Eli Saslow on detail, dignity, nut grafs, patience, reporting v. writing, and what’s in his notebook
Our latest Notable Narrative is an Eli Saslow story called “Life of a salesman,” about a swimming-pool salesman struggling in a terrible economy. Yesterday, we listed some of the story’s virtues. Today, we talk to Saslow, an award-winning Washington Post staff writer and ESPN The Magazine contributor, about the story and plenty more.
Storyboard: Frank Firetti – how’d you get this idea?
Saslow: There was an idea from the editors in the months before the presidential election that we needed to go after a big narrative that captured some of what the country was going through. So it began with thinking about the notion of a salesman and that being a very iconic thing, and then thinking about what kind of salesman I would want to write about, what industry would be good. After realizing a few other things wouldn’t work, I thought about swimming pools. They’re so representative in so many ways of that upper-middle-class striving. And then it was farming for a character who I thought would be good to spend a lot of time with but also somebody who was willing to have their life and family be chronicled in a pretty intimate way. Then it was talking to three, four, five, however many, salesmen and getting a feel for different characters. When I talked with Frank and went out and spent a day with him, I realized that I was onto something with him because he was living the economy in so many ways, and his family was representative in so many ways. I buried in with him on and off for a few months. I’d jump out and do a shorter story here and there but for the bulk of the time I was out there (in Manassas) with him.
How iconic, the swimming pool, and how ripe for all kinds of American sink-or-swim symbolism –
– what other objects did you consider?
I thought about tech sales for a while, or I.T. There were a lot of things that I thought about that just didn’t end up making sense. I’d written about people who were selling cars in Missouri and I thought about going back to a car salesman, but the product didn’t seem quite big enough. Also, I feel like we write a decent amount about people who are really, really struggling and people who are making next to nothing and totally eking by. I wanted this to be about somebody who was struggling but not destitute. I wanted there to still be a lot of hope in this story and in the main character. The other reason Frank ended up being perfect: He wasn’t just a salesman. He had so much more skin in the game. He went all in on (the business) – he’d bought this place. The stakes were so much higher for him. Farming for characters – I feel like it can be such an underrated part of reporting; the reporting to get to the right story before the reporting for the actual story really begins. Sometimes I can take days and weeks to figure out who the character is, who should be at the center of something, and to make sure I’m at the right place at the right time. If you don’t get that part right the rest can be so wasted.
How long did that part take?
It was probably close to a month where I was working on other stories for the paper but I knew this big thing was coming and I’d spend, whatever, a couple hours a day, figuring out who I was gonna be writing about. So yeah, from when I first got a handle on the assignment and started talking about, to when I found Frank, was about a month.
How do you know when a particular character is right for you?
That’s a good question. I guess – this is maybe going to go against what I was just talking about but so many characters can be right. It’s just a matter of getting to the depth you need to get to. The truth is, Frank – they were difficult to write about. And that made me oftentimes feel like I wasn’t in the right place. But I guess you know you’re writing about the right thing when you feel it, when you feel like it stirs something in you. This kind of reporting, where you’re spending a lot of time with people, it’s this awkward trust dance, where you’re feeling it out but hopefully by like the third day some of the layers have worn down and they trust you more and they’re letting you into the corners of their lives more. Not until you’re pretty deep in do you know if it’s right.
Was there one moment or detail that locked it in for you?
Yeah, there definitely were moments that locked it in for me. The first probably two days that I was with Frank – he would laugh about it now but he wasn’t really forthcoming about anything. In terms of talking about specific numbers of pools they were selling or things that were going on his life, he was nervous and a little bit evasive. And it wasn’t until the third or fourth time that we were spending time together and we started talking about his dad – his dad’s life and health – and I started spending some time with him and his dad while his dad was sick – that he began to trust me a little bit more and understand what I was hoping to do.
Part of what’s so good about this piece is the detail – I mean there’s some really intimate detail in there. Like Suzette spending nearly $25,000 on her family back in the Philippines and how that had become a “point of contention in an otherwise happy marriage.” You needed that terribly intimate detail, though, to set up the “land of money” idea and present contrast.
Right. Those details are hard. The truth is, it’s never happened to me like this before. Sometimes if you’re doing your job right, reporting a narrative, you get in deep, and the people you’re writing about realize how deep in you are. And in this case there were moments when that became nerve-racking for them, particularly when the Post started having a photographer spend time with them. That made the story more real. They knew all along what I was there doing, of course, but no longer was it just me, who they’d gotten really used to, writing everything in a notebook. Now it was sometimes somebody with a camera showing up too. That sent some people in the family reeling. There were moments when I was really worried about what that was gonna mean for the story. Because I think it’s the coolest thing about what we get to do but it’s also the most sensitive: People are trusting you with the details of their lives. We always have to think about, when we’re writing things, about being of course honest and forthcoming and using all that stuff in the service of the story but also being empathetic and framing things in ways where it’s not only saying that Frank and his wife fight about money but how that fits in the context of a marriage that otherwise works in these ways. When people give us their trust to go so far in, we’re responsible to the reader first and foremost but also to the people we’re writing about, to treat them with respect and dignity.
