I talked this week with Charles Pierce about the end-of-decade summary he did for Esquire. Pierce, who also works for The Boston Globe Magazine, talks (and perhaps writes—see end of interview) faster than any human being alive today. Here, he offers his thoughts on dystopian thinking, recent stories he’s liked, and how good writers get turned into mediocre editors.
How did you approach narrating a decade in 2,200 words?
I had some really good direction from David [Granger] and from Mark [Warren]. So the first thing they gave me was the number. And the more we talked, the more the phrases “nobody could have anticipated” and “nobody could have known” kept popping up. But of course they did anticipate, they did know. It was a really terrible decade.
When did you know what structure you would use for “The First 3,650 Days”? Could you talk a little about how it’s organized?
I had the structure right about when I sat down. Generally I let things percolate in my head, and have an idea where I’m going. Then I sit down and things follow the idea—I don’t make any complicated outline. It’s a question of making the writing conform to the idea. I let this one flow out of my head.
Is there a series of things you want your stories to do? What should a good story do?
“Tell the story” is the glib answer. I want the ideas to flow from one to the other. I want them to be surprising if they can be. I want the reader to go along in the same kind of evolutionary way, to have the themes strike them at the same point in the story that they strike me. But I don’t write with the reader in my head.
Your opening image of the balloon is elegant, but “The First 3,650 Days” is not a comforting vision. There’s something DeLillo-esque about it.
I remembered walking through the newsroom and seeing the balloon on screen after screen. It was an ongoing event of which we were tremendously unsure. I was struck by the fact that I was seeing it again and again.
You’ve produced other unsettling narratives. More than a decade ago, your Tiger Woods profile generated a lot of outrage. Even your lovely Hubble story seems rueful.
The Hubble story is a little more hopeful, but I do think I do have an underlying theme of dystopian thinking. Still, if you let that overwhelm the story, then you just turn into a cynic and a crank.
Going through more than a half-dozen stories of yours, I found only one that really verged on the hopeful, and it was about a horse.
I do think that hope is a good thing. If you read the piece on Barack Obama, “The Cynic and Senator Obama,” there you’ll see me personally wrestling with the parameters of hope—its parameters and its limitations.
You write for the magazine of The Boston Globe as well as for Esquire. I just read your old Ted Kennedy story that gained new relevance recently when he died. Do you see yourself still as a local writer, a Boston writer?
I think I’m formed by the political and social culture of New England—I grew up in Worcester. But I’ve been a national magazine writer for 17 years now. I consider myself to have a foot in both worlds. Boston is part of the country, certainly, and I still have stories I want to tell that are outside it.
What is the last piece of narrative nonfiction that blew you away?
The last one I read that I really loved was a Chris Jones story where the title is a play on the Tim O’Brien book.
“The Things That Carried Him?”
Yes. That, I thought was really extraordinary work.
Not to plug my employer, but Tom Junod’s story on the financial scandal—that was well done, too. And Matt Taibbi combines good old American invective with good old American writing.
Do you have any thoughts on the future of storytelling given the tumult in newsrooms around the country?
Now you’re really trying to bring out the dystopian in me! There are days I think I’m working in the buggy whip industry—that we’re facing a problem for which there is no solution. What worries me most is that the smart guys who are supposed to be able to figure out solutions seem to be at a loss.
Narrative nonfiction, long-form narrative, is what I love to do. Is there a place for it on the monitor as well as the page? I don’t know. I have a friend, Wright Thompson—he writes for ESPN online. I go to check out his work and there are seven or eight clicks with the mouse, and I print it out. I don’t know. Is Kindle the hope? I have no idea.
The next new thing always seems to founder on the rocks of how anybody’s going to make any money from it. Anyone not concerned isn’t paying attention, and any narrative journalist who’s not concerned is really not paying attention.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about writing stories? Any unaddressed problems with producing this kind of journalism?
I think we’re wandering a little too deeply into the notion of niche marketing. The capacity of being a great generalist—which I hope to be—is being lost a little bit. I think that’s tragic.
And then there’s something else I talk a lot about: I don’t think we train editors enough. You have a great writer, and then you go and turn him into an editor. You lose a strong writer and get a mediocre editor.
I’m a terrible editor. I can’t write or work in someone else’s voice. I think we don’t do a good job of identifying people who would make good editors and training them how to do it.
[You can also read our commentary from yesterday on Pierce’s piece in Esquire. In addition to writing traditional print narratives, Pierce just finished blogging school and has been allotted acreage on the digital frontier. He has posted 10 times in less than 48 hours, putting the editors of Nieman Storyboard to considerable shame.]