We talked this week with Men’s Health contributing editor Oliver Broudy about his December 2009 story “Dead Man Driving,” which recreates the events leading up to the death of Adam LaBar on Interstate 81 in Pennsylvania in 2008. A finalist for a National Magazine Award in the “Personal Service” category, the story is full of information about how accidents happen. Broudy’s work intrigued us because of its seamless melding of data and an intimate portrait of LaBar’s final moments. Here, the former Paris Review managing editor talks about his gruesome search for the ideal dead man, writers who ignore their audience and the “one particular product” long-form narrative provides that readers can’t get anywhere else.
How did you come up with the story concept for “Dead Man Driving”?
I need to credit my editor, Ben Court, with the idea. Men’s Health begins from an editorial perspective of trying to figure out what the big issues of concern for our readers are, and car crashes are a pretty big one.
Already the numbers fade from my memory, but the number of people killed every year is appalling—I think it’s around 40,000. When so many people are killed every year and have been killed every year going back to when the first vehicle hit the road, how can you write about it in such a way that it appears newsworthy? The very appallingness of the statistics was working against us. So, my editor had the idea, “Why don’t we profile a single crash?” I sort of ran with that idea and pushed it to its limit.
How did you choose Adam LaBar as your subject?
Obviously, you want to find a story the reader can maximally relate to. You want them to be able to say, “That could have been me.” If there’s something slightly amiss with the subject—let’s say they’d been drinking, that makes it very easy for the reader to say, “Well that could never happen to me, because I never drink and drive.” Even if they do, it’s something they can say to themselves, something that discredits the story for them.
We first started talking about this story in October, maybe November, of 2008. I didn’t find an ideal candidate until June or July of 2009. Ultimately, what I did was to find some people who specialized in parsing crash data. There is some kind of national list of every fatal accident that happens in the United States, but it’s scrubbed of identifying details because it’s used for research purposes.
I was able to specify to these people what I was looking for—that I wanted a late model vehicle, because I wanted someone of a certain socioeconomic status. I wanted a crash that happened between 6 am and 7pm or 8 pm, because I didn’t want someone off on a night bender. There were a whole bunch of variables like this that I gave this guy. He ran a query and came back with maybe 80 different crashes.
He sent them to me in an Excel spreadsheet with no names. There were addresses, but I don’t think that they were precise addresses. They had the car, and the make and model of the car. Using all this information, I was able to do Web searches, and as often as not, there would be a little local paper story that carried a write-up, because they were all fatalities. So I went through 80 of these write-ups and came up with a shortlist of 10 or 15 different crashes that I thought would be maximally effective for the reader.
Adam LaBar’s crash was one that came up. I contacted his wife, and she was extremely keen on the idea of salvaging something from this disaster and possibly saving somebody’s life. So she was happy to share her story.
Your piece is a finalist for a National Magazine Award in the “Personal Service” category, and now your Web site says that the article is required reading for students at the FBI academy at Quantico. You’re a former managing editor of The Paris Review, which is thought of as perhaps a little more literary. Was it a challenge to put a fairly nuanced set of storytelling skills to use in a public service message?
It’s been challenging writing for Men’s Health from the beginning, for that reason. I was sort of born and raised a literary writer, and not to trash literary writers, but as often as not, they tend to be writing almost with other books as an audience as opposed to actual readers. They’re so engaged in the process of literature, and they spend all their time reading literature. The reader is not really on their radar. They’re more involved in this conversation with words, and with other stories and other writers. This is often to the detriment of their storytelling skills and their narrative development skills. I can imagine being bashed for saying that, but it is the sad truth. It certainly was the truth for me.
I was definitely that kind of writer. When I came to Men’s Health, it was a very bracing experience, because when you’re writing for magazines, you have to grab the reader by the neck and not let him slip away. Suddenly you have to pay extremely close attention to the reader, where in the past, you’d always allowed yourself to kind of ignore him. Before, the reader was just sort of a detail. He was along for the ride. That is definitely not the case with magazine writing.
So it has always been a challenge blending these two worlds together, but that’s part of what I offer Men’s Health and part of what I think they value. I’ve found a way to kind of bring the two different skill sets together and to try to resolve them happily.
For any story, you take a look at it in the beginning and you get a sense of what the deliverables are. I put it in these very punishingly businesslike terms as a way of keeping my own literary inclinations in check: “There’s something that you owe the reader here, and it’s your job to deliver it. Don’t forget that—that’s your job.”
How did you see your obligation for “Dead Man Driving”?
In this case, there are different kinds of deliverables. There are the “personal service” deliverables of all the information that might keep the reader alive a little bit longer, and then there are the deliverables that will keep the reader reading. The main one, of course, is the gory promise that at the end of the story, they’ll be able to go down and check out this car accident themselves.
