Category Archives: immersion

Time to call ‘In Cold Blood’ fiction?

Why Truman Capote’s masterwork keeps making news.

Everyone acknowledges that true stories can never be fully known—too many details lack corroboration, too many witnesses disagree about what really happened.—Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

Reading the excellent new writing book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, I was a tad surprised to see Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood extolled on page five for its magisterial opening. Capote’s start is gorgeous, with its plain diction, elegiac tone, and rhythmic sound and syntax:

 The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.

The original cover, 1966.

The original cover, 1966.

But there are problems. I’ve written here before about In Cold Blood (here  and here), noting that today the book that has done so much to further narrative nonfiction storytelling would be a scandal in its genre, at least among practitioners. The two major and more or less proven examples of Capote’s fabrication are when Perry Smith, the killer he identified with, apologized on the gallows for the murders (never happened, according to credible witnesses, though apparently Capote had begged him to) and the book’s closing scene in which the crime’s chief investigator runs into one of the victim’s friends at their graves (totally invented).

Kidder is known to be a stickler for factual accuracy in his work, and his and Todd’s chapter “Beyond Accuracy” in Good Prose is a deep and nuanced discussion. They wouldn’t countenance what Capote did but maybe aren’t aware of the unending low boil concerning his book’s issues. They do weigh Janet Malcolm’s overblown indictment of journalists as confidence men, while acknowledging that Capote “appears to have lied shamelessly to his subjects,” presumably meaning the killers. Nothing about the cottage industry that’s grown up around what is or is not fictional in In Cold Blood. But then, that’s a book in itself.

Voss-Capote's Legacy

That book appears to have been published in 2011, Ralph F. Voss’s Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood.

Part of the publisher’s description reads:

Voss also examines Capote’s artful manipulation of the story’s facts and circumstances: his masking of crucial homoerotic elements to enhance its marketability; his need for the killers to remain alive long enough to get the story, and then his need for them to die so that he could complete it; and Capote’s style, his shaping of the narrative, and his selection of details—why it served him to include this and not that, and the effects of such choices—all despite confident declarations that “every word is true.”

Though it’s been nearly 50 years since the Clutter murders and far more gruesome crimes have been documented, In Cold Blood continues to resonate deeply in popular culture. Beyond questions of artistic selection and claims of truth, beyond questions about capital punishment and Capote’s own post-publication dissolution, In Cold Blood’s ongoing relevance stems, argues Voss, from its unmatched role as a touchstone for enduring issues of truth, exploitation, victimization, and the power of narrative.

I have Voss’s book and haven’t yet read it. But I need to, I realized, after a Wall Street Journal exposé on Friday. I don’t find very compelling the article, by Kevin Helliker, which points out that Capote was given special treatment by the case’s chief investigator, Alvin Dewey, and that Capote in turn made Dewey the hero of In Cold Blood. Newly discovered files from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation purportedly show Capote’s shadings of events to make Dewey look better and reveal Dewey’s large feet of clay. My guess is that readers will care even less about this than they do about the book’s fictional ending scene.

But maybe that’s not the point, or only part of it.

Admirers of In Cold Blood, including me, have used it as an example of narrative nonfiction because it’s geniusly written. But it’s inconsistent to praise it, especially to students, who love it, while knowing or even strongly suspecting its fabrications. And a recent movie about Capote has further muddied the picture, fictionalizing as it did the book’s supposed effect on him: it killed him. In fact, it made him rich and famous. And while being two-faced surely did his soul no good, what appears to have killed him, aside from severe alcoholism, was being banished by his high-society friends for revealing their secrets in his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.

Maybe it’s time for the nonfiction camp to give up In Cold Blood. Maybe we need to call it what it is, a great novel based on exhaustive research into a real crime. Its claim to be nonfiction is partly what made the book the sensation it was, of course, but it now endures on its literary merit. With added interest, for some of us, because of the deep and perplexing questions it raises about narrative and the role of the storyteller.

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Filed under fiction, honesty, immersion, journalism, narrative, NOTED

Noted: Gutkind on nonfiction’s truth

Does the nature of narrative complicate his 1-2-3 recipe?

The subject is there only by the grace of the author’s language.

