This week, we’re sharing stories from Mark Arax, David Grann, Stephanie Nolen, Eleanor Cummins, and David Marchese.
At The New Yorker, David Grann tells the story of Henry Worsley, a British military man and “apostle” of polar adventurer Ernest Shackleton. Worsley earned fame by retracing Shackleton’s failed expedition to reach the South Pole. He, along with two teammates reached their destination on January 9th, 2009. A case study in the art of story pacing, this piece is a testament to the triumphs and perils of human ambition and endurance.
After Frank Worsley and other members of the expedition buried Shackleton, at a cemetery on the island, they found stones and built a cairn to mark the grave.
More than eighty years later, Henry Worsley, carrying a rucksack and a sleeping bag, pried open the cemetery gate and went inside. It was twilight, and he could just make out the cairn and a granite tombstone, which was engraved with a paraphrase of a line by Robert Browning: “I hold that a man should strive to the uttermost for his life’s set prize.” Worsley put his sleeping bag on the ground and climbed inside it, facing the block of granite. “Reaching out to touch it I considered for a moment just how significant a moment in my life this was,” he later wrote, adding, “I was about to spend the night . . . beside the grave of my hero since childhood.”
David Grann is the ultimate writer’s writer. The reporter and staff writer for The New Yorker has a way of discovering nuggets of an idea (the bare minimum of a pitch), and then, through intrepid and painstaking research, crafting pieces that tend to stick with readers for years.
“Many of the characters are driven by obsession,” Grann once told Nieman Storyboard. “But I’m also interested in what these characters are obsessed with, so it’s not just their obsession, it’s the object of their obsession…I’m looking for multiple elements. On one level, there is a story that is compelling, there are characters that are interesting, but also there are some intellectual stakes.”
For his upcoming book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I., Grann details the murders committed against members of the Osage Nation—which subsequently became the first case investigated by the FBI—and spent more than three years researching and reporting events that happened nearly a hundred years ago. Josh Dean similarly had been interested in writing about the Osage Nation killings, when he was informed by his agent that Grann had, in Dean’s words, “been working on this book quietly for two years.”
Dean told the Longform podcast:
I literally fell out of my chair. I admire David Grann; he is one of the best at this thing. I read his stories voraciously. I know what David Grann is doing…One, I know he is going to do an amazing job. He has a two year head-start. If it hadn’t been him…why would I [write the book]? I went into a shell and drank for six days.
While Killers of the Flower Moon will undoubtedly become a blockbuster hit one day (Imperative Entertainment paid a whopping $5 million for film rights), another of Grann’s works will debut in theaters this week. “The Lost City of Z” came to life as a New Yorker feature in 2005, and according to Grann, it was one of his rare pieces that felt incomplete as a magazine article. “It was the first piece I’d done for The New Yorker where I finished and I said, one, I’m not sick of it, and, two, there are so many more places to go. There were still doors to open,” he told Interview magazine. The article became a book, which was published in 2009, and now a film starring Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson.
Hunnam stars as Percy Fawcett, a turn-of-the-century English explorer who disappears in a quest to prove the existence of an ancient and influential civilization in the Amazon. In reporting Fawcett’s travels, Grann journeyed to the jungles where Fawcett vanished, as well as plumbed through his diaries and life, turning what had initially been a piece about this lost civilization into an all-encompassing biography—all the better for its adaptation to screen.
It’s impossible to compose a “best of” list for Grann’s writings, so below is a primer for some of his most compelling New Yorker pieces, which includes some of his earlier (and often overlooked) work. Read more…
David Grann tells the story of Henry Worsley, a British military man and “apostle” of polar adventurer Ernest Shackleton. Worsley earned fame by retracing Shackleton’s failed expedition to reach the South Pole. He, along with two teammates reached their destination on January 9th, 2009. A case study in the art of story pacing, this piece is a testament to the triumphs and perils of human ambition and endurance.
Read Maurice Chammah’s work at The Marshall Project, a nonprofit outlet publishing journalism and news about the U.S. criminal justice system.
I’ve been in a lot of conversations lately in which a two-word phrase is spoken — ”true crime” — and then, during the ensuing beat of silence, everyone reads the room and modulates their reactions based on the expressions of everyone else. Or maybe it’s just me. For some, the phrase simply sparks exclamations and recommendations, stories of late nights spent binging The Jinx or I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. But others wince, because no matter how sophisticated the storytelling or agreeable the politics, an icky aftertaste remains.
Since 2014, when the podcast Serial inaugurated the new true-crime boom, cultural critics have tried to puzzle out whether these factually accurate but necessarily sculpted stories of murder, rape, and grift are culturally valuable, corrosive, or both. Among the critiques: We’re skewing our view of who is the most vulnerable in America through a myopic focus on white women victims. We’ve “rotted” women’s brains with paranoia and “[entrenched] the flaws of America’s criminal justice system.”
On the other hand, as lawyer and podcast host Rabia Chaudry recently pointed out to the New York Times, the genre can also invite more scrutiny of the justice system. Over the last five years, while writing a book about the death penalty, and a narrative story about a controversial murder investigation, I’ve noticed that our debates sometimes fail to articulate that when we say “true crime,” we’re really talking about a huge variety of story types, one of which is especially good at taking readers right to the heart of important policy questions.
I’ll call it the “Wrongful Conviction Story,” a subgenre of true crime that examines the failures of police, courts, and other government actors, and questions whether they’ve caught and punished the correct person. I’m not calling it the “Innocence Story,” because “wrongful” is a subjective adjective, implying an argument is being made, while “innocence” implies the writer can fully prove the objective truth, which, usually, they can’t. These stories aren’t necessarily out to answer whether someone is guilty or innocent. They’re about the failures of a system that ensnares millions of Americans each year, innocent and guilty.
