Nieman Storyboard » Storyboard Posts http://niemanstoryboard.org Exploring the art and craft of story Fri, 21 Nov 2014 21:05:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8.1 Third Coast Conference: Narrative off the news http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/third-coast-conference-narrative-off-the-news/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/third-coast-conference-narrative-off-the-news/#comments Thu, 20 Nov 2014 15:52:07 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=117269 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. You can read Barton’s earlier reports from the conference here and here. Also, Third Coast has just released its first set of audio recordings from the 2014 conference, available here

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 juliabarton.com.  

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Third Coast Conference: the invisible craft of StoryCorps http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/third-coast-conference-the-invisible-craft-of-storycorps/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/third-coast-conference-the-invisible-craft-of-storycorps/#comments Mon, 17 Nov 2014 14:57:54 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=117221 Editor’s note: In her second dispatch from the recent Third Coast audio storytelling conference, radio producer Julia Barton looks at the approach the producers of StoryCorps, the non-profit oral history project, take to invisibly piece together their compelling stories. You can read her first dispatch from the conference, on the tension between journalism and storytelling, here.

NPR’s “Morning Edition” airs intense conversations every Friday, conversations you are not likely to forget: a woman forgives the man who shot and killed her son. A boy with Asperger’s syndrome asks his mother if she’s happy he was born. The stories are tender and real, and each one is unadorned by anything but a brief host introduction. There are none of the usual tools of audio storytelling: no narrator, no musical scoring, no “natural sound.”

David Isay

David Isay

These StoryCorps segments are only 2.5 minutes each, but they’re culled from 40-minute sessions recorded in the non-profit’s touring “booths” with two microphones and a facilitator who can help make the conversations meaningful.

Now 11 years old, StoryCorps has facilitated 50,000 such recordings. For their session at the Third Coast conference, StoryCorps founder David Isay and producer Michael Garofalo focused on how they get a select few of these recordings into shape for broadcast.

“There’s this illusion that people step into a StoryCorps booth and tell a perfect three-minute story,” Garofalo said. “There’s a lot of editing that goes on.”

No kidding. StoryCorps sessions are transcribed, but Garofalo doesn’t work from the logs. Once his team has selected a recording to break down, they go through it in ProTools, an audio production system, flagging sections by theme, and also flagging transitional words that might come in handy when rearranging bits of conversations. He showed us his list of 23 “buts” for one session.

In the end, the 2.5 minute broadcast version he showed us had 274 separate edits. That’s an average of almost two per second.

But even more goes into the back end of these productions, and that involves the participants themselves. They have to give StoryCorps permission to broadcast, of course, but they also cooperate with fact-checking as producers try to corroborate any incidents or facts that come up in the conversation. And finally, StoryCorps must get their permission for the final edited version before it goes to NPR. No one has ever refused, Garofalo says. In fact, “there’s a lot of crying” when people hear the distillation, he said.

Isay drew the name of his presentation from a Zen proverb he keeps tacked above his desk: “A good craftsman leaves no trace.” That disappearance is very much what StoryCorps is all about: elevating, above all else, those who speak. But so much art and intention goes into leaving no trace, it strikes me as the hardest work of all.

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 juliabarton.com.  

 

 

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Third Coast Conference: Are journalism and storytelling “frenemies?” http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/third-coast-conference-are-journalism-and-storytelling-frenemies/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/third-coast-conference-are-journalism-and-storytelling-frenemies/#comments Fri, 14 Nov 2014 16:25:09 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=117190 Editor’s Note: Every other fall, hundreds of radio producers, journalists, documentarians and other audio artists gather in Chicago for the Third Coast conference to examine, explore and celebrate the world of audio storytelling. In the first of a series of dispatches from the 2014 conference, which took place last week, radio producer Julia Barton writes about a panel discussion on the question of where storytelling and journalism meet– and collide– in audio.

The session, called “Journalism and Storytelling: Frenemies?,” featured moderator Joe Richman, founder and producer of Radio Diaries, which gives people tape recorders to report their own lives; Brooke Gladstone, the co-host and managing editor of the public radio program “On the Media;” Roman Mars, host and creator of the podcast “99% Invisible;” and Andrea Silenzi, senior producer of Slate’s daily news show, “The Gist,” and host of the radio program “Why Oh Why?”.

Part of what makes the Third Coast International Audio Festival so intense, I’ve come to believe, is the lonely nature of life as an audio producer. Much of the world doesn’t understand the basics of what happens between our headphones and computer screens, and that creates a haze of silence around the professional decisions we have to make every day.

Many of those decisions have to do with interview tape: what to keep, what to remove, and how to balance the needs of a story’s framework while remaining honest to people who have trusted us with their voices.

 So it’s a relief to be in a room full of people who “get” these problems—problems which are at their core ethical. Radio Diaries producer Joe Richman started off the festival with a lively discussion of ethics, although he and the other panelists all agreed that “codes of behavior” is perhaps a better term for what audio producers need to develop.

It was fascinating to hear where people draw the line in their own work. “On the Media” co-host and managing editor Brooke Gladstone will cut and re-arrange an interview for length and clarity, and she’s a vicious excisor of “ums” and pauses (disclosure: I temped once as a producer at “On the Media”). But she’ll never insert a pause to slow an interview down.

“A pause suggests emotional moment,” Gladstone said. “To put one in would be like putting a word in the mouth of the person.”

But each story comes with its own set of dilemmas. In his “Radio Diaries” documentary series on Nelson Mandela, Richman included an interview about curfews in apartheid South Africa. At the sound of an evening bell, blacks knew they had to get off the streets. Richman found a 1940s record of church bells in Johannesburg to mix under the moment when the interviewee recalled the sound of the bell.

“You shouldn’t cheat, you shouldn’t take shortcuts,” Richman said. “Still, what if all I could find were bells from 1950s in Durban? Or Nigeria? Or Poughkeepsie?” In other words, when would the audio demands of the story lead us too far astray?

“He’s going ‘bong bong bong,’ and if you didn’t have ‘bongs’ in there, you’d go crazy!” Gladstone exclaimed. But “the closer you can get to his situation is best. That’s your goal as a documentarian.”

 “Poughkeepsie is too far,” “99% Invisible” host Roman Mars said. “That is your limit.”

What made this panel especially useful (and not a bloated discussion of ethics in audio journalism) was its nod to producers who inhabit a still-murky creative realm between audio fiction and verité. We tend to trust that voices we hear on the radio are who they say they are, but some producers like to play with that assumption.

In addition to producing Slate’s “The Gist,” Andrea Silenzi produces a live program and podcast “Why Oh Why?” at WFMU, a freewheeling, all-volunteer station in New Jersey. Silenzi played a moment with a recurring guest on her show named Randy. At Silenzi’s request, Randy sized her up as a possible date: “You are a little stumpy,” he declares. “But you have a clean, rural smell.” Randy’s so creatively obnoxious that some suspect he’s an acted character rather than a “real” person. But Silenzi won’t say whether he’s real or not.

Gladstone was not sure she liked that. “It’s possible to have a relationship with your audience where things are ambiguous,” she told Silenzi. “But if the energy is dependent on the authenticity, then that might be a violation [of trust].”

But for Silenzi—at least in the context of “Why Oh Why?”—toying with authenticity is part of a new media literacy that can be pleasurable. “I think people do know to ask, ‘Is it real?’ now with the Internet,” she said. “It’s this fun process where you imagine if it’s real and then ask whether it’s not.”

And artifice is baked into what we do anyway, said Roman Mars. “When you introduce microphones to real world, it becomes inauthentic. The craft is working back to making it feel real again.”

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 juliabarton.com.  

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5 Questions for Tyler Hicks http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/5-questions-for-tyler-hicks/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/5-questions-for-tyler-hicks/#comments Wed, 12 Nov 2014 13:27:41 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=117173 Some of the most compelling, controversial images of conflict and terror in recent memory — a woman hiding with her children, motionless on a restaurant floor, a man carrying a boy’s body along a Gaza beach — have come from the camera of New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks. Hicks, whose work has taken him to Syria, Libya and many other troubled spots, won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in breaking news photography for his images of the Sept. 21, 2013 terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi and was a member of the Times team awarded the 2009 Pulitzer in international reporting for coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2006, he was named Newspaper Photographer of the Year by Pictures of the Year International.

Hicks recently visited the Nieman Foundation to deliver the annual Joe Alex Morris Jr. Memorial Lecture, which brings an American overseas correspondent or commentator on foreign affairs to Harvard to discuss international reporting. Before his speech, Hicks sat down with Storyboard and talked about working with reporters, the ubiquity of imagery and the one subject he’d most like to shoot. An edited conversation follows:

You work so closely with reporters, with people who are writing stories, and of course, you’re telling a story with images. Is your method the same, or different? How do you think the same or differently about storytelling? How much autonomy do you feel in that relationship? How much is it a two‑way street?

It depends on the reporter. It’s natural for some photographers and reporters to work really well together, and other relationships can be completely poisonous, terrible.

When you do find that right combination, it works very well. For me, I was lucky, I teamed up with Chris Chivers and we spent 10 years covering wars together, and we’re very good friends. It’s like going on the road with your fishing buddy. You have to have that relationship so you don’t end up killing each other.