—Joyce Carol Oates

Immersion journalist and nonfiction theorist Lee Gutkind distills his practices in an essay, “Three R’s of Narrative Nonfiction,” in the New York Times’s popular Draft column that deals with writing. Responsible narrative nonfiction writers follow a similar procedure to assure accuracy while recreating events they didn’t see and others’ mental states, asserts Gutkind. Here’s the nut of his essay:

But to reconstruct stories and scenes, nonfiction writers must conduct vigorous and responsible research. In fact, narrative requires more research than traditional reportage, for writers cannot simply tell what they learn and know; rather, they must show it. When I talk with my students, I introduce a process of work I call the three R’s: First comes research, then real world exploration and finally and perhaps most important, a fact-checking review of all that has been written.

The rest of Gutkind’s piece is an elaboration of his three stages. Pretty straightforward and old hat, though useful for students and teachers, his prescription is intended for the powerful literary technique of scenic construction. Gutkind himself is a modest figure in his work, present but impersonal, like John McPhee tends to be, though scene-by-scene construction in journalism is associated with the showy New Journalism of the 1970s.

Gutkind’s essay provoked a thoughtful response from one Hayden White, a retired English professor in California:

All narrative is fictional insofar as the “story” has to be made out of “the facts.” No set of facts adds up to or amounts to a story without the writer’s intervention as the story-teller. Secondly, the relation between factual and fictional writing is not a matter of either-or, but of some kind of mutual implicativeness having to do with the nature of stories themselves. It is impossible to avoid the use of literary devices even in historical writing, which typically aspires to deal in facts alone. Instead of reinforcing the idea that fact and fiction are opposed to one another, such that you have to be doing either one or the other, might it not be better to teach aspiring writers that even the most fact-bound writing cannot avoid “literariness”?

We all know the truth in White’s first assertion: everyone who witnesses an event sees something different and recounts it differently. The storyteller creates the story by imposing meaning and deciding emphasis. Ordinary journalism is maddening in its denial of this truth and in its societally useful but unacknowledged efforts to seek group consensus rather than individual insight. As for the commentator’s second point, that literary devices are essentially indistinguishable in fiction and nonfiction, amen.

White’s trenchant observations become perhaps too compressed and/or simply fail when he continues:

The mistake here is to think that “literature” (or literary writing) is “fictional” and to overlook the fact that not all fictional writing is “literary.” Unfortunately, it is to forget that all too little factual writing either lacks all literariness or is simply bad writing.

When he says in the first sentence that “not all fictional writing is ‘literary,’ ” I presume he’s bashing poor fiction but possibly—because of his first clause—being ironic toward some nonfiction that’s actually fiction. In his second sentence, I wonder if he means “too much” nonfiction lacks literary quality rather than “all too little.” I actually emailed White and asked him to elaborate for Narrative, but he either didn’t get my query or chose to ignore it. Manna in heaven for anyone who can decode his conclusion.

Gutkind makes a big deal of factual accuracy in his essay while emphasizing the use of scenes, the building blocks of dramatized writing, which became associated with fiction. Hence White’s interesting but peevish rejoinder. I presume that in the classroom, Gutkind, like most nonfiction teachers, notes that scenes are used not only to recreate experience but to convey point of view. Literary journalism says, I can show others’ key moments and viewpoints, not just this writer’s. This may indeed be literally impossible, despite cooperative subjects—think of the issues in recreating one’s own subjective experience—but smart readers appreciate and most readers cooperate with a necessary dollop of fiction.

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Filed under fiction, honesty, immersion, journalism, narrative, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, working method

Memoir, meet reportage

Brendan O’Meara on taking a reporter’s tack in memoir.

Guest Post by Brendan O’Meara

Twitter: @BrendanOMeara

Brendan O’Meara’s first book

Somebody at a book signing for Six Weeks in Saratoga asked me what I was working on next (this seems to always be a question when you’re selling your current book. What are you working on now?). I said I was writing a memoir about my father and baseball. Instead of the usual response, which is some measure of eyebrow-raising admiration, praise, and ego-stoking ovations, I got this:

“When Borders went out of business the only books left behind were Spanish books and memoirs.”

%&#!

