Yesterday, we posted our first Editors’ Roundtable, in which a group of word wizards did their magic on a piece of narrative nonfiction. Our debut story for consideration was “The Real Lesson of the Tucson Tragedy,” written by Time magazine Editor-at-large David Von Drehle. While the prospect of having a group of editors poke around in a story might unsettle some writers, Von Drehle was curious to see what they would say and eager to talk with us about his piece. I interviewed him last week, before the editors’ comments had posted. What follows is a transcript of our talk, lightly edited for clarity.
Can you talk about how you got assigned this story and what reporting, if any, you did for it?
The shooting was on Saturday morning, and I would guess within an hour or so, I got a call or an e-mail – I think it must have been a call from Michael [Duffy]. He’s in Washington, and I live and work in the Kansas City area. He didn’t know what the story would be then, but he was pretty sure it would become big and important. He wanted me to be paying attention and getting myself ready to write.
By that Saturday night, I think he was pretty sure it would become the cover of the magazine. So that first day I was looking at that. And of course there was this enormous political firestorm among what I call “the cabal” in the article.
My reaction to that, the idea that this was a politically motivated act, was pretty extreme skepticism, just because I tend to believe in the Occam’s razor approach to events. The thing that happens most often is probably going to be the thing that happens again. Usually these kinds of mass shootings are products of mental illness rather than political motivation, and so I guess I spent a lot of Saturday going against the flow of where folks thought the story was going. Really that whole weekend was mostly spent just trying to sort out in my own mind what had happened, what it meant, and what was significant about it.
I did not go to Tucson. We did immediately send several people down there. My job in those first days was to figure out what had happened and what it really meant, what the takeaway should be. That was not an easy process. That was where being on a weekly deadline instead of a daily deadline was an advantage. I grew up in the newspaper business – I’ve only been in magazines for about four years. I definitely felt the advantage of not having to write my piece the first day.
You didn’t end up with a traditional news feature that says, “Here’s what happened.” But it’s also not a traditional narrative where you just build it from the inside out. It has a unique style. At what point did the story acquire that style?
This was a really interesting case in this ongoing figuring-out process that we’re doing at Time, trying to get clear in our own minds and for our readers “What is the function of a news magazine today?” Is it a digest of the past week’s news? Well, yes, it is a little bit a briefing. Is it a place for the tick-tock, the behind the scenes, the fly-on-the-wall stuff that was the meat and potatoes of Time and Newsweek for many years? Yes, a little bit of that, too – there still is some room for that. But where we really can bring value is in a story like this, where we can put the news and the meaning in a big frame with a new kind of angle, a new way of looking at it, and bring that all together in one place.
That was what I had in mind. That’s what I wanted to do. I knew it was not just going to be a tick-tock, though it needed to have some of that: “Here’s our sense of what happened there.” And it was not just going to be an analytical piece, but that it would have analysis in it. And that it would need to have a takeaway, where people would leave with an understanding of “What does this say about the times we live in and the meaning of life?”
That’s a big throwaway line, but one of my favorite editors that I’ve learned so much from over the years, Gene Weingarten, always taught us that really every good story should somehow be about the meaning of life. So I sort of tossed that off, but when you try to turn that into a real story, you are kind of smashing several different genres, several different well-known styles, all into one. That’s kind of the challenge, the trick of it.
As part of that, you talk directly to the reader, using lines like “go ahead and cry.” That kind of second-person address can be a little dangerous. Can you talk about it as a srategy?
A couple of people have asked about this piece, “How long did it take you to write it?” One answer is that it took from Saturday morning to Wednesday night. But as far as the actual typing of words, the composing of sentences, it was really Tuesday before I started getting words on the screen. So it took all day Tuesday and then Wednesday morning finishing up the draft.
This theme emerged of “What is normal in America now, and why is our discourse distorting reality so much?” As I realized that was the theme, and that was what we were going to talk about, part of that was to speak to our readers. Time has a very broad cross-section of ordinary middle America, and the piece needed to enlist them in this idea that there is a normal American discourse that goes on where people are able to disagree civilly and are able to participate in a political process that is vigorous but not overheated and not violent.
As the writer, I was aware that people who buy our magazine and read it are basically – that’s them. They’re interested enough in events, but they’re not out on the political blogs 24/7. Most of them are not lighting up comment boards. So I decided that the way to kind of say to the readers, “I’m talking about you. You, my audience, are evidence of the case I’m trying to make,” was to come out from behind the curtain in a couple of places and speak directly to them.
