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Emily Perper
Freelance writer/editor.

Behind the Scenes of Longform Storytelling: A Reading List

Photo: Taylor Starek

That’s me in the photo. June, 2011: my first time interning at a daily newspaper and the first time I read Joan Didion. She blew my mind, of course. Eventually, I started sharing my favorite longform pieces on my personal blog, which led to a variety of opportunities, including my gig here at Longreads. If you’re new around these parts, like I was just a few years ago, the stories below will give you an idea of the strength and skill that goes into creating engaging literary journalism.

Each of the four stories below has been featured on Longreads before, minus the annotations, of course. The interviews with the authors are just as fascinating as the essays they’ve written. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Adrian Chen, and Brian Kevin discuss their research methods, their writing style, and how they choose which details to include and which to let go. There are literally dozens of other Annotation Tuesday stories I could’ve featured — it was hard to pick just three! — so be sure to take a look for yourself on the Nieman Storyboard website.

1. “Annotation Tuesday! Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and ‘If He Hollers Let Him Go.’” (Elon Green, October 2014)

Part of successful longform storytelling is a seamless blend of the macro and micro. In recounting her journey to Yellow Springs, Ohio — where comic Dave Chappelle lives, where he grew up, in part — Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah does just that. She never interviews Chappelle himself; she interviews several of the people surrounding him, including his mother, scholar Yvonne Seon, and Neal Brannan, co-creator of “Chappelle’s Show.” Ghansah and Elon Green share a fascinating back-and-forth about the impossibility of objectivity, the n-word, and comedy as a weapon.

2. “Annotation Tuesday! Adrian Chen and ‘Unfollow.’” (Katia Savchuk, January 2017)

Tech reporter Adrian Chen — formerly of Gawker, now The New Yorker — wrote a marvelous profile of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was once a devoted member of the Westboro Baptist Church. When Phelps-Roper took over the church’s social media accounts, her life changed. In between hate speech and emojis, she engaged with people of different backgrounds and worldviews. Chen explains that it took a long time for Megan to feel comfortable opening up to him and sharing her story publicly. But when she did open up to Chen, she gave him access to her emails, her journals, even her private messages on the Words With Friends app. They spoke for hours, and the result is a nuanced portrait that demonstrates the nonlinear nature of healing.

3. “Michael Kruse and the Woman Who Disappeared in Her Own Home.” (Paige Williams, August 2012)

I remember reading this piece when it was first published in 2011. I was interning at a daily newspaper and learning about feature writing and reporting for the first time. Michael Kruse and the Tampa Bay Times (previously the St. Petersburg Times) came highly recommended to me, and this story, “A Brevard Woman Disappeared, but Never Left Home” — is a contemporary classic. Journalist and professor Paige Williams dissects the story on an educational basis; Kruse answers her questions and adds commentary.

4. “Annotation Tuesday! (Back to School Edition): Josh Roiland and His ‘Literary Journalism in America’ Syllabus.” (Josh Roiland, August 2015)

During my senior year of undergrad, I embarked on an independent study of longform journalism — reading hundreds of essays, interviewing Ben Montgomery, and analyzing what makes different stories tick. Ready to embark on an independent study of your own? There’s no better place to start than this syllabus — I wish it had been around when I was in school. Roiland, presently an assistant professor with the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine, goes into glorious detail about each of his reading selections.

A Reading List Inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins

Photo: Chris

I used the seven deadly sins–lust, gluttony, envy, greed, sloth, pride, and anger — as the springboard for choosing these stories.

1. LUST: “Eileen Myles on the Excruciating Pain of Waiting for Love.” (Eileen Myles, The Cut, February 2016)

Poet and novelist Eileen Myles muses on a summer fling that should’ve lasted forever.

2. GLUTTONY: “Hunger Makes Me.” (Jess Zimmerman, Hazlitt, July 2016)

Jess Zimmerman writes eloquently on the subject of emotional labor, and “Hunger Makes Me” connects the twin suppressions of women’s physical and emotional appetites.

3. ENVY: “Tan Lines.” (Durga Chew-Bose, Matter, August 2015)

Lucky for us, Durga Chew-Bose’s essay collection, Too Much and Not the Mood (not “not IN the mood,” as many 2017 book previews have miswritten), debuts in April. Here, Chew-Bose meditates on her heritage and the double standard of the white obsession with tanning.

4. PRIDE: “Southern Fried Pride: What Hattiesburg’s First Pride Means in the Deep South.” (Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Medium, August 2016)

In the parlance of sinning, pride is associated with selfishness, narcissism, and vanity (i.e., our current presidential administration). Instead, I wanted to feature self-love and self-confidence, a kind of pride that isn’t evil in the slightest, as well as a reminder that it’s 2017 and bigots still protest against LGBTQ people (and not just in the American South).

