Chris Jones on reporting for detail, the case against outlining and the power of donuts
Esquire writer at large Chris Jones came to the Nieman Foundation two weeks ago as part of the Narrative Writing speakers series I started at the foundation last year, and spent a couple of hours talking about craft. Jones began his career as a sportswriter for the National Post in Toronto, where he covered boxing, which became the subject of his first book, “Falling Hard: A Rookie’s Year in Boxing.” Without a single magazine byline, and with a whole lot of hubris and a box of donuts, he famously talked his way into Esquire, a legendary home for narrative journalism.
Now Esquire’s writer at large (as well as ESPN The Magazine’s new back-page columnist), Jones has written about presidential candidates, astronauts, soldiers, movie stars and game shows, and has won two National Magazine Awards, the highest honor in magazine writing. One ASME award was for “The Things That Carried Him,” about the return of a soldier’s body from Iraq, and the other was for “Home,” which became the basis for his nonfiction book “Out of Orbit: The Incredible True Story of Three Astronauts Who Were Hundreds of Miles Above Earth When They Lost Their Ride Home.”
“When you read one of his stories, you’re putting on the Chris Jones suit of clothes and walking through this world, and you’re seeing and feeling things the way he does,” his Esquire editor, Peter Griffin, told me the other day. [Read our 2009 interview with Griffin here, for Jones’ “The End of Mystery.”] “But it’s frictionless. Part of the reason is, he’s obsessive. He works a story until he gets it right.”
On his second day visiting Harvard, Jones appeared with Gay Talese. But his first day on campus he sat down with this year’s Nieman fellows to share details about his career and thoughts on writing. What follows are some excerpts from my conversation with him and the discussion with fellows that followed.
You’ve worked in both newspapers and magazines. What adjustments did you have to make in order to move from newspapers to magazines, from the daily news beat?
When I started at the paper I was a beat guy, so I did the 600-word sports stories, mostly about baseball and boxing. Then I started working in features. The paper I worked at was a paper called the National Post, which at the time Conrad Black had sunk a bajillion dollars into, and [it] had exactly no ads, so you could write a 3,000-word feature, and you could pitch anything. I remember we sent one reporter to Mongolia to watch a meteor shower, and it was cloudy so she got no story. And that was my impression of newspapers; that was my first job ever, so I was like, This is how it is. I just didn’t know any better. So I was a feature writer. But then when I started at Esquire my very first sit-down with my new editor was – and this is no insult to anyone who works in newspapers – he said, I don’t want to read a single sentence in your stories that I could have read in a newspaper.
What did he mean by that?
I think sometimes in newspapers you sort of fall into that, you write a paragraph you put in a quote, you write a paragraph, you put in a quote –
– formula kind of template-y stuff, and you also write thinking they might cut the last four inches off the story. With a magazine you probably don’t put that many quotes in, the story has more of a full-circle feeling to it. At Esquire if you get assigned 5,000 words you’re gonna have 5,000 words of space. There’s no cutting for space. So it wasn’t so much a language change, it was more a structural change, how the piece fits together.
And I think what you also get in magazine stories that you don’t always have time to do in newspapers is, the story might be about something on the surface but a great magazine story is also about something beyond that – an idea; there’s a theme to it. The story about Joey Montgomery was about his body coming back, but really that was a story about war, and he was one guy representing everybody who died there. In newspapers you maybe don’t get the time to craft that kind of narrative.
Newspaper writers sometimes think, “Oh if I could only write for a magazine I’d have all this freedom,” but then you get into magazines and –
It’s a different kind of hard.
Newspapers weren’t a great fit for me because I always wanted to spend more time on a story. I hated writing on deadline. I always lay awake at night worried that I’d made a terrible mistake, that I got the score wrong. The nice thing about working at newspapers is the immediacy of it; if you don’t like a story you’re working on you’re done the next day, and you do something else. The other nice thing about newspapers is, if you write five stories a week and one is really good and three are fine and one is kind of crappy, that’s not a bad average. With Esquire my contract is six stories a year; I can’t have a dud.
Six features a year. What sort of average length are we talking about?
Our minimum would be something like 3,000 words. I’d say average real feature is around six. Celebrity profiles are around three, and those count as features.
The longest you’ve written was the war piece, wasn’t it? Like 12,000 words?
It actually ran at 17,000, and was assigned at six. I delivered 22,000.
Did you let them know they were getting 22,000?
Yeah, it was an awkward conversation with Peter, actually, because – that story’s in sections; there’s like 13 sections. I wrote it in the order that I had the material, I didn’t leave it all till the end. So I wrote the first section, which was the section where they fly Joey back from Dover, they fly to Seymour. I wrote that section and it came out at like 2,000 words, and I thought, That math is not good. So I called Peter and said it might be more like 10. I blew past 10 and said, It’s gonna be more than that. He said, Listen, just write it and we’ll figure it out. To Esquire’s credit they just burned that whole issue.
