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“Narrative Sweat & Flow,” Part 4: Tom Hallman Jr. and Chris Jones
by Simina Mistreanu | December 10, 2013
Editor’s note: The Oregonian’s Simina Mistreanu spoke to seven narrative journalists for her University of Missouri School of Journalism master’s project on longform. Last week, we ran her setup, a piece on the challenges and importance of longform narrative, plus her conversations with Pulitzer winners Lane DeGregory and David Finkel, and with Amy Harmon and Anne Hull, about craft and purpose. The series ends today, with The Oregonian’s Tom Hallman Jr. and Esquire’s Chris Jones.
Tom Hallman Jr. has worked at the Oregonian for more than 30 years, and won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
Mistreanu: How do you choose your stories?
Hallman: I never set out to be the social issues reporter, or the race reporter, or the trauma reporter. I got into those areas because of my curiosity about the way people live or deal with tragedies or deal with race. So it came from the story first, and those issues were secondary, which I think is very different from someone who says, “Well, I want to cover social services.” They approach it with a different take on what they need to cover. Usually way too much policy, reports, officials. If you come to it through the story, through the people, you have the ability to reach readers. So that’s how I discovered that. I would say it grew out of covering the police beat because that’s where all these things collide. You have race, poverty, all of it collides there.
So you were a police reporter at the Oregonian.
Yeah. I had done some other stuff at different places, but I was a police reporter here for like 10 years.
Like Max’s job?
Different. Back then, I worked in a press room at the old police station, and I could wander around and stop and talk to detectives, see reports. It started when I was an intern here one summer, then I came to the police beat — that was my job, day cops — and they had some people fill in who really messed it up. Because I had open access to everything. I would come up to the front desk, and they would just buzz me out back, and I would wander from robbery to vice to homicide, and then make a loop. Well, some of the people who weren’t all that qualified to cover police started taking stuff right out of reports and putting it in the paper, or didn’t understand, so they really did clamp down on us. I had a press room at the police station, and I spent more time there than I did in the newsroom. I would work from 7:30 to 2 o’clock down at the police station, and then come up from like 2:30 to 4 in the newsroom. So my world was really on the street with the detectives, with the street cops.
When was this?
1980 to 1991 or something like that. And I love it because you got to cover the reality of these issues you’re talking about, not from the spokesman or the professor. You want to talk about race things? Well, then go out to a crummy area of town and see what it’s like, see what the frustrations are, and the tensions between the cops. You want to see what trauma is like? Go to a car accident and watch people. So I grew up that kind of way, much different than coming from the top down.
So when did you start writing long-form stories about these issues?
I was part of a golden age of journalism. When I got into business, we actually used manual typewriters and glued the paper together and used pencils to edit. When I came to the Oregonian, nobody really talked about writing. It was all about reporting. And pretty much breaking news and covering beats. And so there were these big gaps that nobody cared about. And the police beat was one of them. The police beat was a place for alcoholic reporters, screwups and young people. And my competition was an alcoholic from an afternoon paper, who never left the press room. He sat and read a book, and all he would cover is the news of the day. I was 26 years old, something like that, so I had no competition, and I would get out and talk to these cops, see these wonderful stories, and since the paper didn’t really care about productivity in a sense, like “What do you got for today? What do you got for today?” I could do my little news things, and then have the freedom to do these other stories.
So I learned on the job about writing: the murder victim, the rape victim, the drug dealers. I remember going for a ride-along with the vice squad; we picked up hookers. And I was in cars with the hookers, and the dialogue … Because this kind of writing was so different, nobody knew really what to do with it, and so they gave you the space. They just let you do it. I learned from doing it. … It was more like free form, learning that way. And that meant some of the stories were way too long, they meandered, great openings, terrible endings, all that stuff. But whatever interested me I would go for, and they always said yes, so I learned from doing that. In the early years, there were no other writers doing the things I was doing. They had feature writers, but it was more feature, like, people hey, they jumped out of their skins, you know, cliché-written stories. There were other people at other papers doing it, but we really didn’t know about each other because there was no Internet. You knew when award season came around. I can’t remember what was the era this started, but there was a movement with this kind of stuff. And some of the names were big names: Ken Fuson, Tom French, Jacqui, all these people. I remember first hearing about Jacqui when I had won some kind of low-level national award, and they had talked about hiring her here to be an editor, and she didn’t do it, but I was awre of who she was. And then these conferences started. People would go to these conferences, and they would talk about writing.
The Nieman conferences?
Before that even. But I remember at one, you have to think of the heavyweights that were at this thing: Richard Ben Kramer, all these names that are now authors, they’ve done books, but at the time they grew out of newspapers. During that era, the best writing really was in newspapers, the narrative writing. Before all that came to be, I was kind of dabbling in it and learning my way, and then I grew as the movement grew.
How did you start writing narratively?
The police beat had such a drama, such characters, such a lingo that the way we were writing it was sterile. It was the kind of thing you would go out and you would do something, and you would come back and you would tell people — not people in the newsroom, but friends — “Oh, I went on this undercover drug buy, and here’s what happened.” But the stories that ran in the paper were stripped of any of that stuff. So it was a really natural built-in story. So it grew out of that way, more the excitement of what I was seeing than thinking, “Oh, here’s a good scene.” The beat I had shaped how I wrote.
Why did you keep doing it?
It was a challenge, I loved the learning, you would look around the newsroom and see people, I’m 58 now, I was ancient. Looking back, how old are you? 25. I look like an old man to you. The same way when I came to the paper, I’d look at guys my age and think, who are they? And a lot of these older reporters were burned out because they had done the same story. I liked to ask them how do you do them? It was always interesting. I would never have the perfect story, so it was exciting to learn how to do it. And there was a power to it; you would get the reader response. Letters and phone calls. I still have some of them. People loved the stories. They loved the worlds I took people to. And then I started to think, here’s a real story, how to tell it like a narrative. And I kind of fumbled my way into that.
How do you choose the stories you want to pursue in depth?
I have to have access, there has to be enough meaning, and power in the character or the world, and I have to be intrigued enough that there’s something there. I don’t care about, like this plane crash in San Francisco, I could care less about covering something like that. Everybody will cover that.
What do you mean by meaning through the character?
What can these readers learn about life through this character’s life, or how they lived their life; what can you learn? So there’s got to be depth to the story.
Doesn’t everyone have a story with depth?
Everybody in the business?
Everybody in the world. How do you select among the stories out there?
For the newspaper, if it’s not somewhat close to the news or some universal event, yeah, I can go do a story about the security guard in the front lobby, but I would have to make it so people found something there. You’re right; everybody has a story.
(How has selection evolved over time?) The whole era of the police stuff, which would be undercover drug guys, prostitutes, murderers, stories that had a built-in structure. Then there was a whole era of stories about places. Places or events or people in institutions, like I followed a woman getting out of prison; what was it like. And then I started to drift into places where there was no story, but something would intrigue me, and I would hang around long enough and go, Oh, my God, there’s a story, or there’s the person with the story.
What sorts of places? What drew you to them?
I would say a lot of the police beat stories were about places: the world of the detective, the world of the undercover guys. There was a fascinating world because it had its own rules and lingo, and I liked getting into that world and writing about it. I also liked the medical world. Then I did stuff, not as much, a little bit with attorneys. But I really liked the medical stuff a lot.