5. GREED: “A Tyrannosaur of One’s Own.” (Laurie Gwen Shapiro, Aeon, January 2016)

Are private fossil collections a disservice to the scientific community?

6. ANGER: “She Mad and She Magic.” (Muna Mire, The New Inquiry, August 2015)

An insightful review of Michele Wallace’s groundbreaking text, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwomanrecently reissued by Verso Books. Muna Mire examines the book’s controversial reception in 1979 and its contemporary resonance, concluding, “Black Macho may have been inconvenient; it may not have been careful. But it was a necessary push forward. Getting angry works for Black women — it gets results and keeps us alive.”

7. SLOTH: “Fuck Work.” (James Livingston, Aeon, November 2016)

“Fuck Work” sounds blunt, until you learn James Livingston is the author of a book called No More Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea. Livingston critiques our capitalist obsession with productivity and defining our self-worth via our work ethic, because full employment doesn’t insure quality of life. He asks,

“How do you make a living without a job – can you receive income without working for it? Is it possible, to begin with and then, the hard part, is it ethical? If you were raised to believe that work is the index of your value to society – as most of us were – would it feel like cheating to get something for nothing?”

Not For the Paint of Heart

Photo: Nancy Muller

Mystery brunette and GQ correspondent Taffy Brodesser-Akner rented and rented, until a bad experience with a New Jersey landlord and a fit of financial security convinced her and her husband it was time to commit to homeownership. Now for the hard part: Choosing paint colors without having a complete existential breakdown. Akner details her taupe night of the soul at Curbed:

The only positive experience I can drum up in service of paint colors involves a hotel in Palm Springs. It was called the Saguaro, and outside and inside it was painted in the most pleasing lollipop colors: lavender, purple, lime, orange, yellow. Claude and I sat at the pool and looked up at the colors and I felt them infiltrate my cornea, then my retina, then my brain, then my soul. These were the colors I wanted to look at, but I didn’t think that my house should be a day care center, like my sister said. I couldn’t remember any house where I’d ever noticed the colors, and I didn’t know if that meant that you weren’t supposed to notice the colors, or if it was yet another symptom of how damaged I was, that I couldn’t see the details of what surrounded me when my actual trade was to see the details of what surrounded me. Willful blindness, it’s called, maybe. But maybe it’s just self-protection. I guess that was the toughest part: Was I supposed to have been planning this my whole life?

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What Lies Beyond: A Reading List About Life and Death

Photo: UNSPLASH.COM/@WILLVANW

On Thursday, I got two new tattoos. One was impulsive; the other, planned. The latter is above my right knee, in small print, all-caps: REDEEM THE TIME. It’s something my favorite English professor used to drawl in class. It’s from the book of Ephesians: “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, / Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” 

The days are evil because they will come to an end. In Christianity, mortality is a result of mankind’s fall from grace. Before Adam and Eve partook in the Garden of Eden, they were destined to live forever. No more. Everyone dies.

If I dwell too long on my own mortality, I have a panic attack. I have to come at death sideways–through headlines about celebrities, say, or poetry. How can something so real and (relatively) imminent feel so unreal? And then, you get the call—from the doctor, the police, your mother, whomever. It doesn’t matter who calls; the call will come.

So I got a second tattoo, because it’s all going to end. It’s a three-inch blade turned down towards my ankle, modeled after Joan of Arc’s sword. “I know it’s cliche,” I joked to Emily, and she smiled but didn’t deny it. I texted a picture to my friend. “You’re a warrior,” she sent back. I don’t know about that.

On Saturday, I’ll join thousands of people at the Women’s March on Washington. I can’t say I’m not afraid. I’m afraid of our president-elect and his supporters. My ever-present anxiety regardign death has my brain concocting bizarre and terrifying scenarios in which the march on Jan. 21 become a massacre. I am afraid my first protest will be my last. I know I am not alone in my fear, and I don’t want to let my fear of death hold me back.

The stories I’ve included this week are about eternal life and the fear we feel while contemplating the lack thereof. Read more…

The Lives of Nuns, Part 2: A Reading List

Photo: Przemko Stachowski

As part of my New Year’s Resolutions, I’ve vowed to read the hundreds of books I already own. Last night, I started and finished Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story by Jeanne Córdova, which I received last year courtesy of a giveaway from Danika Ellis, a book blogger who runs The Lesbrary. Córdova’s 1990 memoir is compulsively readable—I couldn’t put it down. She writes about her decision to join the convent fresh out of high school, her growing unease regarding church politics, her deep friendships with her fellow postulants and secular students alike, and, eventually, her decision to leave the novitiate. Córdova is well-known for her 2011 memoir, When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution, which describes her political work and LGBTQ community organizing in the 1970s. She was a force for good in the West Coast queer community. She edited a lesbian magazine, created an LGBTQ business directory, and even organized the Gay and Lesbian caucus to the Democratic Party. Sadly, Córdova died a little more than a year ago. I wish I could have met her.