Living next to somebody under those circumstances, where you can go a month or longer where you’re never more than 10 feet away from somebody. That would be true for Afghanistan, Syria, Libya. You’re always in the same space, whether it’s the same car, or the same military vehicle, whether you’re sleeping next to each other in sleeping bags. You have to have a pretty high tolerance for that person. I don’t care how well you get along.

I’d say with Chivers, he’s usually the one driving the direction of the story, but it puts me in places that I would never normally go. I think that I’m right, and then it turns out I’m not. Sometimes, I might see something that he doesn’t see. It really does work to have that type of relationship.

That said, I also work on my own sometimes. Gaza, where I was working most recently, is a good example of that, where my needs are much different than the reporter’s needs.

That’s very much a visual story that requires a higher level of risk that there’s absolutely no reason for the reporter to be taking. They can get those stories in the hospital and not go out at the times of day when things are more likely to happen, so I actually make a point not to work with a reporter in that place.

What about the public or political response to some of your images? You get such a strong response to a photograph that is a photograph of an event, but is interpreted politically as favoring one side or the other. Does that affect you personally and professionally? Is that something that you’re mindful of when you’re shooting, or think about afterward?

No matter how you’re doing it, there’s going to be an imbalance. The New York Times tries to balance that as much as possible. In the case of Gaza, having a photographer on the Palestinian side and another photographer on the Israeli side, and balance those images as far as how they’re run in the newspaper.

My role in that is very small. My job is to take pictures, to send them to the New York Times, and then that’s the end of my responsibility with it.

It actually can be very frustrating and distracting to look too much at what the dialogue is, with so much access. With so much freedom for people to respond to those photographs, it can become very emotional.

On the one hand that’s what covering news is all about. I take a photograph or a story runs, and that’s up to the reader or the viewer to interpret in any way they want. One person might look at a photograph I’ve taken and view it as some kind of propaganda. The other might see it as underscoring the civilian casualties at the hands of the Israeli military, and everything in between.

After I’ve sent my photographs, and being in Gaza, where it is very political, and you’re at the end of the day very exhausted, the best thing to do is not to go and start reading through the reams of comments.

Is it harder to be a photographer now that there are so many channels for people to talk back?

It’s not harder, I think it’s different. It’s not just about how people communicate in regard to pictures, but it’s also about the amount of photographs that are out there.

I think back to when I worked in the Balkans, that some of the first assignments I had for the New York Times, there was a Times reporter and a photographer that worked with that reporter, and that was it. It would be pretty rare for them to use any other picture, or for you to ever see a picture outside of that run in the New York Times.

Today, no matter what you see or get in any given place or time, there’s going to be 100 other people who have taken pictures and sent them, and the Times has seen them. There’s a lot more competition, but then you have to ask yourself, what is that competition? How do we determine, how do we decide what is valid news?

We work for a place like the Times because we have a certain track record, and they trust us, and there’s a book of ethics that we follow. All that’s got thrown out the window, and it’s this buffet of pictures out there. Are we just going to publish those because somebody said this is true, and this isn’t set up, this really happened?

In some cases, yes. There’s always that footnote these days. “This is something, a photograph that was said to be taken of,” or “Believed to be of,” and there’s a lot less of, “This happened, because we know where this came from.”

Do you think the ubiquity of imagery devalues the kind of work that you do, or makes it even more important?

It makes the work more important, because we have to keep up the tempo of quality news. The highest‑quality news is that marriage between a story and a photograph that comes from the reporting, and the team.

I’ve always worked for newspapers, whether it’s for the New York Times or small daily newspapers domestically before that, where I’ve always been teamed up with a reporter. Where sometimes you might feel that slows you down, much more common is that it actually makes your field of view much wider, and brings a much richer amount of information to the reader.

That’s really what we’re after. If I take a photograph and it doesn’t run, or it doesn’t get published, or it doesn’t have context, then the picture’s not ever worth taking if it’s not seen. It has to be seen, it has to be digested, in order for it to have any value whatsoever.

What would you like to shoot that haven’t yet had the chance to shoot?

I’d like to have complete access to see behind the lines of ISIS…That’s something that we haven’t seen. Aside from their own propaganda, what they masquerade as news, which is very controlled and very fake. To actually see how they’re fighting this, and how they’re controlling people, to have access to that today would be extremely valuable.

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Annotation Tuesday: Jonathan Goldstein and The Little Mermaid http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/annotation-tuesday-jonathan-goldstein-and-the-little-mermaid/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/annotation-tuesday-jonathan-goldstein-and-the-little-mermaid/#comments Tue, 04 Nov 2014 14:44:56 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=117104 Annotation Tuesday ventures into a new medium today with our first annotation of a radio story. It’s a natural fit. The human voice is, of course, the original storytelling instrument. Plus, some of the most innovative narrative work out there these days is in audio. (For more on that, check out our interview last week with the producers of the hit podcast “Serial.”)

The piece we’ve selected to inaugurate this feature originally aired on “This American Life” in 2002. Titled “Buddy Picture,” it’s better known today as “The Greatest Phone Message of All Time,”  or, more simply, “The Little Mermaid.” If you’ve never heard Jonathan Goldstein’s classic story about the phone message that turned an annoyed mother into a Columbia University celebrity, stop reading and click here now.

We chose this story not only because it’s exceptionally entertaining but because it’s such a classic that it inspired “This American Life” host Ira Glass to create a new award for this year’s competition at the Third Coast audio conference, which opens Friday in Chicago. “The Little Mermaid” prize, to be announced Sunday, will recognize a 3-60 minute documentary or story that is “FUN in subject matter and style,” according to the competition guidelines. As Glass writes on the Third Coast website:

“Now and then it occurs to me that some of my very favorite radio stories would never ever win an award because they’re not about anything Big and Serious and Important. There’s a whole class of stories I love hearing and doing that really are just out for fun. These stories often require just as much craft and thought and cunning as the big important stuff. Radio would be duller and sadder without them.”

Jonathan Goldstein, who wrote and produced the “The Little Mermaid,” now hosts the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio show “WireTap.” We asked another former “TAL” producer, Lisa Pollak, to interview Goldstein about the craft and thinking that went into his piece. They met last week at the CBC’s New York City bureau, where they discussed, among other topics, the beauty of the phrase “bitch squealer,” the control-freak nature of good radio production and how a “w” sound can keep you out of trouble.

Also, please heed the caveat on all the program’s web transcripts, which warns that the stories are “produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read.” In other words, if you haven’t already stopped to listen to the story, do it now, before reading this annotation.

Lisa Pollak’s comments are in red ; Jonathan Goldstein’s responses are in blue . But first, some questions:

Lisa Pollak: Before we get to the annotation, can you tell me how this story came about?

Jonathan Goldstein

Jonathan Goldstein

Jonathan Goldstein: Well, I think it started with me wanting to get my friend Josh [Karpati] on the radio. But I couldn’t just say, “My friend Josh is really funny so we should put him on the show.” Working for a show like TAL, which is so story-driven, I had to figure out a story.  I’ve described it subsequently as a Trojan horse for me to get Josh on the air.  And even the message itself was a kind of MacGuffin —  something to orbit around so I could kind of put on stage my dynamic with Josh, which I thought was an entertaining one based on our telephone calls.  Josh is a semi-regular on the show I’m doing now, “WireTap” on the CBC, and, in some ways, that Little Mermaid story was a blueprint for the entire show.

So the phone message story was one you’d heard from him.

Yes, it was just something he’d always talked about.

I worried a little that asking you about this story was like asking a band to play that hit song they’re tired of talking about.

It’s a bit weird because I did it like 15 years ago or so. But not everybody has a story like that which connects with people. If you’re lucky you’ll have something like that. So it’s cool. And I feel like I was lucky in terms of the facts of it, the way that things all kind of came together. The fact that the message was preserved, and that everyone I spoke to knew about it. It’s a pleasure when you’re working on a story where everyone wants to participate and everybody has a memory. It was a fun experience.

Any thoughts on why audiences love this piece so much?

I think it adheres to Ira Glass’s idea about what makes a radio narrative work… presenting a new enigma every 45 seconds or so. So it continues to surprise as you listen. I also think it’s fun to listen to someone be yelled at on national radio.

“Buddy Picture”
By Jonathan Goldstein
“This American Life”
January 11, 2002

 Ira Glass: And so without further ado, let us turn now to Act One. This Act One is the story of the greatest phone message of all time. Some people see it that way anyway. You may judge for yourself. A quick warning that there is one famously nasty word in this story that occurs exactly seven times. Count them yourself. But do not worry. We beep the word every single time. Producer Jonathan Goldstein tells the tale.  Since this is Nieman’s first-ever annotation of an audio piece, I’ll point out that this is called a host intro. Did you write it or did Ira?   Ira did, I’m sure, though I remember that he thought we needed to get in front of the swear words and I believe it was my idea to make that into a joke and actually count them, and possibly allow the listener to count them down. And while we’re on the subject, how does a having a host intro affect the way you write a lead? Do you think of it as a headline or something more?   I think the intro can be helpful. It can get the paperwork out of the way and let you get to the meat, the jokes, more quickly. It allows you to coldcock the listener [and] take the stage in the best way possible. It’s not so much a headline, as a headline might tell too much and step on what’s to come, but is the work of an introduction… sometimes delivered by a hype man.

