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

by Meagan Flynn

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.

Meagan Flynn: I know that you went to UNT, but I don’t really know much about your background. How did you get to where you are now?

Michael Mooney: I grew up in the suburbs of Dallas. I went to the University of Texas for my undergrad in English and anthropology, and then I went to grad school at UNT for journalism. When I was at UNT, I started working for The Dallas Morning News, and I became an enterprise writer there. And then at the end of 2007, I moved to Florida and took a job at New Times, an alt weekly in south Florida, and I was there for like three-and-a-half years. I started freelancing a little bit while I was there, and at some point [former D Editor in Chief Tim Rogers] offered me a job, and I came back and moved to Dallas.

MF: How long have you been at D now?

MM: Since July 2011. Although I’d done two stories for them before I started working there.

MF: So what made you want to get into this kind of writing, and what kinds of stories do you like to pursue? What do you look for when you’re going after a story?

MM: I was always interested in writing. I loved reading short stories, and fiction is just not a really viable job. And so I loved reading magazine stories that read like classical fiction, that had the same elements of a Hemingway story or a Flannery O’Connor story—but in nonfiction. So those are the stories I was drawn to, and those are the stories I like reading, and those are the stories I’m drawn to writing, too. You know, something where you can say something about life—you can tell an interesting yarn and also say something about life.

MF: Do you have any favorite kinds of stories to write in particular?

MM: I like stories that are yarns themselves, but something that also sheds light on some aspect of life that people aren’t familiar with or haven’t thought about that much.

MF: What’s your reporting style or interview style like?

MM: I really just try and hang out. I try to make people as comfortable as possible and try to get as much time as I can with somebody. Ultimately, I want to watch somebody in their own environment.

MF: Are people ever suddenly surprised by your hair when you show up? [The above picture does no justice.]

MM: Oh yeah. That’s like the regular thing. It’s pretty interesting to see people’s reactions. It kind of deflects attention away from any other aspect of me, so it works okay. My favorite reaction was Robert Jeffress—his press people. They said that I looked like the son of David Crosby. Not Bing Crosby. The old folk hero, David Crosby. That’s not a compliment.

[A pic of David Crosby.]

MF: Do you have any quirks in your writing process?

MM: I don’t really know. All of writing seems kind of quirky, right? I can’t really sit in an office and type at all. Anything of substantial length at all, I can’t do that in front of other people.

MF: Yeah, neither can I.

MM: So I try and outline everything pretty thoroughly, like in a notebook first, before I even type up a first draft. So my first draft is kind of like my second draft. I write up an outline by hand, and then I type it up. It’s really, really thorough. So I think of it as kind of like a skeleton, and then I just put in muscle around that.

MF: How intricate do these outlines get?

MM: Extremely. You know, words for each sentence. It’s in shorthand, but it’s very elaborate. I also write them in this like oddly embarrassing small print—really, really small print.

MF: Interesting. I don’t know, I’ve struggled with outlining. So I always ask people what they do.

MM: You know, a story has to work in a lot of ways. You have to see the initial structure of a story first, and if it doesn’t work on that level, then there’s no use going deeper than that.

MF: So how did you come up with the theme for “The Legend of Chris Kyle”—the “legend” theme? Is that something you kept seeing throughout your reporting? What made you decide on that?

MM: Everything about him led into that warrior-like character. There were so many stories about him that were just not verifiable, outside of legends, outside of, essentially, hearsay. For some people, that’s a really positive thing, and for some people that’s a really negative thing. It all seemed to be going in that same thematic direction.

MF: I was wondering if that was kind of an issue while you were reporting, if people were telling you different versions of the same story or not even knowing at all. Was it originally a challenge? How did it evolve into that thematic strength?

MM: Yeah. It’s definitely a challenge. And for some people, even reading that, the fact that the stories are unverifiable and that they’re those kinds of stories about somebody, there’s a lot of people who just don’t like this guy and don’t like what he stands for. And so it was difficult at first. You know, it’s hard as a journalist. You wanna nail down exactly what happened, exactly when, exactly where, as much as you possibly can. In this story, that stuff became really difficult. And then of course when your main source for a story dies in the middle of the story, that makes things much more complicated.

MF: Before that happened, what was your vision for the story? And afterward, how were you approaching it in comparison?

MM: It was gonna be a story about him coming home. There had been a lot of Q&As about him, and he had this book, but nobody had done a magazine feature about him. So it was gonna be a straightforward profile with various scenes—you know, the book signing in his office, at the shooting facility. And meanwhile, there was this story that I had talked to him about, about the [gas station] shooting. And I had been looking through video and trying to get police reports and trying to pull other things after talking to him about it, so that I could go back through the details and then go through it with him, ultimately. That’s why we kept pushing back the story, so we could find this stuff. And then he died. And so that really complicated the entire process.

MF: It doesn’t seem like anything else can beat that for being the biggest challenge of a story. How did you deal with that? You obviously had a personal relationship while you were reporting, and then that happens.

MM: I was immediately grateful for all the time that I got with him. Really grateful to him, and then grateful in this professional sense. And then immediately I needed to start talking to a bunch of other people. And I really need to get this tape or verify this doesn’t exist—you know, that kind of thing—all at once. So it’s that weird kind of combination where being a human and being a journalist don’t necessarily mesh very well. Sometimes I’m feeling one; sometimes I’m feeling the other. Often it’s like some sort of guilt for feeling both.

MF: So after you had to revamp everything, did you have any other alternative ideas for how you wanted to lay out the story that you didn’t go with? Why didn’t they work?

