We’ve got a few new additions to our Tip Sheets board (“Telling Big Stories,” inside the narrative machine with Matter) and Narrative News (“A Founder of Twitter Goes Long,” plus an argument for refocusing page design for narrative flow), but today’s highlights come from our Recommended Reading (Watching, Listening, etc.) board — stories about seekers, courage and the varieties of loss.
“Trials: A Desperate Fight to Save Kids and Change Science,” a deeply reported 17,000-word, 10-chapter multimedia narrative by Amy Dockser Marcus, of the Wall Street Journal. Marcus, a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter, spent six years on the immersive project, which follows an unusual collaboration between scientists and the parents of children with a rare and terminal genetic disease. In a terrific interview with wsj.com, Marcus talks about the project’s conception, the narrative arc, the challenges of immersive reporting, and the decision to go multimedia. “… On the one hand this is a scientific experiment of how to develop a drug, and it’s also a storytelling experiment: how to tell a story in a new way. We didn’t want to just tell this story in print only; we wanted to make it an online experience. We wanted to have videos. We wanted to have people come to life for the readers and the viewers.” The project is among a flurry of newspaper narratives whose delivery echoes that of the New York Times’ groundbreaking multimedia project “Snow Fall.” “Trials” (perfectly titled, by the way—“titled,” as opposed to “headlined,” since these works transcend “article” in their storytelling scope and presentation) opens with a video loop of a sleeping child, the blankets rising and falling, barely perceptible, with her breath. Then text, video, animation, audio, still photo, interactive sidebars, pop-up reader response and clean, easy endnotes. Watch Marcus talk about the project here:
And here’s an excerpt from Chapter 2, “Home Remedy:”
Chris Hempel wasn’t waiting for science. She ordered 100 grams of a white powder that arrived in a plastic bag from a Florida distributor. It looked like sugar and tasted like it, too.
She mixed a few teaspoons in water and drank it. After trying the concoction every day for a few weeks and feeling no ill effects, Ms. Hempel put the drink in sippy cups for her 4-year-old twin girls.
Ms. Hempel had reason to hope the sugary drink might help. A month after the November 2007 meeting at the National Institutes of Health, scientists in Texas published a startling discovery: a single dose of cyclodextrin injected into mice with NPC disease markedly extended the animals’ lives.
Cyclodextrin, a sugar-based molecule, was the anti-odor ingredient in Febreze air freshener. Food makers used it in chewing gum and cholesterol-free mayonnaise. In labs, it was a tool to dissolve and deliver drugs.
Researchers “were no more thinking about cyclodextrin as a possible therapy than they were thinking about the pipettes they were using as a therapy,” one NPC scientist said.
Ms. Hempel began giving cyclodextrin to the girls in early 2008. “I am posting this message to the entire world to let everyone know that Hugh and I will not sue any doctor, scientist, researcher, hospital or non-profit if anything happens to Addi and Cassi as we embark on trying experimental treatments to save them from Niemann-Pick Type C disease,” she wrote in her blog.
“Blood Spore,” by Hamilton Morris, Harper’s, about the murder of a pioneering mushroom scientist:
To some farmers the mushrooms were perks — with entrepreneurial flair they issued special blue buckets for twenty-five dollars a day as a means of formal Psilocybe-picking registration. But most farmers’ response was one of hostility; some would wait patiently until after a rainstorm, when the manure-loving mushrooms emerged, and then ambush and brutally beat those trespassing on their fields. Tensions had peaked the spring before Lincoff and Pollock visited, on the other coast in Parkland, where two unarmed men picking mushrooms under cover of night were discovered by a police officer named William Cobb, who shot them both in the back of the head. Cobb explained later in court that the shots had been fired in self-defense. In a practice whose greatest danger had once been the mis- identification of toadstools, a frightening new dynamic had emerged.