Like Hersey and Hiroshima in The New Yorker.
We had a Jessica Simpson story, [it] was the other story in that issue.
Well, the world thanks you for burning –
Oh no, it got in. It was the cover.
So you cut 5,000 words. Did you cut it or did they?
We cut it together. One of the great things about working there, my editor Peter, we’ve been together for eight years now; you only write for one editor. Like that’s your relationship and no one else touches the story.
It doesn’t go up to [Editor in Chief David] Granger?
Well he’ll read it, but there’s no changes.
[At some other magazines] everybody gets their fingerprints on it.
And stories inevitably suffer. I think that’s a bad process. Peter and I just have this – we know what each other is looking for. If I bumped from editor to editor I’d have a hard time. You just develop a trust that I think is important to doing the best work you can.
What, then, for people who don’t get the pleasure –
Newspaper reporters – sometimes you’re working for different sections –
No, it’s hard. I like being edited. In newspapers I was writing sports stories at 11 o’clock at night, it just went in. I never got edited. And I didn’t like it. I know some people think of editors as evil and they’re messing with your art, but for me Peter is – I mean he’s a fantastic editor. I tell students all the time: You’ll never do your best work until you find that editor who is your perfect match. By a series of flukes I got Peter and we work perfectly together. My stuff would not be nearly as good without Peter.
How long did you spend on that [war] piece?
I spent maybe eight months on that story.
In the middle I did a Scarlett Johansson feature. I flew from the mortuary at Dover to sit with her at a diner [in California]. It was a surreal juxtaposition.
A lot of what makes that story work so well is the detail. Every passage is so tight, every sentence almost seems to be built with a specific mission in mind. How’d you wind it up so much without ruining it?
Once I realized how long it was going to be, my standard for a sentence was it had to have a fact. And the way I structured it in the end – I thought, It’s so long and the material’s so difficult that people wouldn’t read it in one sitting, so every section starts with a different person. It goes from person to person to person, and the last section is Joey. Then I tried to find little details that would help guide you, because it was backward and I was worried about losing people. So there’s things like the girl in the flowered dress, little cues that I hoped would sort of ground people.
But then Peter, when we took those 5,000 words out, really tightened it – I mean we cut a feature. A simple line edit with a story that length, you can lose a thousand or two words. We lost some whole scenes, which at the time was like – there was one scene that I spent months reporting; it was the funeral they held in Iraq. The soldiers have their own memorial service in Iraq. Soldiers are tough interviews and it was a tough scene, you know? It was hard all the way around. It was probably about 1,500 words, and I spent a long time writing it, and we just cut it.
How do you report your scenes? That’s something we talk about in class – when you’re reconstructing scenes and when you’re at the mercy of people’s memories and at the mercy, in this case, of soldiers who are sort of programmed to talk like athletes, who say a lot without saying anything –
Any interview I do for a narrative story, particularly with people who don’t speak to reporters normally, I usually have a preamble where I talk about the questions I’m going to ask. I tell them, A story like this relies on details, I’m going to ask you what might seem like some really strange questions. If you don’t remember, that’s okay, don’t force yourself to remember things; don’t think anything’s stupid, if I ask a question you don’t like, tell me you don’t like it. Like with Joey’s story people were worried that I was gonna do it dirty on him, that I was going to somehow sully his memory. All you can do there is try to convince them you’re a good person. It’s a lot easier if you actually are a good person. I like to think that I’m a good person. So I told them: You can trust me. And when I said it I meant it: I’m not here to mess with Joey. And if you spend enough time with people they get comfortable. And two very important things with that story: I had the time, and I did every interview in person.
Which I think makes a huge difference.
So do I.
And every interview was often somewhere very awkward. Like Aunt Vicki, I talked to her over lunch at a Cracker Barrel, and so we’re both sitting in this Cracker Barrel, and I was bawling, she was bawling, and everybody in the room going, What the hell? But it was not sitting in a house. It was almost like a date. We met at the restaurant; it was the first time we met. It was just easier that way.
I think the key to reporting a story like that – and I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant – you gotta see when people are giving you little windows. There’s a scene in that story – the girl in the flowered dress, the National Guard people who carried the casket from the plane to the family. There, I interviewed them in a group; there were six of us sitting around a table. My starting question was How do you keep your game face? That’s what they call it when you don’t show emotion. It was a general question, so they gave a general answer, which was, You don’t look at the family, you look at something else. I said, Do any of you happen to remember what you were looking at that day? The first guy, Schnieders, said, I was looking at the logo on the sheriff’s car. Then these two female soldiers started whispering together, and I said, What are you guys talking about? And that was the girl in the flowered dress, where one of them had said, Look at the girl, look at the dress, pick out a flower on the dress.