A few years ago, I heard another writer say that magazine editors didn’t want these stories anymore, because they were no longer “surprising” to readers. That may be overstated, but it is true that journalists need to keep innovating in terms of how we build narratives if we’re going to get readers to follow us into a system full of misery, pain, and jargon like “voir dire” and “Brady violation,” showing them the real thing rather than the tidy heroes-and-villains worlds of Law & Order and NCIS.
I’ve collected a handful of my favorite examples of the Wrongful Conviction Story. Each represents a further slice of the subgenre, along with other stories I think are worth your attention if you want to go deeper, whether because you’re a fellow journalist, a lawyer (very much a profession in which one tells stories), or just a curious reader.
Bloodstain Analysis Convinced a Jury She Stabbed Her 10-Year-Old Son. Now, Even Freedom Can’t Give Her Back Her Life. (Pamela Colloff, ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine, December 2018)
Pamela Colloff didn’t invent the wrongful conviction magazine story, but she did perfect it. While working for Texas Monthly, ProPublica, and The New York Times Magazine, she’s figured out how to foreground action and build characters efficiently, so that you can slip into the pool with her protagonists and feel their panic as they start to drown. One of her lesser-known tales concerns Julie Rea, a single mother convicted of killing her 10-year-old son Joel, based on faulty analysis of blood at the crime scene. We learn about “blood spatter” but spend most of our time on Rea’s four traumas: losing her son, being falsely convicted, going to prison, and trying to make her way again in the free world.
In the wake of the murder, she could not bear to be alone. Terrified of the dark, she rarely slept. She stayed in an apartment an hour-and-a-half’s drive away, in Bloomington, Indiana, where she had been commuting to Indiana University’s Ph.D. program. There, a rotation of friends stayed with her around the clock. “To fall asleep, I had to have someone on either side of me and the lights on,” she said.
More from Pamela Colloff’s oeuvre:
- “The Innocent Man” (Texas Monthly, November 2012)
- “Hannah and Andrew” (Texas Monthly, January 2012)
- “Innocence Lost” (Texas Monthly, October 2010)
- “Blood Will Tell” (ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine, May 2018)
Reasonable Doubt (Maya Dukmasova, Chicago Reader, August 2021)
It’s pretty bold to make the second word of your article your own name, but anyone who has listened to Serial understands that it can be valuable for the journalist to present him or herself as a first-person narrator. I’d been struggling with whether this was worth doing in my own writing, and I was impressed with how Maya Dukmasova utilized her own ambivalence — and the more freewheeling prose style typical of alt-weeklies like the Chicago Reader — to propel the reader into her tale of a potentially innocent Illinois prisoner. She also goes meta, discussing Janet Malcolm’s seminal book The Journalist and the Murderer and the sticky ethics of reporting on someone who tells you they’re innocent. You say you believe them, but both of you may be lying.
Publishing a story someone doesn’t want out there is an act of betrayal even if you have no relationship to them. As a journalist, especially a white one, the way you justify it to yourself is by saying that the story is bigger than its central character, that his life experiences aren’t really just his to publicize or keep private, that they belong to everyone. This line of thinking is particularly potent when you’ve already invested significant time and energy into a story—as though with that expenditure you’ve purchased a person’s right to refuse or consent to be written about. I’d done a lot of digging by then. I decided to keep going, partially because it felt too late to turn back, and also because I believed what happened to Allen was wrong, even if I didn’t fully believe him.
More stories from alt-weeklies:
- “The Tragedy of Louis Scarcella” (Albert Samaha, The Village Voice, August 2014)
- “Science Goes to Court” (Jordan Smith, The Austin Chronicle, November 2013)
- “False Witness: Will Felix Key’s Old Enemy Set Him Free?” (Ryan Krull, Riverfront Times, December 2020)
The Sniff Test (Peter Andrey Smith, Science, October 2021)
Stories about the court system’s failures are generally best when they focus on people, but this story artfully foregrounds a canine character, exploring the dubious science of “cadaver dogs” as the latest of the forensic disciplines that judges, lawyers, and researchers are finding lack any real scientific backing. Many such stories look at trials from the distant past, but Peter Andrey Smith manages to capture multiple timelines while also centering a tragic Colorado case that is very much happening now and features a duel between a star expert witness and the Innocence Project lawyers questioning her claims.
Behind a dog’s leathery, wet nose lies a cavernous labyrinth of scroll-shaped chambers called ethmoturbinates lined with some 200 million olfactory receptors, encoded by an estimated 2.5 times as many genes as in humans. In recent years, researchers studying canine cognition have shown pet dogs can sniff out minute quantities of odorants, such as the odor of their owner’s T-shirt after it has been worn.
More forensic science stories:
- “Forensic Science Put Jimmy Genrich in Prison for 24 Years. What if It Wasn’t Science?” (Meehan Crist and Tim Requarth, The Nation, February 2018)
- “Trial by Fire” (David Grann, The New Yorker, September 2009)
- “Playing With Fire” (Liliana Segura, The Intercept, February 2015)
- “The Interview” (Douglas Starr, The New Yorker, December 2013)
- “Framed for Murder by His Own DNA” (Katie Worth, The Marshall Project, April 2018)
How the Unchecked Power of Judges Is Hurting Poor Texans (Neena Satija, Texas Monthly, September 2019)
On the other hand: If a writer is too focused on the people (or the dogs), they may miss the big picture dynamics. When an innocent person goes to prison, it’s a failure of multiple people and institutions. I love how Neena Satija uses a single assault charge — a more common crime than murder, the typical focus of wrongful conviction stories — to help us understand the problems of money, favoritism, and red tape that surround how people who can’t afford to pay for lawyers get represented, or not represented.