Life and death. It’s amazing to sit with a surgeon who became a friend of mine, sitting here like you and me, and an hour later she goes and operates on a baby’s brain. And I watch her. She’s no different than me physically, but something in her can do that. And it was incredible to watch a human operate on another human. Drama, what was at stake.
What is your role as a reporter?
To figure out the story, to convince them to let me into their world, not get tired and bored with me, and put up with questions that don’t seem to make sense, but they’ll go, “I’ll talk to this guy.” Because most people don’t know their story. I would never do a profile on a doctor. I would do a story on a doctor in the world doing something that would reveal something. And I started out intrigued by something or somebody, and follow that curiosity to figure out what the story is. Then kind of work backwards in a way. Most stories aren’t clear-cut, like beginning, middle and an end. They’re kind of all over the place, and you search for the story.
When you say story, do you mean the narrative or the meaning?
Both. I’ll give you an example. Somebody called me about a story; it was about a school issue, which I could care less about. But while we’re talking, the guy tells me he’s going to Arizona for the winter. I start talking to him, I say, “What do you do with your home?” He says, “We clean it out and lock it up for four months. And we have an African-American woman cleaning our home. Hmm … Interesting, kind of, right?” My mind works like this: I grew up in Portland; I remember as a kid seeing those black women standing by the bus stop down in the mall. As a little boy. Cleaning ladies. I thought, “That’s an interesting story. Would you mind if I talk to, could you give me her number?” He sets it up; I call this lady. She doesn’t know why I’m calling. I just said, “I heard about this; can I come meet you?” She’s like, “Sure.” She has no idea what I’m there for; I don’t even know what I’m there for. And while we’re talking, I notice this big Bible on the side of the table, and I ask her, “So tell me about the Bible.” And all of a sudden I start to realize the story. She grew up in a sharecropping farm in the South like a lot of kids, very poor. She left home, this guy came to town, married her, took her out here to Portland. Her father gave her this family Bible; that’s all they have had. She taught herself to read with this Bible, and every day she would slip through the Bible and what the message would be for the next day. Her husband, they have like five kids, he’s an alcoholic, he abandons her here. And she has a choice: she can go back to the sharecropping farm with the kids and live there, but the kids have no future. Or she can stay in Portland, where they have a future, but she has no skills. She flips through the book and lands at the Book of Job, which she says means patience. So she cleans homes for 55 years. Toilets. Walks to Lake Oswego. Raises five kids.
Now this was an interesting interview to deal with because the kids … I had to get these kids to talk to me about their mother. I told this one girl, who I could tell didn’t dislike me, but was very weary of me. I said, “Look, I’m a white guy. I can’t dance.” And that broke the ice, and she told me an incredibly powerful story that I got because of that. Because she listened. She trusted me. The girl was in her high school class one day, and heard her rich, white classmates talking about the cleaning lady. And she realized they were talking about her mother. Like the reaction you had right there. She wore raggedy clothes, and she was ashamed of her mother. And she came home and told her mother, “I’m ashamed.” Her mother said, “This is who I am.”
So this story has some very powerful moments. When you think about the honesty of saying that. The story ends with these kids coming over for dinner. Now they’re grown. Here’s the end of story: In walks an attorney, a school teacher, a businessman and a nurse. All from cleaning homes.
When the story ran, the Portland Trail Blazers honored her at Center Court. The story won a national writing award. The woman called me afterward and said, “I never thought my life had meaning until I saw your story.” And I told her, “The life had meaning. The story gave it structure.”
That’s how narrative comes to be. Not sitting around saying, I’m going to write about race and what race means. I’m going to tell a story about one woman that moves a city.
That story can be told in a thousand different ways. How do you make that decision?
It’s like music. It just sounds right; it feels right. Now Jacqui would tell that story maybe just like I did, maybe completely different, her story could be better, mine could be better, you might have one. It doesn’t matter which way we tell it, but it’s got to be told like a story. You can tell that story through the eyes of the daughter. You’ve got to pick something. That worked for me.
What do you mean tell it like a story?
You wouldn’t put a nut graf in there, “A Northeast Portland woman, who turned 75 last week…” You don’t know until the very end what happened. She cleaned homes.
What are you trying to accomplish with these stories?
Make people feel something. Love, anger, sadness, happiness, any kind of emotion. How often when you pick up the paper do you feel anything? When you read a story, you can feel something. You could cry. I can cry over my own stories, the good ones, not the bad ones.
I feel like crying when I read your stories. But it’s not sadness.
It makes you feel something. Yeah. I can read stories that I’ve written, I know how it’s going to end, I know where the moment is, and I can get teary eyes reading it. Even though I’m the guy who did it.
So how do you do that?
You just do it. You follow your heart. That’s what a story is. You want the reader to feel first. You don’t want the reader to go, “Oh, I am reading a story about a woman who cleaned homes, she’s a black woman, that’s great how things have changed.” You want to be in the middle of it, going, “Oh my God, her kids are ashamed of her. Oh my God, I feel for her.” Once you get them to feel something then you can give them the information. But you got to feel something. That’s why writing is an emotional process, not an intellectual.
So are you basically saying that you are trying to include moments in the story that people can relate to?
How do you give value to a moment like that, in writing? How do you give it life?
Through the details. Let me give you an example. I did a story about a guy who was mentally retarded. In the story, he had a crush on this girl. The girl’s parents were driving him. He’s 25. And I have a scene, which I’ve reconstructed, where he reaches over and holds her hand in the car, and he’s really nervous. Have you ever been like that? And he squeezes her hand. My next sentence was: And she squeezes back. It tells you everything. That moment when she squeezes back makes your heart, “Oh,” makes me feel good, makes me like the girl, makes me like the guy, makes me feel good. And when you’re done with the story, you hope they’ll have a bunch of those moments where they cry or they feel something.
So basically recognize these moments and then make sure you —
We all recognize them.
As people, not necessarily as journalists.
Yeah, that’s the problem. The journalism gets in the way of it. That’s why some of the greatest writers in history were not journalism students. In my career, I worked in a car wash, a grocery store, a Greyhound race track, volunteered at the Veterans Hospital, bartender. To me that’s better than saying I went to Harvard, I had internships at The Washington Post, my SATs are perfect. Because that very background makes me see those moments. I’ve … in cars when I was 15 with the homeless guys, bums. Or I pushed guys around the VA in their wheelchairs, I listened to them tell stories.
How did you realize this was what you wanted to stick through, emotion through writing?
Because I can’t live any other way. Emotion is just who I am.
When you’re making the readers feel emotion, do you hope anything else will happen beyond that? Why are you trying to do that?
Because it reminds them that they’re alive. Most of us are very isolated. A story has the power to make somebody stop for a while, and think, and feel. Why does a guy paint? I mean, Bruce Springsteen is worth billions. He doesn’t have to write another song ever. Why? Or why does somebody have to do anything? I think it’s because it becomes part of who you are. That’s a difficult thing to understand at your age. I think if somebody gets older, they realize what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are. They learn who they are. I think it’d be very difficult … You can have somebody who’s young, who’s a great writer, fantastic at putting the sentences together. But they’ve got to go live life to be a storyteller. That’s why you get me somebody who has lived a lot of life, you can teach him how to put a story down, but a lot of people don’t recognize a story. And the way you recognize a story is you get out there and you live life.