Maybe if we were at the rim of the Grand Canyon I would have nudged her. But I thanked her for her input. I don’t think she bought a book. I felt ever-emboldened because when you feel strongly and passionately for your story, those words levitate off the page. The reader senses that energy and hopefully tells other reader friends about it. This is my hope.

So, yes, I too am writing a memoir, but I come at it from the blind side. I’m a reporter and I see memoir as no different than any other form of narrative nonfiction: the names are real, the events are verifiably true, and the writer did some—get this—reporting. The only difference is the story is closer to the marrow. The questions you pose to characters (which happen to be family/friends who acted never knowing they’d one day be told it was all on the record) ring awkward and, in some ways, judgmental.

My memoir, tentatively titled The Last Championship: A Memoir of My Father and Baseball is a hybrid of narrative journalism and memoir. It takes place at a senior slow-pitch softball tournament where I, the son, watch the father play ball. It illustrates the changing of roles as we age, how the children become caretakers of their parents, and how the young become old and the old become young again.

His team won the tournament and I thread the personal narrative around the seven-games. I’m profiling a handful of key players, ala David Halberstam, so the reader cares about the game action—narrative journalism. With the tournament as the backbone, I explore where my father comes from, who he is, what baseball means to him, and how he becomes the father I know, yet still know little about—memoir, personal exploration, the beating heart, etc.

It shows how sport, and specifically baseball, is the common tongue between fathers and sons, certainly between Dad and me. Watching those old guys play ball allowed me to reconcile the bitter end of my baseball career too. I then picked up the gear and played one more summer at age 30 to find the fun—10 years since I last played—and maybe one last championship.

Taking a reporter’s tack is best for the story and best for maintaining the readers’ trust.

Thanks, Jonah.

Thanks, Stephen.

Thanks, Jason.

Thanks, James.

Thanks, Janet.

Even when my memory is strong on an event from my childhood, I ask all the parties involved. I ask my sister if I really said what I said. I ask my Dad what he was thinking. Or I say, “Mom, what happened when you and Dad split up?” These questions are uncomfortable to ask. When it’s family, it’s hard. It avoids senseless naval gazing. You’re getting the important characters in your story to speak for themselves, not just what you thought and how you feel. A certain measure of detachment makes for a better product.

I try not to sound judgmental. I say, “What was that like? How tough was that for you?”

Or, as I told Dad at the beginning of this whole project, “I want to get to know my dad before too long. I want to know who your parents were (they died in a car accident when I was two). I want to learn where you came from.”

This puts a different tint on the lens. It softens the focus. My dad did some awful shit. I’m not going to lie. I’m not going to shy from writing about it, but that’s the mosaic. Readers will come away liking him more because of the ugly stuff. Because that’s human, dammit!

A character in the novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet said, “Memory is tricks and strangeness.”

It sure is.

It doesn’t have to be with some reporting.

Brendan O’Meara’s blog, Hash Tag for Writing, is at his website. He is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @BrendanOMeara.

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Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, creative nonfiction, immersion, journalism, memoir

Elizabeth Browne has wrung out the gems in the fascinating NYT story about Robert Caro and his working process.

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Filed under blogging, immersion, journalism, NOTED, working method

Luis Urrea’s ‘The Devil’s Highway’

A horrendous story told with bitter skill, highlighting the whole sordid, greedy mess that attends illegal broader crossings.—Kirkus Reviews

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea. Little, Brown, 256 pp.

Poet, memoirist, novelist, short story writer, journalist—Luis Alberto Urrea is the best writer I’d never heard of until I read The Devil’s Highway. Urrea, creative writing professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, has published thirteen books. A 2005 Pulitzer finalist, The Devil’s Highway is about the suffering and deaths in a group of twenty-six Mexicans who tried to sneak into America through the Arizona desert in May 2001. This tragic incident is deeply and palpably researched and fully imagined.

The book begins with the Border Patrol’s discovery of the dying refugees. At least fourteen of the Mexicans, most of them from Veracruz, a leafy tropical place, died in the desert, sunbaked—as maladapted as gringos to heat over 100 degrees, no shade, their scant water scalding and then gone. This part is written from the point of view of the Border Patrol, the writer having spent much time with its agents and environs. He also met with smugglers and illegals.

