The Star-Ledger’s Amy Ellis Nutt won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for feature writing with “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” her five-chapter story on the sinking of a scallop boat off the coast of New Jersey. An adjunct instructor with Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a former Nieman fellow, Nutt has long been devoted to narrative journalism. We spoke by phone with her this week about the Lady Mary and her earlier project, “Jon Sarkin’s Story: The Accidental Artist,” which was a Pulitzer finalist in 2009. In these excerpts from our talk, Nutt describes combining technical information with storytelling, explains how she organizes her stories, and shares one phrase everyone should know.
How did you first come to the story of the Lady Mary?
The first piece was hearing about it as a news story. Because we’re based in Newark, which is just eight miles outside of New York, and Cape May is at the very opposite end of New Jersey, we don’t carry a lot of cape news.
I followed it over the weeks mainly as a news story and realized when men were still missing that there was confusion about what exactly had happened. I became intrigued with the idea that if six men had been killed in a car accident, there would be a lot of front page stories, a lot of public outcry to find out what happened. And the more I looked into what happens to fisherman at sea, the more I realized I wanted to do a story that looked not only at the dangers and the lives that these men lead, but tried to solve the mystery of what happened.
Have you done this kind of in-depth investigative reporting before, or is that a new hat for you?
I have to say it is. It was totally thrilling and absorbing. It took over my life, and in some ways, I’m still living it, because the Coast Guard has not yet released its report, more than two years later.
But I’ve done a mixture of things in the past few years. Most of my projects have been typically explanatory. My last one, though, “The Accidental Artist,” was definitely a combination of some explanatory and a lot of narrative.
So this was a very different beast for me, and frankly, if there’s a place for narrative investigative journalism, this was the perfect story. The drama of this story lent itself tremendously to a narrative approach. There was the background on these men and their lives and their last moments. There was also a wealth of documentation about phone calls and where the boat was, as well as the record of the Coast Guard – what calls were made and when – that I could use as a narrative framework.
Did you struggle with the structure of the story?
Not as much as I have in the past. I knew very early on where I wanted to begin the story, and that was with José in the water. And then I knew I would go back and tell the story chronologically. The difficulty of switching gears and going into the more investigative and explanatory stuff – I knew I couldn’t wait on that until the very end, that I had to weave it in earlier.
But ultimately it didn’t prove to be that difficult. The fact is that I have terrific editors: the editor of the paper, Kevin Whitmer, and most importantly the editor I work closely with, the managing editor, David Tucker, who is just a marvel at both narrative and investigative journalism. He was the perfect editor to lead me through this.
Did you know right away that you’d say that all the men aboard except José Arias had died? That information comes really early in the story.
I went back and forth with my editor on that: “How much do we tell the reader?” The fact that we tell them they died, does that reduce some of the power of the story? The more I looked into the story of what happened and some of the terrible coincidences and tiny mistakes that contributed to this tragedy, I realized that I could tell this story in a compelling way, that even though people knew six men had died, it was why they died and how they died that would keep people reading.
The Sarkin story [“The Accidental Artist”] is a look at a single human, almost from his point of view, while the Lady Mary story is a sweeping account of a shipwreck. Do you have common ways of thinking of stories, or did those projects feel completely different when you were working on them?
Obviously, you use the same tools. First of all, I’m a complete geek. One of the things about journalism that I love is doing research. With “The Accidental Artist,” I had written about neuroscience before, so the subject matter of mind and consciousness was very familiar and interesting to me. But I loved delving deeper into finding out about the brain along with Jon and his search.
It was the same way with the Lady Mary. Frankly, I’d been out on a sailboat once, and I’d never been out on a scallop boat until I did the research for this story. My port and starboard were mixed up because I was a rower in college, and you row backwards.
If anything, I started with a deficit, so I loved doing that part of the research, before I even started writing: interviewing fishermen, learning about scallops and the life of fishermen, government regulation and the history of safety regulations. And then there’s learning about the mechanics of a boat at sea and the tremendous complexity of that. We talked with experts in rudder design, in buoyancy and how ships sink. That was almost overwhelming, because of the sheer complexity of how difficult it is to reconstruct these things.
But my approach to both stories was very similar, in so far as I knew that I wanted to take a very personal, intimate look at, in one case, one man’s life with his family and how things changed, and in the other case, the men on the boat and who they were. It’s being able to interweave the personal with the technical – in one case, the neurological, and in another case, the maritime.
I always go back to something that Jim Willse, the former editor of The Star-Ledger, told me before I did my first series some years ago. It involved a lot of science writing, and he said, “The success of the story will rise or fall depending on your ability to make analogies.” If I have a talent, I think it’s being able to do that, being able to simplify things, not so much that you talk down to readers but enough to make it understandable.
In the Sarkin piece, I think I remember you describing a blood vessel as thin as a thread and as short as a stitch. Is that the kind of analogy you’re talking about, or are you talking about bigger metaphors?
Both, really. It’s always important to make something as real and as visual as possible to a reader. So you could say “a really tiny blood vessel,” or “800 mm wide,” or something like that, but if you can compare it to something that everyone can relate to, that gives readers a much more palpable sense of exactly what you’re talking about.