For me the girl in the flowered dress is my favorite detail. And this started with How do you keep your emotions? and gradually whittled down to this moment. So you’ve got to be aware of when somebody is giving you an opening. And then you winnow it down.
In narrative you have to be on, all the time, because every moment might matter. It’s almost like being hyper-vigilant. You just can’t be asleep.
Yeah and you have to really listen. You know, when I started that story I was worried that I’d be doing so many interviews that I’d forget stuff. But when you’re doing stuff like that, you don’t forget stuff.
But you’re thinking long term too – it’s almost like you can see the story in the making, and how certain details will serve the narrative.
Yeah. You gradually develop an instinct – this is gonna sound crass as hell, but literally I have a cash-register sound that goes off in my head. Like, cha-ching. It’s annoying. Like, the girl in the flowered dress was cha-ching. I knew that was going in. You know, it’s a spidey sense. When I first sit down to write even a story of that length, I figure if I can remember it, then it’s an important detail.
When you’re talking about details [writers] sort of over – “he was wearing a gray sweater” and there were these pants and – those don’t really matter. At Esquire our goal is always to report the story so well we can sit down at a bar and I can just tell you the story. I did 101 interviews for that story and I could go through that story right now and tell you everyone who’s in it. You just remember. You remember the stuff that counts. So a lot of [writers] are like, I’m worried I’m gonna miss something great; well if you’ve forgotten it, it probably wasn’t great. And that’s how you know the details that are great and the details that aren’t. Then you go back to your notes and tapes and make sure you’re right.
The idea of detail that doesn’t move the action forward, that doesn’t advance any ideas – gratuitous detail –
It’s just clutter. The detail has to have some purpose to it, it has to mean something. Even if it doesn’t mean anything right away, it gradually builds some picture in your head gets you where you’re going.
And nothing’s a throwaway, because you might need it. It might come back in some way.
Yeah. This is a very hard thing to explain but – I’m gonna backtrack. I don’t outline. And I know this is a great debate in narrative. Like, Gay Talese, if you come tomorrow, Gay Talese outlines in ridiculous ways, for me. He will have 17 shirt boards with the story mapped out, and for me the risk of outlining is you miss those little connections that you maybe wouldn’t see if you were sitting there thinking, How am I gonna tell this story? I love when you’re writing and you see this little connection that you wouldn’t have seen [otherwise] – little echoes that count again later when you come back to it. Sometimes I’m asked, How did you know – I didn’t know that. It was only once I started writing that I saw it. Sometimes I see Gay Talese’s outlines and I think I’m doing it wrong, but I think what you might lose then is that sort of spontaneous connection.
And you can’t teach that. You can teach people to be aware always, and to look for opportunities, but it’s like teaching an ear – do you think that’s true? You can teach writing, absolutely, but the music, and those ghostly things that happen in Story –
I don’t think you can take a bad writer and make them great. I think you can make a bad writer passable and a passable writer good and a good writer great, but you can’t make massive jumps. It sounds harsh, but, excluding me from the conversation, there’s kind of an “it,” or whatever, that [good writers] just have. Like music. I’m tone deaf. You can never make me a great pianist. It would never happen. Writing is a similar kind of thing.
It’s a terrible thing to say.
No it isn’t.
I mean you guys know: This is a tough business and there are a lot of effing good people at it, and there are lots of good people who can’t work. If you’re not good you’ve got no shot. I mean maybe you want this, you want it so bad, but if you’re not good at it, it’s not gonna happen. And you just have to be honest. It sounds brutal as it’s coming out of my mouth.
No it doesn’t.
But I don’t believe in false hope. Or there’s a sweet spot for different [types of writing] – you gotta find that spot. If you want to be a journalist, which is such a huge field, you’ve got to find your sweet spot.
Let’s talk about the origin of stories. You see Story in places where other people don’t see it.
[In magazine writing] you gotta find those stories that don’t change, and yet that no one else has written about. You’re always on the lookout for the stuff that fell through the cracks. If you’re pitching magazines, you can’t pitch a story that’s happened and that everyone’s writing about, or that’s happening in two months. For me, I get most of my ideas from newspapers, where the reporter I used to be – some poor dude only had three hours and 400 words to tell a story and you can see –
The bigger story.
The bigger story. So “Home” was a 400-word story about [the astronauts’] return. The soldier story was a 600-word piece on CNN.com. The Price Is Right was my own obsession. Roger Ebert was, like, his blog, which was just out there. No one had asked Roger Ebert to do a story – it was just sitting there. Those are the things you gotta find when you’re doing magazine stuff.