Josh Karpati

Josh Karpati

Jonathan Goldstein: The first thing you should know about my friend Josh is that he calls me a “bitch squealer.” Now, “bitch” isn’t the bad word you’re going to be hearing in this story. And that’s because it’s referring to an actual dog, a fenced-in security dog that barked at me and Josh while we were out walking one night. And while my scream may have been louder that evening, Josh’s scream was definitely higher-pitched, which to my mind means Josh should rightfully be called the “bitch squealer,” while perhaps I should be called something like “bitch bellower” or “bitch loud crier.” Just the same, “Quit your bitch squealing” is what Josh says to me when I ask him to please change the station on the car radio or to stop crowding the armrest in the movie theater.   Was it a no-brainer to start with bitch squealer or did it take some work to figure out the lead?   I feel like everything I’m going to say will do nothing but take away from people’s enjoyment of this story. But I think it’s a kind of poetry. Like certain phrases and word constructions such as “bitch squealer” or whatever are just funny. Like “diggy do.” And you can feel it.  The other thing to know about Josh is that he thinks of himself as an idea man. And he always refers to his ideas as pure gold. So a few years ago, when I first started doing stories on the radio, I would call him up and ask him if he had any story ideas. And he always did. The thing was, most of them involved hot dog eating contests and all-nude car washes. One time Josh talked to a French-Canadian waitress who used the words “diggy do” as a conjunctive phrase, as in, “My mother, she gave birth to me in Lac Saint-Louis, and diggy do, I’m in Montreal.” Josh tried to convince me that this semantically innovative young woman was most definitely worthy of a 40-minute interview on national radio.

Just the other day, Josh was telling me about this really funny phone message that he heard back in his college days, and how I should definitely do a radio show about that. He swore to me that it was the defining moment in his class’s campus life that year. Now, how is a person supposed to believe something like that?  At the risk of further crushing the audience’s  enjoyment, can you break down your decision to frame the piece around Josh trying to sell you on his idea? I think a lot of writers would have heard about the phone message and figured that was the whole story.    I felt like [the message] was one of those kinds of pitches that on paper wouldn’t sound like very much… a story about one of these fancy-pants guys from Columbia and the rip-roaring time that they had in college. There’s no stakes there. The stakes come from me looking like an idiot because I don’t believe Josh. And in the end he is right and I’m wrong and I get my comeuppance and everyone goes home happy. It feels like something happened. And it’s kind of meta …like the story itself becomes a character because you’re rooting for it to succeed. So not only do you get the satisfaction of hearing the message, but there’s the added satisfaction that it actually exists, that Josh was right.

Jonathan: I can imagine you really liking this message.

Josh: Oh, I see. I see.

Jonathan: But you see, I can’t imagine it being the kind of thing that was like—

Josh: That your sedate NPR audience would appreciate?

Jonathan: No, no, no. I mean it sounds like you got a kick out of it at the time. But I can’t imagine it being like an atomic bomb that hit the campus or something.

Josh: Yeah. See, this is clearly another example of the failure of your imagination. How many times have I given you ideas that you have naysaid? How many times have I given you gold-standard ideas—  So where did this conversation take place?   Josh went into a studio in Montreal and I was in the studio in Chicago at the time.  I remember having a conversation with Ira where I said, “Aren’t people going to wonder, when I say, ‘Just the other day Josh was telling me’….Won’t that seem strange that we conduct our conversations in a radio studio?” And [Ira] was like, ‘No you have to understand, the audience, they think we’re these little people that live in the radio…’ He had this whole reasoning for it, and he was right. He just knew it was going to be invisible, and I was overthinking it.   I feel like it goes without saying that this tape is brilliant, but can you spell out why it was important for you to record Josh telling the story?   I thought to just tell the story in script wasn’t enough. What I wanted to do is give people the enjoyment of hearing the story the way I heard it, and in order for that enjoyment to exist, you had to get to know Josh the way I know Josh. You had to get to know our dynamic.

Jonathan: Josh yells at me a lot, especially when he thinks I’m not taking his ideas seriously. When we go out to eat, he yells at me loud enough to make the other patrons turn around and look at us. Sometimes though, he’ll get all unexpectedly silent, and just stare out the restaurant window, and then turn to me and say something like, “Wouldn’t life be better if there was a big old pig sitting out there by the fire hydrant? Why can’t life be more like that?”

But anyway, to get back to the phone message, the one Josh heard in college, I’m telling you about it not to demonstrate what a slightly misguided colorful character Josh is, but to chart with honesty the unfairness of my pre-emptive bitch squeals of doubt.

Josh: I went to Columbia University in the early ’90s, OK? Late ’80s, early ’90s. When I was there, they had this phone system– I’ll just give you a little bit of background, all right? And then I’ll cut to the chase. They has this system there called the Rolm system, Rolm phone system, R-O-L-M. And you could forward messages to people. You could forward messages to everyone on campus if you wanted.

Jonathan: Sort of like a precursor to the Internet.

Josh: Yes, like a precursor to the Internet. Thank you, Mr. Current Affairs Guy. So it was an amazing utility. People could forward all kinds of crazy messages. So one day, there was this guy named Fred. And his mother left him a message on his answering machine. And he forwarded it to maybe one or more of his friends. And his friends turned around and did a Brutus, and they stabbed him in the back. And they forwarded this message across campus to everyone. So do you want to hear the message? All right. So he prefaced it by saying–

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.

Jonathan: OK.

Josh: All right. So he prefaced it by some kind of a sad little lead-in. In a little voice, he was like, “I think you’d would appreciate hearing this message from my mother.” And then the message played. This was the entirety of the message. And I’m going to do the voice for you as best I can. You ready?

Jonathan: Yeah.

Josh: Oh, sorry. More background. Apparently, he was not a hit with the ladies, Fred. This is what I was led to understand. I’m not sure if this is true or not. But he had managed to score a date to go see “The Little Mermaid,” of all movies. “The Little Mermaid.” OK? So this is the message his own mother, his blood relation, leaves for him. And I quote, “You and ‘The Little Mermaid’ can both go [BLEEP] yourselves. The books you wanted, they’re not here. They must be in La Jolla. I’m not going to wait up all night for you. Goodbyyye.” That’s the entirety of it. All right?

Jonathan: Yeah. That’s the message that his mother left him?

Josh: That’s correct. You catch that part? “You and The ‘Little Mermaid’ can both go [BLEEP] yourselves.” I love you, son. That’s gold.

Josh: And then– no, hold on. Are you going to listen?

Jonathan Yes.

Josh: Then somebody took it– some evil mix-meister genius took it and remixed it into a 12-inch dance version. “You and The Little Mermaid, La Jolla, La Jolla, [BLEEP] yourselves, [BLEEP] yourselves. They’re not here, the books. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Jonathan: And there are other people who remember it?

Josh: Are you even listening to a word I just told you? This was the “The Producers” of its day, OK? Everyone heard about it. Everyone knew it. Everyone had an opinion about it. Every single person who attended Columbia that year, I guarantee you they would know what I’m talking about.

Jonathan: I still didn’t believe him. But just for the hell of it, I phoned the Columbia alumni magazine to see if there was anyone there who might remember anything about the Little Mermaid message. I ended up speaking to someone who not only attended Columbia in the early ’90s and remembered the message, but just like Josh had, he actually quoted it to me, the whole message. “You and The Little Mermaid can both go [BLEEP] yourselves. I can’t find the books. They must be in La Jolla. I’m not going to wait up all night for you. Goodbye.” The guy then became so excited at the thought of someone doing serious research about the message that he offered to use the Columbia database to look up every Fred that might have graduated around that time. No matter how long it took, he said, it would be worth it if I could track down some recording of the message and allow him to hear it again. Were you surprised by how into it they all were?    Yes. I remember making this call at my desk and then the person’s whole tone changed. I wasn’t even recording the call.

[PHONE DIALING]

I called other Columbia students from that period. And every one of them reacted the same way to the message, like this guy Ben Feldman, now an entertainment lawyer.

Ben Feldman: Hello.

Jonathan: Is this Ben?

Ben: Yes.

Jonathan: I have two words for you, little mermaid.  This guy is on the phone and not in a studio , so you were recording your actual first call to him?   Yeah, with the phone you can take more chances. When you book someone into a studio, you have to know a bit more and take less of a gamble, because you have to book a tech, have them drive to the studio, etc. I think this was an idea from Ira that he had gotten from a story he had once heard. He said when you call up this guy, say ‘I have two words for you…’ I took a chance and it led to that great opener.

Ben Feldman: This is the funniest call I’ve ever received. Well, you and “The Little Mermaid “can go to hell.

Jonathan: A few days later, Josh called me back. He had found out Fred’s last name from his older brother, who it turns out graduated the same year as Fred. Josh said that Fred’s last name was Schultz. And I told Josh that this was great news. And Josh told me to shut my squeal hole, which I did.

So I called Fred Schultz. And it turns out that he had recorded the original message and still had a copy of it, a copy which I am now going to play for you. Remember, this is a phone message that was forwarded from one person to the next, each person re-prefacing the previous prefaces as it made its way from one voice mail message box to the next.

Voice Mail: Received at 4:20 PM Friday.

Woman 1: Guys, I have never heard a phone mail message like this one. Listen to the first person. You are going to die.

Man 1: No seriously, this is the funniest one of all of them.