MM: I think there were a lot of different ideas on structure for this story and a lot of different places you could start in. I really did try to keep things as chronological as possible. With this story, I kind of had to back into the chronology. We’ve got [the first] scene out of order, and then the next expository section, and then I tried to make it as chronological as possible.

MF: What made you decide to start with the scene with him shooting the two guys trying to steal his car?

MM: That was the newest scene we had, and it was this really interesting story that, in some ways, says a lot about him. It’s this story of this action-hero-like activity. It’s also really hard to track down any substantiating information at all. And so it makes him almost superhero-esque to a lot of people, right?

MF: Yeah, and it was inline with that theme as well.

MM: Of course, other people immediately called into question a lot of things, because a lot of things weren’t verifiable in a traditional way.

MF: What was the reaction from a lot of people? Was it mixed like that? Did people actually call that out?

MM: Yeah, it was an interesting mix. Some people were really bothered that we didn’t say, one way or another, if it happened, despite the fact that there’s no way of truly knowing for sure. But I got a lot of emails from people who liked the story and appreciated it, like it was kind of an obituary.

MF: Right—hell of a memorial that they’re probably not gonna find anywhere else.

Did you have to do any restructuring with this story?

MM: Yeah, we restructured a couple times. We wanted to make sure that people knew that we interviewed him early. I debated how early to put the gas station scene in there and exactly when to tell people we’d done all the background reporting into that and how close we want those two parts. Ultimately, the structure was gonna hang on that, essentially.  There was also a time I wanted to start right in the middle of battle. There was a time—especially since I worked on this for so long, conditioned it so many different ways—there was a time I wanted to start it at this low point in his life. When I was talking to him, there was a story about how he had overcome this really dark period in his life when he first came back and just kind of hated everything and was in this depression cycle. And so I wanted to start there at some point, too. I kind of toyed with a bunch of different ideas.

MF: Generally, how often does your original vision for a story pan out?

MM: My original vision for a story almost never pans out exactly. There’s a lot of times where there’s a big chunk of what I originally wanted to do or why I wanted to do a story that holds on. One of the original reasons I wanted to do a story is always in there. I’m the kind of person who wants to get the entire story early on. So I’m like, “We can start here. This is a possibility.” And so it’s never exactly how I originally planned it. But there’s always some part that I really liked originally or was really intrigued by that ends up in there.

MF: Are there any techniques that you’ve been polishing lately?

MM: I’m a big fan of reading—reading much as I can and reading constructively, reading critically. And that’s fiction, nonfiction—anything that’s good. I try and note things that I like in it.

MF: How about in your writing?

MM: Ultimately, whenever I struggle at all, I kind of just try and back away and try to write the story as simply as possible. This is where Skip Hollandsworth is like the all-time champion. Really clear, it’s not highly stylized, and he lets the story unfold naturally. Sometimes he’s involved in it; sometimes he’s not. But, you know, he really does seem to step out of the way. Sometimes I try to think of what Skip would do, actually.

MF: I was actually going to ask you who you like to read and who your influences are.

MM: I love to read good writers in general. I have a huge catalogue of writers that are writing right now that I really, really love. From Michael Paterniti to John Jeremiah Sullivan. Skip, Pam Colloff, Mimi Swartz—everybody at Texas Monthly, actually. Chris Jones, Wright Thompson, who’s having an unbelievable year. I’ve got a whole list: Susan Orlean, I love Tom Junod, actually, Jeanne Marie Laskas—

MF: Did you read her Joe Biden story?

MM: I did. That was edited by my editor there.

MF: Oh, no way.

MM: I had heard a little bit about that before, and he was so excited. We were talking about Richard Ben Cramer, because Richard Ben Cramer wrote about Joe Biden 20 years ago. It was really interesting. I knew he was going to come across as an interesting character.

MF: Yeah, it was a really good story.

MM: I love that we live in a time where people, particularly on the PR side, understand access. Right? They understand that if you let somebody like that hang out for long enough, there’s gonna be a real story. But also, that in itself is slightly endearing. If you have a candidate or subject that is good enough and interesting enough and strong enough, just trust that. And I think we’re seeing, in this time now, people are kind of getting that. Michael Jordan when he turned 50—let Wright Thompson hang out with him for a ridiculously long time.

MF: I couldn’t even believe that access.

MM: Yeah. Obama did this with Michael Lewis. I was glad to see Biden do it with her. She was at the Mayborn last year, actually.

MF: Oh, would have liked to see her. Lastly, what direction do you see longform and narrative nonfiction heading?

MM: I think that that’s really always gonna be the fuel that pumps the jets. I think that longform, in-depth, investigative, the really thoughtful stories are always gonna be the stories that keep publications alive. They’re gonna keep their brands; they’re gonna keep their readers; they’re always gonna be among the most read; they’re always gonna be the most emailed; they’re always gonna have the most time on the site. I think that that is still a product that’s extremely marketable and extremely valuable. So I’m not so worried about that. You know, there have always been stories, and people have always been able to make a living telling them, or finding a way to tell them, right? They’ve always found a way to do it. And I don’t think that’s gonna change any time soon.

MF: Me either. Did you have anything else you wanted to talk about?

MM: I should mention that I’m significantly a better writer because I live with a really good writer and editor, Tara, my fiancé, who you met at the conference.

MF: Yeah, what kind of writing does she do?

MM: She writes for D magazine, too. She’s a nightlife columnist. She worked for the alt weekly that I worked for in Florida, she writes for DCEO and she is a book editor for Taylor & Francis.. She’s a really good writer and a really good editor, and she reads everything I do before it leaves this house, basically.

MF: Wow, so like your own personal editor.

MM: Yeah, and she is pretty nice about being willing to do it, and she’s honest when things aren’t working, but also not being cruel. It’s a nice balance.