The great magazine stories you’re like, How the hell did no one else write this story?
That hardly ever happens though.
That hardly ever happens. I’ve been at Esquire for nine years and probably have done five or six stories that I think were good, just because it’s so hard to find that perfect mix of idea, material, your writing was good, everything worked.
It takes a massive amount of organization to keep track of the material for stories like “The Things That Carried Him” because you’re dealing with different characters, different points of view, different time periods, different countries. How do you organize everything and at what point do you write?
Because that story was so big, I wrote it in chunks, and that’s why it almost reads like a collection of little stories. With a regular story I often don’t write it front to back. Usually I know my ending, and often I’ll write my ending first. That’s from school. I had a professor telling me, How do you know how to get there if you don’t know where you’re going? That stuck with me for some reason. I also think endings are the most important part of the story. From my newspaper days I got scarred because all my endings got cut off. But with magazines, for me, it’s your finishing note; it’s how you’re leaving company with people. Ideally your story has built to this sort of crescendo and it’s like, here’s your moment. So I usually know what my ending is, and then I’ll start writing wherever I feel like writing.
But the sheer reporting. What are your tools? I didn’t realize you don’t record anything.
I record sit-down interviews. And in the soldier story I recorded – [at Esquire] it’s the only time they let you use the interns, to transcribe your tapes, but I never do it because I don’t want them to hear me stumbling and bumbling through my crap. The humiliation factor is just like – I don’t want anyone listening to this. It’s like what I do in the bathroom, you know?
So what I work toward in the reporting – I mean I sort of have two rules. For me writing is pretty hard, so my attitude has always been – my great fear is sitting down to write a 5,000-word story with 3,000 words of material. Like that’s my death. I’m not a very flowery writer. There are a lot of writers who could get away with that but I have no imagination. I think everyone would see this is where he ran out of shit and now he’s lying. I report as hard as I do so I can avoid that oh-crap feeling where you sit down and go I don’t have it. The other thing I sort of work for – Esquire’s fact checkers are beautiful, beautiful people; they are insane. My favorite fact checker story: I was writing about a fight, and I had a little joke, Shaquille O’Neal tripped over some lighting cables. The [fact checker] spent days trying to make sure they were lighting cables and not sound cables. And I was like, Dude, we can just call them cables. And he was like, Well, shit.
Fact checkers also make you feel like the least funny person on earth. Because you have to explain jokes. I had this basketball player who had like 17 different devices on his waistband so I was like: The Motorola fax/pager/copier on his waist – and the fact-checker was like, Well I called Motorola, and they don’t have a fax/copier/pager that goes on the waist – and I’m like Shit, dude, that’s not a real thing.
I love fact checkers; they allow me to sleep at night. But fact checking is torturous, and on a 17,000-word story it is hell. So that story in particular I kept ridiculous notes. I kept every phone number, every name, so they could verify everything easily – you just have to do it –
Well not all writers do it, though. You’re probably beloved for that –
I always warn them when I’m coming: Sorry guys, I’ve got another one coming down the pipe.
Annotating is your friend.
Again, going back to my newspaper days I’d have killed for that. I like that part of the process. So as long as I can get through those two things I’ve done my job and then I can write.
Dina Kraft: I have a question about structure on “The Things That Carried Him.” Were you working with a spokesperson for the Army? Did you think, This is a good possible [story subject] for me, I’ll jump over to Indiana?
Well I saw the story on CNN and that was Joey. Really it was about life at the forward operating base and it included a vignette on carrying the body back, and it turned out to be Joey. I spent probably a couple of weeks – this sounds ghoulish – but looking at other possibilities. And I kept going back to Joey. I liked that he was from a small town in Indiana; I just thought it was better than New York or L.A. And I felt sort of a weird connection – we had similar sort of adolescences. I felt like I kind of understood him. The very first thing I did was call his mom. No matter who we did, I wanted the family’s permission. So I called his mom, and it was terrible. I thought I was calling her at home. I thought, I’ll call her in the middle of the day, I’ll leave a message on her home machine and she’ll call me back if she wants. But the number I’d been given was her work, and she answered.
This is something that’s really hard to explain but, what do you say? So I was like, Hi I’m Chris, I write for Esquire magazine and I really want to write a story about how a soldier is returned from Iraq and I’d really like that soldier to be Joey. And she just started bawling. I felt so bad that I’d ruined her day, but we ended up talking for probably an hour and a half. At the end she said, You can do it, but I want to be [interviewed] last; if this story falls apart anywhere along the way I don’t want to have gone through it for nothing.
