No bullet-point tips list could compare with Skip Hollandworth’s Sunday sermonizing, which closed the 2013 Mayborn Conference. What follows is the Mayborn‘s video of Hollandsworth (followed by our selected excerpts) talking ultimately about “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” the Texas Monthly story that became the movie Bernie. Here’s how that story opened:
Sitting at his regular table at Daddy Sam’s BBQ and Catfish (“You Kill It, I’ll Cook It”) in the East Texas town of Carthage, district attorney Danny Buck Davidson began to realize that he might have some problems prosecuting Bernie Tiede for murder.
“Bernie’s a sweet man, Danny Buck,” a waitress said. “He’s done a lot of good things for this town. He’s given poor kids money to go to college and everything.”
“You got to admit nobody could sing ‘Amazing Grace’ like Bernie could,” someone else said.
The bulldog-faced Danny Buck took a bite of slaw and sipped his iced tea. “Now y’all know that Bernie confessed, don’t you?” he said, trying to keep his voice calm. “He came right out and told a Texas Ranger that he shot Mrs. Nugent four times in the back and then stuffed her in her own deep freeze in her kitchen.”
There was a long silence. “Danny Buck,” one man finally said, “it’s just hard for me to believe that old Bernie could fire a gun straight. He acts . . . well, you know . . . effeminate! You can tell he’s never been deer hunting in his entire life.”
“And you know what?” a woman told Danny Buck later at a convenience store. “I don’t care if Mrs. Nugent was the richest lady in town. She was so mean that even if Bernie did kill her, you won’t be able to find anyone in town who’s going to convict him for murder.”
If you’d rather read than watch, here are some excerpts. Hollandsworth:
I wake up in the morning and I read newspapers online. And I’m looking for stories. I especially like reading little one-paragraph state briefs or metro briefs, where I find myself asking, “Why did he do that?”
Hollandsworth explains how he discovered his National Magazine Award-winning story about the paralyzed football player by reading an obituary in the Dallas newspaper. After reading the short piece, he drove by the house in his neighborhood where the man had lived, saw people going in and stopped to speak to them. He was invited in, and that was his entry into that story:
The first lesson you’ve got to learn — how did (fellow conference speaker and Washington Post Managing Editor) Kevin Merida say it? “Fish where the fish are.” What did (nonfiction author and University of Pennsylvania writing instructor) Paul Hendrickson say? “If you get there, the story will come.”
Hollandsworth describes how he was immediately intrigued by a three-paragraph brief in the Dallas newspaper about a murder in Carthage, Texas. The murder had been discovered after the body of the victim, an elderly, wealthy widow, was discovered frozen in her own freezer, buried beneath potpies. The article described how she had been missing for more than nine months and had been missed by no one in her family or in her East Texas town of 6,000. Her companion and heir, an assistant funeral director named Bernard Tiede, had confessed to shooting her in the back with a rifle and then stashing her body in her own freezer. Hollandsworth describes immediately heading several hours east of Dallas to Carthage. Once there, he was soon sitting at Daddy Sam’s, a local barbeque joint, with District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson:
Here’s lesson No. 2 you got to learn about being a reporter: You walk in with a good face. So when you go in to talk to somebody, do not look judgmental. I don’t care how much you hate them. I don’t care if it’s a serial killer. Don’t look judgmental. Show an intelligent curiosity. Nod your head when they talk. Here’s one thing I’ll do: Somebody’ll say something and I’ll go, “Uh huh,” like they put it together for me. And they could be saying, “I walked down the street to the 7-Eleven.” “Okay, I got it.” You want to make them feel like they’re important.
So here I am, walking into a little East Texas town and, you know, it’s a pretty scandalous story and you don’t want to make fun of anybody. So, I walked in and said, “Mr. Davidson, I’m Skip Hollandsworth from Texas Monthly.”
“You call me Danny Buck. You ain’t shit in East Texas unless you have two first names.”
I went, “All right.” And the conversation began to go.
