all very busy, so there wasn’t really one person who emerged that I could focus on.
I thought, “Well, is there another way to do this? Maybe we could turn the story in another direction and say, write about someone here in Atlanta who was somehow affected by this.” What better way to do that than to find someone who was really affected?
I thought we might find someone who had died. It was surprisingly hard. There were very few people written about in the local paper, and so I did what I find myself doing maybe too often, which was starting to call up medical examiners’ offices to see if any of them had autopsy reports where the cause of death was identified as the H1N1 flu.
I know this probably varies from state to state, but here in Georgia any autopsy report is a public record. I knew I could get it. So I called up the Fulton County medical examiner’s office here in Atlanta, and the chief medical examiner called me back and said, “Yes, we have one report like that.” That didn’t mean only one person in Fulton County had died from the disease, because the majority of deaths don’t result in autopsies. But this one did because it happened so quickly. It was what’s known as an “unattended death.” I said, “Okay, can I have that report?” And I took a look. Even then, I knew I didn’t have the story about him—I knew I would need to talk to people who knew him.
I started by just writing a letter to his widow, because her address was listed there on the report. I wrote a letter, and I included a previous story that I’d done—a copy of it—to give an example of another story about a man who died in a way where I thought I treated it with some sensitivity.
Was it the soldier’s story that you sent her?
Yes, the one from last year, “The Last Heavy Footfalls of Doc Hullender.”
When you’re writing about a death, do you approach the story any differently than you do your other pieces?
Certainly when you’re doing a profile of someone who has died, you can’t talk to the main character. That happens a lot—like I said, perhaps too often in my case. That was true with the longest story I’ve ever done, from last year, called “The Debtor,” about the guy who had been James Brown’s son-in-law and was killed by a hit man. However, I think the same is true if the person is alive or dead. You want to interview as many people as you possibly can who know them. Of course you want to talk to the main character, if you can. But a lot of times the people around them can shed more light on them anyway.
I honestly thought there was about a 40 percent chance the wife would get back to me. I figured, “Well, she’ll probably ignore this.” But that’s why you always try, because there’s always that chance. And in this case, she did get back to me.
Can you talk a little about the structure of the story? It’s divided into sections, but they’re not quite scenes.
That’s true. It was very hard for me to plot out the structure. I must have spent hours, many hours, looking at it and trying to figure out what would make sense. You have two parallel tracks—the one about the virus itself and what the people at the CDC were doing about it, and the other one about John Behnken and how it ultimately affected him. I knew the two would converge at the very end, but I had to figure out how to split them in the meantime.
I played around with a bunch of things. The section that’s now listed as number two that starts to introduce John—that was initially at the very beginning of the story. When I’m starting a story, there’s so much pressure in my mind to say things quickly, to give the reader a very fast idea of where the story is going. I felt like putting that up top wasn’t going to give me enough time and space to really start to get into John’s character, because if I did it at the length that you ultimately see in the story, before talking about the other stuff, about the virus, I felt like the reader was going to get a little lost.
So I did try that and thought, “No, let’s give that a little breathing room. Let’s put it further down after the reader has been entrenched and they know what they’re getting into.”
But then of course, there’s the whole thread about the white plastic tube—I wanted to make sure that was introduced early in the story and was referred to a couple more times to get people wondering exactly where that would go. I always want to give the reader as many possible reasons to keep moving forward, because they’re hoping to find out all the answers at the end.
Another interesting technique is a pretty liberal use of the second person “you,” addressing the reader directly. Do you do that often?
I guess so. I might say too often. Every story is different, but sometimes I want to feel like the reader and I are having a conversation. So if I feel like the situation calls for it, I’ll try it. If it looks right, I’ll leave it. If the editor says it doesn’t make any sense, I’ll take it out. But he didn’t say that this time.
Flipping over to your personal life for a moment, I saw in your bio that you were homeschooled. How long did your mom teach you?
Almost the whole way, with the exception of two years, where I went to a small private school. Just about the whole way.
What kind of impact did that have on the way you ended up writing?
