Our latest Notable Narrative, “For Richard family, loss and love,” is a two-part series by David Abel* of the Boston Globe. Abel spent six months with the Richards, a family of Boston Marathon bombing survivors, and wrote with reportorial depth about their struggle to cope with a range of loss, including that of their son and brother, Martin, 8, who died in the second blast. The piece is a narrative in the truest sense in that it moves, scene by scene, through time, allowing readers into the lives of the subjects via detail, dialogue and observation. An excerpt, from Part 1:
For one of their last outings before leaving Spaulding, the Richards received an invitation from city officials to visit the makeshift memorial to the attack in Copley Square, which had grown to become a global symbol of Boston’s ground zero.
It would mean a trip back to Boylston Street, well before they were prepared for it.
But the memorial was about to be dismantled for good, so they discussed it and decided to go as a family.
They went in an unmarked police car, eager to avoid the glare of the media, which was hovering on the perimeter. The officers, who had become close confidants after weeks of looking after the Richards, parked nearby and came up with a code word for Jane, in case she got nervous and wanted to leave.
They were greeted by Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Davis, the police commissioner, who gave the children police pins. There were other survivors there, and Bill and Denise shared hugs and brief words with them.
But they weren’t in much of a mood to talk.
For more than an hour, they quietly absorbed what had become a shrine, with hundreds of running shoes tied to metal stanchions, Marathon medals, Mylar capes, bibs left on benches, mementos that ranged from rosary beads to police patches.
Jane wondered why anyone would leave their sneakers behind and thought they were there to find Martin’s shoes. Henry looked serious as he perused the hand-scrawled notes, posters, and other messages, some of which were left by friends and teachers they knew. But he found all the pictures of Martin disturbing. How, he wondered, did someone get a picture of his brother’s First Communion?
For a family averse to attention, it was a reminder of how invested the world was in their pain, and how far they were from being ready to cope with that.
On Wednesday, Abel kindly answered 10 questions about the story:
On the day of the bombing, you were at the finish line, working on a documentary about the first dwarfs to run the marathon, as part of your Nieman fellowship year. You were following one runner, but then, through your deadline reporting for the Globe — which on Monday bittersweetly won the Pulitzer for breaking news — you got to know many others. How did you arrive at this one story?
After my experience on the finish line, I decided to devote the year to telling the stories of those profoundly impacted by the attack, those with visible and invisible injuries. There have been many stories — children who had to cope with what they witnessed, amputees who had to learn how to walk with a prosthesis, parents who lost their children. This story, about the Richards, comprised all of those challenges, and much more. They were the family most deeply impacted by the bombings. Every reporter wanted to tell their story, but they had been intensely private about their experience. Over the year, they declined interviews with every major network and many others. At some point, they decided they would have to tell their story, and they chose to do it in print. I was fortunate that the family’s inner circle had followed my work and trusted me to tell their story.
How did you approach the very delicate and difficult realities of being with, and reporting on, a family that’s struggling with such a complex range of grief and loss?
With trepidation. At first, I was deeply concerned about asking the wrong question, one that might derail the relationship. It took time to get to know them well enough that there was a reservoir of trust and understanding — and then laughter and an easiness in the rapport. I wanted them to know me as well, so my interviews were more of a conversation than something like an interrogation. There were so many potential emotional trapdoors. I sought to be as sensitive as I could, watching for cues when it would be okay to probe more deeply and when I should back off. Further complicating it was speaking to the children. I never wanted to do that without their parents there, and I never asked them directly about their experiences that day. I felt that had to come from the parents.
Detail is crucial to narrative — it’s one of the four hallmarks, as Tom Wolfe put it, along with scene-by-scene construction, extensive dialogue and third-person point of view. The specifics in this story are so deeply observed, and strong. How did you report for detail?
Some of it was observed but much of it came through questions, because a lot of this story takes place in the past, before I began meeting with them. I had to balance fly-on-the-wall reporting with long, sit-down interviews. During the interviews, I probed for as many specifics as they could recall or were willing to share. (There were some things that they made clear were off limits, such as talking about the funeral.) At first, questions I asked to elicit specific details seemed peculiar and trifling, maybe even picayune. But as time went by, they understood why I was searching for such granular details, and they opened up, telling me, for example, that Bill, the father, meditates with a cedar pine candle or about how Jane, the daughter, insisted on leaving her prosthesis at home on the first day of school because she wanted to wear her red cowboy boot, which didn’t fit on her artificial leg.
