Nieman Storyboard » Storyboard Posts Exploring the art and craft of story Fri, 30 Jan 2015 20:23:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Annotation Tuesday: Justin Heckert and “Lost in the Waves” Tue, 27 Jan 2015 14:19:25 +0000 Justin Heckert has taken to his adopted home of Indianapolis, where his wife, Amanda, is the editor of Indianapolis Monthly. Heckert, who started making a name for himself as a magazine writer to be reckoned with at Atlanta Magazine, is now working as a freelancer out of the Midwest.

Justin Heckert

Justin Heckert

Heckert has written for The New York Times MagazineESPN: The MagazineSports IllustratedAtlanta Magazine and Indianapolis Monthly, among other publications, and most recently profiled comedian Kyle Kinane for Grantland. He’s twice been named the City and Regional Magazine Association’s writer of the year.

We met at the Red Key Tavern near downtown Indy, a bar with a jukebox that plays Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby, and has been written about in Esquire. It was a fitting place, given that Esquire was where he first pitched the idea for “Lost in the Waves.” The story, which ultimately ran in Men’s Journal, has been anthologized in “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.”

My comments are in red; Heckert’s responses are in blue.  If you’d like to read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button to the right. Let’s start with a few questions: 

Can you talk about how you first heard about this story?

Amanda, my wife, is always sort of looking for stuff that I can do. This was back in 2008, so she would have been my fiancée, and I was working at ESPN: The Magazine and she was looking for story ideas for me both for them and because I was trying to freelance too, and she sent me a link on, a blurb, and it was about how this guy and his autistic son survived for an extraordinary length of time in the ocean. I Googled it and I started reading some newspaper stories about it and I don’t think there was a story in a big newspaper about it, and I thought that’s a great story. I would love to do that.

How did you pitch it? To who? What was the initial reaction?

I spent a while, a couple days on Nexis. Some little papers in Florida had stories about this, and I believe he had been on “Good Morning America.” These articles made Walt out to be a hero, this heroic dad jumping in the ocean to go find his kid, and I thought, what an amazing story. I wondered, what’s it like to be a dad to this kid and what their relationship is like. And so I pitched it to Esquire. At that point in time, I had only ever written for a couple other national magazines. I had a contact at Esquire, so I pitched it to an editor there and he really liked the idea, but it never gained any traction. So then a guy named Terry Noland reached out to me out of the blue. I didn’t pitch it to Men’s Journal, but he emailed me and asked if I had any ideas,  and I thought this is like an outdoor story. This is how that started.

I think I remember hearing or reading that this was originally supposed to be just 2,000 words. It ended up just a shade over 6,000. What was the reaction at Men’s Journal?

I turned it in at 10,000 words. And honestly, the story I pitched was, ‘Look at this amazing event and I wonder what their relationship is like,’ and in the course of my reporting it turned into something much more interesting to me, so I just tried to write it for all it was worth. To Terry’s credit, I turned it in at 10,000 words and he trimmed the fat into what it is now. He didn’t ever scold me or chastise me and they paid me a lot more than they said they were going to. I knew from having been working professionally for five years that this was an amazing story.

“Lost in the Waves”
By Justin Heckert
Men’s Journal
November 2009

The ocean at night is a terrible dream. This is like a line from Hemingway. How did you arrive at this single sentence being the one that kicked the whole story off?   Plenty of people have written about the ocean and in beautiful ways, and I wanted to try to throw my penny in and add something to that. I spent a lot of time on the beginning. I think the beginning is the most important part of the story. Do you honestly expect someone to read all the way to the end? You have to get them to read. I wanted it to be memorable. I sat there for a long time, and I had some time. I didn’t have a deadline at that point. And I just sat there and took what I had and thought about it for a long time and tried to come up with phrasing and words. I knew where I wanted to start, and I was thinking about how I could incorporate the idea of it being scary and ominous.   Is that the first sentence of the draft that you turned in to the magazine?   Yes. And I will say that Terry Noland saved the beginning of the story because the editorial director of Men’s Journal and Rolling Stone wanted to start with me having Walt Marino floating in the ocean. I told Terry ‘I’m going to take the story back. Those two sentences, this is me, I created that.’ And he was like settle down and fought for those first sentences. There is nothing beyond the water except the profound discouragement of the sky, every black wave another singular misfortune. Walt Marino has been floating on his back for hours, the ocean on his skin, his mouth, soaking the curls of his graying hair. The water has cracked his lips, has formed a slippery glaze on his shoulders and arms. The salt has stuck to his contact lenses, burning the edges of his eyes. A small silver pendant of the Virgin Mary sticks to his collarbone on a link chain. He can no longer see the car key floating below his stomach, tied to the string of his floral swim trunks. The water licks against his ears. Every familiar sound is gone.  There are some great details in that first paragraph, how did you get all of these minute details?   I interviewed Walt. That was the first thing I did. I went up to Vancouver, Washington, and I stayed with him for a week. He had a contract job and was living out of a hotel so I got a room in the hotel. The first night I took him out for a steak dinner. I didn’t record, but I asked him about life. We got to know each other a little bit, and the entire week all I talked about with him was that one night in the ocean. The first couple of days we talked very broadly. But then I went back into that broad sort of question and I was like details, what were you wearing? What did it smell like? What did it feel like? Oh, you were wearing a necklace? What did it feel like? When you were in the water, what was happening to the key? Could you see it if you looked down in the water? That is where I got those details. Were you confident they were all 100 percent accurate? He turns out to be a decently unreliable narrator, but he is the only person who this happened to who can communicate. Eventually, I used documents from the Coast Guard, witnesses, people, his daughter. You have to sort of do your best to try and check everything that he says with other sources. I didn’t just take him at everything, face value. I did my damnedest to not just completely take his word for everything.   When you are interviewing somebody, and you’re asking those specific questions, did he ever wonder, that is a really weird question. Why would you ask that? Not so much. I think that I told him, I just want to know what it was like. I just want to know what this felt like, so can you tell me? This was a very exhausting process for him. We would get a sandwich and go back to his suite, and I would ask questions, questions, questions, and two or three hours later, he would be like, ‘Man I’ve got to stop.’ When he would get tired, I would just leave him be. But he was never, ‘This is strange.’

He arches his neck, contemplates again how far of a swim it might be to shore. He can’t know how many miles. He tries to convince himself he might be able to make it back to the beach, to the rock jetty from which he was swept out to sea. This is the first instance where we really, truly know something bad has happened, although we don’t yet know exactly how bad. There are so many moments of tension in this story. How did you choose to start here?   I think my goal was that you already know something bad has happened by that point, because of word choice. The first sentence, terrible. I wanted, before I let you know what happened, I wanted you to know something ominous happened through my word choices. I’m trying to write for how I would read a story, and I don’t need for someone to treat me like I’m dumb. I don’t know where that comes from, if it’s a newspaper thing, but I hear people, even at conferences who are good at this, say I have to spell it out. Well fuck that. That is what I was going for.  He starts dog-paddling, but after about 30 minutes his arms give out, his back tires, and he decides that he’ll die if he tries.

In the dark, he can make out only the outline of his hands. He can see a faint glow in the distance, orange and premonitory, like a small fire, what he guesses to be the hotels and condos of Florida’s northern coast. He wonders if someone in a living room watching TV could look out far past the shore and see him floating here.

No, he decides. That’s crazy. Even if they were looking through binoculars, they could probably see only the water, and maybe the ripples beneath the stars. Even the rescue helicopter hadn’t been able to spot his head sticking above the surface, as it traced a search grid just beyond where the tide of Ponce de Leon Inlet empties into the Atlantic. Below the helicopter, patrol boats and Jet Skis had gone back and forth like sharks in the distance. He had waved his arms and screamed until his throat cracked, until the blue search signal and the light of the beam had thinned and disappeared. He now wonders if he’ll ever need his voice again.

That was hours ago. When Christopher was floating beside him. Christopher, his little boy. When the two of them, father and son, were still together in the waves.  This is the first we know of Christopher. Why here?   The main play was to build up what happens to him. I introduced him at the end of the first section. Something bad has happened, and now you introduce him and it ups the ante. What the hell happened to him? That is the way to set the whole other thing up. Honestly, I knew that the entire story, I didn’t want people to know that he had lived. That is a device. Cinematic thing. I can purposely make you not know that he is alive even to the minute that he is discovered.

The ocean was always one of Christopher’s favorite places. The shallow water near the jetty rocks of Ponce Inlet, pale and green at the curve of the beach – Walt took him there as much as he could. Like a lot of autistic children, Christopher was drawn to water. Did you have to do a lot of research into autism for this piece?   I did some. There is whole section of the story that didn’t run that is about autism and more about something called the ‘dignity of risk.’ One of my best friends in the entire world was working at a home in St. Louis where he was a mentor, a father-figure who oversaw this house full of autistic men. I learned a lot from him because he had been doing that job for a while. I was telling him how Walt did things and how Robyn and Ed did things. I could see both sides. He told me about the ‘dignity of risk,’ and it was about how an autistic person should be able to experience the world and have a chance to make a mistake, and there is a dignity in letting them go outside, go into the ocean, take a walk, so I tried to incorporate that into the piece. It just didn’t make it in. I talked to his teachers, read the DSM IV. I did enough to write about it in this piece.
By the sensation of it, by its sounds, its placidity – Walt could only guess. Christopher could never explain the ocean’s hold on him, could only put on his swim trunks and stand barefoot on the wooden floor of the house, or find the car keys from the table and try to place them in Walt’s hand, or just wait impatiently at the door of his convertible. As his son grew up, his main communication turned out to be the sounds of his laughter, his hands slapping at the tide foam, his giddy squeal as he climbed onto his father’s back, swimming for hours until it was time for them to go home.

On September 6, 2008, a Saturday, Walt took him to Ponce Inlet late in the afternoon. It was his weekend with the kids. As he did every two weeks, he picked up Christopher from the group home where he lived, then picked up Angela, his 14-year-old daughter, at her mom’s house in Oviedo. Christopher sat next to Dad in the front seat of Walt’s red Celica, the top folded back, wind running through Christopher’s short dark-brown hair. Angela sat squished along with two of her friends in the back. It was a perfect day to go to the beach. They stopped at McDonald’s, Christopher’s favorite, on the way.

Christopher ate his double cheeseburgers slowly, maddeningly, the exact same way he did every time. Since you’ve already said that Christopher lives, I’m going to go ahead and ask if you got a chance to spend time with Christopher for this story?   I spent a week with Walt or maybe even more in Washington state, and then I went to Florida and I spent another week with him and Christopher, so I went to the Y and I went to the beach with them. I spent a lot of time with them.  He took off the top bun, held it in his hand, and ate the pickles. Then he ate the lettuce. Then the top bun. Then he ate the meat. Then the bottom bun, then each french fry, one at a time.  Did you ever get to watch him eat a double cheeseburger this way?   I saw him eat other things. I did not see him eat that. But I saw him eat Doritos, and stuff. I asked Walt to describe it to me. It was very frustrating for Walt. He is a dad, and he is sitting there getting frustrated at his son. We may have gone to McDonald’s. It’s been five and a half years, but I did see him do a lot of stuff. I didn’t specifically see him eat that, but it was just me asking Walt about that day. He chewed vigorously, with his mouth open, loud enough for Walt to ask him to stop. Occasionally, when he became anxious or upset, he might stand beneath the spout of the soda fountain and press the button, and try to catch the spill in his mouth. Did you try to ask Christopher questions? Was that even an option?   I was just there. I let Walt and Angela communicate with him. We sat down and they put on “Aristocats” for him, and “Toy Story,” and I saw that actually happen, so aside from giving Christopher a hug or being around him, I didn’t really try to communicate with him because I didn’t want to demean what was reality and that is that he doesn’t really communicate. I mostly just was there while they were interacting with family and stuff.

As Walt watched Christopher eat, he tried not to think about the meeting he’d had earlier in the day with his ex-wife Robyn and her husband Ed.  Can you talk about how you got this insight? How you were able to get what Walt was trying not to think about?   When I asked him about what happened that day, he was like, “I had to meet with my ex-wife and that sucked.” And he told me not to talk to his ex-wife. And so that was a key event. But going into this piece, I didn’t know about Robyn or Ed. It’s like, when I talked to Robyn and Ed, everything changed. There is another side to the story, and I’ll never forget when I went into Robyn and Ed’s house. They help raise Christopher.   What did you say to him when he said not to talk to them?   I mean, she helped raise Christopher. She knows, from her perspective what happened that night. He was not happy that I wanted to talk to her. I said I’m just trying to do my best. I’m not trying to hurt you but I have to talk to somebody who birthed Christopher and is helping raise him. When somebody says don’t talk to somebody, you can’t obey them.

Walt had lost his accounting job a few months before and asked if he could cut back on child-support payments. He’d split with Robyn eight years earlier, and whenever they spoke anymore it was briefly, tensely, and only in regard to the kids. During this meeting, in which Robyn and Ed agreed to reduce but not eliminate payments, they asked Walt what he planned to do with the kids that day. “I don’t know,” Walt replied, though he did know.  This is the first hint of a second source of tension in this story. What was your thinking behind introducing it here?   I mapped this out, scribbled it down so I knew where I was going. I knew this was going to happen in the second section. This happened, something that happened earlier in the day, met with Robyn and Ed, and by the way, that is going to factor in.

They arrived at New Smyrna Beach around 6:30 pm. The five of them walked the long wooden boardwalk, Christopher plodding behind, sometimes staring down. Walt followed him. The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse was the one thing, long and orange, that rose above the sparse landscape in the distance. How did you get these details?   I went there and I had him take me on the exact route and we walked the exact spot that he did, and that is what I did. The boardwalk ended at stairs that went down to the sand; by the time Walt and Christopher caught up to them, the girls had ignored the signs posted and were sliding down the backs of the white dunes as if on a playground. Walt and Christopher watched them for a while, then put their bags and towels down on the hard sand close to the water.

Christopher, in floral trunks like his dad, took off ahead of Walt, toward the south jetty, and splashed in, wading along the rocks. The tide on the protected side of the jetty looked serene. A group of people, their dark fishing poles like long weeds sticking up between the jetty rocks, watched them. Walt waded in to get Christopher, unaware that the tide had begun to go out, or of how strong it was, or that he was actually disobeying a county ordinance; no one was supposed to swim within 300 feet of a pier or jetty. Robyn and Ed had repeatedly asked Walt not to put Christopher in any situation that could be dangerous, and they asked him in particular not to take Christopher to the beach.  Did you interview Robyn and Ed? If so, how did it go?   That is a part where a lot of things change. I told them I was doing this piece and I wanted to talk to them. I talked to them about that night, how they raised Christopher. I had no judgments. They have their own way of doing it, and their way of doing it is not to let him go outside on his own. They have locks on doors, whatever, they didn’t want him to hurt himself. This is an amazing family story because this is a story about raising somebody, and I was not a parent. They loved Christopher, Walt loved Christopher, but here was my initiation into something completely different, here is what really happened that night. From their perspective, this was a disaster. Walt was not a hero. Why did he have Christopher at the beach in the first place? They’re telling me that they dealt with the Coast Guard. Can you imagine what this was like for them? They won’t even let him out of the house and Walt takes him to the beach. It completely changed the story. I came out of there, and my heart was pounding. The pitch of the story is moot. This changed everything. But Walt didn’t listen to them. He was certain that it made Christopher happy to be here.   Did you contact Terry Noland right away?   Oh yeah. I was like, can you believe this?

The current grabbed father and son almost immediately. They floated past the glistening rocks, and then it pulled them faster, the sand disappearing beneath their toes. Within a minute, Walt and Christopher were 50 feet out, the ocean in their faces and ears.
“Do you need help?” one of the fishermen yelled at Walt as he watched him being pulled away. Does this come from Walt’s memory?   I interviewed the fishermen. I got their names, I got their names from the Coast Guard. I called them and said, ‘Do you remember this?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, we were out there fishing.’ They’re never named in the piece but they saw this happen, so I talked to the guys who were standing on the jetty watching this happen.

“We’re okay!” Walt shouted back, giving a thumbs-up. He still thought he had things under control, that they could make it back. They had waded into this water a thousand times, he and Christopher.

But this time the current was much stronger. Another two minutes, 200 yards farther out to sea. Walt knew they were in trouble now. His heart thumped in his ears. “Don’t come in!” he screamed to Angela, who was now staring out at them in fright from the jetty. “Call 911! 9-1-1! 9-1-1!” He repeated this instruction, hands cupping his mouth, over and over, trying to keep his head above water as the waves grew, but Angela was now out of earshot.

One second Walt could see the beach, and the next he was below the horizon.  What was Walt like to interview? He seems like he has a very clear memory of this moment.   Going in, you don’t expect someone to have a perfect memory. I liked him in that he was just a normal guy who loved his son and a regular guy who was trying to make a living for himself; he was flying back every other weekend to see his kids,. This is real life. I found him to be a caring, sometimes aloof kind of guy, but I got along with him really well. His memory is probably just like my memory. I kept asking him over and over again, ‘Can you talk about this?’ In the window of the night that this story takes place, where it’s only him and Christopher, you are just putting a trust in what you would call maybe an unfaithful narrator. Nobody can remember everything.

He tried to focus on Christopher’s head, the dark-brown hair wet and matted, the only part of him above water. Christopher was about 20 feet ahead of Walt now, bobbing and laughing hysterically. Walt yelled at Christopher to swim back to the jetty with him – “Come on, let’s go, let’s swim!” – but they had been raked into the middle of the inlet, where the current’s pull was even stronger.

After 20 minutes, they were about a mile out, at the mouth of the open sea. A green navigational buoy bobbed there, tall and round, with a rusted bell clanging back and forth.  Did you ever get to see this buoy?   I had the men who discovered him take me out on the boat they discovered him in on the path they took and where they found him. These are guys who plied this water often. I did my damnedest describing what it was like, not just picturing it, the only thing is that Walt wasn’t there. I could see (the buoy) from the jetty. I went on the boat and on the jetty. I went to the end of the jetty. I just remember the hunger of wanting every detail. There was no detail too small.   What did they say on the boat?   I told them what I was doing. The story changes because as soon as he is discovered, I don’t go from his perspective anymore. There are other people who now keep him in check. The story changes when he is discovered. Here is what was happening in other people’s lives. He was crying. Walt didn’t tell me that. He was babbling. He didn’t know what was going on. That was important. That changes when other people come into it.

Walt reached out to try and grab onto the buoy but struggled against the current. Christopher just kept laughing, unaware of the danger, of the situation, of the fading shore and the strength of the current, of the ocean ahead. As they floated past the buoy, there was nothing else to stop them from drifting into the sea.

Walt studied Christopher as the sun went down. It was a game to his son, he decided – floating there without a care in the world. Farther out from shore, the light dwindling, the land itself was less visible. The current seemed to relax, and it was hard to tell how fast they were moving anymore.  Did you ever worry that Walt’s memory wasn’t accurate? How did you confirm his account of events?   I talked to a lot of people you wouldn’t think I did. There were people who saw him get swept out into the ocean. I had all of this stuff, details firsthand, and then also other people were talking about what it looked like there. There were a lot of things I did to try and keep him honest in the story.

Staying afloat was all there really was to do. Walt told himself to keep his eye on Christopher, to make sure his head stayed above the four-foot waves. But his mind wandered to his own mom and dad waiting for them back at the house, to the girls left on the beach, to nothing at all. He forced himself not to consider what could be swimming below them. The only sounds to keep them company were the lap of the waves and the slap of the fins of the small fish that jumped onto the surface. Walt could see the white point revolving at the top of the lighthouse, counted the seconds of its revolution. He decided the coast guard would probably be coming for them soon. They had been in the water for two hours, he guessed. They were beginning to tire.  Can you talk about the structure of the story? Why did you set it up the way you did?   I’ve started a lot of stories I’ve written in the middle, the dramatic moment of the piece. As much as writing has influenced me, throughout the waking minutes of my life – my mother was a teacher, I’ve been reading since I can remember and I’ve been inspired by various types of writing – movies do equally. This is the ‘Goodfellas’ trick. I love that movie. He starts it, they’re in a car, they hear thumping and they stop the car and get out and open the trunk and Billy Batts is still alive and they shoot him and it’s hitting you and something is happening, and then it fades to black and goes back to the beginning. It just works almost every time that I do it. I start in most dramatic part, so you know something bad has happened. Walt is already out in the ocean. How did this happen? Then you come all the way back to this moment, and then the rest of the piece, which is my favorite part of the story, is what happened to them after. My favorite part of the story does not take part in the ocean.   It seems to me, that this works well in narrative journalism because you’re giving the conflict right at the very beginning. This is what’s happened, so now the reader wants to know how it happened. If you go chronologically, you run the risk of losing the reader.   One of my first magazine stories at Atlanta Magazine was about the spelling bee. I love the spelling bee. It’s full of dramatic moments. That story starts with her spelling the word that she loses on, but you don’t know that, and then boom, you’re all the way back at the beginning. Some stories allow you to do that, but you can’t do it on every story, I want someone to experience this like a movie, that style and that vision have influenced me just as much as writing. I want people to be captivated by this, and that is why the beginning is so important to me.

Christopher was no longer laughing, so Walt decided it was time to give him a break. He dog-paddled to his son, grabbed his arm, and let Christopher climb on his back. Walt, who’d become a certified lifeguard because Angela’s Girl Scout troop needed him to get his license, took a deep breath.  This is a pretty important piece of information. That he was a certified lifeguard. Did you intentionally leave it for a third of the way through the story, or is this just where it seemed to fit?   Picking details here and there, it seemed like a good place to use it as he was treading water. He wasn’t just a regular guy in the water. He’s trying to figure out how to stay alive and not panic, and he’s a certified lifeguard so he’s done a couple things that he’s learned. You know that he is capable of floating.  Then he arched his back and dipped his head forward below the surface, arms slightly extended from his sides – the dead man’s float.

He lay facedown in 30-second increments, coming back up for air, wiping the water from his cheeks, spitting the ocean out of his mouth. Each time he would clutch Christopher’s hands, then lift him up on his back. Christopher would lay his stomach on top of Walt and wrap his arms around his father’s neck. Each time Walt rose to take a breath he ached more; after only a few minutes he came up again and clutched his stomach. Then he vomited. He puked everything he had eaten at lunch, big chunks of his cheeseburgers, floating in a pool of bile on the surface, barely digested. He dry heaved until his throat burned; he was screaming gibberish, nonsense, “Jesus, God, help us….”

Small fish surfaced in packs to feast on the vomited meal, and Christopher reacted with panic. He began to scream. He grabbed at Walt’s hair and tried to rip it out of his head. He was thrashing on Walt’s back, his weight pushing Walt beneath the surface. Christopher weighed about 120 pounds, and he was tearing at his father, digging his fingernails into him, crying at the top of his lungs. Walt pulled him off of his back, wiped his eyes, and croaked, “Please, Christopher, calm down. Please be a good boy.” Christopher looked at Walt, pleading with a pair of helpless eyes, as if to ask: What are we going to do, Dad? Walt had no answer. He couldn’t breathe.  Can you talk about the editing of this story? How close to what you originally wrote is the piece that ultimately ran?   Even though it was 10,000 words, I didn’t just spill out 10,000 words and then have you clean them up. I turned in a clean 10,000 words and he just trimmed it. The structure is intact. That one section about the ‘dignity of risk,’ which involved a more involved scene of Christopher biting kids on school bus, was cut, but this was just a trim. I’m hoping my stories read with the thought, I’ve thought about every sentence. I’ve polished it before I turned it in. I spend time on the sentences. I spent a long time trying to have a polished story that I wanted to show him. It was a great experience. Just me and Terry. And he came back to me and said here is what I think, we could lose this, everything had an explanation, and at the end, his boss wanted to lose the first two sentences and he got them to stay in.

Christopher grabbed for him again, jumping out of the water to get away from the fish, splashing salt water into Walt’s eyes. Walt went under, gulping a throatful of ocean that made him vomit again. Crying, desperate to breathe, he yelled at Christopher, at the situation. Christopher was screaming again, too. What could Walt do? There was really only one thing he could do, for the both of them. He was forced to make a horrible decision: If they stayed together, if Christopher kept clutching his father, they would both drown. Their only chance was for Walt to separate himself from Christopher, to hope that his son could stay afloat on his own. It was the only choice that made any sense. He looked at his son again, then pushed him away into the ocean.  What a horrible choice to make. How far along in the interviewing of Walt did he talk about making this choice, and what was your initial reaction? This seems like something that could easily show up at the very beginning, sort of like Wil. S. Hylton’s “The Unspeakable Choice,” when the mother deliberately drives her son to a hospital to abandon him.   My reaction was I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ Nothing that I had read had talked about that, and that was a big confessional moment to me. And I was like, ‘Really?’ You have to tell me more about this. I don’t know if I believe all this. You are sort of taking his word about what is happening. He is the only narrator. I try to write it in a way you may be skeptical of Walt.   And you believed him? In terms of letting him go, as a method of possibly saving them both, because that was his rationale?   I said to him, ‘Tell me why that makes sense, Walt.’ He said, ‘Well, I taught him to swim, and I didn’t want to die because he wouldn’t be saved.’ Later on, when I saw how Christopher behaved, that made sense to me. Spending so much time with Walt and seeing how they interact, again the story is from Walt’s perspective. You have to go with him, and you may not believe him.

When he was 15 months old, they knew something was wrong. This is almost halfway through the story. Why wait this long to go into the backstory of Christopher and Walt and Robyn’s marriage?   He looked at his son and pushed him away, and I felt like that was a good place for, not an intermission, but a great place to make Christopher a three-dimensional character. You step completely out of the ocean; here is Christopher. You’re not attached to him, but all of a sudden, here is what it’s like for him to be alive and for people to deal with him, and that was very conscious. I am going to completely step away and here is more about Christopher, make him as three-dimensional as I can without talking to him. It was a dramatic moment to step away.  He didn’t pay attention, didn’t make eye contact, didn’t cry. He would just scream and grunt. He didn’t say a real word until he was four. After Christopher was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, Walt spent 20 grand on a couple of miracle cures, including an injection of pig hormones into Christopher’s leg. He also looked into another form of treatment called “patterning,” an exercise designed to improve neurologic organization that required several people to help lift and move the patient’s legs and arms and head for several hours a day. But it cost $10,000, and Walt thought it looked like torture.

He knew where the bathroom was because Walt and Robyn showed him, but he didn’t know how to ask for it when he needed it. Sometimes he would pee or shit in his pants and laugh, or smear his feces on the walls. He would make high-pitched noises when Robyn handed him the telephone and told him his dad was on the other end. He could say “goodbye,” “hello,” “thanks,” “water,” “hungry,” “candy.” He could repeat the phrases “I love you” and “Hi, Dad” and “Wow.” A cadre of therapists had worked with him over the years, tried to teach him skills like brushing his teeth and buttoning a shirt, how to chew quietly. Some of them had quit because he bit them.

He ignored other children, mostly. He’d pick up an object – say, a string of thread – and let it drop, over and over, to see how it behaved on its way to the floor. Sometimes he would spin madly in a circle.  Did you ever worry about taking the reader away from the ocean for too long?   No, it’s just one section, and the section builds. I just wanted to make that section build to the way Walt looked at him, tried to look at him as a regular little boy. When you are with him, unless he starts biting or screaming, he just seems like a normal boy, and that is why Walt takes him to the ocean.

He had so much energy it was exhausting, and he required constant supervision. As he got older, he would sit in the backseat on his way to school with Angela and would bite her on the arm or pull her hair as she screamed. He was fearless and reckless because he didn’t have a concept of danger. There was just a connection missing somewhere. Was there any reaction from parents of other children with autism or the autistic community to this story?   I didn’t have any reaction from anyone who had children with autism. You have to understand where these kids are coming from. This is who they are, this is what we’re dealing with, these are beautiful, special children. That was the easiest way to describe it.

He couldn’t carry on a conversation, but he could listen and understand. He could follow directions: Pick this up, please, Christopher. Take it over there and come back. He responded to sign language, because it was visual. He could point to a flash card to indicate what he wanted to eat. He was in an eighth-grade class with 10 other autistic kids, some who didn’t speak or even act like they knew the teacher was there. The teacher once had a student who spoke only by reciting an infomercial: “If you didn’t buy it here, you paid too much!”  Why include this information?   I thought that was such a memorable, heartbreaking anecdote. This is a real person, and this is what it’s like. What an amazing class, and that makes, that makes him a little more human. We are not just talking about someone’s name in a story.