A 58-year-old with strawberry-blond hair and thin glasses, [Ray] Espersen was one of Austin’s most prolific lawyers: the previous year he’d been paid for work on 331 felonies and 275 misdemeanors in Travis County, as well as 46 felonies in neighboring Williamson County—more cases than nearly any other Austin-area attorney. … [Marvin] Wilford did not know this. What he did know was that … Espersen didn’t seem to be listening. The visitation room was tiny, and the two sat practically knee to knee, but “he was looking at the floor, scratching his head, looking everywhere but at me,” Wilford recalled.
More stories that capture a big system:
- “Gatekeeper Court Keeps Gates Shut” (Ken Armstrong and Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune, June 2000)
- “Death Isn’t Fair” (Mike Hall, Texas Monthly, December 2002)
- “Can Prosecutors Put the Same Gun in the Hands of More Than One Shooter?” (Ken Armstrong, The Marshall Project and The New Yorker, November 2017)
Drawings from Prison (Valentino Dixon, Golf Digest, May 2012)
Did you hear the one about the golf magazine that helped free a man from prison? While serving a long sentence for murder, Valentino Dixon grew obsessed with drawing golf courses, which caught the attention of Golf Digest. But the editors there also found his conviction suspicious, and they dug in. Dixon is now free, and the original article about his case involves a fascinating juxtaposition of hard-nosed criminal justice reporting and Dixon’s honest, intimate account of finding mental solace through his ordeal by drawing greens, holes, and trees.
I’ve never hit a golf ball. I’ve never set foot on a golf course. Everything I draw is from inside a 6-by-10 prison cell. The first course I ever drew was for warden James Conway. He would often stop by my cell to ask how my appeal was going and to see my drawings. Before he retired, the warden brought me a photograph of the 12th hole at Augusta National and asked if I could draw it for him. … The look of a golf hole spoke to me. It seemed peaceful. I imagine playing it would be a lot like fishing.
More first-person writing from the proven-innocent:
- “My First Night on Death Row as an Innocent Man” (Anthony Graves, ACLU, January 2018)
- “Who Owns Amanda Knox?” (Amanda Knox, The Atlantic, July 2021)
- ”The Sun Does Shine: Excerpt” (Anthony Ray Hinton with Lara Love Hardin, Macmillan, March 2018)
I’m Sorry (Kyle Zirpolo as told to Debbie Nathan, Los Angeles Times, October 2005)
It’s sad to say, but many readers now shrug when they see a headline like “Innocent Person Freed” because the phenomenon feels so common. The stories told about these cases can fall into patterns and cliches that lose readers. One solution is to focus not on the story of the wrongfully accused, but on someone else involved in the case. Reporter Debbie Nathan was even more creative, ceding the voice of her story almost entirely over to Kyle Zirpolo: a young man who, as a child, had accused adults of sexual crimes, but later realized he’d been pressured by the authorities to invent the stories. Nathan follows up his account with the backstory of why he came forward.
Anytime I would give them an answer that they didn’t like, they would ask again and encourage me to give them the answer they were looking for. It was really obvious what they wanted. I know the types of language they used on me: things like I was smart, or I could help the other kids who were scared.
More stories about the effects of wrongful convictions on people outside prison:
- “A Bestselling Author Became Obsessed With Freeing a Man From Prison. It Nearly Ruined Her Life.” (Abbott Kahler, The Marshall Project and New York, March 2021)
- “I Write About the Law. But Could I Really Help Free a Prisoner?” (Emily Bazelon, The New York Times Magazine, June 2021)
- “Lorri Davis Saw Accused Murderer Damien Echols In A True Crime Doc. Then She Married Him.”(Rachel Monroe, Elle, August 2019)
The Murders at the Lake (Mike Hall, Texas Monthly, April 2014)
I remember vividly sitting in a coffee shop in Austin as the sun set, squinting and ignoring my stomach growls while I inhaled each twist in Mike Hall’s story about a murder mystery and the many lives consumed in its wake. There are questions around forensic science and the behavior of prosecutors, but Hall keeps casting his camera in new directions, novelistically accreting details and tapping true-crime conventions to lead us towards ineffable questions of time, tragedy, and justice.
[David] Spence insisted he couldn’t remember murdering anyone, but he began to wonder if it was possible that he had really done it.
“Did I kill them kids?”
“I think you did,” said the deputy.
“Why don’t I know?”
More kaleidoscopic, character-driven tales:
- “Homer and Harold” (Ken Armstrong, The Marshall Project with Smithsonian and WBUR, December 2016)
- “Texas v Larry Swearingen” (Andrew Purcell, The Dublin Review, Summer 2013)
- “Remembering Satan” (Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, May 1993)
- “Blood Cries Out” (Sean Patrick Cooper, The Atavist Magazine, November 2018)
- “Remembering the Murder You Didn’t Commit” (Rachel Aviv, The New Yorker, June 2017)
- “Innocent People Don’t Run” (Liam Boylan-Pett, Løpe Magazine, February 2019)
- “Life After ‘Life’” (Samantha Melamed, Philadelphia Inquirer, January 2020)
Dead Certainty (Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker, January 2016)
Let’s end this on a note of caution. For every somber reporting project, there’s some juicy content that uses the tools and stylistic modes of journalism, but lets either entertainment or advocacy take precedence. I’ve returned maybe a dozen times to Kathryn Schulz’s essay on Making a Murderer, which explores why journalists, filmmakers, and others have grown comfortable questioning the verdicts of the courts, and what the costs of this can be, especially for the grieving families at the center of these cases.
Yet the most obvious thing to say about true-crime documentaries is something that, surprisingly often, goes unsaid: They turn people’s private tragedies into public entertainment. If you have lost someone to violent crime, you know that, other than the loss itself, few things are as painful and galling as the daily media coverage, and the license it gives to strangers to weigh in on what happened. That experience is difficult enough when the coverage is local, and unimaginable when a major media production turns your story into a national pastime.
