A photo of the late narrative journalist and educator Matt Tullis in his home studio, doing an episode of the podcast "Gangrey"

Matt Tullis in his home studio doing an episode of "Gangrey the Podcast"

By Kim Cross

There are many worthy books about the narrative craft of great storytelling. But the story behind a story — the hurdles, dilemmas, ethical quandaries and logic puzzles invisible in a seamless final draft —can be the best (and most specific) teacher. These tales are the heart of a new craft book that itself has a poignant backstory: Its path to publication embodies the narrative arc.

“Stories Can Save Us” (University of Georgia Press, June 2024) is a collection of interviews with narrative journalists on their approach to the craft of true storytelling, often focused on a particular story rife with teachable moments. It is, in many ways, a fresh version of the 2006 “The New New Journalism,” which itself is an homage to “The New Journalism,” a 1975 anthology of classics edited by Tom Wolfe. This book captures a chorus of voices from contemporary masters, many of them familiar to Storyboard readers: Tom Junod, Pamela Coloff, Chris Jones, Rachel Monroe, Eli Saslow and others.  

Cover of "Stories Can Save Us," a new anthology of narrative nonfictionThe book was an outgrowth of “Gangrey the Podcast,” hosted and produced by Matt Tullis, a journalist, writer, teacher, coach and friend who loved talking about craft with other writers. 

Matt was earnest, kind, humble and generous in his support of the writing community. He asked terrifically specific questions about reporting and writing, gently guiding each writer through the journey of the story behind the story. I still assign these podcasts, along with the stories they dissect, in my graduate feature writing class.

Matt was diagnosed with leukemia as a child. He beat it and grew up to be an author, college professor and avid runner. He wrote a book, “Running With Ghosts,” about his battle with childhood cancer and the ghosts who accompanied him on his runs. He was putting the narrative anthology together two years ago when doctors found a new cancer — this one in his brain.

After brain surgery in September 2022, Matt posted a selfless selfie, smiling with a bandaged head and a positive outlook: “Got Wordle in Three!” I teased him about starting a new headwear trend.

The next day he was gone.

Matt left behind a wife and two kids and a lot of friends sucker-punched by the unfairness of his fate. He beat cancer. As a kid. It came back at 46. This isn’t how a good story should end.

But it didn’t end there. Not exactly.

Another great storyteller, ESPN senior writer Seth Wickersham, was a friend of Matt’s. He knew of Matt’s plans for the book and envisioned a way to realize that vision, amplifying Matt’s influence on the jouranlists of today and tomorrow.

“It needed to be out there to keep hope alive for the kinds of stories he loved, that we all love,” Wickerman said, “not only to help students and professionals, but as a prayer of sorts for that kind of work.”

Photo of a tattoo that says "STORIES CAN SAVE US" on the arm of late narrative journalist Matt TullisWith the blessing of Matt’s wife, Alyssa, Wickersham enlisted the help of other writers to get the book across the finish line. (None accepted payment for their work.) Wright Thompson, Justin Heckert and Michael Kruse interviewed other writers to complete the mix. Wickersham edited the manuscript and ghost-wrote an introduction in Matt’s voice, weaving thoughts that Matt had written or said before he died. Heckert memorialized Matt in a beautiful essay and came up with the book’s title — a quote Matt had tattooed on his arm.

Matt believed stories not only can save us, but make us immortal.

“If we tell enough stories,” Matt wrote, “we can all live forever.”

Proceeds from the sale of the book will benefit Matt’s wife and kids. It also will benefit those who read it, who will learn something useful and beautiful about the craft of story work. As a bonus, they’ll get to know the special man — and the writers he interviewed — immortalized in these pages.

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Kim Cross is a freelance journalist and nonfiction author based in Boise, Idaho. Her new book, “In Light of All Darkness,” is about the FBI investigation of the 1993 Polly Klaas kidnapping.

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