Woman 2: All right, here it is–

Jonathan: These giddy introductory messages continue for two and 1/2 minutes, each one revving up the impending drama, acting as a kind of stage curtain that opens onto another curtain, and yet another one still, each one teasing you with the tantalizing proximity of the main stage about to be bathed in the spotlight.  The way you set up the tape here makes it even funnier and more dramatic than it would be on its own. Can you talk about the thinking behind this writing?   Basically, I’m telling people what’s happening as it’s happening. But you have to be economical. I can’t play all two and a half minutes of tape here so I want to give people the pleasure of the tape in a tighter way. I want people to find the tape entertaining in the way that  I find it entertaining That’s the great thing about radio, how you can juxtapose script with tape and have each one enhance the other and work in tandem and that’s the pleasure of mixing. There was a lot of time and thought put into what would be the tape that comes up –the funniest blip that really pops, and you use the other stuff underneath while you’re talking.

Man 2: OK, I’ve gotten like 95 phone mail messages in the last two days, but this is the funniest.

Man 3: This is going to blow you away. This makes the other ones look like chopped liver.

Jonathan: And then finally the chain of deferral ends with the very first forwarded student’s solemn pronouncement.

Man 4: There comes a time in life when we hear the greatest phone mail message of all time. And well, here it is. You have to hear it to believe it.

Fred Schultz: I thought you’d get a kick out of this message from my mother.

Joan Schultz: Hi, Fred. You and The Little Mermaid can go [BLEEP] yourselves. I told you to stay near the phone. I can’t find those books. You have other books here. It must be in La Jolla. Call me back. I’m not going to stay up all night for you. Goodbye.  Do you think you could have done the story without a tape of the message?    I think I needed to have it. It makes [the story] so much more satisfying, doesn’t it? It feels like we’ve gone someplace. Because we really aren’t going anywhere. It’s just me talking to people in a studio. There’s no real scenes. And yet it feels like we’ve gone on this odyssey.

Jonathan: These days, Fred Schultz lives in Venice Beach, California. He plays in a band, he skateboards, and he pretty much seems happy. When he sent me the recording of the Little Mermaid message, he also included burnt incense and a CD of his band’s soundtrack for a film about cannibalism called Eat Me. Here’s a clip. [MUSIC - "EAT ME"] Fred is the kind of guy who, when the subject gets on to future plans, will tell you he’s thinking pretty seriously about moving onto a boat.  Did you meet Fred in person?   No, he went into a studio in California. Years later, I met the technician who had mic’d Fred. [The technician] told me, and this speaks to what’s great about radio, because you weren’t distracted by the fact that Fred showed up to the studio barefoot with just half a beard on one side of his face and clean-shaven on the other side, and I think dreadlocks on both sides of his head. And then I got on his mailing list and he was running for president, I think with a dog as his running mate or something.   I think so many writers would have use a cliche like “free spirit” or “doesn’t follow convention” to describe Fred. The boat is so memorable and totally gives you a picture of him.    I remember that as being Ira’s idea. He asked what I knew about Fred and I mentioned the thing about the incense that he sent in the mail and also that he talks quite a bit about his plans to move onto a boat. Ira could see that it was all you needed to know about him in a way that I don’t think I was able to clue into then.

When I ask him about the phone message from his mom, he says that from the moment he got it, he knew he was sitting on something big. The question then became, what was he going to do with it?

Fred: I did sit down and stress and think about it for like an hour or two. I debated whether to send the message out to anyone. And then I sat down and listened to music, and just thought about it, re-listening to the message and just thinking, should I send this along or just let it die, kill it, hit erase.

Jonathan: But Fred decided not to hit erase. And he explains his mother’s cryptic message this way. He had called looking for an old school notebook. She said she’d search for it, but only if he’d wait by the phone while she did this special favor for him. But did he stay by the phone? No, he did not. As for “The Little Mermaid,” this was the one thing Josh was completely wrong about.

Fred: My whole life, I have had a thing about mermaids– and dolphins, but mermaids.

Jonathan: When you love mermaids that much — and dolphins– you don’t keep that to yourself.

Fred: My outgoing message, first it had Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” singing “Part of Your World,” singing like, “Part of your world/What would I give if I could live out of these waters?” And then I jump on and say, “Hi, please leave a message for me and ‘The Little Mermaid.’” And then you hear beep.

Jonathan: Now put yourself in his mother’s shoes. To hear Joan Schultz, Fred’s mom, tell the story, that outgoing message was like a call to arms.

Joan: I hear “The Little Mermaid” music. And he said, “Sorry I can’t answer you now. Please leave a message for me and ‘The Little Mermaid.’” Well, that’s all I had to hear. I was so infuriated and so incensed, that without even thinking– and I never ever say this word– I said, Fred, you and “The Little Mermaid” can both go [BLEEP] yourselves. And I slammed the phone down.  The moment we first get to hear from Joan is so surprising and satisfying. It’s like, You got her to talk!  And she’s really likable.   Yeah, you’re sort of on her side a little bit. Because Fred’s kind of like —  you can imagine if he was your son he’d be driving you crazy. I’m overstating it but you know, I wanted her to have her moment too.   Was she different than you expected?   I think I was most surprised by how formal she was being. Like she was on her best behavior. She reminded me a bit of my own mother. We weren’t in the same studio but if I were to imagine her, I would picture a woman dressed up for going out in the Sixties. Cat’s eye glasses. Stole. Handbag on lap. I’m not sure why. At no point did I feel sorry for Fred.

Jonathan: So late that night, studying in his dorm room for finals, Fred finally decides to forward the message to his friend Jeff. Then Fred goes to bed. And by the next morning, he wakes up to discover, that just like one of those guys in one of those movies, his life has suddenly become forever changed.

Fred: My message machine was blinking that all 10 messages that it accepts are filled. They were all filled with people– like chains of 20– it had already gone around to say each chain had hit 20 or 30 people.

Jonathan: How many people heard it over the course of the night?

Fred: Hundreds had already heard it in the middle of the night.

Jonathan: Over the course of how many hours?

Fred: Like four hours.

Jonathan: What was then to follow for the Schultzes was nothing short of campus-wide celebrityhood. Women ran up to Fred and hugged him. Men envied him for his ability to inspire that much raw transparent hostility in his mother. The phone message was so popular that, like a hit TV show, it spawned spin-offs. Other messages circulated with people commenting on the original.

Woman 3: As a history major, I think we’ve got to put this into a class struggle perspective. His mother represents–

Man 5: From a political science standpoint, I would say that both Fred and his mother are products of the political system.

Man 6: I feel that Mrs. Schultz’s sexual desire for her son, Fred, is manifest.

Jonathan: And Josh was even right about the dance remix version of the message.

Joan: You and The Little Mermaid can go [BLEEP] yourselves. The Little Mermaid can go [BLEEP] yourselves, yourselves, mother, mother.

Jonathan: Although no official at Columbia could confirm this next claim, virtually everyone I spoke to who graduated Fred’s year remembers this as a point of fact. The popularity of the Little Mermaid yielded message threads that were too long for the new voice mail technology to handle. And so the messaging service for the whole of Columbia crashed.

It goes further still. Fred’s mother’s message went on to become the most crowd-pleasing musical number from the year-end Varsity Show, a time-honored all-male production that goes back to Columbia alumni Rodgers and Hammerstein in the early 1900s. The choreographed routine involved a kick line of hairy-legged men in seashell brassieres and mermaid tails. Steve Nadick, the show’s lyricist, dug out the words and favored me with a few select lines.

Steve: Oh, here it is. Look at that. But I don’t even know if this is the final wording, because I see some handwritten notes on the side. It starts off, “We beautiful creatures inhabit the sea. Fish-women, frolicking frivolously. Although no one said that we’d have to enjoy-a, it still could be worse. We might be in La Jolla.” And we sang “in La Jolla” as Handel’s “Messiah.” “So it’s time to decide what you might want to do. We’re not going to wait up all night for you. Goodbye.”

One thing that’s impossible to appreciate in this transcript is how much the music adds to the comedy and pure enjoyment of the piece. This spot, where “Hallelujah” plays, seems like a good time to ask:  Did you pick the music?   I scored the piece, yes.   Explain what that entails.   Generally, I would audition about an hour, an hour and a half’s worth of music that seemed appropriate… trying out various songs. A great deal of time is put into this, as you know. And usually happens until late at night , the night before broadcast. It’s kind of an ineffable business, but the idea is to have songs in there that round various bases, make you feel like you’re going some place, being told a story.   Were there any particular choices that you’re really proud of?   In listening again, I do like how the music stops in the diggy do story —  like it’s an old-timey snare drum rim shot — and kicks back up. It’s subtle but time consuming. I’ve jokingly said that radio can be such a control-freak kind of thing because you can read the script the way you feel it should be read, you can apply the kind of scoring music you want, all of these things. If it’s the wrong song, you can see the wires and you feel like you’re being pushed to feel something that you’re not inclined to feel. But if it’s the right song, it gives you that extra little push to feel some emotion. It’s telling people what to feel. And if you’re on the money and you’re telling them to feel the things that’s appropriate, then it’s great…but if it’s off, it just feels like people see the artifice of it.

Jonathan: As even the most casual viewer of VH1′s “Behind the Music” knows, fame like this doesn’t come without a price. When Fred’s mother came to New York for her son’s graduation, she experienced the darker side of super stardom.