In the two years since I compiled the first installation of “The Lives of Nuns,” Autostraddle wrote about queer nuns in history, Racked shadowed (fake) nuns growing marijuana, and The Huffington Post reported on a nun’s murder and the students who want the truth. Those stories and more are included below. Seclude yourself and read. Read more…

A Resolute 2017: A Reading List

Photo: Kevin Cole

In 2016, I published my New Year’s resolutions on Longreads. As 2017 dawns, I thought I’d check in with my old self, dust off 2016’s goals and set some new intentions.

1. Alas, I never did make it to Iceland, but I did a lot of domestic travel in 2016. In Washington State, I touched the Pacific Ocean for the first time and slept on a sailboat. In Asheville, I got a new tattoo and swooned inside Firestorm Books & Cafe. I saw friends and family marry in Richmond and Chautauqua. I saw Deaf West perform Spring Awakening and the one-weekend revival of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in NYC. I even visited Foamhenge! (That’s me in the photo above.) I’m returning to Asheville in 2017; beyond that, I have no concrete travel plans. Feel free to sponsor me on a trip to the ends of the Earth and back! I’ll write about it! For now, I’m seeing the world via the following essays from 2016:

Read more…

Behind the Scenes of Children’s Television: A Reading List

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Children’s television programming is always colorful, sometimes educational, and often bizarre. A human-sized hamster wheel? A talking chair? Grown men going to bat for a herd of rainbow-colored ponies? These stories explore the art and economics of making television for kids.

1. “‘It Smelled Like Death’: An Oral History of the Double Dare Obstacle Course.” (Marah Eakin, A.V. Club, November 2016)

Nickelodeon’s hit game show, Double Dare, aired in the late ’80s and early ’90s (with a season-long remount in 2000), and one of its biggest draws was its obstacle course. The A.V. Club spoke to host Marc Summers, the producers and a variety of set designers about the gallons of whipped cream, baked beans and Gak it took to make the messiest show on TV. Pro tip: Don’t eat while reading this. Read more…

Why We Resist: Seven Stories About Protest

Photo: Leslie Peterson

I’ve found it hard to think of little else other than our country’s future, by which I mean the futures of my friends of color, my queer friends, my disabled friends—the list goes on. I am grateful for Twitter, where writers and activists I admire remind me that what is happening is not normal, that we must resist as long as it takes. There are stories here about the Native-led protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, folks standing up to Donald Trump and his white supremacist cronies, and prisoners striking against their miserable living conditions in a racist system. As journalist Masha Gessen writes, “The citizens have posted guard.”

1. “Why We Must Protest.” (Masha Gessen, LitHub, November 2016)

Masha Gessen is one of the writers I’m thankful for. Yesterday I read her essay in the New York Review of Books, “Trump: The Choice We Face.” Gessen writes about her great-grandfather, a member of a Nazi-appointed Jewish council in his home ghetto, relating his position to the complicity we Americans may come to understand sooner than we think. I cried as I read. The NYRB essay led me to the one I’ve highlighted here, where Gessen examines and defends protest for the sake of protest. Read more…

A Reading List for Thanksgiving

Photo: Stacy Spensley/Flickr

Thanksgiving feels especially fraught this year. The stakes of the perfect holiday are high; better to abandon them altogether. Why does the intimacy of family breed conflict? I wish I had suggestions for battling the anxiety many of us are feeling around the table this year. As for me, I will try my hardest to speak truth if ignorance comes to a head, even if I am afraid. I will stay safe—my support systems at the ready, my journal and Klonipin in my bag, and my phone fully charged.

None of the following stories were written in 2016, but the themes of our contemporary American Thanksgiving traditions—family, identity, history—remain relevant. Read more…

What Comes Next: Confronting a Post-Election America

Photo: Lorie Shaull

Like you, perhaps, I am in mourning for something that could have been. As a queer, non-binary person, I have received numerous inquiries about my well-being from friends and colleagues; I am simultaneously reckoning with the privilege my whiteness affords me. I am functioning—I go to work, I eat meals, I take most of my medications, I even go to bed on time—but I feel dead inside. Family members, former classmates and millions of people I’ve never met have written off my existence, as well as the rights of women, disabled people and people of color, and the safety of Muslims, Jews and immigrants. This week’s reading list is dedicated to those marginalized voices. Some of these stories were written in the wake of this year’s election; others came before. I hope you read these and feel if not heartened, then more determined than ever to protest evil, protect marginalized communities/yourselves and share your lived experiences. Read more…