Beyond The New Yorker

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

On Lane DeGregory’s “The girl in the window” (Tampa Bay Times, July 2008)

Synopsis: In a home almost unfit even for roaches, one mother neglected her daughter so badly that she never learned to talk, play with toys, or even eat. Then the police found out, and before long, the girl was adopted. Her new parents try to develop her into a communicative, well-behaved child.

In this story, Lane DeGregory is dealing with two things: extreme repulsiveness, and extreme fragility. Illuminating this stark contrast requires a balance that DeGregory achieves supremely by repulsing the readers enough to leave them deeply invested in what happens to this clearly dysfunctional 5-year-old, but not so much to turn them away. (Disclaimer: The depiction of this trailer home leaves you teetering just on the edge of hurling, but you can’t blame the writer for that one.) Read the rest of this entry »

In Memory of Roger Ebert: “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man” by Chris Jones

The Chicago Sun-Times’ front page today in memory of Roger Ebert.

The Chicago Sun-Times’ front page today in memory of Roger Ebert.

Esquire, 2010

For only the second time after reading this story a year ago—two years late—I opened its link hours before Roger Ebert died, and I put it in the footnotes of Wednesday’s post on Chris Jones’ “The House of Hefner” while Roger Ebert, though slowed by his reemerging cancer, was still very much alive, explaining he wouldn’t be reviewing “as many” movies this year. I had opted to review a new Jones instead of an old—the newest—and it seemed only right to at least include a link to one of his greatest ever at the bottom of the post. Then hours later it suddenly seemed horrible and wrong, like Esquire might have felt to offer only an excerpt to the testimony of Ebert’s greatness. Here we will review that testimony, ignoring the new-writer-each-week pattern and the new-publication-each-week pattern. Another Chris Jones Esquire masterpiece. And we’ll remember Roger Ebert.

Synopsis: The story was written four years after Ebert had his lower jaw mostly removed due to a vicious cancer that originated in his thyroid in 2002. Ebert cannot talk, eat or drink. To communicate he writes on Post-its, which he prefers over talking through Alex, a voice simulator with a generic American accent. He’s also one of the Chicago Sun-Times’ most loved and decorated movie critics. Read the rest of this entry »

On “The House of Hefner” by Chris Jones (Esquire, April 2013)

Synopsis: It’s no secret: Hugh Hefner is old. Very old. In the Playboy Mansion, he is clinging to changeless, ageless time—or whatever it is that change, age, and time mean in his world. He is a boy, a young man, an old man all at once. In the Playboy Mansion, everything is what it always has been and will never be different. But I’ll stop with this so you can read the story and hear it told better from Chris Jones.

Here, the key to writing a story about a person whom we know is going to die soon—we hate to say this, so we avoid at all cost—is, for as long as possible, not acknowledging that we know he is going to die. It’s the unspoken sentiment that is driving the story.

Hugh Hefner, who is 86, will not live forever. But the beauty of this story is Hefner’s own refined—yet surely sensed—resistance to acknowledging this. Read the rest of this entry »

On Thomas Lake’s “The Boy Who Died of Football”–plus notes from Lake on his reporting

Sports Illustrated, December 2010

Synopsis: At a Kentucky high school, 15-year-old Max Gilpin died three days after collapsing of heat stroke from running sprints on a 94-degree day. His football coach, Jason Stinson, was blamed and put on trial. Following this post is an excerpt from Lake’s essay that appears in Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists, where he describes how he came to pursue this story and the type of reporting it required (included here courtesy of Lake and Sager).

In most sports stories, there is a bout of action—whether in a championship game, a practice, or a pickup game on the driveway—that defines the story. It may be the dramatic final seconds of a title match or the move that would cause a career-ending injury. Many times these may be the leads of stories or their climaxes. Read the rest of this entry »

Writing about celebrities: On “The Tragedy of Britney Spears” by Vanessa Grigoriadis

Synopsis: Vanessa Grigoriadis chases down the 1,000-times told tragic downfall story of the iconic Britney Spears at her seemingly lowest point. And she tells it differently than all the rest, of course. Rolling Stone’s February 2008 cover story.

Celebrities are delicate. They’re private about their personal lives but showy about almost everything else. They’re exclusive and shallow. Elusive and rude. Everybody wants to touch them and take pictures of them, and there’s even a profession for stalking them. They keep tabloids alive. Indirectly they pay the salaries of thousands of rabid celeb reporters and photographers.