In the callous terms of the DSM-IV – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Christopher displayed “markedly abnormal nonverbal communication.” To his father he was shy and curious, and sometimes so quiet and so temperate that Walt could imagine his son was perfectly normal.  Do you think Walt had a realistic sense of his son and his limitations? Did that play into his decision to take the boy to the beach against his mother’s wishes?   He just wants Christopher to experience the world how he experiences it. He wants to take him places and do things. In his heart and his mind, he thinks he should experience the world like a normal boy.   How did you approach that as a journalist? Did he know about the ‘dignity of risk’?   I asked him about it, and he didn’t know anything about that. He started researching it and he said, this is me. It validated the way that he did things. That wasn’t my intention, but he didn’t know anything about that term. I’m not a dad of anybody, but I don’t think he wanted or pretended or had a delusion of him being normal. He didn’t want to treat him differently. He just wanted him to experience the world.

The first rescue helicopter appeared just before nightfall, then the boats in the distance, engines breathing on the water. This is a great phrase.   I was thinking how can I make this sound more interesting than just saying it. I did probably spend a few more minutes. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about stuff like that, but that is just a natural way that I write.  Walt called over to Christopher, who had drifted maybe 10 feet away. He told him that he was a good boy and a great swimmer. He pointed his finger to the blinking helicopter high in the sky near shore, and said, “Blue lights. Blue lights. Blue lights coming to get us.” Walt felt like he understood.

Christopher certainly understood what it meant to be in the water. Walt pictured him floating on his back at the YMCA in Oviedo, where he’d learned to swim. Walt had spent hours there teaching him to float, Christopher with his green goggles strapped across his face, laughing, looking up at the ceiling painted to look like a sky.  You’ve kind of changed up the structure here. Before, the scenes that took place in the past happened in its own section, but now, you’re taking the reader out of the ocean and into the past within a section that starts in the ocean. Did you do that on purpose, and if so, why?   As we’re building back up to the ultimate rescue, the rest of the story, these characters have become more evolved and three-dimensional. Now I’m moving in and out now. It started in the water, and now that it’s coming to some climax, it’s headed somewhere, learning they are in the water, but learning little flashbacks, learning about them. It’s a way to not just keep breaking section after section, tied to something happening in the water. He was in the water, he understood what it meant to be there, he was thinking about this stuff, maybe surviving because he taught him to swim, he took him to the YMCA. That is why I did that. There’s not enough to sustain water, water, water, water, water.

At the Y, Christopher was a regular boy. The lifeguards knew him by name, let him go into the utility closet and pick out a foam ring to play with in the water, the same green one every time. He always walked the tiled stoop around the pool, feeling the water on the tops of his feet. Then he’d jump in. Walt would show him how to fill his stomach with air so he could float, then pull him along by his shoulders, walking him around the left lane of the pool.

Out at sea, in the fading light, Christopher rose and dipped from Walt’s line of sight. Walt tried to talk to his son to keep him calm, reciting his favorite lines from his favorite movies. Christopher loved to sit right in front of the small television in his room and watch Disney videos all day. Sometimes he would put his eyeball as close to the screen as he could get it without touching. His all-time favorite scene was Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, flying into space, saying his trademark phrase: “To infinity … and beyond!”

“To infinity!” Walt yelled to Christopher over the waves. He waited for Christopher to respond.  The part where Walt starts yelling the ‘Toy Story’ phrases to Christopher…   I thought that was amazing. I thought that might have been a detail that he said to another reporter on ‘Good Morning America.’ That is something we talked about, such an amazing way they communicate is through Disney movies, I saw that happen right in front of me.

“To infinity, Christopher!”  I’m assuming you got this through interviews with Walt. How much time did you spend with him?   This is the ultimate example of recreating. Half of it is in person, but half I didn’t witness. I spent 15 days total with Walt, which is a lot of time. Half of that is trying to be able to recreate this what happened in the water. I have to be able to paint a vivid enough picture. Half the story is what happened to him that night. The other half is the things that happened in front of me that play out in the piece.

“… and beyond!” lightly from atop the wave, as Christopher was lifted back into view. It didn’t sound like that when Christopher said it, though. It always sounded like “infin’ a beyon’…” And he’d always send his fist into the air. That little fist pump – Walt did it in the water then, too, even though he was trying to conserve energy.

After a while the first helicopter left and another took its place, its blue light flickering over the open water. Looking out toward the black sky, Walt began to wave his arms, certain now that no one could hear him. Christopher pounded his fist against the waves. A group of jellyfish interrupted them, swimming into Walt’s and Christopher’s legs, clutching onto them and burning like strands of electric hair. Christopher shrieked. Then Walt was lifted up at the same time Christopher was lowered. When the tide evened, Christopher was even farther away, 30 or 40 feet. Walt tried to swim toward him, flapping his arms as hard as he could. Then a wave lifted Christopher, and Walt was caught on the other side. When the wave broke, Christopher was no longer there. This is a really powerful paragraph, and a lot happens here. Also, we’re finally back to pretty close to where the story begins. When you first started writing this story, did you imagine this type of structure, where you would start at a certain moment in time and then go back in time, and then circle back around toward the middle of the story?   I did a napkin outline. This is more like one sentence on a napkin, beginning in the water, knew I would come back here, everything that happened in between just happened, I have these little guides. I need to talk about this in this section, but no sentences until I started to write. I love that they just appear. When you’re writing, that is how it happens. Write one sentence, read it, that is the process of creation for me. I knew what I wanted to include, and I knew I would come back to this.

Only his breath in the darkness, a silence as everything settled in. For half an hour, Walt had yelled, begging for Christopher to answer. He had given up conserving energy, had been swimming as hard as he could to try and find his son. “Who’s my best boy?” Nothing. “Christopher, who’s my buddy?” Only the fish beneath him, brushing against his back and legs.


Walt spun in every direction, trying to spot the small white face and the dark-brown hair.

But he was gone.

Walt wiped his eyes, took a breath. He’s gone. It was a thought as dark and fathomless as the ocean itself.   Can you talk about this sentence? It’s sentences like this that set your stories apart from so many other writers, that make them feel short story-esque. Do these sentences just come to you? Do you have to work to find and make them?   I guess I am like, my brow is going up. I didn’t have to do that. You could argue that I didn’t need to do that. It’s just a simile.   That is what sets your work apart from others.   I didn’t have that written down beforehand. I need to have the marks of literary fiction in my story even if they might be hokey to someone else. That is just a simile. A lot of writing doesn’t interest me because it’s just straightforward. Maybe this is something I can do, make a turn of phrase. People might not like it. It’s bordering on the editor might cut it.

At that moment, he couldn’t see it any other way – Christopher was dead. So Walt stopped yelling and shivered as a trail of bright green phosphorescence floated past him. He stared at it, amazed by its arrival, the only color on the sea, passing behind him like lights beneath the water. He told himself it was probably peaceful, told himself that Christopher just got tired and finally let go. Just slipped away under the sea.

But Walt’s mind wouldn’t fully accept that. Christopher was a terrific swimmer. He had nine lives, Walt liked to say. Maybe he was merely playing a game. Maybe he was floating, just beyond where Walt could see. Maybe he just wanted to be alone for a while, like he sometimes did.  How did you find transitions like this?   I’m sitting there thinking, I need to address the fact that he has eloped. It plays directly into what is happening in the water, Walt knowing that he’s been okay in the past. How am I going to get from here, I have to tell this anecdote about him going to the mall. Well, how do I get there from the ocean, and that is something that I thought about. And sometimes an editor will be like, ‘We need a transition here.’

Christopher had wandered off so many times, Walt learned to expect he would always be okay. “Eloped” is the word used to describe the way an autistic person sometimes wanders off – is there one second, then vanishes.  Did you talk to experts about autism for this story? If so, what type of help were they able to give you?   I talked to Walt’s teacher about eloping. I read something about eloping. I think Robyn and Ed had some literature for me. My friend is an expert in autism, and he had been sort of like the patriarch of a house of autistic guys, and some of these guys will elope and they will end up at some sort of water, a puddle or a lake and that kind of plays into all this. I feel like somebody else might have read 10 books for this story. I get overwhelmed in the minutia of learning about something. I don’t want to be an expert.

Christopher had eloped at the mall, at the hardware store, from Walt’s parents’ house, and after a search they would often find him playing in water. At first it was the lake in their old neighborhood, then the retention pond at the bottom of the street – the police had sent a helicopter to search for him. Then it was the neighbors’ pool: floating on his back, naked. The neighbors called the cops, who came and pulled Christopher out and saw the silver chain bracelet on his left wrist with his identification and phone number.

Once when Christopher wandered off, the police searched for him again, and half an hour later, he turned up in the fountain at the Oviedo mall. Christopher had walked across a busy intersection, crossed through six lanes of traffic, had navigated the winding road back to the parking lot at night. He had taken his clothes off and was splashing beneath the falling water in his underwear, his feet brushing the pennies people had tossed in to make a wish.

After each of these episodes, Robyn would fume at Walt. She no longer trusted him. She and Ed held their breath whenever Christopher was with Walt. When Christopher was with Robyn and Ed, they never let him outside without maintaining physical contact. But Walt wanted Christopher to experience the world like a regular boy, wanted him to walk the stadium stands without holding his hand and feel the beach sand and breathe the air, wanted him to make choices.  You’ve got so much information and details about Walt and Robyn’s relationship. Can you talk about how you got all that information?   This is the first time you learn that they don’t think that what he does this right. They don’t agree with the way he raises Christopher. They are worried about stuff like this happening. And then right after it, you’ve got this juxtaposition right here. They don’t want Christopher to do this, but Walt can’t even bear to call him autistic.

Walt couldn’t even bear to call him autistic, to label him that way, and his voice always cracked when he talked about his “little buddy.” He took the good days, swimming together at the Y, sitting together in the front pew of church, eating at McDonald’s without incident, and weighed all of that against the tantrums, the outbursts, the moments in which his son would lunge at him, out of the blue, and sink his teeth into his arm. That’s when Walt would sob. He’d lament having to shout at Christopher, asking him why he’d attack his own father. For every good day there was always some kind of reminder of the bad.

But now he was gone. They shouldn’t have come out to the beach, he told himself. He should’ve rented a movie and spent the day at home. He could never face his own family. He wouldn’t know what to say to his mother and father, to his daughter, to the coast guard, to Robyn and Ed. The guilt, too, the realization that he had been responsible for his son’s death.  This story, I think, might be one of the best at getting inside the head of the main character. How did you do that? You spend 15 days with somebody, and you have a little authority. You ask them about this stuff, you use things that happen. You’re doing a story on somebody and asking them about certain things, you’re at a restaurant and see how they interact with other people. You gradually learn about who they are, and that kind of plays into this. You do learn, depending on how much time you spend with a person. But you do see things happen in the course of being with them that speak volumes, like Christopher biting him. Everything became so clear to me. It all rang so true in that moment. This was all real.

He decided that he should take his own life. It would be easier. Bawling, his tears mixing with the salt water on his face, he took a deep breath, exhaled, and slipped like he imagined Christopher did beneath the surface.

But there was Angela. He had almost forgotten about her. He kicked his legs and came up for air, expelling a mouthful of water. She needed a father too.

The ocean at dawn is a wonderful dream. He thought the night might last forever and now considers the morning itself a sign, too. The birds dive to the surface, stretching out their patternless wings as if to yawn.  You spent so much time out there, obviously, to get these details.   I was on the ocean a couple hours after dawn. I was asking Walt, ‘What happened when it was daylight? What happens when you’re still alive and its morning? Sunburn, tired, did you give up? It’s all changing right now. You’ve survived the night, and the dawn itself is like this sign. That is why this section exists. What is happening to you? What does your skin feel like? What do you see?’ Every little thing he sees is a sign that he might survive, but he is still thinking of Christopher. But now things are going to change. He has survived. This is shift into the next part of the piece.

A seagull, white and with crystal eyes, lands right next to Walt. It looks directly at him, opens its orange beak like it’s trying to get him to talk. Walt can suddenly see the life of everything, the fish swimming on the surface, the actual blue of the water. His neck aches like hell. His hands and wrists are swollen stiff. His lips are chapped and bleeding. He’s numb and warm. His tongue is swollen, his eyes dry.

He thinks he’s floated much farther out, but he really has no point of reference. No one even knows the exact direction in which he and Christopher floated. He has survived the night, he realizes, for nothing. He stares forward, shielding his face from the sun with his arm, and then looks back down to the water, thinking of Christopher.  Part of the tension of this story extends from the fact that we need to know how Walt is rescued, because we know he is. We know you talked to him, so we want to know how he is rescued and what happened to Christopher. Can you talk about developing that engine? Did you know right away that was going to be the narrative engine?   I’ve come back to the climax. He pushed Christopher away, and now you have to sort of take the story into the afterward. One, does Christopher survive? I did that because you still don’t know what is going to happen. You just discovered some dude in the water and he is incoherent. The guys in the boat are like, this is the most amazing thing they’ve ever seen, so the story shifts to the perspective of people encountering the survivor. They have found this guy and he has this amazing preposterous story, and everyone thinks the son is dead.

At 7:15 am, on the deck of a recreational fishing boat called the Open Range, Shawn McMichael looks out and sees a reflection in the water. Just turns his head, while the five other men on the deck are staring forward toward the horizon. Did you look to other stories as models for this one? If so, which?   I did go back and read “Moby Dick.” I skimmed it to see how he was writing about the ocean. It’s ancient, beautiful writing, but it wouldn’t work today. “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane is the best thing I’ve ever read. I thought, I want this to be pretty memorable. When I was in Vancouver, Washington, I stopped in Portland, which is right next to it, and a friend of mine, Paige Williams, said I should read “The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I did. That is a heart-pounding, minute-by-minute retelling of what happened to this guy in the ocean.

A glitter, something sparkling, something that maybe on a thousand other days would never catch his eye. It could be anything, maybe one of the cruise-ship balloons that frequently float off the deck and then settle and shimmer on the surface. Shawn looks again and sees movement. Stanley Scott, the boat’s owner, realizes it’s a man. Floating. By himself, waving his arms. The boat slows, turns hard, comes within 50 feet of him.
“How did you get here?” Stanley shouts. “Where’s your boat?”

The man is delirious, won’t stop yelling – they can’t get a word in. He asks about someone named Christopher. The men ease up to him, extend a boat pole out on the left side so he can grab onto it, and walk him around to the platform on the back end, by the engines. It takes two guys to haul him in. Dripping water, swollen, pale, shivering, jellyfish stings like long red scars on his legs. The silver pendant dangling below his chin – that’s what Shawn had seen reflecting.

“I lost him!” They sit him on a beanbag in the back of the boat. “I lost him!” He repeats that phrase until they can get him to stop shouting and ask what he’s talking about. “Christopher, Christopher…have you seen him? Oh, my God, have you seen him?” The men drape a windbreaker over his shoulders, hand him a bottle of water. He drinks six, one after the other. “He’s a great swimmer. He’s a great swimmer…. Oh, God, he’s gone.”  This scene of the rescue contains so much compelling detail. How did you get it?   I interviewed the guys on the boat. When they found a survivor who was floating out at sea, he was sunburned, his hair was oily and curly. I put a little leeway into trusting people’s memory. Walt’s description came from them.   How did you find these guys?   The boat was called the Open Range, and I did a search of Coast Guard documents. I think I might have found one of the guys through that. Three guys took me out on the boat, and then I found the helicopter people too.

He has an amazing, preposterous story, all right. He’s floated nine miles northeast into the ocean from Ponce Inlet.  This is the first mention of how far he had floated. Was that done on purpose?   That is a reveal. Now you know, holy shit, they floated an unfathomable distance in the ocean. And Walt had no idea. Now you are getting everything from other people’s perspective.

The men don’t say a word. They’re in awe. They get the coast guard on the radio and tell them they’ve found a man named Walter Marino, and his autistic son is still missing.

Walt shivers and sniffles in the boat. He calls his younger sister, Linda, and tells her that he’s alive. The night before, Linda had not been able to sleep, knowing her brother and nephew were missing. She stayed up with her elderly mother and father, calling the pastor at the church and asking him what to do. “We’re going to pray for a miracle,” he had told her. Robyn and Ed stayed up too, in fear for Christopher’s life, Robyn convulsing, so sick that Ed almost called 911. Angela had gone to sleep thinking about how her dad had once told her he wanted his ashes scattered, and that she couldn’t remember where.

Walt tells Linda now that Christopher is still missing, that he’s been in the water 13 hours.

“My God, that’s a long time,” she says.

He calls Robyn, too, gritting his teeth. “Tell Angela I’m alive,” he says.

His voice is weak, raspy. She can barely tell it’s him. “Walt?” she shouts.  How did you get this dialogue between Robyn and Ed?   Robyn was a meticulous person, and I asked her what he said over the phone, and that is basically it.

“We’ve lost Christopher,” he says.

“What? What? How? Where is he?” She’s hysterical, asking about her son. She’s talking so fast, asking so many questions that he doesn’t want to answer, so he hangs up.  Seriously?   Robyn said, ‘I will never forget.’ It was memorable to her and to me because he just did not want to talk. That is what this signifies. You have nothing to say. You have no answers. She wants answers, and this thing just happened to him, and he doesn’t have anything else to say to her.

An orange-and-white coast guard boat pulls up next to the Open Range at 9 am. For an hour and a half, Walt has been sitting on the beanbag, moaning. A door opens on the side of the boat, and two men pull Walt inside. He waves goodbye to the guys on the Open Range, who stand in stupefaction.

The ship’s captain asks Walt if he wants to be taken to the hospital or stay on the boat as they go search for Christopher. “Let’s go,” Walt says. But he chooses to sit below in the cabin, because he doesn’t want to be there when someone spots Christopher floating on his stomach, bloated, dead – he doesn’t want to be the one.  Can you talk about Walt’s rescue scene and what happened immediately after? Were there any troubles with trying to figure out how to navigate from here to where the story was going?   I wanted to play up that he was so upset that these guys couldn’t get anything out of him. I remember asking him, he said he just didn’t say anything. He thinks Christopher is dead. Ultimately we’re going to get to the main part of the story, which is about not only the outcome of this night, but raising a child differently. It is all building toward that. So I was thinking, he doesn’t know Christopher is alive, I don’t want you to know he is alive. I was very purposefully trying, and it’s the truth, not over dramatizing this. They were expecting to find him dead.

So he’s escorted down a flight of stairs to a room filled with life jackets and flare guns. An officer in charge of keeping an eye on Walt sits opposite on a bench and says only, “You look like you regret something. Do you regret something?” Walt just shakes his head in his hands – he doesn’t want to talk.  You have mentioned a couple times that Walt is an unreliable narrator. Why?   I think that, isn’t everybody? If you asked me to tell you about what happened to me a few months ago blow-by-blow, I mean. You can call me an unreliable narrator, though it happened to me. You may not know what really ever happened.   Did it have anything to do with his personality?   Maybe a little extra, because he is sort of flaky. That plays into that term a little, but mostly, I mean, isn’t everybody?

All the way from Clearwater, out of the skies above northeastern Florida, the Jayhawk helicopter rides 100 feet above the water. It’s got a bright orange tail and white-striped body, like the fish from Finding Nemo. At 300 feet the trained men aboard can see gulls hitting the surface, but they’re flying even lower this morning, as low as they can go, because they’re looking for a 12-year-old boy.

The helicopter goes into a right-hand orbit, circling once, then again, initially lowering to 50 feet. The flight mechanic had seen the dark-brown hair and white face in the tide line, had seen a body floating there, bobbing. Tom Emerick, a rescue swimmer, is already wearing a shorty wetsuit and puts on a black mask with a snorkel.  Can you talk about how you got all of this information? I’m assuming there were some public records involved?   I talked to the people who were in the helicopter and who had the flight plan. That is why there are so many numbers. That is why they had this information, how high up they were, here is the time it was, I had all that stuff. Nobody told me that it looked like “Finding Nemo,” I saw what the helicopter looked like. That is my tip of the cap to the fact that Christopher loved Disney and that is probably what it looked like to him.   And up to this point in the story, Christopher is assumed dead.   Everyone is just sort of clinically expecting him to be dead, from the guys in the helicopter to Walt who doesn’t know.

Lowered 20 feet down by a thick hoist cable, Emerick hits the water feet first. He swims toward Christopher, the boy’s small pale eyes staring at him, unblinking. Emerick signals for the helicopter to send the basket down. It’s 9:15 am, three miles from where his father had been discovered two hours earlier.

“Hi, how you doing, my name is Tom,” Emerick says.

Christopher says nothing, barely makes a move – just watches as Emerick pulls him into the stainless-steel basket.  So… This is the first instance where we know, at least upon being rescued, that Christopher is alive, and we’re nearly to the end of the story. Clearly you did this deliberately. Why?   You do not know it until the very second. You think that he might be dead when he swims toward the body and the blue eyes are staring. He could be dead still. That is completely on purpose. Even sending the basket down could be for a body. Until he talks to him, he would not be talking to a dead body. That is a cinematic way of doing it.

“Don’t climb out of it, okay, buddy?” he shouts. It’s deafening beneath the whir. The rotor wash is coming down so hard that it stings them, nearly suffocates them.

Christopher rides up in the basket silently, looking down at Emerick still in the water, studying him like a piece of string.
In the stomach of the helicopter, Emerick wraps a wool blanket over Christopher’s shoulders, checks his breathing, his pulse, has him track his index finger with his eyes. He asks him if he wants something to drink, and when Christopher doesn’t answer, he makes a motion with his hands to emulate taking a sip from a cup, and Christopher nods. Sitting on a bench in the helicopter, he shivers, freckles beneath the dark hair. His skin is warm; he’s slightly hypothermic. But other than the jellyfish stings, there doesn’t appear to be anything the matter with him.  This is amazing.   I cannot believe it. Even Walt surviving, nothing is wrong with him. Physically, he doesn’t’ seem to have anything wrong with him.

Robyn and Ed take Christopher home on September 8, after he stays one night at Halifax hospital in Daytona. He can barely walk, so they carry him back and forth from his bed to the bathroom. He can’t put any weight on his legs because of the jellyfish stings. He’s dehydrated. He eats carrot sticks, bananas, pieces of chicken. They let him watch Disney movies, tuck him under his Tigger and Pooh bedsheets. Robyn goes in and sits beside him, asks him softly what he saw out there in the ocean, what it was like. Two days, and she asks him this several times, and finally he tells her: “It was dark.” A whole sentence.

Robyn and Ed have a beautiful home on a quiet street with a pool out back that Christopher can play in. The property is bolted down so tight, Christopher can never elope. The front and back doors have key locks on the inside as well as the outside. The garage is locked. There are locks on all the sliding doors. The house has an alarm system, with a chime function.  This harkens to a prison. And then when you compare it to the wide open ocean, it’s quite the juxtaposition. But then, obviously, the home is the safe place for Christopher. This is also the first time we get a sense of Christopher’s life with his mother.   It’s easy to say, I’m not going to side with anybody, but when you think about it, objectivity is a myth. I liked Walt. I didn’t really know Robyn and Ed very much. I personally felt like maybe keeping him locked in the house, and the language that I wrote it in, made it seem like it may not have been as humane as letting him experience the ocean.   It does seem very locked down, in your description.   But then you know what his mom has had to go through. She has gone through some stuff. I am not going to say that is the right way to do it or the wrong way. I wrote it in a way that was sort of diplomatic, but that is just how it was, that is how they are keeping him in the house.

When Robyn was living alone with Angela and Christopher, he was nearly impossible to care for, and as a single mother she felt she had no other choice but to put him in a place where other people could take care of him 24 hours a day. He got kicked out of day care because he bit other children. They had to put a harness on the bus for him, a five-point seat belt, because without it he’d run up and down the aisles, hitting students and even the driver. Christopher split his weekends between Robyn and Walt and stayed at the group home on weekdays.

When Robyn and Ed first saw Walt after the incident, it was on the dock, as he stepped off the coast guard boat; he was sunburned and babbling like a child. They didn’t have the energy to confront him, to yell at him, to tell him they had been right. They were just happy that Christopher was alive. Curious. Were they happy that Walt was also alive?   You can infer. They’re not evil, but whatever, they care about whether Christopher is alive.

Three weeks after he comes home from the hospital, Christopher is named grand marshal of the parade at Disney World. Robyn and Ed make sure to keep a sharp eye on him the whole time and to hold his hand. He gets a Florida Safety Hero award. He gets to stand on the bridge of a coast guard cutter and pretend to drive.

In January, Walt moves to Vancouver, Washington, just across the bridge from Portland.  Did you get the sense that Walt’s move was related at all to the incident and its fallout?   He was doing contract work. I don’t think it had anything to do with it. He loves spending time with his kids and it’s a pain in the ass to go back and forth. He was taking work where he could get it. He takes a job contracting with the FDIC, closing a bank, for good money, and thus has to live so far away. He flies back to Florida on Friday evenings every two weeks just so he can spend a day and a half with Christopher and Angela before getting up at 4 a.m. on Mondays and flying back. When he drops Angela off at Robyn and Ed’s house, they do not wave at him as he leaves.   Were you ever at the beach with him?   We walked right up to the edge of the water where they got swept out. I wanted to go back out with them, to feel it, see it. I was feverishly writing in my notebook while we were there, see the jetty, the sky, what was the tide like, how is it different than what we’re looking at.

He lives in a hotel room, a suite with comfortable furniture and a nice bed, big wooden cabinets where he can store his things. He goes to the bank in the morning, watches cable in the hotel after work, and lounges around in his sweatpants and gray Columbia fleece pullover. He shares a white Pontiac Vibe hatchback with one of his co-workers. He’s a tall guy, 46 years old, a little pudgy, with high blood pressure.

In March, Walt goes to Florida and takes Christopher back out to the beach at Ponce Inlet. Were you there for this? If so, how did this happen?   I said I would love to see where it happened. I didn’t force them to do it at all.  They sit up in the front seat of the Celica listening to an audiotape of The Aristocats. Christopher eats a bag of Doritos Cool Ranch chips and, later, two McDonald’s double cheeseburgers, layer by layer. “Aaah, eeehh, uhhhhh!” he shouts, off and on.

They drive by the mall where he was found in the fountain with the pennies. “Wow, dude!” Walt says, looking into the empty bag. He leans in and puts his face right up to Christopher’s, almost touching his nose, and says, “You’re my best buddy.” Christopher giggles and then stares at the passing cars.  Obviously this reads as if you are in the car, which reminds me of something Jim Sheeler says, and that’s to always get in the car. You also got in the car with Puddles the Clown. Is this an important thing for you to do when reporting, and if so, why? What do you get out of it as a reporter?   I would love to write every story with so much access that I see everything happening in front of me. I wanted to be with them. This part of the story is my favorite part of the story because it’s like when you go back to real life from this amazing event and it’s so complicated and here is Christopher going back to that house and they tuck him in and do all this stuff and Walt goes back to this hotel room and it’s so beautifully messy to me. It’s so much more interesting to me than what happened in the ocean.

Christopher walks on the beach and looks around, then goes into a bathroom to put on his swim trunks. He dips his feet into the water, recoils upon discovering how cold it is. The waves press into the rocks, the jetty long and uneven out to the ocean. Christopher lies on his stomach in the sand, laughing.

But when Walt takes him back to the group home at around 9:30 that night, Christopher, who had been silent and mostly calm the entire day, looks at his father, then throws his cup of McDonald’s water at the car window. When Walt gets out of the car in front of the group home, Christopher runs into the empty street and sits on the concrete of the cul-de-sac, beneath the streetlight. He looks lost and frightened in the glow.

He starts hitting his head with his fists and shouting at the top of his lungs.

“Please, buddy, please,” Walt begs.

Walt puts his hands under Christopher’s arms and tries to stand him up. Christopher won’t budge. Walt’s voice quivers, “I know you don’t want me to leave, man, but I have to.”

He manages to stand Christopher upright and drag him about 20 feet toward the door of the home, and then Christopher jumps at him, sinks his teeth into Walt’s arm, so Walt lets go and falls halfway to the ground. It had been so easy to forget all day.  Was Walt concerned with the fact that you saw all this, that this would probably be in the story?   I almost dropped my notebook. I wanted to go help Walt, but I was just standing there like an idiot with my mouth open. I thought, this is real, this is very real. Christopher lashed out at him. He did not want him to go, and he bit him. That was unbelievable to me. It was an instance where everything we had talked about crystalized as being truthful, because I could not, after seeing that brief moment, I could not imagine what it was like to raise him. I can’t pretend to know what Walt goes through or what Robyn goes through. And you have to accurately portray that. I look back at this now, I almost want to end with this, “tears running down his face… “ instead of Christopher just stands there.

Walt cries out in pain.

“Why, Christopher, why?”

Tears are running down his face, with nothing but the back of his bitten arm to wipe them away.

Christopher just stands there.