At that time there were a lot of stories about how hard it was – you couldn’t take a photo of a flag-draped casket. I thought, This is gonna be really hard. So I called the mortuary in Dover and they said, You need Pentagon approval. I said, Well who is the Pentagon? They gave me a name. I called him up and did the same schpiel. He said okay. I was like, Okay what? He said, You’ve got Pentagon approval. I said, You sure? And that was it. And I never once had a roadblock. Everything just fell into place. It was one of those spooky – I have countless examples of moments where I was like, That’s nuts. When I went to Dover – they pray over every planeload. Chaplain Sparks had done 700 planes and he said, I do a different prayer for every plane. And I said, You have no idea what you’d have said [at Joey’s]? And then he went back to his desk – and this was months later – and sitting on top of his pile was the prayer he said on Joey’s plane. He had the manifest and on the back was the prayer. He came back and looked like he’d been hit by a board. And there was countless moments of stuff like that.
The last thing I did was go to Scottsburg. The other nice thing about doing it that way was, I could tell [Joey’s family] what I knew.
Did they ask?
They asked. And one of the lessons about that story for me was, I was really worried about Gail reading it. She’d lost two husbands, her son, just this litany of tragedy, and I didn’t really want to add to it. And when I wrote the scene in the mortuary the first time I wrote it Peter called and said, You’re hedging, you’re holding back; every other part of the story is so detailed and here you’re kind of skimming it. I was like, Yeah it was really gory and I didn’t know how much detail to go into. He said, You’ve gotta go all the way with it. I was like, Okay.
Gail didn’t know Joey had lost his legs. I called her before the story came out and said, Gail, you might not want to read this, there’s stuff in there you might not want to know. She was like, Give me an example. I said, Joey didn’t have any legs. That was sort of the big – and she was okay. You know? And it’s true about writing about yourself: If you write about yourself you’ve gotta be 100 percent honest; people know if you’re holding back. And with this, Peter picked it out right away: You’re not telling me everything you know. And if you’re gonna write a story like that, you’ve got to go 100 percent.
Carlotta Gall: That’s interesting because that’s the one passage I would have cut if I was your editor.
It’s definitely the most technical. And it’s the least detailed. There you can’t say to the mortician, Do you remember that particular – there’s four morticians who’ve done thousands of bodies. It’s definitely the weakest section, it always was. You just couldn’t get the girl in the flowered dress in the mortuary. It just didn’t exist.
Claudia Mendez Arriaza: What makes Peter a great editor?
I’ll call Peter a lot when I’m reporting, and I’ll tell him I had a cash register moment, or if I’m having a problem. We’ll sort of talk it out. I think a great editor is almost part therapist in some ways. You know, writers spend a lot of time by themselves, and I’m on the road by myself a lot, so he’s just a good guy for me to talk to me about stories. I think my favorite thing that Peter does is his cuts, his actual removal of things. Like Paige was talking about with “The Things That Carried Him,” the tightness of it, that there’s no sentiment in it, that’s because of Peter. The very first section of that story, now it ends with something like, “They spend a lot of time like that.” I talk about Chaz walking out, holding hands, and they’re not talking, they spend a lot of time like that. I had, “They spend a lot of time like that, talking only with their hands.” And just that little cut makes that story better. So he’s like that 10 percent restraint, like a reining in. If I go too far with the sentimentality or the emotion he pulls it back. It’s very nice when people talk about the restraint in my stories, but that’s Peter, that’s not me. Because it’s really hard to know where the line is for the emotional.
Rema Nagarajan: Is there a time when you don’t agree with him and then what happens?
Yeah, you know that old cliché about you read your story and find your favorite line, and that’s the line you should cut? It’s kind of true. Peter has a way of [lots of sound effects here meant to represent Peter cutting, and also the sound Jones likens to being waxed].
You get waxed often then?
Yeah, all the time. It’s better not to be super-hairy.
It goes back to the trust thing. If Peter does it I’m like, well Peter is my swami, and he is totally correct. But yeah, he’s part therapist, part cheerleader and a hard-core ass-kicking editor.
You don’t call in wringing your hands.
I don’t often call him with a problem. I usually call Peter when I’m excited. I usually call Peter when I have that moment where I’m like, Oh this is actually gonna work, especially when it’s a story that I’ve pitched hard and I’m nervous about. The Price Is Right story, I called him after the Drew Carey interview, which was one of the great interviews of my life. We’re backstage and he just went off, like F F F F F. There was this publicist who’d been a pain in my ass – CBS was worse than the Pentagon. She was sitting there and she wouldn’t leave, and she said, You cannot ask about Terry rolling The Price Is Right. So I’m sitting there with Drew, and he kind of brought it up. He says, There’s this guy – I’m like, Yeah, Terry. And I hear behind me like a thunk, and I turn around and her head’s on the table. As soon as I was in the parking lot I called Peter and said, I got it I got it I got it. I don’t call him saying, It’s not working.