So readers stop and they feel something, and they feel alive. Is that it?
Is that it? What else can it be? That is good, because in that moment I take this stranger and this stranger, and I’m in the middle, and I bring them together. And that’s the goal, to make them connect and feel something, or read something and be changed, even if it’s for a minute. Some stories can change you for a long, long time. Decades.
Sometimes better, more thoughtful. Think of someone who might be a borderline racist but doesn’t think they are. Have never really met a black person. The only black people they know are from TV shows. And they read that story about the cleaning lady. When they start they think, “Oh, I don’t want to read another story about an African-American. I’ll bet they’ll be complaining about something.” And by the time they get to the end of the story they’re weeping. And they have been in the presence of grace, and courage, and wisdom. And it changes their life.
Or take someone who grew up in the city, and thinks people in the rural areas are hayseeds. If you write a story about somebody out there on the land, and it makes them stop and think, wow, I’m not that much different. Or someone who’s terrified to come to a city and wants to live out in the middle of some isolated place, is afraid of the bad guys coming to rob her home, and you write a profile about a cab driver, and in that they see themselves, and go, “Wow, that’s not as different as I thought.” That’s how a story can help, too.
What would you want written on your grave?
He was a good man, and a great father, and a wonderful husband.
Where does storytelling fall?
What’s the biggest story you can ever write? Your kids. I’ve been here 34 years next year. I’ve won all these awards; you walk down that hallway, there’s all these awards. The day I retire and I come back two years later, I’ll be an old man walking through the newsroom. Nobody will care. But the love you put in with your family is what matters. Those are the best stories I will have ever written – my daughters. And the stories, I will live on not in the newsroom, but in the readers. Who 200 years from now, no matter how you read it, if you pick up that story about Sam Lightner, I’ll be dead, everybody involved in that story will be dead. But they will pick it up and they will cry, and they will go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it.” Nobody will pick up the story about the city council or the budget or the crime two years from now. Go to the Pulitzer books, go to the Pulitzer feature writing, investigative, breaking news. You’ll read some of the investigative and breaking news stories, and go who cares? Every one of the Pulitzers for feature writing will move you. You can read Jacqui’s story 20-30 years from now, and it will still have the truth in there and the power of it.
Empathy – Uncle’s Tom Cabin, I was in Romania and I could feel something for this old man from another world. To what extent do you see your stories like that, timeless?
Not all of them, because even a great narrative might not have that kind of power, but I bet you there are 20 to 30 that do have that timelessness and the lessons. And none of them are really related to the news. None of them were considered sexy stories when I started them. All of them probably were within 15 miles of the newsroom. They were just there.
How do you see yourself in relation to your readers?
A teacher and a partner, at times a guide, at times walking alongside them and not that much different from them.
Do you consider yourself happy?
What contributes to that?
That I have a very rich life outside of the newsroom. I play guitar, I ride the motorcycle, I go on my big motorcycle ride Thursday, I do ballroom dance, I do martial arts, I have a whole wide range of people that I know that have nothing to do with journalism. In the same way cops should not be hanging out with cops and doctors should not just be hanging out with doctors. Journalists tend to be a very isolated group. I also think most of my career, I did not hang out in the newsroom. I came in to write. If you look around the newsroom, most people come in, they pick up the phone, they get their stuff on the phone, they write their story, and we’re in a bubble. So for me to get out and walk downtown, I would go out and talk to the cab driver, I would be part of the world. And when you’re part of the world, it makes you think, and it makes you happy.
Do the stories make you happy?
Yes. In two ways. One, it’s wonderful to take moments and scenes and you structure them in a way that you know this is powerful. And I know when somebody reads it, they’re going to cry or laugh or whatever. So there’s that power. There’s also the power of the mystery of the story. Even as much as you know how to do the scene, how to control it, there’s still something else that’s in you that you really don’t get, but the story brings out in you. So I like that.
You’re basically saying that you discover something in yourself?
Yes. And then the third part is when it’s written, you send it out into the world and you see what happens. Which is pretty cool.
How does the selection process work for you?
Finding the story? What intrigues me. What interests me. You know, I’m 58, I’m kind of like a boy inside. I’m 17. I’m very curious about stuff. How does something work? How do you that? How do you put that together? What’s it like to do something? I don’t ask a question just to make conversation; I really am interested. And so the more questions I ask, all of a sudden I think, that’s kind of cool. That’s a good story.
If I were a creature inside your brain, what would I experience?
You would feel how my emotions would go up, and then I would feel something.
As you realize that oh, that emotional moment fits here?
Both. As I’m watching it, knowing this is an incredible moment and I’m witnessing something as a human, and at the same time going, “That’s an incredible moment for the story.” Then to actually write it and struggle with the writing; how do I make you, who weren’t there, feel what I felt through words? That dance is good. That’s challenging and fun, too. My emotions would go up and down. I would feel them and then try to manipulate the reader to feel the same way.
Is it difficult when you’re trying to write emotion into those moments?
No. Because I feel them.
But you said it was challenging. And pleasurable.
You watch a surgeon talking to me, and 15 minutes later go into a room to pick up a baby and put the baby into her arms, and say goodbye to the parents, and walk back and start operating. I felt something when she took that baby. The challenge is how do I get the reader to get what that means? Is it the way she does this on the child’s hair? Is it the fact that she always wears pearls so that when the kids wake up they see the pearls? What is it? And so part of it is asking questions, part of it is being observant, and part of it is structuring it in a way to build to those moments.
How do you decide what details to pick?
How I feel.
So you’re basically your own test reader?
Do you ever doubt your choices?
Early on in the process when you’re writing you struggle with it because you’re not sure if it’s right, or you can’t get your hands around it, and as the process goes on, I’m more and more confident. So when I turn a story in, I’m a very easy person to edit. Because I’ve done it, I can’t make it any better. Which makes the editor’s job fun and challenging, because if they’re going to edit, they can’t just copy edit, they have to story edit, which is, you know, fun for an editor. … I don’t fight over words at all. I can tell you why I had that sentence there. If you want to get rid of it, explain to me why it will make it better. And if you can, then hey, I’m all for that. Some people fight over a single word. I don’t.
Where does the pleasure come from?
The act of creating. I like the journey and the struggle and the fun and the learning in the doing of the story.
Have you had periods of time when you were disappointed with journalism?
Yeah. When you realize because of space limitations or time you only get to capture a bit. Or you get the opportunity to tell a story, and because you can’t devote the time to build a relationship with the person, you have to let it go because they’re not operating on your timetable. And I think that’s changed, too, over the last 10 years. There’s not as much space. A long story now can be 45 inches. I wrote a 6,000-word story about a guy working at a coffee shop. That would never happen now. They read them different online. Online, I have a 6,000-word story about a guy working in a coffee shop, and right above it is a story about a car accident. And they’re both given the same prominence. Maybe down the road people will read things differently.
Has there ever been something more serious than being disappointed in the changes the media is going through?
I look out in the landscape, and there are some really good young narrative writers out there. There’s a guy at The Washington Post that’s great. I think he’ll win a Pulitzer this year. What’s happening is the next generation is taking over. And they’re better at their age than my generation was at their age. There’s some great storytelling out there. It’s going to take the commitment of the publications to say it’s valuable, readers want it, and then create a platform for that.
What has kept you doing this for 30 years?
Mortgage. I don’t know what else I’d do. It fits me.
