Veteran magazine writer Michael Paterniti visited the Nieman Foundation a couple of weeks ago for a discussion about literary journalism with Narrative Writing instructor Paige Williams’ class and other fellows. Winner of the National Magazine Award for feature writing (and a six-time finalist), Paterniti has written powerfully about everything from the crash of SwissAir 111 to the world-renowned chef Ferran Adrìa. His piece about a cross-country trip with Albert Einstein’s brain became the basis for his New York Times “notables” book Driving Mr. Albert. He is at work on a new book about cheese. He lives with his wife, the New York Times Magazine writer Sara Corbett, and their three children in Portland, Maine, where Paterniti and Corbett cofounded The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing program for kids. Williams, who led the discussion, won the National Magazine Award for feature writing, about a young Burundian asylum seeker, and shared a nomination the following year for a package on the unfulfilled legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This excerpt has been edited lightly for clarity and brevity.
Paige Williams: Now that we have the formal introduction I thought you guys might like something more intimate. Our spouses know us better than anyone, which is both marvelous and terrifying, and so I asked Mike’s wife, Sara, to tell us something about Mike’s writing life. This is what she e-mailed:
“He listens to music when he writes – really loud music, same song over and over again, usually one song per story. He drinks insane amounts of Starbucks iced tea while on deadline. He has a surfboard, and when he’s on deadline he loads his surfboard into our minivan – which basically means that nobody else in our family, which includes three kids and a dog, can fit in the minivan – and keeps it there, not because he’s going to actually manage to go surfing but it serves as some very oversized talisman that tells him someday he’ll get his story done and feel free again. He is obsessive and brutally hard on himself. He frets and fusses and procrastinates and complains and then eventually, usually two or three clicks past the 11th hour, will suddenly disappear. It’s like the lights go off. All noise stops. Even if he’s home, he’s not really there. The next time I see him – a day later, two days later – he’s got his story. It’s actually a pretty wild thing to watch. Because when he gets it, it’s beautiful.
“The other thing I both love and wring my hands over about Mike is that he is maddeningly, amazingly 100 percent unrealistic, all the time. His ideas and his aims are always big and odd. The same guy who told me that he thought it would be a good idea to take a 3,000-mile road trip with an 84-year-old and a famous brain has also spent the last seven years obsessing over a piece of cheese that sits in a cave in Spain. I see him reading something, or Googling something, and I start to realize it’s just another inevitability: He gets interested in a really tall man in the Ukraine and then suddenly, boom, that’s where he’s headed. Or charging off to live in a motel in Dodge City, Kansas, because two years earlier someone said something odd to him there. We hauled our three kids to Central India in the hot season because Mike had heard that the illegitimate heir to the French throne was hidden away there. We went to France and ate little songbirds once because Mike wanted to know what that would be like. People hurling themselves off a bridge in southern China? Sure, why not? Profile a chimpanzee for the New York Times Magazine? Only Mike. When people ask me what my writer-husband ‘covers,’ I usually begin by saying, ‘Well, his tastes are a little unconventional.’
“If I make it sound like Mike’s stories spring from his mind beautifully formed, I am telling only half the truth. He gets the voice of a story, writes a great draft, but then – BUT THEN – he worries over every single word and line until the very second it leaves his hands to go the printer. I’ve never seen anyone make as many changes in page proofs as Mike does. Some of us (me, anyway) have a tendency to hit a point when we think a story is done and just happily watch it go off to bed in the arms of an editor, but Mike is not that writer.”
We’re happy to have you here, Mike, and I thought we could start with you reading a bit from one of your pieces.
Mike Paterniti: [Reads a passage from the Walter Benjamin essay “The Storyteller,” in which Benjamin quotes Paul Valery: “ ‘Artistic observation,’ says Valery in reflections on a woman artist whose work consisted in the silk embroidery of figures, ‘can attain an almost mystical depth. The objects on which it falls lose their names. Light and shade form very particular systems, present very individual questions which depend upon no knowledge and are derived from no practice, but get their existence and value exclusively from a certain accord of the soul, the eye, and the hand of someone who was born to perceive them and evoke them in his own inner self.’ ” He then reads a short passage from his own Esquire piece “The American Hero in Four Acts,” a line of which – “And suddenly, impossibly, out of nowhere – you!” – made Esquire’s list of 70 Greatest Sentences.]
Williams: You say you wrote “The American Hero in Four Acts” in a voice you don’t really use anymore. How do you mean? Why the change?