One of the book’s impressive feats is that readers experience how each group thinks, jokes, sees the world—and, surprisingly for Border Patrol’s image, we see their compassion for Mexicans who risk their lives for the most modest dreams; in their rough way the agents aren’t above playing jokes on them, and call them “tonks,” for the sound a cop’s flashlight makes hitting their heads, but the macho border guards labor daily to save them, too. Rushing to help this group, Urrea reports, they sustain twenty-six flat tires, and some drive on rims.

The cops and the illegals alone know the stakes:

 Death by sunlight, hyper-thermia, was the main culprit. But illegals drowned, froze, committed suicide, were murdered, were hit by trains and trucks, were bitten by rattlesnakes, had heart attacks. . . . The deaths, however, that fill the agents with deepest rage are the deaths of illegals lured into the wasteland and then abandoned by their Coyotes.

The book’s midsection recreates the fatal trip from beginning to end. As the illegal crossing falls apart in the trackless Sonora, Urrea artfully cites official reports and interviews. He’d already earned my trust, and my pleasure here extended to his imagination. He recreates the wanderings of the delirious, splintered group, and riffs on what it feels like to be at the mercy of careless, incompetent smugglers and to die horribly of thirst and heatstroke. Forget sunburn and cracked lips: the skin blackens, the kidneys stop, organs break down internally.

In places, the prose becomes surreal and hallucinogenic:

The day tormented them. Thirst. Pain. Men crawled under creosotes, under the scant shade of scraggly mesquites. It was a dull repetition of the entire walk. As rote as factory work. Their hours clanged by like machines. They were in the dirt like animals.

Six o’clock in the morning took ten hours to become seven o’clock.

A week later, it was eight o’clock.

The temperature screamed into the nineties before nine o’clock.

They waited. They couldn’t even talk. They panted like dogs, groaned. Men put their hands to their chests, almost delicately, as if checking their own pulses. But they were barely awake. They were half in dreams and half in the day, and the day itself was a bad dream. Dry wings swished in the air around them. Voices, coughing. Far above, the icy silver chips of airplanes cut the blue. Out of reach.

Named a best book of the year by many publications and optioned by Mexican director Luis Mandoki for a film to star Antonio Banderas, The Devil’s Highway reflects Urrea’s long interest, heritage, and expertise. As a young writer for The San Diego Reader, he published pieces adapted from and shaped into his first book, Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexican Border. In a video interview on his web site, Urrea says of the brutal city desk editors of his newspaper days: “I had not been handled indelicately like that. I’d been rejected but not insulted. But they really fixed that book for me.”

I read The Devil’s Highway against the backdrop of rage about fabrications in various nonfiction books, and Urrea’s exhaustive but imaginative work makes shortcuts or fabrications seem lazy or puerile. Urrea is not nearly as button-downed as Tracy Kidder or John McPhee—at points he clearly imagines—but even without his long note explaining to readers his multiple approaches, The Devil’s Highway teaches itself and justifies itself in every line to anyone who reads it.

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Filed under film/photography, honesty, immersion, journalism, REVIEW

Cheryl Strayed on honesty in memoir

I was an avid journaler all through my twenties and I wrote in my journal every day of my hike, sometimes twice a day. That journal was incredibly helpful to me as I wrote “Wild.” I recorded many details and snippets of dialogue that would otherwise have been lost. Having that document allowed me to correct, corroborate, or expand things I remembered. In some cases, I tracked down people I met on the trail and asked them to share their memories of the time we spent together, but most of all I relied on my memory of what happened and how it felt. Memoir is the art of subjective truth, and while I feel a strong obligation to the truth piece of that, I also firmly plant that truth within the context of my own subjectivity. I didn’t write anything that didn’t happen the way I remember it happening, and yet I’m fairly certain there are things that others would remember slightly differently. Of course there are a million instances that I brought to life by using the skills of a storyteller, as memoirists do — did the wind really blow that man’s hair across his face the moment he asked me that question? Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s how I pictured it in my mind and so I reproduced it for you on the page.

Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, made her comments in an interview with John Williams for The New York Times. Miwa Messer also has an interesting interview for Barnes and Noble with the author of this very hot memoir.

