In Thursday’s post we excerpted nice lines from the five National Magazine Award finalists in feature writing. These included Luke Dittrich’s “Heavenly Father!…,” from Esquire, about survivors of the Joplin, Mo., tornado, which killed 160 people. As it happens, Dittrich had just visited the Nieman Narrative Writing class as part of its speaker series, where he talked about the story and read aloud a poignant update. (Update: On May 3, Dittrich’s piece won the National Magazine Award for feature writing.)
Before joining Esquire in 2008 as a contributing editor, Dittrich wrote for Atlanta magazine, The Oxford American and Egypt Today. He’s writing a book for Random House based on his Esquire piece “The Brain That Changed Everything,” which was recently anthologized in the new edition of “The Best American Science and Nature Writing.” A generalist, Dittrich has written about atomic-bomb testing, Todd Palin, Chuck Berry, walking the entire U.S.-Mexico border, and the “Dateline NBC” reality series “To Catch a Predator.”Here’s some of his conversation with Nieman fellows, staff and guests, who included Dittrich’s mom, Lisa, who lives in Cambridge. We’ve edited the discussion for clarity and length.
Paige Williams: You’ve said the reporting on the tornado story felt absolutely “right” to you – what did you mean?
It was one of the most gratifying reporting experiences of my life. Let me back up just a tiny bit to say how it happened. The tornado hit on (May 22, 2011); I arrived in St. Louis on the 23rd, and I flew in from the Yukon (Territory). I was going to profile Chuck Berry. So I got there, and obviously news about the tornado dominated everything but I didn’t think of doing anything about it. I dug into the Chuck Berry story and continued to be bombarded every day by the Joplin news.
Two things happened: One, I got increasingly frustrated with the Chuck Berry story. Chuck Berry’s a fascinating guy but he’s also very private and wasn’t going to give me the sort of access that I typically like to have if I’m profiling somebody. The second thing that happened – and it’s great that she’s (in the room today): I can honestly credit my mom with this story. She knew I was in St. Louis and we were chatting one day, and she said, “I was listening to NPR and they had this audio of something about people trapped in a (gas station) cooler in Joplin.” She said she thought there was something on YouTube about it, so I went and found the video. I’m not sure how many of you have watched it but it’s an insanely moving document. At least for me it was. I’d never heard anything like it. I started immediately thinking, “Okay, do we know who these people are?” It instantly seemed that (the people in the cooler) was an untold story.
Williams: In terms of storytelling there was so much in Joplin to choose from, but deciding to focus on the people in the cooler gave you (parameters), a narrative within a narrative.
I was drawn to the cooler because it’s so tightly focused – it’s a very tight space with a bunch of people crammed inside, in the dark. I liked the idea of simplifying it as much as possible. The thing that made it easier was the fact that there weren’t two dozen disconnected individuals in there; there were maybe six or seven smaller units. My biggest fear was that (readers) were gonna lose track of who’s who. Approaching it as family units or as friend units, or as people who were helping each other, helped me try to keep it as comprehensible as possible.
Raquel Rutledge: These people’s lives – there’s so much about them that you could have included. How did you decide? Was it just the most interesting facts?
Once I found these people I tried to just spend a good chunk of time with them. Sometimes the information I was getting seemed to slot perfectly into the story. It’s not always like this, but for whatever reason what was essential to their story seemed obvious.
Williams: How did you start, though? You sat down with a tape recorder −
I use a tape recorder, yeah.
Williams: − and said, “Tell me about that day?”
I first tell them to just give me a little backstory – who are ya and what do you do? How long have you been around here? Where do you come from? In this case I had them start with what happened as best they could remember from the moment they woke up that morning to the end of the day, and to just walk me through every single thing they could remember about that day.
Williams: Great details. Like the kid with the cell phone texts, “Is pink bad?” to her friend, talking about the radar image. You then went and found the radar image so you could drop a more exact description into the moment.