I’m the father of a 9-year-old girl, and so the story of Christina Green spoke to me in some very emotional, powerful ways. That moment seemed like one where it just seemed right to momentarily erase the screen between the writer and the audience and say, “Look, of course I know what you’re feeling. You know what I’m feeling. Anybody would feel that way.”
Still, you’re right. It’s dangerous. It’s not a technique you would want to use all the time, but it seemed to me to underline the theme of the piece. That’s what you’re always trying to do as a writer: to get your sentences and structure to match your idea. It seemed to reinforce rather than distract from the theme. I actually wrote “Go ahead and shed a tear.” It was Duffy who made it, “Go ahead and cry,” which is so much better. In that vein of giving credit where it’s due to editors, he didn’t change much in the story, but he did change that, which made it a lot better.
What other edits did he make?
A few word changes. One paragraph was taken out, because it was biographical stuff about Loughner that was duplicated in another story in the package, but otherwise, no. A word here and there. That cry line was the biggest change.
If I recall correctly, in the lede, I said, “So much of the story is ugly and twisted that it’s best to start with something beautiful and good.” I had said that “So much is ugly and twisted that I want to start with something beautiful and good.” Duffy rightly suggested that since that was the only use of the first person, “Let’s take the first person out of the lede.” He was absolutely right about that, too. He’s an outstanding line editor.
Does he edit most of your work?
Yes. It changes if I’m moving into a different specialty. Mike runs the Washington bureau and is an assistant managing editor. So he runs my life, controls my schedule and edits the newsy stuff. But if I go off to do a science piece or a financial piece, I might end up being edited by someone else.
What exactly do you do at Time?
My title is editor-at-large. I don’t edit anything, so I don’t know why it’s editor instead of writer. I am very much at large. Because of my background and Time’s appetite, probably about half of my time is spent on political stuff, broadly defined. Otherwise, I have always thought of myself as a generalist. So of the stories I’m working on right now, one is about neuroscience, one about history, one about monetary policy.
You were fed material for this piece. Do you usually do your own reporting?
I like to do all my own reporting. The Time tradition until just a few years ago was that there were people who reported and people who wrote, and they were two different things. Reporters would send files to New York, and then the writers in New York would write the stories.
For a variety of reasons, not least the very high cost of doing things that way, they’ve gone more and more in the direction of having people who report and write their own stories. And that’s part of the reason that I ended up at Time, because I like and can do both pieces of that puzzle.
In my newspaper career, being an anchor writer on a big breaking story was one of the skill sets that I developed and liked. So when we have a breaking news story, when we’ve got to pull in stuff from a number of places and people, I like doing that and know how to do it.
The reason I’m a journalist is that I have a short attention span, so variety is what I love. A long story this week, something 300 words next week, monetary policy, then going next to education, next to sports.
Is there anything else you want to say about the piece?
I’ve been pleased and a bit surprised. It did strike a chord. We got more mail on it than Time’s gotten on anything in years, so that’s intriguing to me. I think I did manage to put into words something that a lot of people were starting to feel. I wasn’t sure when I hit the done button what the reaction was going to be.
I’m never sure what the reaction is going to be, but after more than 30 years in the business, I know that sometimes it’ll be something that I like but it’s going to disappear without a ripple, because nobody else is going to care about it. There are other things that I think are completely benign and they set off a big firestorm because there’s something in there that I didn’t even realize was going to trip people up. This one I didn’t really know what to expect, and so I was surprised and pleased that a lot of people found it worthwhile.
I really had in mind lessons that I had learned from Gene Miller at The Miami Herald and then underlined for me by Mary McGrory at The Washington Post. Mary had the greatest line. She did this extraordinary work on the Kennedy assassination, and John Kennedy had been a friend of hers.
The line went something like “In the face of great emotion, write short sentences.” That’s a rule that’s served me well. Sentences get longer and longer when you’re working fast, when you’re working with a powerful story. The best thing you can do to get hold of what you’re doing, to get it under control, is to shorten your sentences.
In a later e-mail exchange, Von Drehle added a coda to an earlier answer:
I didn’t quite close the loop on a point I wanted to make. I started to say that people have asked how long the piece took to write, and that one way of answering that is to say I started Tuesday morning and finished Wednesday morning. But the main thing I’ve learned about writing is that you can’t have good writing without good thinking, and so the process of thinking through the piece, getting the idea clear in your head, is as much a part of the writing as the actual typing (or should I say keyboarding). Thinking may look to the outside world like sitting around, or cooking dinner, or driving to pick up the dry cleaning, or working out on the elliptical. But all those things may be part of the writing process if your brain is in gear.