You obviously put in a lot of emotion to offer that much emotion. Has it ever felt draining or too much?
It can be draining, but not in the classical way. We fool ourselves if we think we’re the one in the story. We’re watching it. It can be draining when you watch something, but no. I still like it.
I know a lot of people my age who are reconsidering a future career in journalism.
It is different. Because the role of the reporter is much more directed by the institution than it used to be. I came in when there was a city editor, two assistants, and then all the reporters. So you could come up with an idea, and the editor would almost lose track of what you were doing. While now you got an editor on a team; it’s much more controlled. And I think it’s harder for a younger person to develop their passion or their interest when you don’t have the freedom to go explore.
Is there more?
I like to tell stories. I like people. I like getting into these different worlds. I feel like I’m going to school every day. I’m not bored. At 58 there’s a lot of guys bored with what they’re doing. I’m not bored. So that’s why I like it.
Yes. Because I was able to do it on my own terms. Twice I was offered a job at the New York Times. The first time, my wife was pregnant, and I turned them down. I came back, I was still the police reporter here, no big deal, working Sunday through Thursday. I’ve written two books, Pulitzer, finalist twice, I won all those awards. But I’ve been a great father. I didn’t have to lose my life for the awards. And the bottom line is the Pulitzer is just a piece of paper hanging on the wall. So I was able to do it on my … I didn’t expect it. I didn’t think, oh my God, my goal at 25 is I’m going to win an award. I was just like, I like to cover the cops; it’s kind of cool how they are. I am happy with what I accomplished. But I never hung an award on the wall ever until my wife for Christmas like three years ago had the Pulitzer framed. But they were in boxes, in the closet; I never had any of them hung up.
So how do you think you were able to do that, to be accomplished both in your career and in your family?
In my life, I always put the job in perspective. When I was covering the cops, I would work 7:30 to 4, and at 4 o’clock I would get up and leave. I went home, I played with my kids in the park, a game of bass, I was there for dinner, which kept me balanced, living the life. At the paper I would say I had a crummy beat, the police beat, which allowed me to grow and learn at my own pace, and I was lucky enough to learn from the first group of editors, who were more interested in reporting than writing, and then work with Jacqui for a while, Jack Hart, these really good story editors. I got lucky that way.
How old were you when you got married?
I was almost 24. I just celebrated my 34th wedding anniversary Sunday.
So how important do you think this balance was for your work?
Critical. If you don’t have the balance, you start to become jaded with the world, and you can’t see stories in the world if you look at it as jaded, and the more you’re out in the world, you get story ideas, you hear things, you have to have the excitement about being in the world. If you’re sitting in the newsroom 12 hours a day, you have nothing left to give the world. You go home and watch TV. So you got to get out. You got to dance or play music, ride bikes, do whatever it is to renew your spirit.
How do you do that on a long term? How do you make sure you stay on track?
You find what moves you. Do you listen to music? I listen to music all the time. I can feel myself fill up listening to music. And I can feel myself feel melancholic listening to music, which I like, too. I like hearing the sad songs. Or whatever. You find ways to renew your spirit that have nothing to do with going and drinking or whatever, but what makes you, you. Whatever that is, you figure that out.
Are stories renewing your spirit, or are they the thing in which your energy goes?
Both. Because when you get to go do a story about somebody, the black cleaning lady, it renews my spirit to be with her, it renews my spirit to write about her, and then to get the response; in three different kind of ways. One is human to human, the other is writer to story, and the other is journalist to reader.
In those moments that you said are the ones that reveal emotion and make the story powerful, what else do you pay attention to, except for the details you select?
For a while there, many of my stories, especially the stories that were, a lot of the award winners, I would start a story not sure where it was going; I would be there while it unfolded. So I was able to pick the moments, and go, this is going to be a big moment, or this is a moment, or I’d better be there for that moment. Not necessarily knowing why, but feeling. In addition to feeling something, being able to have the access to be there when it happened was a big deal. There’s not as many opportunities to do that now because those stories take so much time.
And then when you write it, how do you make sure you don’t screw it up?
You probably screw it up anyway. Less is more, No. 1 – and I’ve violated these rules. Don’t try to overwrite it. If it’s a beautiful, simplistic moment, trust that the moment is powerful enough for the reader to get. You don’t have to be overwriting it. And let your heart be the guide, and if you’re, “Oh, my gosh, I really feel something about it…” and figure, well, the reader will feel that, too.
If you were to point out three major happy moments in your life, what would they be?
Birth of my kids. I wouldn’t say getting married because you’re not aware of what it is, but I would say the story of a marriage, sharing good times and bad times. And I would say winning the Pulitzer, not necessarily for me, but for what it meant to my parents and my kids and the people who had been there on the journey. That was a cool moment. The publisher. There’s a picture. I had been a finalist twice before, and there’s a picture in New York that they took at the moment they called my name. And you can see my father, he has tears in his eyes, and I’m walking around, I put my arms around the publisher’s shoulders, who was the kind of guy you really didn’t do that with. But it was a very powerful moment, and I realized that was cool for them. They were both alive to see it, that my parents were there, my kids were there.
Is this a job worth offering half of your life to?
Yeah. Because you’re going to offer it to something. Because at the end of this journey, do I want to look at a file drawer full of cases I’ve prosecuted? No. The doctor thing is pretty cool, but only if I can be like a brain surgeon. I wouldn’t want to be a dermatologist. I was drawn to the drama of it. That’s pretty cool: heart surgeon, brain surgeon, yeah. Because you change lives. But these stories, you bet. It’s great. I can pick up stories I wrote 30 years ago and go, I love this. Yes. No, it is worth it.
Because they have changed lives?
Because they will live on past me. Maybe in 20,000 years it will change, but in 300 years, you’re still going to cry over the same things you cry about now. And when you read a story of mine, or any of the other Pulitzer stories, too, that’s power. That’s life. And when you read them, to think that in 100 years any one of those Pulitzer winners will be dead, but yet Jacqui’s story will speak to somebody, even though she is long gone.
Chris Jones is a longtime writer for Esquire and a two-time winner of the National Magazine Award. He writes the back-page column at ESPN The Magazine.
Simina Mistreanu: How do you choose the stories you end up working on?
Chris Jones: It’s a process. I sort of go back and forth with my editor and decide what stories to do. I pitch a lot more stories than we actually do. What I look for in a story: I like stories that have stories behind them; they’re not just about something on the surface, but they’re about something larger. I like stories probably because I’m vain and I like to think that I can maybe write a story that matters; I like to pick important subjects generally. That’s not always true, like someone breaking The Price Is Right isn’t actually an important story, but I like to do stories about important subjects — emotional subjects often.
What’s an important subject?
That’s a good question because sometimes stories that don’t seem important actually have something touching behind them. And I think the Price Is Right story is a good example of that, where it’s really just about a guy who breaks a game show, but it’s about dedication and obsession and being good at something. And those are important. But often I sort of fall back on that idea that if a story isn’t about life and death or fatherhood or, you know, world-changing events, the political moment or things like that. … I’m definitely drawn to stories about life and death. You know, once you’ve done stories like that it’s hard to see the same value in a story about something more frivolous. But there are lots of great stories that don’t have a body in them. I don’t want you to think that I’m thinking someone has to die in a story for it to be important. Some stories have a better chance of being stories that count to people, and, I think, if I’m being honest, I’m always trying to find those stories.