Walt has tried to imagine what that night was like for Christopher. He has imagined it repeatedly, in his sleep, at his work, in his rented hotel suite with the curtains drawn, the empty plastic soup containers on the counter. He has imagined Christopher giggling and splashing, the fish touching his back and arms; Christopher staring in awe at the dolphin snouts and falling stars, soothed by the foam tops of the waves; has imagined the whole night was like this one big adventure, the biggest adventure Christopher will ever have in his life, floating on his back as the water warmed his ears, in wonder as the sounds changed beneath the surface; has imagined that those sounds captivated his son’s imagination, and that since Christopher loves to float and swim more than anything, perhaps he even had fun. And the phosphorescence, the most colorful thing, he hopes it passed his son in a trail on the top of the water, long and thin, sparkling there like something hopeful; prays that Christopher got to see it. He has to believe he did. He can just picture Christopher sticking his hand in the filmy substance, holding it up to the moonlight, slick and shiny and Disney green. In fact, he cannot bring himself to imagine anything else. Walt aches for the day, a day that will probably never come, when he’ll be able to actually talk to Christopher, and ask him about what he saw and what he felt and what he was thinking, how he survived.  Why not end the story with the tears streaming down his face? Why add the epilogue?   This gets back to the narrator part. Walt is a kind of an aloof guy, he’s kind of a kid, and the ending, when you hear this as one of Walt’s things that he tells himself, that it was okay for Christopher and he wasn’t scared and he loves the water, as a magazine writer, you can have the place to call bullshit. I wrote this end because this is a way for me to communicate that I do not agree with him. This builds up. He imagined Christopher giggling, and splashing, Disney sounds and colors. It had to be okay, and he can tell himself that. That last ending is like, right, it was dark, it was a nightmare, and that really is a magazine way of saying that here is how he looks at it. He probably did not enjoy that time, and it reveals a lot about how Walt is trying not to blame himself. That was my shot at saying that I disagree.

But really, all he can do is wonder.
What did Walt think of the story?   At first he was like thank you so much, but he hadn’t read it. And then when he read it, he cussed me up and down and was angry, and then I asked him to read it again. What had happened was, he had also read, when this came out, Nieman Narrative did a thing and interviewed me, and I said one of the reasons I was drawn to this was the story was a hero went out to save his son, but that wasn’t the story, and he was upset that I had said he wasn’t a hero. He said I didn’t know anything about him and Christopher, and that is true, but then I talked to him, and he sent me a picture of Christopher last year. I have fond remembrances of them.

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Turning a Narrative Story into a Documentary Thu, 22 Jan 2015 13:58:20 +0000 More than a few journalists have dreamed of turning their stories into films. Chicago Tribune features writer Kevin Pang actually did, producing a 90-minute documentary about a troubled chef’s attempt to open the country’s best restaurant. In the latest installment of our regular feature, “Writing the Book,” redubbed “Writing the Film” for this essay, Pang discusses the challenges– and revelations– of translating print narrative to a visual medium. To learn more about the film, “For Grace,” click here.

For the better part of the past four years, my life has revolved around a Chicago chef named Curtis Duffy.

Kevin Pang

Kevin Pang

What began as an idea for a short video for the Chicago Tribune website turned into an 8,000-word feature story, and now, a 93-minute documentary I’m taking on the film festival circuit. With the exception of the woman who went from my girlfriend to my fiancee to my wife during the course of the filming, there wasn’t a human being I got to know more intimately than Duffy.

When I first met him, Duffy was about to leave his job as head chef for a high-end Chicago hotel to open his own restaurant, one he hoped would become “the best in the country.” Duffy’s resume, which included stints at the internationally renowned Chicago restaurants Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea, among others, suggested he might have the skills and ambition to pull it off.

As the Chicago Tribune’s dining reporter, I thought there might be a compelling story in his quest to open America’s best restaurant. But I wasn’t sure it was a print story. The process of building a restaurant felt more procedural than emotionally compelling, and not the type of Thomas French or J.R. Moehringer page-turning feature I had grown up reading in newspapers. I’ve always had an interest in visual storytelling, though; I studied broadcast journalism in college and had a grasp of shooting and editing video.

What, then, about a short film? Duffy agreed to cooperate and, my filmmaking partner Mark Helenowski and I began documenting the birth of a restaurant, one that would be named Grace.

We envisioned the piece as a short, standalone online video for the Tribune, paired with some online text components. Transitioning from storytelling with words to moving pictures required me to exercise different creative muscles. The two biggest challenges: Finding a cohesive theme, and structuring the film.

First, it didn’t take too many sessions of filming the new restaurant crew testing out dining room chairs for me to learn that visually documenting the building process wouldn’t be enough. The realization hit: Everything I had learned about narrative writing should be applied to filmmaking as well. The story had to exhibit character volition. It had to show desire. If Duffy’s goal was to build the best restaurant in the country, to what lengths would he go to achieve that?

Quite a lot, as it turned out. I found out that Duffy, who has two young daughters, was going through a divorce, in part because of the enormous toll on his marriage of working 16-hour-plus days, nights, weekends and holidays.

Then, eight months into the filming, I found out something else. When Duffy was 18, his parents had been in process of getting a divorce when his father, on the couple’s 18th wedding anniversary, kidnapped his mother and held her hostage for 12 hours before killing her and then himself.

In his father’s belongings, Duffy found a note in which his father told him he would become one of the best chefs in the world, and advised him to take time to spend with his wife and children. As Duffy read the letter to us on camera, he broke down in tears.

We understood at that moment that, in the same way Seabiscuit isn’t really about horse racing, the film wasn’t about food and restaurants. It couldn’t just be another film with sexy close-up shots of pork belly and foie gras. We had to focus on more relatable, human themes: Sacrifice, family, relationships, balance.  There was enough to make a feature-length documentary.

Los Angeles Times assistant national editor editor Steve Padilla — my writing hero and mentor — spent hours on the phone talking me through the story. The turning point was when he boiled down the story into one pithy sentence: “Cooking gave Curtis Duffy refuge, but cooking also exacted a price.”

There turned out to be one more surprise: a woman named Ruth Snider. Duffy had been a troubled teenager who fought and stole, until Snider, who had been his middle-school home economics teacher, helped him turned his life around. They grew closer after his parents’ deaths and she eventually became his surrogate mother. And whenever Duffy’s new restaurant opened, Snider vowed she’d be the first customer.

There it was. The heart of our story.

Once I discovered the drama behind the procedural, my editors suggested I do a print piece as well. The article ran on Valentine’s Day 2013 over five open pages in the Chicago Tribune and online here. The reporting was captured on nearly 300 hours of video.

Then came the uneviable task of turning an 8,000-word feature into a movie. Our challenge turned from thematic to structural.

Putting words onto paper is a tough enough art form, but it’s still a two-dimensional act of stringing words together. Making a movie forces you to work in four dimensions, if you include linear space-time. There are countless factors filmmakers have to contend with that writers don’t encounter: Range of shots (wide vs. close-up), music usage, dialogue vs. natural sound vs. silence, the way lighting affects mood, shot composition, the rhythm of cutting between shots, breaking the fourth wall, etc. For a neophyte filmmaker like me, much of the decision-making was instinctive. I’m not an expert.

Most of my energy, however, was spent breaking down the film — called “For Grace” — into a series of mini-movies. The importance of scene construction cannot be overstated.

Short of recreating backstory with professional actors or Claymation, it’s harder to present exposition as you can in print, because what you shoot is what you get. That adage of “Show, don’t tell” becomes for documentarians, “Show, can’t tell.”

So the documentary couldn’t just be the newspaper story retold in visual form. We wrote down every scene we shot on Post-It notes and storyboarded the film on a massive white board. The result was a hodgepodge of nearly 75 scenes assembled in chronological order. Next came the task of weeding out the weak ones, and there were many we were pained to see go. It’s easy to fall into a trap of keeping a particular scene because the visuals were nice or someone gave a punchy quote. But our contract with viewers is 90 minutes of their time, tops, so every scene must be in service of the story. (We took solace by telling ourselves, “It’ll be on the DVD extras.”)

What was our criteria for a strong scene? One of the best tips I picked up was from a book called “Save the Cat” by screenwriter Blake Snyder (recommended to me by Tampa Bay Times feature writer Ben Montgomery). The book is formulaic to a fault, a color-by-numbers approach to writing Hollywood blockbusters. But one chapter about scene construction proved immensely helpful: The idea of  >< and +/-.

This is Snyder’s theory: Every scene, ideally, must have opposing forces that create conflict. It doesn’t mean a screaming match between two people. Your protagonist will enter a scene with an agenda, and an obstacle gets in the way that prevents your hero from achieving that goal. Conflict is ><.

It’s a homeless father walking into a grocery store and has no money to pay for food.

Snyder also believed every scene must contain a change in emotional tone, from happy to sad, anxiousness to relief, calm to angry. That’s represented by +/-. If that emotional swing doesn’t exist, our next question should be, “What’s the point of the scene?”

A homeless father prays the grocery store manager is sympathetic enough to spare his family some food. The manager says no. The father goes from hopeful to disappointed.

I’ll add one more criterion I came up with: “IHNI!” In a documentary where we whisk viewers into an unfamiliar world, every scene should present new and fascinating information that’d make you go: “I had no idea!”

Here’s a scene from the documentary about finding the right chair for the dining room. (Note: Salty language in this scene.)

Here’s why we kept it in the film:

​Laying out scenes with +/-, >< and IHNI! helped me identify strong passages and eliminate weak ones. Not all scenes will contain all three, but when I watch back a particularly slow section and can’t put my finger on why it’s dragging, this technique helps me to begin understanding why. It’s the one trick I’ve transferred from filmmaking into my daily writing career.

One last note about why you should visually roadmap your story. When it came time to assemble the film into a cohesive narrative, we adhered to Kurt Vonnegut’s philosophy on story shapes. I’ll let him explain it.

Here’s a rough sketch of the last 30 minutes of the documentary. Essentially, we begin the act with a hopeful tone, add complications to his life, really pile it on, and when all seemed lost, marched our hero toward his happy ending. The emotional arc swoops in a U shape. All our favorite stories do the same.


Books I found helpful:

+  “Save the Cat! The last book on screenwriting that you’ll ever need,” by Blake Snyder.

+  “101 Things I Learned in Film School,” by Neil Landau with Matthew Frederick.

+  “Story: Style, Structure Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting,” by Robert McKee. 

+  “Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction,” by Jack Hart.



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10 Pieces of Wisdom from Top Writers Thu, 08 Jan 2015 14:46:04 +0000 As Matt Tullis writes in his accompanying essay, more than a dozen top narrative writers agreed to speak, either by Skype or in person, to his undergraduate journalism class at Ashland University last fall.  Here is some their best advice:

  1. On reporting and writing: “I don’t draw a distinction between reporting and writing. You can’t write what you don’t report.” – Michael Kruse, senior writer, Politico.
  1. On being a reporter: “Some of it is fun as hell. The thing I love the most is that it changes. You get to choose who you want to learn from. You can call anyone.” – Wil S. Hylton, contributing writer, The New York Times Magazine, contributing editor, New York magazine

  1. On access: “I’m always sort of amazed at how willing people are to let you into their lives to write about them, because I’m writing about people whose lives are in bad shape.” – Eli Saslow, staff writer, The Washington Post.

  1. On life: “Ideally, you find the thing you’re good at, and it’s a thing you love doing. If you try to do something you don’t love, you’ll get crushed by the people who care.” – Chris Jones, writer, Esquire and ESPN The Magazine.

  1. On celebrity interviews: “I don’t talk about myself in interviews anymore, which can be useful to get people to open up, but I don’t do that because I abhor seeing the looks on their faces when I start talking about myself. Now I’m very cut and dry. These are my questions. You’re going to answer them and I’m going to get out of here.” – Vanessa Grigoriadis, contributing editor at New York, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.

  1. On objectivity: “Stories end up being a reflection of you. You choose to begin a story with a certain sentence and to end it a certain way. Objectivity is a myth. You can’t be objective because you’re a person.” – Seth Wickersham, senior writer, ESPN The Magazine.

  1. On ideas: “The idea is everything. If the idea is crappy, the story is mediocre at best. The idea has to have some action. There’s got to be something at stake. Most people try to do too much. If you don’t narrow it down, it’s hard to go deep enough to show how they’re changing over time.” — Kelley Benham French, professor of practice, Indiana University, formerly with the Tampa Bay Times.

  1. On staying until the end: “One funeral I covered, I stayed until the last scoop of dirt was shoveled onto the grave. Then the gravedigger said, ‘Good job Marine. Semper Fi.’ I was the only reporter there. I made it a point. Every funeral, I got there early and I stayed late. I treated it with the care it deserved.” – James Sheeler, Shirley Wormser Professor of Journalism and Media Writing at Case Western Reserve University, formerly with the Rocky Mountain News.

  1. On details: “Everything around you, no matter how minute, could be brought out as a hair-raising scene.” – Justin Heckert, contributor to Esquire, Grantland, Indianapolis Monthly, Men’s Journal, and The New York Times Magazine, among others.

  1. On time: “Time is an elastic thing in narrative stories. You can jump back and forth at will.” – Thomas Lake, senior writer, Sports Illustrated.

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What 14 Great Writers Taught One Journalism Class Thu, 08 Jan 2015 14:43:45 +0000 Matt Tullis

Matt Tullis

I knew it was going to be a great class the second week of the semester, when Mike Sager told my 11 undergraduate journalism majors about the time he snorted coke with a pimp who lived on his block — all for a story he was working on.

The narrative journalism class at Ashland University is essentially the final writing/reporting class our journalism majors take. It’s made up of juniors and seniors, some who will end up working in newspapers or magazines, others radio and TV, and still more who will do something entirely different altogether.

You need to know a bit about AU, though, to understand why what Sager said was so, well, awesome. Ashland is a mid-sized liberal arts university smack dab at the midpoint between Cleveland and Columbus. The university was founded by the Brethren Church, and while it’s not a religious school per se (it does have a seminary), a lot of our students come from the surrounding area, which means they often come in with strong religious views, almost all of them of the Christian bent.

And so it was, as Sager, a writer-at-large for Esquire, dropped F-bomb after F-bomb (“Steinbeck was very fucking journalistic!”) and talked about getting high with a pimp and trying to convince Brooke Burke to have sex with him when he was reporting “The Secret Life of a Beautiful Woman” in 1999, that eyes started to widen.

But this was good. I wanted my students to feel uncomfortable, because that’s what good narrative journalism does to you. It takes you to a place you haven’t been and wouldn’t necessarily go, and it does that for the reporter as well as the reader. And while you’re at that place, you start thinking about life, your life, the subject of the story’s life. You start thinking about what it means to be human. What it means to suffer and what it means to triumph.

I knew when I started planning the class that I wanted my students to talk with some of the outstanding journalists they would be reading during the semester.  I’ve long believed that the best way to learn how to write narrative journalism is to read a lot, write a lot, and talk to the best in the business, a lot. I’m always rejuvenated, as a reporter and a writer, whenever I hang out with people who I know are better than me when it comes to telling nonfiction stories.

Initially, I thought maybe I could get one or two nationally renowned reporters to Skype into the class. But as I thumbed through “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists,” edited by Sager and Walt Harrington, I figured I would go for broke. I knew a decent number of the reporters in that anthology thanks to Gangrey: The Podcast, the podcast I host and produce, and which features many of these very reporters talking about their work. So I emailed 14 of them. In the end, every single one said yes. Fourteen of the country’s best reporters agreed to spend 45 minutes to an hour talking to 11 undergraduate students, to share their secrets, to talk about how they get people to open up and how they make words sing.  It was a narrative journalist’s dream.

Every week, my students were assigned three or four stories by the reporter we would be talking to next. By the end of the semester, they had read hundreds of thousands of words.

And then they asked questions. Lots and lots of questions. And they got some amazing answers.

They asked Wil S. Hylton, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and author of “Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II,” how he recreated for an article in GQ  the heartbreaking scene of a mother driving her 11-year-old son 60 miles to a hospital, where she planned to abandon him so he could get the mental health help he needed.

“You have to keep asking the same questions over and over and over again and look for places the story changes,” Hylton said. “Memories are fallible, so I would say, ‘You remembered that differently the last time we talked.’ That’s when they interrogate their own memory. That’s when they remember the minute details.”

They asked Eli Saslow how he got to the point where he could essentially write whatever story he wanted to at The Washington Post, and at such a young age. Saslow, who is 32, started at the Post covering high school volleyball, but has now won one Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for another.

“People who are thriving are doing so because they have found something they care about,” he responded. “I had a pretty good sense early on about what I wanted to do. And then it was all about getting better and better with every story. It’s a super-long evolution, and I’m not nearly there yet. It’s just making sure you’re always continuing to challenge yourself.”

And they asked Chris Jones, a two-time National Magazine Award winner and writer for Esquire and ESPN The Magazine, about his incredible essay about contemplating suicide. That piece ran in an issue of Esquire focused on mental health. The essay wasn’t published online until Robin Williams committed suicide. I hadn’t told Jones to expect questions about this piece because I didn’t know it existed. I had somehow missed it in the magazine when it came out. My students found it on their own, though, and asked what it was like to write something so personal. He was silent for about 30 seconds while he contemplated an answer.

“The nice thing about writing is I never have to face my audience,” Jones said as he faced his audience. “I hardly ever think of something being read. Nobody knew that stuff. My wife didn’t know about that stuff. But I had been feeling a lot better, and I thought it was important to share that stuff.”

But did it work? Did this idea of reading a lot and writing a lot and talking to these remarkable reporters and writers work? Did my students write great, 2,000-word narratives? As with every class, some students did. Some didn’t. But here’s the thing: most of the pieces had voice. They had structures that looked like the stuff they had read. They all tackled topics that were difficult in their own ways. And a few were remarkable, far better than I had hoped for.

They wrote about friends grieving for a classmate who died in a car crash, an 89-year-old cleaning lady with just one remaining client, and an SPCA humane officer who still thinks about one horrific dog rescue.

Nobody in the class took an easy way out. They all attempted difficult stories, and they all succeeded in one way or another. At the very least, they made themselves uncomfortable. They took risks.

And this, I think, was the most important lesson from the semester. Great reporters aren’t great because perfect stories just flow out of them. They are great reporters because they take chances. They try stories no one else will. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t.  But in every case, the great reporters, the ones who talked to my class last fall, are striving for that flawless story, even when they know it’s impossible.

Seth Wickersham, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, talked about the time he was in college and he wrote a story about a football player whose dad was an alcoholic. He wrote the story from the second-person point of view of the alcohol. He said it was an internship at The Washington Post that taught him to rein in his language,  to be more clear and concise.

Kelley Benham French, formerly a reporter and editor at the Tampa Bay Times and now a professor at Indiana University, spoke about the regrets that linger from her remarkable story “Kennel Trash,” and how she didn’t notice, or was afraid to notice, the story shift under her feet. She wrote a story about compassion, about women charged with putting rescued dogs to sleep. But she realizes now the story should have been about stereotyping, how pit bulls were put to sleep simply because they were pit bulls.

“Looking back, you can make a strong case that journalists have turned pit bulls into boogie men by reporting inaccurately,” she said to the class. “I wish I had let my emotions guide me more. I was too cautious.”

Chris Jones said he pitches 20 story ideas for every one story Esquire takes. And he’s on staff there. He pitched his iconic Roger Ebert profile for six months and it wasn’t until Taylor Swift backed out of a proposed story, he said, that he got the go-ahead.

I gave a presentation on this class at a College of Arts and Sciences meeting at AU, and one faculty member asked how much I had to pay these reporters to spend time with my students. Nothing, I said. They do it, I suspect, because they love narrative journalism, and they see value in teaching others not only how to do it but how and why they should love it.

Now that the semester is over, I truly think some of my students left with a love of this type of reporting and writing. That leaves me hopeful for the future of narrative journalism, and makes me think, maybe, just maybe, one day in 10 or 15 years I’ll be Skyping with one of these 11 students as they talk to a new generation of students about the stories they’ve written.

 For 10 pieces of advice these writers gave the students, go here.

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Stories We Loved: Some Favorite Narrative from 2014 Wed, 31 Dec 2014 01:49:58 +0000 It’s that time of year when “Best of” lists litter the landscape like pine needles. Here at Storyboard, we decided to do something a little different to commemorate 2014. We asked a handful of terrific storytellers to tell us their five favorite stories of the year. Not necessarily the “best” stories or the ones they thought would win awards, but the stories they couldn’t stop thinking about, the stories they told their friends to read — the stories they loved. And we said they could choose any kind of story, in any medium. Because great narrative is everywhere. Their choices will surprise and inspire you.

Here are our guest editors and their picks:

Tommy Tomlinson
Tommy Tomlinson

Tommy Tomlinson is a contributing writer for ESPN and author of the forthcoming “The Elephant In the Room” (Simon and Schuster, 2016-ish). He was a 2008-09 Nieman Fellow.

1. “Breaking Madden: The Mark Sanchez Century,” Jon Bois, “Breaking Madden” is a series where Bois pushes the John Madden NFL video game to its limits, creating freakish players and nightmare seasons and misguided quests that all turn out to have a strange beauty. In this episode he takes Mark Sanchez, one of the league’s worst-rated quarterbacks ever, and tries to win a Super Bowl with Sanchez in charge. And tries. And tries. And tries. By the end Tom Waits is singing, and everything’s in slow motion, and I’m not ashamed to say I cried a little for stupid Mark Sanchez, and for Bois’ brilliant imagination.

2.  ”Serial, ” executive producers Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, “This American Life.” The first lesson of “Serial” is that people will always be drawn to great stories, no matter the length or the format. The second lesson is that transparency in storytelling is not a bug, but a feature. Koenig stumbles down wrong roads and doubts her sources and questions the whole enterprise, and all this makes the story more compelling. That’s important to know for journalists who try to hide what’s behind the curtain.

3. “Tim’s Vermeer, ” director Teller, Sony Pictures Classics. Tim Jenison, a millionaire who made his fortune in computer graphics, is fascinated by the art of Vermeer. He comes to believe that Vermeer used mechanical devices to create the photo-like feel of his paintings. So Jenison sets out to prove it by trying to duplicate a Vermeer. Teller (yep, from Penn and Teller) tells the story of the places where art and technology become so close that it no longer matters which is which. Jenison is so smart and funny that you’ll gladly follow him down the rabbit hole.

4. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux, ” Jeremy Collins, SBNation. com. A raw and beautiful story of pain, friendship and one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived. The stories I chose for this list are the ones that lingered in my mind and heart, and this story lingered the most. I still think about it.

5. “Our Song,” director Lance Acord, Apple. This is not just fiction, it’s fiction designed to make us buy stuff. I don’t care. It’s a beautiful, complete story, told in just a minute and a half, and it chokes me up every time I watch. The look on the old woman’s face when she hears her voice … I’ll never forget that look.

Stephen Henderson

Stephen Henderson

Stephen Henderson is the editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press and a Detroit native. He won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

1. “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic. A stunning and deep look at the history of America’s racial crimes. Likely the most penetrative look at the roots of this country’s current racial imbalances. More important, the history lesson here is propelled over and over by deeply illustrative, narrative storytelling – about victims of discrimination, seekers of compensation for the wrongs they were done, and about the author himself.

2. “Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words,” director Peter Kunhardt, HBO Documentaries. If you never believed Richard Nixon was his own worst enemy, this film would almost certainly change your mind. Using thousands of hours of tape-recorded White House conversations, the filmmakers wraps Nixon’s rants and raves (about everyone from his perceived political enemies to racial and religious minorities) in news context, illustrating what was happening at the time Nixon was speaking. It is at once chilling and fascinating. Worth more than one watch.

3. “More Plot Twists than ‘The Maltese Falcon,’”  Kathryn Shattuck, The New York Times, Nov. 28, 2014. This edition of the  ”Vows” wedding column reached the heights readers hope for each week. Love long lost, then reunited, across miles and decades and a wide range of emotional highs and lows. It helped that the groom was the son of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, but the love story would have arced perfectly on its own, even without the star quality. I read all the way to the end. Then read it again.

4. “The Song that Never Ends: Why Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘September’ Sustains,” producer Dan Charnas, NPR “Morning Edition.” You know you want to get up and dance. As Charnas points out in this wonderful, whimsical piece, right from the opening horn flourish, this song makes people feel good, and move their backsides. That’s why it’s one of the most popular selections at wedding receptions, more than 30 years after it was recorded. The piece wins with for the gravel-stained voice of the song’s female writer, explaining how sure she was that the repeating line, “Ba-dee-ya” was unacceptable gibberish, rather than the song’s most memorable refrain.

5. “Dehumanizing Ferguson,” Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post​. This column’s opening line, “The name Ferguson should become shorthand for dehumanization,” set the tone for a remarkably powerful venting of African-American frustration with the cheapening of black life embodied, for many, in the failure to indict officers who kill. Robinson’s prose is flawless, and sucks you in over and over.

Kelley Benham French/Photo by Cherie Diez, Tampa Bay Times

Kelley Benham French/Photo by Cherie Diez, Tampa Bay Times

Kelley Benham French is a professor of practice at the Indiana University Media School. Formerly a longtime writer and editor for the Tampa Bay Times, she was a 2013 Pulitzer finalist.

1. “While the World Watched,” Wright Thompson, ESPN. This story – which I avoided for a while because, you know, soccer + torture — brought me places I didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t look away. In it, the cheers from Argentina’s 1978 World Cup victory merge with the screams from its Dirty War torture chambers, and ghost of all of it lingers over the city preparing to host another World Cup while reconciling with its past. While I was reading, I kept hearing my daughter say, “Time to eat, Mommy. Mommy? Time to eat!” and I couldn’t stop. When it was over, I wasn’t hungry.

2. “The Witness,” Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly. I’ve seen a man die by lethal injection, but not like this. Through the eyes of Michelle Lyons, who witnessed 278 Texas executions, we see the death penalty from both sides of the glass. We are close enough to hear their last breaths, and we have enough distance to feel the accumulated injury of so many needle pricks, to our society, to our best selves. Lyons’ long relationship with Death Row allows for a nuanced, unflinching and unsentimental reflection on capital punishment.

3. “Away,” Chris Jones, Esquire. In space, callouses slough off your feet and fire floats like tiny suns. As we ponder outposts on other planets, first we have to find out what living in space does to us. Jones profiles an astronaut preparing to spend a year away from his family, his planet, his gravity in all its forms. He will return with his life and body transformed. A story on what it takes, with an ending that makes it hard to breathe.

4. “The Lost Bones,” Ben Montgomery, Tampa Bay Times. I keep thinking about the little boys. Buried – discarded – in a shoddily marked cemetery at a hellhole of a reform school in the panhandle of Florida. They lay forgotten for decades, until the trees grew up over them and their bones rotted into the dirt and the people who put them there had died and the people who remembered them were almost all gone.  They would have stayed there forever maybe, had Ben Montgomery not worked for six years to expose a century of torture at the school, to shut the place down, and to follow the archeologist who finally brought the boys out of the ground, matched bones with names, and delivered them to their families.  I’m close to this story – I edited its prequels, including “For Their Own Good” — but if this story doesn’t represent best of what we do, I don’t know what does.

5. “Beer, Breakups and Babies: Six stories of the Ikea coffee table phase of life,” Jessica Contrera, The Washington Post. This story reminds me of so many other stories I’ve loved over the years but rarely see anymore: of red plastic cupsplastic porch chairs and containers and Yankee Candles. It feels deeply true. Not unlike an Ikea coffee table, it is simple and not showy, surprisingly sturdy, more than the sum of its parts. It is made for this moment, and not for forever, but it tells us something about life and how we live it, right now. I’ll teach it this semester, and I’ll make notes on my copy on the Ikea Lack table in my campus office.

Lisa Pollak

Lisa Pollak

Lisa Pollak won the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun and worked as a producer for “This American Life” for nine years. Last semester, she taught a course called “Storytelling for the Ear” at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

1. “Boyhood,” director Richard Linklater. This film about a boy coming of age was filmed in real time, over the course of 12 years, so even though it’s fiction, the changes we see happening to the actors are real. The plot has upsetting moments, but what ultimately made me cry was the way Linklater captured the passage of time itself, and all the beautiful and sad ways that time leaves its mark on us.

2. “StartUp,” Alex Blumberg, Gimlet Media. I will never forget the feeling of walking down the street listening to this podcast series and marveling at the fact that a story about a guy starting his own company could be so riveting and emotional — hilarious at times, poignant  at others. Alex (a former colleague of mine) even finds a way to make the ads compelling.

3. “Behind the yellow door, a man’s mental illness worsens,” Stephanie McCrummen, The Washington Post. I think this is one of the most gripping stories on mental illness and what it does to families that I’ve ever read.

