In “Question of a Lifetime,” our latest Notable Narrative, Arizona Republic features writer Jaimee Rose tells a moving story about her grandfather’s search for answers regarding a top-secret mission he accepted as a World War II pilot. As a newspaper reporter, Rose has covered a range of topics, from rookie-era ribbon cuttings to the shooting of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. (Rose was on the reporting team that was a breaking news Pulitzer finalist this year.) For the story about her grandpa she had to get personal, which got deeply uncomfortable, which ultimately required a certain journalistic courage. Rose kindly spent some time on the phone with us the other day, in the midst of reporting her first big crime narrative.
Storyboard: What a provocative lede: “One of the last things my grandmother asked was that I never tell anyone this story.” How did you arrive at that?
Rose: I wrote 1,000 beginnings. That one was somewhere in the middle of the story sometime, and a good friend of mine, J.R. Moehringer, was like, “What are you doing? That’s the best lede of all time! That’s a gift to you from the newspaper gods!” He’s a smart friend who empowered me. But I was asking a lot of the reader. I was asking them to travel back with me many, many decades; I was asking them to indulge me in a personal story; and I needed a hook, a promise, to get the interest.
What was the biggest challenge in doing this story?
There is a reason we do not write about people we love. It’s so difficult. It messes with all of your instincts. Things that are usually easy become hard. For me, everything about my grandfather is interesting, everything about my grandfather I love, every detail of his life I think is rich and wonderful and fabulous, but that is certainly not the case to readers. So it took me a while to step back and edit down and realize that I had to come back at this as a journalist. I wrote a first draft – when I went to him at the end and said, “Grandpa, I finished your story,” it wasn’t very good; it was different. It was kind of just for him, and (my grandmother). She was sick and we were being told to say goodbye, and I wanted him to have her with him when he read that because I’d found these letters. I knew that he would need her next to him when he read the story. And so I had written a version and it was more for family. It took me almost a year to have enough time after she passed away and after the funeral to be like: Okay, I can come back to this now as a journalist and figure out what’s interesting and edit it down. That was the hardest thing was just showing people my grandfather and not telling people about them. That was a surprising discovery for me. I never imagined it would be so hard to write about someone you love so much. I’d have thought it would be easier. And then obviously the hardest part of the story overall was the moment when I had to tell him what I’d found out. I realized what I had done. I felt I was taking from him. In the story, I do my best to show how that felt.
Early on in the story, you clue us to the fact that your grandfather is still alive by departing from strict, in-the-moment narrative and present-day attribution: “my grandfather recalls,” etc. That’s hard to do without popping that nice bubble of time and space. How did you decide to use current quotes within historical scene?
I learned how to tell stories from my grandfather. Our whole lives he would come to us, pull us aside and say, “Hey, can I tell you a story?” So I learned this grand tradition of storytelling from him, and I love the way he tells stories. I think it’s magical and beautiful. I had all these tape recordings of him telling this story over and over. There were things he was sure about and things he wasn’t. So I had to rely on his telling of it. I didn’t have the facts. The papers weren’t available. The only thing I had was someone’s memory, and to show what you’re doing you have to quote them. But I also wanted to give people the experience that I had growing up, of listening to my grandfather tell all these beautiful, rich stories. He’d say to us, “Did you know rainbows were round?” and then he’d tell the story of flying through a rainbow. I love the way he talks. And that’s a bonus of being in love with someone you’re writing about — I wanted to show people his beautiful way.
There are so many lines and images to admire in this story — “a staggered row of three planes pushing through wet sky,” and, “he told me that my grandmother cried, coming back to the flatness of St. Johns after all the excitement of the base.” Back to the flatness — nice internal rhyme there. Talk about your writing process.
I always make a rough outline but then you sit in your chair and you suffer. And I eat M&Ms. I was like, “Grandpa, you owe me like 10 pounds.” I just write and write and write, and write in circles, and sometimes things come and sometimes they don’t. When they come it’s exciting. And I read a lot. I can always tell when I’ve been reading too many blogs or too many celebrity news stories, because I can’t write. I’m like, I need to sit for an hour and read a book by Michael Cunningham or Anthony Doerr or J.R. It’s fascinating how when you start hearing that lyricism, and you hear the music, you can make it too.