For your experience so far, what are readers looking for in your stories? What are you trying to offer them?
It’s hard for me to say what they’re looking for. My hope is always that I’ve given them something to think about. My hope is that they don’t finish one of my stories and then immediately forget about it. And certainly I’ve written my share of totally forgettable stories, but the hope is always that it’s something that sticks with people. I can’t say that when someone’s reading a story, is that something they want? I don’t know. I know when I read a long story I hope that I’m rewarded in some way, that I’m given something that makes me think, “Ah, I’m glad I read that.” Sometimes that can be just 20 minutes of diversion that isn’t TV. But I like when a story gives me something to really think about, that maybe changes the way I look at something or how I think about my life, or how I think about someone else. I don’t know if most people go into stories wanting those things, but I like stories where I feel like I got something in exchange for my time. And that’s what I try to get. I think a good compliment you can give to a writer is that he or she never cheats the reader, that you’ve given them something of value for their time. I guess that’s what I try to do.
What are your favorite parts through this process?
My favorite part is the reporting. By far that’s my favorite part. I love going out on the road and talking to people. I love that moment when you find something interesting or a little nugget, a little detail. I love meeting people; I love traveling. I love that kind of detective work. Sometimes I think about alternate careers I might have done; I think I would have been a pretty good detective because I like digging. I like that sort of looking in files and trying to crack tough nuts, people who maybe don’t want to be interviewed. And then when you get those moments that you know are going to count in a story. You know, you find those little details or that moment in a story that you know is going to play a big part in your final product. At this point, I kind of know when you get one of those moments. That’s sort of what I love doing. And I love the feeling I have at that time, when you’re sort of going, “Oh, I got one here. I got a really good story.” Finding ideas is okay. It’s frustrating sometimes. You pitch so many that don’t get taken. Sometimes you go through a slump where you’re trying to find something; you’re trying to convince yourself that something’s a good story: Oh, yeah, I know, I think I can make this a good story. But you have the ones that are going to be great, you kind of know, and your editor kind of knows. Writing for me is actually pretty hard. I’m not one of those people who just sits down and just flows. I work. Writing for me is work. I don’t dislike it, but I much prefer reporting. My dream job would be to be able to report something and just hand it out to somebody else.
Can you give me an example of a moment that you felt would count for the final stories?
Yeah. It’s different moments for different stories, but it’s funny how they kind of stick with you. Like I can remember really clearly the moments when I got those moments. Do you know what I mean? It’s funny, when I think about stories I often think about the reporting and those very particular moments when I got something. Like I’m thinking, you know, the soldier story, I can remember very specifically, there’s a scene in that story where Michael, Joey’s brother, tries to put his ring on his finger and the glove kind of, and he’s got this glove that’s stuffed with cotton. I remember very specifically their aunt Vicky telling me that in a Cracker Barrel restaurant over lunch. I just knew that scene was going to be an important scene in the story. In “Animals,” the one about the Zanesville Zoo shooting, I can remember seeing Steve Blake for an interview at the police station, when he told me about this tiger being shot and this puff of fur going off his back, and you could see his spine. And down he goes, he said, and down he goes. I can still hear him saying that, and the way he said it, I can hear it perfectly. I think a great story has to have those scenes or those moments that really catch in people. And what happens invariably is when you’re reporting those moments they’re catching you. I can remember the moment I got them. It’s often crystal clear. Even the stories that are old, 8 years old, I can remember the moments when I found a particular thing that I thought would count.
What do you do so that you make sure the readers would react to those moments in a similar way in which you reacted when you experienced them?
You can’t guarantee it. Sometimes you think they’re going to be a big moment, and you screw it up. It’s like lost in translation somehow, you don’t convey it well enough. So your job is to write in a way that gives those moments the importance that they should have. And that comes down to things like the language you use or where it is in the story, how you build to that moment, is it the start or the beginning of a section. I often put important moments in starts or beginnings of sections. I like to use section breaks as like beginnings and endings in some ways. I’m trying to think of the theory, there’s a word, “Chekhov’s gun,” is that what it is? It’s where you put like a little hint of something, and you think it doesn’t matter when you first see it, you’re kind of like, that’s a weird detail, but then it really counts later. You set the reader up in some ways. You think it’s just a little note, and then all of a sudden, it means something much bigger later in the story. Teller, the magician story I did, has a bunch of those in it, where you think it’s just some mundane detail, and then at the end it all kind of becomes important. That’s a story in some ways you have to read twice to pick up on everything because you think it’s just nothing, and then when you get to the end of that story and you think the whole story’s a trick, you kind of go like, “Oh, shit!” There’s moments where it matters more. I think the biggest thing is structure, it’s like placing those moments in the right spot in your story. You might not necessarily lead with them, or maybe they’re an ending, or maybe you use them as a section break, or, you know, those are the decisions that you make. … In writing a story, you make a thousand of those choices, like where something goes or the words you’re going to use, and you hope you’ll write it in a way that means those moments have as much gravity in the story as they did to you when you first found them.
Is this an intellectual process?
I think it’s both intellectual and feel. I think there’s some writers who really sort of plan, like outline and really plan things out deliberately more intellectually than I do. For me a lot of it comes down to feel, and that’s always a frustrating thing. I always hate it when I talk to people about how they do things, and they talk about feel. It’s a really hard thing to pin down, but it’s true that sometimes you write a scene and it just feels right. It feels like, “Oh, I got that.” In my Roger Ebert story, where he gets really mad that they’ve taken down the videos of Gene Siskel, there are these videos of Gene Siskel he had put up, and has taken them off the Internet and Robert gets really mad about it. I have a spot memory of writing that scene in my basement in Montana and knowing it just was right, it just felt good. I was like, okay, I got that. And then you don’t touch it. I don’t have to mess with it. You get those moments when everything kind of falls into place. And I don’t know why they happen. I think some people try to make them happen and do make them happen intellectually. They plan it out: This is how I’m going to write the story, and I do this, and I do this, and I do this. I’m less like that and more like I just do my best to make it. You know, I listen to music that inspires me, and I try to just let things flow. And hopefully you get one of those moments when everything kind of drops into place. It’s hard to explain: It’s like, you know how athletes talk about being in the zone, where you’re just keyed in, if you’re a baseball player you can see the pitches really well and you just feel comfortable and you feel like everything’s kind of clicking? In writing you get those moments, too. There’s some nights when writing is a real struggle, and you’re sort of chugging away at it, you’re not really capturing it properly. You mentioned flow in your original email. Whenever it’s not flowing, when you’re just kind of hammering at it. And then there are other nights when it just kind of comes. And I wish I had a better explanation for why those nights are like that because otherwise I would do whatever I needed to do to guarantee I was going to have one of those nights. But they’re rare. They don’t come very often. For me, anyway.
Do you think the work is better when it comes easier?
Oh, yeah. The final product? Almost invariably the stories where the writing you get those moments are better stories. For me. This is for me. Yeah. The stories where it just pours out, those are usually better for me as final products than the stories where I had to really wrestle. It’s hard to be objective about that because I’m not reading my stories the way a reader does. I can see everything that’s missing, I can see all the hard parts, I can see where I struggled, I know the sentences where I feel like I didn’t quite catch them. So I’m not sure there’s the same difference in stories that I can see, but definitely the stories that I like, at least at some point during the process I had that moment where everything kind of came.