4. “Help Wanted,” Luke Malone and Robyn Semien,”This American Life.” A painful, eye-opening and unforgettable story about a young man trying to deal with his attraction to children by starting an online support group for pedophiles, like himself, who haven’t committed crimes and don’t want to harm children. It’s alarming to learn how little help and research exists for this young man, and heartbreaking to hear about his quest to help himself. This piece won the “Radio Impact” award at the 2014 Third Coast competition.

5. “Heart-Rending Test in Ebola Zone: A Baby,” Sheri Fink, The New York Times. It’s hard to choose just one piece from the NYT’s Ebola Ward series, but this story — and really, the headline says it all — is the one that I can’t stop thinking about.

Louise Kiernan

Louise Kiernan

And, finally, I’ll add a few favorites of my own. I second the nominations for “Serial” and “Boyhood” both of which I enjoyed for many different reasons but which share a patience in the approach to storytelling that conjures up a rare sense of subtlety and depth.

After living in Chicago for more than two decades, I’ve read and watched and listened to more reports than I can count about the terrible toll of violence in my beloved city. This year, though, I thought a single photograph told one of most nuanced — and painful– stories. This image by Scott Strazzante, a Chicago Tribune photographer who now works for the San Francisco Chronicle, stands apart from the familiar images of bereft mothers holding aloft snapshots of their lost children or crowds gathered around a lumpy body bag on a street corner. Words can’t do justice to the expression on that police officer’s face.

Sarah Stillman at The New Yorker reports on social issues ranging from ebola to Ferguson to civil forfeiture with an unparalleled intelligence and grace. Her story on for-profit alternatives to incarceration was a compelling exploration of a little-known, profoundly unfair phenomenon.

My concluding recommendation is hardly fair to share because it’s a museum exhibit and disappearing in matter of days but nothing made me think harder about construction and deconstruction of story this year than the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s show “David Bowie Is.”  The exhibit is an utterly immersive narrative experience, with Bowie speaking or singing in your ear through the geographically responsive headphones as you approach various displays and artifacts that include, among dozens of other items, scraps of handwritten song lyrics and the set of keys to his apartment in Berlin. And, of course, the show examines through Bowie’s various personas the concept of the creation of individual narrative that we all undertake in some form or another. I didn’t encounter a more beautifully built story this year — and I’m not even much of a Bowie fan.

What were your favorite stories of 2014?

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Best of Storyboard: Reader Favorites for 2014 Thu, 18 Dec 2014 16:16:22 +0000 This year marked some major changes at Storyboard: new website, new editor and new narrative territory. Our most popular posts of 2014 reflect some timely– and timeless– themes. Most notable is the flourishing passion for audio storytelling. No fewer than four of our top 10 posts involve some sort of story, discussion or analysis of radio or podcast narrative. At the same time, readers remain interested in classic print pieces, with our well-established Annotation Tuesday feature drawing attention for its deconstruction of three magazine articles, two of them several (or more) decades old. And there’s no expiration date when  it comes to sound writing advice, as evidenced by the digital resurrection of a pair of past essays by two masters of the craft.

Here are our top 10 posts (mostly, but not slavishly in order) for 2014:

Sarah Koenig

Sarah Koenig

The most-viewed post by many thousands of clicks was our October interview with “Serial” executive producers Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, which isn’t surprising given the runaway success of their “This American Life” spinoff podcast. In its first season, the 12-episode narrative, which concluded today, explored the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Lee and subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed.

In this excerpt from our chat, Koenig, who also hosts the program, talks about the gap between the audience’s expectations and her purpose as a storyteller:

“The popularity of this podcast, I was unprepared for. I think a lot of that is the fact that it’s a crime. It’s a murder case. I had not banked on that’s what people are responding to. It’s not our great idea and our wonderful storytelling; it’s just that people can’t resist a murder mystery. I really did not appreciate that until now. I’m afraid there probably is some of that out there, where it’s just a caper. And that’s fine. I think that’s not our interest, though. That’s not our intention. I think our intention is more complicated and probably more subtle, and maybe too subtle.

It’s funny because I keep thinking for all these people who are like, “Does she know the ending? What’s the ending? How’s it going to end?” To me, when I’m watching “House of Cards” or “Downton Abbey,” or whatever it is, I don’t want to know the ending. To me, the pleasure is in the story, right? So I’m always a little bit like, “Wait, don’t you guys just want to stick with me? Why are you trying to get ahead of the story? Isn’t the pleasure in having it lay out? To me, that’s what I like. So I don’t relate, honestly, so much. I really don’t. I’m sad when it gets to the end of those series. I just want it to keep going.”

Gabe Bullard

Gabe Bullard

Listeners worried about how to replace their “Serial” fix may have accounted for the strong interest in Nieman fellow Gabe Bullard’s list of recommended replacement podcasts. His top three?

The Memory Palace.” This is my ultimate “high reward” podcast. It’s short and infrequent, but the storytelling is among the best available online.

Judge John Hodgman.” Writer and actor John Hodgman (“The Daily Show,” those Mac/PC ads) adjudicates petty conflicts between friends in this People’s Court-style podcast. Many humor podcasts consist of funny people (or people who think they’re funny) riffing and hoping for laughs, but this is smarter and, at times, surprisingly heartfelt.

Gastropod.” In each episode, Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley look at issues related to the future of eating. This is new, but with its focus on reporting and sharp writing, it’s quickly become one of two food-related podcasts I always listen to (the other is “America’s Test Kitchen,” from the same people who make the TV and radio shows).

Also in the top half of our year-end list is another audiocentric story, an examination of the podcast renaissance by Cynthia Graber. Graber, whose article also appeared in our sister publication Nieman Reports, writes:

Today, podcasting is making a comeback, in part because the technology—smartphones and audio recording programs—is easy to use. According to the Infinite Dial 2014 study, the latest from Edison Research on consumer adoption of digital media, more than 60% of the American public has a smartphone. (This increases to 80% of the 18- to 34-year-old demographic.) Apps like Stitcher encourage seamless podcast listening, and websites like SoundCloud make embedding and sharing audio a snap.

The result: Thousands of podcasts are available on iTunes, with an offering for seemingly every interest—from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “StarTalk Radio” to “Common Sense” with Dan Carlin.

Annotation Tuesday remains one of Storyboard’s most popular features, with four entries in our top 10. Our first audio annotation (yes, more ear candy!) highlighted a classic “This American Life” story about a young man, his mother, a voicemail and the Little Mermaid. Producer Jonathan Goldstein told annotator Lisa Pollak that he thought the story, which inspired a new award at this year’s Third Coast audio conference, worked because it continues to surprise the listener.  Here, a short exchange between Goldstein and his friend Josh Karpati is followed by a discussion of how to create in an interview “the joy of being in it together.” (In the annotations, the annotator’s questions are in red; the author’s answers in blue.)

Jonathan: You have it? You have the message?

Josh: I do not have the message. I have the message in my head. I am telling you a story. All right?   What’s going through your head as you do this interview?     At every beat I know that certain things are going to set [Josh] off and I know that’s only going to prolong the gratification. It was like, even when he’s about to tell me what the message is and then I ask him, “Oh, you have the message?” And I knew he didn’t have the message, but I also knew he would beat me up for it. And then when he’s just about to tell the message he’s like, “You’re ready?” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah,” and then he goes, “Oh, one more thing.” And I left that in because I felt like, you’re with him. You’re along for the ride in this wonderful way.   This isn’t the first time Josh is telling you the story, but it sounds like it could have been. How do you do that?     There’s this idea in radio that the best kind of tape is tape in which something is “happening.” So if there is a feeling of you reacting, being surprised, laughing, it makes it feel — though it’s only a conversation in a studio —  like something is happening. And the listener will have a bit more of that vicarious thrill… the joy of being in it together. So you want to find a balance between knowing some things but still allowing room for surprise. And I have to admit, I’m not much of a laugher, which has made my career in radio more difficult. I do not have the free and easy laugh that makes subjects feel like they are the wisest, funniest people in the world. I try to sound like I’m smiling  but that doesn’t always come across. I have to do things like say “Wait… you what?” or repeat what they just said to underline it for the listener. And one of the things I love about Josh is that he makes me laugh in a way very few people do and so he makes me a better broadcaster than I am.

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

Contributor Elon Green annotated Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s essay in The Believer on comedian Dave Chappelle, which was a finalist for a 2014 National Magazine Award. Ghansah made some highly personal choices in reporting and writing her story, among them not approaching Chappelle when she accidentally ran into him on the street, a decision that provoked this exchange with Green:

This decision of yours–to let him go, as it were–was quite contentious! “There was no conversation to have,” you told Longform, because Chappelle had already declined to do an interview. “The point is he’s stated all he needs to say.” Is this the difference between being a reporter and an essayist? I think a reporter would be obligated to be, as you put it to Longform, a pest, while the essayist has the freedom to stay back.   But is the reporter obligated to find things if they already know the answer? Plus, I don’t think the story needed it. You need to respect people’s autonomy and their ability to make decisions for themselves. It’s a comment on the entire history of black people in America. We haven’t had autonomy and ownership of things. Here was someone who had ownership of all that stuff, and didn’t have any reason to return again. I don’t think I wanted to see Dave Chappelle, the person who wanted to be pestered; I wanted to see Dave Chappelle, the person who wouldn’t talk to me. And that’s what I got. I was pretty satisfied with that.

Two other annotations also caught the attention of readers. The first deconstructed Mike Sager’s 1989 profile of porn star John Holmes for Rolling Stone. This annotation also unofficially contained the most mentions of the male anatomy in Storyboard history. When the discussion turned to storytelling, however, Sager offered this insight, among others:

I always wrote out loud, but I had to stop eventually because my voice was getting too fucked up. But if you listen to, say, Oscar Peterson playing, he’s always humming over his work. That’s how I write. That shit’s made to be read. There’s poetry in commission. I look at sentences that way. Also, I kind of like long sentences that, by pace and rhythm, give you time to breathe but take you on a different journey. I refer to it as the J-stroke. If you ever went to camp and took canoeing, you know what it is–a stroke with a turn. That’s what I like to do to my readers: fuck with their heads. Everybody thinks they always know where you’re going, and I never want to go there.

Still holding strong in this year’s Top 10 from 2013 is the annotation of the iconic Gay Talese story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a cornerstone of the New Journalism movement. Here, Talese spoke to Green about his approach to note-taking:

Do you have a photographic memory?   I go over stuff so much, and go over it again and again and again, that I can remember it forever, almost.   A couple of years ago, you told Chris Jones, “I don’t take notes in front of people.”   Right.   So what techniques to do you use to remember such a complicated scene or extended dialogue? You’re describing — in great detail — movement, wardrobe and the location of the various parties. This strikes me as something that would be difficult to capture even in real time. Every night, if I don’t sneak notes in during the day going to the bathroom or something — which I do — I go home and before I go to sleep I write down notes from the whole day, what’s in my mind.

Jill Lepore, who has a new book out about Wonder Woman, is a sort of Wonder Woman herself, as both a Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer.  In her Q-and-A with Storyboard, she discussed the parallels and divides between her academic and journalistic careers:

You know it’s easy to bash academic writers, but it’s completely unfair in the sense that academics aren’t writing for those readers. They’re writing for other academics and specialists and that’s all to the good and what they should be doing. That’s an efficient way to advance the production and distribution of knowledge within a field, within a field of inquiry. There’s nothing wrong with that.

[W]riting for a different audience is really fun. To the degree I have the capacity to do that, I owe it entirely to my editor at The New Yorker, who is just an incredibly brilliant editor and has taught me more than I could possibly hope to ever really learn and digest.

But thinking about how to take a complicated body of knowledge that particular historians have, bring it onto the page in a way that will reach a reader that does not have that body of knowledge but does not want to be spoken down to in any way because they’re a very, very smart person, and bring it to life by respecting that these people lived lives and they’re not to be used, they’re not fodder for our cannons, they’re real people who lived and died and they deserve every bit of the truth and dignity of the lives they led and not to be put to some political use in our particular moment in time. Nonetheless, to have a story have a kind of resonance with the current moment because we’re all human and because we face struggles in common, struggles over time, that’s like the most fun jigsaw puzzle.

Highlighting Storyboard’s value as a timeless resource, two “vintage” essays on craft sparked renewed interest. In excerpts from his 2010 lecture at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, Vanity Fair writer Bryan Burrough offered this practical advice about avoiding writer’s block:

So at the beginning of the first day, when I get the assignment, I start two files on my desktop. Let’s say the story is slugged Mayborn. I start Mayborn.reporting and Mayborn.writing. Everything I gather, obviously, goes in Mayborn.reporting, but unlike a lot of people I don’t wait to the end to start filling up Mayborn.writing. I start immediately. I write up every single thing I get in Mayborn.writing because I’ve found that I block, badly, badly, badly. And so, what I do is, let’s say I get a nice interview with George. I’ve got eight grafs, I write it up. It makes me feel good to be able to look and see that I’ve already got stuff written. Everybody knows that the worst part of any narrative project is the early stuff, when you don’t really have the confidence that you’re going to get enough to do it, and you panic, “I’ll never be able to do it.” We all have this. And I feel so [much] better about myself, when I can say, “Look. I have eight paragraphs.”

Readers also revisited a 1997 essay by University of Illinois journalism professor and former Washington Post staff writer Walt Harrington about intimate journalism, which he describes here:

The kind of journalism we end up doing is shaped by the way we think about our mission. If we think that a vital part of our job is to uncover, describe and evoke the texture, tone and meaning — the warp and woof, as people say — of the everyday lives of our readers, then the crucial role of intimate journalism comes suddenly and inevitably to the fore. This kind of journalism often gives up something in breadth and on-high authority in return for something gained in evocation and humanity. It is not “news you can use,” as the modern catchphrase goes, but “news you can feel.”

And, finally, evidence that no list is complete without its own list of lists, last December’s list of “Top 10 Top 10 lists” anchored the No. 10 spot on our Top 10 of 2014 list (follow that?). This round-up gathered recommendations for reporting and writing resources from around the Internet in 2013.

Who knows? Maybe this year’s top 10 posts will make the 2015 list.







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New Print Magazines Are Embracing Narrative and Finding Their Niche Fri, 12 Dec 2014 01:31:22 +0000 In 2011, as the Arab Spring dawned, young Lebanese journalist Ibrahim Nehme yearned to play a role in the changes sweeping the Middle East. The region’s print media, he believed, didn’t measure up to the hopes of the demonstrators, who demanded democracy and fresh ideas. So Nehme resolved to start his own magazine as an outlet for the voices of the younger generation. He drained his savings, took out a loan, and asked family and friends for help. The first issue of The Outpost, a quarterly English-language print publication featuring long-form articles on the choices facing the Arab world, appeared in September 2012.

“I felt there’s an opportunity to say and make something different, make something that would become part of the revolution,” says Nehme, now 28. The idea was to create a “media voice that can capture our imagination, provide us with a space to dream, speak up, think freely, be who we are as Arab youth.”

Launching a print magazine today is courageous; some would say foolhardy. Indeed, two years in, Nehme has slowed his publishing pace from quarterly to semi-annual as he faces a constant struggle to make ends meet. But The Outpost, with a print run of about 3,000 per issue, is hardly flying solo. Worldwide, new print titles have been popping up to cover a breathtaking array of topics, from new-age agriculture (Modern Farmer) to handyman ingenuity (Makeshift) to Californian culture (The California Sunday Magazine).

And some of these publications are highlighting long-form narrative as a key selling point. Take Lucky Peach, a food magazine launched in 2011, with its award-winning features on Manhattan chef and restaurateur Wylie Dufresne and canning Southern fruits, or The Caravan, a venerable monthly that Delhi Press relaunched in 2010 after a long hiatus, with its essays on anti-Sikh violence, Hindi literature, and the full spectrum of politics and culture in between. For these publications, print still offers a powerful brand flagship as well as a source of revenue that digital platforms can supplement but not yet supplant.

Those launching print titles today are generally independent publishers, driven by passion, with little expectation of big profits. “When was the last time you heard of a [new] magazine coming from Time Inc.?” asks Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. The number of launches has fallen over the years, as has magazines’ collective circulation, yet new titles keep coming. What it takes to survive, according to magazine entrepreneurs like Nehme, is targeting a clearly defined niche, finding committed backers and creative fundraising methods and, above all, a willingness to be scrappy and innovative.

THE OUTPOST Beirut journalist Ibrahim Nehme, below, founded the English-language magazine to give voice to a new generation in the Arab world

THE OUTPOST Beirut journalist Ibrahim Nehme, below, founded the English-language magazine to give voice to a new generation in the Arab world

Of all the types of magazines to consider starting during the digital age, travel seems among the least likely to succeed, though Airbnb plans to launch a travel magazine called Pineapple. Digital travel tips have practically obviated the need for guidebooks, making Lonely Planet (my first writing job out of college) look almost like Baedekers. The graveyard of recently shuttered magazines includes Executive Travel, National Geographic Adventure, and Everywhere. And yet the circulation of Afar, started by Greg Sullivan and Joseph Diaz in 2009, in the teeth of the Great Recession, has grown to 250,000, a five-fold increase from its launch, and advertising—the saving grace of the travel market—has become the core financial pillar. Plus, the business is now profitable, says Sullivan.

Afar’s genius is targeting a different sort of journey, which the editors have dubbed “experiential” travel, in which the visitor interacts with a place as the locals do and sees it through their eyes. It’s not, says San Francisco-based editor in chief Julia Cosgrove, about a “vacation built around escapist fantasies of going to the beach.” Local markets, local dress, local cuisine—all are featured, often in long, narrative formats. A popular feature is Spin the Globe, in which writers are sent to random destinations; one that captured particular attention was a 2011 trip by Ryan Knighton, who is blind, to Cairo, a city rich with history but difficult to navigate. The magazine avoids “homogenizing” its writers’ voices, says Cosgrove, keeping “the stories as personal and fresh as possible, because I think that has more staying power than that sort of uni-voice that you find so often in magazines.”

Cosgrove says Afar keeps a lean staff, with just nine editors, yet puts original content on its website, largely by encouraging readers to volunteer their work. “In Paris, if you discover this really great coffee shop, you can take a photo, upload to, and describe the experience,” says Cosgrove. “People are willing and then wanting to share this information with other travelers.”

Afar’s success reflects the importance of targeting a highly specific audience. “You just have to find your audience much more explicitly now than you’ve had to,” says Dana Chinn, a media analytics strategist at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Such strategies are behind magazines like Yoga Digest, a Dallas online community that launched a national magazine in November; Good, a newly re-launched magazine focusing on people making a positive impact in the world; and Makeshift, which features acts of ingenuity from around the world.

Knowing your audience can pay off in revenue beyond subscriptions and advertising, the traditional pillars of print profit. “You’re building a community,” says Chinn, “an audience who wants to be associated with each other.” Afar derives revenue from excursions it organizes each year to destinations like Cairo, Johannesburg, and Montreal. The journeys, which cost $1,800 to $4,500, offer readers a chance to meet locals, including politicians and activists, as well as like-minded Afar readers. The trips “bring the pages of the magazine to life in a very literal way,” Cosgrove says.

The narrative niche itself can sometimes be the source of a title’s appeal, as readers seek out longer reads and deeper analysis. That’s why newsweeklies are losing relevance, according to Anant Nath, editor of The Caravan, which claims to be the first magazine in India devoted to long-form narrative. “Weekly journalism is increasingly a regurgitation of the past week’s news, which is of little relevance,” he says. “An 8,000-word profile of a politician, wherein the reporter has done some 30 to 40 interviews, presents a lot of new information,” and thus presents greater appeal to readers.

Even subjects like food, normally more associated with recipes than long-form, can lend themselves to narrative. “Twitter is awesome, but you don’t disconnect from the stress of your daily life and sink into your couch with your iPhone,” says Lucky Peach co-founder Peter Meehan. “You maintain the paranoia.”

Lucky Peach, which prints about 100,000 copies of each issue, happily publishes long pieces on trends like Malaysian street food and Christian culinary traditions in India. The magazine won five James Beard awards this year for articles on, among other topics, gay influences on cooking and the tale of a Long Island chef who blended cuisines long before it was cool, like roasted lobster flavored with soy sauce. “For us, it was like, Where are our strengths? What can we do that Bon Appétit can’t do?” Meehan says, recalling the thought process that went into starting the company. “Literature is nourishing.”

Magazine co-founders David Chang, far right,
and Peter Meehan, in Chang’s New York Momofuku noodle bar. Lucky Peach recently won five James Beard awards

LUCKY PEACH Magazine co-founders David Chang, far right, and Peter Meehan, in Chang’s New York Momofuku noodle bar. Lucky Peach recently won five James Beard awards

Technology has brought down printing costs, but launching a magazine remains extremely expensive. For The California Sunday Magazine, which debuted this fall with a print run of more than 400,000, the magic number was $2 million. Douglas McGray, one of the co-founders, says he and his colleagues raised that amount from a mix of individual investors, some from Hollywood, publishing, and the technology world. With its emphasis on artfulness and narrative style, California Sunday carries echoes of The New Yorker, but with features on virtual reality and Blue Bottle Coffee instead of opera and Manhattan traffic. Perhaps inevitably for a publication born in the spirit of Silicon Valley, McGray doesn’t see it as a print launch. The same content that reaches readers at their homes the first Sunday of each month also appears on apps and the Web. McGray, a longtime feature journalist, and publisher Chas Edwards got the idea for California Sunday from Pop-Up Magazine, their live “magazine” of on-stage storytelling whose performances up and down the West Coast sell out in minutes. Pop-Up performs at night, a time when even people in tech-frenzied California relax and open their minds to stories. A Sunday magazine could pleasurably fill non-working hours, he reasoned, especially if people could read it however they wanted—on tablets, on phones, in print. And California had no answer to The New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker, though Pacific Standard fills some of that role. “It started to strike me as strange that with all the people in California and the West, and all the cultural, political, and business influence, that when we read big national features about [life and ideas in the West], it tends to be made in New York,” McGray says.

His backers’ money allows McGray to pay well for quality freelance work. The magazine currently has no staff writers. “We’re trying to be as lean as possible everywhere except for stories and art and the things that bring readers stories,” he says. The November issue included a long tale about the dangers and opportunities of deep-sea mining, with reporting from Papua, New Guinea. A photo essay told the story of the U.S.-Mexico border fence: one image showed a scattering of shotgun shells, another a battered soccer ball, a third the high, rust-colored border fence extending down a sandy beach.

Print has emerged as a core part of California Sunday’s business model. Rather than laboriously building a subscriber base by itself, California Sunday piggybacked on the distribution of existing newspapers. The magazine currently arrives as an insert in certain home-delivered editions of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee, as well as San Francisco-area copies of The New York Times. Paying newspapers to distribute a magazine is far cheaper than mailing them out individually, of course, and the big initial circulation numbers also allowed California Sunday to attract high-dollar advertisers such as Lexus and Nest Labs, the Google-owned maker of smart-home hardware. “We’re trying to be nimble,” McGray says. “We’re launching with the footprint of a magazine that a big media company would produce, but we’re really influenced by the start-up culture of Silicon Valley.”

California Sunday is an outlier. For most fledgling magazines, print cannot pull in the necessary advertising dollars. Crowd-funding goes only so far, and few print magazines launch with enough subscribers to entice advertisers. Nor are many sufficiently well funded at launch to keep publishing long enough to build the circulation and reputation that attracts advertisers. (Afar is one exception; its founders, Diaz and Sullivan, as well as another investor, Ernie Garcia, have pumped $20 million into it.) The Outpost had hoped initially to generate virtually all of its revenue from advertising, but now has given that up. “We’ve literally stopped contacting or approaching advertisers,” says Nehme, the editor in chief. “It’s just discouraging and demotivating and we’re worlds apart.” The alternative is a higher price for subscribers and single issues—in effect, forcing readers to pay more for the content.

BOOM This California history and culture quarterly, based
at UCLA, made
a splash with an issue devoted to Los Angeles and the politics of water

BOOM This California history and culture quarterly, based at UCLA, made a splash with an issue devoted to Los Angeles and the politics of water

Still, print often carries a cachet that digital formats do not, at least not yet, many entrepreneurs say. A print product—a copy of The Economist or The New Yorker lying on a coffee table—is a fashion statement. At Boom, a three-year-old quarterly about Californian history and culture published by the University of California Press, “the print edition is the beautiful, substantive and evocative object at the center of the whole enterprise,” says editor Jon Christensen. Boom features long essays and photographs on everything from John Muir to the San Francisco housing boom and is somewhat reminiscent of Monocle magazine, but on a California level. Last year, when Boom devoted an entire issue to the controversial history of Los Angeles’ water imports from the Sierra Nevada mountains, it generated plenty of attention despite the magazine’s modest circulation.

One of the most improbable new titles of recent years is Makeshift, a quarterly magazine devoted to the ingenuity of ordinary people. Myles Estey, editor in chief and co-founder, had been living in Liberia for a couple years and became fascinated by the informal economy there—how people built and fixed their own motorbikes, how discarded stuffed animals were cleaned and reused, how people scraped and scrapped for a living. And so, in 2011, he and a like-minded engineer, Steve Daniels, decided to start a magazine devoted to this niche.

The subject matter was so specific that they knew they wouldn’t attract many advertisers or even enough subscribers to break even, but they pushed forward nonetheless. Print was the obvious choice, according to Estey, because magazines have a special way of telling stories and building community. Makeshift has built a following by publishing long essays on subjects such as the blind hawkers in Mumbai’s train stations and how the tunnels under the border between Gaza and Egypt are built and destroyed. “It’s a lot of work,” admits Estey, who spends much of his time in Mexico City and has written about drug smuggling and film pirating. Makeshift’s editors all work other jobs, because no can yet make a full-time living from the magazine. It’s an advantage, Estey argues, because editors pull ideas from their outside lines of work.

Readers—and, just as crucially, sponsors—have responded enthusiastically. Makeshift has built its circulation to 20,000. Crowd-funding helped with the early issues, which also received support from an engineering group; subsequent sponsors have included General Electric. The magazine is now expanding into design consulting and teaching as other ways of raising revenue.

MAKESHIFT The ingenuity
of ordinary people in Liberia was
the impetus behind the founding of
this quarterly, which markets itself via new tools, such
as Magpile and Stack

MAKESHIFT The ingenuity of ordinary people in Liberia was the impetus behind the founding of this quarterly, which markets itself via new tools, such as Magpile and Stack

It has also innovated on the distribution side, taking advantage of new digital tools that can help small publishers reach wider audiences. Single-issue copies can be purchased at Magpile, an online library and media shop that charges sellers like Makeshift a monthly fee and takes an 8 percent cut of an issue’s cover price. Publishers themselves are responsible for mailing out the magazines. Another service is U.K.-based Stack; founder and director Steve Watson buys a different magazine each month to send out to his subscribers. Watson aims for interesting, fresh titles, and Makeshift, says Estey, is in the 2015 lineup.

For these nascent titles, digital strategies diverge. Many lack an elaborate Web presence; Lucky Peach, for example, has a Tumblr presence, but mostly steers users toward its print edition (“We’re going to start a real site next year, with daily content,” says Meehan.) The Web has a faster metabolism, as Casey Caplowe, co-founder of Good magazine, puts it. “The Web is a great place for the more quick and news-responsive thing,” he says, whereas print allows for sitting back and digging into nuance.

Yet the question remains whether digital media will one day erode print so profoundly that it disappears completely. There are signs, in fact, that users are increasingly comfortable reading long-form writing on tablets and mobile devices. Earlier this year people spent more than 25 minutes reading a 6,000-word BuzzFeed story on their phones about buying a cheap home in Detroit, according to The Atlantic. The story received more than a million pageviews, with nearly half the people accessing it from mobile devices.

The venture planned by former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson and journalist and media entrepreneur Steven Brill, which will feature mammoth long-form stories each month in digital rather than print, shows that even old media types are considering digital as a way forward for long-form journalism.

For now, though, the new print magazines are living in the moment, and hoping to expand. California Sunday, for one, has grand plans. McGray hopes to increase distribution, on apps and in print, and steer the publication toward biweekly and finally weekly frequency. “We talk around the office of not having the benefit of 100 years of history,” says McGray. “But we don’t have the burden either.”

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Beyond the “Serial” box: Other podcasts worth your time Mon, 01 Dec 2014 13:52:07 +0000 If coming off a long holiday weekend weren’t hard enough, there’s another reason this Monday may seem rougher than usual. There’s no new “Serial” episode to talk about.