Joan: On Broadway, in restaurants, in the shops there they would say things like, that’s Fred’s mother. That’s the Little Mermaid. And I was mortified. Wherever we were, people would point and laugh and snicker.

Fred: So she just made it her job, at that point, to just walk up to any random group of people, and just start saying, “You don’t understand. I never use the F word. He provoked me. He provoked me.” So she felt that that was her responsibility, to clear her name, to at least let them know she never curses.

Joan: Before my message came along, the funniest message they had sent around was something like other kids’ mothers begging them not to forget to use their rubbers in the rainy season.

Jonathan: Here’s an example of what Joan Schultz is talking about, one of those feel good homesy messages. This is a message from Huey Hockman’s grandparents, making sure he was taking care of his cold.  This message was amazing. Do you remember who gave it to you?   I know, that was such a treat and such a fortunate thing to have.  Fred was really helpful so he might have saved it, but it might have been somebody else at the school. I don’t remember.

Huey’s Grandmother: Huey, we heard you have a cold, darling. We called to see how you feel.

Huey’s Grandfather: Yeah.

Huey’s Grandmother: And to tell you we love you.

Huey’s Grandfather: Yeah.

Huey’s Grandmother: That’s all. We hope you’re OK, darling.

Huey’s Grandfather: Yeah, me too.

Huey’s Grandmother: Good night.

Huey’s Grandfather: Good night.

Joan: Mine was so far and above that that they won’t even go back to the old one.

Jonathan: Do you take a certain level of pride in that?

Joan Schultz: I guess so. In a strange way, yes.  This was a great moment.   I think if I unraveled the raw tape, I might find that I had to dig to get her to the point where she admitted her pride in the message. One funny thing about Joan is how she says “I never use that language” and then the way she throws it off in the retelling so casually, you just know she can curse like a character in a Guy Ritchie film.

Jonathan: The Little Mermaid message was everything Josh said that it was. And now that I spoke with everyone about its glory, there was really only one more person left to talk to.

Josh: What do you want?

Jonathan: I made some calls to Columbia. I spoke to some people who went to school the same time that you did. Yes, I did. And diggy do, you were right. It was all true. The message made a great impact.

Josh: Wow, thanks John. Listen, what a bastard you are. I gave you gold. Don’t you understand?

Jonathan: But anyway, you are missing the point that what I’m saying is that I apologize, because you are right.

Josh: I diggy don’t give a rat’s ass.

Jonathan: I am going to read to you a piece of the script that I’ve written that I’m thinking I might actually end this whole story with, because I want to get some of your feedback. OK?

Josh: Oh, I’m ready.

Jonathan: I would say something to the effect of, “And so a recording intended for one person unintentionally became the beloved property of thousands. And in so happening, the message went from being what might have been considered a rather tragic personal artifact that spoke of dysfunction to becoming a triumph of contemporary American humor.”   To me, this was like you got to have your cake and eat it, too. You’re able to gesture at the TAL “big idea” ending and make fun of it at the same time.  Was this the actual ending you’d written?   Maybe I was still figuring out how to write endings, but I think it was a bit of a parody. I wanted to give Josh something really juicy to sink his teeth into.

Josh: What is that? That’s public radio wussy talk. Be a man.  He did sink his teeth into it.   What he actually said was, “That’s a lot of public radio pussy talk.” Which in its alliteration is just a beautiful way of putting it. But we couldn’t put “pussy talk” on the radio. So we spent a ridiculous amount of time in Ira’s office taking the “wuh” from another word — probably a “what” from  Josh getting angry at me and saying, “What the fuck are you talking about?” — taking that “wuh” sound and I swear to you it might have been a half-hour cutting it together and cross-fading it with  “ussy talk.” The beautiful irony of it is that it’s the most public radio pussy-talking thing you could possibly do, to spend all this time changing “pussy” to “wussy.”  And even after doing that crossfade for half an hour, I still feel like it doesn’t sound right. I always hear the edit.

Jonathan: No, a part of that whole statement is that I’m actually saying to you, “You were right and I was wrong.”

Josh: All right. Whatever. If you want to talk that fancy talk, you do your thing. But don’t drag me into your serious voice nonsense. And you get to speak in this stentorian tone, like, “And then America laughed at this inadvertent piece of comedy. I’m Jon Goldstein.”

Ira Glass: Jonathan Goldstein broadcasts his bitch squeals these days as host of the CBC’s program “WireTap,” which you can hear on some public radio stations in this country and also find on the Internet. His friend Josh is a regular contributor to the show.  Before we go: Any thoughts about “The Little Mermaid” becoming an award at Third Coast? That seems like a suitable epilogue to the whole thing. Dance remix. Musical. Radio award.

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“Serial” podcast producers talk storytelling, structure and if they know whodunnit http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/serial-podcast-producers-talk-storytelling-structure-and-if-they-know-whodunnit/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/serial-podcast-producers-talk-storytelling-structure-and-if-they-know-whodunnit/#comments Thu, 30 Oct 2014 12:39:24 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=117041 If, in recent weeks, you’ve walked up to a group at a party passionately debating whether Jay is telling the truth or overheard a headphone-wearing passenger on the train mutter something about a body in Leakin Park or interrupted a friend at her computer analyzing images of a 15-year-old cell phone call log, well, you’ve encountered “Serial” addiction.

Since it debuted earlier this month, “Serial,” the new podcast spinoff of “This American Life,” has consistently topped the iTunes charts, spawned dozens of discussion threads on Reddit and made a whole lot of people happier on Thursday mornings, which is when each weekly episode is released. The story, told one installment at a time, re-investigates the murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee, whose ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of strangling her to death in 1999 and has been imprisoned since.

The true-crime outline may sound familiar; the storytelling is not. The plot and characters unfold from episode to episode, meandering through fascinating wrong turns and unresolved mysteries. Halfway through the season, with 6 of the planned 12 episodes released, even the program’s producers aren’t sure how the story will turn out. Storyboard talked with “Serial” host and executive producer Sarah Koenig and executive producer Julie Snyder about how you structure a story when you don’t know the ending, the challenges of explaining how cellphone towers work and lack of sleep.

An edited transcript follows:

Storyboard: Maybe it’s just the English major in me, but the first thing I thought of when I heard the title “Serial” was Dickens. Is that what you were thinking? Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with the model for telling the story and how it’s evolved as you’ve been producing the segments?

Sarah: Yes, I was thinking of Dickens. I’m sorry — I know my colleagues do not like it when I discuss this because we’re “doing something that’s new.” I’m an old-fashioned consumer. I’m actually a very catholic consumer of entertainment. I like high and low and books and TV. I like it all. I listen to a lot of books on tape, and the reason I do that is because I hate to fly so I drive to a lot of places that normal people would take airplanes to and so I take out books on tape and I love it. I love getting lost in some story for hours and hours.

It’s not like it came to me in a flash, “We should make a radio show like that!” It was more like well, what if we just did one story over time? I’ve probably formed this into a more conscious line of cause and effect than it probably is, but I think somewhere in my head is that idea of a book on tape. So, that’s how I think of it.

And how has that model changed as you’ve been actually making it happen?

Sarah:  I think our ignorance probably allowed us to go ahead and try it. If we had known the difficulties, we might have thought twice. I think it’s good and bad.  I’m assuming Dickens knew what his story was as he was going. We really are reporting it as we go.

Julie and I have probably made two or three structures for the whole season, where we plotted out episodes one through twelve, for example. And we have ripped apart or erased each one within a few days of making it, or a week of making it, each time as we’ve just realized, “Wait, this story’s making this turn now; we can’t do what we thought we were going to do.” And that’s scary but it’s also kind of wonderful in that the format allows us to be so flexible and so responsive to new information as we’re getting it. We created this structure but it’s helping us and hurting us.

So you mapped out several structures in advance for how you thought the story might unfold?

Sarah: Yeah. So with each one, we’ve always known we don’t know exactly how it’s going to end, but assuming it’s going to go the way we think it’s going to go, here’s what we’ll do. And then, when we realize maybe it’s not going the way we think it’s going to go, let’s take it apart and start again. Or even just simpler things where [we are] figuring out what the audience needs to know to be with us along the way, so that when we figure stuff out, we all have the same base of knowledge. So, some of it is as simple as that. Then we’re still reporting it and so our assumptions about what things mean, or things that we kind of decided were one way five months ago — this is happening a lot where we’re going back to the same notes, the same police reports, the same whatever– and being like, “Oh, I never noticed this thing before because now I know all this.” You know what I mean? So, things are changing.

Were there any models or inspirations you had in mind for telling a story this way?

Julie: Yeah, definitely. In some ways, it’s a very traditional story in that we’re pretty solidly in the realm of a true-crime story, which is not breaking any new ground. I feel like the difference of what we’re trying to do compared to a lot of stuff you see, especially on TV, would be to try and tell a story, to talk about the case in a way where you understand that everybody is a real person and that it happened to real people and not play it for exploitation.

But other than that, I think we recognize in that way, we’re not breaking new ground. It’s a genre that is pretty tried-and-true. In terms of breaking it out into serialized installments, so that things are moving forward and changing as the story goes on, we’ve talked about this before, that there was a documentary called “The Staircase” that was on the Sundance channel. And I think that was seven parts, maybe eight parts. It followed a murder trial in North Carolina and it was very similar in a way that we felt about going through this process where a lot of times, like Sarah just was explaining, you see things differently based on the information that you have at the time.