Does this happen when you write or when you report or both?
Well, I think those stories happen when I’ve done a good job reporting. I think my goal is always to report a story to the point where I can just tell the story, where I know it back to front, do you know what I mean? You don’t really get those flow moments in the reporting; you certainly get those moments when you get a great detail or whatever, when you’re reporting. But for me, those really transcending moments where the writing just comes, I think almost invariably, I’ve reported a lot, I’ve reported really well. I don’t know why particularly you get those. You’ve probably had them. Where you’ve had those two- or three-hour little windows where the words are just coming, and you feel like everything’s flowing, and you feel like it’s all sitting right on the page. I think those invariably come from good reporting, but they don’t always.
So you’ve been doing journalism for more than 15 years now?
Too long, dude. Yeah, 15 years.
Why have you kept doing journalism?
I have so many answers to that question. Well, I can’t do anything else, the money is pretty good, the lifestyle is pretty good. What I will say, nothing is ever, you know, we were talking about those nights when it just comes, like I live for those. Maybe if it was always like that, I would be less into it. In a strange way, I think there’s something elusive about those moments or those stories, and it’s like I guess I’m kind of driven to have that feeling again. I know how good it feels. It’s like a drug. For me, those nights are like drugs. And those stories, you know, 15 years, I probably got six or seven or eight stories that I really, really like. Which isn’t very many; it’s one every two years. But I’m proud of those stories, and the feeling that those stories give you is — I don’t know, it doesn’t feel like work. At its best, this job, you feel like you’re stealing money. I feel like I’m stealing money. Sometimes I feel like I would do it even if I wasn’t getting paid just because I love how it feels. But it’s not always like that. There are times when this job is really frustrating.
What do you think sets apart those six or seven or eight stories from the other stories you’ve written?
Everything kind of clicked. There are stories where the ideas was good, and the reporting went well, and I had one of those nights writing them, and the editing was good, and it looks good on the page. Like the whole process is good; do you know what I mean? It doesn’t necessarily mean that story was easy, the process was easy, but in the end everything worked. And again, that comes down to that awful feel. Everything just fell into place. Except it doesn’t fall into place because you make it happen. Everything just kind of works, and you know it. There’s a moment when you kind of know. Sometimes I’m sitting there and I’m trying to convince myself that the story is good; oh, it’s pretty good. You start talking yourself into it. The ones that are really good, you don’t have to convince yourself. You’re like, I got that one. But it really is rare; it just doesn’t happen that often where it’s just like everything clicked. And sometimes it matters, I think, too, the response. I think in some way my opinion of a story is colored by the reception it got. There are a couple of stories of mine that I liked that no one gave a crap about.
There’s one I like, it’s called “The End of Mystery,” about investigators. No one read it, no one talks about it, I still like it. But a lot of the ones I feel particularly good about are the same stories that kind of caught people. My favorite story I’ve ever done in terms of a story I just love is Teller. I loved working on that story, I really liked the final product. Yeah, that’s probably my favorite one.
It is a magical story.
So we started this conversation talking about important stories. That’s not especially important. That’s a story about a magic trick that someone stole. But again, that story is about passion and dedication and belief, and Teller, I guess I just loved how much he cared about magic. Yeah, I just loved how much he cared. To see someone that passionate and, you know, everything today is cynicism, people shitting on stuff, and he believes so intensely that magic can be this beautiful thing. I loved it. I loved everything about him, and I think that’s part of why I feel that way about the story. If you asked me what story am I proudest of, I would probably say Joey, the soldier story because I think that was important that we did that, but in terms of a story that I just loved, I loved the Teller story. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant, talking about stuff I like because there’s a lot of stuff I hate.
I remember when I read the Teller story. It just felt like it was one of the most beautiful stories I’ve read in my life.
Thank you. That’s all Teller there. That was one where I think the idea was cool, magic tricks and Teller was so awesome talking about it, and even some of the supporting characters had really good stuff. Joe Stenmeyer, the magic inventor, was really cool. And, you know, you talk about weird stories. That one, I can’t remember if I said this in Romania or not, but I had a totally different ending. A totally, totally different ending where it was fictional. I made up the ending. And then I got high one night, and I was reading the story, and then I finally realized that it was a trick. I had this moment where I was like, “Holy shit, he’s just played a huge trick on me.” The whole ending changed because I had this moment where I was like, “Oh, my God.” Just this moment of realization which I’m not sure I would have had if I hadn’t smoked a joint. You talk about flow, that night my brain opened up, and it was like, “Oh, crap,” but I think it made that story much better.
To what extent is it caring about the people you write?
That’s a lot of it. That’s the best advice you can give someone, I think. I will take the reporter with the biggest heart in the room every single time. I think it matters so much. I think you need someone who is curious about the world — that’s where the ideas come from, right — someone who is curious about the world, who sees the world differently or has questions about things where people don’t have questions. Reporting. There’s a skill to reporting I think in terms of talking to people and knowing where to go for information, but reporting really comes down to care. It comes down to being willing to put in the time and to be careful with people, to be empathetic, I think that’s how you get good information. And then writing, a lot of it comes down to labor, just being willing to sit down and work and work and work and cross-write, in those moments you can be motivated by fear of losing your job, or you can be motivated by money, or you can be motivated by deadlines, but the best stories, you’re motivated because you really want to tell a great story. You care about the people in it. It matters so much, Simina, that you care. It’s like you can tell in a second when someone didn’t give a shit about the story they were working on. It comes out in so many ways. It comes out in lazy reporting, crappy writing, where someone should have gone back and worked on it more and they didn’t; you can see that from a mile away.
And how do you see the care?
You can see care in just the way when you look at a beautiful piece of furniture or look at a really good movie, you can see that someone took the time. You look at a beautiful Japanese zen garden, you know, they don’t just happen. That happened because someone worked on it and worked on it and worked on it and cared about the little details and polished it until it was perfect. And you can see that in stories. You can see it in how much reporting was done, if you finish a story and you don’t have any questions, it has answered every one of your questions and let you satisfied, and there’s sentences in there where you just close your eyes and you go, “Oh, they nailed that.” I still read stories where I think, “Oh, that is perfect.”
How did this work in “The Things That Carried Him?”
How did it work in terms of care?
Yeah. Did you feel connected to Joey?
Oh, absolutely. I felt super connected to Joey; I had never met Joey, but I felt super connected to him, cared a great deal about his mom, still care a great deal about his mom. I knew that was an important story from the beginning, but as I worked on it I became more and more invested in it, as I saw people’s reactions to the fact that I was doing a story or to my question. … I had a particular moment, it was quite early, where I went to the port mortuary, where all the bodies go in Delaware, and in the military, they have this tradition of giving coins. Not like quarters or dimes, but they melt their own coins, it’s almost like they’re medals. They’re not medals, they’re coins. And the head of the mortuary was a woman named Karen Jiles, and she gave me this coin that was, one side it had a folded flag, you know, with white gloves, and it represented the mortuary. And she said something, she was like, “When you write this story, I want this sitting beside you when you write this story, and I want you to look at it, and I want you to remember what you saw here and how much people care, what it means to us.” She said something like, “I don’t want you ever to forget what goes on here.” And I’m really glad she did that. I don’t think I would have forgotten, but, you know, when I wrote that story I had that coin siting on my computer. And I felt in some ways like I was part of the journey of bringing Joey back. I felt like everyone who did that had cared so much and worked so hard, and I felt like if I let them down, I would regret it forever. So I just did my best to write a story that they would be proud of. That they would read and say was right and was true. It was just one of those stories where I felt like I couldn’t cut — not that I do this anyway — but I didn’t want to cut any corners. I wanted it to be perfect. I can’t say that it’s perfect, but I can say that I tried my hardest. I can say without any doubt that I put everything I could into that story.