Paterniti: I don’t think the change was intentional. The voice of every piece varies, but it’s always a mystery how you get there, how you find that voice. Is this a big voice? Is this a little voice? Is this a New York Times Magazine voice where we just want to go straight reportage, just tell people, “This is what I found and I want you to take it seriously; I’m not gonna bury it in this literary long form or creative nonfiction, whatever people want to call it, I’m gonna do it as a recognizable piece of reporting so you have to contend with this because it’s something that has to be contended with.”
Williams: So how do you get there? Does part of it depend upon the publication, in that your voice changes according to audience?
Paterniti: Yeah. I think about a piece I did about Bill Clinton for Esquire right at the end of his presidency, and I was with him on and off for almost three months. … I wrote a story that was really just about him, as a man. It never said his name. And it was at the end of his presidency, so came at a perfect time to sum up who he was and what maybe had motivated him – I was writing this extended obituary really. It was very freeing in some ways just to treat him as a man.
I think the thing people miss about Clinton is his rage, his anger. That’s what organized a lot of who he was then. But there was a great bit of detail that came from a conversation I had with a couple of his very close aides. They said there was a myth about the [Monica] Lewinsky scandal: that he had compartmentalized the scandal and was doing the work of America. His people kept saying that, and doing these photo ops where Clinton was being very jaunty and energetic. … On a normal day when he didn’t have a scandal he’d be doing a crossword and someone would be briefing him and other people would be talking to him and his brain was big enough to grab the whole thing. In fact, one aide one day said to him, “You’re not listening to a word I say, Mr. President,” and Clinton was doing his crossword and he looked up and just sort of repeated verbatim what the guy had just said.
But on this one day, during the Lewinsky thing, he apparently was sitting at the desk. He wasn’t doing a crossword. He was just moving objects around. People were talking to him and he just kept moving the objects. Finally one by one everybody left the room. At least two people who had been in the room said they thought he’d really had some sort of break.
I tried as best I could to recreate the scene – it was very much in passing – but it was embedded in this voice that had been stripped of all quotes and sources. I had positioned the camera so intimately it was like an extended close-up. And you were never gonna get anything else in that scene; it was like that Bergman close-up. It’s like you’re gonna see this guy wince, maybe cry; you’re gonna see him do what he does, which is smile and seduce, all these things he does so wonderfully, but you’re never gonna know exactly why. Or there’ll be a mystery to it. So that close-up committed me to that. I thought I had this amazing piece of reporting, but nobody ever commented on it. It was just totally lost. And included with the article I did this Q&A with him – me asking a question and Clinton going on for pages – and he said three things, and those were the sound bites that got picked up by everybody.
Williams: What did he say?
Paterniti: This was a week before the election, so one thing he said was, “I’ve already apologized to America for what I’ve done, but the Republicans haven’t apologized for what they did to me,” which just brought Clinton back into an election where Democrats were trying to keep him off to the side. And so for the last week the Republicans were like, “Do you remember that president that we used to have, who had those dealings with Monica Lewinsky?” And he suddenly became the news story for a while. But in the end, voicewise, I was okay with losing this great piece of reporting to the narrative that I wrote, because I had made that commitment as a writer and a storyteller. I said I’m just gonna have to let that go, it’s not gonna be that line in the New York Times Magazine that would have read, “a senior adviser close to Clinton says.”
Helen Branswell: Do you think if you’d written it differently – not necessarily as straight reportage but with another voice – that it might have gotten more attention or was it just because of the timing, the cycle, that it got sort of overlooked?
Paterniti: The article and interview didn’t get overlooked but that detail got buried in the flow of it. So I think yes, if I had really punched that up, that would have been the lead. Like, on the day that it came out, I went to New York and did the “Today” show and “Hardball” and “The O’Reilly Factor,” and we might have been talking just about Bill Clinton’s alleged breakdown in the White House.
Williams: A lesser writer might have taken that scene and done something sensationalistic.
Paterniti: I would have been curious as somebody coming to it very cold – my president had some sort of episode, or breakdown, and I want to know.
Williams: Is that what you came to think, though, that he actually had some sort of breakdown?
Paterniti: Everyone remembers differently, but I believe the guys who told me. They were very credible people who spent a ton of time with him. They were with him every day. I said, “Oh, was it just one day?” And they said, “It wasn’t just one day.”