Gabe Bullard

Gabe Bullard

The hugely popular “This American Life” spinoff podcast, which usually releases an installment each Thursday, took a break for Thanksgiving, leaving its millions of listeners and armchair analysts bereft. The reasons for the success of “Serial,” in which executive producer Sarah Koenig reinvestigates the 1999 murder of a Baltimore-area high school student, are clear. The program takes advantage of the podcast format by telling its story in chapters. Also, it has a huge head start, as the offspring of a radio show that has also long been the most popular podcast in iTunes. (You can read Storyboard’s interview with Koenig and executive producer Julie Snyder here.)

But there are other terrific podcasts to listen to. Some are carefully produced narratives like “Serial,” while others are conversations that can run for two hours or more an episode. Here are a handful of other podcasts worth your time:

The Memory Palace.” This is my ultimate “high reward” podcast. It’s short and infrequent, but the storytelling is among the best available online.

Judge John Hodgman.” Writer and actor John Hodgman (“The Daily Show,” those Mac/PC ads) adjudicates petty conflicts between friends in this People’s Court-style podcast. Many humor podcasts consist of funny people (or people who think they’re funny) riffing and hoping for laughs, but this is smarter and, at times, surprisingly heartfelt.

Gastropod.” In each episode, Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley look at issues related to the future of eating. This is new, but with its focus on reporting and sharp writing, it’s quickly become one of two food-related podcasts I always listen to (the other is “America’s Test Kitchen,” from the same people who make the TV and radio shows).

Strange Fruit.” When I left my station for the Nieman Fellowship, I unsubscribed from everything work-related. I later resubscribed to this show. It’s a review of “politics, pop culture and black gay life,” but, essentially, it’s a weekly conversation about the things everyone is talking about on Twitter.

Death, Sex and Money.” Anna Sale’s show for WNYC is about exactly what it sounds like, but in a public-radio way. The episode with a funeral parlor worker is a recent highlight; it’s a great example of how an interview can be shaped into a great conversation.

The Bugle.” Before he was on the “Daily Show” or “Last Week Tonight” on HBO, John Oliver co-hosted this podcast with his comedy partner Andy Zaltzman. It’s still going, and sounds like a more-British, pun-filled rough draft of Oliver’s weekly shows. The difference between good comedy podcasts and bad comedy podcasts is especially stark after you hear a great one like this.

Under the Influence.” This CBC show comes out in seasons, like a TV show, but the back catalog is worth a listen. Each episode is an essay on advertising and branding, with the occasional dad joke (but the good kind of dad joke).

Welcome to Night Vale.” The fact that such a strange show can occasionally rise into the top podcast lists on iTunes is a testament to how open to experimentation the podcast form is. This is a fictional show presented as a radio broadcast from a small town where supernatural things happen. But the shows build on each other, so it’s best to start at the beginning; catching up gets more challenging with each new episode.

The Talk Show.” I’m normally averse to technology news, but this show, which is billed as the DVD commentary for John Gruber’s website Daring Fireball, delivers news and commentary in the least bro-y way possible.

Criminal.” It’s not the same sort of crime show as “Serial,” but “Criminal” explores the issues of crime and punishment we don’t think about.

Backstory.” It’s a public radio show that isn’t as widely-heard. Each week, experts on the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries look at the history of a topic that’s in the news that week.

Lexicon Valley.” Slate has a strong lineup of podcasts, but this one on language is especially good. The episode on swearing hooked me.

Gabe Bullard is a 2015 Nieman Fellow. He is also the director of news and editorial strategy at WFPL News, the public radio station in Louisville, Kentucky. He began his career online, as an editorial assistant for a St. Louis politics blog. In 2008, he started at WFPL in Louisville as a reporter, focusing on city politics. In the following years, he was promoted to online editor, news director and now director of news and editorial strategy, a position overseeing all aspects of the station and website. 

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Annotation Tuesday: the Porn Star and Mike Sager Tue, 25 Nov 2014 17:51:05 +0000 I’ve been thinking about Mike Sager’s story, “The Devil and John Holmes,” for a long time. I first read his chronicle of the famous porn star and the Wonderland murders when it came out in 1989; I was 10 years old. It is a testament to the story’s vividness that, when I picked it up years later, so much of it–entire scenes and lines of dialogue–had stuck with me. (It’s not surprising that parts of the story ended up in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. “There was this great Rolling Stone article,” Anderson said on his DVD commentary, “and I remember the description of this guy Eddie Nash in Speedos and the sheen of sweat on his body.”)

Some of the remarkable detail in the Rolling Stone piece comes from extensive interviews Sager did with two women in Holmes’s life: his first wife, Sharon, and Dawn Schiller, a teenager he had a relationship with and prostituted to support his drug habit. Schiller, who is now 53 and a graduate student at Eastern Oregon University, says the piece still holds up.

“The story is in alignment with what I lived,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “I think [Sager] did a really sensitive job. It could’ve been salacious. It could’ve been crude. He didn’t lean in any specific direction.”

For more than 25 years, Sager has continued to produce exceptional work, including the definitive portraits of Janet Cooke, Veronica Guerin and Todd Marinovich–for which he won the 2010 National Magazine Award for profile writing.

Mike Sager

Mike Sager

Sager, a writer-at-large for Esquire, invited me out to his home in San Diego. I reflexively said yes. We talked and talked and talked. In his office, in his car, at a restaurant. All told, we burned for about seven hours.

My comments are in red ; his responses in blue . (You can read the story without the annotations by clicking the “hide all annotations” button to the right.) First, some questions:

Storyboard: How did Rolling Stone approach you to do this story?

Mike Sager: I was in the office, and Bob Love pulled out a recent newsclip about the AIDS death of Holmes. “The Devil and John Holmes” was my eighth story for the magazine and my second as a contract writer.

If you could do the story now, would you do it any differently?

No, it was a great piece. It was delightful. I was very proud of it. I was a little hurt, as writers are, that no one noticed it, or said anything about it. So it’s gratifying to have you want to break it down–to see it as a work of art, not just a work of penis.

The story was cool because it was the culmination of the training I’d had. I’ve never been a genius. I’ve always been crawl, walk, run. But it took all the skills that I had to get this done. I’m proud of it. It’s cool.

I guess I like that I’m associated with porn and the underworld and drugs. In a certain way, I sometimes feel I’m a little tarnished or dirty for specializing in these things.

Is it frustrating to have an early story be so beloved?

No, because I never knew it was beloved. I feel like I’m garnering attention now that I didn’t get forever.

The Devil and John Holmes
By Mike Sager
Rolling Stone
May 1989

Deep in Laurel Canyon, the Wonderland Gang was planning its last heist. It was Sunday evening and the drugs were gone, the money was gone, the situation was desperate. They’d sold a pound of baking soda for a quarter of a million dollars: There were contracts out on their lives. Now they had another idea. They sat around a glass table in the breakfast nook. Before them were two pairs of handcuffs, a stolen police badge, several automatic pistols and a dogeared sheet of paper, a floor plan. They needed a score. This was it. We enter the story with the action already in full swing, sort of like beginning a movie in the middle of a sentence. Why did you choose to begin it this way?   I have a very distinctive feeling that the story should not begin with the climax. As reporters, we’re trained to give our best stuff in the lede. As we move forward to becoming feature writers, a lot of people stick with that format; so many true crime stories start with what is, essentially, the orgasm. To me, it’s like, if I know the ending of the story, why should I read anymore? The psychology of storytelling is: foreshadowing, teasing, elongating, and making it dramatic. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing here. According to the sacred tenets of the New Journalism, we are using the techniques of the novel in order to tell truth. We’re trying to use scenes, setting, character development, but the very basis of that thing is storytelling. So I like to start before the climax, and get you sort of worked up, then drop you for a while and go back. Then, all the while, keep you wanting to read until the end. I feel as though this kind of stuff is entertainment, and we’re competing with everything else out there. So I’m writing to keep the reader involved and moving, hand over hand, reeling the reader in as I go. Sometimes I push him out a little bit, sometimes I pull him in. It’s the presentation of facts that helps you do that.   You mention New Journalism. Do you generally subscribe to those ideas? Not just generally. I subscribe to them, and I think what I have done, as each generation of artists should do, is take the work before you, make it your own, and take it to a new place. The tenets of New Journalism were made popular by Tom Wolfe, but I’m more of a Gay Talese guy, in the sense that I don’t exaggerate, and I treat my subjects with amazing respect. I don’t arrive with a white suit; I arrive all in black, stay small, and try to let the action happen around me. That is the basic thing about all of my writing. The crime writing is just a thing that I got into because it was a period of time when that’s what people wanted, and because I had the skillset. But what I really loved was the anthropological approach, where you hung out with people and you let the story come to you. Then you find the drama from within that. My background is an amalgamation of all the writers in this room–from Truman Capote, with his either remembered or made-up stuff, to John McPhee. But mostly, I’m in the sweet spot of Tom Wolfe for his anthropology, Gay Talese for his simplicity of language and humanity, and Hunter Thompson for his little bit of craziness.   That being said, did you have a model in mind, a certain story that served as a template?   I’ve never been that guy. I always have been weirdly self-taught. Around 1980, I’d been working at the [Washington] Post for two years, and Walt Harrington came to work there. He’d come from Allentown. He was not a professor at the time. He was just going to be my editor. He read my work, and he said, “Have you ever read Tom Wolfe?” I said, “Who?” I was a history major in college, I was 21 years old, and I’d barely read a newspaper before. I just wanted to write. So I started doing this reporting at the Washington Post, which was great because I had an ear for it. I could learn a police short in a minute. That give me the underpinnings. But then Harrington came along, and showed me this book, The New Journalism, and the first thing I read was about the ‘scoop slobs’ and the ‘feature writers’ and I said, “Oh my God, this is what’s been going on.” Because as a young person, you go through the storm thinking you’re the only one who’s ever gone through it.   Did you have a cinematic view of the story’s opening? Did you think about it as a movie?   Yes. When I do these stories, I think about everything in terms of a movie. I’d already had the idea of writing in scenes, but I used to write in one take, with transitions. Bob Love at Rolling Stone taught me to stop and go to black. I mean, this story is very raw. It was one of the first ones I’d done like this. Doing these stories is like paint by numbers, but you have to draw the stencil. The stencil is a film, 24 frames per second. First, I found all the shit I could find. Then I structured together what actually happened. I’m visual. I grew up with television. I see the focus of scenes. And when I sit down to write each individual scenes; that’s when I imagine it from the facts I have–which paint by numbers cells I can color in–and don’t have. So there’s two things: First of all, if you’re in contact with your sources and you’re a good reporter, you never burn your sources. So you can call them back and you can say, “Tell me more about this scene,” which is a huge, huge part of what I do. I never unfriend sources. The other thing is, you can judiciously pick what scenes you have, based on what information you have. Tracy McCourt, the driver in the first scene, I was in touch with him. He was in jail. He would call me collect. So between him, and all of the transcripts of the trial–all of this shit was in the transcripts. Like, What did you say then? What did you do then? What were you carrying? Where were you? When you go to trial, they ask all these questions. As we go through this, I can’t honestly say that I’ll remember where everything came from, but I can honestly say that I remember spending a week in a room with the lawyers and the fact-checkers. It was all paper back then. It cost hundreds of dollars to buy copies of the transcripts that I found, four stories underground, at this building next door to the courthouse. Some clerk told me to look down there, and I found a friendly guy who ended up helping me.

There were seven of them meeting in the house on Wonderland Avenue, a jaundiced stucco box on a steep, winding road in the hills above Hollywood. Joy Audrey Miller, 46, held the lease. She was thin, blond, foul-mouthed, a heroin addict with seven arrests. She had two daughters, had once been married to a Beverly Hills attorney. A year ago, she’d been busted for dealing drugs out of the Wonderland house. Six months ago she’d had a double mastectomy. Where did you get this information on Miller?   There had been some reporting done about her by a guy at the L.A. Times named Robert Stewart. The Times wrote a huge story about her when she was killed. So that’s where these details come from. I don’t remember being able to contact anyone from her family. But she was well written about at the time. Garry Wills said something like, “Let history happen and let the dust settle. Then go in afterwards.” The thing I talk about a lot in my writing is the bowl of details. What I do, after the dust settles, is I go in and try to fill my bowl with everything that was written, every person I can speak to, everything I can possibly collect.   Did Rolling Stone cover your expenses?   Rolling Stone paid every penny. Her lover was Billy DeVerell. DeVerell, 42, was also a heroin addict. He had a slight build, a pockmarked face, a record of thirteen arrests. “He looked like a guy in a dive bar in El Paso,” according to a neighbor.

Sharing the house with Miller and DeVerell was Ronald Launius, 37. Blond and bearded, Launius had served federal time for drug smuggling. A California cop called him “one of the coldest people I ever met.”

Story Proposal

Story Proposal

The house at 8763 Wonderland rented for $750 a month. There was a garage on the first floor; the second and third floors had balconies facing the street. A stairway, leading from the garage to the front door, was caged in iron. There was a telephone at the entrance, an electronic deadbolt on the gate, two pit bulls sleeping on the steps.  Did you spend time in the house?   I don’t think I could get in, but I went door to fucking door on that street. Every fucking house. Some people who were still there would tell me things. I remember that day, the dejected feeling. The thing is, in the bowl of details, each is hard-won. I got enough details to give you a sense of things. I think it’s important to point out that magazine journalism, to some degree, is blue smoke and mirrors. Because if you get the sense of the plot, then you can find little snippets of things that, through digression, you don’t need a whole lot of action. If you can find three or four lines of dialogue, and then sprinkle in the characters and motion and attitude and setting, then you’re able to advance a point without having a whole lot. You find little moments of time, little scenes. Omission is a very important part of journalism and also the friend of the writer. You have some things and you don’t have other things. You go to your strengths to see what you have. But before you do that, you get everything you can possibly get. I should say that, around this time, I looked like I look, which was very unusual. I had a shaved head and a very dark complexion. When I left the Post in ‘84, I went to Don Graham to say goodbye. He’d helped me work up the line. The first thing he said was, “You did get an earring!” It was a rampant rumor [at the Post] that a guy who wasn’t gay had gotten an earring. I’d always get busted in every country I’d go into. I went to Israel, and the Shin Bet made a circle around me on the tarmac. I was wearing a purple shirt. So going door-to-door was an effort, too. But I always had a good smile, so I had you. Because I knew you were afraid and then I could say something silly and get you. But still, there’s nothing worse than the day-to-day slog of being a journalist and just collecting one little thing, one little thing, one little thing. Meanwhile, there are bigger things going on that are taking months and months to do, so you go out and do it.   Right. Early on, I had heard that John Holmes had a wife, and I was trying to get hold of her. So all through the time of doing this little stuff–talking to the cops, going door-to-door, talking to lawyers–I was also working my way through to this guy, Page Buckey, who was supposedly the agent for John Holmes’s wife, Sharon. He lived in Scottsdale, Arizona. His claim to fame was that he’d lived as the lover of Bette Davis during the glory years of Hollywood. He strung me out for, like, six or eight months. Anyway, I’d heard that he’d had this woman and that’s the story I wanted. Sharon had never been interviewed at that point? No, and nobody knew about Dawn [“Jeana”]. I didn’t know any of this shit then, but to me, finding the creamy center of your character–finding the heart–is the most important thing. My ex-wife used to joke that I’d write about Hitler and find something good about him. And I would gladly say, “Yes, because someone loved him.” Eva Braun loved him! And to me, John Holmes was always going to be painted as a guy who died of AIDS, who was a drug addict, all this bad stuff. Now that John’s drug use has been brought up: my ability to portray it had a lot to do with my job as a drugs correspondent and also as a seeker of drugs over the years. I was an excellent cook of freebase, back in the day. I freebased a lot. When Len Bias died, my friend Henry Schuster from CNN brought over pictures to try to identify this as crack or freebase. I mean, I was smoking it. That was my drug of choice.   While you were working on this story?   No, but for years before that.   So when you sat down with the lawyers, and they’d say, “How do you know this?,” did you say, “Because I’ve done it?”   Well, sometimes.

Though elaborately secure, the house was paint-cracked and rust-stained, an eyesore in a trendy neighborhood. Laurel Canyon had long been a prestige address, an earthy, woodsy setting just minutes from the glitter and rush of Tinseltown. Tom Mix and Harry Houdini once lived there among the quail and scrub pine and coyotes. Every sentence is packed with information, maybe even more than necessary. (It’s wonderful.) Most writers would have ended the sentence after “lived there.” What made you include the bit about quail and coyotes?   Albert Murray, you ever heard of him? He was the first real writer I ever met. When I was at Emory, before Emory got big, we used to have English out in the temporary classrooms. He was the writer-in-residence. I’d been a guitar player, a photographer, and then I found writing. That was my expression of creativity. So we were in the classroom one day, off the quad, and he’d written a sentence all the way around the room. He went through it and put slash marks. Then I remember him scat singing it. Ba! Boo! Doo! Da! That’s wild. I always wrote out loud, but I had to stop eventually because my voice was getting too fucked up. But if you listen to, say, Oscar Peterson playing, he’s always humming over his work. That’s how I write. That shit’s made to be read. There’s poetry in commission. I look at sentences that way. Also, I kind of like long sentences that, by pace and rhythm, give you time to breathe but take you on a different journey. I refer to it as the J-stroke. If you ever went to camp and took canoeing, you know what it is–a stroke with a turn. That’s what I like to do to my readers: fuck with their heads. Everybody thinks they always know where you’re going, and I never want to go there.  Later, in the Sixties, the canyon attracted writers and artists, rock stars and gurus. Number 8763 Wonderland Avenue had some history of its own: Paul Revere and the Raiders once lived there.

By the Eighties, former California governor Jerry Brown was living on Wonderland Avenue, and Steven Spielberg was building on a lot not far away. Interesting to see the house now. It looks so harmless! Is it still green?   My mother called it “cat-shit green.”  The house at 8763 had passed from a raucous group of women—neighbors recall naked women being tossed from the first-floor balcony—to the members of the Wonderland Gang. Things at the house were always hopping, someone was always showing up with a scam. Miller, DeVerell and Launius needed drugs every day. They were always looking for an opportunity. Jewelry stores, convenience stores, private homes—they would try anything, as long as it meant money or drugs.

“There was a lot of traffic, all day, all night,” says a neighbor. How many neighbors did you talk to? Were they hesitant?   Yeah, most people didn’t answer the door. But then I gave them a card from Rolling Stone. I left my card at every door. Maybe a person or two called back. I was in L.A., watching John Holmes videos, trying to keep myself busy to make justifiable the car–a Metro Geo. I don’t know if this is for Harvard consumption, but I have a personal story to tell that involves the months and months of research on John Holmes.   Go ahead.   When I was in this small hotel, they were able to rent me a VCR and I started collecting John Holmes videos. I felt like, as a good journalist, I should go through all the John Holmes films. And I remember distinctly, after months and months of doing this research, stopping the thing and going into the bathroom in my hotel room to take a pee, and looking down at my penis and thinking, What happened to it? I thought I was pretty well endowed, for a small guy–more of a grower than a shower–but after watching…The thing about John Holmes’s penis was, it was really symmetrical and anatomically correct, even in its gargantuan size. When you get gigantism in nature, you get often grotesqueries. By the way, I talked to doctors and they said it would take a pint of blood to fill that thing. So it was never completely rock hard.   So…the neighbors. Weren’t they frightened to talk to you because of the subject matter? Wasn’t Eddie Nash still at large?   Nobody was afraid of his reprisals. He might have been in jail, at that point. Actually, the hardest people to deal with in the whole story were those in the sex industry. Because they’re all damaged people, to some extent. But the great thing was, once I earned my way in, they were very kind and gave me a lot of access. I mean, I went to porn sets, I talked to people who knew John–enough so that, years later, when I did a story where I had to find these old porn starlets, my contacts from the John Holmes story invited me to the funeral of a director who had just died. And everybody was like, “Mike! How you doin’?” Everybody helped me.  “Everything from Volkswagens to a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. They threw brown bags of dope off the balcony. There was shouting, laughing, rock & roll twenty-four hours a day.”

Letter from Mike Sager to Tracy McCourt

Letter from Mike Sager to Tracy McCourt

At the moment, on this evening of June 28th, 1981, Wonderland Avenue was quiet. Five men and two women were meeting in the breakfast nook, sitting in swivel chairs, leaning against walls. The floor plan before them showed a three-bedroom, high-end tract house on a cul-de-sac in the San Fernando Valley. It had a pool and a sunken living room, a white stone facade. Inside was a painting by Rembrandt, a jade and ivory collection, sterling silver, jewelry and, most appealing of all, large quantities of money and drugs. Perhaps more than any other story I’ve ever read, I’m insanely curious about the sourcing. I’m generally pretty good at figuring it out. But here, I mean, you tell us the women were leaning against the wall during the planning of a heist. It’s a beautiful detail! How did you know?   Tracy McCourt. He just told me what the meeting was like. Where they were standing, where they were sitting, talking on the phone. Close your eyes and assemble in your mind the scene. Those are my questions. The first thing I do when I interview someone is ask the you-were-born-in-a-log-cabin shit. Then I start getting to the thing, and if there’s something I’m after, I ask for the scene to be painted. Who was where, what was here. Also, in the court documents, there’s a list of everything that was in the room. Because they’re so fucking, you know, thorough in court. There were pictures and all that shit to go along with it. That was a no-brainer. I had Tracy McCourt and they’d established the timeline of the crime very clearly in court. It was very clear, the part where John Holmes went from Wonderland Avenue to Dona Lola Place and back was very, very well documented in the court records. All the victims of the crime were also well documented in the court records and in the L.A. Times. For you, what were the biggest gaps in the story, in terms of what hadn’t already been written about?   Whatever I didn’t write about! I’m not sure I can answer that.   What did you consider to be the motherlode source for this story? Something that made you say, holy shit, now I’ve got it… Was it finding Dawn?   First, when Sharon said she’d do it, and set up the appointment to come. And then, when I opened the door, and there was another girl there. “This is Dawn.” “Call me Jeana.” I didn’t know who she was. And then I was like, “Wait a minute, you’re saying you were fucking John Holmes?” Like, of course I couldn’t say it like that. That was in my mind. I just went, Hmmm. They were just telling me this crazy story. And, as has happened before, my job is just to shut the fuck and to make sure that I rivet them in their eyes and don’t look away. I would go for a cigarette to look at my tape recorder. But a big part of everything is me being in there. So you didn’t know that Dawn was going to be there?   No.   In general, I think, sourcing has gotten tighter and tougher–you really have to document how you know a piece of information–compared to when this was written. Do you feel compelled to say, “According to…”? It’s the sort of necessity that really bothers guys like Talese and Wolfe.   No. The end of my life at the Washington Post came when I had a big fight with Bob Woodward’s second-in-command, with Walt Harrington at my side. I was trying to run dialogue. And he said, “How do you know this dialogue?” So I told him. He wanted me to say, “He recalls he said…” and “She recalls she said…” and we both thought that was stupid, me and Harrington. And we argued against it because we got the notes, it’s here. Well, the newspapers wouldn’t do that but Rolling Stone would. The other thing Rolling Stone would let you do was shorten a quote without ellipses, as long as you kept the sense of what they were saying. Everything was really well-checked. We had a whole fact-checking department at Rolling Stone and we had the lawyer on set. They had a conference room and me and my boxes of shit were in it for a week. What rankles me is, “He told me…” That’s like so much bullshit. Shut the fuck up! You know what? Shut the fuck up. That’s this whole New York affectation of I’m there, even in a third-person piece. Clearly everything there is from me or from some source that I’ve checked out, because this is the real world. See, the problem is, the lack of fact-checking in the new world–and the whole repeating of shit without anyone checking anything–that’s what’s caused this generation to question the process of a lot of people who get paid a lot of money to make sure the facts are straight. When we call it journalism, we mean it’s journalism.

The man who owned the house was named Adel Nasrallah. He was known as Eddie Nash. A naturalized American, Nash came to California from Palestine in the early Fifties. In 1960 he opened a hot-dog stand on Hollywood Boulevard. By the mid-Seventies, Nash held thirty-six liquor licenses, owned real estate and other assets worth over $30 million.

Nash had clubs of all kinds; he catered to all predilections. The Kit Kat was a strip club. The Seven Seas was a bus-stop joint across Hollywood Boulevard from Mann’s Chinese Theaters. It had a tropical motif, a menu of special drinks, a Polynesian revue, sometimes belly dancers. His gay clubs were the first in L.A. to allow same-sex dancing. His black club was like a Hollywood Harlem, jazz and pinkie rings and wide-brimmed straw hats. The Starwood, on Santa Monica Boulevard, featured cutting-edge rock & roll. In the late Seventies, Los Angeles police averaged twenty-five drug busts a month at the Starwood. One search of the premises yielded a cardboard box containing 4000 counterfeit Quaaludes. A sign on the box, written in blue Magic Marker, said, FOR DISTRIBUTION AT BOX OFFICE.

Nash was a drug dealer and a heavy user. His drug of choice was freebase, home-cooked crack cocaine, and he was smoking it at the rate of two to three ounces a day. He always had large quantities of coke, heroin, Quaaludes and other drugs at the house. His bodyguard, Gregory DeWitt Diles, was a karate expert and convicted felon who weighed a blubbery 300 pounds.  How do you juggle all these characters? You’re able to quickly describe them so they’re memorable to readers.   Well, I have a bad memory, if you’ve noticed. I’m bad with names and numbers. I think in pictures. When I was a coach, I’d say, “Get the long-haired boy.” In fact, I did this story recently where they took an EEG. I smoked pot, then they took another EEG. I was in San Francisco and there were lots of sounds–cars, trains, all that shit. Whenever there was a loud sound, they could see the lobe that shows visual was reacting. So characterization is bigger to me than what the fuck is this guy’s name. Also, I lean on the nouns and verbs.   How did you choose to introduce the characters?   Everything is driven by what pieces of scene you have to work with. You set up your timeline and then you destroy your timeline. The way I see it, scene drives my digression. That’s what makes the blue smoke and mirrors of scene in writing possible. You’ve got three or four lines of quote, but you’ve got reams and reams of information about all the people who are being quoted. Where they are, what they’re doing, and what the attitude of the scene is. All the bowl of details things go in here.

According to one eyewitness, Diles once chased a man out of the Kit Kat and emptied his .38 revolver into the man’s car. The car was on the other side of Santa Monica Boulevard, across six lanes of traffic. The time was 2:30 in the afternoon. No one was injured.  Was this from a police report or your own reporting?   Yeah, and an L.A. Times story, too. It was pretty well known.

Nash and Diles were well known on Sunset Strip. “Eddie Nash assumed he deserved a certain amount of respect,” says one denizen. “If somebody fucked with him . . .”  How did you decide when to grant anonymity?   Well, people’s names don’t matter. Like, it was too many names. And who cares? Who cares what his name is? It’s like when you go up in the elevator, and there’s a piece of paper that says the license for this elevator is in the manager’s office. That’s a contract. Well, this is the contract between the reader and the Rolling Stone journalist. That’s why the Million Little Pieces guy got so fucked by the masses when he broke the confidence. Because you don’t know what’s true or not. That’s why Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and [Stephen] Glass are considered such high criminals. You have to be able to read this shit and know. I think some of that is eroding now because it’s such a free-for-all. Anyway, what we looked for with fact-checkers and lawyers is, is there malice in this characterization of Eddie Nash? Clearly, he was on trial and well-known for doing this, so the judgment was it was not.

Now, in the breakfast nook, a tall, gaunt man with curly hair and a sparse beard pointed to the floor plan he had sketched.

“Here, this back bedroom, that’s Diles’s room,” he said. “He keeps a sawed-off shotgun under the blanket. . . . Here, this is Nash’s room. There’s a floor safe in the closet, right . . . over . . . here.”

“You sure about this, donkey dick?” asked Tracy McCourt, the gang’s wheelman.

“Hey, it’s cool,” said John Holmes, 36, the man with the plan. “I know Eddie. Nash loves me. He thinks I’m famous.”  Where did you get ‘donkey dick’?   I’m guessing Tracy McCourt. Yeah, that was his thing. He loved telling me that.

John Holmes was famous, at least in some circles. What he was famous for was his penis.

In a career that would span twenty years, Holmes made 2274 hardcore pornographic films, had sex with 14,000 women. At the height of his popularity, he earned $3000 a day on films and almost as much turning tricks, servicing wealthy men and women on both coasts and in Europe.