As you get more information, all of a sudden that information gets colored. And so, I would imagine that is exactly the experience that a lot of, certainly reporters but maybe even investigators and homicide detectives and those kind of people who do this for a living, have as well. We really felt that realization of things changing as you find out more. So that was what we were looking at as a model.

What really appealed to us about the serialized format when Sarah first proposed it was that you could also do stories as they’re unfolding. So you could even do stories in real time. I’m so tired right now and I think Sarah’s so tired right now that the idea of that seems horrible, but it would be really cool. That would be really, really cool.

One of the most striking consequences about choosing to tell a story in a serial format is that you have all these people who are now investigating it and analyzing it and commenting about it right alongside you. There are discussion boards on Reddit, for example, and Rabia Chaudry, the woman who brought you the story idea, is blogging about it. Did you anticipate that might happen? How do you feel about it?

Sarah: I didn’t know so many people were going to listen. I really, really didn’t. I’m thrilled and it’s exciting, but I didn’t know so many people were going to give a shit, you know what I mean? And so, I didn’t see that coming, no.

I’m not on Facebook, I’m not on Twitter. I’m not someone who pays the attention necessarily to that sort of Internet activity. So I just didn’t even know. I’ve been really surprised and I think it’s great. People are engaged, right? But I also fear it, too. It’s very easy to start throwing around accusations and information or stuff you think you know, or whatever, and to just forget, like Julie’s saying, that these are real people. These are real people with families and lives, who have trusted me with their information or with their anonymity, and so it makes it nervous. It makes me really nervous.

Do either of you follow any of it? Are you looking at it at all?

Julie: Honestly, we’re so busy and working so much, so mainly only in the way of just trying to make sure that there isn’t horrible misinformation that’s being accepted as true.

And has it impacted the storytelling?

Sarah: I don’t think so. I’m not reading it for the most part. One of our colleagues is scanning it for two things. One is if there’s somebody who really knows something, can you let us know? And then also if there’s anything really horrible on there, we want to know about it and just make sure nothing too terrible is happening. But other than that, I’m not reading it. We don’t have time. So no, I don’t think it’s affected the story. It’s reinforced to me how careful we need to be. We were being careful anyway, but it definitely is a reminder–people are really listening closely. Julie, do you think it’s changed the story at all?

Julie: I don’t think it’s changed the story. I think the main question I had for a long time is, “Are you confused?” Because there’s a lot of information.  Last week’s episode — even my husband was brought to his knees a little. Even he was like, “I’m not sure I totally got everything… It’s dense.” That’s more my concern when I’m looking at the Facebook page and looking at posts. I think what I’m trying to gauge is, “Did we just try all of your patience and you’re just like ‘Okay, I was interested, but I wasn’t that interested that I wanted you to spend 45 minutes talking about cellphone towers in Baltimore County.’”

One of things that’s so interesting about “Serial” is that you’re not cleaning up the narrative as reporters often do. It’s really messy. We go down all the wrong turns with you. Can you talk a little bit about why you’re doing that?

Sarah: To me, that’s the pleasure of figuring this out. I think our rule of thumb is if it’s interesting to us, we’re going to assume it’s interesting to you. And as long as we’re responsible, not throwing stuff out there that’s totally half-cocked, and as long as we can corroborate what we’re doing, I think that’s kind of the fun of it.

In the midst of this dark, violent story, there are these surprising moments of levity. Can you talk a little about why you’ve included those and what purpose they serve in the storytelling?

Sarah: Oh my God, now you’re making me feel like it’s wrong to make jokes while we’re talking about a murder. Is that—is it wrong? Oh no, am I a bad person?

No, I think it’s effective storytelling.

Sarah: It’s not new to the story. For me, it just feels very normal, the way that I’m writing it and I think I like to have fun where I can.

Julie: Last week’s episode was so dense. But it was also a little unrelenting, so it’s nice to have a moment that just feels like a little bit of some breathing room and a break. So, yeah, take it where you can get it.

Sarah: But it’s not like we’re sitting around saying, “Insert joke here.” You know what I mean? We all have a pretty similar sense of humor, I think on the show. Julie and Dana [producer Dana Chivvis] and I think the same things are funny. When I heard there’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib, it just cracked me up, so let’s use it. If we can get away with it. Believe me, we’ve put in a lot of other goofy stuff that we’ve taken out before anyone else hears it.

The two main characters, Adnan and Hae, they’re still a little elusive. I’m waiting for that moment where we really get face-to-face with Adnan, whether it’s literally or metaphorically. Is that going to happen? And how are you thinking about the characters as you develop them over the course of the narrative?

Julie: Sarah’s going to be so happy that you just said that. We have to do all this work of laying out the details so that we can talk about the case on the air and in the story in the same way we talk about it amongst ourselves, with that level of familiarity. And so it takes all this time of explaining this and explaining that and talking about this and talking about that.

At the same time, Sarah has had so many conversations and interviews and experiences with Adnan and with a lot of the other people involved in the case and that she’s talked to over the year, and moments that aren’t necessarily related to — thumbs up, thumbs down, did he do it or did he not? That is the struggle, and I think it is one that we’ve had, right Sarah? Of trying to figure out when can we just settle in? When can I talk about this other stuff that isn’t directly related to having to vote on what you believe. When can we do that?

I do hope that we’re entering into that soon. I feel like we’re getting there now because now we’re at the point where you know everything that Sarah pretty much knew pretty soon on with an intensive amount of reading and some understanding. So then we can get into the kind of conversations and the interviews and the moments that are a little less…

Sarah: Technical.

Julie: Technical, exactly. Yeah. I’m glad that you said that’s what you’re waiting for because, honestly, I’m not sure everyone feels the way that you feel. I can’t quite tell. Is there more of a “Just tell me who did it” kind of thing? Like, “All I want to hear is evidence. I don’t really want to hear anything more narrative than that.” I don’t know. But we want to. But it has been a little bit of a struggle figuring out when we can do this.

Sarah: 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.

Do you feel now that you know which of the paths the story is going to take?

Sarah: I don’t think so. Julie? I don’t.

Julie: You know what? I’m not going to be a sucker anymore. I’m not talking about in interviews, more in my own life. I have been it so many times, being all like, “I am 98 percent sure,” and then literally turned back around and said it the other way. I’ve really made an ass of myself in front of Sarah and in front of my colleagues here one too many times in the last nine months. I think I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not making any definitive statements. I just can’t.

If you were starting afresh today with this concept and this particular story, is there anything you would do differently based on what you’ve experienced so far?

Sarah: Yes. Have more than two episodes done by the time you launch. That would be my number one change.

Julie: Yeah. That’s huge. Also, to be totally honest, the “Let’s figure it out ourselves” kind of thing really stresses me out, so I might be a little more wary on that front as well.

Sarah: We’re all a little fried. Julie and I haven’t seen our kids properly in about six weeks. All our home lives are crumbling. I don’t think we would put ourselves in the path of this much stress again, in the same way.

Julie: It’s so nice to be able to take on experiments and challenges and to tell things in new ways and work on new projects. It’s really invigorating, and I think I have learned so much both as an editor but also about what it means to come up with kind of a new concept and positioning that. In so many ways, it’s been incredibly fulfilling.

Sarah: I know, as soon as you started saying that I was like, “Oh right, I’m whining.” That’s ridiculous. We are so goddamn lucky. We are so lucky that we have the freedom to do what we’re doing. It’s crazy, it’s crazy. But we are very tired.

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5 Questions for David Finkel http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/5-questions-for-david-finkel/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/5-questions-for-david-finkel/#comments Wed, 22 Oct 2014 13:55:32 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=116922 David Finkel describes his "deliberate" reporting process to the Nieman Fellows

David Finkel describes his "deliberate" reporting process to the Nieman Fellows

In selecting David Finkel for one of its “genius” grants in 2012, the MacArthur Foundation described him as “a journalist whose finely honed methods of immersion reporting and empathy for often-overlooked lives yield stories that transform readers’ understanding of the difficult subjects he depicts.” Finkel, the Washington Post’s national enterprise editor, followed an infantry battalion deployed to Iraq in his 2009 book, “The Good Soldiers,” which was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times. A second book in 2013, “Thank You for Your Service,” traced the struggles of those soldiers as they returned to their lives at home. He also won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting for a series of stories in the Post about American efforts to bring democracy to Yemen. Finkel spoke recently with the current class of Nieman fellows and sat down with Storyboard afterward to continue the conversation. Following are edited excerpts of those discussions:

Talk a little bit about the nuts and bolts of writing. What do you do, in a very practical way, what do you start to do to shape a story so that you have something that comes out at the other end of it?

It’s a pretty deliberate process, and a lot of it involves working from an endpoint. But the first thing is I have to have a question I’m interested in answering. Then, after that, I go do reporting. I am a pretty ferocious reporter.

That doesn’t mean questioning all the time. All the tools we know. Learning to use silence as a reporting tool. All the things we do. Getting people to talk to each other. Trying to recede so something might occur as if it would have occurred if you weren’t there, if that’s possible. But, eventually, realizing what the story is I want to tell and then finishing the reporting to tell that story.

