Our latest Notable Narrative comes from The Washington Post’s Eli Saslow, who wrote about a Wisconsin man’s attempt to understand what the federal budget debate means for his family. In addition to working seven years at the Post and serving as a visiting professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism in 2010, Saslow has written a book, Ten Letters, in which he steps into the lives of a group of American citizens who corresponded with President Obama. (The book will be published this fall.) We talked with Saslow by phone this week, and in these excerpts from our conversation, he discusses farming for characters, passing judgment on subjects, and keeping himself out of his stories.
Where did this story come from?
Like a lot of story ideas, it was kind of in flux up until the last minute. Usually my job at the paper is to come up with project-type narratives, but it’s also often doing news narratives and trying to find ways, within a week or less, to hit 2,000 words on something that’s happening.
I had actually been on book leave from the paper for nine months. I’ve been back for three or four weeks, and it’s a flaw, but I’m always antsy to get in the paper. I started at the paper doing sports writing and then covering politics, so I start feeling nervous about not being in the paper for long stretches of time.
As usual, I was driving my editor, David Finkel, crazy, but his instinct, wisely, is usually to wait until you find a thing you know is going to be right. In finding a midpoint between what he thought and what I thought, we decided that coming up with a couple of narrative stories off the federal budget was a way to make this dense, complicated and frankly sometimes boring stuff feel real.
So I started diving in on the budget and did one story in Virginia from a place where a poverty assistance program is still getting crazy high demand because of how the economy has been in rural places. It’s not really getting better. Now budget cuts mean they have less to give than ever. In some cases, the very people who have been giving out assistance are now about to get fired and now will be seeking assistance themselves.
I did a story on that. And the other one that seemed to make sense was going with Paul Ryan when he was going to talk to these small towns back in his district in Wisconsin. I went with an open-ended idea of what the story would be. He had like five town hall events on this one day. I flew out at 7 o’clock that morning, spent the day sitting in five of these events, basically farming for characters. The great thing about these events is that they’re interactive, so you get to hear all these different people talk. After each one, I’d run around frantically to a couple people who seemed like they might be interesting and collect numbers and then circle back with those people at the end of the day.
I sort of homed in on the Cammerses. They felt right. I spent a day or two with them, came back and wrote in a day or two, and then it went into the paper.
Even without what you just said, it feels like your story rises out of the news – Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, the town-hall style meetings over it, and on a larger level, the budget crisis. But it also feels somehow, along with reflecting the light of that news, the story takes a deliberate step away it. Was that intentional?
Yeah, definitely, and it’s something that I pretty much always try to do. It’s hard sometimes at newspapers now. There’s such demand to be instantaneous. Stories that used to be for the next month have become stories for the next week, and stories that used to be for the next week are now for the next day, and stories for the next day are now for the next minute. The news cycle is so fast, and we’re reporting on these tiny little gradients of things. It’s sort of the Politico model of “we’re going to report everything really fast,” without ever pulling back to think “what does it mean?”
Instead of writing about these incremental news items, what if we try to write a story about something that’s relevant and that’s happening now, but write about it in a way that people can read it two months from now or two years from now, and it’s still a story, and it still makes sense beyond comparing to what happened in the last hour and what’s going to happen in the next hour?
Did this story change a lot during the writing or the editing processes?
I had a pretty good feel for how I wanted to put it together, in part because I’m super lucky to be on this small enterprise team at the paper. The guy who edited it, David Finkel, is a tremendous narrative writer and thinks about stories really well. Typically while I’m out reporting, he and I might talk for 15 minutes a day just to kind of discuss what I’m seeing and where I think the story is going. And before I write, I’ll usually talk to him for 10 or 15 minutes about how I’m seeing it coming together.
Some people write through drafts and it helps them to get something down, and they can go back and tear it up or flesh it out. For me, by the time I have a sentence the way I want it, I’ve often written it 15 or 20 different times so that the pacing sounds right. By the time I get through a draft, it’s usually pretty close to what it’s going to be in the end.
So you self-edit as you go?
Yes, a lot of self-editing as I go. Definitely for me a part of it is reading out loud so I can hear how it sounds, and sometimes hassling and haggling my wife into listening while I read, because it really helps to hear it. By the time I turn a story in, I feel like the next day I could almost recite it from memory, because I’ve read through and thought about every sentence so many times before I move on to the next graf. Sometimes I wish, if something is stalling me out, that I could move on and write through, but it’s really just not the way my mind works.
So you talk with your editor as you conceive and report the story. Is there usually much editing from his end after you turn the draft in?
I think Finkel would say that the bulk of his work doesn’t happen once the story comes in. Finkel definitely improves the story once it comes in, because he always sees one or two things, or thinks of one or two moves. He knows words so well, and he’s such a careful editor, and he cares so much about precision. Sometimes Finkel and I will spend 20 minutes talking about what we feel is one key word in the third section of a 2,000-word story. I think everybody else in the newsroom basically thinks we’re crazy, but that’s the work that happens once the story is in.
Where any good editor is indispensible, at least for me – and Finkel definitely is – is that he’s super in-touch throughout the process. So that most of the time I’m coming up with the ideas, but if he’s not outright rejecting five ideas, he’s helping me home in on those ideas before hand, so that I’m going to the right place for the right reasons. Then when I’m there, he wants me to check in and talk about what I’m seeing, which is pretty much the same thing as reading out loud. Talking about it out loud helps me to begin to structure a story in my head and helps me figure out where to focus my reporting. He’s super-talented, even from afar, at having good ideas about what things to look for and watch out for.