On the other hand I’m always looking for larger metaphors. In Jon Sarkin’s life, the sea itself plays a big role. It also conveys the sense that things are always changing even as they stay the same. In many ways that’s also true of “The Wreck of the Lady Mary.” I think that my background in poetry, which is a lot of what I studied in college, along with philosophy, helps. Poetry is still a strong thing in my life. David Tucker is actually a very accomplished published poet. That way of thinking in larger metaphors and images very much helps in narrative writing.
On a more mundane level, how do you work? Do you type on a computer with an outline, map out your stories on posterboard, use index cards?
It can vary a bit. I did a project a couple of years ago on a 12-way kidney transplant. I definitely used a dry eraser board for that. But in most of my stories, I know early on where I want to begin and where I want to end. And then after I’m pretty far into the research and the interviews, I get a sense of how it needs to be broken down into chapters. I’ll outline that and say, “This is how the first part needs to end and this how it needs to begin.” And I’ll do that for each part.
A lot of writers that we’ve interviewed say that once they’ve done the bulk of the reporting that they’ll often read through everything for a section and then set it aside and write without that material there, so that they can keep the narrative arc of the story going. Is that how you work?
That’s very much how I do it, so that when I’m writing I’m really writing. I’ll know sometimes, “Oh I’ve got to fill in more information here.” And when I’m through writing that section, I’ll go back and fill it in. By the time I’m ready to write, it’s really pretty much in my head, and I know where I’m going. But I will go back and flesh things out, especially details.
People talk about stories different ways. What do you want a story to do?
With “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” there were a couple things I really wanted. First, I wanted for people to connect with these men, who were, by and large, deeply flawed, simple human beings who did one thing really well. I wanted people to connect with them, because you live in a place like Boston or New Jersey, and you live on a coast, you hear stories all the time, “Oh, a boat went down,” and that’s all you ever hear. Sometimes you get a TV interview with the wife waiting at home, but that’s it. I obviously wanted to fill out the lives of these men, what their lives are all about.
At the same time, I very much wanted there to be a sense of outrage that readers would have and hoped that it might spur the Coast Guard or someone else to take a deeper look.
And with the Sarkin story, what were you looking to do?
With that, it’s a story of one man and his family, and it’s an odd, close-to-unique, rare kind of story. However, there are a lot of things that I would hope a reader could take away from that. You hear it often, “the resilience of the human brain.” It is a remarkable thing that a brain can suffer so much damage, that a person can lose so much and yet not only survive but flourish, and that relationships can radically change, that losses can accrue, and yet people stay together and learn how to love one another differently.
So what would you say to the thousands of wannabe feature writers and current feature writers who hope to win a Pulitzer one day? Is there one lesson for writing a fabulous true story?
Honestly, no one ever sets out to win a Pulitzer Prize-winning story. I knew I had a great story here, but there was a mystery that I wanted to solve. You want to impart to readers something they don’t know, something they’re not familiar with, something that will open their eyes or their hearts or their mind in a new way. That’s what every writer would love to be able to do: to tell a story well enough that someone says, “Wow, I never knew that” or “That makes me think differently” or “I want to know more about that.”
I tell young journalists – in some ways, I still feel like I am a young journalist, because I started a little bit late in my life – there’s no greater profession. The personal satisfaction of being able to tell other people’s stories is a gift, and one that I never forget. And the fact that I can make a living doing that is still remarkable to me.
I also love the fact that I never know what I’m going to be working on day to day. That’s a pretty exciting way to come to work.
Whose work has inspired you? What are you reading now?
When I’m working on a big project, to get inspired and get into the mood, I’ll read a lot of literature. For instance, when I was working on a memory series, I read Proust for the first time and fell in love with it. When I was working on the Lady Mary story, I read Joseph Conrad and Melville.
But what have I read that’s inspired me? So often I read a book and then forget it. One thing I did read recently that I hadn’t read in about 30 years was “This Side of Paradise” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is a big hero of mine. What I’m reminded of and inspired by is that it is a brilliant book but really deeply flawed. It’s his first work, and so he throws everything in there. And you can see his brilliance, but you can also see that it’s a little all over the place. Knowing where Fitzgerald ended up, at least writing-wise, it inspires me to know that even the greatest writers start out hot and glorious but still need a lot of work. That’s how I approach what I do.
Hot and glorious?
Gosh, no! [Laughs.] I learn something from every story I write, and I get better. I tell young writers, “Just keep writing. You’re not going to get worse. You can only get better.” Maybe there are some people that never do, but you’re not going to get worse.
If I didn’t have an editor to save my ass, I’m frightened to think of some of the things that would have gotten in the paper. I said to this book editor of mine, when I published my first book, “You know, I’m a good writer, but I’m a really good rewriter.” I take instructions really well. When there’s a good editor who tells you what you need, what you don’t have, and what you need to take away, I love that. There’s nothing better for me than someone to tell me, “All right you’ve got something here, but it needs work, and this is what you need to do to make it better.”
Anything else you want to share with our readers—maybe you have a secret obsession with Marilyn Monroe?
Klaatu barada nikto. You always need to know that.