Michael Mooney on trauma detail, his reading partner, the internal critic and his “I ♥ (Vince Young)” notebook
We’ll be talking to Michael Mooney again soon about a small body of his recent long-form journalism, but today we give our attention to “When Lois Pearson Started Fighting Back,” our latest Notable Narrative. We chose the D magazine story, about how a 62-year-old Texas woman named Lois Pearson survived a horrifically violent kidnapping, for its carefully executed tone and use of detail. Mooney, a D staff writer who has also written for Grantland and GQ, talked to us by phone the other day from thousand-degree Dallas.
Storyboard: If you’d been on Twitter the other day you might’ve seen a conversation among readers who think the story is amazing. Some said they couldn’t finish it because they couldn’t stand the details —
Mooney: I was very worried about that, actually. I was concerned that people would stop reading it.
How did you handle that?
By trying to find exactly the right balance. My editor, Tim Rogers, and I talked about that for a long time. Ultimately we ended up putting about 20 to 30 percent of the available details into the story, maybe not even that high a percentage. We talked about what kind of effect we wanted to have. You could write that story as a story about (rapist Jeffrey Maxwell) and how he could’ve gone so long and not gotten caught, or about Lois Pearson. Her story was the story I wanted to tell; I thought it was really about the endurance of the human spirit. I wanted to put enough detail in that people could understand how much she went through but without it turning into gore porn.
Talk about how you got the story idea.
It started with a story in the Dallas Morning News. Tim and I were talking about some stories that I could work on, and I think he initially said, “There’s something really interesting here.” The trial was coming up. I went to the trial and talked to everybody involved outside the trial as well, and I spent a significant amount of time in Weatherford, which is pretty different than Dallas.
How long did the trial last?
A little longer than a week.
You got the entire narrative from the trial, then?
Yeah. I understood from the police reports vaguely what had happened, but in trial a lot of the details came out, including gruesome details that we couldn’t print. But I did sit and talk to Lois, too, less about the specifics about the most gruesome parts and more just kind of walking her through the emotion that she went through. Originally I thought the trial was going to be the center of the story, very much like Eli Sanders’ story “The Bravest Woman in Seattle.” This was before he won the Pulitzer. When I learned that Lois would be testifying, Eli’s was the first story I thought of because I also envisioned mine as a trial-centered story. Then as soon as I looked at everything we had I thought, “The trial is not the right way to go on this.”
What convinced you?
The incredible details. And I think a trial story would’ve been similar to Eli’s. And it’s very difficult, wrapping the narrative around a trial. I really wanted the story to be from Lois’ perspective as much as possible.
How much of the detail that you used came out at trial and how much came from your conversations with her?
I’d say 85 percent came out at trial. The kind of smaller details – when she was smelling stuff or worried about things, little details about what she felt – came out in interviews. Honestly, it wasn’t even me asking questions, it was me trying not to be offensive, trying to be as sensitive as possible, and taking whatever she gave me.
How did you initially approach her?
I approached her a little bit at the trial. I kind of introduced myself and told her I was going to do a longer story. After the trial she said she didn’t want to do any more interviews. She gave a mini-press conference at court, on the last day of sentencing, and told the prosecutor she didn’t want to talk anymore. So I wrote a letter to her and brought chocolates and flowers to her house. And then she wrote me a letter back and we started talking.
You wrote her an old-school letter? Saying what?
She doesn’t have email, and I think she had a phone by then but I wasn’t about to just call her randomly and start that way. And I knew she liked writing letters. I knew she had a typewriter. So I wrote her a letter and told her I’d like to do the story. I said, “I think what you’ve been through is incredible and I think you showed incredible bravery in testifying and in so many stages of this, and if you’d be interested I’d really like to talk to you a little bit more.” I bought some flowers and, I think, Belgian chocolates – one of her friends told me that she liked candy. She loved the flowers – they turned out to be her favorite color, purple.
And what’d you do with it? Left it at her doorstep?
Kind of at her gate. I didn’t want to knock on her door. She lives out in the country, so I figured if I was driving around she probably saw me anyway. I didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable. So I left the letter, chocolates and flowers. Two or three weeks later I got a letter at the office from her, with a phone number. She loved the letter, loved the flowers, loved the candy. A lot of people at her church had been telling her she should share her story. Especially with religious people, it was a very inspiring story.
How much time did you spend with her, and where?