How does a story like this, where you care a whole lot, which is also very sad, how does it affect you?
It affects me a lot. I think some reporters are better at that than I am. There’s a debate here, I think, about objectivity and maintaining distance, all that kind of stuff that they teach you in journalism school. I don’t maintain any distance; I don’t try to maintain distance; I think that’s a shitty way to treat people. If you’re asking them to open up to you, I don’t see how you return that favor by being a wall. So I feel it, and I feel it during the reporting; I had lots of moments during that story where I was crying with people. I cried with Aunt Vicky at Cracker Barrel; I cried a lot with Joey’s mom. I pulled over at one point driving back from her house and cried on the side of the highway. There’s a cost to that. It’s hard. I worked on that story for eight months. My wife will probably tell you I wasn’t an awesome husband during that time. I was pretty consumed by it. And then when I was done, I went into a pretty deep depression after that story. Partly because it was such a sad subject, and partly because I didn’t know what to do next. You know, when you have one of those stories, a lot of a writer’s life is kind of structureless, like you don’t know what you’re doing day to day, you don’t really have any — I don’t anyway — have any patterns and routines. When I was working on that story I knew what I was doing. I knew it, and I knew it counted. I knew it was important. So I was motivated every day to find the next piece of the puzzle or to write that paragraph. And when it was over, I was kind of like, “What do I do now? What do I do now that’s going to matter as much?” And the truth is, I haven’t written a story since that matters as much, and I probably never will. I’ve sort of come to the realization that that was probably the most important story I’ll do. There’s a definite cost, but at the same time I feel like if you don’t invest yourself that way, if you don’t care, you’re never going to get those stories. You’re sort of making a deal. I’m making a deal where I’m deciding it’s worth this cost for me to do this.
Why do you think you won’t write another story that will be just as important or more important than that?
I just can’t imagine it, I think. And that story is now 5 years old, and I haven’t come close to it. I can always hope that I’ll find a story that everything happens the way that story happened, but I think I’ve slowly come to the realization that I will probably not. I don’t know; I feel like that story was special. Again it was kind of those ones where everything worked. Esquire let me write 17,000 words. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen again. Everyone was so helpful. Everything just kind of fit. That’s not to say I won’t write stories, you know, Teller came after that. That story will probably be the best I can do.
To what extent are you pursuing heavy subjects now?
I still pursue heavy subjects. I haven’t had a great year this year. I haven’t done much this year. I did Hugh Hefner in April. Not many people read that story. It didn’t do very well. I tried on it, I liked doing it. I have a story coming out in the September issue about how they make money, how they physically make the new $100 bill. So it’s not a story about life and death. I think it’s interesting. I’m doing a story now on the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. I’m still drawn to those darker subjects for sure. Even Teller, Teller’s kind of dark. It’s a story about magic, but it’s pretty dark.
Yeah, but it does have a lot of heart.
I haven’t done a celebrity cover story in — I guess they don’t give them to me anymore. Sometimes I think I’d like to do one just to take a break from the dark stuff, but who knows, I’d probably do a celebrity cover story that had a body in it by the end.
You were saying at some point that you were considering doing something else other than writing. Are you still thinking about doing that?
Yeah. I still think about it a lot. Not because I don’t like writing. It’s a couple of things, I think. I think a lot about — this probably explains a lot about the stories I do — but I think a lot about how I’ll look back on life whenever I’m dying. Will I have done everything I wanted to do? I think about that a lot. Will I be happy with my life? And sometimes if, in that moment, if I’ve only written, if I didn’t do anything else, will I be, “Okay, that was good”? And sometimes I worry — I don’t think I will keep writing if I stopped caring about it. I had a moment — I actually tweeted about it, I think — I had a moment a couple of weeks ago where I had a really good writing session, it felt really good, I was grateful for that, I had one of those nights, I was grateful I had one of those nights, but I always have this little fear that’s the last time it will happen. If I stop caring, I think I’d stop doing this. I like to think I would, anyway. I hope I would.
What do you think might make you stop caring?
I don’t know. You see it happen. You see where people just get tired or stop investing themselves so much. Sometimes I worry that having kids, as they grow up, maybe it’s right that my priorities change and I want to spend time with them rather than travel and work on stories. Maybe that’s the correct order of things. Maybe places will stop wanting to have me work for them. A lot of this stuff isn’t in my control. I like to think that I’m grateful when it happens now, and that I’m mindful of the fact that it probably won’t always be like this. Especially writing about sports, Simina, you see all the time that people peak and then they disappear. And that’s how it works, kind of. There are writers who are great in their 70s and 80s, but I don’t want to presume I’m going to be one of those people. If I am and I’m happy, great. I don’t want to talk my way out of it. But I’m aware of the fact that it probably won’t last forever. Then I’ll do something else, and hopefully I’ll find something I’ll care about as much.
What are some of the things you’re most proud of now (in life)?
I’m proud of my kids. I try to be a good dad. I’m proud of some of the work I’ve done. I like to think that I’ve worked hard. I like to think that what I do, whether it’s working on my house, you know, if I renovate houses, stuff like that. I was sitting in our bedroom looking at the floor that I refinished. I worked my ass off on this fucking floor. But it’s good. I’m proud of that. This floor had shitty pink carpet on it, and all sorts of paint, and now it’s a beautiful wood floor. I feel good about that. But you know, 50 years from now, somebody’s going to come back and paint it, put shitty pink carpet back on it. So it’s part of the deal. That’s a sad question. I like having experiences. I think that’s what life is about. For me, it’s almost become more about that than concrete accomplishments. Like was today a good day? Did I do something good today? Did I do something useful today? Did I do something that made me or someone else happy today? I think I’m having a mid-life crisis, Simina. I think I’m having it right now. You’re trying to make it count. Like you’re trying to make the time count. Man, that’s a hard question. I think I’ve got a lot more work to do because I don’t have that long a list of things I’m proud of. You see people in this business all the time who were once really good and then aren’t. And it’s like what happened there? What changed? Why aren’t they as good as they used to be? Is it because they physically can’t do it, because reporting does take some stamina, is it that? Did they stop caring as much? Did they get distracted by other things in their lives like their families or a different passion that rose up in them? What happened there? I don’t know. And I think it would be the height of hubris if I just sat here now and say, “You know, when I’m 70 I think I’ll be doing really good work.” I have no idea. Every time I see an athlete who’s great being a dick to somebody, the way I make myself feel better is that I know that in 10 years they’ll be retired and no one will care about them anymore. No one gives a shit that Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan. He has no power now. He thinks he has power, but no one cares. And he was the greatest basketball player ever. Wayne Gretsky, the greatest hockey player ever, now just loafs around golfing. That’s just how life works. I’m mindful of the fact that one day people will stop giving me work and students like you will stop caring what I think about writing and no one will care. I think that is inevitable, and I think I am prepared for that. It’s a pessimistic way of thinking, I think it’s realistic where I think it won’t last forever. I think about that time when it will stop. What will I do then that makes me feel as good as those nights of writing make me feel now? I don’t take it for granted. I’m aware of how good I have it right now. I was in the Esquire office on Monday, and I was talking to Granger and Peter, my bosses. And I said to them, I was like, “Thanks for the ride. I really appreciate the work, and I appreciate being part of this for like 11 years now.” But Granger could quit tomorrow, and then everything changes. I’m just aware.
