Beyond The New Yorker

Exploring longform, The New Journalism, creative nonfiction–whatever you want to call it

A Q&A with Vanessa Grigoriadis on writing fast, putting stories away, and documentary-style writing

vanessaVanessa Grigoriadis—a National Magazine Award-winner who has written dozens of features for New York, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, among others—is a writer that many of us can envy: Over the years, writing has gotten progressively easier for her. She writes at a freaky-fast pace. And her initial visions for her stories, she says, work out 75 percent of the time. Essentially, a writer’s dream. But Grigoriadis also shares what she finds are the hardest parts of the job and her various quirks (hint: elaborate procrastination), and how, once an aspiring actress, she came to choose writing instead. Read the rest of this entry »

On Jeanne Marie Laskas’ “The People V. Football” (GQ, March 2011)

Synopsis: Former Vikings star linebacker Fred McNeill is suffering from what doctors have begun calling chronic traumatic encephalopathy—the result of taking too many hits to the brain. Too many concussions.  Jeanne Marie Laskas spent time with him and his family, and she paints a sullen picture of a former star slowly losing his mind.

In a lot of her work, Jeanne Marie Laskas has a tone that is often deplete of any dramatics, despite the serious topics at hand: the troubles of migrant workers, dangerous jobs, and here, the early onset of dementia. It treads lightly on heavy things and is informal in formal settings—but not in a way that undermines the seriousness. Her tone brings us closer to the story because she writes in a way that is closest to how her characters communicate with one another. Her lead: Read the rest of this entry »

On Eli Saslow’s “Life of a Salesman” (The Washington Post, October 2012)

Synopsis: As a pool salesman and a descendant of Italian immigrants, Frank Firetti embodies the pursuit of the American dream. But lately, the economy has been squashing his business, and his American dream seems a little bit further out of reach.

Not much else is as universally aesthetic as the idea of the American dream, and Eli Saslow uses this appeal to major advantage in “Life of a Salesman.” He presents to us a man who has learned the meaning of hard, honest work from the generations before him and who is driven forward by his unrelenting optimism: the backbone of the real American salesman. It’s here, within the first few grafs, that Saslow first expands Frank’s role as a pool salesman into a thread much larger, defining the optimistic salesman as “if not the architect of the American dream then at least its most time-honored promoter.” With such a universal appeal, Frank Firetti’s story is not only his own but that of thousands of American families who have fallen victim to the same hostile economy that has swallowed Frank’s pool business. Read the rest of this entry »

A Q&A with Michael Mooney on elaborate outlining, “The Legend of Chris Kyle,” and the importance of access

IMG_2015Michael Mooney has been a staff writer at D for two years, and his work has appeared in Best American Sports Writing—a must-read from the winter, “The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever,” is set for the 2013 volume. Here, we discuss the challenges in reporting his remarkable March story, “The Legend of Chris Kyle,” on one of the most decorated Navy SEAL snipers to date who was killed in February—which happened while Mooney was still working on the story. In addition, he has freakishly small handwriting , interviewees have once compared him to the son of David Crosby, and his fiancé is one of his best editors. See the Beyond The New Yorker review on “The Legend of Chris Kyle here. Read the rest of this entry »

On Michael Mooney’s “The Legend of Chris Kyle” (D magazine, March 2013)

Synopsis: After Chris Kyle, one of the best and most decorated Navy SEAL snipers in American history, is killed by a young, mentally ill veteran, Michael Mooney chronicles his life at home and on the battlefield. And most tales are legendary.

Plainly: There can’t be a greater obstacle than when the main character in a feature story dies midway through working on it. Originally, Mooney was writing a story on Kyle’s homecoming and had spent valuable time interviewing the SEAL. But after his death, Mooney had to get back into the field and re-report as the entire story changed. [We talked about this, and other cool things, in this Q&A.]

The story’s theme is one that may otherwise be a weakness in any other story. But here, the problem of not being able to verify many of the renowned stories about Kyle became its greatest strength. The theme is in the title. Read the rest of this entry »

On Lawrence Wright’s “The Life and Death of Richard Brautigan” (Rolling Stone, April 1985)

Synopsis: Twentieth century poet and novelist Richard Brautigan’s claim to fame was his first novel, Trout Fishing in America, in 1967. From there, following a brief stint of fame, his life spun out of his grip with heavy drinking and his inability to stay in love with any of his wives. Friends say alcoholism and women killed him, but Richard Brautigan was a little more complicated than that.