He also told me you sometimes call and say, I’m gonna go another way but I can’t tell you what it is. He trusts you to just go do it.
See I’m a writer because I can’t really talk. Like I can’t explain – so something will come up but I can’t –
So it’s like, Let me try it in words. It’s like instead of me trying to explain this let me just write it. If you don’t like it, fine. Like the Price Is Right we went into it not knowing the twist about Ted, the guy in the audience who was yelling out the numbers. Instead of telling all that to Peter, I just said, Listen there’s a thing, there’s this guy Ted, I’m just gonna write it and you’ll see. That’s how we dealt with that.
I feel like if I’ve sold it as something I’ve gotta – it sounds like I’m bragging about the length of “The Things That Carried Him,” but I felt bad. Usually I’m within 100 words of my assigned length. I try very hard to hit that. People get offside about this, but journalism is a business. You’re expecting people to buy a product. You’re being paid for your work. Your editor is a customer; your readers are customers. So I feel this responsibility – I don’t think of it as I’m conducting my orchestra, and I’m doing my art and blah blah. For me it’s a contract. You’re paying me to do a job. I’m gonna deliver on time, I’m gonna deliver at the length you’re asking for, I’m not gonna be a pain in your ass, if you don’t like something I’ll fix it. I try to be –
Is that the word?
I don’t know.
I try to do the job. So the soldier story was a weird – I just can’t see how you’d do it in 6,000 words.
Tyler Bridges: You said earlier that you don’t see yourself as a lyrical writer, and I’m certainly not a lyrical writer either, and if I do something that’s okay, it’s because of the reporting. But you take reporting to an extra level and I’m wondering if you have to constantly remind yourself what the person’s wearing, what the weather’s like – whether you have little tricks or it’s so natural now that you are able to get all these details –
I think it’s gotten more natural. One thing I still do is ask the people, Can I call you back? Like, If I go home and start writing and I need a little spackle can we talk about it? Because sometimes you don’t know until you’re writing it that you need this little bit that gets you from this paragraph to this paragraph. I think it’s okay not to get it all on the first run.
Bridges: Do you have little tricks to make sure you’re attendant to everything that’s going on or is it just natural to do that?
I don’t really know how to talk about this stuff without sounding like a jerk.
Just say it.
Well, I’m mildly autistic. It was a hindrance as a child, but as a reporter it’s kind of helpful because I find myself noticing things. And I think I have a good memory. So things will just sort of jump out sometimes, things I’m maybe not supposed to be looking at.
Bridges: I have trouble describing what someone looks like.
That is hard. That was one of my early lessons, that you always have to include a paragraph of description of the person because you can’t pretend that people know what people look like. In the Scarlett Johansson story I have a paragraph describing her face and it’s easily the most overwritten thing I’ve ever written. Because I mean how the hell do you describe a face? I mean you start with the forehead – I don’t know, big? Nose? It’s nose-like. So you kind of come up with all this language, and that’s when it gets fussy for me. Probably every other writer at Esquire is a much better writer than I am. Tom Junod could write 3,000 words about Scarlet Johansson’s face, but I can’t, so I try to get by with other stuff.
John Diedrich: I covered the military, great job on this piece. I’m curious about when you survey what’s been done on a subject area, and when you detect –
Diedrich: Jim Sheeler. He was covering it from a different angle. But how far will you read something – do you read everything that’s out there?
No I don’t read everything. I read Sheeler’s piece, and it’s a great piece. I mean it won a Pulitzer, right? It’s the definitive piece about the messengers. For me, it’s not good for me to read other stuff, not so much because I worry I’m gonna steal something but because I’m pretty naturally insecure. Like reading Sheeler’s piece was like, Shit, but it was good because it was a boot in my butt. I was like, Well, if that’s the bar. But no, I won’t sit there and survey the landscape because I don’t know what good could come from it.
Diedrich: So would you stay away from that aspect?
I didn’t purposely stay away from it. It was just different from the start. I mean I included the moment of notification. What was strange in this case is after reading Sheeler’s story I thought, Oh this is what this scene is gonna be like, but it wasn’t like that, because she found out from her sister. So that’s the one part of the process I thought I knew, and it was totally different. I mean if you’re doing certain stories you have to read to get the knowledge. If you’re doing a geology story you have to read about geology.
Samiha Shafy: I would like to hear the story about how you talked your way into Esquire with a box of donuts. The second is, you said you’re writing six stories a year, which doesn’t sound like a big number but considering the effort you put into each story how do you make sure you pick the right stories, and is it like two months per story or four months for one or?