- “Truth and Consequences” (Blair McClendon, The Drift, September 2021)
- “Hauptmann and Circumstantial Evidence” (Edmund Pearson, The New Yorker, March 1935)
- “Not That Innocent” (Elizabeth Bruenig, The Atlantic, June 2021)
Maurice Chammah is a staff writer at The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. He was on a team that won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. His first book, Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty, was published by Crown in 2021 and won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Book Award. A former Fulbright fellow in Cairo, he also plays the violin and is an assistant editor at American Short Fiction. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
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As host of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, Brendan O’Meara is no stranger to talking about the art and craft of storytelling. In this craft-focused excerpt, we’re digging into Episode 313, in which he interviewed Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby and writer Katia Savchuk about their work on the latest issue of The Atavist.
Why don’t we copy the work of writers we admire more? Don’t plagiarize (duh), but when it comes to practicing our scales, why aren’t we retyping more work of the masters? After all, the masters did this. Hunter S. Thompson famously typed up the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. Joan Didion did the same. Now, add to that list Katia Savchuk, the freelance journalist who wrote The Atavist’s latest feature, “A Crime Beyond Belief.”
Katia, who’s based in the Bay Area, routinely copies the work of the New Yorker writer David Grann, someone she greatly admires. “I found it to be an amazing practice,” she says. “First of all, it gets your hands flowing, the words flowing, instead of just sitting down with your own text, a blank page. It’s almost like running a few laps to give your fingers something to do.”
Before my conversation with Katia, Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby speaks of wrangling in Katia’s piece, a 19,000-word story that demanded a tricky structure. The key wasn’t merely organization, but pace: “trying to think about how we can order … the story such that the reader never feels like, ‘I have everything I came for — why are there still 10,000 words left?’ Figuring out that structure where things didn’t really feel front-loaded was maybe the most important decision we had to make.”
And later, Katia digs into how she kept it all straight — the transcripts, the photos, her notes, everything — to tackle this ambitious, riveting account of a series of bizarre home invasions, and the Harvard-trained lawyer convicted of committing them.
“A Crime Beyond Belief” was more than four years in the making, so please enjoy this excerpt from Episode 313 of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and concision.
Brendan O’Meara: What really struck you about Katia’s story when it came across your desk?
Seyward Darby: The story’s about a kidnapping that police in Vallejo, California, initially said was a hoax. It was sensational at the time: It was in the national news, wound up on Dateline and Nancy Grace, all that kind of stuff. And so we’re not the first to tell the story.
But what Katia has done here is gone deep into what happened, who was involved, and how so many things went wrong — but then, ultimately, were also made right. We wanted to take the readers on a revelatory journey, to go along with some of the characters as they encountered information and had to decide what was true and what wasn’t. So there’s a little bit of puzzle-piecing that the piece itself shows happening.
It’s a really complicated, twisty piece, and definitely one where structure was not a given. When she turned in the first draft, I spent a lot of time kind of staring at it and writing notes on Post-its and trying to think about how we can order them in the story such that the reader never feels like, “I have everything I came for — why are there still 10,000 words left?” Figuring out that structure where things didn’t really feel front-loaded was maybe the most important decision we had to make. Trying to figure out, you know, how to not just organize things, but pace things. Pace was just really, really crucial here.
Anytime that a reporter is brought into a story as a character, I always love reading that dynamic, and how a reporter is writing about a reporter in a story like this.
Henry Lee, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter, is such an interesting subject. A lot of the events in the story, for the most part, went down in 2015. And he says, you know, we were kind of just at the beginning of a reckoning about law enforcement, and how to approach them as reporters. The other thing that’s really important to remember here is: How often do you hear cops publicly say something like “we think this kidnapping was a hoax”? Lee points out that that’s just an insane thing to claim and have it not be true.
That’s definitely a tension in the piece — once you know everything, you’re like how could they ever say that it was a hoax? But if you’re on the receiving end of that information? I don’t know if we would call it a biased assumption or a human assumption, but you think, well, that has to be true. Like, why else would they claim something so outlandish? That’s obviously a flaw, but it’s an interesting one, because I do think that there are moments in the story where you know, as journalists, you can take a step back and say, Well, yeah, I guess I get why that might happen.
Several years ago, I pitched a story to you for The Atavist, and I remember you coming at me like, “this feels like there should be a Big Fish element to it.” You brought that movie sensibility to it, which I thought was really intriguing. I bring that up only to say that in this piece, there was this Gone Girl element that was dropped into this piece — and it made me wonder if you’d put that on Katia’s radar. Maybe you could speak to how sometimes you use those movies as a way to crack the code of a piece that’s coming across your desk.
That’s a great question. In this case, I didn’t have to bring up Gone Girl because the police were the ones who brought up Gone Girl. They were the ones who were telling this woman’s family, before she had been returned by the kidnapper, “we think this is being faked. You should go watch Gone Girl” — which had just come out a couple of months prior, the David Fincher adaptation of the Gillian Flynn book. Nancy Grace called her the real-life Gone Girl or something along those lines. In that case, the cinematic story was almost part of the problem, right? People looked at the situation and for whatever reason, decided, “okay, we actually think the thing that’s happening in real life sounds a whole lot like this thing in a book. And so we’re gonna start calling it that.” And that obviously did a tremendous disservice to the couple at the heart of this entire story.
But you’re absolutely right: Oftentimes I’m thinking through stories and thinking, “how can we make this more cinematic?” As you were asking the question, I was like, “What movie would I compare the story to as Katia put it together?” I’m gonna have to think about that for a second. Maybe by the end of us talking, I’ll have a good comparison.
I know it doesn’t run backwards, but in a sense, because it’s a slow exposure, like a Polaroid coming into focus, it kind of makes me think of Memento.