Asked by Messer why it took her so long to write Wild, Strayed, a novelist and short story writer whose excellent essay “The Love of My Life” on her self-destructive sexuality and heroin addiction is available on line at The Sun, alluded to the memoirist’s necessity to not merely relate experience but to understand it:

I teach memoir on occasion and the question I’m always pushing my students to answer in their work is not what happened, but what it means. I think that’s why it took me more than a decade to begin writing about my hike. I had to figure out what it meant. I couldn’t do that until I’d lived a while beyond it; until I’d moved solidly out of the era of my life that I write about in Wild. At its core Wild is a story about a woman figuring out how she’s going to live in the world given the facts of her life — some which are painful. I couldn’t tell the story about how that woman figured it out until she really had.

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Filed under Author Interview, honesty, immersion, memoir

Aaron Gilbreath’s post explicates the practice of a legendary New Yorker journalist whose exhaustive immersions allowed him to write with great freedom in reconstructing his subjects’ realities. My own views of Mitchell’s practice were influenced, like Aaron’s, by William Zinsser’s endorsement in On Writing Well, considered the gold standard for mainstream magazine journalism.

Aarongilbreath's Blog

As much as I read, I don’t find myself rereading too many books. I’m no Larry McMurtry, revisiting the same book year after year. Mostly, I reread essays, and the pieces that I find myself returning to with most frequency were written by Luc Sante, Calvin Trillin and Joseph Mitchell.

In his documentary stories for the New Yorker, pioneering nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell celebrated both eccentrics and the average Joe, and in turn, he immortalized a scruffier, working class era of New York City. He also wrote what might be the longest quotes in our genre.

When first published in 1956, Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” contained 12,056 words; over nine thousand of them were directly attributed to Hunter as quotations. Many of the stories in Mitchell’s book The Bottom of the Harbor are like that. “Up in the Old Hotel” contains a quote that runs for over four pages…

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The 10,000-hour rule of thumb

Listen, do you want to know a secret?

Do you promise not to tell?

Closer, let me whisper in your ear . . .

—“Do You Want to Know a Secret,” from Please Please Me, 1963

By the time the Beatles brought the “British Invasion” to America, in February 1964, and my family watched them on the Ed Sullivan Show, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been playing together for seven years. By a fluke, in 1960, “when they were still just a struggling high school rock band,” notes Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success, “they were invited to play in Hamburg, Germany.”

What was special about Hamburg was the sheer amount of time the teenagers were forced to play in the city’s sleazy bars—as long as eight hours at a stretch—seven nights a week. Gladwell explains:

M. Gladwell, not A. Garfunkel

 The Beatles ended up traveling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, five or more hours a night. On their second trip, they played 92 times. On their third trip, they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg gigs, in November and December of 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart.

They were getting better all the time. They covered every song and type of song and they improvised and they started writing their own material. They were still young men when, after ten years, they produced their greatest works, including “the white album,” Sgt. Pepper, and Abbey Road.

Gladwell’s relevant point from Outliers is that any mastery, regardless of talent, takes 10,000 hours of effort, or about ten years. Writers, artists, immerse! If you’re just starting your apprenticeship, you have ten years to learn to paint your masterpiece—as you make it. Sixty-, seventy-, and eighty-year-olds are doing it. I’m certain that it happens all the time.

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Filed under immersion, NOTED, working method

Q&A: Lisa Davis on a Mormon tragedy

The Sins of Brother Curtis: A Story of Betrayal, Conviction, and the Mormon Church by Lisa Davis. Scribner, 368 pages.

I met Lisa Davis six years ago, in a creative nonfiction workshop at Goucher College, and I read her recently published The Sins of Brother Curtis first out of loyalty to a friend and then with increasing admiration for her work. Davis, a San Francisco journalist and a teacher at Santa Clara University, has painstakingly crafted a gripping narrative about a serial pedophile within the Mormon church. Publishers Weekly called it an “insightful examination of hard-won justice.”

It’s really two stories: one about what Frank Curtis did, how he got away with it, and what the abuse did to his victims; and a David-and-Goliath story of a plucky legal team that took on a phalanx of legal talent funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS).