Both Pollock and Lincoff were bearded. One might even go so far as to say extremely bearded, certainly bearded enough that they could register “the stock-reaction ‘hippie.’ ” (Pollock’s hair was so voluminous that it often extended beyond the borders of photographs, his autopsy report correctly, if with understatement, observing that his hair was “full in amount with no alopecia.”) And so, not wishing to be shot, Lincoff and Pollock fastidiously flashed their IMC2 badges and politely asked farmers for permission. While searching a secluded field on their hands and knees, Pollock and Lincoff looked up to find themselves surrounded by a herd of milk cows. Pollock had written extensively about the history of Brahman cattle and how their dung and domestication influenced global mushroom distribution, and he assured Lincoff they weren’t at risk of being trampled. It was then that Pollock looked down between them and noticed a solitary specimen with an unusual appearance. It had a small, convex, caramel-colored cap undergirded by gills of a purple hue and a long flexuous stem that thickened ever so slightly at the base, where the faintest hint of indigo emerged like the vasculature beneath the skin of a human wrist.
“Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” by Ariel Levy, of The New Yorker, is a piece you will not soon forget, about wanderlust, independence, and losing a child:
He was translucent and pink and very, very small, but he was flawless. His lovely lips were opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world. For a length of time I cannot delineate, I sat there, awestruck, transfixed. Every finger, every toenail, the golden shadow of his eyebrows coming in, the elegance of his shoulders—all of it was miraculous, astonishing. I held him up to my face, his head and shoulders filling my hand, his legs dangling almost to my elbow. I tried to think of something maternal I could do to convey to him that I was, in fact, his mother, and that I had the situation completely under control. I kissed his forehead and his skin felt like a silky frog’s on my mouth.
“Who Killed Michael Hastings?” by Benjamin Wallace, New York magazine, about the controversial Rolling Stone writer who died in a suspicious car accident. Wallace’s opening:
At the end of his life, Michael Hastings, like many of the progressive journalists he counted among his friends, felt besieged by an overreaching government. Hastings was living in Los Angeles, and at a Beverly Hills theater in April, he took part in a panel discussion about the documentary War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State. Interviewed in May on The Young Turks, a talk show on Current TV, Hastings railed against the Obama administration, which “has clearly declared war on the press”; the only recourse, he said, was for the press to respond: “We declare war on you.” On May 31, he dashed off an urgent tweet: “first they came for manning. Then Assange. Then fox. Then the ap.drake and the other whistle-blowers. Any nyt reporters too.” He attended screenings of his friend Jeremy Scahill’s film Dirty Wars, which seeks to expose “the hidden truth behind America’s expanding covert wars,” and when leaks about the NSA began appearing in The Guardian, and Edward Snowden was charged with espionage, Hastings was deeply troubled by the revelations and the Justice Department’s response. On June 7, his last post for BuzzFeed, where he was a staff writer, focused on “Why Democrats Love to Spy on Americans,” and at the time of his death, Hastings was working on a profile of CIA director John Brennan for Rolling Stone.
“The Willy Wonka of Pot,” by Jason Fagone, Grantland. Fagone, author of the new narrative nonfiction book Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America, journeys to Seattle for a yarn about a mysterious cannabis figure who breeds the pot equivalent of “high-end wines:”
A few brave Internet commenters like to ask Short for growing tips, but most seem to keep a respectful and reverent distance. “I think many of us can agree DJ Short is quite iconic,” one commenter wrote at thcfarmer.com in 2012. “But who the heck is this guy? Where does he live and what makes him tick? … Has he ever been interviewed? Is he still alive?” Another wrote in 2010, “As for who he is, I’ve looked everywhere … I dare not ask because I know better. From my research, he is to weed as Willy Wonka is to candy. Like Willy Wonka, he is hiding in his factory.”
“Oops, You Just Hired the Wrong Hit Man,” by Jeanne Marie Laskas, GQ:
How he came up with fillet knife, the hit man, who is not really a hit man, has no idea. You get into character. In the morning, when he puts on the do-rag, the jewelry, the Pabst Blue Ribbon sleeveless tank exposing heavy-metal tats, he’ll coach himself: You are a common standard-white-trash shithead. He’ll study his face. Lower his chin, crack a dangerous smile. And with girls in the meth world, you’re a catch….
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives employs an army of guys like him whom nobody’s ever heard of and nobody is supposed to know about. On the street he goes by Thrash or Hammer or any name that might suggest a ruthless killer, but for this story we will call him Special Agent Charles Hunt. People hire him to kill or maim or blow stuff up, and he goes along with it until…he doesn’t. The bust happens. The intended victim is saved. The wacko who ordered the hit gets put away.