At the recent City & Regional Magazine Association conference in Atlanta, Esquire’s Tom Junod and Texas Monthly’s Pamela Colloff interviewed each other for an audience of narrative lovers. Atlanta magazine’s Tony Rehagen kindly recorded the session exclusively for Storyboard. You can hear the conversation in its entirety (an hour and 22 minutes), with an introduction by Steve Fennessy, Atlanta’s editor in chief. Discussed: process, voice, advocacy journalism, story regret, the future of longform, and Hillary Clinton’s smile. Check out the time stamps for highlights.
I think of you two as being on opposite poles stylistically. Like when I read Tom I’m just sort of dazzled by the prose; when I read (Colloff) I can’t believe the restraint. I’ve haltingly attempted to try both things. And I wonder if you think that as writers we need to make a choice whether or not we’re gonna try to be very restrained or just sort of go for it in the way that Tom does…
I think in most cases you have to let the story determine your approach. I mean you are who you are as a writer. There’s no way of getting around that. Just like your singing voice: It is your singing voice no matter whether you decide to sing high or sing low. So you’re stuck with that. But at the same time, I think it’s the song that determines whether you do sing high or sing low.
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Tom Wolfe, which you might not expect, reading my stories. I started off trying to … do a very baroque sort of writing. As I’ve gotten older it’s gotten sparer and sparer, for better or for worse. I’m not sure I can totally articulate why that is, but I like to pick stories where the material is so good that my main job is to kind of get out of the way. … The power of the material hopefully carries it.
11:55: Junod calls Colloff’s “The Innocent Man” a master class in narrative journalism.
12:55: Junod says despite “radical assault on people’s reading time” and sea change in journalism, the case for longform is strong.
16:00: The decision about when to reveal a key fact of the Michael Morton wrongful-imprisonment story related to structure but primarily to point of view.
16:45: Junod’s “Mercenary,” piece on a “shooter for Blackwater.” By “shooter” he does not mean “photographer.” He had been “working as a contract killer for the United States government for 20 years,” Junod tells the audience. The story, if you haven’t read it, is not what it seemed. The story’s opening:
The Palisades Nuclear Plant in Covert, Michigan, is real. It produces 778 megawatts of electricity, and the electricity keeps the lights burning for about half a million residents. The nuclear reactor inside the nuclear plant is also real. It gets really hot, and anyone driving on Interstate 196 on his way to Grand Rapids or St. Joe can see thin clouds of steam rising from its cooling towers, as constant a presence as the weather. The steam is real; it’s water from Lake Michigan, pumped in to keep the reactor cool. The nuclear power plant is on the shore of Lake Michigan, right next to the tourist town of South Haven and about eighty miles from Chicago as the crow flies. Lake Michigan is real, definitely, though it comes off as an illusory ocean, offering the horizon as its only boundary. South Haven is real, too, although it empties out in the cold of winter. And Chicago? As real as the millions of people who live there, and the strange American fervor they generate. Chicago is so damned real, and so damned American, that it’s hard to imagine an American reality without it — it’s hard to imagine an American reality if, say, a terrorist attack on Palisades Nuclear contaminated the big lake for the next thousand years or so and emptied out Chicago, not to mention St. Joe and South Haven and Covert.
21:45: Advocacy journalism. “I mean I wrote the story so that this guy was not gonna be the head of security at a nuclear plant on Lake Michigan. That was my whole goal.” (Junod)
23:10: On outlining. Colloff didn’t.
24:35: The John McPhee pieces about writing, in The New Yorker. “His argument for outlining was one of the most definitive arguments against outlining I’ve ever read.” (Junod)
26:04: Junod once said that his “Rapist Says He’s Sorry” story “exploded his writing process,” Colloff says. “I was so interested in that. We all look at the people who we admire who write and we picture them just sitting down at their computer very peaceful, and they’re dressed, and in a good mood, and they type a few words and then have a healthy lunch and then come back and write, and stop at five. It was sort of refreshing to realize oh, even this guy, who talks about things like self-loathing … in the process of writing.”
29:15: “The Abortionist” is the only one of Junod’s career that had no alterations. “It’s a perfect story,” Colloff says. “Yeah, it was kind of a gift,” Junod says. “It really was. No alterations in punctuation, spelling, anything else. The one I gave to the magazine was exactly what was printed.”
36:02: Colloff likes Junod’s descriptive abilities and makes him read aloud a paragraph from a 1999 story about Hillary Clinton’s mouth:
That slight palatal overbite — it gets to me. She seems expert at marshaling her mouth’s resources, at inspiring its ingenuity. She can fold her lips into an origami of fleeting smiles. Her basic smile is sort of chipmunky and schoolmarmish, but sometimes, when she is pouncing on the possibility of an idea, her lips extend their reach into her cheeks and carve out a wolfish, carnal line, as though nothing could please her more than her own hunger. Her mouth is enigmatic in its capacity for adjustment — it seems both the origin and repository of her secrets. Sure, when she is under duress, it can appear small, pinched, grudging, harsh, unforgiving, and grimly determined — nippy — but when she is at ease, free to discuss, you know, the issues…well, then her mouth becomes the very instrument of her freedom, and her laugh rings the bell of her throat. Her laugh is the sexiest thing about her, in fact; it packs a lewd wallop because it seems to take her by surprise. There’s a wickedness about her laugh, in its offhand suggestion that she is willing to be entertained, to be pleased. It’s quick and sudden, an unabashed, throaty gargle, and it seems to put dazzle in her eyes from below, like footlights.
40:00: If he meets you, Tom Junod will study your face.
43:00: The objective tone of Colloff’s voice in “The Innocent Man” isn’t in fact, to Junod, objective, and he applauds that. “I said it has a neutral-sounding voice and an objective-sounding voice, but there is not one paragraph in there that’s not patterned in order to make the reader ask questions and later on to reach conclusions.”
43:50: “Trial by Fire,” by The New Yorker’s David Grann, changed Colloff’s life.
57:20: Colloff wants to know how Junod crafted a 6,000-word Leonardo DiCaprio cover story from the following access, or lack thereof: two hours in a conference room.
58:30: How Junod’s editor got him to do three celebrity profiles in a row this summer. “He wouldn’t just say, ‘You’ve got to do three celebrity profiles.’”
1:03:00: Junod liked Brad Pitt better than DiCaprio, and the experience made him remember something about storytelling that he’d forgotten: “You should really go into it with a sense of generosity…. There’s a place for generosity in journalism.”
1:07:30: Colloff shuns tape recorders, to listen better. After interviews, she gets in the car and turns the tape recorder on and “narrates” her impressions. “That helps so much.”
1:08: Colloff asks Junod about story regret.
1:18:30: The future of longform.