After years spent thinking he would become a novelist, David Grann turned to nonfiction, realizing that if he found intriguing characters and situations in real life, he “simply had to excavate them and tell them in a compelling way.” He has gone on to produce many memorable tales, like his account of a deeply problematic execution in Texas and his story about a Polish novel that offers clues to a real-world murder. With a best-selling book under his belt and a new collection out, Grann talks with us about being a bad newspaper writer, what he hopes to do before he dies, and whether you can get a job like his.
Your latest book, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, is a compilation of your magazine pieces, and you credit an editor at Knopf Doubleday for coming up with the idea of assembling them into a book. Did you worry about the book having a coherent identity?
Not really, because I was selective in the way that I chose the pieces. I didn’t want to do a collection that was simply a compilation of my work. I left out many stories, some of which I liked a lot but didn’t fit the theme of the book or had a different tenor. I just tried to pick a dozen pieces that fit this theme of the subtitle—murder, madness, obsession—stories that all had elements of intrigue or some element of mystery, and involved characters in some way trying to use the art of detection to unravel a mystery or even their own characters.
Generally speaking, how do you find your subjects and their stories?
For me, the most important part of the process is finding the story idea. If I can find the right idea, I can get out of the way and do a good story. There are many journalists I admire who can make magic or gold out of almost any material, but I have less confidence.
My stories usually originate with little more than a tip from a friend, or a two-sentence news brief from a foreign paper that piques my interest. Many of the characters are driven by obsession. I think there’s a reason why characters like Ahab are our some of our most memorable characters in literature: these people who are driven to extraordinary things are more interesting copy.
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. A story about giant squid hunters searching for this elusive creature, the giant squid, this kind of semi-mythological creature—a story like that opens up the whole world of the sea and this large last unexplored large area on earth.
In all these stories, 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—and perhaps the story in there that has the highest stakes is the story about Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas and may have been innocent.
Do you have a template for a structure in your head? Do you map it before starting to write?
I do, I spend a lot of time on it. I was a very bad newspaper writer. I never could do inverted pyramids and get the important information up top. I tend to think in stories naturally, as if I were sitting down to tell someone the story. I do think a lot about structure and to try to find a compelling way to tell a story. I spend a lot of time doing very elaborate outlines and think a good deal about structure and when information should be revealed.
For example on the Cameron Todd Willingham story, I discovered this woman who had investigated the case, a schoolteacher, and she had started to think he might be innocent. She really became the vehicle to tell the story, showing it though her eyes as she went through the investigation.
In the intro, you describe reporting, like detective work, as a process of elimination. I think for many narrative journalists, elimination is the hard part. Once you’re buried in research and information, how do you decide what to leave out?
Even when you’re doing magazine stories that are very long by the standards of magazine writing, you have to be somewhat ruthless with digressions. Because I do a lot of research, and I’m very obsessive about my research, especially when there are elements of history, one of the things I like to do is to deepen them through texture and history. If I’m doing a story on the water tunnels, you’ll learn the whole history of how these tunnels were built and the history of the sandhogs digging them.
The trick is to insert the amounts of this material that will help and deepen and enrich a story without bogging it down. I almost invariably write too much on the history but put it all in there and then go back and ruthlessly say, “What’s essential? How can I tighten it so that it doesn’t overwhelm the story?”
Do you enlist help with that? Do you find at some point you need feedback on what’s working?
At The New Yorker, I have a terrific editor, a guy named Daniel Zalewski. Often I will show him something and say, “Give me some hint. Have I gone off the rails? What do I need to pare back?” My wife, who is a journalist and works at 60 Minutes, is also a wonderful editor. I show her stuff as well, and she reins me in.
How is writing a long piece for The New Yorker the same as or different than writing The Lost City of Z?
They’re different in the sense that in these magazine articles, you have to go A to B to C. You cannot indulge too many digressions or allow the canvas to be so broad or involve so many characters that you lose the focus. There really needs to be a tautness to them. With a book, the canvas is so much wider.
That being said, for most of these magazine stories, I don’t think they would work as a book. The Lost City of Z began as a magazine story, and that was the first piece I did where I felt like the material just did not fit. There were too many places to go. Partly it was that Fawcett’s life was so interesting, there was so much archival research to plumb, that it didn’t really belong as a magazine piece. There were a lot of characters, a lot of history.