People at Daddy Sam’s — he was eating his usual lunch — brisket, slaw, potato salad, sweet tea — sweet — and people began to see who I was and come up and talk to me. But it was their way, really, of talking to Danny Buck.
“Skip, may I call you Skip?”
“Yep, you sure can.”
“Have you ever met a real Christian man?”
“Well, I believe I have.”
“Oh, no, not just a Christian man, but a Christlike man? Our Bernie Tiede was a Christlike man. He loved us. And we loved him. And we hated Mrs. Nugent.”
This is the other moment when you’ve got to get your tape recorder going. Because you just let these conversations go. I think one of the failures of a lot of us as journalists is we’re not good with the dialogue. We don’t get the vernacular of people’s voices down. We don’t create atmosphere. We don’t let their quotes about character lead us in the story. And I knew this was a time to shut up and get out of the way.
“Now Skip, you never ever heard Bernie sing, did you?”
“Well no, I didn’t because he’s in jail.” I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that. I said, “No, you know, I didn’t.”
“Well, he could sing you to heaven. If you’d heard him sing ‘Amazing Grace,’ he could sing you to heaven.”
They would come up to me and say, “You know, Bernie was a little light in his loafers. You probably guessed. He couldn’t shoot a deer rifle. He was good.”
And there was Danny Buck just eating his slaw.
“If I was on the jury, Skip, I’d vote to acquit. And maybe he did something wrong, but that’s all in God’s hands.”
And there’s Danny Buck over there going, “He confessed to shooting her! He shot her four times in the back! He’s a back shooter!”
You know the other reason, I call it face time, for me, is I’m not a writerly writer. There are a lot of writers in this room who can put together a beautiful sentence and you go, “Wow!” I can’t do that. I’m not being deliberately humble. My bread and butter lives on getting a good quote or getting a good fact. If I don’t have that fact, then I’m screwed. I can’t write around it. I don’t have quite the stylistic ability. So, I’ve always known that, and being at Texas Monthly I’ve been around a lot of great writers and I have tried my best to keep up with them and the way I do it is by getting good acts, getting good quotes. And I knew this was my kind of story. You just don’t get in the way of it.
So Danny Buck’s listening to people go, “You know, he might’ve done something wrong, but he only shot her four times, not five.” You remember, these are people just coming up. “If you’d met her, you wouldn’t have like her either, Skip. Can I call you Skip? You wouldn’t have liked her either.”
And Danny Buck later says to me that at that moment he knew he was going to have to file for a change of venue in his own county. And I’m not sure in the history of American jurisprudence has there ever been a prosecutor who files for a change of venue because he can’t get a fair jury in his own county to convict a guy who shot somebody four times in the back and not just somebody, but an old lady. So I went, “Good Lord, this is a movie.”
Now why did I say that? You know I’ve had articles optioned for movies before. And people have said, “Do you go looking for stories so you can get a movie option and a free check from Hollywood?” And my very firm answer on that is, “No-ish.”
There’s times I’ve written a story and I’ve been like, “Oh my gosh, Steven Spielberg is going to be all over that one.” I wrote a story a few months ago about this women’s basketball team in the ’40s in a little town called Plainview that played for Wayland Baptist College, called the Flying Queens. They put together the longest winning streak in sports history. They won 121 games in a row. And I went, “This is the next League of Their Own.” I didn’t get a single phone call. Too much of a period piece. Too women-driven. There’s all of these Hollywood formulas. You can’t outplay it. You can’t outguess it. You can’t try to say, “This is the next big thing.”
But I do like stories that are cinematic. I do like looking at a story that’s like a movie in my head. You know — that you can play out in scenes, and without a lot of backstory, without a lot of exposition. I mean, if y’all ever get a chance to write a screenplay, it is thrilling not to have to write an expository sentence. Not to have to write the opening paragraph of the second section; you know what I’m talking about. You write the first section, which is always scene-driven and you write your second section that is trying to explain to the reader why the story is important and where it fits into the — what was Kevin (referring to a previous comment by another speaker, Outside contributor and nonfiction author Kevin Fedarko) the meta-narrative. You know, it’s just — it’s a story, and it’s driven by scenes. And Hollywood loves real stories.