This is a disturbing story. Various LDS leaders knew Curtis was a pedophile but kept giving him access to children—especially to boys, his preferred prey. In Davis’s telling, this is connected to the church’s policy on serious transgressions: excommunication but with opportunity for repentance, re-baptism, and readmission. Curtis was disciplined at least three times and excommunicated twice. Usually he shifted locations, and although he was known as someone with a problem, under church policy and belief he had wiped the slate clean.

Davis, trying to be fair, points out another way a miscreant can take advantage of LDS ecclesiastical idealism since, in the church, bishops come from the ranks of the male laity:

The truth was that most of these men had no idea that one of their brethren had molested children. They were untrained in professional counseling and could barely keep up with their gargantuan responsibilities. They all had full-time jobs and large families of their own, on top of which they’d been called into a volunteer position leading hundreds of people. One day they might be helping someone who faced eviction and the next they faced a dying mother or a child who needed special help. Given the insular nature of the Mormon community, most bishops didn’t know anything about sex crimes, certainly not enough to understand a serial pedophile.

But, frankly, the LDS church as it emerges in The Sins of Brother Curtis seems, as an entity, uncaring—more eager to avoid revealing its considerable assets than in atonement or in helping victims heal. Its tactics were to stall, to pressure, and to buy off people as cheaply as possible.

Lisa Davis, immersion journalist

In researching the book, Davis learned there are about twenty survivors of this one pedophile’s abuse, which stretched over decades and into multiple states. The secrecy began to unravel when two Seattle attorneys took the case of Jeremiah Scott, then eighteen, in 1997. Scott had been abused repeatedly when he was twelve by Curtis, then a Mormon elder in Portland. Curtis had since died. Scott and his mother  decided to sue when they learned that bishops had known about Curtis’s past abuse of boys.

Scott eventually settled for $3 million, at that time the largest individual settlement ever reported in a church sex abuse case. Other lawsuits against the Mormon church followed, including one in which two women, abused as girls by their Mormon stepfather, won $4.5 million; the amount was later reduced on appeal, but still included the first penalty for inflicting “intentional emotional distress” against a church in the U.S. And Scott’s lead attorney, Tim Kosnoff, having become an expert in this area, in 2006 helped win $46 million from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Spokane for many victims of abuse by priests.

More recently, Davis told me, Kosnoff helped represent native American survivors in Alaska, Washington, and Montana in an historic $166 million settlement, reached in March, with the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Roman Catholic Church’s Jesuit order. A Reuters story reported, “The victims, most of them Native Americans from remote Alaska Native villages or Indian reservations in the Pacific Northwest, were sexually or psychologically abused as children by Jesuit missionaries in those states in the 1940s through the 1990s, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said.”

Lisa Davis answered some questions about the book and her working method.

Q. Did you gain any insight into why churches seem vulnerable to perpetuating or concealing abuse?

Certainly, sex abuse is not a problem exclusive to the LDS Church, the Catholic Church or any other. That said, there are some things that were unique about the case I wrote about. The Mormon faith places a great deal of emphasis on the idea of personal worthiness. Essentially, members have agreed to live by a certain moral code. It’s what binds the community together, this idea of a shared belief that everyone lives by. Unfortunately, it also can create a sense of false trust. People within the ward regard one another in a trusting way that they don’t view the outside world. That made the community more vulnerable to a serial manipulator like Frank Curtis.

Q. You didn’t appear to have had any cooperation from the LDS church or its attorneys. Is that accurate, and how did it affect your reporting and writing?

I contacted the defense lawyers and key church leaders involved in the Scott case, and sought to to interview them. I also spoke several times with the LDS Church’s public information office.  In the end, the Church offered only to speak about the case in a way that was unacceptable to me.  I wanted to keep my interviews on the record.

Q. You created, through skillful interviewing, a sequence of events—a story—from events you didn’t witness. I was struck by how vulnerable such a project must be, how contingent. Your relationship with attorney Kosnoff seemed crucial. But then, so did your ability to get some of the victims to open up. How and when did you know this could be a book, that you had enough to build a story even if some sources fell through?

In all, I worked on the book for about eight years. Mostly that was because I wasn’t able to work on it full time until near the end. I saw that it could be a book fairly early, after my first trip to Portland, because there were just so many layers.  But I didn’t fully commit to the idea of writing the book until I was in the MFA program at Goucher College.