How did they feel about the story? What was their reaction?
They felt good about the piece. One of the things I did with the story because of some of the sensitivities and the length and the depth, I did a pretty extensive talk-through with Frank about what the story would be about. I certainly never showed him the story but I gave him a pretty good idea what to expect. So he had a sense section to section what the story was gonna be about, so that helped. Even people in the family who at some point were a little bit nervous, or very nervous, about how things would turn out, I think they felt like it did them justice. That was nice to hear. Not the purpose or the point, of course, but it always makes the aftermath a little easier and more smooth.
That great detail about her fingernails – so were you there for that Skype conversation?
Yes, I was there for everything in the story. Usually I find that I’m best when I’m seeing things and not simply recreating them. By being there so often they begin to forget about you a little bit, or at least they’re no longer playing games for your benefit. Sticking around long enough to have this happen, that’s ideal.
There are so many small transcendent wonders seeded throughout this story. Like Frank telling his customers, “The possibilities here are as big as you can dream them.” That’s America. Something bigger is at work when we’re reading that line. And the idea of “selling is winning,” and the obsession about the “infinity edge” of a swimming pool. And even the name of the company – Blue Haven. It sounds so optimistic but with this tinge of the possibility of failure.
Totally, like everything else is encroaching on it. The truth is, for me, the stuff I’m constantly trying to work on in my writing is – I tend to be pretty understated. Where I struggled in this piece, and the ways that (editor) David Finkel and others were helpful and the main way it improved over the course of time was with the bigger sweep of things. I can be a little resistant to that, especially in a story where it can sound hokey — “the American dream.” I always want to be as understated as possible and let the reporting and details speak for itself, but sometimes to make sure that people read it and didn’t feel like they were just reading a story about one pool salesmen, it required a few raising graphs in a couple of places. That’s a hard balance. For me and my sensibilities, if you take that too far you risk making the story look like you’re trying too hard, but if you don’t do it enough there are people who might hold onto the subtleties. So there were a decent number of conversations between Finkel and I about two or three sentences spread throughout the piece that just like – me fighting a little bit and feeling like how can we raise it a little bit to make it clear that, yes, it’s hopefully an intimate and searing narrative but also cluing people in that it’s something bigger.
Did anything make it into the story that you didn’t want?
No, in the end I’m pretty lucky to work for a place – and especially with Finkel – our sensibilities are similar but he’s just better than I am. It’s an ideal situation in that I feel like we’re speaking the same language but his vocabulary is way, way better. That’s a nice thing to have. If I push back on something I don’t ever worry that I’m really gonna lose. It’s more like collaborating to figure out what feels comfortable and what feels like going too far. There were definitely a few paragraphs like toward the end of the first section where I’d say 75 percent of the editing went into figuring out how to tinker with some of the sentences to make the story big enough. I feel in the end it was the right thing to do. We probably managed to walk the line okay. I think “American dream” was in the story only once – maybe twice – but even though sometimes I feel like all we ever do is write about the American dream – and what’s more important about that? – seeing it in print though sometimes feels like oversimplifying. I probably spent too much time trying to find different ways to get at the same phrase but that’s okay.
You mentioned the notebook. Let’s talk for a second about methodology. How did you report this piece? How do you normally work? These kinds of questions bug some people, so sorry if that’s annoying.
These questions don’t bug me at all, because I’m always curious about how other people do it, too. For me it’s almost always just a notebook. And then another notebook and another notebook and another notebook. I don’t think I ran tape once during this reporting process. And honestly a big part of that is just logistical. I was with them for way too many hours, and so many of them were mobile, and just sitting, watching, observing, that the story would’ve come out like next year, late next year, if I’d had to transcribe all that. The other thing is, I think the more comfortable people are with you and your presence the better the story and the reporting’s gonna be. For me, just in general I’m pretty casual and my mannerisms are pretty casual, and having a notebook always in my back pocket, it works a lot easier than setting down a tape recorder constantly and running tape on people. Eventually people probably forget a tape recorder the same way they stop paying attention to a notebook, but for something like this a notebook makes sense. For me, if I’m doing a sit-down interview with a politician or if I have 45 minutes or an hour and a half where I’m just sitting down interviewing, I’m usually gonna run tape. But for something like this I’m very rarely interviewing. I’m observing a lot and then I’m riding in the car with Frank if he’s going from one sales call to another, and I’m talking to him about his life and sort of fitting my questions in as they develop in the moments of silence. Having the time observing allows me to be targeted enough with the questions, a notebook is fine. The other thing is, when I’m interviewing him I’m never – I’m sure there are no quotes in the story that are from an interview. It’s all dialogue. It’s not like I’m speed-writing every word verbatim, I’m building a body of knowledge of about him and his life that’s going to inform the story.
I love that scene with Frank and Tyler sitting outside, talking about the things they want out of life. Did that just come up organically between them or did you ask questions that led them to that really telling patch of dialogue about financial stability?