So, there’s a lot of opportunity, and you don’t have to be the big-time writer. The movie The Great Debaters, the Denzel Washington movie that Oprah produced? Based on a Wiley College debate team in Marshall, Texas, in the ’50s. This is one of my favorite stories, was written for a magazine called American Legacy, a quarterly magazine that covers the subjects of African-American history and culture. But it’s not like it’s showing up in Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair. Hollywood scouts look for stories everywhere. So for those of y’all just getting started and have a good narrative, there’s a shot if you get it published, even in this quarterly journal, you’re going to get it discovered and you can get it seen.
So there’s a lot of that that goes on. So there’s this world of Hollywood, and Texas Monthly is represented by — we get so many articles optioned because we like writing narrative nonfiction stories that we have the William Morris Agency that represents us now. So if I write a story and someone wants to option it, William Morris immediately takes 10 percent, Texas Monthly takes the next 25 percent, because they feel they deserve something. I mean, they’re paying me a salary to go do this stuff. And I get the next 65 percent. It can’t be like huge money — if you like this writer at Wired, Joshuah Bearman — does that name sound familiar? … He wrote a story about these 10 Americans that ended up in the Canadian embassy during the Iranian hostage deal, and it became the movie Argo. George Clooney saw it. George Clooney, by the way, for you women writers who want to get to know him, loves nonfiction stories.
Hollandsworth discusses other stories that were optioned: Jennifer Aniston bought rights to his feature on a country-music band formed in the ’40s at a Texas women’s prison. And his profile of a Houston district attorney’s investigator who regularly posed as a hit man in investigations of murder-for-hire plots, was optioned by Brad Pitt:
Ninety-nine percent of anything I’ve had optioned has never been made.
There’s a chance you can get a shot even if you write a story for a little regional newspaper, you can get a shot at getting it optioned. It happens. There’s that little golden calf at the end of the road.
And a lot of the old generation was dying off, a lot of the old oilmen, leaving these rich old widows driving these giant Cadillacs through town, who could barely touch the brake pedal. They were so small they were looking over the steering wheel like this. You know, there would be constant fender benders.
Bernie came in because the bodies were stacking up in the cold room. As Mr. Lipsey, the funeral home director, told me, he looked for somebody to hire because this old general was dying off and he met Bernie, and as he said, “Skip, I’ve never seen anybody who could just do it all. He knew how to take the casseroles and put ’em on the right table. And he could do a service. And he was so good at embalming. I mean was really good at your harr, doing your harr.”
This is the thing. You let these people talk. You do not laugh out loud when they pronounce hair “harr.”
You just let it go, and here it came. So, Bernie enters Carthage. Now, you think there’s this obviously gay guy in Carthage and you think, “Well, he’s going to be an outcast.” Here’s the secret to small-town Texas life: You think of ’em as a bunch of rednecks. They sort of know — even the guys down at Leon Choate’s barbershop — that everybody needs in a small town a good, closeted gay male. It brings culture to the town. If you didn’t have the gay male in the small town, Texas town, you wouldn’t have such a thing as a — oh — church organist. So Bernie was sort of loved, and he did everything from — he sewed curtains for people, he did the Christmas displays at downtown Carthage. He did tax returns. He had a need to be loved. He would go to Walmart and — remember the gold Cross pens that everybody used to have? He would buys boxes of them and pass them out. Every time he saw you he would pass them out. He shook your hands.
Danny Buck said, “You know, he shook your hand just one or two seconds too long.”
And he just had this grand life. He did not feel a need to come to Dallas and come out. And there’s plenty of guys that do that. They love their life that they have. And the debate began: Was Bernie gay? The debate was he was gay because he wore open-toed sandals to Daddy Sam’s Bar-B-Q one Saturday. Some lady goes, “Well you know our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ wore sandals. The 12 disciples wore sandals and I don’t think they ever married. The apostle Paul never married. You didn’t hear anyone in the New Testament call them queers did you?”