The long time span was problematic because there were often many months between my interviews with Tim Kosnoff, Joel Salmi and some others involved in the case.  So, I had to re-establish a rhythm and get them back into thinking about the Scott case every time we met.  Everyone’s life had moved forward and the lawyers were involved with other cases. I learned early on that it all worked much better if I met them somewhere outside the office.

I also benefitted tremendously from my time with the survivors, and I am extremely grateful for their bravery. Stanley Saban walked through his old neighborhood with me and we went to some of the places where Frank Curtis lived.  He was able to point at this or that and tell me stories about what happened there when he was growing up.  I interviewed other of the survivors in prison.  And while that brought logistical challenges, the men were tremendously helpful in piecing together the puzzle. Jim Goodall was older and had a pretty clear memory of neighborhood details. Bob Goodall was amazingly reflective and willing to share what he’d experienced.

Mothers, sisters and other family members were able to put things in time and context, and provide some background to various events.

Other folks who had known Frank Curtis drove me around Grand Rapids, Michigan and shared with me what they remembered. The court clerks in Racine, Wisconsin led me around the court building where that part of the story unfolded. Really, a lot of people were willing to help me tell this story.

And eventually, you get used to asking things like “what color was the car?” I learned that people tend to have a soundtrack to certain memories. So, it helped if they could remember what songs they were listening to during a certain time.

Q. While working, did you focus your reading on immersion journalism as you worked? What books or authors were models for you and why?

I’m very fortunate to have learned the power of the details in storytelling from two masters: Jon Franklin and Tom French. I studied Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action because he did such a great job of structuring the tale of a lawsuit. Also, Tulia, by Nate Blakeslee, because it grew out of his reporting on the court cases in Texas. I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane, so I looked a lot at how he keeps up the pacing in his stories.

Q. You were an experienced journalist when you began your MFA in creative nonfiction. What did you learn that helped you in bringing your book to fruition?

A lot. I could find out pretty much anything, but I had to learn how to write a book. I’m still working on developing the patience to let a story unfold in front of the reader.  I love playing with language and finding which detail is going to make a scene pop.  But, quite honestly, my inner-journalist still wants to cut to the chase.

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Filed under Author Interview, craft, technique, immersion, journalism, MFA, NOTED, research, REVIEW, scene, working method

Edward Humes on structure

Edward Humes won a Pulitzer prize when he was a newspaper reporter and has gone on to write ten books, nonfiction narratives about crime and public issues. His website/blog is worth visiting. Today I stumbled across his helpful essay on structure and immersion, “A Brief Introduction to Narrative Nonfiction,” which used to be available on his site—I think that’s where I got it, anyway—and which I’d saved in my computer. Some excerpts:

I hated the fact that Bill Leasure, the corrupt LAPD traffic cop in my second book, Murderer with a Badge, chose murder as his first crime. Only later did he segue into stealing a few million dollars worth of yachts. Chronicling events in that order would have been anticlimactic. So I abandoned any pretense of a chronological structure, and started the first chapter with Leasure aboard a stolen boat. The murders unfolded later in the book, in a section that dealt with an earlier period in Leasure’s life. Then the narrative jumped forward again to a time after the yacht thefts, when those unsolved murders were finally linked to Leasure by the police. That kept the tension in the narrative building, though structurally it was kind of messy—like my main character’s life.

Finding the right structure for No Matter How Loud I Shout, my juvenile court book, was even more challenging, as I was weaving together an ensemble of characters with different story lines that only occasionally intersected—a kind of literary version of Hillstreet Blues or ER. Yet these varied threads had to build toward some sort of critical mass and shared climax in order to make sense. Finding those intersection points was not a matter of clever writing. It was a matter of being there, day after day, haunting the courtrooms, the juvenile hall, the offices of the prosecutors and public defenders and judges. In the end, I have found, even the most thorny sorts of questions about structure and character development end up being less about writing technique, and more about reporting technique. Narrative nonfiction requires authors to immerse themselves in their subjects, to painstakingly (and sometimes painfully) interview characters, research place (past, present and future), and reconstruct dialogue (spoken and interior).

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Filed under braids, threads, essay-narrative, immersion, journalism, NOTED, structure, working method