I think describing it as like a Polaroid coming into focus is absolutely right. That’s definitely the vibe we were going for in working on the story from a structural standpoint: building tension, doing some jump cuts. We wanted it to feel like the reader would start to see things clearly at the same time some of the subjects in the story are starting to see things clearly. And then some of them never did — Matthew Muller, who is now convicted of this crime, doesn’t necessarily see it yet. Maybe he never will, because of the mental illness that he’s afflicted with. But then there are some other really interesting questions that she gets into at the end about how there are other people affected by the events who still have questions about what did or didn’t happen. Even when things might seem settled to some parties involved in a situation, to others reality can still feel somewhat out of reach. I don’t know if the Polaroid is quite in focus for everyone involved.
Something I’ve noticed over the course of several Atavist stories is that the first two-thirds or three-quarters is often, if not exclusively, third-person — and then in that final chapter or the final quarter or maybe even just an epilogue, we see the reporter come in. What is it about that particular structuring that appeals to you?
I’d never thought of it as a pattern, but I guess it is to a certain extent, and on maybe a certain type of story. When you’re talking about the types of stories we do that introduce a lot of these gigantic questions, and when you get to the end there’s a bit of a what does it all mean? — and I think sometimes the reporter can be a helpful prism for starting to tie some of those things together. I’d like to think that by the time you get to the last passage of a piece, our writers have really earned the trust of readers. So when they do become the prism for thinking about the story in its totality, the reader almost feels like, “Oh, good, okay, now they’re here.”
It definitely doesn’t work in every story. And I wouldn’t ever want to put it in every story. But I do feel like there are stories where I want to know what the reporter thinks. I want to see the reporter, in this case, talk to Mathew Muller over the course of four years. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision where we sit down and say, “Is this the kind of piece where at the end we’re gonna go in the first person?” And certainly there are stories where there’s some first person throughout and there are other stories where some first person comes in, you know, much earlier. But some of these pieces that feel like they have lingering loose threads, sometimes having the writer there to navigate that can be a good way to wrap things up.
I liken it to a whodunit: And at the very end, Hercule Poirot is going to come in, he’s going to sum everything up, he’s going to answer some questions. It’s relieving some of the pressure, it’s bringing some new light, it almost grounds it. Like, I feel like my feet are back on the ground when the reporter comes in to show the work and show some interaction and raise some questions that sometimes we don’t even know the answers to.
Obviously, there are still people who say don’t bring yourself as a journalist into magazine reporting unless it’s a first-person story of some kind. I just feel like when you’re talking about these really rangy pieces, you want it to feel grounded in the end.
It’s something that you get more of in podcasting, because obviously you’re hearing the host, you much more feel like you’re in some kind of relationship. You’re letting them into your head, and the reporter becomes a way for listeners to have access to certain questions, or certain issues or whatever it may be. And as far as I’m concerned, it can work in writing as well — at least it doesn’t just have to be audio-driven.
I hate the first-person stuff where it’ll start off like, “Matthew McConaughey was eating steak tartare, and I walked up to him.” But we don’t have to worry about that with the Atavist stuff because you guys handle it so well.
Although now I feel like I’m just gonna do that at some point just to make you angry.
So I’m working on an essay about the pros and cons of voice recorders and tape recorders. John McPhee never uses them at all; he thinks that even though they capture everything, they’re not selective. And he trusts that when he’s taking notes, he’s getting the best stuff. But at the same time, sometimes your penmanship can fail you. And by not capturing everything, you’re not getting the exact thing down. It’s a conundrum. But I’m very romantically tied to the idea of like, just pencil and notebook. How do you feel about it?
Katia Savchuk: Yeah, I don’t think I could operate like that because I’d be too focused on, “what am I missing? Get that down. Remember that!” I’d like to know that there’s a machine going in the background. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going to be important until later. Also, when you interview other people, you learn other things and you connect dots that you wouldn’t have otherwise. So I always record and take notes. I’m taking notes on the ambient details: what someone’s expression looks like, what’s on the wall, those kinds of things. I trust the machine to be getting down the exact quotes.
A long time ago, I was using a recorder and talking to a horse trainer. In the background, you could hear blue jays chirping — and that ended up being a little detail I was able to fold in to the particular chapter I was writing. It just added that extra layer of flavor that I wouldn’t have been able to get if I was just scribbling like crazy trying to keep up with what he was saying.
I mean, there’s obviously so much to be said for interviewing in person. The trust that’s built, the things you notice. But there’s also something I enjoy about doing interviews over the phone, because I usually try to type in real time. First of all, it kind of saves you time. I have an in-ear Olympus ear bud recorder, and I’m also typing at the same time in this tool called Pear Note. Then once I’m done recording, I can import the audio, and I link them. So then you can press play in Pear Note and you hear that part of the tape. So that really helped with fact-checking the story.
I know Top Chef has been on for like 19 seasons, but my wife and I just discovered it. On the latest episode, one of the judges said, “your plate has to have like authorship” — and another said, “you have to edit your plate.” And I was like, oh, cooking and writing are coming together: You have to have that voice, and how you have to think about what to leave in and what to leave out. Maybe it’s not cooking, but are there any other artistic media that really help you become a better writer?
I do love dancing — as a hobby, and not in any way professionally. But it’s something I’ve been doing for a long time, just for fun. And there are lots of elements, especially for people who take it seriously; it’s practicing, it’s getting better over time. Like the Ira Glass quote: If you have good taste, you won’t be meeting your own standards early on. You really just have to plow through that and get a little bit closer and a little bit closer.