So, I’d just let this go. And I’d type it up. And I’d say, “That’s exactly right.”
You got to do this. You have to get into the world. You have to embrace the world you’re writing about so that the context of the characters will come out.
So, Bernie would do funerals. He was especially attentive to the D.L.O.L.s, what Mr. Lipsey called the D.L.O.L.s, “Skip, the D.L.O.L.s.” The Dear Little Old Ladies. He took care of them. He brought them flowers. He went and got their medications after their husbands died. And when Mr. Nugent died, he took care of Mrs. Nugent. So much so that she eventually — I mean they went on trips together. She began to finally open up. She had no relationship with her family, no relationship with her children. She had a sister in Carthage who she didn’t speak to. “You know, Skip, she was just a snob. She’d go over to Shreveport to buy her clothes. If she held her nose any higher in the air, she’d drown in a rainstorm, Skip, I’m telling you.”
She changed her will to make Bernie the sole heir to her estate. Now, you think about this. She’s got all that oil money from those oil leases and the oil boom happens again and Bernie’s going to be sitting on a lot of money.
But she’s so mean to him. He becomes sort of her personal valet. He started working only part time at the funeral home. She’d make him cut her chin hairs, hand-wash her panty hose and hang it out on the line, clip her toenails, do everything.
All this began to build up. Years passed. Depending on who you believe, if you drove to Carthage right now and saw Danny Buck at Daddy Sam’s, he’d say, “He knew. He knew what he was doing. He was setting up a chance to get all of her money. He was going to kill her if he had to just to get her money.” Which makes no sense, but that’s what Danny Buck said — that he had completely put his claws into the richest widow in town in hopes of winning her money. Other people said, “Bernie is the most Christlike figure you will literally ever meet and he did his best to make Mrs. Nugent feel happy and in some way content in the last years of her life.”
She did give him check-writing privileges, and he began writing checks to keep Carthage, which is a slowly dying East Texas town, in business. He bought the trophy shop so the kids could get trophies when they won soccer tournaments. Some guy told him, “You know Bernie, what Carthage needs is a version of Neiman Marcus.” So Bernie gave this man seed money to go open a Boot-Scootin’ Western Wear. Bernie gives $100,000 to the Methodist church. He’s a saint. He’s Robin Hood.
But one day in November 1997, she’s walking out to her car. And if you believe Danny Buck, she’s walking out to her car to go to the police department because she’s found out just what kind of money he’s spending. Or, she was driving to the bank to take his name off her accounts and to have him disinherited.
He pulls out this armadillo gun that she bought him to shoot the armadillos that were rooting up her garden — (and) that Bernie missed every time, which made her furious. But he didn’t miss this time. He shot her four times in the back. Buried her in the deep freeze, underneath some frozen potpies, frozen turkey. And she stayed there November 1996, Thanksgiving. Think of this, now, in a town of 6,000 people. Christmas. New Year’s. Valentine’s Day. Mother’s Day. She stayed buried without anyone asking where she was, because no one cared where she was for nine months. Her son didn’t even care. The only person that actually cared, if you know the movie, was the stockbroker, Lloyd Miller, because he had to get her to approve trades so he could make his commissions. And he started his own private investigation. The sheriff didn’t even want to get involved because he didn’t like Mrs. Nugent, and he was sort of happy not to have her bothering him. She goes nine months before they finally go to the house, and they still can’t find her. And Bernie’s always got these stories about her being at a nursing home suffering from dementia and doesn’t want anyone to know where she is so her son won’t come in and get her accounts and try and take her money away, and that sort of thing. The sheriff goes: “Fine with me. Fine with me, Bernie.”
Finally a deputy notices the deep freeze. … For reasons I’ve never been able to understand, Bernie had put a piece of tape over the deep freeze.
(After Bernie’s arrest) of course, the whole town begins to defend him, to the point that some of the old ladies shoe-polish on their back windows “Free Bernie” and drive around the town square.