I’m still trying to figure out the answer to that. I do know that we read all the time growing up. The program was not very structured. There were six kids, and we would go to the library in the station wagon and literally take out a total of 60 books at a time. So my mom and sister would make a list when we got home before anyone could start reading, otherwise the books would be lost and never recovered. It would still happen anyway sometimes.
We would read what we were interested in. For me, a lot of times that did involve some kind of conflict and struggle and death. I mean, I don’t know, I can’t explain to you why I was interested in that from an early age. But for example, one of my very favorite books when I was like nine was this small hardcover book in some kind of historical series about World War II. It was about the Dunkirk boat lift where—and I‘m probably not remembering the details right—you had the British army in full retreat toward this French beach. They were in real trouble from the Germans. And all these boats came from England, fishing boats, everything—they came across to rescue these soldiers. Something about that resonated with me so much. I’m sure that’s the kind of dramatic narrative that still resonates for me. It’s still the kind of thing I think about when I’m writing now.
Who are you reading these days? What’s the last great story you read?
This is terrible. There are way too many books on my shelf that I’m half done with. I’ll get 50 or 100 pages into a novel and realize it’s not moving forward as quickly as I want it to. These are some books that are supposed to be great books, and I’m sure are great. For example, Ulysses by James Joyce or The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. For whatever reason, they lost me on page 42, and I keep meaning to finish them, but I don’t.
As far as what I’ve really liked: I did enjoy that new nonfiction book The Lost City of Z by David Grann. I thought it moved forward really well, and I was satisfied by the end. Even though I could imagine some people might have been disappointed, I really liked the way it turned out.
As far as great stories, have you seen that site longform.org? I’ve been finding some really cool stories there, including a favorite one I’ve come across recently called “Death on the CNN Curve” about that man who rescued the little girl from the well, and then it basically ruined his life. What a heartbreaking story, but told so very well. An interesting thing about that one was that the ending was basically given away right at the beginning, and yet I still wanted to read it to the end. Sometimes that works.
You did that with the story we’re talking about today, didn’t you?
Sort of. Yes, a little bit. Are you talking about those first three sentences?
We get a pretty good sense this is not going to end happily.
You have to set the hook somehow.
Did anything end up on the cutting room floor that you wish had gone in there?
There have been some other stories I’ve done that have been cut way down from their original drafts. With my story from last year, “The Debtor,” which ultimately was about 7,200 words, the first draft was closer to 10,000 words. There were a bunch of things there that could have gone in and didn’t. With this one, what you see is very similar to what I turned in, with the exception that I initially had a much more complicated and involved metaphor to explain what the flu virus does. I had worked very hard on it, and I thought it was just about right.
Usually the first person who reads my stories is my wife, because I feel like she’s a good reader who is probably like a lot of the people who read the magazine. It didn’t really work for her, and when my editor read it, it didn’t work for him, either. It was depressing, because I’d spent many hours putting it together, but I pretty much had to get rid of it. Ultimately, I came to realize that was the right thing, but you know how that is—sometimes it’s hard to kill your darlings.
Anything else about the piece?
I never know when I’ve written a story how the main characters or the family of the main characters will feel about it. Usually, I hope they’ll like it, but I just don’t know. I can’t predict. In the past, when I thought people would like a story, they’ve hated it. That’s happened several times. In this case John Behnken’s wife and a couple of his friends wrote in to say, “Thanks for the story, you got it just right. This helps keep John’s memory alive. We appreciate the way you treated us all the way through.”
That really meant a lot to me. I try to treat people right when I’m interviewing them, and get the details correct and the spirit of what they’re saying. But sometimes even if I have all the facts correct, I may not portray the person as their family would like them to be portrayed. I guess that’s something you have to get used to. In this case, he was such likable guy, and nobody had anything remotely negative to say about him. When it came out, they all loved the story, and I was glad about that.
Were you going for a fairy tale sensibility or tone on this? It read that way to me, but I didn’t know if you’d intended it.
I think possibly that happens with a lot of what I write. It may not be something I consciously set out to do. But that may go back to the style and the tone that I enjoy reading the most. It ends up coming out in what I write. I like it when stories sound old or somehow mythical even though they’re true. So maybe even when I’m not setting out to sound that way, it’s so deeply ingrained that I just do.