But what I’ve been thinking about lately is the sense of play that I get from dancing. Like, I approach it from a total place of this is just for fun, to unwind. I don’t have anything wrapped up in it around “I want to be the best, I want this dance to be perfect.” There’s nothing like that. So I’ve been trying to see ways that I can bring some more of that sense of play into work. A lot of the work is really serious and important, and depending on the story, you’re writing about real people and their lives. But whether it’s at the sentence level, or free writing, or feeling a sense of play when you’re coming up with ideas, that’s something I’m working on.
When we were kids, even in middle or high school, when you were told to write a story you just wanted to have fun with it and write the thing, and you didn’t care if it sucked or won an award, or all these things that we attach our prestige and status to, and you just did it because it was a fun creative outlet. We often get so earnest with our writing and our work. We just attach too much doom and gloom to it — you know, the tortured writer — so it’s great to hear you talk about play. I love that.
And I was one of those people who started on the middle school newspaper and all through high school. So I definitely try to tap in as much as I can to that spirit.
On your website, you write that you’re a “proud generalist,” “often drawn to stories about inequality, psychology, wrongdoing, and mysteries of all kinds.” How did you arrive at that in your journalism?
I added that line not too long ago, actually. I hear so much about “you need a niche.” And it certainly can be helpful, but it’s just something that doesn’t work for me. One thing I love about being a journalist, and especially a freelancer, is getting to follow your curiosity and learn about so many different things. I used to work at Forbes magazine, for the wealth team. There’s a lot that falls under that, as it’s probably the broadest team, but as you move up, it tends to get more and more specialized, and that just wasn’t what I wanted to do. But I did sort of try to think about, what are the themes in my work? What am I generally drawn to? I love investigative stories and have a bit of background in investigative reporting, and always drawn to public interest issues. But I also have this love of mystery.
You worked as a private investigator too. In what way has that helped you as a reporter?
It was probably a lot less exciting than it sounds. I wasn’t tailing people on the street, looking for cheating husbands or anything. It was a private investigative firm, and a lot of what they did was background checks and investigations that are part of lawsuits. They did do exciting work, but a lot of it had to do with databases and knowing how to use those to find information.
I loved working there. It was some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with, and I loved doing investigative work. It was just that the end product would be this memo that would go to whoever commissioned it at the law firm, or the partners at some hedge fund or something, and then it’d be like this great story [that] nobody would really see. So I just really wanted someone to read it, and that creative aspect was equally important to me. I do wish I still had all those databases, but they’re expensive. And you know, you have to be licensed.
In the Venn diagram of all those things that you’re interested in, this Atavist piece kind of encapsulates a whole lot: wrongdoing, psychology, inequality, mystery, it’s right there. How did you arrive at this story? It was pretty mainstream at the time, but then stuck with it and told something that is wholly and uniquely you.
I found out about it in the news, like everybody else. It was in the news in 2015, obviously, because the police initially called the main crime I write about a hoax. The word that everybody uses is “bizarre,” which it certainly was, so it caught my eye, but I was working at Forbes at the time, and it wasn’t something that would fall into their coverage area. Not too long after I went freelance in 2017, the victims sued the city of Vallejo, California, and ended up winning a settlement, and so it was back in the headlines. I was like, “oh, yeah, that story is just fascinating — somebody must have already written the magazine version of it.” And I looked, and they hadn’t. I thought somebody must be currently writing a magazine version of it, but why don’t I just give it a shot? So I reached out to a lot of the people involved, and then went from there.
It’s funny hearing you say that because sometimes I come up with ideas and think, “This is great — but if I came up with it, someone else must have by now and it’s not even worth pursuing.”
And so much of the time, it turns out to be true. There are things that are in the zeitgeist, and people who are magazine writers see all the elements. But sometimes it’s the ones that are in plain sight [that work out]. I’m sure a lot of people did reach out to them, but they probably couldn’t get access right away. Nobody wanted to talk in the early days. A few years after the main events, since the initial media circus, they were maybe a little bit more receptive.
Access is such a tricky thing, of course, to tell these kinds of stories, and in getting that kind of trust. And sometimes just getting that first cold email, the first cold call, to land — because that’s the one that can start the momentum. What becomes that first lead domino, as you’re trying to build sources for a story this ambitious?
The first thing I did was to reach out to the victims in the main case that I’m writing about, Denise Huskins and Aaron Quinn. This story is in the Bay Area, which is where I live, so I figured out that a friend of mine who is a criminal defense attorney has come across their criminal defense attorney, so maybe we can talk about why they had one — which is obviously because they weren’t initially believed.
So I wrote to her and she was willing to pass on my email to their attorney, who was willing to pass on my email to them. So we ended up corresponding a little bit and then meeting in person just to kind of feel each other out. Sometimes I like to say, “let’s meet with no commitments,” so they don’t feel like they’re signing on to anything. But this was obviously a very traumatic and personal story for them. And a lot of people had reached out to them. So they wanted to see, you know, do they feel comfortable and trust me, and so I drove to where they live. And we had a great conversation. But then the next day, they said, actually, we’re signing a book deal with an NDA, so we won’t be talking to you. The book ended up coming out, which was essentially an extended interview, it was really their story in their voice. And then later, I ended up interviewing them as well. They also gave extended testimony in court about what happened to them.
In terms of the man who was convicted of the crime, there was one family friend who was quoted in all the news stories, and I found him on Facebook, I think, and I reached out to him because he was kind of acting as a spokesperson for the family. I just said something along the lines of, “a lot of people are probably reaching out to you,” and I gave my impression of what the coverage had been so far. And in this case, it really did seem one-dimensional in terms of the man involved, who is the ex-Marine, Harvard-trained lawyer who did pro bono work for most of his life, and then ended up being convicted of these pretty bizarre crimes. Some of the news articles had mentioned almost in passing that he has bipolar disorder, he struggles with mental illness, but it was just kind of a throwaway thing, and it didn’t really come up in his court case, either. And it’s a federal court case. That’s not to excuse anything that he did, but everyone is three-dimensional; how does somebody go from A to B? What role did mental illness play? How was that for his family to watch and be part of? So I reached out to them and told them that my intention was really to go deeper than any of the headlines had done — not to do anything sensational, but really try to understand his life as a whole, and write a more nuanced, thorough piece, and that I was willing to put in the time to do it and find a publication that would edit it with that perspective as well.