So that’s the story. So I write the story leading up to Danny Buck changing the trial or changing the venue. And sometimes it’s good to leave these stories wide open before the trial, ’cause you could get people guessing: Is Bernie a sociopath? Is Bernie — did he just have a small psychological breakdown and have a bout of temporary insanity? You just go back and forth, and you just leave it going, and you can play with your story. And you can play with your audience’s feelings, and, you know, you can lead ’em left and lead ’em right. And at the end, just say, “Here you go. Let’s see what happens.”
The phone rings. It’s Richard Linklater. He goes, “This is a hell of a movie.”
Y’all know who Linklater is? He’s a guy from Austin. Grew up in East Texas. Went to Sam Houston State on a baseball scholarship. He was a beer-drinking guy, you know, just your basic college guy. He would sneak off during the days or at night and read books and watch movies and write poetry. He had an injury. He goes off and quits school, goes to work offshore, makes some money, moves to Austin and then buys some camera equipment and starts shooting movies. Like his first movie was Frisbee Golf, the movie — not exactly what you would think a of great auteur going to work here. But then he gets $21,000 and he shoots a movie called Slackers, which is this very nonlinear nonchronological movie where, you know like there’s this famous French director named Erickson, where the characters, people just sort of walk into the screen and start talking, and here comes somebody else in, and that’s what he did with that Austin crowd. Then he makes some more money. And then he shot the seminal — for my age group — seminal Texas teenage movie of all time movie called Dazed and Confused, about one day in the life of some Texas teenagers in a high school on their last day of school in 1976. He was part of this great independent movie buzz that was going on right around the time that I wrote the story, that came out in early 1998.
He goes, “This is one hell of a movie.”
I go, “You’re not shitting me.”
He says, “Let’s read it.”
I said, “I don’t even read screenplays.”
I don’t even, I don’t even — I’ve never read that Syd Field screenplay-writing book. I don’t sit in Starbucks with a scarf and a beret and write scenes. I’m kidding, but have y’all ever read a screenplay and said, “What in the hell?” I mean, it’s completely — just from a nonfiction narrative writer’s point of view, it’s completely different. It just doesn’t feel right. You don’t have your setup paragraphs. You don’t have your description paragraphs. It all comes from action and dialogue. Which is exactly the kinds of stories that we should be writing, right, you know. These action-driven as (Mayborn speaker, University of North Texas instructor and former Time magazine writer) Cathy (Booth Thomas) explained on Friday night, we’re all writing about someone’s journey, whether it’s their physical journey, or their journeys of the mind. And so we get in that journey and we go. And so the best of our stories are not where we pull back and write analytically about what is going on in our story. We let the story unfold. Those are the stories that people read and remember and those are the stories that we love to do the best. Do I have any disagreement on that? I mean, there’s plenty of other journalism that’s important. There’s expository journalism, investigative journalism, but the kind of journalism a lot of us practice, narrative nonfiction, we drive from A to B: We drive from scene to to scene. We get action going and we move, and if we stop moving the story dies.
What was I talking about?
Linklater decides to go with Hollandsworth to watch the trial, which had been moved 48 miles south of Carthage, to the even more remote town of San Augustine:
It’s like Friday night high school football. The whole town would caravan in from Carthage. So we’re there, we’re sitting in the courtroom. I’m looking over at Rick and I’m just looking over at Rick, and I’m going, you know, “This is funny, but this isn’t going to make a movie.” You know, it’s too quirky. It’s too weird.
And then Danny Buck gets up to cross-examine Bernie. And, you know, people think we wrote this. Made this up. We didn’t. It’s straight from the trial transcript.
And Danny Buck goes, “Bernie … did you and Mrs. Nugent fly first class from DFW, American Airlines to New York City?”
“Well, yes we did, Danny Buck. Mrs. Nugent had a bad back and liked the comfort of first class.”
“Did y’all stay at the Ritz Carlton, five-star hotel, right near Central Park?”