Yeah. But in terms of what you leave out, I remember I also went and found out what golf match (the girl’s father) must have been watching (on television), because he didn’t remember. I found out who won the tournament. In one draft I had this extended thing about, like, the background of the golfer and how he was a comeback kid, and it totally didn’t work. It was totally unnecessary.
John Diedrich: Given the YouTube footage you probably weren’t the only one who was seeking this storyline. Can you talk about the competition and also about how you found (the people from the cooler)?
I was terrified that there would be lots of competition. As far as I know there wasn’t anybody else looking for these people, which surprised me. As far as how I went about finding them: I showed up in Joplin and met with Isaac (Duncan) that first day. Isaac is the one who actually shot the (YouTube) video. He gave me contact info for his two friends that were in (the cooler), and he said he thought the clerk’s name was Ruben. He thought a cousin of his might know how to get in touch. But that was it. He didn’t know anybody else. It took me about 3 1/2 weeks to actually finally find everybody.
I would always ask everybody: Describe as best you can everybody else who was in the cooler, any distinguishing details you can remember, about cars they might have been driving, all this stuff.
Every day I would kind of station myself at the site of the Fastrip and talk to everybody that was coming to look at what was going on. I would ask if they knew anybody that had been in there. I would run into people at the Fastrip who had come because they knew somebody who had been there or they knew someone who knew someone.
For example the woman Stacy LaBarge, the photographer. She actually took some pictures while she was in (the cooler). I found her maybe 10 days into the process. When I first started talking to people a few started saying, “Yeah there was a woman in there with a long lens, I think she might’ve been taking pictures during the tornado or right after,” and I was like, Wow. They thought maybe she was heading to Kansas City but nobody knew for sure – she had just sort of disappeared afterward. I found this Kia Soul that was upside down, under one of the wrecked canopies, that had a Nikon lens cap in it. It also had some compact flash cards in it. So when I saw that, I thought it must be her car. Although in certain cars I would find wreckage that had been in other cars because the tornado had whipped things around. But the Kia Soul ended up being Stacy’s car. I finally did get to her, and not only had she been there but she also had all these pictures.
Diedrich: Was there ever a point where you thought, “I’m not gonna find everybody. I need a Plan B.” And also, was there ever any doubt in your mind that there wasn’t somebody else still out there? (Did you ever worry) that the numbers didn’t add up, that there might’ve been somebody in a corner that didn’t get any notice?
Yeah. And there are still some doubts in my mind in terms of whether there could’ve been some lone person that wasn’t accounted for, because this was utter chaos and there was nobody taking a head count. As I started accounting for all the people that were in the cooler my numbers quickly got a lot higher than any of the estimates.
In terms of whether I thought I’d have to drop this and go do something else, certainly after I met Ruben (Carter) there wasn’t any way I was gonna do a different story. That was the story I wanted to do.
Williams: Some of the descriptions are incredible – the flapping of the wings of the steel canopy; the line, “You could smack the ball straight up and it would trace a curve like the St. Louis arch.” How did that come to you?
The St. Louis arch – (one of the witnesses) said if you smacked the ball straight up it would curve, and I’d just been in St. Louis, so –
– that came to mind. The flapping of the wings was somebody’s description. At least one person described it as big flapping wings. The same thing with the walls “breathing in and out” – that was somebody else’s description and it was just powerful.
Jonathan Blakley: And the cows without legs.
Diedrich: And closing the door and everything’s just disappearing right on the other side of the door.
Williams: You asked everybody what it was like, so then you had this load of description. It all lined up? Everybody was saying the same thing?
That’s a good question. I’m sure there were places where things didn’t match and I had to decide what seemed more plausible, just in terms of who came out (of the cooler first) and stuff. Pretty late into the reporting I still thought Ruben was the last person out of the cooler because I’d been told that by several people, and I think that was his recollection as well, but it turned out he was the second-to-last person. That guy Chris pushed him out.
Williams: I love how you play with voice even within small narratives. The Donna Barnes section starts: “She believes in the Pentecost. She believes that a bowl of multigrain Cheerios with low-fat milk is a good breakfast and there’s no reason not to have it every single day.” And then two paragraphs later, “She believes that a sliced banana is optional.” That’s a tiny bit of humor in the midst of all this panic and drama. Another writer might’ve put the banana with the cereal but I’m glad you didn’t. It’s a small move that makes all the difference. How’d you decide to use a slightly different voice in that section?