I went to her house one time, and we talked on the phone probably five or six times for never shorter than an hour. We talked about her life and her views on the world rather than the actual details of the case. I’d ask things like, “What were you thinking when this was going on? What kinds of things were going through your mind?” I asked specifically what she was reading and she told me the Bible, and I was curious about what chapter, things like that. And for the larger picture, I wanted a sense of her religious perspective. She very much believes that had she remained a virgin for eternity she would have received a crown or something similar in heaven. I wanted to know about her views on people beforehand and her views on people now.
The story hinges on the virgin detail. Was that something that came out at trial or in your conversations with her?
She mentioned that at sentencing. That was very much the primary thought that she had during trial. She read a small note to the jury that mentioned that, and so I didn’t even have to ask the question. She felt very passionate about that.
How did you realize that the real story here was her attitude?
I think a different reporter might’ve thought, “How did this (crime) ever come to happen? How was this guy a free man?” But for me, I was just so struck by her talking about (her perspective) in trial. Imagining this happening to me or to somebody I know – it was so terrifying. It was the most horrific thing I’d ever heard. It was the closest to an actual horror movie.
It’s horrific to read not just because of the physical details but also because of the psychological torture.
It was interesting – there were a couple of other reporters covering it, mostly TV people, and in the side room at the courthouse you could hear them talking about what they were doing to not think of this trial. Guys were like, “Oh man, I just went back to the hotel room and watched inane TV last night because it was the only thing I could think of.” I did that too. I actually wrote a bowling story while covering that trial.
Had you ever done trauma reporting or covered anything so graphic?
One time when I was at the Dallas Morning News I wrote a story about a teenager that had been brutalized in a terrible way, by some other teenagers. They had taken a spiked pipe and essentially kicked it through his rectum. And after a year of healing, that teenager then killed himself. I covered that. But this was certainly the most intense longest time I’ve spent dealing with something like this. I watched a lot of inane television. When I was done with the story, I went out for dinner, big celebration. I was so happy to be done. Even thinking about that makes me feel silly, considering what Lois went through.
Feeling relieved is legitimate, though, and readers wonder how journalists deal emotionally with their stories. In fact, on Twitter the other day a reader in Canada, writer Karen K. Ho, wondered what detail hit you the hardest.
The virginity thing. It was very shocking and disturbing. It seemed to elevate the crime in some ways, and it struck me, how personal it was. I don’t know if that sounds right.
Sounds right. It’s deeply personal – there’s the physical violation but also the virginity issue, which is a violation of the soul.
Yeah. Hearing her describe it, it was so upsetting.
How did you deal with it?
Having a really good fiancée helps. Almost every story that I write, my fiancée, Tara, reads it aloud to me, but this story I didn’t want her to, especially early drafts. I knew I’d put in the graphic stuff in the early draft and cut it back, and I didn’t want her seeing that.
Having someone else read your work aloud – I like that, too. I have my students do it, because when you hear someone else –
Yeah! I can read my drafts over and over and not even see where there should be commas like I can when I hear it from someone else. I recognize when I’m repeating a word too much or when I have an awkward sentence. And one time she actually saved me – I’d written 4 1/2 of five sections and accidentally hit select-all and deleted the whole thing without having saved it first. But because she’d read it to me, I was actually able to recreate it.
What does Tara do?
She’s an editor at a book publishing company.
What are you doing while she’s reading your story aloud?
Sometimes making notes, sometimes asking her to stop and change things.
Does she like doing that?
I think so. I hesitate to ask because if she says “no” I’d feel really guilty. I know that she’s very responsible for a lot of the good stuff that I write. Sometimes it’s as small as talking about an idea, other times it’s, “Look, you’re gonna embarrass yourself if you use this word.” And she’s a great writer herself. When I lived in Florida I was a staff writer at an alt-weekly there and she was a nightlife columnist. She wrote about bars and drinking and the eccentric weird people of South Florida. She’s my first outside-my-own-head voice.
In terms of editing the Pearson story, was there something your D editor wanted you to include that you didn’t necessarily want to include?
Yeah. He really wanted that Thoreau line, in that description about Lois. It was very important to him that she be sympathetic. It would be easy to paint her as an eccentric character, but that’s not appropriate; it wouldn’t convey the full intensity of her humanity. Tim very much wanted people to be able to identify with her as a person, even if they weren’t like her. He’s awesome, by the way. He just won a National Magazine Award, for a profile. He’s both a writer and the editor of the magazine. He really is an incredible editor.