How did you develop that degree of empathy to bring that to your reporting, so you can get to that nuance and beyond the headlines?
I don’t know if you develop empathy. I mean, I think to be a magazine writer, you have to have empathy. You spend a lot of time trying to get inside a person’s mind in a way. If it’s a case of wrongdoing, then you have empathy for the people that are the victims of whatever it is. But usually, there’s no 100% clear victims and villains. In this case — and again, not to excuse what he did — but Mathew Muller himself said, “if I’m dangerous, I should be behind bars.” But in many ways, he was also a victim of psychosis, and certain systems that told him that it wasn’t okay to reveal that. Like the military, like the legal profession, or a father who was kind of a coach-type figure with a tough-it-out mentality. These were all reasons he didn’t want to speak out when he started running into troubles with delusion.
That’s why I love magazine writing: It lets you give all the context, and the nuance that really is there, whenever humans are involved.
Do you find a way to integrate some sort of a pressure valve into your reporting, given how deep you can go with people talking about sometimes very disturbing, dramatic things? So you don’t take on too much of what you’re reporting on?
I think there are so many other people out there doing work that is so much more dramatic; the people on the frontline in Ukraine right now, certainly. In this particular case, a lot of the interviews were pretty spread out. Some of the interviews were pretty intensive, like five hours long at a time, but they were spread out over time. And with Matt Muller, we did a lot of our interviews over video conference in the jail; they don’t allow in-person visitors in the jail even for family, which is kind of crazy that somebody wouldn’t see another living person. But they were limited to half an hour at a time in those in those interviews. So it was pretty broken up.
I don’t think I have any revolutionary coping mechanisms. Dance helps, taking a walk. I have an accountability buddy, Jaeah Lee, another freelancer here in the Bay Area who is an amazing reporter and writer, and we check in weekly, and we’ve done that pretty much for the last four years. I think that really helps; it’s like having a colleague, a sort of home base that you can run things by — wins, challenges, just bounce anything off of.
The story is practically 20,000 words. As a writer, it’s a lot to get your head around. How did you go about organizing your reporting material so that you had access to the things that you wanted to draw from?
I definitely don’t think I could write a long piece without Scrivener at this point. What I usually do, and did in this case, is just tried to put everything in there. I tried to map out what the sections were going to be, and I created a folder there for each section, and tried to put everything I had in that folder: photos, interview transcripts, court records. In Scrivener, you can do a split screen. So I would then have that folder open and whatever document I was looking at, in the bottom, and I would have the writing window at the top. That’s usually how I organize things.
I’m naturally a disorganized person. And I like to think I’m not alone in that. I’ve got things for a big project, and I’ve got it by year in folders. So at least it’s organized like that. But I’m sure that within that year, it’s going to have to be further subdivided. So I’m always curious how people do that, because it can get unwieldy and out of hand — and then, like, this Google Drive has some things saved here, but then this one over here has some other things.
I mean, it’s still a perennial challenge. I think to an extent I was organized, but at the same time, I always think that I’m gonna write down, as I’m writing, which page of which court record I got this fact — so that when fact-checking comes along I just know exactly where it is. But I just have still never managed to do that, you know, because when you’re writing, you don’t want to note down the exact page number always.
“Oh, I’ll remember to do it. I’ll make a little note.” And then you never do.
Yeah. But I will say another thing that was really helpful, especially in this story, was having a timeline in a spreadsheet format. You have the years and the months, and then I had different columns for the different characters or threads that I was following. So there’s one for Matt Muller’s world, the world of Denise and Aaron, or the world of the crime and the investigation, and putting the key events there really helps. Sometimes you draw connections that way — “oh, this actually just happened the same month as this happened” — so it helps with structuring things and seeing the patterns that might not be apparent.
Speaking of structure, given how big the piece is, it’s always a challenge to have the requisite tension to keep people reading. What was the challenge in getting your head around the structure and making sure that requisite tension and pacing was there and satisfying?
I give a lot of credit to Seyward for that and working on the structure with me. Initially, it seemed like the structure I started with was going to work: It seemed to make sense to start with the main crime, which is this bizarre kidnapping that happened on Mare Island in Vallejo in 2015. There were wetsuits, lasers, pre-recorded messages, NyQuil, blood pressure cuffs — I mean, there’s a lot of bizarre details, which you could read about in the story, but it just seemed to make sense to start there, because it’s so gripping. But once you looked at the story as a whole, starting there ended up taking some of the air out of it. If you build to that crime, you know in advance what’s going to happen, you know that Matt’s responsible, and this was never going to be a whodunit. A lot of the story is also about Matt: How did he go from this sort of model citizen, for lack of a better word, to this convicted criminal, and why did he do what he did?
So what we ended up doing was starting with this raid on a cabin in South Lake Tahoe, where he’s arrested. And we describe a crime there — but it’s actually not that crime. It’s a different crime. We see the cabin and we see all these bizarre things in the cabin. It’s super-cluttered like a hoarder’s home: hair dye, and stun gun, and a bunch of gloves and electronics, spray paints, youcrime scene tape, a penis pump. You’re like, what happened here? And that drives the mystery a little bit.
We learn that he’s arrested. And then we’re like, Well, who is this guy? And how did he get there? But also near the end of the first section, a detective discovers this long, blonde hair. And none of the victims in the crime that we just learned about was blonde, and the suspect isn’t blonde. So then, we hope that what drives a good portion of this story is: Whose hair is that? And then the tension that drives another good portion of the story is: Was this crime a hoax or not?
