Andrew Corsello on authorial empathy, the problem of goodness, the writer-editor relationship, the importance of rule-breaking, and naps
In yesterday’s post, guest curator Michael Fitzgerald wrote about the storytelling power behind “The Wronged Man,” a 2004 GQ piece by National Magazine Award winner Andrew Corsello. Fitzgerald, a Massachusetts-based business and technology writer and former Nieman Fellow, caught up with Corsello by phone recently, to talk about the story. Here’s part of their conversation, edited lightly for space and clarity and for the regretful omission of one artfully graphic suggestion for what should be done with, or to, Strunk and White’s collective arse.
Fitzgerald: How did you decide to do this story?
The way I pick stories is very personal. I usually have a theme that I’m interested in and look sometimes for years for a vehicle to explore the anatomy of that theme. Zimbabwe, “The Other Side of Hate,” was all about forgiveness. I was looking for stories for years that would allow me to anatomize forgiveness, because I didn’t believe in it and I was looking for people who could execute it.
The Calvin story was different. My editor at the time was Andy Ward at GQ (now at Random House), who’s incredible. We talked a little bit and he said, “You know, we’re reading maybe every three weeks or something, somebody was being exonerated by DNA evidence.” They would get a lot of coverage but it was newspaper coverage that covered the facts. He said, “Wouldn’t it be a great story for you to do it inside out and convey the emotion of what the experience was? As close as you could get to being inside.”
My first step was to contact the Innocence Project. They gave me a bunch of people. Because of the nature of DNA, almost all of them were convicted of rape. That was a prolonged and sad experience. I needed to find someone who was in touch with and able to explain their interior existence. The five or six I went through prior to Calvin were so demolished as human beings that they had difficulty even telling their stories at a factual level. I think it’s much more devastating to be in prison for something that you didn’t do than something you did. There was one guy in Oklahoma I spoke to who was almost sublingual. He was mumbling over and over, ”I don’t know the reason for my existence, I don’t know.” They were almost zombie-like. It was horrible. Prison is an infantilizing place for so many reasons. You come out even less able to deal than a normal person. The prime of your working life is gone, you have no skills, usually no education and what you have had is lost.
But for a lot of these guys, coming back to the real world was exuberant. You have that feeling of surfing on a wave. I caught Calvin at that place; he was only out about a month where I first talked to him. We had one phone call and I talked to Andy and said, “This is the guy.”
How did you know it was going to work?
He was wonderfully verbal and open, as was everyone around him. And he’s a good storyteller. He was able to tell me what I needed to know to tell the story. I went to Shreveport and spent 10 days there, just sort of immersive days, talking to him and Prissy (Janet Gregory, the woman who worked to exonerate Calvin) and everyone they knew.
Did you realize he was good?
The question is, “Should I believe everything I’m beholding here?” I mean, yeah, it just became clear that he meant what he said and meant what he felt and it was his faith – not just religious but in people in general, as affirmed by people like Prissy – that made him sane and somebody who wasn’t demolished in the end by the experience (of prison).
Tracy Kidder talks about the problem of goodness, writing about someone who is better than your readers. That wasn’t an issue?
It’s the same problem you get at the poles of the human spectrum. The one thing saints and sociopaths have in common is there is no divide between their interior and exterior lives, their soul and how they behave in the world. It’s very difficult for anyone on the in-between spectrum to understand people where you can’t get purchase on the contrasts that exist between what a human keeps to him or herself and how they express themselves in the world. I guess the problem was overcome … it was all about Prissy. It was one of those great things I didn’t really understand until I got there that I had two protagonists. Calvin was one half of the story and Prissy the other. There was no story without Prissy. She’s where the action is. Calvin is stationary; he’s in a prison for two decades.
How did you write the piece?
Unlike most stories I do, I wrote this from beginning to end, not put-together puzzle pieces. I got many of thousands of words in and realized, “If I keep going like this, this is going to be a 40,000-word manuscript and it’s not going to work.” It always happens this way for me. Some people have to match emotionally the state they’re going to be writing about. I’m completely the opposite. If I get like that, I just vapor-lock and shut down. I have to brood and sleep, and that’s where stuff seeps up. I was at an impasse and just kind of woke up from an open-eyed nap and wrote as quickly as I could the keystone of the piece, the 1,200-word section that gets into the Pentecostal call-and-response rhythm where I talk about “he tells her, he tells her…” I was able to kill four birds with one stone in that section. First of all, the sense of time passing. I was able to really construct what that relationship was, that she was able to take on for him psychologically the burden he could not bear in prison. The confessional nature of the relationship, the Tracy Kidder problem. That’s how I solved it.