Did you go back and do more research for Lost City after you had done the magazine piece?
I did years more research. When I wrote the piece for the magazine, I really gathered a lot of archival material and had lots of leads, but there was just so much. And Fawcett’s diary, he wrote in this almost microscopic handwriting—very hard to read. These diaries were corroded and washed out; it took a long time to decipher them. When I did the magazine piece, the bulk of that story was my own trip in search of Fawcett. I would say the magazine piece was 70 percent my journey and then the history of Fawcett was maybe 30 percent—I’m just pulling these percentages out of my hat. When I went and did the book, those numbers got inverted, and it became 70 percent Fawcett’s story. It became a real biographical quest. I spent at least a couple years more trying to track down archival material to tell his story.
How did you get started doing this kind of reporting and writing? What did you do before?
I did many different things before. I knew I always wanted to be a writer in some way. I started writing intensively in college but even before then, I would try to write. Early on, I didn’t know what form it would take. I wrote some bad poetry, and I wrote some fiction, and I wrote some journalism. Initially I concentrated after graduating from Connecticut College in 1989 mostly on fiction. I wrote a very bad novel, thankfully buried in an attic somewhere.
Not published. I did different things to try to support myself while I was doing that. Eventually I went and did a teaching fellowship at Boston University in creative writing, in fiction. After I finished my fellowship, I still really hoped to do fiction, but I was starting to realize I wasn’t really that good at it. Then I got a job at The Hill newspaper. It was a new paper, and I started as the copy editor. It had the virtue and the chaos of being a startup, so in a year or a year and a half or so, I went from copy editor to executive editor, which I don’t think would happen at most institutions.
I eventually went to The New Republic. Mike Kelly hired me as his managing editor, and I was there for a few years. I started to write longer form pieces, but my interest was less and less in politics. I started writing for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker.
And then The New Yorker finally hired me. But there was a certain point at The New Republic, and I probably should have realized this years earlier, where I discovered that I could use a lot of story techniques that I had been working on in fiction—narrative and character—and apply them to nonfiction.
In fiction, I struggled with characters and plot and coming up with what people did and said. In nonfiction, I realized that if could find characters and stories that were real, I simply had to excavate them and tell them in a compelling way.
In this era of challenges to long-form reporting, do you have any thoughts on the future of narrative journalism, or advice for those who’d like to steal your job?
Hopefully, they won’t take my job. I was on a panel the other day with Malcolm Gladwell, and Malcolm spoke very hopefully about the future of long-form journalism. I tend to be a little more pessimistic about things. I have a lot of friends who are really good journalists who have lost their jobs in recent years. The economics that support long-form journalism are very insecure right now. The kind of stories I do take a lot of time and a lot of money. They involve travel.
The story on the Cameron Todd Willingham possible wrongful execution—I spent more than six months on that story. I made many trips to Texas. I had to track down people whose addresses were unknown and who didn’t have telephones, and to FOIA records on how the case had been handled. I worry about the dwindling resources. The New Yorker still does it, but there are fewer places that do.
The thing that makes me optimistic, and this was something Malcolm said, and I agree with him, is that stories have always been with us. If you go back to the Bible and before, you can find narrative structures and people telling stories to try to make sense of the world. I don’t think that need and desire will go away.
My hope is that eventually the economic model catches up, but I do think there will always be a demand for information, but also information constructed in long-form narrative journalism using story structure.
You’ve written for The New Yorker. You’ve had a bestselling nonfiction book. These are goals that many journalists aspire to as an endpoint. What’s your next writing fantasy?
I’m really a working journalist, and things have been very gratifying where you spend so long in a book. You don’t know: if you build it, will anyone come? It’s very nice to know it’s found an audience. My goals are still the same. I love doing this. I love the magic of stories and the power of stories. It’s hard to find good ones, but once I’m on the chase of something, I’m equally excited. I don’t think the goals have changed.
The one thing about this stuff is that I want to get better. I do believe that there is an element of getting better in the process of doing this stuff, through repetition. I’m never quite satisfied—just like my characters are always searching for some elusive object of their obsession, I suppose I’m always searching for that story that I might execute perfectly. And I think that will keep me going until my death.