Yeah, it can be six weeks – a celebrity story you might spend three weeks on and another story you might spend six months on. I’ll answer your second question first. So the hardest part of the job is the idea. You can take the best writer in the world and give them a crap idea and they’ll come out with a crap story, and you can take an awesome idea and give it to a not very good writer and they’ll probably come out with a pretty good story. Again this is part of the editorial process – pitching and pitching and pitching. So many stories I really like I had to pitch for a long time. Ebert I pitched for eight or 10 months. The space story I pitched for close to a year. The Price Is Right, I had to make that bet. [[The editors weren’t interested in the Price Is Right story at first. Convinced it was a good story, Jones bet Granger: He’d pay his own expenses and eat them if it turned out to be a non-story, but if Esquire ran the piece the editors had to pay him double his expenses. Which they did./pw]]
I think one of the tests at Esquire is if you can’t let it go, that’s when they’ll finally say yes. Like Ebert happened – I was supposed to write about Taylor Swift. At Esquire – I’m 37, I’m the young guy, so I get Taylor Swift. I’m still 37 trying to write about some 17-year-old girl, so I’m gonna be the pervert in the corner of the room. Luckily she canceled at the last minute. I was like, How about Roger? And that’s when I finally got to do it.
The donut story: So this is because I’m an idiot. I’m not very socially aware. When I was still at the National Post I really wanted to work for Esquire –
Having never written for a magazine before.
Having never written for a magazine. I got my job at the National Post having never written a published story before, so for me this was how it works. Actually I’m gonna tell my National Post story. So when I got my paper job there was a magazine in Canada called Saturday Night. I got my degree in urban planning. I thought it was gonna be like Lego. It’s not. It’s super-bureaucratic and terrible. So I had this headmaster who was a journalist and who set me up with a job interview with this guy named Ken White, who was the editor in chief of Saturday Night, which is like I guess our New Yorker. So I went for a job with Ken White and he kept saying newspaper, and I kept correcting him, saying, This is a magazine. It was like the worst job interview ever. Afterward I called my parents and said, I don’t know what that was but I’m not gonna be a writer.
And then they offered me a job at the paper. The paper was brand new. They stuck anyone with no experience, like me, in this bureau in Toronto, and if you were good enough you got pulled up. I started getting phone calls from the news editor and the sports editor, and in my head I’m like, They’re fighting over me. Meanwhile up at the paper Ken White was going, One of you has to take him. Years later I found this out. Finally I went to Sports because I wouldn’t count against their hiring quota. And I literally sat there for three months doing nothing, just sitting at my table, like ballast.
But the magazine – I walked into the Esquire building –
Wait, you flew to New York?
I was already there anyway, doing a Mets/Blue Jays series. And I walked in the building because I assumed that David Granger, the editor in chief, would want to meet with me. I was like, Clearly he’ll say yes. So the security guard was sitting there at the desk. I said, I’m here to see David Granger. He said, Do you have an appointment? I said, Nope. He said, Well, no. I was like, Can I make an appointment? He said, No, no, I don’t think you can.
So I was leaving and there was a janitor sweeping the lobby and he said, Do you want a job at Esquire? I said, Not as a janitor.
He said, No, no, no, there’s an editor, Andy Ward, young guy, really good guy, loves sports, you need to talk to Andy. So I went back to the security guard and said, Can I call Andy Ward? So I called up Andy, and he answers and I say, Hey I’m Chris, I write for a newspaper, I really want to work for you one day, I wonder if we could meet. He was like, Oh, when are you coming to town? I said, I’m in your lobby, the janitor said to call you.
And Andy said, Well, I’ve got this meeting to go to but come back at two.
And Andy’s the nicest dude on earth.
The janitor was totally right – he knew the guy I needed to talk to. So I got two boxes of donuts. I got one for the janitor, [and] was like, Thank you. I took a box of donuts to Andy, and some clips. [[I later asked Andy about this, and what kind of donuts Jones brought. Andy said Krispy Kreme, because Jones wanted to make a point that Krispy Kremes are better than Dunkin’ Donuts. Which, sorry Boston, they are./pw]] And again going back to the socially awkward thing I’m sitting there with Andy, we’re talking, he’s very nice, and I said, Can you read some of my stuff? He said, Yeah, I’ll read it. And I said, Can you read it now? He was like, While you’re sitting here? I was like, Yeah, I just kind of want to know is this even possible. So he’s reading and he’s like, Yeah, we wouldn’t use so many one-sentence paragraphs but it’s not bad. I said, Okay, great.