Since the late Sixties, Holmes had traded on his natural endowment. His penis, when erect, according to legend, measured between eleven and fifteen inches in length. Maybe this is a stupid question, but there’s a big difference between eleven and fifteen. How is that possible? And, given the renown of his penis, shouldn’t there be a definitive measurement? Well, there are two sections of history on Holmes. They’re back-to-back. I tell the story over again. The first history of Holmes is all the mythology about him, that he has degrees in this and that, and he went here and there. But that was a bunch of bullshit, some it true, some of it not. Who knows? But then there’s this whole other thing about how he was just this little guy, skinny, with bad parents. So the first history of Holmes is the history as he’s understood, Johnny Wadd almost. Then there’s a J-stroke moment. Look, the penis is the most interesting thing in this whole story. And for 25 years I’ve really wondered if I did a good job on this story, or whether it’s just because it’s about a guy with a big dick, and therefore very popular. The dick is the thing. The dick is the dick. As a storyteller, that’s what you really have to work for. So I’m not going to tell you how big the dick is yet, right? The hardest thing as a journalist is not only starting your piece, but holding off on your shit. Like, I often have the very best scenes in my story at the end. Don’t know if anyone’s ever going to read ‘em, but… Recently, however, Holmes’s biggest commodity had been trouble. He was freebasing one hit of coke every ten or fifteen minutes, swallowing forty to fifty Valium a day to cut the edge. The drugs affected his penis; he couldn’t get it up, he couldn’t work in porn. Now he was a drug delivery boy for the Wonderland Gang. His mistress, Jeana, who’d been with him since she was fifteen, was turning tricks to support his habit. They were living out of the trunk of his estranged wife’s Chevy Malibu. Holmes was stealing luggage off conveyers at L.A. International, buying appliances with his wife’s credit cards, fencing them for cash.

Holmes was into Nash for a small fortune. Now Holmes owed the Wonderland Gang, too. He’d messed up a delivery, had a big argument with DeVerell and Launius. They took back his key to Wonderland, and Launius punched him out, then hit Holmes with his own blackthorn walking stick. They told him to make good. He tried to think. Addled synapses played him a picture: Eddie Nash.

Holmes was dead when you wrote this. Whom do you talk to for this speculation on his mental state?   I smoked freebase for, like, three days several times. And I know that my synapses were addled and I’m sure everyone else’s were, too. I also discussed a lot of stuff with Scott Thorson. He was a great source of shit, including the shit that they…put in “Boogie Nights.” Like, “Do you guys wanna play baseball?” Also, the thing about Nash dancing around in his underwear in a “thin sheen of sweat.” “So you go in,” Launius was saying to Holmes, reviewing the plan. “You talk to Nash, whatever, you tell him you got to take a piss. Then what?”

“I leave the sliding door unlocked—this one,” said Holmes, pointing to the floor plan, “here, in the back. The guest bedroom. Then I leave. I come back to Wonderland. Tell you it’s all clear. Then you guys take him down.”  How was the story fact-checked?   Well, there was one main fact-checker assigned to the story.   Do you remember any times when the fact-checker strengthened it?   I’m sure I had a lot of little things wrong. The dates of things I always get wrong. But, you know, I’m known for getting it pretty straight. The fact-checking took a long time, because there was a lot of stuff, but this wasn’t any different than most stories.

And so the plan was fixed. At midnight, the Wonderland people scraped together $400, and Holmes, whose pretense for entrance would be buying drugs, drove off to Nash’s house.

It was 1.6 miles from Wonderland Avenue to Dona Lola Place, which was fortuitous, because the stolen Ford Granada driven by the Wonderland Gang was running on empty. Such a wonderful detail, foreshadowing how wrong things are going to turn.   I got that from Tracy McCourt, the driver. He had a really good memory. This was the biggest thing in his life. Of course, I had the documents, so I could jog his memory. In the car were DeVerell, Launius, McCourt and a man named David Lind, a friend of Launius’s. Lind and his girlfriend had come down three weeks earlier from Sacramento to stay at Wonderland. An ex-convict who’d served time for burglary, forgery and assault to commit rape, Lind had been invited to town, he would later tell a court, to practice his “profession,” committing crimes.

McCourt drove up the hill on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, across Mulholland Drive, over the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains, down into the Valley. The sun was warm and diffuse. Sprinklers were ticking water across lawns. Rush hour was on. It was 8:30 Monday morning.

Though Holmes had left Wonderland at midnight, he had stayed at Eddie Nash’s for six hours, smoking up the $400 he’d taken to spend, helping himself to a little more of Nash’s largess. Nash was extremely hospitable. He always called Holmes “my brother.” They’d known each other for three years.  I checked. Eddie Nash is somehow still alive. Did you talk to him? No. He was always being prosecuted while I was doing the story. His lawyer wouldn’t let him.

As night stretched into morning, Holmes had an attack of conscience, a glimmer of an understanding that knocking over Eddie Nash might lead to a lot of trouble. Is this supposition on your part? What’s it based on?   As I recall it, the only other person to whom Holmes told the story of what happened that night was Sharon. And Sharon told me quite a bit of it.  Nash knew the Wonderland people. He’d never met them, but he had, through Holmes, given them a $1000 loan. Holmes muttered something to Nash about the gang. He wasn’t specific, but it really didn’t matter anyway. Nash hadn’t slept in ten days. He hardly knew what Holmes was saying. And, as Holmes’s supply of coke dwindled, his conscience was overruled by his jones. He excused himself, left the room and unlocked the sliding door.

Arriving back at Wonderland just after dawn, Holmes announced the coast was clear. The time was right, he told Lind.  How did you establish a timeline for this scene? It’s amazing.   There was a lot of testimony about this in the court documents.

There was one hitch. DeVerell, Launius and McCourt, all heroin addicts, were out cold.

Three hours later, everyone was finally awake. Holmes drove to Nash’s again to make sure the sliding door was still open. This time, the gang decided not to wait for his return.

Now, as McCourt turned right, off Laurel Canyon Boulevard onto Dona Pegita, he saw Holmes driving back toward them. Both cars slowed, pulled even in the middle of the street. Holmes rolled down his window, McCourt rolled down his.

“It’s time,” Holmes said, and then he smiled and raised his fist “Get ’em, boys!”  The whole story is extraordinarily cinematic.   That was directly from Tracy McCourt, I swear.   It’s one of the many moments in the story that you can really visualize.   Luckily, McCourt was something of a Southern grit who was very expressive in the way he spoke. And he was bored. And he had 45 minutes at a time on the phone with only me. Nobody else was talking about him. I meant to ask you this earlier: Was anyone else chasing this story?   There was a guy who just died, Tony Lovett, who wrote about it for Hustler. We became very good friends. He was the only other one. His story was rather sexy.

John Curtis Holmes had the longest, most prolific career in the history of pornography. He had sex onscreen with two generations of leading ladies, from Seka and Marilyn Chambers to Traci Lords, Ginger Lynn and Italian member of Parliament Ciccolina. The first man to win the X-Rated Critics Organization Best Actor Award, Holmes was an idol and an icon, the most visible male porn star of his time.

Holmes started in the business around 1968, a time when porn was just beginning to surface from the underground of peep shows and frat houses into mainstream acceptance. The Sixties, the pill, “free love,” communes, wife swapping, the perverse creativity of mixed-media artists who were pushing the limit, trying to shock—all of these things created an atmosphere in which porn could blossom. The pivotal event in porn history was the release of Deep Throat, starring Linda Lovelace and Harry Reems, in 1972. Though the movie, when it began to appear at theaters around the country, was branded as obscene and closed down almost everywhere it played, its producers contested the charges in the courts and eventually won. In the end, Deep Throat was massively consumed by an enthusiastic public. With the release the same year of The Devil in Miss Jones and Behind the Green Door, porn became part of popular culture. Suddenly, Johnny Carson was telling Deep Throat jokes on The Tonight Show.  Did you watch porn while working on this? How much?   A shit-ton. I read and watch everything I can find, always.

One day in 1970, Holmes met Hawaiian producer Bob Chinn. Up to this time, Holmes had been doing mostly photo layouts, stag films and 8-mm bookstore loops. He showed Chinn his portfolio of stills, then stripped. That evening, Chinn wrote a three-page screenplay; a partnership was born. This would lead, in the mid-Seventies, to Holmes’s most successful role, as Johnny Wadd, the hard-boiled detective, porn’s parody of Sam Spade. Holmes’s character, said Al Goldstein in Screw magazine, was “a thin, bony, trench-coated shamus, outrageously horny, bedding down with client and quarry alike.” In Goldstein’s opinion, “it was a goofy, crudely made series,” but it was wildly successful. In a way, Holmes was everyman’s gigolo, a polyester smoothy with a sparse mustache, a flying collar and lots of buttons undone. He wasn’t threatening. He chewed gum and overacted. He took a lounge singer’s approach to sex, deliberately gentle, ostentatiously artful, a homely guy with a pinkie ring and a big dick who was convinced he was every woman’s dream. I love this sentence. How long do you spend on writing? I spend a lot of time writing. I write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Is writing a labor?   No, I love it. Reporting is a labor. Talking to people is a labor. Going places is really a labor. I have travel anxiety. When I was little, 10 years old, my parents put me on the wrong bus to go visit my grandparents. I ended up in a Richmond, Virginia bus station instead of Fredericksburg. I don’t remember being scared, but to this day if I don’t have four different ways of navigating I’m, like, freaking out. I don’t know if I told you this, but at the beginning of this story I almost quit writing. I sat there and sat there and there were two many names. Laurel Canyon, the Wonderland Gang, too many details, too many everything. I couldn’t write the thing and I just fucking got up from my desk. I was working on the first sentence. And I said, “I can always just be an editor.” So I walked around the house and I ate something and I guess the horror of that was too great. I went back up and I came up with the word ‘last.’ ‘Deep in Laurel Canyon, the Wonderland Gang was planning its last heist.’ I don’t know why, but that transported me into a different place as a writer.

Holmes went on to make more than 2000 movies. Teenage Cowgirls, Liquid Lips, China Cat and Tapestry of Passion. Eruption, a porn remake of Double Indemnity. Dickman and Throbbin, a lampoon of Batman and Robin. Hard Candy, a 3-D thriller. A porn “documentary” of his life, made in 1981, was called Exhausted.

In time, Holmes became known as the Errol Flynn of porn. And like the leading men of yesteryear, what was known of him was mostly myth.  How much did you know about Holmes when you went into this story? Zero. Nothing. I really wasn’t a porn guy. I was too mature for porn, since I was the son of a gynecologist. I’d run around once in Times Square while on Quaaludes, and we ended up looking at those quarter things. I’d seen a stag film at my fraternity. But other than that, not much. I mean, porn didn’t really figure into my life. It wasn’t available, and only weirdos went and bought it out of the fucking store.

According to legend—largely of his own making—Holmes was born in New York and lived with a rich aunt who’d been married fifteen times. The aunt sent him to fencing school, dancing school, a school of etiquette. They lived in London, Paris, Michigan, Florida. He lost his virginity at the Florida house, when he was six, to his Swiss nursemaid, Frieda.

In high school, Holmes said, he slept with all but three girls in his class. He graduated from UCLA with majors, variously, in physical therapy, pediatric physical therapy, medicine and political sciences. His first porn film was made while he was working his way through college. A girl from the dorm recommended him. Also while in college, he said, he danced “nude modern jazz ballet” and drove an ambulance.

When he became established as a porn star, Holmes said, he had a half dozen agents pulling in work for him. He made films nonstop, and he took eighty to ninety telephone calls a day. He had twenty-seven fan clubs; people wrote for locks of his pubic hair. Men asked him to autograph their wives’ breasts. Women asked him to deflower their daughters. One regular trick had him barge into her bedroom while she was watching TV, then tie her up and rape her. Her husband watched from the closet. Holmes said he’d had sex in airplanes, helicopters, trains, elevators, kitchens, bathrooms, on rooftops, in caves, storm cellars, bomb shelters in Europe, under a table in a restaurant filled with people, fifty feet underwater while wearing scuba gear. He’d been with three governors, two of their wives and one senator, who was “really a freak.”  What sources did you use for the background on Holmes’s life?   A lot of that is from a movie called “Exhausted.” But I read everything I could find about him and talked to everyone who knew him. Different sources took me through different periods of this story.   To what extent did you lean on secondary sources, and how many did you use? I’m sure I interviewed at least 50 or 60 people and I had thousands and thousands of pages of everything that could be found anywhere.   Did Rolling Stone assign you a researcher?   [laughter] No. And I had to transcribe everything myself, too. I have really bad tendonitis now.

Holmes said he owned ten different businesses, that he was a gourmet cook, that he had written twenty-nine books, including a how-to manual combining cooking and sex. His penis, he said, was “bigger than a pay phone, smaller than a Cadillac.”

Holmes’s voice was sly and ingratiating. He sounded a lot like Eddie Haskell on Leave It to Beaver and bore some resemblance to the actor who played him. Above all, he said, he loved his work: “A happy gardener is one with dirty fingernails, and a happy cook is a fat cook. I never get tired of what I do because I’m a sex fiend. I’m very lusty.”

John Curtis Holmes was born to Mary and Edward Holmes on August 8th, 1944, in Pickaway County, Ohio, the youngest of three boys and a girl. Edward, a carpenter, was an alcoholic. Mary was a Bible-thumping Baptist. John remembered screaming, yelling, his father puking all over the kids.

Holmes’s parents separated when he was three, and Mary moved the family into a housing project in Columbus. They shared an apartment with another divorced woman and her two children. When Holmes was eight, his mother married Harold, a manic-depressive who worked for the telephone company. They moved to a house on five acres in wooded, rural Pataskala, Ohio. Harold drank a lot. Once, he rammed his own hand into a harvesting machine. He lost his thumb and three fingers. At the hospital, as he came out of anesthesia, he said to Mary, “I’ll never have to work again.” He didn’t. Mary went to work on an assembly line at a Western Electric plant. Where did this story come from?   That’s from Sharon. Sharon knew the in-laws quite well.   Did you think Sharon was a reliable source?   Yeah. She was a caretaker type–she treated John more like a child than a husband–who was interested in having her point of view out there. I saw no reason not to believe her.

John was a shy and lonely kid who kept to himself and had perfect attendance at Sunday school. He lost his virginity at age twelve to a thirty-six-year-old woman who was a friend of his mother’s. At home, Harold picked on John. There were backhands, lectures, drunken rages. By the time John’s half brother was born, John was spending most of his time in the woods, hunting, trapping, fishing, staying away from Harold. Then one day Harold threw John down the stairs and came after him. John swung and knocked his stepfather out. On his sixteenth birthday, Holmes joined the army. He served in the signal corps, spending three years in Nuremberg, Germany. He never went home again.

After mustering out of the army, at age nineteen, Holmes went to work as an ambulance driver, and soon thereafter he met Sharon Gebenini. Sharon was a nurse at USC County General, working on a team that was pioneering open-heart surgery. She was twenty, an army brat. They were married in August 1965 at Fort Ord, California.

One summer day in 1968, Sharon came home a little early from work. Her new boss, a pediatrician, had shut down the office for the afternoon, and she’d gone to the market, planned a special dinner for her husband.  This is a rather audacious structural move. We leave Sharon just about to walk in on something–we don’t know what–and then rewind through his Holmes’s work history for three paragraphs to build up to what we’re about to see.   Every single scene is built exactly like that. I write my novels the same way. I find the punchline and then use the formula of suspense and digression to create even more suspense. It’s similar to the way I talk. At least with writing I can always remember where I started. I remember going to the Martin Luther King Library in Washington, DC, with a sockful of dimes to check their microfiche. It was great because the sock could also be used as a weapon, because it wasn’t really in a nice area. I was doing a story on Manute Bol, who played for the Washington Bullets. I read all about Dinkas. I knew that his sister, Abouk, six-foot-eight, was back home in Sudan, tending the flock of goats or sheep. And I read that they warm their hands by dung fires and use the ashes for toothpaste. So I asked him, “Ever hear of this?” “Yeah, we do that.” So I got to write this paragraph, “While Manute is making $2.4 million a year, Abouk is tending to the cattle back in Sudan, warming her hands by dung fire…” Oh my fucking God! That’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. And it’s not about me being so great. It’s just the juxtaposition of information that blows your fucking mind. And it’s true. And he never would’ve told me that. You have to do a lot of background research in order to know which questions to ask.   Always? Sometimes it’s better when you don’t know shit and you’re just drilling wells and you find a gusher that you didn’t know was going to be there. But you can’t be so structured that you can’t let the person digress, too.

Holmes, in those days, was a string bean, six feet tall, 150 pounds, hair still cut in a military buzz. When Sharon and John were first married, she says, he was very naive, looking for the perfect relationship. “He was very possessive. He wouldn’t even let me meet the people he worked with.”  How much time did you spend talking to Sharon? Was she eager/reluctant to talk to you? Well, on the first day we spent twelve hours at least. That started the relationship. Then I got letters from her, talked to her on the phone. As I’d go along with the writing, I’d ask Sharon and Dawn, “What about this? What about that?” They were very much a pair.   Yeah, they were living together. They were each other’s support group. They were brought together by John. They also shared in common that John was their first. Can you imagine John Holmes being your first penis?

Recently, Holmes had been drifting from job to job, trying to find a niche. He quit the ambulance service and got work stirring vats of chocolate at a Coffee Nips factory in Glendale. Then he sold shoes, furniture, Fuller brushes door-to-door. He drove a forklift at a meatpacking plant in Cudahy until his lung collapsed from working in the freezer. Just recently, he had begun training to be a uniformed security guard.  Where did this information come from? The detail (“vats of chocolate”) is wonderful and precise.   All from Sharon.

Unbeknownst to Sharon, Holmes had also recently started in porn, following an encounter with a professional photographer named Joel in the bathroom of the poker parlor in Gardina. Holmes was doing sex pictorials, dancing in clubs.

Now, home early from her office, Sharon left her purse in the foyer, squeaked down the hall on white rubber soles to the bathroom of their one-bedroom apartment in Glendale. The door was open. Inside was her husband, John. He had a tape measure in one hand, his penis in the other.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

“Is there something wrong? Are you afraid it’s withering and dying?” she said, laughing.

“No, I’m just curious,” said Holmes.

Sharon went to the bedroom, lay down, read a magazine. Twenty minutes later, Holmes walked into the room. He had a full erection.

“It’s incredible,” said John.

“What?” “It goes from five inches all the way to ten. Ten inches long! Four inches around!”

“That’s great,” said Sharon, turning a page of her magazine. “You want me to call the press?”

Her husband fixed her with a long stare. Finally he said, “I’ve got to tell you I’ve been doing something else, and I think I want to make it my life’s work.” This is one of the great scenes in the story. When you envision a story, is there a minimum number of scenes you’d like to have?   No, I write until the story’s done. Then I go back and tighten it, and lose writing, art and facts. I do that with every piece. The  Todd Marinovich piece was 30,000 words. That was supposed to be a book proposal.

Holmes went on to say that he wanted to be best in the world at something, and that he thought pornography was it. Sharon had been a virgin when they’d met. She wasn’t happy.

“You can’t be uptight about this,” John said, a refrain she would hear for the next fifteen years. “This means absolutely nothing to me. It’s like being a carpenter. These are my tools, I use them to make a living. When I come home at night, the tools stay on the job.”

“You are having sex with other women,” said Sharon. “It’s like being married to a hooker.”

Holmes said nothing.

Outline from Sharon Holmes

Outline from Sharon Holmes

And so began the loops and the stags, and then Johnny Wadd was born. Holmes let his hair grow, started wearing three-piece suits. He and Sharon settled into a strange hybrid of domesticity. She paid for food and household expenses, did his laundry, cooked for him when he was home. John kept his porn money and spent it on himself. Man, this is a crazy arrangement.   Well, first of all, people were more the ‘Fifties wife’ than today in the idea of partnerships. I was married to someone for 20 years who didn’t work. I’m 58. But they both worked. The point is, they were irregular to begin with and she was self-sufficient and a nurse-caretaker. She was also the resident manager of the joint they lived in. In the Wadd documentary–she’s in the dark but you hear her scolding voice–she wanted all this to be known so the truth would be out and her long suffering would be revealed. She was one of those people who would gladly suffer a little more, you know, in her own mind. Wasn’t telling you this story self-serving?   Anyone telling you their story is self-serving. Every time you do journalism you could get several people tell you different stories from several angles. It’s your job as a journalist to figure out who’s got what axe to grind. The stuff is all laid out there to make sense, or not. I think the witnesses are pretty reliable, though I think everyone embellishes. But both Sharon and Dawn consistently told the same story about John.  By 1973, John and Sharon were sharing the same house, even the same bed, but they were no longer having sex. Sharon had gone so far as to stop physical relations, but she couldn’t bring herself to kick him out. “Let’s face it,” she says. “I loved the schmuck. I just didn’t like what he was doing.”  The dialogue in this story is so good. What’s your strategy: note-taking, recorder…?   I’m pretty much against taking notes, or typing. I think it breaks the eye-to-eye contact, which is the most important part of journalism. I rely on my tape recorder. I never heard three quarters of that shit when they said it the first time. I never heard the nuance. I never heard the way they used words. The only things I take notes for are writing people’s names and numbers, or if I need some proper noun that isn’t in the tape.

John bought himself an El Camino pickup and a large diamond solitaire that became his trademark in films. Then he designed a massive gold and diamond ring in the shape of a dragonfly, and a gold belt buckle, measuring eight by five inches. The buckle depicted a mother whale swimming in the ocean, her baby nursing beneath. John was into Save the Whales. He wore the buckle when he and Sharon sold bumper stickers door-to-door.

In 1974, Sharon became the resident manager of a ten-unit apartment court in Glendale. It was owned by the pediatrician she worked for; she and Holmes lived rent-free in an adjacent house. Sometimes he worked around the apartments as the handyman and gardener. He also renovated the house, outdoing himself in the master bathroom, recreating a backwoods outhouse, complete with a quarter-moon cutout, a shingled roof over the bathtub and a rough-hewn box around the commode.

Holmes was an inveterate collector of junk. He picked wire out of dumpsters and sold the copper. He went to garage sales and bought old furniture. He could repair anything, liked sketching and working in clay. He also collected animal skulls. Once, Sharon says, he got a human head from UCLA. He boiled it clean in a pot on Sharon’s stove. They called it Louise. At Christmas, they decorated it with colored lights. Did you, personally, see the head?   No. The story I love about the skull is the copy editing. I was there with the copy chief, Alice Gabriel, at three in the morning, killing these widows, trying to get some extra space four words at a time. And one of the things we put back in was the skull and the name of the skull. I was really proud of that. All that stuff didn’t exist anymore at the time I was reporting it, too. All of John’s stuff didn’t exist anymore. What happened to it, who knows? It’s in a box somewhere.

About this time, Sharon says, Holmes began working as a courier for the Mob. “He’d come home from one of his movie premieres, take off his boots, peel down his socks and take out a wad of large bills. He’d say, ‘Count this.’ We’re talking $56,000 in two boots.”

Jeana Sellers (not her real name) arrived in Holmes’s life in 1976. Why did you give Dawn a pseudonym? Was it her idea, your idea, your editor’s idea, or Rolling Stone’s lawyer’s idea?   That was Dawn’s idea. She decided she was to be anonymous. For years I just called her Jeana-Dawn. I couldn’t remember what her name was. She was a teenager, and her parents had just divorced. She’d driven out from Miami with her father and younger sister. Along the way, in Colorado, Mr. Sellers picked up a hitchhiker who was going to Glendale to see his girlfriend. Mr. Sellers had no particular plan; Glendale sounded just fine. By the time they pulled into the apartment complex managed by Sharon Holmes, it had been decided. The Sellers would stay there. Did you interview Dawn’s parents?   No, she was estranged from her dad for a long time. There was no mother in the picture. Just a brother, who I didn’t talk to.

The complex had ten free-standing cabana apartments, built around a courtyard. Holmes’s half brother and his wife lived there; this little community was the personal fiefdom of John Holmes. One day, Jeana was visiting a neighbor when Holmes came by to deliver a bag of pot. Holmes talked a while, looked Jeana up and down. “Too bad you’re so young,” he said finally, then left.

Soon after, the courtship of Jeana began. Whenever he returned from days or weeks away, Holmes would bring gifts: stuffed animals, roses, a ring. For her sister Terry, who was fourteen and overweight, he brought what he called “Terry food,” pounds and pounds of candy. Holmes hired the sisters to do gardening around the complex. When they’d finish work, he’d make sandwiches. John had a van by then, and soon he began organizing camping trips with Jeana, Terry and Terry’s boyfriend, Jose. “I was really charmed,” says Jeana. “I was just taken off my feet. He treated me very special.” John was thirty-one, she was fifteen.

One night Holmes told Jeana to meet him at the van. They went to the beach. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew what might,” she says. “We sat on the rocks, the moon was just right. We sat for a long time, and he was very, very quiet. He just stared. I played in the water. When I got out, he said, ‘Let’s go,’ and we drove toward home. And then, just as we got to this intersection, he slammed on the brakes. It was dark, and there wasn’t any traffic. He said, ‘Would you make love to me?’ I literally shook to death. I said yes. I loved him. We did it in the van. After that I was his.”  You do not explicitly say how old Dawn was at the time of this incident. (I mean, I think you hint she was fifteen.) How come?   She was fifteen. And she was pretty forthcoming about that.   Would that, at that time, in that state, have been statutory rape?   Probably.

In time, Jeana’s father went back to Miami and took Terry with him, and Jeana moved in with John’s half brother and his wife, David and Karen. Jeana dropped out of Glendale High School. During the day, she worked in a nursing home. At night, she baby-sat for David and Karen.

By 1978, Holmes was freebasing cocaine all the time. He’d been turned on to the drug on a movie set in Las Vegas and had been smoking ever since. Now he never went anywhere without his brown Samsonite briefcase. Inside were his drugs, his glass pipe, baking soda and a petri dish for cooking cocaine powder into rock base, a bottle of 151 rum and cotton swabs for lighting the pipe.  The level of detail in this sentence is quite something. Where did you get it? I think that was a combination of people telling me about that. Dawn was very good about giving me stuff from this time period, particularly when they were on the road. Also, Bill Amerson and other people who did drugs with him, like porn people. Again, if you’re straight, you’re going to say, “Oh, did he get high?” And they’ll say yes, and that’s all you’ll get. But me, I asked if he had a pipe, if he used 151 rum… So you knew what questions to ask.   Right. And I understood why he took so much Valium–you get the high but not the edge. I understood all that stuff.  Jeana was doing freebase too, almost every night.

“When he did coke,” says Jeana, “he’d do it until it was all gone, and then he’d scrape the pipe and smoke all the resin he could find, and then he’d take a bunch of Valium. He’d have me make these peanut-butter chocolate-chip brown-sugar butter cookies. All the sugar helped him come down. He’d have a big glass of milk, and we’d turn on the cartoons, and then he’d go to bed in Sharon’s room. I’d usually fall asleep on the couch.”

By this time, Sharon had befriended Jeana. “The poor girl was emaciated,” Sharon says. Sharon’s first act was to move Jeana out of Karen and David’s and into a garage apartment in the complex. A few months later, Jeana moved into the guest room of the house. “I knew the whole picture,” says Sharon. “He was picking on a kid that didn’t know any better. I had to let her know there was another world out there, that John was not God Almighty.

“John was terrified that I was going to confront her. But I had no reason to confront her. Why? Why would I confront her? He meant nothing to me in that way.”

Holmes was gone now more and more, making films in Europe, San Francisco and Hawaii, doing private tricks, traveling to film openings across the country. At the same time, Holmes was acting as an informant on matters of porn and prostitution for Sergeant Tom Blake, an L.A. vice detective. He began spilling to Blake in 1973, after he was arrested on a movie set. It is debatable whether or not Holmes ever told Blake anything he could use.  I assume you tried to talk to Blake.   Yes, I talked to him. He’s also in “Wadd.” He was a good source.

Also during this period Holmes spent much of his time with his best and only friend, Bill Amerson, in Sherman Oaks. Amerson, a menacing six feet four, 250 pounds, tells tales of his own involvement in drug dealing and organized crime. He says he played pro football and worked as a stunt man, specializing in motorcycle crashes. He was now in porn—writing, directing, producing.

Amerson and Holmes had met on a shoot in San Francisco in 1970; they were kindred egos ever after. “John was like a little brother to me,” says Amerson.

