Perhaps as much as any modern journalist, Michael Brick brought the style of Ben Hecht’s “A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago” into the 21st century newsroom. Hecht made the ordinary outstanding, “journalism that invaded the realm of literature,” his editor wrote. Brick often did the same while at news organizations including The Corpus-Christi Caller-Times, thestreet.com, The New York Times, and The Houston Chronicle. He brought literary techniques into seemingly mundane stories, for instance working the line “Fools believe in final sentences” into a simple piece on a Chinese laundry operator.
Brick died in February of 2016 of cancer. When Storyboard saw that a collection of his works , “Everyone Leaves Behind a Name: True Stories,” was being released, we asked if we could highlight some of the works collected in it, especially the shorter narratives. His publisher agreed.
Nieman Storyboard will feature one story a week from the collection over the next eight weeks, along with its accompanying essay by colleagues and friends of Brick’s like Tom Junod, Dan Barry and Amy Wallace. Consider Brick’s work a foundation for thinking about how to use the techniques of narrative while working a beat.
Brick regularly attended a writer’s gathering in Ludowici, Georgia, with as many as a dozen other writers. Regulars included Justin Heckert, Michael Kruse, Thomas Lake, Ben Montgomery, Wright Thompson and Tony Rehagen. Everyone submitted a story in advance, and they spent hours critiquing each other’s work honestly.
Some of Brick’s friends from this gathering decided to organize the collection “Everyone Leaves Behind a Name.” One of the main organizers is Ben Montgomery, a reporter at the Tampa Bay Times and founder of Gangrey.com, a site dedicated to narrative journalism. Montgomery answered my questions by email; this has been edited.
Who was Michael Brick?
Brick first came on my radar in the early 2000s. It may have been when I read his story about Jimmy Moy, the Chinese laundryman who disappeared the day an airplane crashed in Brooklyn. [This is the story with the line, “Fools believe in final sentences.”] What impressed me was that this could’ve been a simple anniversary story, but Brick made it something special. He was a young buck cutting his teeth at The New York Times, but there was something ancient and unafraid about his writing. From courtrooms to street corners, it was like he was always swinging for the fence and getting these ridiculous turns of phrase into the Old Gray Lady. We met for the first time in 2008, as he was leaving the Times and moving to Texas to start work on his book, “Saving the School.” He had this cool Austin swagger and a writing style that floored his contemporaries.
What inspired you to put together a posthumous collection of his work?
Brick learned he had cancer April 2015, but there was hope. A bunch of us went to visit him in January and the day we arrived was the day he learned that doctors would be stopping chemotherapy and he would soon enter hospice care. He was 41 and it seemed so unfair, but he handled the news with a level of dignity I’ve not seen. We sat around his living room that day, passing around his Alvarez and singing songs and listening to him talk about life and death and how he wanted to be remembered by his kids. When we left that evening, we started talking about what Brick had taught us all and how the world would be a worse place if we couldn’t find a way to make his work live on. We decided to scramble to put together a collection of our favorite stories and things just fell into place.
How did you get this project started?
A few of us — me, Michael Kruse, Thomas Lake, Wright Thompson, Tony Rehagen and Justin Heckert — compiled a list of our favorite Brick stories. We figured the work would sell itself, but someone threw out the idea of getting other friends to say something about his stories. Then we split up the stories and decided whom to ask to introduce the pieces. We emailed all the potential contributors, folks Brick knew in New York and Texas, others who met him at our annual get-together in Georgia. We thought at first this would be a tall task, to get folks like Gary Smith, Tom Junod, Amy Wallace and Charlie Pierce to stop what they were doing and write about Brick. But that was the easiest part. Everyone said, “Yes, absolutely, when do you need it?” It all came together in a couple of weeks. We got quick permissions from all the publications, which should not have been as easy as it was. Dean Baquet even ran interference for us at the NYT. It was amazing. Then, Mike Sager, who has a publishing firm called The Sager Group, offered to publish the thing for free, so proceeds could go directly to Brick’s wife and children.
What were the big obstacles in pulling it together?
There was so damn much to choose from. I’d put his body of work up against anybody’s. Narrowing the stories down was tough, because everybody should read everything he’s ever written. What we came up with was the cream of the crop, a sampling of his shorter daily deadline stuff along with his longer magazine and ebook pieces. Like Wright [Thompson] said: “This book is like a Willie Nelson song and a Raymond Carver paragraph had a baby.”
Why should people read the essays and the book?
For journalists, each story and essay is a lesson in how to do good work, how to stand apart from the pack. For general readers, you’ll find in here stories about real people who wouldn’t otherwise have been noticed. And you’ll find the grand company of a talented reporter, a risky writer, who tumbled around America with open eyes and a bag of questions about what it means to be human. Look, it’s easy to be forgotten, even if what you do is great. The humble effort here is to make sure nobody forgets Michael Brick and his stories.
“Everyone Leaves Behind a Name” is available in multiple formats.