That first line, about the Pentecost, I think that’s from a Lucinda Williams song –
Williams: It is!
– and I had that in mind when I wrote that. I’m not sure if I’d been listening to the song or whatever but that’s what I thought of when I thought of Pentecost. But yeah, I obsessed over that section because it was different. I really worried that it was gonna be condescending somehow, and I worried about putting the banana thing where you mentioned, sort of breaking it up like that, putting her deep beliefs next to the more frivolous ones –
Lisa Dittrich (Luke’s mom): I remember him going over and over and over this.
She’s my first reader.
Lisa Dittrich: I rip it apart.
Diedrich: Was Isaac the first one to talk about the “I-love-you” chain?
That’s one thing that there were some discrepancies about – who said it first. The voices you hear in the video are the people closest to Isaac. He was the one who first described it to me, and that was one of the questions I asked everybody, whether they participated in the I-love-you-ing.
Diedrich: That’s a huge part of what’s memorable.
That’s a huge part of what drew me to the story. I mean when you’re reading about the military, for example, you often hear that military training allows you to behave sort of selflessly and to give up your own life, if necessary, for somebody next to you. And one of the things I thought was beautiful about what these people did was, these were people who were strangers to one another, who were thrown together in circumstances that none of them could have been prepared for that morning, and some, if not all, of them behaved entirely selflessly. They had every reason to believe they were about to die and in their last moments they expressed love to these strangers. There was something totally beautiful to me about that. That, to me, is the climax of the story, when they start saying, “I love all of you.”
Diedrich: Did you sketch the cooler out?
I did, yeah. I got anybody that could to sketch out who was around them. When I got them finally together at the site of the Fastrip I got them to arrange themselves as they were, as they were crouched down and draped over each other, so I could picture it in my head.
Williams: Just to switch it up for a minute, I’d like to ask about “Tonight on Dateline This Man Will Die” (about the NBC reality show that some believe led to a Texas man’s suicide). What was that story’s genesis?
I was in Argentina and I had – I guess I had just come back from – for a different story I’d just run a marathon in Antarctica –
Alison Loat: As you do.
– and Dave Katz, an editor at Esquire, emailed and said that they had this story in mind and what were my thoughts on it. He wasn’t saying they wanted to assign it to me; I think he was sort of soliciting my approach to it. And I had never heard of this. I’d been (living) in Canada and didn’t have cable, but thankfully you could stream all of the episodes online. So I quickly watched a few episodes. And I mean I found it to be insanely compelling television but also right from the get-go it just seemed weird. I couldn’t believe it was legal, what they were doing. There seemed to be something terribly, terribly wrong with it, but also extremely entertaining. It was Dave’s idea, to pursue (the narrative of) the (Bill) Conradt suicide. It was at least six weeks of reporting or so, maybe two months.
Williams: On the ground.
Yeah, yeah. The biggest key to that one – well, there were several things. Lots of Open Records Act requests. And it took me a long time to get to one of the cops involved, this guy Gator, who was intimately involved in that particular sting and had fallen off the radar. Maybe four weeks into the process he agreed to meet with me. And he helped a huge amount. That and actually getting a hold of the raw footage.
Williams: Details about the SWAT team coming into the house and that eerie scene of Conradt stepping into the doorway – how did you get such riveting details?
A, I got to go through the house and spend a lot of time in the house just sort of taking my own pictures and mapping out what the house actually looked like. And B, one of the advantages of doing any reporting that involves law enforcement actions is that cops have to write up these really meticulous narratives, and for this (case) there were at least nine SWAT team members, and each one wrote up probably 800 words on exactly what they did.
Williams: Is that the kind of thing you had to request via Open Records?