He’s a good combination of trust and flexibility and narrative vision. He can visualize a magazine story very, very well.
How did that vision play out with the Lois Pearson story?
We’d go through and almost create an outline together – where could we start. Her breaking free wasn’t the original opening. The original concept was starting with the fire and then telling it completely chronologically.
I can’t imagine another opening. This is one of the best openings I’ve ever read in a magazine story. Why did you want to start with the fire?
Pam Colloff had a story a couple of years ago about a girl who helped kill her entire family, and it started with a gruesome fire and this father crawling out of the fire, and that image kind of stuck with me. So I think that’s what I was originally thinking.
How did you come around to the escape scene as the opening, then?
When I was describing the story to people, I would try different openings. Once I got to that section, that’s when people paid the most attention.
So you were paying attention to people’s reactions when you told the story out loud.
Yeah, and to the kinds of things they were curious about. I sometimes hear writers say, “If you’re sitting at a bar, the first thing you’d tell someone about a story – you should lead with that.” Sometimes I agree with that, sometimes I don’t.
Your opening sets up the entire story largely by walking us through that horrible crime scene, but with restraint.
I figured that I had to give signals that this was gonna get worse. You couldn’t start with the most graphic part; nobody would read it. I was worried that people would read it and it would sound like the beginning of a story about an innocent man. I wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t a story about police misconduct or something like that. Tim and I talked a decent amount about the Tom Junod story from a while back, “The Rapist Says He’s Sorry,” where you have this horrible, graphic, brutal crime. Junod describes it in detail, but by the time you get to that you’re well aware of how graphic it’s going to be, how bad it really is. By then you’re so committed as a reader, you keep going.
How many drafts did you do?
One draft, and then that draft cut down, and then a cleaner version of that draft. So I don’t even know what that would count as. I always have a hard time counting drafts because the first thing I’ll do is write a really rough draft, like a sketch-outline kind of thing. It’s not even full sentences. It’s letting me know what’s gonna be there. Then I’ll fill it in section by section and rearrange.
How else do you work? From an outline, obviously.
Oh yeah. Always an outline. I’m a firm outliner. Religious outliner. I actually have a notebook that I put my outlines in. I’ll think about the story and think about the story and look at all my notes, and then before I start to write I’ll write my outline in my notebook, and type that outline into a draft. Generally that first thing that I type in is 50 percent of the total word count, but it’s the total story.
You have a special notebook for the outlines?
For more than one story or just that one story?
It has probably my last 12 or 13 stories in it.
What kind of notebook are we talking about?
It has “I ♥ VY” on it. The “VY” is for Vince Young, the Texas quarterback. Tara got it for Christmas for me, a couple of years ago. It’s college rule. I’ve been told that the print that I use – people say that I write like a serial killer. I write about three lines per college rule line. Really, really small. There are so many things that make me a weird person, and that’s one of them.
What are some others?
Ooh, I shouldn’t have said that.
I always like to ask writers what kind of writing life they want for themselves. What about you? Or do you already have it?
There’s a couple of different answers. The completely unrealistic answer is that I’d love to write novels and nonfiction books and screenplays and hundreds more magazine stories and e-books, and forms of writing that don’t even exist yet. I just really like writing in all forms. I’m pretty grateful for the fact that someone’s willing to pay me to be a writer. In some ways it was such an unbelievable dream, when I was a kid that I couldn’t even tell people I wanted to be a writer. I would tell people that I wanted to be a publishing consultant.
A what? What does that even mean?
It was an imaginary job in which I would sit somewhere and publishing companies would send me books and I would tell them what I thought of them. And they would pay me for that.
That’s a critic, my friend – or no, you mean in-house, so –
Yeah, internal critic. It turns out writers do not need internal critics.
Do you ever feel like you miss? You do a story, look at it, and go, “Ugh. Missed it,” and if so how do you handle that?
There are some stories I wish that I could have back, some that I wish I could just have another draft of it, some – and this is going way back – where I gave in to editing decisions and I regret not fighting more, for what I thought was right. You work on a story for a long time and you don’t get it back. And a large percentage of readers, that’s the only thing they’re gonna read by you, ever. I think about that a lot. It’s good motivation for when I get tired, for when I’d rather do anything than report or write: I know this is the one chance I’ll get to tell this story.