What else do you read to get primed for the writing?
I read journalists that I love. I look for stories that are similar in mood and feeling to what I’m trying to create. Just being in those sentences and being in that journalist’s mind, it helps trigger things. Certainly the words are very, very different, but I think it helps you access a portion of your brain that you’re trying to get to.
So for this piece in particular – if you were looking for models of tone, for a certain sensibility, which ones helped you?
J.R. Moehringer’s “The Champ” was a similar journey – looking into someone’s past, trying to answer a question, finding himself entangled in it. His involvement in that story was very, different but that inspired me quite a bit. I also read a lot of Ernie Pyle’s writing from that time. That was really fun to read. Anthony Doerr has a book called Memory Wall, which is a collection of short stories having to do with memory. He is a glorious, glorious constructionist. The way he builds his sentences, I was breaking that down and looking at it and thinking, “How did he do that?”
What did you come up with? How would you characterize what he does?
He would do these simple, simple descriptions of things he was seeing out in the world. Like, let’s see, “out the window, the fog cycles and cycles. The sky is invisible. The neighbor’s rooftops are gone.” I liked that construction, the noun, verb and verb did this – I really liked that simplicity of description, and so I tried to adopt it. He’d have sentences like, “The wires shook and trembled.” It’s very simple, but when he would do three short sentences like that in a row I really admired it.
Do you adopt a different voice for each of your stories?
Yeah. I write a lot of stories about quirky things that we find in Arizona. I seem to do those and then I’ll switch to something with some serious emotional heft. Like, I wrote a story about Spanx for men, and a top-secret USDA bug-growing factory I found out by the airport, where they grow something like 2 billion moths per day that save the cotton crops. So I kind of switch back and forth between this lighthearted can-you-believe-this-exists tone to a more classical narrative style.
That’s what’s fun about newspapers, moving between quirky stories and those that wipe you out emotionally. It’s hard to keep doing, over and over, the ones that try to kill you.
We aren’t supposed to be emotionally involved but your heart gets in it, you know? I’m writing a story right now where I’m interviewing the family of three murder victims who were killed in a horrible, horrible way, and I’m just so ready to write something about, like — I’m going to do a story about a wedding in the gun room of the Bass Pro Shop.
This story does a wonderful job of maintaining suspense. What was your strategy for keeping a question mark hovering over the piece? Let’s see if we can talk about this without giving away the ending.
The great part of narrative is that much of it is chronological, and that’s a gift in storytelling. You start at the beginning and you go to the end. I didn’t know the answer to my grandfather’s question for a really long time. There was the moment when I found the answer I thought I was looking for, and shortly after that I found the answer to the real question hovering over the story: What is the meaning of my grandfather’s life? What is the meaning of any person’s life? Finding that answer was the clear ending. And then I had a great coda with my grandfather when I talked to him about it after the story had been written, that I had to add, because it was a moment that said everything.
I’m glad you mentioned chronology – I feel like we sometimes get so precious in our talk about narrative, and too analytical. Writers are often just following a gut-level thing.
It’s easier when you have an outline and you know what you’re doing, that’s for sure. I am not a dedicated outliner. I’m not good at it. I don’t like to do it. I just like to begin and sort of get caught up in the story and see where it takes me. I don’t write in drafts. I sit down and write the first sentence and I keep going until it’s done. It’s bricks, bricks, bricks, bricks, higher, higher, higher, higher. I wish I could be one of those writers who’s like, “Well, I know what’s gonna happen in this section so I’m just gonna sit down and write that.” That would be fantastic. But I tend to obsess and polish and freak out over every sentence until it’s good and then I move on to the next one, and it’s a horrible way to write.
You use time effectively in this story, and movingly. There’s this omnipresent ticking clock. We can’t help thinking about your grandfather’s time, and your grandmother’s time, which makes us naturally think of our own. How did you think to use that device?
