Obsession and Release: 10 Years to Write a Longread

Tim Requarth and James K. Williamson

Relative to the time required to read them, #longreads take far longer to write. In the first episode for a new series on The Longreads Podcast, Head of Fact-checking Matt Giles interviews James K. Williamson and Tim Requarth about pieces they recently published after years of incubation, research, and writing.

Tim Requarth is a science journalist and a lecturer in science and writing at New York University. Longreads published his essay, “The Final Five Percent,” in October. Requarth worked on the story for 10 years. It chronicles his brother Conway’s brain injury and subsequent change in personality, as he becomes more violent and eventually lands in jail. Requarth weaves in his own PhD studies in neuroscience and the ramifications of bringing neuroscience into the courtroom.

James K. Williamson is a journalist based in New York, and has contributed to the New York Times, Real Life magazine, The Trace, and others. In September, he published “Everything He Wrote Was Good” in Oxford American. It is the culmination of six years of work for Williamson, who tells the story of his distant cousin, Johnny Greene. Greene was also a journalist and celebrated in the ’70s and ’80s for his first-person writing about gay rights, civil rights, the far-right, environmentalism, and his own personal family history. Williamson explores the similarities of their careers and how telling Greene’s story has become interwoven into his own life and career.

Requarth and Williamson cover how they remained committed to their stories over the many years of reporting and writing, becoming obsessed with research, and how they decided they had reached a natural conclusion for their stories and endpoint for their research.

“I became obsessed, I wouldn’t be writing the piece, I would just continue to collect information even if wasn’t necessarily pertinent to the piece itself… And I think that was one thing to keep it moving was enthusiasm, and I had to find enthusiasm within myself…I mean I had to make it entertaining for me, to be able to continue through with it.” – James K. Williamson

They talk about the unreliable narrators, unreliable memories, and hesitant sources you come across in reporting, and, in particular, the unique challenges of writing about family.

Requarth shares how his assumptions about how his family would react were off, and Williamson discusses fighting his subconscious biases to protect family members from unsavory truths.

“Applying the typical journalistic practices and skepticism to your own family doesn’t come as second nature, but you still have to do it.” – Tim Requarth

They also talk about the aftermath of having finally released this work into the world after having spent so much of their lives engaged with it.

“It feels strange for something that has been living for so long to no longer be living… On the other hand for me the real life story is still ongoing and I think part of the writing of this came from a place of powerlessness. There’s nothing that I can do about his injury. There’s nothing I can really do about their life situation. But I can write about it. And so that was the only power I felt that I could exert, and yet it’s almost a futile one because right now nothing has changed. Me writing about it changes nothing.” – Tim Requarth

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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.