When Jack Hitt got an assignment to write about Jerry Foster, a daredevil helicopter pilot who worked for a TV station in Phoenix in the ’70s and ’80s, he thought he had a plum adventure story. It turned out to be much more – Hitt argues that Foster essentially invented live-action TV news.
“I keep finding these self-invented wackos who do extraordinary things.”
Instead of just filming as authorities rescued people from dangerous situations, Foster would swoop in himself. “He just kept breaking the fourth wall of journalism by beating the cops,” Hitt says.
In “What Goes Up,” his piece on Foster for Epic Magazine, Hitt brings the pilot’s high-flying feats to life while writing beautifully of the larger context: “The backyard lemon trees shuddered in the wake of Foster’s chopper as he zipped over the moonlit landscape of ranch houses with their mandatory swimming pools. Suburbs like this were on the march all across the US, colonizing farmland, marsh, and down below, the most punishing part of the West. You could almost feel the tectonic plates of the culture shifting as the Beatles broke up and the Black Sabbath hit the charts. The Summer of Love had collapsed into the horror of the Manson family murders. The talk at the corner grocers and the gas stations was of race wars and outlaw biker gangs and drug-fueled (was there some other kind?) sex orgies.”
Hitt contributes regularly to The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s and “This American Life.” In September, he launched a podcast called “Uncivil” on the Civil War with author and journalist Chenjerai Kumanyika. I asked him about the Epic story, his writing process and working across print and radio. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to do this story?
Epic Magazine called me to see if wanted to do it. It was an adventure story, but one of the things I liked most about it was seeing that this guy essentially invented live-action news. That’s the argument I make, and I stand by it. It’s so commonplace now, but it wasn’t long ago all journalism was in the past tense. Jerry Foster actually changed the syntax of journalism. We reporters were supposed to observe and not participate. Because Foster wasn’t schooled in the standards of the form, he didn’t bother to wait for the cops to come and then report on the rescue. He just got the kid.
What was your reporting process like?
I moved out to Phoenix for about 10 days and basically spent every day with Jerry. I also interviewed some of his colleagues back in the stations. I found tons of actual video of Jerry reporting or outtakes. And then for the details, to check it all and see what else got said about the moment, the newspaper archive was fantastic. I spent a lot of time there just getting clips for every event that happened to him. I had his personal evidence, the video evidence, his colleagues’ version of the story and newspaper versions of the story. It probably took six months, but I have several things going at any one time.
Writing can be excruciating, so sometimes I have to run away from it and have something else going on. I talk on the phone or transcribe or order my notes. I write down all my notes, every tiny little thing, from a word someone says to a giant idea, and I put them all in the big data file. There’s a tool called Skim that lets you put in any file as a PDF, highlight it, and print the highlights. Eventually, I print everything out and pin it on the one-inch-wide corkboard I have around my office. That way I can stare it at it without turning a page. Then I get a cup of coffee and read it back and forth like 100 times. Then I run to my desk and write notes. Then I keep staring at it. Then I watch “The Wire” and come back feeling guilty and stare at the paper again. When I have all that material in my head, the scaffolding of the story appears by itself. I don’t find myself forcing it. Obviously, the beginning would start like this. With Jerry, his life was the natural spine of the story. I don’t write an outline—I let the outline appear. I don’t mean to make that sound mystical. The mysticism appears out of the sweat equity of all that donkey work that I mentioned.
Are there any themes to the stories you gravitate to?
I didn’t notice this until my agent pointed it out to me eight years ago: I keep finding these self-invented wackos who do extraordinary things. Many of them fail, but the ones I tend to write about are obsessives who stumble into or find their way into something amazing, fresh or inventive. The whole amateur tradition in America is filled with garage dreamers who never got their perpetual motion machine going. But occasionally one of those guys is Steve Jobs. Like many people, I read about the founding fathers and fell in love with Ben Franklin. He is a far more complicated character than the cartoon version. He was this crackpot inventor who created the lightning rod, which saved entire villages from being burned to the ground. He was always willing to argue with himself and change his opinion. He was the first and only of the founding fathers to be an abolitionist. I find that kind of figure in America is very common and inspirational. The idea that you can have nothing, know nothing, learn it all and figure out something and maybe make a fortune on the side is the original American Dream.
“I print everything out and pin it on the one-inch-wide corkboard I have around my office. That way I can stare it at it without turning a page. Then I get a cup of coffee and read it back and forth like 100 times. Then I run to my desk and write notes. Then I keep staring at it. Then I watch ‘The Wire’ and come back feeling guilty and stare at the paper again.”
You’re one of the rare people who does both longform writing and radio journalism extensively. What do you like about each and what sets them apart?
Great radio and great writing are both about telling a narrative. The reader creates little motion pictures in his brain, participating in the story’s construction, whereas in TV you’re 100% fed everything. I like when the writer or radio reporter is providing just enough of the story that I can intellectually and emotionally participate in it and fall in love with it. NPR likes to talk about “driveway moments,” when you can’t get out of the car because the story has hooks in you. That’s what a good story does, whether radio or print. I don’t see much of a difference between print and radio, except that it’s harder to go back and reconstruct things in radio. In this story, I reconstructed some of Jerry’s more amazing heroics. I talked to people and went back to newspaper archives to put the story together more or less as it happened. In radio, you’d have to do some kind of reenactment, which would sound terrible.
How do you handle that in your podcast, given that it’s completely historical?
You try to find participants and tell the story that way. The Civil War is much closer than you think. One way we’re bringing it alive is through key players who have become amateur historians of their own ancestors. There were numerous survivors of Jerry’s antics, so if I made this a radio piece, I’d interview them. Chapter 2 of Neil Sheehan’s “Bright Shining Lie” was an early inspiration for me. He interviewed everybody involved in one battle in Vietnam and retold the story from both sides.
Which writers inspire you?
So many. One people don’t read anymore that I love is Evan Connell. Any fiction by Charles Portus, the guy who wrote “True Grit” — his novels are almost flawless. Out of modern writers, like anybody with a brain, I read Susan Orlean and David Grann. When I see those names I’m so delighted, because it means I get to lock the door, get a cup of coffee and know I’m going to have a 45-minute payday, just this deep pleasure. I could name two dozen more: Jon Mooallem, Michael Pollan, Katherine Boo. It’s weird to me that this pleasure is lost on other readers. It’s a third of the time you would spend watching Game of Thrones or a movie.