So, I kind of forgot about it. I quit my job at the paper, was traveling around. I ran out of money in Arizona, I was in Flagstaff. Got an email from Andy saying, We’ve got a job, 10 guys are gonna write a story, best story gets it. And this is the job I want more than anything. And I was flat broke. I mean I was busted. I had left the paper in a hissy fit, which was a terrible mistake – and I wanted that job so bad, so I wrote my story –
What was the story?
I wrote about Barry Zito, the baseball player –
You could choose any story?
I had to pitch 10 stories – this was specifically to be the sports columnist. That’s how I started at Esquire. And it was only years later that I found out the competition was bullshit. It had never happened. I spent years trying to find out – because the business isn’t that big – who are these other nine people? I was asking around, Are you one of the people? So whenever students ask how to get a job in journalism: Well, you act like an idiot, you go places you’re not supposed to go, you bring donuts, you run out of money and get super lucky.
Jonathan Blakley: With Roger Ebert – I love that story – one of the reasons I really loved it is, I’m a little older than you but I think we both grew up watching him. Suddenly you’re there. Was that one day with him?
No, parts of four days. And Roger was also awesome in the sense that, when I first emailed about doing the story he said, You know, I can’t talk, so we should probably do this by email, and I said, Well it would be better if we actually met. Roger actually started his career as a feature writer, including stuff for Esquire, so once he got past the idea of me coming, which did take some convincing –
Gosh – sorry to interrupt but that surprises me that he wouldn’t get that you needed to be in the room –
He hadn’t really been out at that point. He didn’t want people seeing his face.
Yeah. Once he got on board he was like, Oh he’s gonna need scenes – we’ll go out for dinner. All I said was, I want to go to the movies with you. Everything else was him. He knew what I needed. It’s funny – we talked afterward, and he had written the story. He was like, I’m surprised you didn’t put this in.
And there was a great moment that I didn’t put in, because in order for it to work I had to be in there, and I didn’t want to be in the story.
What was it?
They were cleaning the house before I got there and Chaz, his wife, had their wedding album out and Roger was like, Why the hell do you have the wedding pictures out? And she put it away. And after I’d been there maybe 15 minutes he was like, Chaz, bring out the wedding pictures! Anyway, he was like, I would’ve led with that, and …
I tell you the hot-sweat moment – he was mad about the picture. He was like, I’m kind of surprised you did the full face, like a whole page –
Bridges: Oh, but it’s such an amazing photo, though.
But all he sees is the damage, right? And it was a full page in the magazine. And he said, I’m surprised you spent so much time on my sickness.
And I was like, Oh shit. I said, Listen, if we don’t have the photo people are gonna spend the whole story wondering what you look like and they’re not gonna read the story. So you get that right out of the way. And with your sickness, nobody knows about this stuff. It’s important to establish why you can’t talk.
Bridges: Do you read stuff to Roger Ebert or whoever?
Oh no, no. This is always a tricky situation. I wanted Roger to love the story. I really like Roger. For me that was – I’ll never be able to relate what it was like to be sitting there pulling Post-It notes off his fingers. Like, I went there – I’d had this waffly kind of bad-head period where I was depressed or whatever, and I left there and thought, What the hell. I’m gonna leave here and I’m gonna have a root beer, and that moment on its own – it was a transformative experience, doing that story. I wanted him to like it, but you have to play this game where, I hope he likes it but I can’t be writing it for him.
And the fact checking – oh God I had this awful moment where I described the hole in his face. Originally I had it as the size of a small fist. And the fact checker called him and said, Roger do you have a hole the size of a small fist? And he immediately emailed me going, What are you talking about, this hole? I said, You have this hole, it’s there. I made it a plum, I think, in the end. But he was upset, and that kind of stuff bothered me. The reaction to the story was so positive he got on board.
Diedrich: The headline for “The Things That Carried Him” is clearly a nod to “The Things They Carried” – how aware are you when you’re writing that you’re in this legacy of people who’ve written about soldiers?
The title is a funny – I always put a headline on my stories because I find it helps me –
If I find myself drifting I can go back to the headline. If it’s hard to write a headline for your story your story is probably unfocused. My headline was “The 3,431st.” I thought it sounded vaguely military, I thought it got across the idea of one of these thousands. Then Peter put that headline on it and I was like, Argh. Like “The Things They Carried” is one of the great pieces of war literature of all time, and when he put that headline on it I thought it sounded like hubris. But again, it was that 75th anniversary year, the original “The Things They Carried,” the short story, was in Esquire. I still never quite loved the headline. I really like headlines like “The Body.” There’s a story in the current issue that’s just called “Hood.” I like headlines like that. Very rarely is the headline that I put on my story the headline. Like this one, Roger Ebert, was [ultimately] called “The Essential Man,” or something. I like having a headline as my compass point.
For more from Chris Jones, check out his conversation with narrative legend Gay Talese.