Darcy Frey: I’m totally fascinated by this trial-and-error process of finding a voice that’s suitable to the right material. You try out an oboe and that doesn’t sound quite right so you try out a trumpet. Is there a point where you hit a voice that matches the subject? And how do you know that those two things have kind of synched up in the right way for you?
Paterniti: I think there’s a moment – this Guantanamo detainee piece I’m working on now is a good example. I’ve written five drafts. Each one has been 10,000 words. It’s taken way too long. I’ve had the luxury of protection from my editor, Joel Lovell, who’s been willing to move the deadline back, even though they’re at this point probably very angry with me. But I just think I found it. And I think I found it because it’s just coming up off the page – I can’t even describe it, it seems to be lifting a little bit off the page. And the things I’ve been struggling so hard to fold into the narrative have suddenly begun to arrange themselves. I think if someone said, “You just have to give it up right now,” this would’ve been my greatest failure. And now at least I’ve got a shot. But I’ve tried everything. I’ve done third person, I’ve done second person, I’ve done first person, I’ve positioned the story behind one character, I’ve positioned it behind another character, I’ve put myself in the middle of it – there’s nowhere left to go.
Williams: Have you changed the tenses yet?
Paterniti: I’ve changed the tenses. I’ve changed the font! I’ve changed what I was drinking.
Williams: Change the song?
Paterniti: I’ve changed the song!
Michael Fitzgerald: So where would you typically want feedback from your editor? What’s your normal process and is there give and take like Tom Junod talks about or is it, “This all has to come out of me?”
Paterniti: Oh, I’m so open to give and take, and to talk. I’ve had like a magical relationship with a couple of magazine editors. There’s a story I did early on for Esquire. It started in second person and after the first section it went into a very typical magazine setup – I went to Dodge City to live in this motel because I thought this was ground zero for the new American racism – so it was this establishing graf, this nut graf, and I sent the opening to my editor and got this one line back like, “You’re not interesting. Take the ‘I’ out of the story.” And it just exploded, this story. I finished it very quickly. Otherwise I would’ve gone down the “I” road. Just with that one little suggestion, I was like, “Thank you so very much because you’ve reduced the amount of torture I’ll have to go through to get this right.”
A really great editor – and I would include Andy Ward, who is my book editor and was my magazine editor – is an editor who’s editing the story right from the very beginning, the minute you mention the idea. And he’s directing the flow of thought and what makes it important and how you’re gonna excavate that, like what kind of point of view you want to take, which stance do you want to take in relation to the characters? There were a lot of times I’d call Andy and say, “Will you tell me why this was so interesting to you when we first talked about it?” Just to hear him talk back to me for two minutes. It’s not real elaborate, not real crafty stuff. Oftentimes I’ll just ask, “What’s the headline for this story?” A lot of times that helps me focus.
Fitzgerald: How do you deal with editors who aren’t so great?
Paterniti: I’ve been super lucky with editors, but when it’s not working I just work harder. And also I will lean on my wife, Sara. I’ll have her read or I’ll have an outside reader come in, like literally my emergency readers where I’ll say, “Hey I know it’s 9 o’clock on a Monday night but I’m dying.” But it’s hard when you don’t have a good editor. It’s really hard. And it’s really frustrating. And it does take more time. The reality of it is that you spend more time in the dark and you have to rely on yourself so much more. When you can’t quite find it that’s when you go through some deeper doubt about what you’re doing.
Williams: What is it about legendary editors like Andy? What sets him apart from other editors? And what do you need from an editor?
Paterniti: His work ethic is incredible. He boomerangs stories back. He’ll boomerang a 10,000-word story back by the end of the day. He just zeroes in on what’s weak. All he has to do is bracket it. He doesn’t even really have to write words anymore. I think that’s what it is; he’s just got a really crystal-clear sensibility of how it should work in your voice. He doesn’t try to be the writer.
There are plenty of editors, and I was one of them, who wanted to be a writer, who was going to be a writer, and who starts doing some writing on the page. When I was at Outside – back in this moment in time, when I was there, we were doing a lot of long literary pieces and working with a lot of great writers like Annie Proulx and Ian Frazier, and these guys were writing eight- and ten-thousand-word drafts. When people did stories that sort of didn’t live up to the Proulx-Frazier standard we would go in and rewrite them. And I guess that’s a sort of a famous saying at the New Yorker, right? “Editors love to see their words in print?” There’s incredible rewriting that goes on in many magazines, and the editors can be very heavy-handed when they need to be, and that’s what Andy tries not to do. And if a story’s gonna bomb he’ll pull the plug. He’ll work until the point where he feels he’s taken the writer as far as the writer’s going to go.