I went back through some of your stories and remembered reading a lot of them before. From that story of a daughter forced back home by recession to a piece on a woman whose job it is to help companies lay off employees, you seem to specialize in micro-focused narrative portraits of people whose lives intersect with national events.
The benefit of that, of course, is that narrative brings the story in close for readers. How do you think about the balance between each person’s complete self and the one aspect that makes him or her newsworthy?
That’s a constant struggle. I think if you write about somebody – no matter what person you’re writing about – you can still write about them in a true way. The honest answer is that writing for a newspaper, and frankly even if you do 100,000-word books on a person, you’re never going to get everything. There are always going to be pieces that you leave out, that’s part of self-editing, and that is what it is.
Sometimes it’s really hard. The story I did before this Wisconsin one, the one in Virginia, I was writing about a woman who works for an emergency assistance facility in Pulaski, Va., which is this place that’s been totally hammered by the economy. Now she’s very likely going to lose her job. I was writing about that part of her life.
But really, when I was there and spent time with her, it became clear that the defining moment in her life was that her only son, when he was 15 years old, hung himself from the tree in their back yard, and she found him.
It felt ridiculous to write any story about this woman that wasn’t a story about that moment, because it had defined everything about her since then: what she did, who she was. But things that are a really important part of people relate to everything they do in ways that are central. Her job is basically that all these people come in and she listens to them talk about their problems. In the last five years since her son killed himself, she’s much more patient than she ever was before, maybe in part because she thinks maybe she didn’t listen enough to him, and in part because she understands suffering even more than she ever did before.
The key was to find a way to bring that in that was true to what she had gone through and was continuing to go through and that also related to the story at hand. The truth is, especially in a newspaper story – and the stories I’m writing are usually around 2,500 words – you sort of have to accept going in that you have to self-edit and you’re not going to be able to do everything, and sometimes that’s enormously frustrating, but it’s a reality of newspaper writing.
You’re also doing a book, “Ten Letters,” about just these kinds of individual stories. Are they still these small portraits, or is the book very different?
The book is a chance to stretch. Instead of writing 2,500 words, it covers 10 letters across the course of 2010. All these letter writers are people who Obama interacted with and who became in some way central to something that he was doing.
The main characters in the book are these 10 people who wrote something during the course of the year. Obama is the constant secondary character. It’s definitely similar. It’s similar in that these are people who are otherwise not known, but they’re intersecting with something at an important moment. The device of the letters was a great way to go out and spend time with people and write about the things that they’re dealing with – whether it’s following a couple as they file for bankruptcy in Michigan, or a Mexican-American woman in Arizona who is trying to decide, as Arizona passes its new immigration laws, if she’s going to move or stay there with her family.
In each chapter you’re sort of following a narrative of what these people are going through and also cutting away to Obama and how he’s dealing with some of the things that these people face. It was a fun way to get out and spend time with people, which is by far my favorite part of the job. I like writing, but reporting days – I like them a million times better.
Back to the Cammers piece, this kind of portrait is a traditional narrative device, but in this story in particular, there is something almost fragile about this family. It’s a very interior story, almost internal to Cammers. Can you talk about how you did that?
The style of writing that I often appreciate the most and aspire to do well is writing where the writer is just not a part of it at all. And where as you’re reading a story, you can lose yourself in the character and forget about who’s telling it to you. The Post has a really great tradition of that kind of writing, so they kind of get it. But still, there are things in most of the newspaper that have a different sort of feel.
In a story, I almost never use quotes in the sense of I-asked-somebody-and-they-told-me-X. It’s all dialogue. If you’re asking the reader to lose himself or herself in a narrative, to come out of dialogue and have it suddenly be a quote that’s coming directly at you is a really jarring thing. So sometimes that’s a fight we have to have at the paper. When you are trying to ask people to read something like this, you want them to disappear into it.
Narratives can still be newsy. Statistics can be hugely helpful, for example, in trying to set up a story. We sometimes call it going big by going small – trying to write about a big issue by going in really narrow.
Anybody who reads you guys will already know this, so I’m not saying anything new, but the key always is details. It’s a very simple, simple rule – not details for the sake of show – but the right details are everything. That’s what keeps the story from feeling generic. That’s what makes characters feel real. What creates empathy in a story is having the reader feel at the end like they know somebody, and details are the way that happens.
Along those lines, I thought you did something interesting with Tim Cammers – you left the reader room to find him sympathetic or unsympathetic. Did you resist the urge to be more definite?
I did, yes – in some ways resisting some of the other people at the paper who saw the piece and felt like he should have read one way or the other. It never feels like my place to pass judgment, particularly in this story, where the crux of how you’re going to feel about a lot of this budget stuff comes down to “how do you feel about Tim Cammers?” Is he a waste on the system who’s using it for his advantage? Or is he someone who is in desperate need of a safety net and deserves it? I think a lot of readers will come and project their feelings about that onto him, but it’s certainly not my job to push them in one direction or the other. In the end, that’s one of the things I’m happiest with about the story.