I used that one actually very consciously, and I’m so pleased that you picked up on it. My grandfather asked me to tell his story many years ago, and I tried to do it. I tried to write him a cute little children’s book, just for fun. There was one Christmas Eve where I was just like, “I’m just gonna write it down for him and wrap it up,” and so I’m in my grandparents’ guest room on Christmas Eve and I’m typing and my mom comes in and is like, “What’re you doing? You look insane.” And I said, “I feel insane. I can’t do this! I can’t write a story if I don’t know what happened.” So it was many years of this guilt hanging over me – I knew he wanted me to write this story, I knew he wanted some version that he could pass to the rest of his 33 grandchildren, and I felt this weight upon me. That night in the guest room, they had this horrible alarm clock – every second made a sound. I had to bury it under the pillows to get to sleep. And they had this cuckoo clock in the dining room. The sound of time is so heavy in my grandparents’ house, between watching them get older and their stupid, loud clocks. So I just very deliberately wanted to show: I’ve got to tell my grandfather’s story because these clocks are haunting me.
And they have this mahogany memory box – it’s in the living room and every time they went to a wedding they’d put the wedding program in it. And I liked to look in it to see who got married or to see where they’d been, and then there started to be funeral programs on top of the wedding announcements, and that kind of freaked me out. I needed to move forward and write this story.
“People later would tell him how the sound of the engines rattled the rooftops downtown, how his mother, Nellie, rushed out of the five-and-dime shop she owned on Main, how she ran out to the sidewalk to look up.” That passage does a couple of nice things: It creates a few layers of experience (ours, his, other people’s), and acknowledges a small but important reporting move involving the difficulty of reconstructing scene. You didn’t definitively say the “sound rattled rooftops” or that Nellie went running with her hanky; you attributed it.
I think it’s just years and years and years of having editors ask you: “How do you know? You have to tell people how you know that.” Obviously he couldn’t hear what they heard. It’s always a question in my mind. When you’re telling readers something you have to tell them how you know. It’s building trust. It’s the most important thing that we do.
We don’t get your grandfather’s name until the second full section. Nice move, establishing him first and foremost as your grandfather. Why was that important?
That was something the copydesk – it challenged them. They were like, “This is so strange.” And it was strange. But we just had to show people I was writing about my grandfather, who I never think of as Philip Nielson Richey, ever. The only time I would think of him like that was when I saw his name on documents. So I had to do it somewhere.
You come from a Mormon family, as you say in your story. There’s so much in the news lately about Mormonism — what, if anything, do you think is being misrepresented or misunderstood about the faith?
I’m not a practicing Mormon, and I tried to imply that in the story, that I hadn’t prayed in years. Faith was the guiding force in my grandfather’s life but was not the guiding force in mine. I grew up Mormon until I was 19 or 20. I do think people are getting the right picture. It’s a faith that creates people with incredible values – high school or college taunting notwithstanding – but it’s also a very secretive faith. They consider so many things sacred and private, and what it does is create this cloud of weirdness that hovers over it. If they would just explain things and answer questions and be more forthcoming, it would be so much easier. From my understanding, they are significantly trying to change. The last time I called church headquarters, which was a couple of months ago, I said, “Your new temple is opening here and I need the history of that big gold statue that you put on the top,” and they were like, “Great, here’s someone in your community that you can call,” and that was a first.
Is your family cool with you not practicing?
I didn’t have this emotional falling-away. It was more like: I’m a reporter; I want to know some stuff, I want to learn some stuff. And when I looked into it I was like, “You know what? I actually don’t believe these things to be true so I’m not going to be able to be a part of this religion.” But my family, they’re not like really crazy Mormons. They’re not evangelical, they’re not particularly stringent. And they know I’ve done more research than they have.
They respect my decision. My grandfather? Now that’s another story.
The idea of his patriarchal blessing is a really important part of your story, and it’s fascinating.
The patriarchal blessing, I think, really affected my grandfather’s life. You know, he’s going off to war and he’s told that his life is more important than all these other people’s — that can certainly have a large effect on you, can mess up your head. At one point I had this whole section about how I was so afraid to get my patriarchal blessing. You’re supposed to get it between 14 and 16, and I was 21. I was like, “I don’t really wanna know. What if it’s gonna tell me I’m gonna be alone? What if it’s gonna tell me I can’t have children?” There’s all these crazy legends and myths in Mormonism about things heard in patriarchal blessings: You’re going to die young, you’re going to marry someone who did some specific thing. I didn’t like the idea of having a fortune or fear to fulfill, like my grandpa did. So anyway, I had my patriarchal blessing in (the story), but it was confusing; in trying to explain my feelings about my faith, I totally took readers on a different track. So we elected not to put it in.