“Well, yes we did, Danny Buck, Mrs. Nugent liked the firmness of their beds.”
“Did y’all go to a Broadway musical while you were there?”
“Yes. Yes we did.”
Danny Buck literally looks at a sheet of paper. “Did you go see a play called Less Miserables?” (Pronounced with a Southern accent, less miserable-s)
And I look over at Rick. There’s this gleam in his eye. And I went, “We’re in.”
So we go back to his loft in Austin, downtown Austin, off Third Street. And you know it’s this giant loft, and he’s a jock. He would make me bring a baseball glove … to Austin, and we would fire this baseball…back and forth, and my arm is barely hanging on as he talked about, we talked about what to do with this movie. And I keep saying, “Should I go buy Final Draft?” That’s the screenplay software. Should I go, you know, learn how to write EXT., INT., — exterior, interior, fade in, fade out? He said all that’s a bunch of bullshit. He says, “Just write the scenes you know, and just type them up.”
It’s an interesting writing exercise. You know, a lot of you, I bet, have gone and bought the screenplay software. There’s all those indentations, and you know, you’ve read the book about how the turning point on your script has to be on page 76 or whatever that page number is. Remember, it’s three acts. There’s got to be the opening, there’s got to be the fake ending, and then comes the real ending. And you know when you do that — to learn how top-level studio writers work — it’s hard. It’s a craft. It’s a serious — to do that is really difficult to do. And to make it all flow, and to set up. You know, you have like the old Chekhov, “If a gun’s on the wall, it has to go off by the end of the short story?” You know, if a guy does something at the opening of a movie, there’s got to be a payoff.
They always say, “What’s the payoff? What’s the reveal?” You know, what’s the reveal where we understand what’s going on with the character? And you think — oh, a bunch of Hollywood terms. But you know it’s really good for us in nonfiction. What is the payoff for the setup on the character? What are the hints that we’re going to give about the character … at the very first of the article that pays off, that leads to the reveal about what the character’s really like?
Somebody yesterday in one of the sessions mentioned David Grann. David Grann is the New Yorker writer who y’all ought to read, because he will write a story with these surprise endings, and he doesn’t give you but a tiny hint of foreshadowing. You know, I’m all over that damn foreshadowing. I basically give away the story in most of the pieces I do. So I basically wrote these Bibles. I wrote scenes. I went totally out of control and wrote scenes. But he says, “Also we want to have a chicken-fried chorus of gossips, small-town people talking about what’s going on.” So I wrote all these lines, and I basically wrote a giant magazine story for Rick, in a certain order.
I said, “Here’s what people would say about Bernie.” I gave him 20 potential quotes, and he put it all into the screenplay format. And it was a great sort of teamwork, because … he knew how to do the screenwriting process, and I knew how to tell the story of what happened. He hired me because he knew that I knew the story and he wanted to keep it as close to the facts as possible. Otherwise he would’ve hired a real screenwriter.
We wrote the script. It sat on a shelf for 10 years. I mean the script was weird as shit. It just didn’t look right. You’ve got all these people talking. The action stops and you have all these people talking. It just didn’t look right. And then I went back to writing my trashy true-crime stories and Rick went back to making his independent movies. He did make one studio movie, in 1991, called School of Rock, starring this new young actor, Jack Black. And Rick directed that. Rick this whole time is sort of leaving me out to dry. We lose touch. And he calls me up in May 2010. He says, “How you doing?” He’s very Zen-like. So we talk about kids and sports and of course baseball and blah blah blah. And I said, “Is there a reason you called me?” And he said, “The movie’s on. Jack Black is gonna play Bernie. Shirley MacLaine is gonna play Mrs. Nugent. And his buddy Matthew McConaughey” — who he discovered as a frat kid at the University of Texas, doing Dazed and Confused — “is gonna play Danny Buck.”
I said, “How did you pull that off?”
And he went, “They loved the screenplay.”
I said, “Did they read that entire screen play, seriously?”
And they loved it. They trust the director. When you write a screenplay you’re basically writing a blueprint for the audience.