Luckily for me it came up organically. And I guess “luckily” is not quite right – say over the course of two months there were 20 full days that I spent doing nothing but following them everywhere. You do that because occasionally you get the five-minute exchange of dialogue on the deck where you realize this is something: This is getting to the heart of something that I want to be able to write about. Narrative reporting can be frustrating because there were whole days when I didn’t write anything – there was no scene, no moment that felt big or revelatory, or anything. It can be a test of patience. But then sometimes there’s five minutes where you’re there and you feel like you’re seeing something that gets to the heart of something. But it’s totally a test of patience. There are plenty of those days where you drive home and you feel geez, I’m really wasting my time. The truth is, you’re never wasting your time. They’re becoming more comfortable and you have to sort through the stuff that won’t work in order to get to the things that will.
The typical nut graf is obligatory in traditional news writing and nonessential in narrative, but to my eye there’s a kind of a key-shit passage that appears halfway through the story, about 3,000 words in: “When had stability become the goal in America? What kind of dream was that? And in the economy of 2012, was it even attainable?” Was that a guiding premise of the story or did it come to you as you reported or wrote?
Those questions and those scenes were definitely a big part of what I wanted to anchor the piece with. In a story like this – and again this is one of the things that I’ve resisted sometimes over the last five years – a story that’s this long – first of all the idea of a nut graf in a narrative sort of changes a little bit, already, but in some ways one nut graf is not enough. You can’t write a 6,000-word story and only have like the fourth paragraph that says, like, “Frank Firetti was representative of the American dream.” It just gets lost and overwhelmed by what’s going on. Especially in longer narratives, what’s important to do is to have a little bit of that happening not just in the beginning and at the end, but you want to lace some of that where it makes sense throughout the piece. In this case, they were having a conversation that got right to the heart of that. It was what they were both thinking about, and it made it a perfect chance to take a scene on the deck – hopefully people recognized that what they were seeing was more than Frank and his son having a conversation about Harleys. That was a great place to make a scene feel big.
Your book, Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President. Did you love doing that?
I did. So many kind of books still would feel totally impossible to execute for me, but for a first book it was perfect. Because I could think of it as writing 10 long-form narratives. It wasn’t, “Okay, I need to write 85,000 words about one character with one thing at the center.” That made it so much more doable, and it also meant I could report and write simultaneously. It would be scary for me to come back with 90,000 words worth of notes and piece it out. On this, I could spend a month reporting and three weeks writing, and then do it again.
How did writing the book change the way you approach newspaper or magazine narratives, which run 3,000 or so words on average?
It definitely made me better. The truth is they’re very similar – it was going and spending several days or sometimes a week or more embedded in people’s lives and watching them go through the things that they had written to the president about, and watching those things play out in their lives. It was really fulfilling in that way and a stretch, but a comfortable stretch. It was the same sort of work that I’ve been doing and am still doing, except a little bit longer and going a little bit deeper, and sticking around longer than usual. Also just having the chance to write about people’s situations with a depth and an honesty that they’re sometimes not written about – that’s super-rewarding. Across the board these people were brave and gracious and welcoming, even though I was there for some really hard things. So much of narrative reporting is navigating interpersonal situations and building trust and building relationships that are really very complicated. You’re getting to know somebody super-well and sometimes you’re there when they’re going through really personal things, but you’re always there as a reporter, not as an advocate or a friend. It’s a really complicated relationship, and the more you practice the better you get. That was one benefit for sure.
You’ve been at the Washington Post since when? You moved from sportswriting to politics to projects, but what were you doing before that?
I went to Syracuse and I grew up in Denver. The financial aid was good at Syracuse. I figured out they had a good journalism school, and started writing a ton. I worked a little bit at the Buffalo News and the Star-Ledger, and I came to the Post on sports, in 2004. For the first year I worked in a far-flung bureau and was like the main high school volleyball person. I think I overwrote a lot of high school volleyball game stories. But I always sort of knew the stories that I wanted to do and the sort of journalism that I wanted to become a part of, so I was always pitching longer more narrative stuff. Eventually they relented and let me write one narrative about high school sports, and then that became longer features about sports in general, and then at the beginning of 2008 the paper asked if I would do the same sort of stories about politics. So I did that during the campaign. And that became longer narratives about anything and everything. Politics is at the core of so much of what the Post does, it’s often writing about how Washington affects people’s lives in ways big and small.
So you knew early that you wanted to do this work?
I didn’t know that I wanted to be a journalist. I knew in high school that I liked writing, or sometimes really didn’t like writing because my dad was a middle-school English teacher and would just rip my syntax to shreds. But once I started doing journalism I figured out that the thing I like most is people. And getting the chance to write about people’s lives in detail with sort of honesty and empathy. And that’s narrative, burying in as deep as you can for as long as you can until you have a story to tell. Knowing that I wanted to do that made it clear what kind of stories and writing I would do. I like writing, but writing days can be long and brutal. There’s satisfaction in them, and I’m lucky in that having been a sportswriter I write fairly quickly, but for me the days when I’m happiest in my job are the days when I’m reporting, the days when I’m out watching.
Storyboard also named a Saslow piece a Notable Narrative back in April 2011, and you can find that conversation here.