When I met with Lawrence Wright last week, I asked him about how his writing style had changed over the years—there is a noticeable difference between his New Yorker stories now and his Rolling Stone material in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. But he told me that, at The New Yorker, he’s simply writing what he’s always felt attuned for, whereas at Rolling Stone, he didn’t feel that what he wanted to write fit their audience. He said he enjoyed his time there, but didn’t always enjoy the stories he pursued.

But this one is an exception, he said. While at Rolling Stone, he went through an experimental stage with his writing style. And here, it shines through: The lead is from the perspective of a dead man—Richard Brautigan at his favorite bar. Read the rest of this entry »

A Q&A with Texas Monthly’s Pamela Colloff on being a chiseler, advocacy vs. accuracy, and women’s magazines

Pam_Colloff_205x220At the close of 2012, Pamela Colloff, an executive editor at Texas Monthly, punched in one of the most—if not the most—important pieces of journalism of the year at a staggering 28,000 words. The two-part story, “The Innocent Man,”  placed Colloff among the elites of magazine writers as she took home the Ellie for Feature Writing at the National Magazine Awards this spring. Crime writing has been Colloff’s specialty in her 16 years at Texas Monthly, but in this Q&A, we extend the conversation to Colloff’s writing and reporting styles in general (OK, minus Question 1)—along with discussion about advocacy journalism and the debate over women’s magazines.

In addition to this Q&A, Colloff graciously spent close to two hours with the other Texas Monthly interns and I talking about how she crafted “The Innocent Man,” and she offered plenty of useful advice for aspiring writers. The full, minimally-edited conversation is available here in PDF format.

Read the rest of this entry »

On Pamela Colloff’s “A Bend in the River” (Texas Monthly, July 2002)

Synopsis: A popular cheerleader is found murdered in a river in the small, 2,000-person town of Waurika, Okla.—a sleepy town with no other offerings of teenage entertainment except wild partying. This is the story of the hunt to find the 17-year-old’s murderer and his accomplices.

Note: In this review, I can cheat a bit: Pamela Colloff was gracious enough to sit down with me during a Q&A session and also to sit down with the other Texas Monthly interns and I to talk shop about “The Innocent Man.” (You can read those conversations here.) She shared some of her go-to writing tactics, and (other than “The Innocent Man,” of course) “A Bend in the River” is a prime example of those tactics.

Before anything, know that, because of how the story’s crafted, this post will be a complete spoiler of not just the ending of the story, but the whole story, so you may want to read it first. Colloff designed this story so that it gives minimal hints about what happens next, but reveals just enough details in each section to cause maximal suspense and curiosity (and I’d hate to ruin that effect for you: hence the warning.) Read the rest of this entry »

On Gene Weingarten’s “The Peekaboo Paradox” (Washington Post Magazine, January 2006)

From Washington Post Magazine.

From Washington Post Magazine.

Synopsis: Gene Weingarten sets out to profile the Great Zucchini, Washington, D.C.’s most popular children’s entertainer. But, though he is making over $100 grand a year, Weingarten soon notices that nothing adds up. He attempts to understand what has been going wrong for this childlike grown-up.

This story is a ride for readers: What makes it such a great piece of journalism is the experience that Weingarten creates for readers. This is more of an investigation into this mysterious person than it is a profile. Weingarten effectively inserts himself into the story and has readers tag along for his discoveries from start to finish. Its entire structure is meant to keep our curiosity churning. Hell, we don’t even find out the guy’s real name until over a thousand words into this thing. Read the rest of this entry »

On Wright Thompson’s “Michael Jordan Has Not Left The Building” (ESPN The Magazine, February 2013)

Synopsis: As Michael Jordan turns 50, Wright Thompson shows us a softer side of him and helps us understand his whole person. Stay posted for a Q&A with Thompson on the making of this story, coming soon.

There are always countless stories written about famous people and about major events. But after the buzz has died and countless stories published, one will always surface as the definitive, comprehensive, end-all-be-all, defining core story. It will be long, but it will be brilliant.

For Michael Jordan, this is that story.

We may have all worshipped Michael Jordan when he played for the Bulls and even pretended to be him on our driveway basketball courts, but there is, still today, a lot we don’t understand about Michael Jordan.

Read the rest of this entry »