Amerson named John the godfather of his children and gave Holmes his own room at his house. Holmes and Amerson went hunting, deep-sea fishing, camping. Mostly, says Amerson, he and Holmes excluded women. “John didn’t particularly care for women. At times, I think, he disliked women. I like that you don’t psychoanalyze Holmes. Was it tempting? Was there any pressure to do so?   It is my flow to write what’s in somebody’s mind, but only when I have them…Psychoanalysis is when you turn the person’s words on themselves in an interview. That’s what I did with Todd Marinovich. I could turn his words and not make a judgment–just use them to answer the question. Whereas with John Holmes I couldn’t, so I used other people to speak for him. What was the editing process like?   There was none. The editing process was more of a cutting process. I’m not sure there was even a rewrite. I know I was in touch with Bob [Love] a lot because I was having problems with the characters. He helped me a lot there. When he told me to use full stops–not using editorial transitions–that was the biggest editing change he had to make. With Holmes, when you get a good story like that, it tells the story. You just need to collect it and get out of the way. So there wasn’t much rewriting. Bob wasn’t there, I’m not sure why. Bob Wallace was in charge of me and my story. I was deputized to work directly with Alice Gabriel. We cut lines, we did the headlines, we did everything. It was great!   Who came up with the title?   I don’t know! I’m not gonna claim that I did. It sounds very much like a magazine title of the day.  He would rather be out in the woods. He was really a simple kid. He liked going to Disneyland, he liked all the rides. He was really sensitive, but he didn’t want anyone to know. A puppy getting hit by a car, a dead bird, strange things made him cry. We spent hours talking about reincarnation, about life, about God, or the lack of.”

Holmes started to become erratic around 1978. On sets, he was harder and harder to deal with. He’d lock himself in bathrooms, in closets. People who worked with him joked that you had to leave a trail of freebase from the bathroom to the bedroom to get Holmes to work. Amerson would get calls from directors. He’d go to the set, usually a rented house in the San Fernando Valley. He’d find Holmes “going through drawers, looking for something to steal. He’d turned into a fucking burglar.

“John got strange,” says Amerson. “He got wild eyed. He didn’t make a lot of sense when he talked.”  How many of Holmes’s film colleagues did you talk to? Quite a few. A lot of the people who were in his movies, like this one guy from “Dickman and Throbbin.” And I talked to a couple of big directors, I talked to Al Goldstein, I talked to Larry Flynt…

Soon the man who once claimed to be making almost $500,000 a year selling his sexual charms was working as a drug delivery boy for the gang of outlaws and junkies who lived on Wonderland Avenue. He stole luggage, broke into cars, visited old girlfriends and tricks and ripped them off, charged $30,000 worth of appliances to Sharon’s credit cards. For a while, he and his half-brother David tried to make a go of a combination antique store and locksmith service. Did you talk to David?   By phone. He wasn’t that cooperative. I would’ve loved to have more stuff about the family. You have to catch and release if they won’t talk to you.  Jeana ran the store, the Just Looking Emporium. It didn’t last long.

The night the store closed its doors for good, says Jeana, John was strung out and paranoid. “That was the first night he punched the shit out of me,” she says, and thereafter, the beatings were regular. “One time he beat me so I’d sleep with these two black guys from his answering service. I think he couldn’t pay the bill. Then he beat me ’cause I slept with them.”

By early 1980, Holmes and Jeana had moved out of the complex for good. They stayed in motels sometimes, but mostly they lived in Sharon’s Chevy Malibu. Or at least Jeana did. “I was famous for waiting in the car,” she says. “We’d drive somewhere to do a drug deal. He’d get out. I’d wait. Sometimes it would be two days. I’d have a six-pack of Pepsi and a coffee can to pee in. And my dog, Thor. He was a little Chihuahua. John and Sharon gave him to me.”

So it went, until they were busted in January of 1981. At that point, Holmes had Jeana, now twenty, turning tricks. She was living in an apartment in the Valley with a porn actress and high-priced hooker named Michelle. In the early hours of January 14th, Jeana and Michelle were visiting an apartment in Marina Del Ray. While John was waiting for them in the parking lot, he stole a computer out of a car. Thus far, Holmes had been pretty lucky. His connection as an informant for the L.A. police had kept him clear of being busted. How did you verify Holmes’s arrangement with the LAPD? All that stuff came from Blake. But also, there was a lot written about this case. I mean, it was the “Four on the Floor Murders.”  But now Holmes was committing felonies almost every day. His luck had run out. The cops got them in the parking lot.

The next day, Eddie Nash bailed them out. Jeana didn’t want to go back to Michelle’s. John insisted. She refused. He punched her in the stomach, dragged her through the door. “Get some sleep,” he told her. “You gotta work tonight.”  Was it depressing to work on this story?   Only when I realized my penis had shrunk. Um, at the time, no. In aggregation, the decade and a half of doing these crime stories, most of whose subjects were dead at the time I wrote them, and having to meet their crying relatives and go to their funerals, I started to think of this Scottish legend, the Sin Eater. Where, if you died in the village, they’d call the Sin Eater and lay out a feast upon the body. And the guy, who was poor, would come and eat the food and eat the sins away. I started to feel that way doing these stories. One of the very last ones was the Veronica Guerin story. At the end, after this woman died, her little son’s toys were used to show how she was set up and ambushed and how Mommy died. I mean, after a while, enough’s enough.

John went to take a bath. Jeana heard the water shut off, heard John get into the tub. She wasn’t going back to this. Enough was enough.

“Honey!” called John from the bathtub. “Get me a cup of coffee, will you?”

She was halfway out the door when she heard his voice. She froze for a moment, then took a step back inside. She took a deep breath. Then she was gone.

Jeana ran, with Thor in her arms, to a Denny’s restaurant. A little old man lent her a quarter. She called her mother in Oregon, asked for a bus ticket. Mom said okay, but it couldn’t happen until tomorrow. Jeana sat down and cried. The man bought her a bowl of chili, then sneaked her into his nursing home. Jeana slept the night on the floor by his bed. The other residents thought it was the scandal of the age. In the morning, many of them brought her toast from the cafeteria.  Dawn’s recall is extraordinary. Did she keep a diary?   I think just think, with certain events, you remember them. I mean, since that time, she’s told all the same stuff again.   But she was telling you this for the first time.   She might have told the cops a bunch of this stuff when they were trying to round him up.

Jeana said goodbye, then called the Glendale bus station. She told the ticket agent that John Holmes, the porn star, was looking for her and wanted to kill her. Please, she said, don’t tell him anything. The agent agreed to help. Then he asked how she was getting to the station. He and his son came and picked her up.

As Jeana expected, Holmes showed up at the bus station. The ticket agent played dumb. Holmes followed the wrong bus all the way to San Francisco.  Where did you get this story? From the ticket agent?   I got that from Jeana-Dawn because John started writing her the letters afterwards that went to her parents. She stayed with him and he told her all this.


Tracy McCourt turned right onto Dona Lola Place, drove 100 yards into the cul-de-sac, parked, cut the engine. DeVerell, Lind and Launius pushed aside the chain-link gate to Nash’s driveway and filed around to the right, behind the house. The sliding glass door was still open, as Holmes had said.  How did you settle on the structure of the story, toggling between the heist and Holmes’s life story? Did you have that from the beginning?   I didn’t. I started at the planning of the heist and then stopped, and told you who the character was. Then I picked it up again. More than anything, the story is the crime and the other stuff is embellishment. Plus, I had to do a full stop in there to talk about the industry and his role in it, because in the World War Three of this story that was one of the AOs–areas of operation. So I talked to First Amendment lawyers, old players from the industry who could tell me stories, like how actors would leave their clothes by the side of the set so they could run from the cops, and how it was important not to forget the masters. All that went into constructing this story. The reason I settled on the structure is because that’s how the story went.

They went inside, opened the door of the guest bedroom, peered out. Lind took the lead and charged down the hall, a short-barreled .357 Magnum in one hand, a stolen San Francisco police detective’s badge in the other. Diles and Nash were in the living room. Diles was wearing sweat pants, carrying a breakfast tray. Nash was wearing blue bikini briefs.

“Freeze!” yelled Lind. “You’re under arrest! Police officers!”

DeVerell and Launius covered Nash. Lind made his way behind the shirtless, blubbery bodyguard. He shifted the badge to his gun hand, his left, then took out the handcuffs with his right. As he fumbled with his paraphernalia and Diles’s thick wrists, Launius came over to help, tripped, bumped into Lind’s arm. The gun discharged. Diles was burned with the muzzle flash. The right side of his back, over his kidney, began to bleed. Nash fell to his knees. He begged to say a prayer for his children.

“Fuck your children!” said Launius. “Take us to the drugs.”

Lind rolled Diles onto his stomach, handcuffed him, threw a Persian rug over his head. Then he joined the others in Nash’s bedroom. Everything was where Holmes had said. Lind put his .357 to Nash’s head, asked for the combination to the floor safe. Nash refused. Then Launius forced the stainless-steel barrel of his gun into Nash’s mouth.

In the floor safe were two large Zip-lock bags full of cocaine. It’s a small thing, but I love that you don’t include Nash acquiescing to Launius. You cut directly from gun-in-mouth to the interior of the floor safe.   You don’t need to say that. In my descriptive writing, I’m constantly seeking to not beg the point, to not belabor it. If you edit less proficient writing, you see that people always add every detail. Right.   It’s funny, my son’s godfather is a sax player. And I all the people I was friends with in my twenties and thirties were jazz musicians. They don’t talk a lot. There’s that moment of syncopated pause where nothing is said, nothing is played. And that’s when they’d make the face that musicians make–oh, that’s so sick, you know? I dunno. I think it goes back to Murray and playing guitar and trying to make this an artistic pursuit.  In a gray attaché case were cash and jewelry. In a petty-cash box were several thousand Quaaludes and more cocaine. On the dresser was a laboratory vial about three-quarters full of heroin.  Did you have access to crime scene photos?   At some point, I had access to a bunch of stuff that Tom Blake had. He showed me stuff and there was also stuff in the case files. The other thing is, when something was sealed by the court, that meant it was in the file but it was in a manila envelope. That’s all that meant? And I’m not saying I ever opened those things while working on stories, but there was a fuckload of stuff you could usually get out of that. There were always glimmers of things that you could get that you couldn’t really nail down legally.

Lind taped Nash’s hands behind his back, put a sheet over his head. He found a Browning 9-mm under Nash’s bed, then went to Diles’s room, where he found more weapons. Meanwhile, Launius asked Lind for his hunting knife. He went over to Diles, pulled the rug off his head, edged the knife against his neck.

“Where’s the rest of the fucking heroin?” he demanded. “I don’t know,” said Diles. Launius pulled the knife slowly across Diles’s neck. Blood flowed. Suddenly, outside, Tracy McCourt began honking the horn of the getaway car.

“Forget it!” said Lind. “Let’s get out of here.”

At 10:00 a.m., Lind, McCourt, Launius and DeVerell walked through the door of the Wonderland house.  How did you establish this timeline? You don’t say “at about 10:00”–it’s exact. From the court transcript?   Yeah. They spend a lot of time in court establishing all that shit.

Holmes jumped up from the couch. “So what happened? How did it go down?”

“Don’t tell him anything,” snapped Lind.

Launius, DeVerell and Lind went into Launius’s bedroom. They’d decided, before leaving Nash’s, that they would short Holmes and McCourt in the division of the loot. Working quickly, Launius removed about $100,000 in cash from the briefcase and hid it in his room.

Meanwhile, Joy Miller and Barbara Richardson, Lind’s girlfriend, left the house and drove down the hill to the Laurel Canyon Country Store for gas and cartons of cigarettes.  Did you interview Miller and Richardson?   No, everything I know about them was from the L.A. Times.   To what extent did you get access to the criminals? Only Tracy McCourt, as I recall. Four of them were dead, right? I guess that winnowed down the source pool.

When they returned, the men were at the glass table in the breakfast nook. Everyone was busy. Holmes and Lind weighed the cocaine. Launius counted the Quaaludes. DeVerell counted the money. On the table were eight pounds of cocaine, 5000 Quaaludes, a kilo of high-quality China White heroin and $10,000 in cash. The jewelry would later be fenced for $150,000. Lind, Launius and DeVerell, the three who’d carried out the robbery, were to receive twenty-five percent each. Holmes and McCourt went halves on the last share.

As soon as the weighing was done, Holmes went to the kitchen to cook some cocaine powder into rock, then went into the bathroom to smoke. The rest of the Wonderland people took turns injecting heroin and cocaine. After a while, Holmes came back into the living room. He complained about his share of the money. It was only about $3000. He knew that Nash had a lot more than that lying around the house.

An argument ensued. Launius punched Holmes in the stomach.

“Get the fuck out of here!” he screamed. This is a queasy moment; I’ve decided Holmes is a monster, but I also feel bad for him. I guess the challenge for the writer is to make sure the protagonist never actually becomes a monster, but is always human.   Precisely. And that’s what I meant earlier about finding the creamy center of a character. Finding the goodness, the part that people can identify with. I mean, the underdog syndrome in this country is so huge. People like the underdog because we’re all schmoes. It’s also about trying to get it right, as it really is. The cool guys aren’t always cool. Everybody knows that. But yet, you can’t predict what might happen. The stuff you find out is cooler than what you could make up. Right. You’re only jealous of Holmes for about thirty seconds.


For the first few months, while she was in Oregon with her mother, Jeana had refused to take Holmes’s calls. She’d gotten a job at a nursing home and was paying her mom rent, trying to rebuild her life. But Holmes kept calling. He sent flowers, presents, photos of them with the dog.

By May, Jeana began taking his calls. By June, she was thinking, “Well, I’m not doing anything here.” On June 27th, two days before the robbery at Nash’s, she flew to Los Angeles.  I’m always amazed when, in a story like this, the reporter can pin down an exact date. Did Jeana keep her ticket stub? Those were her timelines. She had to go through all this with the police. She had to get her story straight. Then she talked to me.

John was carrying two suitcases when he met her. “Oh, shit,” she thought, but she didn’t say anything.

“I didn’t want to believe I’d fallen for a line again,” Jeana says. “He was sweet. He was great. There wasn’t any trouble. We went to a motel, had a nice reunion. No drugs. It was really nice. He was like the old John. Then he left.”

On the day of the robbery Holmes still hadn’t come back. Management asked Jeana to leave. Holmes hadn’t paid for the room.

Jeana packed her suitcase, gathered up her Chihuahua. She didn’t have any money. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t call Sharon. They hadn’t spoken in two years. Jeana was somewhere downtown. She didn’t know where. She walked the streets, tried to think. A pimp tried to pick her up. Then another. Then she ran into a woman preaching fire and brimstone on a corner. The woman took her to her house, put her to work painting a wall. Meanwhile, Jeana called Holmes’s answering service and left the number. Holmes finally called on the afternoon of the 29th, after the Wonderland Gang kicked him out. He showed up at the house in the early evening. “He had the biggest pile of coke I’d ever seen in my entire life,” says Jeana. “He took over the kitchen. He cooked coke all night long. He even had the Holy Roller’s sister smoking.”

In the morning, they went out to get food. “When we came back, the door was locked,” says Jeana. “The Holy Roller was up in the balcony, waving a Christian flag, praying and hollering, singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ She said John had cut some coke with an old tarot card and she believed it was a sign from the devil. I said, ‘Please, just let me get my clothes and my dog and we’ll leave.’ ”


Gregory DeWitt Diles, six feet four, 300 pounds, barged through the front door of the house on Dona Lola  There are so many moving parts to this story, I actually had to check back to see whose house this was. Was it tough to keep the story straight in your head, as you were writing it?   The thing is, every detail was so hard-won, it wasn’t like I had to master a huge bunch of shit. You’re old enough now that there’s some history you’ve lived through and you don’t have to look it up. You know what I mean? It’s like that. If you’re building a story, one little fucking piece at a time, each piece is a fucking war. It starts out, you just know about John Holmes. Then you learn about Eddie Nash and Diles, because those are the two people in the murders. You do more and more work and get more and more characters, and they all fit in. At one time, I’d do modified outlines, but always in longhand. Anyway, it’s just a story. It rolls at its own pace. It’s chronological. The only reason it doesn’t seem chronological is I don’t date every section. I do try to put a time peg within the first few grafs of everything, so it’s located in time. That’s an important duty of the writer, to keep it running. It can’t be so “Memento” that you lose yourself in the tale., dragging John Holmes by the scruff of his neck.

“In here,” said Nash.

Diles shoved, Holmes skidded across the carpet. Nash shut the bedroom door.

Wednesday afternoon, July 1st, two days after the robbery. Jeana was tucked into another hotel in the Valley. An hour before, Holmes had run into Diles. Holmes was wearing a ring that had been stolen from the boss.

Eddie Nash was fifty-two years old, six feet tall, gray haired, strong and wiry. His family had owned several hotels before the creation of Israel in 1948. Nash told a friend Who was the friend?   That’s June Schuyler. She was the greatest source of personal information on him. This was her great love affair.   Her appearance in the story is really extraordinary. An elementary school teacher in the middle of– It serves the same purpose as Sharon’s appearance. She was a registered nurse!  that he missed the moonlight and the olive trees of his homeland, that he’d spent time in a refugee camp, that his brother-in-law was shot by Israeli soldiers.

The youngest son in the family, Nash arrived in America with seven dollars in his pocket. He worked for others for a time, then opened Beef’s Chuck, a hotdog stand on Hollywood Boulevard. Nash was on the job day and night, wearing a tall white chef ’s hat, waiting tables himself.

June M. Schuyler, an elementary-school teacher from Santa Barbara, remembers meeting the “nice-looking, very-light-skinned foreign man” at Beef’s Chuck. She was living in Hollywood while her autistic son attended the Belle Dubnoff School for Brain-Damaged Children. The school was a block away from Nash’s place. She’d often take her son there for lunch.

From then, wrote Schuyler, in a letter to a judge many years later, “Ed Nasrallah began a courtship that was as old-fashioned as they come. For many months he took me out to dinner, introduced me to his mother and other relatives. There never was a sexual relationship between us. I said ‘No’ and I meant it.”

Over the next year, Nasrallah brought her grape leaves, hummus, pots of Turkish coffee. Schuyler said that Ed loved her son exceedingly and that he offered to “fix it up for you to take him to a top brain surgeon. . . . No strings attached.”  Schuyler is such a surprising source. How’d you hear about her?   I think I found her in the court papers, as a character witness. At the point where I got the papers, I redoubled my efforts to find people. I was getting all these dribs and drabs, but then I got the court papers. From that I got my scenes, more names, addresses and phone numbers. Back then, all we had was the Yellow Pages, 411, or a private investigator. So this was important. There’s this thing Woodward would say, when one of his investigative reporters would come in, like Ben Weiser or John Feinstein. You’d get this whole box full of documents. Woodward would call it a docugasm. He’d say, “It’s a docugasm!” Woodward has that Midwestern, ‘Aw, shucks’ accent, even to this day. A docugasm!

By the mid-Seventies, Ed Nasrallah had become Eddie Nash and had amassed a fortune. He was also a drug dealer and a heavy user. His drug of choice was freebase; sometimes he mixed the crack with heroin. Nash was missing part of his sinus cavity, one of his lungs had been removed, and he had a steel plate in his head.

For the last several years, Nash had rarely left his white-stone ranch house in Studio City. At home, Nash walked around in a maroon silk robe, or sometimes in bikini briefs, his body covered with a thin sheen of sweat. Where did this information come from? Medical records?   That was Scott Thorson. Freebasing makes you hot, so you undress. It’s like meth. It raises your blood pressure. His voice had a smooth Arabic lilt. “You want to play baseball?” he’d ask his ever-present guests, lighting his butane torch, offering a hit off his pipe.

“The consumption of alcohol and drugs was an ongoing, everyday affair,” says an attorney who is a longtime acquaintance of Nash’s. “The cast of characters would go from two or three to ten or more. It was amazing, the haphazard way in which people would come and go. You’d walk into the house, there were various girls walking around in various states of undress. Some were quite attractive. Others looked like they’d been sucking on the pipe a little too long.

“When you met with Eddie, you met at his place, on his terms. I believe that cocaine paranoia created within him the desire to stay within that closed environment that he had control over. If anything, one of the themes in Eddie’s life has always been control. He wanted to be in charge. He wanted to be the Arab man in his tent. The master, the giver of hospitality. All his lawyers—I think he had maybe six or seven working on different things— all his managers, employees, customers, everyone, would come to him. He’d have Jimmie, the cook, prepare these elaborate spreads. You could walk up, whisper something in his ear, and he’d make it available. Whatever. You just had to ask, and he’d give.”  This is one of the longest quotes in the piece. The guy seems to have more than a passing knowledge of Nash’s life.   Nash’s attorney was a great source of information. He was kind of the consigliere in his world.   Why did you choose to let this quote unwind at such length?   I don’t know. Maybe because he was an attorney. Maybe because I got it approved. That foreshadows my work later, where I let people talk a lot more. I can’t say this for sure, but if I try remember the way I was thinking back then, if I was fucking with an attorney, and I knew everyone was really litigious, it could be that we crafted the statement of what he was going to say, even though he was a source. I think because I bring to my crime reporting the anthropological background, I approach people differently. I end up making friends more than making enemies. People want to help you because they really think that I get their point of view. That’s the most important thing in all these interviews. And you’ll play people for that, believe me. You know that that guy’s in prison and he’s got nothing to do, so you don’t mind playing him a little bit. Be a little mean to him once in a while or whatever. Otherwise, they’re going to play you. You’re aware of this, but at the same time you’re also ministering to them and you’re listening; you’re playing both sides. You’re not a friend, but yet you can’t be Janet Malcolm’s confidence man, either. I don’t agree with that. I think there’s a better place where you can be. You can service all people for their needs. If you’re aware of people, then you know what they need. You can give them that in day-to-day commerce. I say, “Thank you, sir” to the guy at 7-Eleven and I don’t give a fuck. Everybody’s like that to me, and it gets me farther. People just like me and help me, because I act like I respect them. I am worshipful of my subjects, because this is what I want to know more than anything so it’s real. I’ll do anything for you, just help me figure this out.

According to court testimony, Nash had a fancy for young girls,  This is one of those sentences that could mean just about anything. Was he a pedophile?   No. That just meant that he liked teens. whips and a game with a revolver called Russian roulette. One woman who had sex with Nash remembers “a lot of temptation. There were piles of cocaine in front of you. Jewelry, wads of money. You’d be left in a room for hours, and then you’d be called in. There were two-way mirrors in the bedroom, anything you wanted would be made available. In a way Eddie would assess you on what you took or didn’t take.”

In early 1981, Nash’s second wife—the mother of his two sons, aged eight and five—filed for a protection order against Nash. After she left him, according to a court affidavit, “I took the children to Oklahoma to my aunt and uncle’s farm, together with my parents. My husband hired a girl to follow us. She came to the farm to find out if a certain man was with me. After she left, my husband called on the telephone at the farm and said to come home immediately. When I refused, he said, ‘Don’t come back to California or I will have two men waiting at the airport to kill you, and I will have your parents killed.’ ” Do you have a favorite source for this story? It could be a person or a document.   The guy in the basement of the courthouse, who helped me find the first boxful of stuff when I had the first docugasm. He helped me more than a person would usually help someone. When I got those court files, I was able to piece the story together. The single most important people were Sharon and Dawn, but the documents were second.

Nash is said to have had political, police and crime connections. According to one Los Angeles law-enforcement official, “Ed Nash was a very well-known figure in the Sixties around Hollywood with police, and it was never an antagonistic relationship.”

One of Nash’s friends and overnight guests was, according to a law-enforcement official Is this law-enforcement official the same as the one quoted in the previous paragraph?   I honestly can’t remember. , an Israeli with a military background, “the so-called reputed godfather of the Israeli Mafia.” A report by the California State Department of Justice revealed that the Israeli Mafia was active in California during the late Seventies and early Eighties and was involved in drugs, arson, extortion, gun-running and a number of murders, including the death and dismemberment of two Israeli nationals at the plush Bonaventure hotel in downtown L.A.  This is wild. Were you tempted to report on this further?   There was already a lot on this. To some degree, a lot of this story is aggregating the news. It’s in the Garry Wills model of it’s all fair game. I’m sure I tried to find more. You were never done with this piece. By the end, we had the wife, the girlfriend and the last wife, so we had a pretty good profile.

During his six or seven years of heavy drug use, said the attorney, “Nash lost over a million a year directly attributable to drugs. His business empire totally atrophied as a result of the coke. What really cracks me up is people believe he was a dope dealer. That’s bullshit. He was consuming it. At an alarming rate.”

On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 1st, 1981, Eddie Nash was again consuming drugs at an alarming rate. He’d been ripped off for eight pounds of cocaine, but the Wonderland Gang hadn’t found his private stash, and now he was bubbling his glass pipe furiously. He’d sent two of his minions out to score more drugs, but they hadn’t yet returned. Two customers waited. They did hits off Eddie’s pipe, eyed the door.

One of the customers was Scott Thorson. Thorson had driven from Lake Tahoe to score from Nash. Or perhaps he had flown from Las Vegas. In court testimony years later, he would say, in answer to this and many other questions, “I don’t recall. I really don’t recall.” Thorson was the live-in lover of the entertainer Liberace. He was also in Liberace’s Las Vegas act. Wearing jewel-bedecked livery, he would chauffeur Liberace onto the stage in a glittering mini-Rolls-Royce, open the door, take his master’s fur coat. Then Liberace would make a joke about having the only fur coat in the world that had its own limo. During one special engagement, Thorson danced with the Rockettes. Liberace called him Booper, treated him like a son, a lover, a pet.

Thorson had been addicted to cocaine for several years. It began, according to Thorson’s book, Behind the Candelabra, when Liberace ordered him to have cosmetic surgery. First, however, Thorson had to lose thirty pounds. A doctor of dubious practice prescribed a salad of different drugs to aid the weight loss. Pharmaceutical cocaine was one of the ingredients.

In time, the surgery was completed, and Thorson was made into a young vision of Liberace. He remained addicted to coke. At the moment that Diles barged through the door with Holmes in tow, Thorson was with Eddie in his bedroom, doing hits. Nash was very upset.

“I’ll have them on their knees!” Nash ranted to Thorson.

“I’ll teach them a lesson! They’ll never steal from anyone again!”  How much, if any, of this is from Behind the Candelabra?   I can’t remember how much is from the book and how much is from interviewing Thorson, but I used both. Nobody cared about him, so he was one of those people who wanted to talk. He was a druggie. When I talk to druggies, I’m like, Cool. Rick James and I were friends for many years, and that’s because we both liked to talk about smoking freebase and having sex. And we’d just sit there and talk about it for hours at a time with our jaws going. I knew which questions to ask. So Thorson was a good interview. Also: I wasn’t asking him any questions about Liberace or that part of his life. At this point, everybody wanted to be in a movie, so he was angling, too. It really helped that you knew your shit.   I read the early stories about [“Freeway”] Rick Ross in the L.A. Times and the writer failed to realize the difference between coke and crack. That’s what he give us: crack. Knowing that stuff is important in these stories. I guess you could say that this has been my beat over the years. We become expert at things. It helps me that I guess I’m expert at this.

Thorson was excused, and Nash closed the door. Diles smacked Holmes, threw him across the room, shoved him against a wall. “How could you do this thing!” Eddie Nash screamed. Diles hit him again. “I trusted you! I gave you everything!”

Nash and Holmes had met three years earlier at the Seven Seas. Nash was a big fan of porn. He invested in movies, leased office space to several porn-related operations. Holmes was one of the greats in the business. Nash liked having him around. He introduced him to all his guests. “I’d like you to meet Mr. John Holmes,” he’d say.

For his part, Holmes did anything he could for Nash. Frequently he brought him girls. On Christmas Day 1980, he’d even presented Jeana. Nash reciprocated with a quarter ounce of coke. Holmes thought Nash was the most evil man he’d ever met, but he couldn’t quite figure him out, so he respected him.  This is such a morbidly funny line. Holmes pimped his girlfriend for a quarter-ounce of coke, and yet he judges Nash!   That’s what I love about the world.

Now things were not so friendly. Holmes was crumpled on the floor. Diles leveled a gun at his head. Nash was leafing through a little black book that Diles had taken from Holmes’s pocket.

“Who’s this in Ohio?” Nash screamed. “Who’s Mary? Your mother? Who’s this in Montana? . . . Is this your brother? . . . I will kill your whole family! All of them! Go back to that house! Get my property! Bring me their eyeballs! Bring me their eyeballs in a bag, and I will forget what you have done to me! Go!”  Where did you get this dialogue?   I think it’s court records and probably Thorson’s testimony. I have Reagan-like memory. But how else would I have known about it? A lot of this stuff is also in Sharon’s outline.


Thursday, July 2nd, 3:30 a.m. Sharon Holmes switched on the porch light, spied through the peephole. Christ, she thought, John. She hadn’t seen him in three months. His clothes were ripped, he was bloody from head to toe. He stared straight ahead, unblinking. She opened the door, folded her arms against her chest.

“Well?” “Accident . . . car . . . um . . .” he stammered. “Can I . . . come in?” They went to the bathroom. Sharon, a registered nurse, rummaged through a well-stocked medicine cabinet, brought out iodine and cotton swabs. She reached up and took John’s chin in her hand, turned his head side to side. Funny, she thought, no cuts, no abrasions. Just blood. “You had an accident in the Malibu?”