Do you remember your blessing?
Yeah, I actually do. And it’s one of the things that linger for me as someone who has decided not to practice organized religion of any kind: I’m just like, how did this person know those things about me? It’s so strange. I was such a skeptic and not willing to tell the patriarch anything at all. And there was this huge section (in my blessing) about journalism, and about how my voice would be raised up and made influential and powerful, and there was a special trust that came with this blessing, that I needed to be mindful of the stories I told. I came away from it as a 21-year-old college student thinking, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be a reporter,” but as a reporter, through my life, it’s been this thing that I can’t reconcile in any way. I think some people have a connection that goes deeper than others. We are character readers as reporters – we can look for things and get deeper than others, and maybe other people have that gift too. And also, as a part of the story – I didn’t put any of this in – I tried to find (the patriarch). And I found him, and he had died. In an early draft, I put part of his story in there and I interviewed his son – I wanted him to tell me how his father approached these blessings, how he knew, like what was his method. And he didn’t know. His father had died like two months before I called him.
What would that have told you, do you think?
Mormons are very close-lipped about things that they consider sacred so I don’t know that the patriarch would have even been willing to share with me his process or his inspiration. He gave thousands and thousands of blessings, so he certainly would not have remembered mine. But I wanted to know if he prayed, if he looked for something – I wanted him to describe the feelings he would have in those moments, or, did the words just come? I don’t know if he would’ve done it, but that’s what I was hoping for.
Back to craft: Sometimes it’s jolting to switch tenses within a story, but you do it carefully, and it works. Did you wrestle with that?
Oh yeah, that was a fight. The tenses in that story were a war. That’s what we were fixing, down to the day we published. I had a couple of editor-friends read it at the end just for tenses. The story happened in 1944, and the story happened in the 1990s when my grandfather asked me to tell his story, and the story was happening as I was telling it, over the span of the year that I was looking into it. So it was a mess. I think we got it right in the end but it was hard.
Where did you learn to be a reporter? What’s your reporting history?
I got a job typing birth announcements at the Arizona Republic when I was in college because I wanted to be a reporter, and bugged the editors until they let me write a story. I got to write a story about a car wash opening, and then a juice bar opening, and they liked it. And they were desperate for writers, and they were just like, “Fine. Clearly you have no interest in distributing the mail and the faxes, and you’re not doing it, so you might as well write a story.” They say I willed myself into it. Then I left and did an internship for the L.A. Times and at the Baltimore Sun, and then came back to the paper. I did a couple of turns on the news desk. And I liked that: I liked hearing the rhythm of the city, liked hearing the cop radio. But features is my love. I like to get into people’s lives and hang around for a while.
Aren’t you also a (lifestyle) stylist?
My mom is an interior decorator, so it’s something that I was good at when the paper started needing people to style – when we were trying to be a magazine and doing, you know, Easter party photo shoots and things like that. I was like, “I’ll just do that for you.” Then I started getting other work. Right now I’m not doing it at all, but journalism doesn’t pay that well so it’s nice to have something on the side that can make some extra money. I have a blog that I write for the newspaper that’s really just silly stuff – it’s not a literary blog. If I have a story I write about that, and if I read a great book I’ll write about that, but sometimes it’s just, “Here’s the T-shirt that I’m wearing every day right now.”
That’s fun, though. We can’t take ourselves too seriously.
Sometimes I feel like it compromises me, but we (as humans) aren’t serious all the time. I’m really excited about my new T-shirt from the Gap! It’s comfortable! And you know what I found from that: It helps get different readers into my stories. This blog has a huge following that doesn’t necessarily correspond to people who are into narrative journalism, and so I can sneak it in and get them to read it. You can be very serious but you have to balance it with fripperies.
Very smart. What kind of writing life do you ultimately want for yourself, or do you already have it?