Yeah, I was submitting requests all over. The Texas Rangers sent me a whole bunch of stuff, like discs with all the crime scene photos and stuff like that, which we ended up using. Even Perverted Justice, which is this civilian group that works with NBC to execute these stings, they had, I think, the audiotapes on their website, stuff that wasn’t used in the broadcast. They posted all the audiotapes between Bill Conradt and the fake kids.
Williams: What was the wider impact of this story? Is this show still on the air?
They run reruns but they have not made any new episodes. It’s unclear (why) exactly. (The story) came out and then a lawsuit was filed soon after, by Patricia Conradt, Bill’s sister. NBC later settled out of court. Since the story came out they haven’t produced any more episodes.
Adam Tanner: Can you talk about how you structured the beginning? How do you know if it’s effective at getting the reader to continue?
I think the “Dateline” one has a pretty slow beginning, so it might not be too effective. I do remember with that one in particular, I had all this raw footage, and I was watching and re-watching this footage of what happened in the hours leading up to the raid. In one of them there’s this green wheelbarrow that the cameraman keeps focusing on. I knew I wanted to start with a view through a lens, because to me (the story) was all about that – what we’re filming, what we show and don’t show. I had heard an anecdote about Bill Conradt being drunk at a party and being carried out in a wheelbarrow, so as soon as I saw the wheelbarrow that connection (also) clicked with me. But I think there is an argument that it’s not the quickest start to the story. It’s a slow burn.
Tanner: In magazine writing do you think, “Okay, I’ve got a page before” – many of us write for newspapers, wire services, whatever, and within a sentence or two you’ve lost the reader, right? So how much time do you think you have, to lay out the scene, to expose where you’re going?
I don’t think there are any rules about that. I think you have to take it story by story. I am really keen to keep momentum going. It’s hugely important to me that the reader gets engaged and stays engaged. If I start with something that’s not pure action I certainly am keeping in mind that I need to get to the action quickly. That’s something that my editor, Tyler Cabot, and I are working on all the time, keeping the pace up. I always want it to be a fast read even if it’s a long read.
Williams: Especially if it’s a long read.
Tanner: Sometimes there appears to be detail that may not be essential to the story. It’s not exactly clear how it’s pertinent, and I’m wondering if that’s a deliberate device, to slow down the action.
I don’t think I consciously put in superfluous detail. I’m always hoping the detail is in service of something. I do think that ideally there’s always going to be a certain ebb and flow. It can’t be balls-to-the-wall constantly; I don’t think that works. That’s as hard to get through as something slow. So maybe there are certain rhythmic differences but I wouldn’t say I’m putting in something intentionally because I think, “Well, let’s bore them for a while and then get going.”
Williams: With the “Dateline” piece, I’m wondering how you reported for dialogue. I imagine the chat stuff between Conradt and Luke was in the documents –
That was in some of the documents. The voice transcripts came from the Perverted Justice site, I believe. And there’s a lot of dialogue that I got from the raw footage. One of the things I liked was that – and I think it shows the fallibility of memory, which is something everybody deals with when they’re reporting – in the nine narratives that the SWAT team did, they all had a slightly different recollection of his last words.
Williams: You (embrace the discrepancies by using all the versions): “I’m not gonna hurt anybody,” and, “I’m not gonna hurt anyone,” and, “Guys, I’m not gonna hurt anyone,” and, “I’m not gonna hurt nobody, guys.” I like that you used all four because it instills more confidence in the storyteller.
When it comes to dialogue I’m really tethered either to the tape recorder or to some other real concrete documentation of what exactly was said. There’s a lot of stories I do where I hardly use any quotes at all and I’ll just have paraphrases, and that’s when I don’t have the actual quotes backed up by some type of recording.
Carole Osterer: For the tornado update, did you go back down there, and are you continuing to write about it?
My first draft, I didn’t have exactly this (the update read aloud at the beginning of class) tagged onto the end, but I had sort of another section, after they all get out (of the cooler), where I tell what went on afterward. I actually introduced myself (clumsily) into the story, and told about the reporting that went into finding them, and then finally getting them together for this reunion that I described, this sort of aftermath postscript thing. And Tyler convinced me – and I think he was totally right – that it’s much more effective to just kind of close the door as soon as they wander off. You’re leaving questions dangling, but that’s okay.