What were some challenges that you experienced as you were synthesizing the piece?
There were quite a few challenges along the way. One of them was Matt’s mental state. As I mentioned, delusion played a big part in his life, and in the course of interviewing him — when we first got in touch in 2018, he was in a federal prison, and then he got moved to a jail here in Solano County — his mental health kind of fluctuated. So trying to figure out, is he or is he not in a state of mind where I can trust what he’s saying? Does he trust me? He kept pulling out because paranoia got the better of him. He told me just last month, which I didn’t know before, that he thought I was a CIA agent.
Then at one point, he ended up being deemed incompetent to stand trial, and the judge ordered that he should get anti-psychotic medication against his will. But he was in a psychiatric hospital, and it wasn’t clear when or if he would be restored to legal competency, and I really wasn’t sure how we were going to fact-check with him. If he’s deemed incompetent to stand trial, it really doesn’t feel ethical to reach out to him, because he might say something that he wouldn’t say if he was mentally stable, and it might be incriminating. So if he’s not legally competent, it doesn’t feel like he would be competent to you know participate in an interview. He did end up being restored to legal competency, and we did fact-check with him. But that was a situation I had never encountered before.
The piece is intense.
Yeah. There are a lot of twists there. If you were writing it as a novel, you’d be like, “well, that’s a that’s a little bit too convenient.” For example, the lead investigator having had a relationship with the intended target of the kidnapping, who is also the ex-fiancée of the victim. I mean, it’s very odd.
If you were writing a novel, you’d be like, “this is lazy.”
There’s just a lot of things that feel like a movie, which is the theme that kept coming up over and over and over in the story: people thinking that life is like the movies, and then realizing that it’s not.
At the end of these conversations I typically like to ask guests for a recommendation of some kind — that can be anything from something professional to a comfy pair of socks you’re really excited about. Fanny packs. Who knows? So what would you recommend for the listeners out there?
I would recommend a practice that I started doing this year that I always meant to do, but never did before, which is to copy the work of your idols. It’s something you always hear about, like Joan Didion did that, artists in training go to the museum and copy the works of the greats. So it’s something that I always thought was intriguing. But I actually tried it this year. And I started with David Grann’s work, who is one of my heroes.
He has written a lot of things in the true crime genre, so I thought it was a good one. I ended up copying his stories, just retyping them for 10 minutes before I started writing for the day. And I found it to be an amazing practice. I mean, first of all, it like gets your hands just flowing, like the words flowing, instead of just sitting down with your own text, like a blank page. It’s almost like running a few laps to give your fingers something to do. Also, I feel like you pick up things that you don’t from reading alone — the sort of decisions on a sentence level that a writer makes. I found it to be really inspiring and educational, and also kind of fun.
Adam Morgan | Longreads | May 2019 | 14 minutes (3,793 words)
Four years ago, when the news broke that a second Harper Lee novel had been discovered fifty years after To Kill a Mockingbird, the literary world was shocked. Some readers were thrilled by the prospect of returning to the world of Scout, Atticus Finch, and Boo Radley. Others were concerned the 88-year-old Lee might have been pressured to publish an unfinished draft. But Casey Cep, an investigative reporter for the New Yorker and the New York Times, drove down to Alabama to get to the bottom of it. And what she found wasn’t a publishing conspiracy, but another lost book Lee had attempted to write for more than a decade, but never finished.
The book was called The Reverend. It would have been a true-crime novel like In Cold Blood (a book Lee helped Truman Capote research, write, and edit, despite his failure to give her any credit). The Reverend would have told the story of Willie Maxwell, a black preacher who murdered five members of his own family in the 1970s in order to collect life insurance money. It would have touched on voodoo, racial politics in post-industrial Alabama, and a courtroom setpiece that rivaled To Kill a Mockingbird for drama. But Harper Lee never finished writing The Reverend, and now, thanks to Casey Cep, we know why.
Cep’s debut, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, is fascinating, addicting, and unbearably suspenseful. Cep actually tells three concentric stories: the crimes of Willie Maxwell, the trials of his lawyer Tom Radney, and Harper Lee’s failed attempt to write about them. When I called Cep from “a Southern phone number” on an unseasonably hot spring afternoon, she initially thought I was one of her sources calling with a “some bombshell thing they want to show me, far too late to help with the book.”
Bala had since moved abroad, and could not be easily reached, but as Wroblewski checked into his background he discovered that he had recently published a novel called “Amok.” Wroblewski obtained a copy, which had on the cover a surreal image of a goat—an ancient symbol of the Devil. Like the works of the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, the book is sadistic, pornographic, and creepy. The main character, who narrates the story, is a bored Polish intellectual who, when not musing about philosophy, is drinking and having sex with women.
Wroblewski, who read mostly history books, was shocked by the novel’s contents, which were not only decadent but vehemently anti-Church. He made note of the fact that the narrator murders a female lover for no reason (“What had come over me? What the hell did I do?”) and conceals the act so well that he is never caught. Wroblewski was struck, in particular, by the killer’s method: “I tightened the noose around her neck.” Wroblewski then noticed something else: the killer’s name is Chris, the English version of the author’s first name. It was also the name that Krystian Bala had posted on the Internet auction site. Wroblewski began to read the book more closely—a hardened cop turned literary detective.
— This recently unlocked New Yorker story comes recommended by Eva Holland, a writer based in Whitehorse, Yukon who writes:
David Grann’s “True Crime,” is a strange story of a Polish detective who becomes fixated on a disturbing, provocative, postmodern novel that may be the key to a brutal unsolved murder. The story is fascinating and layered, and I’m guessing I’m not the only ex-liberal arts student who will find aspects of the main suspect’s character uncomfortably familiar.
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Photo: Via YouTube