John looked down at Sharon. His eyes blinked rapidly. They’d been married sixteen years. Sharon always knew when he was lying. That’s probably why he always came back. I love that in the middle of this scene with a bloody Holmes you allow Sharon a (well-deserved) shot at him.   It’s so her point of view, that scolding way about her. It becomes characteristic of my stories–I like to quote people without quoting them. Instead of quoting somebody, I just use their language. I’m using Sharon’s language. She was just so hatefully passive-aggressive.  “Run me a bath, will you?” he said.

John eased into the tub. Sharon sat on the wood-covered commode. “What now?” she thought. He dunked his head, put a steaming washcloth over his face. Then he sat up. “The murders,” he said. “I was there.”

“What do you mean you were there?”

“It was my fault,” John said, his eyes welling with tears.

“I stood there and watched them kill those people.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I was involved in a robbery,” John began, and he told the story. The setup, the robbery, Nash’s threat to kill his whole family, Sharon included. “So I told him everything,” John said. “I told where the robbers lived and how to get there. I had to take them there.”


“Three men and myself.”

“Okay, you took them there.”

“I took them there. There was a security system at the house. I called up and said I had some things for the people inside and to let me up. They opened the security gate, and the four of us went up the stairs, and when the door opened, they forced their way inside. Someone held a gun to my head. I stood there against the wall. I watched them beat them to death.”

“You stood there?”

“There was nothing I could do.”

“John, how could you?”

“It was them or me. They were stupid. They made him beg for his life.”

“They deserved what they got.”  Does Holmes’s version of the event, by way of Sharon, match up with what is otherwise known about it?   Yeah.


“Blood! Blood! So much blood!” Holmes was having a nightmare. Tossing and moaning, punching and kicking. “So much blood!” he groaned over and over.

Jeana was scared to death. She didn’t know what to do. Wake him? Let him scream? It was Thursday, July 2nd, 1981. After bathing at Sharon’s, Holmes had come here, to this motel in the Valley. He walked through the door, flopped on the bed, passed out.

Jeana sat very still on the edge of the bed, watching a TV that was mounted on the wall. After a while, the news. The top story was something about a mass murder. Four bodies. A bloody mess. A house on Wonderland Avenue. Jeana stood up, moved closer to the tube. “That house,” she thought. Things started to click. “I’ve waited outside that house. Isn’t that where John gets his drugs?”

Hours passed, John woke. Jeana said nothing. They made a run to McDonald’s for hamburgers. They watched some more TV. Then came the late-night news. The cops were calling it the Four on the Floor Murders. Dead were Joy Miller, Billy DeVerell, Ron Launius, Barbara Richardson. The Wonderland Gang. The murder weapon was a steel pipe with threading at the ends. Thread marks found on walls, skulls, skin. House tossed by assailants. Blood and brains splattered everywhere, even on the ceilings. The bodies were discovered by workmen next door; they’d heard faint cries from the back of the house: “Help me. Help me.” A fifth victim was carried out alive. Susan Launius, 25, Ron Launius’s wife. She was in intensive care with a severed finger and brain damage. The murders were so brutal that police were comparing the case to the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Manson Family.

Holmes and Jeana watched from the bed. Jeana was afraid to look at John. She cut her eyes slowly, caught his profile. He was frozen. The color drained from his face. She actually saw it. First his forehead, then his cheeks, then his neck. He went white.  I like this. You take a cliché–“the color drained from his face”–and put it under a microscope.   In this case, it was probably pointed out to me by my source, and I’m using her language again. Almost in every story, I try to use a cliché the right way, then do a bit more just prove that I wasn’t clichéing it up. I love that clichés are often the best way of explaining things. That’s me having fun, and trying to be effective as a storyteller.

Jeana said nothing. After a while, the weather report came on. She cleared her throat “John?”


“You had this dream. You know, when you were sleeping? You said something about blood.”

Holmes’s eyes bulged. He looked very scared. She’d never seen him look scared before. “Yeah, well, uh,” he said. “Um, I lifted the trunk of the car, and I gave myself a nosebleed yesterday. Don’t worry.”

On July 10th, police knocked down the door of their motel room and arrested Jeana and Holmes. For the next three days, Holmes, Jeana and Sharon were held in protective custody in a luxury hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Armed guards in the lobby, in the hallway. Room service. Holmes tried to make a deal with the cops. He wanted witness protection, a new name, money, a home. He wanted new names for Sharon and Jeana, too. He offered the police secrets. Names of mobsters, drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps. The police wanted to know who killed the Wonderland Gang. Holmes wouldn’t tell.

“With Holmes, it was like he was center stage and the lights and the camera were on,” says a detective who was present. Who was the detective?   I can’t remember. Unless Lange didn’t want to be identified saying everything. But Lange had a partner, so I’m sure he talked to me, too.  “It was like he was doing a movie. Here he is, he has two women with him. All three of them are sleeping in the same bed. He stroked us, jacked us around. He told us certain things. That we were on the right track, that this is indeed what had happened, that this was the motivation, that this was how it came down. He played it for all it was worth, then he said he wouldn’t testify. We cut him loose.”

The three went back to Sharon’s house. Sharon cooked dinner. Holmes picked up Sharon’s two dogs and Thor from the kennel. Later, the women dyed Holmes’s hair black. Holmes and Jeana painted the Malibu gray with a red top. They used cans of spray paint. The finish was drippy and streaked, but it didn’t matter. They were going underground.

Now it was midnight in the parking lot at the Safeway in Glendale. The Malibu was idling. Jeana sat in the front seat, Thor in her arms. Holmes leaned up against the back bumper, smoking a cigarette. Sharon stood with arms crossed. “Change your mind. Come with us, Sharon.”

“No way, John.”

“It can be the three of us, Sharon, like old times.”

“You’ve got to be joking.”

“You can’t do this to me,” he said.

“Why? Why can’t I?”

“Because I love you.”

Sharon looked at him. On their first date, he’d brought a bottle of Mateus and a handful of flowers. Sharon had watched through the window as he picked them from the neighbor’s front yard. Now she shook her head slowly, walked around the car to the passenger side.

Letter from Sharon Holmes

Letter from Sharon Holmes

Jeana leaned out the window, and they hugged. Over the years, they’d become like mother and daughter. “Take care of him,” Sharon said.  Sharon seems like an incredibly forgiving, relatively decent person. But, because I am cynical, I note that people who talk to reporters always come off better than people who don’t. Maybe call it the Woodward Syndrome. What did you make of her?   Well, I got the point in there that she was in love with him but she hated him. She changed his life and they–she and Dawn–were like a club of two people that loved John. I thought that she was overly-precise in trying to tell the story accurately, but she was also totally in denial that she was still in love with him. She acted like John meant nothing to her, and he was just her friend. “We were long-time companions.” I think I reflect that in the material, but I also don’t bang her over the head with it because she was kind enough to give me the whole fucking thing.


“Hello, Jeana.”

“Chris? Is that you?”

“How are you, Sis?”

“Fine. Where are you calling from? You sound close.”

“I’m here.”

“In Miami?”


“What are you doing here?”

“Well, I, I, ah, came . . . with a friend. Listen. Tell me where you are. I’ll pick you up.” Was this call recorded? It doesn’t read like someone’s recollection.   l can’t remember. I got that from Dawn.

Jeana hung up the phone. Her brother Chris, 16, lived in Oregon. She hadn’t heard from him in, what, six months? Not since she was home. Now it was December 4th, 1981. After leaving California, Jeana and Holmes had gone to Vegas, then Montana, then headed south, visiting the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert. Holmes broke into cars along the way.

The couple ended up in Miami, at a small run-down hotel on Collins Avenue. Everyone there was on some kind of slide. Big Rosie, the manager, let Jeana work the switchboard and clean rooms in exchange for rent. Holmes went to work for a construction company, painting a hotel down the strip. This is amazing. At this point, did people recognize Holmes? Did people realize the guy working the construction job had been the world’s most famous porn star?   Apparently not. I don’t think porn was that famous than. He got big when he was finished and dying. Porn got big in the Vivid era, with high production values. So people didn’t really know him. He was not a household name. But so many people have read this story, maybe that has something to do with it? It was a front-page story when he died of AIDS.  For extra money, Jeana solicited tricks on the beach.

“Everybody at the hotel got to know us,” Jeana says. “We were real friendly. John was doing a lot of drawing. Drawings of the dog, of me. We’d have dinner with other people at the hotel, go to movies. We were like a normal couple. After a while, I said I didn’t want to go out on the beach anymore. We had a big fight. I ran out the door, down to the pool, and he ran after me, the fool. Everybody was down there. He beat the shit out of me, then walked back up to the room. Everybody was just shocked.”

The next day, while Holmes was at work, a delegation of residents came to see Jeana. A mother and daughter offered to help. The daughter had a kid and a job. She was moving to a house. Would Jeana want to be the live-in baby sitter? Jeana packed her bag, gathered up Thor, put Holmes’ gun in her pocketbook.

Now it was December 4th, and she hadn’t seen Holmes in two weeks. Do you have any idea of Holmes’s movements during these two weeks?   No, I have no idea. Presumably he kept painting. This is part of the blue smoke and mirrors of telling a story. I don’t know what happened so we just skip over it and go to the next part .  Her brother was in town; something weird was going on. Chris didn’t have a driver’s license. How could he rent a car?

They picked up a six-pack, went to a park, sat by a pond.

“Jeana, I’ve got to tell you. See that car over there? It’s the cops.”

“You little . . .” Jeana stood, walked away. Chris caught up.

“Listen,” he said, grabbing her elbow. “People are after John, and they think you’re with him. You’re going to get hurt. Tell the cops what they want to know, ’cause otherwise John’s going to be dead in a few days. You’re probably going to be saving him.”  Was the conversation recorded? I imagine Chris was wearing a wire.   I can’t remember.

When the cops got to his hotel, Holmes was there. “I’ve been expecting you,” he said. He invited them in for coffee.

“How you doing, John?” said the man in the gray suit, leaning over the safety rail of the bed. “John? Remember me?”

February 1988, seven years after the murders. It’s interesting that you jumped forward six and half years and then, to some extent, doubled back. Why did you do that?   You just advance, digress, then advance again. That’s my go-to. Sometimes I do it a little differently these days. I have noticed that in my earlier writing seems to roll in on itself too much, because each section kind of goes backwards. And even Todd Marinovich, the long form version, kind of does that, too. I mean, it’s what I do.  A sunny room in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sepulveda, California. The man in the suit was Los Angeles Police Department detective Tom Lange. Behind him was his partner, Mac McClain. The Wonderland case was still open. They had a few questions for John Holmes.

“We want to talk to you about Eddie Nash,” said McClain. “John? . . . Remember Eddie? . . . John? Are you awake?” Where does this dialogue come from? Oh, McClain! That’s the other detective! I’m pretty sure that’s the unnamed detective from earlier. That came from my interviews with Lange, McClain or Laurie Holmes.

Holmes’s eyelids fluttered. He weighed ninety pounds, his fingernails were two inches long. He was dying.

Following his arrest in Miami, Holmes was tried for the murder of the Wonderland Gang. His defense was simple: John Holmes was the “sixth victim” of the Wonderland murders, and Eddie Nash was “evil incarnate.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” his lawyer told the jury at the outset, “unlike some mysteries, this is not going to be a question of ‘Who done it? ’This is going to be a question of ‘Why aren’t the perpetrators here?’ ”

In the end, the most damaging evidence the prosecution could produce was a palm print on a headboard above one of the victims. Holmes refused to testify. The jury found him innocent.

Holmes remained in jail, however, on his outstanding burglary case. While awaiting that trial, he was ordered by a judge to tell the grand jury what he knew about the Wonderland murders. Because he’d already been tried, Holmes would not be able to invoke the Fifth Amendment. According to the law, he had to talk. He refused anyway. He’d underestimated Nash once, but he’d never do it again. Nash would kill him and his family if he talked, he was certain of it. He was held in the county jail for contempt.

In jail, Holmes went on a hunger strike. Two weeks later, it was reported that he’d lost only seven pounds. Jailers said other inmates were giving him candy bars. Later it was reported that Holmes interrupted his fast, ate a meal, then continued his fast.

Finally, on the afternoon of November 22nd, 1982, Holmes relented and testified. He’d been in jail eleven months in all, 110 days on the contempt charge. His attorney told reporters that he’d changed his mind because of “certain arrangements” that had been made and “certain circumstances” that had arisen. What he may have been referring to was the imprisonment, that very same morning, of Eddie Nash, on charges of dealing drugs.

Just after the murders, Nash and Diles had found themselves in a world of shit. Nash’s house was raided three times. Each time, drugs, money and weapons were seized. Each time, Nash made bail. Then Nash was arrested with three others on federal charges of racketeering, arson and mail fraud, an insurance scam. Nash’s three coconspirators were found guilty. Nash was acquitted.

In the end, both Diles and Nash went to jail. Diles got seven years on charges stemming from the drug raids. Nash was found guilty of possessing two pounds of cocaine for sale. At trial, his lawyer argued that the $1 million worth of coke was not for dealing, that it was strictly for personal use. During recesses in the trial, Nash would go out to his car and smoke freebase. Then he’d swallow a few Quaaludes and return. His lawyer hired a young associate to stick Nash with a pin whenever he nodded off in court.

The judge in the case was Everett E. Ricks Jr. It was obvious from his comments that Ricks, a hard-liner, considered Eddie Nash a plague. Ricks even came in from his sickbed to sentence Nash. Coughing into the microphone, Ricks called Nash “a danger to the public” and maxed him out. Eight years in prison, a $120,350 fine.  Did you attend the trial?   No, that was years before. Oh. This reminds me of the time Bob Woodward interviewed me for two days about Janet Cooke. At the end, I would have told him anything. Was that for an internal story?   No, it was to find out what happened. He grilled me in his office and then he said, “Meet me tomorrow at seven in the morning and I’ll take you to breakfast.” Then he started anew grilling me.   Did he hold you responsible? Well, I was on the edit trail because I rewrote the lede. She was annoyingly flaunting our relationship in-house, even after we weren’t having it anymore. I was still helping her with Jimmy and writing so I just said, “Send it to me.” So I fixed it and rewrote the lede, which I did all the time for her.   Given your experience with drugs, how come your bullshit detector didn’t go off with her story? No, it did. As I write in the story, I went to Pat Tyler and Joe Pichirallo–who were an investigative team on Metro–after Janet’s story came out and predicted that it would win a Pulitzer and turn out to be fake. It was the perfect storm of stories and I told them that. I also said, “I don’t know, because maybe I’m just jealous because she doesn’t deserve it…” I had to rewrite all her stories and she always had writer’s block. But I told people my reservations.   But you never told her.   No. The grownups were supposed to do their jobs.   Do you still keep in touch with Janet? I’m still in touch with her.

Two years later, Ricks reduced Nash’s sentence to time served, and Nash was released. Ricks cited Nash’s need for delicate surgery to remove a sinus tumor. “I wouldn’t want to be operated on in San Quentin Prison,” Ricks said sympathetically.

Two years later, Ricks, himself, was ordered held against his will for psychiatric observation. The fifty-two-year-old former jurist had been arrested after he allegedly punched his eighty-two-year-old mother and threatened to kill someone if she didn’t give him keys to a car.

After his release, Nash told a friend that jail had saved his life. He moved to a modest condo in Tarzana and set about rebuilding, taking college business courses at night. Drugs, inattention, back taxes and lawyers’ fees had depleted his fortune.

Holmes, meanwhile, had gone back to making films.

When he got out of jail, Holmes was jubilant. He greeted reporters, had dinner with his lawyer, then called Sharon. She told him to “get the fuck out of my life.” He couldn’t call Jeana. She was nowhere to be found.

Holmes had nothing to do and nowhere to go. His lawyer lent him a Volkswagen Beetle and $100, and Holmes showed up at his friend Amerson’s house. While Holmes was in jail, Amerson had started a company called John Holmes Productions. He was marketing Holmes’s old films on video. Like all porn actors, John had been paid per day and had signed away the rights to his own films. His old friend was happy to pick them up. “Let’s face it,” Amerson says, “John was a product. I marketed him. That’s what it’s all about. It’s business.”

With all the publicity from the murders, John Holmes had achieved almost mainstream celebrity. The video boom was just beginning, and Holmes became a kind of Marlon Brando of porn. No longer the leading man, he was now the featured oddity. In California Valley Girls, for instance, he had one scene. He came in, sat on a couch. A girl entered stage right. Then another girl, another. At the end, there were six working at once on his penis.

Early in 1983, Holmes was shooting Fleshpond at a studio in San Francisco. One of the actresses in the cast was Laurie Rose. Laurie was nineteen; she came from a small town outside Vegas. In the business she was billed as Misty Dawn, the anal queen of porn.

“That first time, we didn’t get to work together,” says Laurie, “but we were attracted. It sounds silly, but you know how you can meet someone for the first time and it’s like you know them already?”  At what point in the reporting did you talk to Laurie? How did you find her?   Through her lawyer. I had to make a deal with them.   Backend points on a movie or something like that?   Yeah. I actually only got a small amount of time because I didn’t want to give them more. It was a phoner. You get as much as you can. She was good for telling me that John didn’t want his penis cut off, the John Dillinger stuff. That was worth whatever I had to pay.

After the film, John and Laurie, who looked like Jeana, began dating. Usually, they smoked freebase and had sex. Then, says Laurie, “the third time I went up there, he came up to me with the mirror and said, ‘You want a hit?’ and I turned to him and said no. He looked shocked. He said, ‘Why not?’ and I said, ‘Because it makes me feel funny and I can’t talk.’ So he went in the bathroom, and he locked himself in. He stayed in there like three hours, and I’m just sitting there, you know, twiddling my thumbs. Finally he came out and said, ‘You know what? This stuff makes me feel funny too. I’m going to quit.’ ”

In time, John and Laurie moved in together at Amerson’s. When Amerson raised their rent to $400, they got their own place in Encino. John continued to make films, but he made Laurie stop. “He thought one porn person in the family was enough,” she says. “And the AIDS thing was just starting to come out. Nobody had gotten it yet; but it was still in the back of our minds. He thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to take a chance, that’s enough.’ ”

Apparently, Holmes had made good his promise and stopped doing drugs. John and Laurie stayed home a lot and watched videos. On weekends they went to swap meets and yard sales.

“Nobody ever came over,” says Laurie. “Nobody knew where we lived. His words to me were ‘Friends can get you killed.’ We were very careful. Then, when Eddie Nash got out of jail, John was very, very worried. We went on twenty-four-hour watch. For like three weeks, one of us had to be awake at all times. It was like being in a movie or something.”

By late 1984, John was working as an executive at Amerson’s VCX films. He was supposed to be doing sales and pre-production, writing and editing, in addition to acting. Amerson says Holmes spent most of his time playing cards and shooting darts. When VCX cut off Holmes’s salary, Amerson put up money to start Penguin Productions. Holmes was to run it. Laurie worked as a secretary.

“John was tired of the whole industry,” she says. “He wanted to make a million dollars so we could just leave and be done with it.”

Then, in the summer of 1985, John tested positive for AIDS.  So interesting to read this now. AZT wouldn’t be approved by the FDA for a couple of years and when your story came out it still hadn’t been approved for infants and children. It’s a time capsule, in a lot of ways.   At my age, probably, anyone who knows gay people, we know people who could be alive right now. And I just want to cry, saying that. I was very close to some people who died. They were young and talented and beautiful. I know a bunch of people who all died from fucking the same guy, you know? That’s just the way it goes. It’s funny, there were these two partners–one was a real estate agent, one was a journalist, Tom Morgan, who ended up going to the Times. Morgan was one of my mentors at night police. In, like, 1978, he said to me, “What would you say if I told you I was gay?” His lover, whose picture is upstairs and whose rug is on my floor, he didn’t get the same treatment as Tom. And he died 20 years ago. Tom Morgan lived until several years ago. It’s unbelievable.

“He went fucking crazy,” says Amerson. “He panicked, walked in circles around the doctor’s office, threw his briefcase down. He said, ‘I’m gonna die!’ and drove off.”

“When he came back,” says Laurie, “he was laughing about it. We closed up the office and went to the beach. We played our favorite songs, walked, talked. John said he felt like he was chosen to get AIDS because of who he was, how he lived. He felt like he was an example.”

John continued making films for a while. His last film was The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empress, starring Ilona “Ciccolina” Staller, a member of the Italian Parliament. By the time it was released, in 1987, Holmes’s health had already begun to slide. The word in the industry was that he had colon cancer. Holmes was telling people that doctors had removed sixteen feet of his large intestine. In truth, Holmes was operated on for hemorrhoids. Around that time, he also began developing complications related to AIDS. Amerson, meanwhile, accused his friend of embezzling $200,000 from the company. He cut Holmes off, canceled his insurance.

“John was really sick by this point,” says Laurie. “We moved around a lot because the rent kept going up. I was working as a computer programmer. John would just stay home. He was in so much pain, you couldn’t touch him. He couldn’t walk. His legs and feet would swell up, his ears would bleed, he had infections in his lungs. His surgery wouldn’t heal up, either. He was very upset about the business. He’d made all these people millions and millions of dollars. We were really broke. He called some people, and they said, ‘We’ll help you out.’ But we’d never get the money they promised.”

On January 24th, 1988, John and Laurie were married in the Little Chapel of the Flowers, in Las Vegas. It was a simple ceremony. The bride wore white. “It was a big ordeal for him,” says Laurie. “He knew he was dying. He knew we wouldn’t have a life together.”

In February, Holmes was admitted to the VA hospital in Sepulveda. Soon after, Detectives Lange and McCain called the hospital. They wanted to see Holmes. After seven years, the district attorney was reopening the Wonderland case, based, in part, on testimony from Scott Thorson, Liberace’s ex-lover. Thorson, who was waiting to be sentenced on a drug-related armed robbery, had sought a deal with police. He was prepared to testify that Eddie Nash had sent Holmes and Diles to Wonderland Avenue and that Nash felt responsible for the “bloody mess” that resulted. Now the police wanted Holmes’s testimony.

Laurie was standing at the door when Lange and McClain appeared down the corridor.

“John, they’re coming,” Laurie said in a stage whisper.

Holmes nodded his head, put out his cigarette, closed his eyes. “He was incoherent,” says Lange.

John Holmes died on March 13th, 1988. “His eyes were open,” says Laurie, “and it looked like he had looked up to Death and said, ‘Here I am.’ It was the most peaceful look I ever saw in my life. I tried to shut his eyes like in the movies, but they wouldn’t stay shut.”

Holmes didn’t want a funeral, but he did have a last wish.

“He wanted me to view his body and make sure that all the parts were there,” says Laurie. “He didn’t want part of him ending up in a jar somewhere. I viewed his body naked, you know, and then I watched them put the lid on the box and put it in the oven. We scattered his ashes over the ocean.”

Six months later, on September 8th, 1988, Diles and Nash were charged with the murders on Wonderland Avenue. After a preliminary hearing in January 1989, at which Thorson, among others, testified, Nash and Diles were bound over for trial this summer; they are currently being held without bail in the Los Angeles County Jail. Nash’s and Diles’s attorneys maintain their clients’ innocence and question the credibility of witnesses for the prosecution.  It’s extraordinary that the reader gets through almost the entire story before finding out about the news peg. Most editors, I think, would force a mention of this closer to the top, in order to “justify” the story. I know, but that was the grand old days. Look, if you take whatever day it was that Ben Bradlee started the Styles section and marry that with the New Journalists of New York and Esquire, that’s a golden era. This was right in the sweet spot of those stories. You were doing it for the art. You were trying to write stories that would last. You had to watch out because they couldn’t be updated, so how you covered a story was also an important consideration. Usually you’d cover it before or after a trial. So, in a sense, this is a pre-trial story for the Nash thing. I also did this for the monk story.

“You know,” says Detective Lange, “there’s no mystery here. Every time you read something, they say it’s a big mystery. Or the local TV says it’s a big mystery. Or that show out of New York, you know, A Current Affair. Big mystery. Like aliens or something. There’s no mystery. John Holmes didn’t go to his grave with anything but a very bad case of AIDS. He told us everything initially, right after it happened.”

“But it’s one thing to tell someone something,” says Lange. “It’s another thing to testify to it in court.”  Why did you end on this statement from Lange? You chose to finish with a guy who isn’t much in the story.   He’d been as haunted by the story as much as anyone. And he and the police presence are in and out. Isn’t the intuitive choice to end it with Sharon or Dawn? But they’re not in the story anymore, so it’s not intuitive to end it with them. I don’t need to review the story with something they said. It’s ending it now. The chronology has ended. It doesn’t have to circle back. Saving his dick is really the end of the story. The detectives just put a little bow on it.

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Third Coast Conference: Narrative off the news Thu, 20 Nov 2014 15:52:07 +0000 Editor’s note: In her third and final dispatch from the recent Third Coast audio storytelling conference, radio producer Julia Barton examines a dilemma  journalists in every medium face: how to create good narrative on deadline.  In a session titled “Making News Stories Good Stories,” producer Marianne McCune deconstructed her techniques for doing exactly that. Read Barton’s earlier reports from the conference: Part 1 and Part 2. Also, Third Coast has just released its first set of audio recordings from the 2014 conference

For all the buzz around longform and super-longform podcasts, the fact remains that most audio producers — at least in the United  States — are still doing daily news work. They work fast and short, making stories that fit rigid network schedules like the ones at NPR (which just this week got even tighter, with more frequent newscasts: for some background see here.).

A reporter might despair that there’s no room for creative or human storytelling within this frame. Not necessarily, says longtime producer Marianne McCune. In two packed sessions at the Third Coast conference, McCune showed some of the ways she’s made quick-turnaround news pieces memorable and profound.

Marianne McCune

Marianne McCune

McCune started off playing a WNYC news feature of hers that’s won many awards: a dispatch from the apartment of an 87-year-old woman stranded in her apartment high in a housing project building after Superstorm Sandy inundated lower Manhattan in 2012.

Admittedly, this was a dramatic time in New York, and stories were literally washing up everywhere. But McCune’s work stays with us because of the little things: the smell of ham going bad in the woman’s fridge. A conversation (over McCune’s cell phone) with a friend who urges her to leave and get help. The woman insists she’ll be fine. “Oh, you are so hard-headed!” her friend exclaims.

McCune also has the presence of mind to narrate what she sees, using her microphone as a notebook. All these moments add up to what she calls “the in-betweens”—basically scene tape, moments that happen in field recording as opposed to scripted narration later recorded in the studio. Scene tape usually bobs up and then recedes quickly in news pieces, if it exists at all.  But with forethought, the scene tape can actually serve as the structure of the story and carry much more of its expository weight. All of this results in a piece that avoids “boilerplate,” McCune said.

Most importantly, McCune said, good audio reporters just “linger” — hanging around, tape rolling, as long as possible after they’ve “gotten” the story they came for. Deadlines are real, yes, but within that time constraint McCune thinks every reporter “should figure out maximum linger time you can do. Know yourself well enough.” Although she knew she had to rush over to WNYC and start filing her story, McCune still hung around as long as she could in the housing project building, recording as people struggled down the dark stairwells and then tried to figure out where to get provisions.

People stopped being “interviewed” and had conversations with one another. You get a glimpse into their real situation, rather than a performance for a microphone. “While you’re lingering, things happen, and more happens than the thing you came for,” McCune said.

When McCune gets back to the station from a reporting trip, she outlines the story quickly—where she’ll use tape, and where she’ll need exposition.

“It’s so rare you come back from a story not remembering the best moments you have,” she says. She does not transcribe her tape but plucks out the best parts based on the outline. This sounds minor, but it’s crucial: our memories and instincts really are the best filter for prioritizing quick-turnaround material, and getting into the weeds of a full interview can be deadly to the composition process.

Finally, McCune says, before finishing the story script, she follows up with sources if possible, even if only half a day has passed. Her Sandy story ends with the news that friends of the “hard-headed” elderly woman came to her apartment and moved her in with a relative in Queens. McCune calls this follow-up “turning one page” in the narrative.

“For some reason, it’s very satisfying,” she says. Satisfying because the update offers a modicum of resolution. That, combined with rich scene tape and evocative details, make stories by reporters like McCune linger in our minds, long after all the neighboring stories on the crowded NPR clock fade from memory.

Julia Barton is a longtime public media editor, working with “Life of the Law,” American Public Media, “99% Invisible,” and individual producers. She’s also been the managing editor of Radiotopia, a podcast collective from PRX. Barton’s reporting has appeared on “Radiolab,” “99% Invisible,” “Studio 360,” PRI’s “The World,” and other programs. She lives in Brooklyn in life, online at  

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