You followed the Richard family for six months, which resulted in a pile of reporting. How did you organize the material and approach the drafting process?
I had a heap of notebooks from the time I was with them when I wasn’t interviewing them. I also shot video on occasion, which helped capture moments and settings that I could later refer to. I also took notes on my laptop during our interviews, using a Word program that allowed me to record at the same time. In all, I had about 60,000 words of notes. I compiled those files by date and subject matter and then organized them in chronological order. (Because I feared something might happen to my computer, I printed them out as I went along and backed them up in the cloud.) From the beginning, I made a list of questions that I thought my story should answer and questions that I thought should be raised early in the piece about their experience that would sustain the narrative. Before writing, I drafted a rough outline, discussed my approach with editors, and set about – rapidly – writing each scene. Given my paper’s desire to publish this shortly before the anniversary of the attack, I had only about two weeks to write, which meant that I was at it around the clock. I didn’t see my son much for those two weeks.
Life-and-death stories are often treacly and overdone, especially in newspapers. What was your goal, with the writing?
The opposite! Restraint was the mantra here. This story didn’t need any topspin. The mundane facts of their experience were all that I needed to assemble.
How is the finished story different from early versions?
Thankfully, the final draft is much better than the initial one, though they’re not far apart. I initially filed 15,000 words. The story ran at about 13,000. One of the big differences was the opening. My initial first section was substantially longer. I was trying to set things up too much and introduce the different folks in the story. At the end of my first draft, I found that I could cut a lot of that first section and sprinkle much of it through the rest of the piece. We also revised some of the sections to introduce the action more quickly and eliminated some anecdotes and details that felt repetitive.
What were the edits like and how did they change the story?
Editors helped me refine the language, cut the fat, hone the beginning, and refine the ending. They prodded me to press for details that weren’t as clear as they could be and ensure connections I was drawing were supported by the facts. There was some negotiation over details or anecdotes that I felt were vital, and thankfully, most of those made it in. I was fortunate to benefit from wise editors.
What did this story teach you about narrative?
My experience with narrative had been that it’s best observed, that being there is the way to flesh out a scene. I worried how I could tell this story by having to report on so much that I didn’t witness. I was lucky that the Richards were patient and put up with so many questions – stuff they often didn’t care to discuss or hadn’t really talked about with anyone else. They came to understand that I was always interested in what they were thinking at a certain time, any dialogue that occurred that they could recall, and specific details that might help me reconstruct scenes. I was fortunate that they consulted notes and emails and other documents and people to make sure their memories were accurate. I was clear that I didn’t want them to guess about anything they didn’t remember clearly. If they weren’t sure, I insisted they make that clear to me. The ultimate lesson, I think, was that it’s possible to build a narrative without witnessing it.
What kind of reaction has the piece received, including from the Richard family?
This story seems to have tapped into a deep nerve. In the days after the story was published, I received thousands of tweets and emails from around the world, to the point that I haven’t been able to keep up with them. While overwhelming, the response has been reassuring. I had worried that if I didn’t get it right, it could be terrible, that I could potentially compound the family’s stress. Of all the feedback, there was only one critical note, which was about the headline. (I was even stopped on Boylston Street by a cop who had given me a hard time in the past. He went out of his way to say nice things about the piece.) As far as a response from the Richards, I haven’t received one, as of a few days after the story was published. They’ve had a tremendous amount on their minds, especially in the days approaching the anniversary of their son’s death, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they hadn’t read the story yet. Incidentally, after consulting my editors, I offered to read the piece to them the day before it was published. They declined. It would have been too painful for them to hear. They asked instead if I would allow one of their close friends to read it, and my editors thought that would be fine. The friend came to our office, read it in a conference room, and said he couldn’t have been happier with how it turned out. He said the Richards might hate it – because it was too much to bear – but that he thought it did justice to their experience. Since then, I have received very kind words from other close friends of the family.
What advice would you have for others interested in writing or producing narrative journalism?
Take Paige Williams’ class!
*A bit of disclosure: Abel was a 2013 Nieman Fellow and a former Nieman Narrative student. (For the record, we wanted to edit out his last answer; he wouldn’t let us.) But even if we’d never met him we’d have chosen this story as recommended reading. You can read a bit more about the Nieman writing program in the 75th anniversary issue of Nieman Reports. And to read more in our Notable Narrative series — more than 400 pieces of recommended reading, and related interviews — go here.