Philippa Thomas: How many times have you walked away from a story after you’ve gotten quite deep into it?
Paterniti: Never. I’ve reported one story that I didn’t end up writing, but that was because it coincided with other breaking stories that became a higher priority. If I actually start writing, it’s a steel-cage death match. I’m not leaving the cage. Even if I end up bloodied and it’s not my best, there’s no way to walk away.
Robert Rose: Surely the danger is to become too obsessive and self-critical, so how many times have you written something where the first draft is perfect and it’s gone out? And once the story’s gone out do you ever read it and think, “Great, that’s the best I could have done?”
Paterniti: No, I don’t ever think that. But I have had stories that have come like that, that have come in a draft or quickly. Sometimes it’s the extra leg of reporting that opens it up. There’s a plane-crash piece that I wrote. It was about a SwissAir flight from New York to Geneva that crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia. I went around and talked to everybody, all the families, and I went to a lawyer – there was a family of four that died, two parents and their adult children – and he showed me all these photo albums and then said, “Do you want to see what’s left of the family?” He slid this envelope across the table and it was, like, an ankle.
I had all this stuff and it was very powerful, but I couldn’t begin to write. I finally went up to Peggy’s Cove, and on the first day I went into this little fishing village, and no one would talk to me. There was this kind of hostility because they were tired of talking about this horrific thing. And I was driving out and it was spitting rain, and the sky was kind of that grayish purple, and all the clothes on the line – the wind had filled all the clothes. Sothey were just hovering. And that’s what I thought when I drove by;I thought I was seeing bodies in the air. And that was it. It was really that image that started it for me. And I just cranked it out. I already had all the reporting. I had written a lot of rough drafts sort of in my mind, like where is this supposed to start and how do I capture the grief as something tactile? But until there was the absence of bodies I didn’t know what to hang it on.
The times that it has happened quickly I think have spoiled me. It’s dangerous to have that happen, especially early in your career, because I think people begin to think, “Hey, I’m Jack Kerouac, I just type it out.” The stories that look and feel like they were tossed off, oftentimes those are the ones where you’re six or seven drafts in and you have to find some energy for it again, find a way back to it. And the standard is yours. I do think there’s a way to dial that back a little, to maintain your sanity. Not everything has to be epic and crazily lyrical. Some stories just need to be told. And your mental health as a writer is really important. A lot of times that’s why I do listen to music, something bigger and louder than me that I’m feeding off of just a little bit.
Rose: So what song did you listen to when you wrote that airline piece?
Paterniti: Oh man, I don’t even remember. If you go to numbers of plays on my iPod, there’s a disturbing portrait of a man who can’t let go of certain songs.
Williams: We need a play list for all your stories.
Paterniti: I listen to alternative music, mostly, but I have this old recording of this Springsteen song, “Growin’ Up,” from “Greetings from Asbury Park” – it’s a brilliant song and it’s this guy who in one moment is seizing the world through words. It’s just so beautiful. And that song has been on repeat for this Guantanamo story. Something about it is right. …
It’s like Blake’s songs of innocence and experience – there’s an incredible innocence in the ideals of this one Marine defense attorney who ends up defending an alleged terrorist, and all these dreams and delusions he’s had about America kind of get crushed. There’s something about that song, that hopeful innocent voice that is going to end up jaded, that’s carried me through a little bit. I don’t know why.
Thomas: When you were describing the SwissAir journey – I couldn’t work out whether you were reimagining all of that detail or whether they were taking you through the scenarios –
Paterniti: Besides one thing I’ve been told might be wrong – that Rob Gordon, the reporter, doesn’t really like hockey – there was this other thing that I had to guess at a little bit. In this hanger they had the plane, a schematic of it, and they were putting up dots for the people who’d been lost, where they thought they were sitting. So at one point in the article I name the seats and what was happening there, and that was guessing from the names on the board and asking the families, like, what they would have been drinking. I heard from a family that said, “I thought our guy was in 14C, and he wouldn’t have had that drink.” We went by the official version on the wall and interviews with families. So there’s always going to be some of that; no matter how much you think you’ve corroborated something, there’s always gonna be some nuance that somebody else might see in a different way.
[Read part 2 of the discussion with Paterniti, in which he talks about struggling with structure, meeting William Burroughs, and the most amazing storyteller he knows.]