I feel like I have a little honey hole. I’m at a paper that has a storytelling team and a storytelling editor, and that will find the space for stories that are important, and find the time. I just feel incredibly lucky and challenged. They’re always like, “What do you want to do this year to get better?” Journalism-prize judges haven’t always thought of the Arizona Republic in terms of narrative writing, but it seems that’s starting to change. There are some beautiful stories that are published out here in the flyover. So I feel really lucky, and my family’s here, and I’m very, very happy. But my end game? I just want to get better. I wanted to write a crime story where I had to dig through documents and learn the court system and fight to talk to people who didn’t want to talk to me, so I’m finishing that one right now. So I’m just trying to expand my wheelhouse. Someday books, maybe, but I don’t know if I have the attention span.
Speaking of books, what’s in your personal canon? The terrible deserted-island question and what you would take.
I would take Tender Is the Night. I mean I love the whole Paris-in-the-1920s crew. And even though The Great Gatsby is probably a better book I like knowing that they were all together in Paris, and that Hemingway and Fitzgerald were fighting. I love that! I would take The Hours, by Michael Cunningham. I read that when I was very young – it came out during my first reporting job and it kind of made my head come off. I was like, “I want to write sentences like that.” Oh, and I would take Harriet the Spy, which I’ve been told not to admit to people. I think children’s books change who you become. Every summer growing up, I would read that book and think, “I want to be a spy.” And sometimes, as a reporter, I actually get to do that.
How did you think your grandfather’s story would end? Were you surprised by what you discovered?
It was so foolish of me to think the (central question) could not be answered. I thought I’d find some vague corroboration or vague dismissal and be able to construct something about my grandfather and his life without actually answering this question. I also felt foolish, eventually, because I realized I could have just tracked the route that (Enola Gay pilot Paul) Tibbets and his crew took. I could’ve done that the first day, the first hour, of trying to report this story. And this is where writing about someone I love really compromised me – I wasn’t conscious that I didn’t actually want an answer to the question. So I got pretty far down this road and got the answer and realized I never wanted it. And there’s a moment that I didn’t write about in the story: I asked my grandfather at one point, “Do you want to know this? Do you want to know, either way?” And he said yes. After I found the answer I thought for a while that I just wouldn’t tell him, but I decided to do it because he kept asking, “What do you know? What do you know?”
How did he react to this story? Did you watch him read it? Were you with him when he read it?
Yes. I didn’t warn him. I showed up on his doorstep the Sunday before Memorial Day with papers and breakfast, and my mom was there, and he said, “What’re you doing here so early?” I said, “Oh, I don’t know, I saw this guy on the front page of the newspaper and he looked a little familiar.” That was, for me, one of the greatest moments I’ll ever get to have. He gripped his cane really hard and kind of bent over and his mouth hung open and then he was smiling and there were tears. Being in the newspaper meant that he mattered. That was so, so great to me. I sat next to him on the couch as he read it and watched his face. Then he read it again and started reading aloud to me his favorite sentences. We don’t get to have great moments like that as reporters, so it was very special.
Stop making me cry.
I was just – yeah. And the story had this incredible response. I’ve never had a response like this to a story. The emails from people weren’t just “great job,” they were, “Here’s my story,” and “Here’s a story about my grandpa.” Because I had shared something so personal, the readers gave something back. I printed those all out for my grandfather, and the stack is really, really high, and he is just in heaven.
It used to mean something, being in the newspaper.
Especially to men of that generation – being in the newspaper was a very, very big deal. The readers wanted me to know that they had mattered. That was also, I hope, one of the greater messages in this story: We all want to matter. We all want to have done something great, and made the papers. Some people did. And some people have these quiet, beautiful lives filled with smaller things that were even more important. One of the reasons I really wanted to get this in the newspaper was because I wanted to show people that just because you weren’t a war hero doesn’t mean your life wasn’t worthy of the newspaper. I thought: I’m gonna write a story about a man who didn’t do anything but love someone.
Editor’s note: On July 29, the Arizona Republic ran the following correction to this story: “During Philip Richey’s research of his World War II service, he found a document he believed was the secret military order discussed in the story. The order was for a flight that happened after the atomic bomb was dropped, but the document could not be verified. The story reached the same conclusion: He was not part of the atomic bomb mission. But his discovery should have been included in the published article.”