Favorite new writer discovery of 2012
I’m always scared of making lists like this, because a year is a long time, and I read a lot, and invariably I’ll forget writers and pieces that I liked very much. But this category is easy for me: Michael J. Mooney. He wrote back-to-back stories for D Magazine this summer that are so different but the same in that they both knocked me on my ass. First he wrote about a brutal rape in “When Lois Pearson Started Fighting Back.” (It is a difficult read, but the ending is more than worth it.) And then he wrote the most amazing bowling story ever in “The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever.” Plus, he’s a straight-up good dude. Love this guy so much.
Best election story
I’m going to seem like a homer here, but I don’t care: Charlie Pierce did journalism on Esquire.com during this entire election cycle that bordered on heroic—and I don’t use that word lightly. In its ideas, in its language, in its sheer volume, his account of this election, taken as a whole, is humbling and inspiring at the same time. Start with the end, “The Greatness of Barack Obama is Our Great Project” and go back from there.
Best personal blog post/essay
I’m going to pick two stories here, both sports stories. Writers hate hearing athletes say, “You never played the game,” but it’s hard to deny that former athletes understand the games they played better than most of us do. Just the other day, The Classical posted a meditation by former basketball player Flinder Boyd about Ricky Rubio, “The Ricky Rubio Experience.” I’m not sure I can say why, exactly, but I was really moved by this story. Some of The Classical guys can be snide little shits, far too Internet cool, but Boyd wrote with real heart here. I love this story.
The second is by one of my most favorite friends, Kevin Van Valkenburg of ESPN. He wrote about the death of a semi-pro football player in a story called “Games of chance.” Kevin played college football at the University of Montana, and he writes beautifully about the pull of the game as well as the charge that comes from hitting and with being hit. Sometimes the first person interrupts; here it informs.
Best crime story
I see the great David Grann has already picked this one, but I’ll echo his pick, because it was that good: Pamela Colloff’s “The Innocent Man” for Texas Monthly is an epic, immersive, amazing story. And full credit to the gang down in Austin for committing so completely to longform journalism. That this story even exists makes me hopeful about so many things.
The story that made me feel the most awesome about just about everything
I’ve always been an optimist about writing, or at least I’ve always tried to be an optimist about writing, and 2012, for me, has been filled with reasons for optimism (like Pamela Colloff’s story above, which is really a multi-layered testament to the power of belief). Yes, this business remains in flux, and yes, many good writers continue to put more love into their writing than their writing returns to them. But I still feel like we live in a golden age, filled with possibility. One of the stories that most made me feel that way—both because of the story itself, and because of its subject—was “How One Response to a Reddit Query Became a Big-Budget Flick” by Jason Fagone in Wired. The title describes the tale exactly, and it’s just as improbable and fun and crazy as it sounds. I feel like this story sums up the modern writing business as well as any: There’s still plenty of lightning out there, and there are still lots of bottles, and every now and then, someone still catches one with the other.
“I wanted to do right by Joey,” Chris Jones now says of “The Things That Carried Him” which Esquire published in May 2008. In 17,000 words, he told the story of one soldier’s return home, structured backward from his funeral to the moment an IED broke his body. He sprinkled details—a girl in a flowered dress and the two yellow ribbons tied to a tree on Elm Street—that act as emotional cues and lend lyricism to the writing. The piece won the 2009 National Magazine Award for feature writing.
David Grann: The Mark of a Masterpiece, The New Yorker, July 12, 2010
Just a perfectly constructed, painful reveal of the sinister side of the art world, starting at its origins, with the artist’s fingerprints.
Michael Kruse: Stories of LeBron and sportswriter intertwined, tangled, The St. Petersburg Times, Nov. 21, 2010
Maybe the best way to approach an over-covered subject: write about him by writing about someone else. (See Breslin, Jimmy. Digging JFK Grave was His Honor.)
Eli Saslow: For a look outside the presidential bubble, Obama reads 10 personal letters a day, The Washington Post, March 31, 2010
For a look inside the presidential bubble, report the hell out of the story of a single letter.
CJ Chivers: A Firsthand Look at Firefights in Marja, The New York Times, April 19, 2010
Every time CJ Chivers heads off to war and sends back a story, I feel like less of a man and less of a writer.
Tom Junod: Eating the Whole Animal, from the Inside-Out, Esquire, April 2010
Pure entertainment by one of the all-time great magazine writers. Also contains the sentence: “The veins are what freaked me out.” Impossible to resist. Reading, not eating, that is.
Mark Armstrong | Longreads | November 18, 2014 | 5 minutes (1,301 words)
Thirty-six years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978, a charismatic preacher from San Francisco named Jim Jones led his followers into one of the most horrific massacres in American history. More than 900 people—including 303 children—were slaughtered, in a place called Jonestown. It was a community first built as a socialist utopia for parishioners from the Peoples Temple. But Jones had other plans, planting the seeds of “revolutionary suicide” that ended with mass cyanide poisoning.
I spoke with Julia Scheeres, author of the book A Thousand Lives and our latest Longreads Exclusive, “Escape from Jonestown,” about the newly public home movies from inside and how the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” became a terrible reminder for its survivors. Read more…
For our latest Longreads Exclusive, we’re proud to share Julia Scheeres’ adaptation of her book, A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown, which tells the story of five people who lived in Jonestown at the time of the infamous massacre, which occurred 36 years ago, on Nov. 18, 1978.
This story also includes home movies—never before released publicly—from inside Jonestown. The footage, discovered after the massacre, includes tours of the compound by Jim Jones and interviews with many of those who lived and died there. You can view the entire series of clips at YouTube.com/Longreads. Read more…
There are facts in journalism, but there are other truths hidden in the room. In this 2016 Paris Review interview with James Santel, Robert Caro, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson, gives a masterclass on how to report on a subject’s behavior, his environment, his breath, and the cushiness of his couch:
There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts. The more facts you get, the more facts you collect, the closer you come to whatever truth there is. The base of biography has to be facts.
That’s especially true when it comes to describing Johnson, whom I met only once, only very briefly. With Johnson, if you went around on my interviews with me, in every interview probably, I’m asking—let’s say Joe Califano, one of Johnson’s aides—So if I were standing next to you in this scene in the Oval Office, Joe, what would I see? They never understand. They kind of hesitate—they don’t know what I mean. And I would say, Was he sitting behind the desk or was he getting up to walk around? And they might say—and this actually happened—Well, he jumped up from that desk all the time because he had the wire tickers over there. He had these three wire tickers, and he’d go over to them every few minutes to look.
So I would ask, But what were you seeing? How would he look at the wire tickers?
“Well, you know, it was interesting, it was like he couldn’t wait for the next lines to come, so he’d open the lid, and he’d grab the paper with two hands, as if he was trying to pull it out of the machine.”
So you keep saying, What would I see? Sometimes these people get angry because I’m asking the same question over and over again.
If you just keep doing it, it’s amazing what comes out of people. Eventually, a lot of people tell you about his bad breath. And the couches—if he wanted something from you in the Senate cloakroom, Johnson would take you over to sit on the couches. So I’d ask, What was it like sitting on those couches? And people would say something like, He’d be towering over you, leaning over you.