Where do your stories fall in this? Are they immortal?
I think so, yeah. Some of them disappear the day they came out. They have different lifespans. Some of them will last longer. But I think we’ll still read something like “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Certainly when I was younger I had this vanity that people would be reading my stuff years from now. I don’t know now if that’s necessarily the case. I think there’s so much to read and there’s so much information out there. I do my best to write a story that someone will think nicely of and will remember, but I can’t imagine that even 20 years from now people will be talking about my stuff. I don’t know. I think some stories have a better chance of lasting than others. But I don’t think any of them will last forever. Holy crap, that’s depressing. What am I doing?
If you were to talk to someone who’s just starting out and is thinking of dedicating a few decades to this type of work, what would you tell them? Is it worth it?
Yeah. As much as I’ve been talking about doubt and fears and terrible things, my working life has been great. I can’t imagine many other things I could have done that would either give me the life or the pleasure that writing has. For me, it’s the perfect lifestyle. Someone made me work 9 to 5 somewhere, I would have topped myself a long time ago. I couldn’t have done it. The travel has been amazing. I’ve gotten paid to go to meet interesting people and watch amazing things. I’ve had such a good deal. And my work products are these very tangible little stories that hopefully people like. And I do think there is like a minor magic in being able to write something that gets printed on a piece of paper that can ship to California or Romania or Missouri, and then someone just sits there and reads it. And I wrote it here in my house. I still think that’s pretty cool. I can think of a lot worse jobs for sure. It occasionally has its frustrations and disappointments, but I think that would be true of anything that you care about. I can’t imagine caring about something and being perfect at it all the time. I don’t know anybody that lucky. So this is a pretty good level of luck where I do get to experience that sometimes, and I can stay at home with my kids, and I can go on a plane and see somewhere new and make a good living doing that. I have nothing to complain about. I think that’s probably why I think so much about it ending, because I don’t especially want it to end. If I can give myself credit for something, I’m aware of how good I have it and I’m grateful for it. I know there will come a time in my life when I’ll look back on this and go, “Wow, that was a good run.” I always think, when you look at someone, you know, the Olympics, there would be a gymnast who does something insane, I always think about them being 80 watching themselves on TV, and remembering when they could do that with their bodies. You know, when they’re 80 and sitting in a wheelchair and they’re watching themselves doing backflips in the air. Like what’s that like, to look back and see that moment when you were great?
Does it make any difference whether it’s storytelling and not medicine?
Literally lifesaving? It threw me for a loop because once you see someone’s life come back, holy crap, once you see that happen, you’re like what am I doing? I should be doing this. If I’m capable of doing this, this is what I should be doing. I had a really hard time after that because I was like well, I should do that. I think I’d be pretty good at it, and I think I can do it. Why would I tell stories when I can go out there and I can start people’s hearts back up? But stories can still change people. You can’t literally bring them back to life, but you can make a difference to someone’s life. You can make someone feel better, you can make someone think about things a little differently, you can make them see things a little differently. You’re not changing a life in the sense that you’re saving it or ending it, but you can make small changes. And that’s a lot to ask from a job. That’s a hard standard for success: Did I save a life? That’s a high standard for success. I think in that moment when I’m starting a story, I’m just hoping it’s a good story. To be honest, I’m not sure I really think that deeply about it. OK, I’m going to do my best to make sure this is a good story. I think it’s the story that matters in some weird way. That sounds pretty awful, I think, when I’m saying, “All that matters is a story.” But I think that’s kind of true. For me in that moment. Maybe afterwards when I look back I’ll feel good about the effect it had on someone or whatever. But most of the time I’m thinking I just want to make the story as good as I can.
Why is this important?
Because it’s what I’m doing. If I am spending that time and energy on something, I want it to be good. If I was doing it and it was shitty, I wouldn’t feel good about it, I wouldn’t get satisfaction from it. It’s important to me, if I’m going to do something, it’s important that I do it as well as I can. It’s just how I am. My wife and I always talk about this because I refuse to do things I’m not good at. Like I don’t cook because I’m bad at it and I don’t see any point in doing it. Whereas she likes to do many different things. (She’s just learning, and that’s part of the process. Whereas me, I’ll just do two things with my life because those are the things I’m good at.) I’m nuts. Why waste time on something you suck at? Why don’t you just go to the restaurant?
Finkel — it was important to him that he was in the middle of a great story and he was grateful for that.
Sometimes, like Finkel, at the detriment of your own safety. I can honestly say, when I have one of those stories, I’m consumed by it. It’s all I think about. Again, my wife will start talking about those times when I’m here but I’m not here. I’m present but I’m not mentally present because I got one of those stories going on, and it’s just … I know what Finkel’s talking about. You’re so excited to have one of these things, you’re just doing everything you can to make sure you don’t blow it. Because that’s the worst feeling, when you know you got one, when you know you got the material and you fuck it up.
How do you maintain that over the years? Is it natural?
That’s the question. I don’t know. Right now, it’s almost natural. It’s just how I am, it’s just how I’m built, so when I’m in that moment, I’m excited and happy. But that’s my question, is always will it last? Maybe it will. Maybe I’m totally wrong, and when I’m 80 I will still get as jacked up about a story as I do now. But I don’t know. I see it so many times when people don’t maintain … Maintain is the right word. Like to maintain that standard is hard. To be consistently decent is hard. Right now it is natural that I feel that way; I keep expecting that at some point I won’t feel that way. When someone will call me with an assignment and I won’t want to go. And I think that moment, it’s got to happen. … I don’t think you can make yourself care. I think you do and you don’t. Today I woke up still caring, tomorrow I hope I’ll wake up still caring. The day I don’t want to go and I don’t care, then that’s the day I’ll probably do something else.
No. Check, people saying nice things. That’s a little bit of fuel. But ultimately I think it comes down to you. … If you’re going into a story and you don’t care about it, I think you’re cheating the reader. I think there’s a writer out there who would care about it, who would do a good job, and you shouldn’t fuck it up. I think you have a responsibility. I mean, if I’m asking someone, “Can I tell your story?” and deep down I don’t give a shit, that’s a pretty lousy way to treat somebody. To ask them to give you something when you don’t really care. That’s a pretty dirty thing to do to somebody. And I can tell people, I can look them straight in the eye and tell them I care about getting the story right, doing a good job, being careful. I would hate to say those things and not mean it. I think that’s a moral responsibility you have as a reporter: if you’re going to ask somebody to tell their story, you’d better care about what you’re hearing.
Simina Mistreanu just got her master’s in journalism from the University of Missouri. She grew up in Romania and worked as a journalist there for five years before coming to the United States, in August 2011, on a Fulbright scholarship. She is now a resident at the Oregonian and is working on a yearlong project writing stories about Roma. She loves Portland, especially for its zippy Argentine tango scene.
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