Excerpts from an August 2009 interview with Michael J. Mooney, reporter for Florida’s New Times, whose stories won a slot in the Best American Crime Reporting and Best American Sports Writing anthologies for 2009:
When did you first get interested in writing?
I was born in New York and grew up with my mother in Texas. From very early on, before I could read, my mother would read to me, and we would write these books. I would dictate stories about ninjas and cows. And we’d put it on notebook paper and we would put construction paper around it. I don’t even know if I understood what books were, though I must have.
My mother would write stories about talking rocks and ants that had situations related to things going on in my life. From second grade or earlier, I remember writing short stories myself.
When did you start reporting—doing journalism?
I worked at the school paper there at [the University of Texas] a little, but l didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I worked at a law firm for a couple of months doing research about lawsuits, and that was not fun at all. And I moved back up to Dallas from Austin in 2005. At that point, I was reading enough New York Times Magazine articles that I realized “This is what I want to do.” One story in particular was about strippers in Las Vegas, how their lives weren’t glamorous at all. I hadn’t thought of that kind of thing before as a newspaper or magazine story, even though I’d read Hunter S. Thompson growing up.
You cover a lot of outsiders in your stories. Have you ever gotten into trouble?
I feel like every time I pitch a weird story, I’m about to get fired. I go to my editor and say, “I want to take hookers on dates.” I always feel like I’m asking for trouble—“And can I have the paper pay for it, too?” I really do worry every time I pitch a story. I tell them I want to hang out with this homeless guy, and then I want to go to Vegas to the casinos to hang out with the guys who play poker and think it’s their new profession. I’ve struggled with convincing editors to let me do some stories—my editor said hookers would be too expensive.
Have you ever gotten in trouble with subjects?
No, not really. Maybe I’m too naïve to know I was in trouble, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in immediate danger. I’m not really hanging out with dangerous people, just people who are forgotten and unseen.
I wanted to write a profile of a modern pimp in Dallas, and so I spent time calling hooker ads that seemed like they were written by a pimp. I was pursuing it but couldn’t make contact through the ads. Then I pondered looking for someone on the street, finding someone and explaining that I wanted to do an article. That seemed an inappropriate and dangerous next step. But one day, somebody will write that story.
No, I don’t go out looking for risks specifically, and I try not to be fatalistic any more than is necessary to hang out with gambling professionals and drug addicts.
Do you worry about making your subjects seem like freaks?
Yeah, that’s a constant worry. I really, really don’t want to exploit anybody. I want to introduce one part of a society to another if I can, but not mock or exploit. To look at everyone’s story as important and poetic. People on the margins of society have very interesting lives that go unseen by the vast majority of the public.
At The Dallas Morning News, I did this feature on an underground wrestling club, a bloody beer-in-the-ring wrestling club. And the reason I found about it was because every day I passed this dark building that never had anybody there during the day. I wondered, “What the hell is going on there?” And I started hanging out and met these kids who were going to the matches there at night.
It became a front page story. I think that ran beside a story about Norman Borlaug, who’d won a Nobel Prize in the 1970s to alter food to stay alive longer. I feel like they’re both important stories, depending on the individual’s perspective.
Is it a little romantic to chase down these outsiders? Isn’t that “hidden story” theory true of everyone?
It takes an incredibly good writer to get that kind of story from people readers think they already know. But I try to do stories like that sometimes. The second or third story I did for The Dallas Morning News was about a suburban soccer mom trying to start a standup comedy career. She was going around organizing sponsors and a show that she was trying to put together.
That’s that’s a hard story to do well. But I would like to do that, too. I think everybody has these really dramatic situations in their lives, something that would make for a fantastic story.
Were your stories that are in this year’s Best American Crime Reporting and Sports Writing compilations done on the job, or were they pieces you worked on outside your job writing for the New Times?
The poker story was on the job at New Times, and the Kennedy story I had written while I was interning at the The Dallas Morning News. I had written it for one of the Mayborn conferences probably a year and a half before it was published. So that one was written on my own.
Did you get both acceptances at the same time?
I was checking my e-mail at 2 o’clock on a Sunday night. And I got a message from Otto Penzler. The subject line of the e-mail was “Best American Crime Reporting.” It said “congratulations.” I called and texted friends to see if they were playing a trick on me. They didn’t believe it either. The other notification came later, but not long after.
I read those compilations. My friends and I had talked before about “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a story in there one day?” And I still kind of feel like it’s some kind of joke. I told my boss, and he was really excited.
My mother said, “Is this some kind Who’s Who thing? They put you in there and now I’m obligated to buy some expensive book?” When I told her it was a real collection that people buy at a bookstore, then she got excited.
How you think about story? What is it that you want a story to do?
The way I think of stories is to think up stories I’d like to read myself. And then latching onto little things that I hear or overhear. I was at lunch one time with the former calendar editor at the New Times, and she said someone she knew was getting a clinical degree in addiction treatment. She talked about how this person had met sexual surrogates, instruments to heal people of extreme sexual dysfunction. I immediately thought there was a story there.
I want as to get as close as I can to making every story I write look like classic fiction. Having characters, plot, an opening that’s engaging and that walks the reader into the story. The way Gay Talese started his story on Joe DiMaggio in San Francisco on the water, with the fisherman, and the pretty girls and the sweaters. The way Fitzgerald or Shaw would guide somebody into a story and then introduce the character doing something that lets the reader know something special about what’s going on there. And then you step back. In the vast majority of Hemingway or Faulkner stories, you can step back and almost pinpoint a nut graf. “This guy liked burning barns.” There are exceptions, of course, but often, it’s there.
Our brain works in the form of stories. We accept knowledge in story form. If you want to have an effect on someone, the best way is to do it with a story that’s going to stick. I’m still looking at Susan Orlean’s original “Orchid Fever.” That could be a Cheever story.
How old are you?
Twenty-eight. I feel ridiculously lucky. I didn’t even know who in the company sent in the poker story for consideration in Best American Sports Writing. So much depends on who sends it, who sees it, who likes it that day. It’s so random, and overwhelming to think about how that happens. I just try to keep my job, to work hard and do as many stories as I possibly can.