And yet Vanessa Grigoriadis goes after the most exclusive and elusive, rudest and shallowest one of all: Britney Spears. (Although it’s good to see that Britney has made large strides since then and is no longer the prime example of “American Tragedy.”) But Grigoriadis isn’t writing about how rude or out-of-control or screwed up Britney is like the thousand others have. It’s about how she got to that point. Read the rest of this entry »

On Dan P. Lee’s “Travis the Menace” (New York, January 2011)

Synopsis: Travis was one of the most beloved apes in the country—a superstar in his hometown, Stamford, Conn. Sandy Herold and her husband, Jerry, raised Travis since he was just a few months old. A happy ape, he never showed any signs of violence, loved meeting people, was mischievous at times, but liked joking around. Then, many years later, he mauled Sandy’s friend, whom he knew, almost to death on Sandy’s front lawn.

From New York Magazine.

From New York Magazine

Perhaps not for non-journo readers, but for folks like us journalists, what’s immediately curious about this story is that there is nothing that resembles a nut graf. We don’t even hear about Travis, the title man, er, ape, of the story until the second section. We don’t know that Travis almost kills a woman until it actually happens in the story’s present time, and foreshadowing is only used once toward the end to hint at the culminating event. Read the rest of this entry »

A Q&A on Longform with Esquire’s Mike Sager

For every story he writes, Mike Sager, writer-at-large for Esquire, finds a way to love his subjects. From drug addicts to porn stars,Mike Sager military vets to once-great athletes, Sager has let them all shape him into the journalist he is today. Here, Sager talks about what makes a solid longform piece and reveals some of his secrets to the craft. In addition: a close look into the making of his 1992 Rolling Stone piece “Revenge of the Doughnut Boys,” which is about teenage car hijackers in Newark, N.J. It is also the title piece in his Los Angeles Times Best-Seller, one of Sager’s four collections of riveting longform journalism. Through it all, it comes down to one thing, he says: “Getting shit right.” Read the rest of this entry »

On Mike Sager’s “Revenge of the Doughnut Boys” (Rolling Stone, October 1992)

Synopsis: In a time period in Newark, N.J., during which the new kid hobby was hijacking cars and squealing their wheels in circles and ramming police cars, Mike Sager gives us an inside look into the boys behind the highest car theft per capita rate in the nation. Click here for the Q&A with Sager, covering how he approached this story, which is also the title piece of his second book, a Los Angeles Times Best Seller.

The strongest element in this piece is the genuine nature of the reporting. Observation tells this story. This isn’t a reporter covering the Newark hijackings from his desk on the phone with the police department. This is a reporter going into the heart of the neighborhood, watching kids drive by in stolen cars, and listening to what they have to say about it in their own territory, among their peers. The key to this one is choosing the right scenes to represent the bigger picture.

He weaves that bigger picture—the national-high teenage hijackings and the police’s failure to prevent them—around one hijacker’s story, named Raheed. Read the rest of this entry »

In Memory of Fred Rogers: “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod

Synopsis: A profile of Fred Rogers, or as we know him from the Neighborhood, from childhood, Mister Rogers. Today marks the 10th anniversary of his death.

There are some stories we can analyze all we want, but sometimes there are stories in which, no matter how much we pick them apart, what’s on the surface for us to appreciate is more telling than any analysis.

This story is one of them. It’s my favorite profile of all time, by Tom Junod in Esquire, 1998. I could end right here, and I think I’ve already done enough to explain why you need to read this story.

But I’ll go on about what I like best about it, anyway: Read the rest of this entry »

On Skip Hollandsworth’s “The Last Ride of Cowboy Bob” (Texas Monthly, November 2005)

Synopsis: Peggy Jo Tallas was a kind soul. She was wild in her younger days, always looking to escape the humdrum for adventure. But as she matured, she had seemed to settle down. Never married, she lived with and cared daily for her ailing mother. No one would have suspected she would be the one to disguise herself as a man, rob lots of banks, and go to jail. Nor would they suspect she’d continue to rob them in her old age.

For any writer, if the main character of the story has refused to talk, disappeared, or has died, telling the whole story will always be challenging. But hardly a barrier. In Skip Hollandsworth’s 2005 story “The Last Ride of Cowboy Bob” from Texas Monthly, Hollandsworth trumps this issue.

In his story, I’d like to highlight Hollandsworth’s “classic storytelling” approach. Save for the opening two sections, it’s primarily written chronologically. This approach is not necessarily golden for all stories, but with this one, it seems to be the key. Read the rest of this entry »