Dina Kraft: Can I switch to the brain science story? I was wondering if, when writing that story, you were feeling some sort of unfinished business with your grandfather?
I did feel like after I finished reporting that story I understood the context of what he had done. Still, there are aspects that are very disturbing that you kind of have to wrestle with: the ethics of human experimentation and all of that. Today it’s very unlikely that somebody could do something like (the debilitating surgery), but I did feel in reporting that, that I understood how it could be done and not be a terrible thing necessarily for a neurosurgeon to do.
Kraft: It seems like you’re giving Henry (Molaison, the patient) his voice back.
I’m fascinated by Henry. I’m fascinated by what it would be like to live like him. I don’t understand it. I grappled with what that must be like, and I still do because I’m working on this book about him now. This whole year I’m going to continue to grapple with Henry and Henry’s story.
Kraft: How long were you thinking about it before you wrote the story?
It was the first story I ever pitched to Esquire, in 2005. The editor liked the idea and said do it, and then I started looking into it and it became clear pretty quickly that the person who kind of controlled access to Henry – Henry was alive at the time – was not going to give me access. And I didn’t want to do a write-around when he was still alive. And then strangely when he died, that made access to him easier in a paradoxical way, because things opened up somewhat. He wasn’t as cloistered and protected, and the details of his life weren’t secret. Until he died no one knew his name; he was just Patient H.M. It’s a very stimulating story to work on but it’s difficult because family is involved.
Kraft: Did your grandfather tell you about him?
My grandfather died when I was 10, so I don’t think I ever even heard of Henry while he was still alive.
Lisa Dittrich (Luke’s mom): I never heard of him.
Kraft (to Lisa): This was your father?
Lisa Dittrich: Yeah.
Williams: Lisa’s the source of all Luke’s stories.
Loat: I’m actually intrigued by your editing relationship.
When I say she’s my first reader: I don’t send her drafts but I call her up when I’m late in the draft process, and usually before I send it off to Tyler, and I read it over the phone to her. And she used to just tell me –
Lisa Dittrich: The beginning’s wrong.
– the beginning’s way too slow and long and all of that. And now she – she’s always a great listener and has great comments for me, but it’s always just a big help for me to read. When I’m writing I’m constantly reading out loud, even to myself. It’s really irritating to be in a room with me if I’m writing because I’m reading everything out loud. But it’s a huge part of the editing, tweaking, polishing process for me, so if I can have somebody to read out loud to I guess it’s less weird.
Williams: These are 10,000-word stories, though.
Yeah, it takes an hour. And I get hoarse.
Diedrich: You talked earlier about the feeling of “taking” from people when you’re working on stories. Do you find that that’s changed your approach? I’ve had the same feeling myself, this sort of parasitic or vulture-type role we sometimes see ourselves in.
I do a few things differently. The first story I ever did for a national magazine was for The Oxford American, and it was about child beauty pageants. I worked with this great photographer, Vance Jacobs, who did these amazing black-and-white pictures. The opening spread was one of these contestants we spent a lot of time with, sort of laid out on a bed with curlers in her hair, smoking a fake cigarette. She had one of those candy cigarettes, right? She was like 10 years old. It was a striking image. She was Little Miss North Carolina. When the story came out the (pageant organizers) revoked her crown because she was “encouraging” smoking with her candy cigarettes. I focused the story on these two sisters. I don’t think I wrote a negative word about them, but I clearly wrote in a negative way about the people around them, including their grandma, who was sort of the domineering pageant mom.
I suspect (the little girls) never read the story, but still, I decided that I did not want to do any more stories where the central characters were minors. It’s such a big move to let a reporter into your life, you know what I mean? You’re making yourself so incredibly vulnerable. And if the reporter’s gonna do his or her job honestly, you never know what’s gonna come of it, and I felt like that’s not a decision a minor is able to make.
(Feature spread courtesy of Esquire)