You finish the reporting for that story and then again it’s very deliberate. I go over my notes. I index all my notebooks. I transcribe everything. I’ve been doing that all along. I reread everything. I’m looking for…Because I’m not just a camera you turn on and I record everything. I’m trying to think my way through things. I’m trying to find patterns or I’m trying to find things that might relate in an authentic way.

You read your notes and read your notes and read your notes and eventually, I come up with a very specific outline. The outline is guided a lot by — and it’s not just knowing when I write this book, it’s going to be this many chapters — but it’s knowing where the book is going to end.

I may not know the words, but I pretty much know most of the words and what the tone will be. Then it’s just a matter of outlining my notes to get to that tone and those words as efficiently as possible. It helps if you go through your notes and organize.

It’s not for me a clean process. I don’t know. When you write, maybe if you’re having a bad day, you can forget the beginning and go to the middle and start writing the middle. Man, I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve got to write that first line until I get it right and at least the second line, and then the third. I write and rewrite all the way to the ending, but when I write the last line, I’m done.

If I’m having problems writing a story, it’s probably because I’ve screwed up in the previous step. If I’m having problems writing, it’s probably I haven’t organized well enough. If I’m having problems organizing, it’s probably because I haven’t reported thoroughly enough. You take a step back to the previous thing and it’ll solve the thing you’re in.

You mentioned using silence as a reporting tool. Could you tell us more about what you mean?

I want to reach the point in the story where people aren’t talking to me, where I’m just going along. The people I’m with, they no longer feel the obligation to be a host to me. You know how when your mom comes to visit, and your mom says, “Every second has to be filled with conversation because this is a special moment.” You want to get past the special moment and let things go.

Again, serendipity, this kind of reporting. You’re there. You’re there. You’re there. You just want to be there. If people are going to be quiet, let them be quiet, and listen to them be quiet. If they’re talking to each other, hear what they’re saying to each other. That’s much more valuable — don’t you think? — than them answering a question.

For the second book, especially, so much of that was built on just being present and being silent. A lot of the second book, these families recovering took place while they’re in the front seat of the car fighting with each other, and I’m in the back seat just trying to stay behind the headrest so that maybe they’ll forget I’m there.

How do you get to that place where people feel like you’re part of the situation, the normal situation, so they behave like that and you can observe things like that? Because you have to win their trust, you have to explain what a journalist does, but psychologically and personally, how do you do that?

If I go through a process, it’s when I’m interested in the possibility of a story and the possibility of someone being part of the story. I’m upfront with them. I’m quite transparent about the way I work ‐‐ that this is going to involve spending a good bit of time with them, and I hope I’ll spend enough time that it’s right up to the moment, maybe an inch short of where I would become entirely irritating to them. But that to do anything less, then I’m going to write a story that’s going to embarrass me, embarrass them and embarrass this subject, so they have to realize there’s an investment of time.

I try to explain this kind of journalism, because people don’t necessarily know it. I don’t give a lesson, but I try to explain it as much as I can and say the best way you can figure out what I do is … I mean, look at my previous work. If you want me to send you some stuff, I will. If you want to find it on your own, then do it that way.

I also explain some of the ethics and obligations involved. I explain that the story is being written about them. It’s not being written to them, and there’s a difference. The way to underscore that is I emphasize that they, despite their investment and time, despite everything they’ve agreed to, including having me around, they don’t get to see the story until it’s published. Because if you see it before, then that’s just, it’s an ethical violation. It taints the story. They become their own editor. In effect, they become their own censor, and that can’t happen. They have to realize that they’re not going to see the thing until it comes out. I lay it out and then I say, “So think about it. Think about whether you want to take a leap here. If you do, we’ll go at it, and if you don’t, I totally understand.”

Then we go from there.

What makes that difference in making the transition from reporter to great editor? What is it that’s needed?

When it’s done, I’ll let you know.

[laughter]

No, I’m telling you. I’m feeling my way through this. I was an editor once before and I think I was pretty ham‐handed about it. I was trying to get everybody to write a story as I write a story, and that’s not very fair. I was trying to solve a problem, and the way I would solve a problem of a story that wasn’t working was try to rewrite it into the way I would write it. That’s not being a good editor.

This time, I think I’m a little better at it, but I’m still learning my way. Editing is, it’s just, I don’t find it an easy thing to take a story and work through it and get it into better shape. I’m not giving an eloquent answer. It’s just hard.

I don’t know what being a great editor is except I’ve had great editors. I try to think, what made them great for me? We all get better by having templates, by having examples. Just like I became a better writer by becoming a critical reader, maybe I’m becoming a better editor by being a critical thinker about what my editors did for me, what made them good. The stuff that worked for me, do that, and the stuff that ticked me off, don’t do that.

But it’s a work in progress. If you ask five reporters, I think they would agree. Some days I’m quite helpful and some days I’m sure they wish they had a different person perched on their shoulder.

What is the role of long‐form? Where do you see the genre going?

I don’t know where it’s going. I just know it’s not going to be in the one thing I do. It’s not like long‐form is disappearing. I keep reading all kinds of places, “There is a resurgence.” I hope that’s true.

Like any proponent of long‐form, I believe in serious attempts. I believe in the power of a story. But what I don’t [know] is what storytelling is going to become. I’ve been doing this for a while. I have my moves, I have my likes. In a great story, it involves a primary emphasis on reading a written story, word by word, line by line, without adornment, without interruptions of hyperlinks, without interruptions of, “You’ve read what they say, now hear them say it in this video.”

It doesn’t make sense to me, but I know I’m in a minority — and an increasing minority. Things are shifting. They’re probably shifting in very, very exciting ways. I would count on it. It’s just, it’s not my move to master that shift. But I’m sure other people are.

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Fourth “Power of Storytelling” conference opens in Romania http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/fourth-power-of-storytelling-conference-opens-in-romania/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/fourth-power-of-storytelling-conference-opens-in-romania/#comments Fri, 17 Oct 2014 12:06:39 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=116883 If we were in Bucharest today, we could listen to newly named New York Times deputy international editor Amy O’Leary talk about digital storytelling or delve into the less glamorous aspects of the writer’s life with Esquire’s Chris Jones or watch Indiana University professor Kelley Benham deconstruct her remarkable story about the premature birth of her daughter.

But those of us stuck at home during the fourth annual “Power of Storytelling” narrative journalism conference need not despair. Thanks to conference founder Cristian Lupsa, editor of the non-fiction journal Decât o Revistă and a 2014 Nieman fellow, and his colleagues, Storyboard will bring you excerpts from the two-day conference as soon as they’re available.

In the interim, you can follow the happenings on Twitter, with the hashtag #story14, and whet your appetite here with some highlights from previous conferences.

In this session at the 2012 conference, Jones spoke about the purpose of writing and what makes a good writer:

I get asked all the time about what makes a great writer. What makes a good writer. And it’s such a hard question to answer. There’s things like curiosity, determination and honesty, and all these things are important, but the thing that for me – it’s my test – if I was to hire one person out of this room, who would I take? It would be the person who cared the most.

The same year, Atavist editor and founder Evan Ratliff talked about the challenges of creating his venture and how it required him to do all the work he had “become a writer not to do:”

“I think the lesson here is one that I’m still grappling with. I think that sometimes you just have to get over yourself, and sometimes you just have to survive. And this is what we had to do to survive. We had to do things that we were not ready to do and I think that is true for a lot of journalists who want to strike out as freelancers, who want to write things that are different from what your editors want you to write, and you want to go out in the world and find new magazines and find new homes.”

You can also read radio producer Starlee Kline‘s take on developing ideas or see what Jacqui Banaszynski thinks about the future of storytelling. And stay tuned for dispatches from this year’s sessions.

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Jonathan Eig searches for the characters of his new book http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/jonathan-eig-searches-for-the-characters-of-his-new-book/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/jonathan-eig-searches-for-the-characters-of-his-new-book/#comments Tue, 14 Oct 2014 12:46:39 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=116622 In previous books, best-selling author Jonathan Eig profiled baseball legend Lou Gehrig and Chicago gangster Al Capone. But as he set about researching his most recent project, he faced an interesting dilemma: what do you do when your main character is a little round pill? In this installment of the Storyboard feature “Writing the Book,” Eig, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, discusses the challenges of finding and establishing the protagonists of his new book, “The Birth of the Pill.” You can read the New York Times review of the book here.

Before I could begin writing my latest book, I had to kill Allan Pinkerton.

I was fascinated with Allan Pinkerton. I still am, really. But that didn’t stop me. The more I researched the life of the legendary detective, the more I grew to dislike him and the more I came to believe that he would never be good to me or anyone else. So I killed him. I buried him in the basement next to some of my other recent victims and set out looking for someone or something else to write about.

“Write a book women will want to read,” my wife said.

“Are you saying that women don’t care about my other books?” I asked.

When I stopped feeling defensive, I started making lists, as I always do when I’m searching for ideas. There are so many things I’m interested in writing about that making lists is easy. The hard part is narrowing down. I look for stories with conflict and passionate characters, because conflict and characters move plot. I look for stories that might give me something important to say, because Melville said to write a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme. I look for stories that might attract big audiences, because I like for my work to be read and I like getting paid.

This time, I also looked for a story that women might want to read, because I love my wife and she’s always right.