I sort of began with the idea that we’re all rubberneckers, that there is something about car crashes that we all want to slow down and check out. It’s this impulse in us. I thought I’d begin with that. I wanted to be up front about that and admit that we do all want to check these things out, and to say there’s a reason for it—the reason being that if we could figure out what the hell happened, then maybe we wouldn’t end up in the same situation ourselves.
In terms of reconciling the literary and the service, the first thing to do is to buy yourself some time, to provide yourself with a little bit of capital. If I can say, “Listen, I’m going to give you this by the end of the piece,” I know that I have a certain amount of their attention, which I can spend hopefully wisely on all the other deliverables that I need to squeeze in there somehow.
You start with the onlookers to the accident slowing down as they pass. Did you worry about using that hook? Did you worry about using LaBar’s death as a kind of a burlesque show?
I think a lot of magazine writing is a burlesque show. Pretty much the lead to every magazine story is some kind of play at burlesque, or at least an attempt to get the reader’s attention. I think that readers these days have become incredibly protective of their attention, and rightfully so.
So at the very beginning, you are faced with a serious question, “How are we going to get this reader’s attention, and how are we going to keep it?” That’s a decision you have to make. I try not to mess around. I’ll go in there, and I’ll get that attention whatever way I can, because that’s the only way they’re going to get through the article and get this information that I honestly do believe is helpful to them, and that their eyes are going to run across the ads that make the whole magazine business spin.
There are definitely more toned-down leads I could have used, but would the reader have gotten through them? I doubt it. As writers, we have to respond and do what we can to take our readers seriously and direct their attention.
From the title of the piece and the lifespan of your central character—which you give right in the introductory paragraph—we know that Adam is going to die. Did you worry about losing narrative tension when readers already know he won’t survive?
The combination of the wreck and an almost fetishitic focus on it was enough to keep the reader compelled, because I could promise them that wreck. The reader is as guilty here as I am, which makes the weight of the burlesque a little bit easier to bear. I’m suggesting to them, “You’re interested in this because you have this morbid curiosity. If I’m wrong, then you’re not going to be reading this.” We know the reader will read because the reader does have this morbid curiosity. It begins with a kind of leveling with ourselves: “Let’s be honest. This is interesting to us. What if we’re completely honest about that? Could we learn actually learn something from it?”
When I was writing this piece, it felt very surgical, like I was performing an autopsy on the narrative itself, like I was taking it apart second by second and trying to understand what went into it. I was really delighted when I was able to get the 911 call sheet. I was able to get a comprehensive global picture of everything that went into these two hours or so, especially those last few minutes and microseconds. The 911 call sheet had a breakdown of exactly when every unit was alerted, when they responded, when they arrived on the scene and so on.
And from working with a number of accident reconstruction experts, I was able to put together a very precise time frame of how long it took his car to spin as it was going across the median, how long it took for his brain to ricochet back and forth in his cranium—all these things that are the twisted little parts of this narrative.
That surgical aspect—that distanced voice you create—seems to actually ramp up the power of your story.
This was my nod to, my apology for, the burlesque elements that you referenced earlier. I definitely could have ramped up the emotion, but there’s a limit to what is tasteful and acceptable. I was extremely obliged to Adam’s widow for letting me into her life and for sharing the story with me. I didn’t want to make a big emotional mess, an exploitative mess, of her husband’s story.
The trickiest moment for me is that the fact that there’s an extremely good chance that the accident was caused by the call that Adam received while he was driving from his 12-year-old son. You need to represent this somehow, and it’s almost too over-the-top to represent. If his kid reads this, how is he going to cope with it? Finding a way to deal with all that may have been part of why I decided to go with the voice I did. It’s almost a defensive action against the overwhelming emotional content of the story.
Were there any other challenges in writing the piece?
The most challenging thing was finding the guy. After I found him, the writing and the research were by comparison much easier. But I think that’s another indication of how challenging it is to connect with readers these days. The feature story is under pressure right now in a way it hasn’t been before. This is something that I feel so acutely writing for Men’s Health.
People who work at magazines are talking about how to transfer their business to the Web or reconcile their business with a Web model. They start figuring out what works on the Web. It turns out what works on the Web are top 10 lists and little Web apps.
There’s definitely a negative pressure that these new forms are putting on long-form journalism. I always feel like I’m fighting to keep the readers’ attention and to get them through the story. At the same time, I do so righteously, knowing that it really is only narrative journalism that can provide one particular product for the reader that the reader can’t get anywhere else, and that is to let the reader know what it feels like to be somebody else.
Pretty much every other form of journalism and certainly most of the new kind of Web forms that we’re seeing, whether they’re journalistic or just information delivery modules, tend to specialize in making the readers or the users feel more like themselves. This is their purpose and their value. But it’s only long-form narrative journalism that tells you what it’s like to be somebody else. Very often, the only way to experience and to understand important stories is through the eyes of others. It’s a fight to keep pushing for that and to find new ways of making it work in our changing environment.