The story takes place over 22 years. How do you put that into a magazine-sized piece and how long did it take you to write it?
This took nine months. Andy Ward never breathes down anyone’s neck. He’s very zen. I was impossibly behind. I had to do other things in the meantime. I was just giving him what I had as I was completing it. He was starting to get very worried that there wasn’t going to be any redemption, because it was just so dark. He had me take stuff out of the lede that was too disturbing. As someone who had daughters, he couldn’t bear it. It just keeps piling on, and then there’s Janet, and her husbands are being hit by trains and being struck by lightning, and it’s absurd. I said, “No, trust me. Redemption’ll come.”
You have a big, distinctive writing voice, but you’re not really in this piece. What did you do with your voice?
This is one of only two perfect pieces I’ve written, because I was able to keep the piece in its own narrative bubble from beginning to end. (The other is “My Body Stopped Talking to Me” and is not online, having been published in GQ in 1995.) People talk about the bird’s-eye school of journalism, more or less The New Yorker, which is professorial and cool in tone, and distant, and the object is above all to explain in the most limpid terms possible what you need to know about a given story. I’m temperamentally different than that. Empathy is the be-all, end-all of my stories, both in terms of what I pick to write about and how I write about them. I want to find very emotional stories and come as close as I can come to recreate the emotional experience for a reader, and that means you want to do it novelistically.
This story involves a brutal crime – the rape of a child; the U.S. prison system; fervent religious belief; things that might compel most writers to insert themselves into the piece at some point. How do you avoid doing so? And how do you stay so matter-of-fact about your scenes?
This is a story done all in scenes. That’s partly to create empathy, and to create authority but not do “according to three sources…” I think I spoke to about 80 people, and then you bury it (all the reporting). That’s a question I always get when I speak in front of journalism school students. They’re taught “show your work show your work show your work.” It’s all about how you create authority. And some people want the quote, want to show you all the stuff they’ve done. I’m not in the story but I’m all over the story. It’s a weird combination of arrogance and humility. The arrogance is the willingness to create authority while hiding reporting. It’s high risk. If it fails, you can look really preposterous and silly. At the same time it’s humbling because in order to create emotional empathy you have to take people on their terms and take them in their voices. So, writing about people of faith in a matter-of-fact way doesn’t mean that I do it without questioning everything everyone tells me. That’s different from taking people on their own terms and where they’re coming from.
How did you report your scenes?
There’s no secret to it. I just talk to everyone. I talked to everybody who was there and just built it off of that. It’s very affirming when you have people coming from very different perspectives but end up all agreeing on how it came down. That would of course be Debbie (Calvin’s ex-wife) and Calvin. She was just so open and honest with me. It was a real gift. As was her new husband. So it wasn’t difficult from a reporting point of view.
How important was your editor?
He was instrumental. Both in technical terms and in psychological terms. And the latter is more important. Part of it is, he’s patient and willing to let something slow cook if he has faith that it’s going to come out right. He’s the perfect super ego to my id. I tend to be all id. I need to have complete faith, I like to write exuberantly and I like to overwrite and write purple – I love overwriting. It was so liberating when I finally came to that point in my life and said “Fuck you” to all the rules that I’d ever been taught about writing in a clear, linear and deliberate way. At the same time, I do go over the line and I need someone with exquisite taste to understand what is exuberance and what is excess. (Ward) is great at that. He’s very gentle and at the same time I have complete confidence in his taste. There was a whole section that could be another piece itself. Janet is probably more responsible than any other individual in Louisiana for getting rid of the electric chair there. That got taken out of the story. That was the most painful thing at the time to lose.
That’s the danger of doing stories like this, where emotional empathy is the object. When you’re reporting and writing that, you’re in the bubble and you have no perspective. You might have vehement arguments with someone at the time and it might take three months before you realize, “Oh, he was right.”