Here are some of the lists I made: most important Supreme Court cases; most important inventions; most important Jews; most important women; most important athletes; most important women athletes.

After a couple months of building lists, I noticed that the birth-control pill had popped up several times. It made my list of important inventions; in fact, The Economist had called it the most important invention of the twentieth century. Margaret Sanger, the crusading feminist who coined the term birth control, made my list of important women. And Gregory Pincus, the scientist who invented the pill, made my list of important Jews. Now I had a Venn diagram in my head with three overlapping circles.

It struck me as odd that I knew so little about the origin of the pill. The more I thought about it, the odder it seemed. Why would anyone invent a birth-control pill in the first place? To give women more power? That seemed unlikely. To help women better enjoy sex? Even more unlikely. In the 1950s, before the pill, men had almost complete control of government, science and business. What motivated the men in charge of these institutions go to work on a new contraceptive? And if men in charge didn’t make it happen, who did?

I knew something about Sanger and her longtime cause, which dated back at least to 1914. It was Pincus who intrigued me. Who was he and why had I never heard of him? What was in it for him? Every other scientist Sanger had approached told her no, they would never agree to work on a birth-control pill; it was too controversial, they said, and ultimately pointless. No company would ever manufacture such a pill and the FDA would never approve it.

I called Pincus’s daughter, who lived in Boston, and arranged to meet her. When she told me her father’s story, I was hooked. Pincus had been dismissed by Harvard in the prime of his career because he’d been too radical. He’d been working on in vitro fertilization in the 1930s and bragging to reporters that his work would change forever the way men and women reproduced. The world wasn’t ready. When Harvard denied him tenure, Pincus couldn’t find work anywhere, so he built his own laboratory and started his own foundation in the garage of an old house in Shrewsbury, Mass. Twenty years later, he agreed to take on Sanger’s birth-control project in large part because he had nothing to lose.

Let’s look back at my checklist for good stories.

Conflict? Check.

Passionate characters? Check.

Important? Check.

Ability to attract a big audience? Who the hell knows?

Something for women? Check.

The first two “checks” excited me most. This story had a ton of conflict and a great cast of characters. Sanger and Pincus were classic heroes–outsiders summoned to perform a seemingly impossible mission. And they were acting not for fame or glory. They fought to give women equality, make sex more fun, and prevent the planet from becoming overpopulated. Sanger, who was in her seventies and suffering from heart failure, sincerely believed that Pincus might get this done while she was still around to see it.

BirthofPilljacketFrom a storytelling perspective, there was one big challenge. In addition to Sanger and Pincus, I had two more compelling characters: Katharine Dexter McCormick, the heiress who financed the entire research project; and Dr. John Rock, the Catholic gynecologist who defied the church to lead the clinical trials. Constructing a narrative around four characters is tricky. Was the pill the hero of my story, or was it this team of crusaders?

For inspiration, I went back and re-read Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit,” which is one of my favorite recent works of non-fiction. There are chapters in that book that could be books on their own—it’s so rich. Seabiscuit made for a problematic central character because horses, with the exception of Mr. Ed, don’t talk. Hillenbrand overcame the problem by making heroes of three men surrounding the racehorse—the owner, trainer, and jockey.

It’s a nifty trick on her part. Hillenbrand describes Seabiscuit as an unlikely champion, with an awkward stride and a sad little tail. Even so, the reader never really cares about the horse. We know, win or lose, that Seabiscuit is going to get a warm paddock and plenty of oats. The humans are the real heroes. We care about Seabiscuit because they do.

In their quest for a birth-control pill, Sanger, Pincus, McCormick and Rock were fighting long odds. It was illegal to disseminate birth-control products or even information about birth control in most of the United States in 1950, when they began their work. The Catholic Church would fight them all the way. If those obstacles weren’t enough, consider this: the birth-control pill would be the first medicine designed for daily use by healthy people. If it made women sick or led to deaths, the results would be catastrophic.

Yet Pincus, Sanger, McCormick and Rock pushed ahead because they were true believers. In their minds, even the greatest risks were acceptable because the potential rewards were so enormous. And it was here, as these men and women took risks, that I was able to add the most new detail to the story of the pill’s invention. Patients had no privacy in the 1950s. Women participating in scientific experiments were not asked to give their consent.

At the Library of Congress, among Pincus’s papers, I found letters he wrote to gynecologists asking them to engage in what Pincus no doubt considered a minor and harmless deception. He asked the doctors to give birth-control hormones to women seeking treatment for infertility. The women would be told that these hormones would rest their reproductive systems. When they finished treatment, their systems would kick back into gear and they might be more fertile. In truth, Pincus was interested in only one thing: making sure his hormones shut down ovulation.

Then he tried testing the birth-control formula on mental patients at the Worcester State Hospital. He tried it on men as well as women there. I found lists of names. I tracked down some of the children of the women who were tested. They told me their mothers had no idea. Doctors at the hospital confirmed it. They said they injected men and women with all kinds of experimental drugs, never asking for their permission and seldom offering explanations.

After testing their birth-control formula in the insane asylum, Pincus and Rock traveled to the slums of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and conducted large-scale field trials on women there, where American laws would not apply. They gave women massive doses because they knew the Food and Drug Administration would assess the drug only based on its effectiveness, not on its side effects. They weren’t too considered with women suffering nausea and headaches just so long as the pill came close to 100 percent effectiveness.

Pincus and Rock were operating well within the ethical standards of their time. In fact, they considered themselves progressive—both in their treatment of women and in their scientific methods. In the 1950s, they really were more sensitive and more concerned with women’s rights than most men. This is what made them such compelling heroes—they weren’t perfect, and they were willing to take chances for something they strongly believed.

“Seabiscuit” and my book had one more thing in common: predictable endings. Before they turn a single page, readers of both books will know the horse is going to win the big race, just as they know the pill will win approval and change women’s lives.

But with strong characters and plenty of conflict, predictable endings are not necessarily bad. My book hinges on the FDA decision to approve the birth-control pill, which went by the brand name Enovid. In writing those critical pages, I pretended that I didn’t know the outcome of the agency’s decision. It wasn’t hard. I spent three years working on this book, and speaking to dozens of men and women who had known these characters. Every time I met with Pincus’s daughter or Rock’s daughter, I felt like I was looking into my characters’ eyes, that I was getting at least a glimpse at how they might have moved, how they might have spoken, how they might have felt. A writer can’t really know what’s in his subject’s heart, but he can try. At the very least, the writer can try to see the story through his character’s eyes. And so I tried to remember as I wrote the book’s climax that my characters didn’t know how it would end. I came to love these characters, and I was rooting hard for them to see their hard work pay off.

If I did my job, readers will feel the same way.

They’ll be rooting for the pill as it comes down the stretch.

As for me, I’ll soon be moving on to another book. Pincus, Rock, McCormick, and Sanger will be carried from my office to the basement. But they won’t be buried alongside Pinkerton. Pinkerton got a cardboard box. These heroes will get a fireproof file cabinet.

They earned it.

Jonathan Eig is the New York Times best-selling author of four books: “Luckiest Man,” “Opening Day” “Get Capone” and, most recently, “The Birth of the Pill.” He is currently working on a biography of Muhammad Ali. Before writing books, Jonathan worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Chicago magazine, The Dallas Morning News, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Esquire and The Washington Post.

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Pinker, King and Sager on writing http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/pinker-king-and-sager-on-writing/ http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/pinker-king-and-sager-on-writing/#comments Fri, 10 Oct 2014 14:21:03 +0000 http://niemanstoryboard.org/?post_type=storyboard-post&p=116193 For this weekend’s selections, Storyboard recommends reading about writing; we’re highlighting some recent articles that feature advice from authors whose worlds range from horror to science to journalism.

Harvard cognitive scientist, psychologist and dictionary boss Steven Pinker — he’s the chairman of the usage panel of the American Heritage dictionary — has a new book out about writing, “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,” and he seems to be talking and writing about it everywhere. You can check out these pieces in The Wall Street Journal and Scientific American. We like this Q-and-A with the New Republic. In it, he describes his theory of the “classic style” of writing, telling interviewer Jesse Singal: 

“Classic style makes writing, which is necessarily artificial, as artificially natural as possible, if you’d pardon the oxymoron. That is, you’re not physically with someone when you write. You’re not literally having a conversation with them, but classic style simulates those experiences and so it takes an inherently artificial situation, namely writing, and it simulates a more natural interaction, the more natural interaction being (a) conversation (b) seeing the world.”

On The Atlantic website, contributor Jessica Lahey interviewed author Stephen King about how he teaches writing. Sentence diagramming? Yes. Essay assignments? No. The Oxford comma? It depends. Plus, this piece of advice that’s useful for anyone who wants to improve their work:

“You need to take out the stuff that’s just sitting there and doing nothing. No slackers allowed! All meat, no filler!”

We randomly stumbled upon this list of 51 writing tips on Esquire writer and author Mike Sager‘s website and struck gold. Here are his first five commandments:

“Thou shalt not bore.

Do not start stories with the time, season, or weather conditions.

Do not start with “It was” or “It’s” or “When.”

Do not ever use time sub heads (12:15) to break up a feature story. Write in scenes.

Get an imagination. If it’s been done before, find a different way to do it. If it’s been said before, find a different way to say it.”

Other personal favorites include Nos. 19, 22 and 40.

Happy reading — and writing.

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