EDITOR’S NOTE: The “Voices from the Pandemic” series has been awarded a 2020 George Polk Award in Oral Histories.Eli Saslow of The Washington Post has made a name for himself as one of the best narrative journalists in the country. His signature approach is to embed himself with a person or a family for an extended amount of time. Through patience, intimate interviews and keen observation, he comes away with emotional but authentic stories that reveal how real people are affected by the issues facing us as a nation — things like poverty, racial injustice and gun violence. He won the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting in 2014 for a series on food stamps in post-recession America and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer in feature writing three times.
But as the coronavirus pandemic exploded around the world in March 2020, Saslow realized he wasn’t going to be able to rely on his usual reporting techniques, at least for a while. He didn’t want to be traveling around the country, possibly picking up the infection on a jet and then passing it on to those whose stories he wanted to tell.
He and his editor, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Finkel, had to figure out another way for Saslow to tell intimate stories that illustrate how people’s lives were affected by COVID. They landed on the idea of oral histories: as-told-to, first-person stories that come from those experiencing the pandemic first-hand.
The result? “Voices from the Pandemic.”
“As time went on, we both discovered that it was a form of storytelling that could really work for this moment,” Saslow said. “Because an oral history feels worthwhile when the moment is so clearly historic, it felt like an important way to document a really unprecedented year.”
As the country’s death toll topped 500,000, Saslow has reported nearly 30 oral histories, all carried on the front page of the Washington Post. He’s told the stories of doctors and nurses and coroners, retail workers and restaurant owners, educators, older adults who find themselves isolated and alone, and younger adults who can’t shake the virus. One of his voices was a woman who likely passed the virus on to her mother, only to watch her die.
“This form of storytelling offered me more than I thought it possibly could,” Saslow said. “These conversations with people were restorative for me.”
I talked with Saslow about the series — how the project came about, how he does the reporting, and what it’s been like to stop writing in his own words.
Where did the idea originate?
I’ve always been interested in oral histories. I admired this book about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl called “Voices from Chernobyl.” It’s a beautiful oral history book. But I never thought that I would do anything like that. Because what I like about my job is going places — not only getting to talk to people, but using my eyes and all of my other senses as a reporter. I like being on the scene and doing stories that are scene and dialogue.
But early in the pandemic, it became clear that that was going to be a pretty massive ethical and logistical challenge. To do that kind of embedded work, I would be getting on a plane and then landing hot and putting the people that I was writing about at some measure of risk. So this project began with wondering how I could continue to tell intimate, personal, urgent narrative stories. In our very early conversations, my editor, David Finkel, and I went back to the idea of these oral histories and decided, let’s try it, without necessarily knowing how many there would be or if it would be a thing I would do for a few weeks or, as it’s turned out, almost a year.
How do you find your subjects for the “Voices” series?
It’s pretty similar to how I search for stories normally. I think about the current pressure point in the pandemic, what would I want to explore and hear about. Maybe one week, I’m seeing that in the news there are fights about masks breaking out in retail stores, and realizing that the people who are most often having to police masking in the country are essential workers retail clerks who make 10 or 12 bucks an hour. That’s a character I want to know. I want to hear from someone who is doing this all day.
Then I’ll search around and talk to five or 10 people in that situation. I’ll go through news clips and see who was working at this Walmart when a mask blow-up happened and I’ll cold call. I’ll have maybe a half dozen initial conversations, and in those conversations, I’m deciding who I’m going to feature — but I’m also learning a lot more about what it’s like to work a retail job in a pandemic. So once I decide who I’m writing about, I’m more prepared for those conversations.
The next few days of the week, typically, are having hours and hours of conversation. I would say typically, in this series, it has meant being on the phone with somebody for a total of five to 10 hours.
Then I turn that into a 1,500-word piece.
Have you had to interview differently than how you interview for a more traditional on-the-scene narrative?
I’ve learned a lot about interviewing this year because I don’t have my other reporting tools. I don’t have my eyes. I don’t have my sense of place. I’m really reliant on conversation. Because of the format of the stories, it’s really important for me to capture a sense of voice and perspective on the world, and to bring out what it is that makes a voice authentic and personal and true.
One thing that’s led me to do is to be much less directive in interviewing, and more patient. I need clay for my stories, and these conversations are the clay. The more somebody talks to me, the longer those conversations go, the more I have to use. If somebody wants to keep talking, we keep talking because that’s clay for me. I learned to take less control, to be more comfortable with letting things wander.
Do you do any other reporting on these pieces, or are they simply long conversations with the subject?
I was doing one about this guy Burnell Cotlon, who owned a grocery store in the Lower Ninth Ward. As he was telling me about the store, the customers were coming in. So I said, “Hey, Burnell, can I just FaceTime you and you can put me up on the register and I can get a feel for the store?” Also, in between conversations with a main character, I would talk to people around that person so that I could come back to our next conversation with more information. That would help refresh the person’s memory.
Do you miss the other type of interviewing and reporting that you’ve done?
Definitely. And I’ll go back to that. I’ve loved this, and I’ve learned a lot from it. I’ll bring some of these lessons back to my narrative reporting. For me, meeting people and talking to people, and building trust and confidence over the phone is great.
But it only approximates what reporting is like in person. And for me, the heart of this job is getting to go and be in places when I feel like something important is happening in people’s lives.
How do you take extensive transcripts and turn them into a 1,500-word story? Is it different from going through notes from your more traditionally reported narratives?
What’s different is the word choice and sentence level; I have much less control. But in terms of going through notes and deciding what’s important, and then finding the structure, it’s pretty similar. On Wednesday or Thursday night, I print out the transcripts of these conversations and highlight things that stick out to me. Then, with everything that’s highlighted, I start thinking about what’s the engine of the story. Francine Bailey worked at a nursing home and caught this virus there and then brought it home, and despite her best attempts to isolate, she gave it to her mom. Then her mom died. That was going to be a story about guilt and about the cruel fact that this virus doesn’t just come from nowhere — it comes from somebody. In this case, she was sure it had come from her.
What I ask myself in every one of these is am I being accurate? Are these the words the person used? But also am I being fair? Am I telling the story in a way that is authentic to this person’s experience? I want these to feel true to them. It’s making sure that I’m being fair in reflecting the totality of those conversations, while still giving myself permission to make the journalistic choices that we always do about what things are important to include and what things that I can leave out.
So every sentence in these pieces is a direct quote, something that was said at one point during the interviews?
Exactly, but piecemeal. That’s the thing that’s hard about it, right? I can’t change the clay. The transcripts are the transcripts, and in order for this to be a faithful work of journalism, I have to stick to that, with very mild editing for clarity. I can’t put words into somebody’s mouth that they didn’t say. But what I can do is to Storify it.
You’re a sculptor, right? The subjects give you the clay, and now you’ve got to sculpt it.
That’s part of the fun of it. It’s easy when you’re writing a story to obsess over, as I do all the time, writing one sentence 17 different ways. I can obsess over the structure and the pacing and how long do I want this paragraph to be versus the next paragraph, and are we beginning and landing at the right places. But when it comes down to the sentence-to-sentence level? This was something that my editor and I laughed about a lot — talk about a great way to disempower an editor from messing with your sentences. If he felt like some sentence would have been better said another way, there’s nothing we can do. There was some freedom in letting go of that.
Did the subjects get to see the pieces before they published?
One of our conversations early on was whether subjects would get to sign off before a piece was published. We both pretty quickly landed on the idea that no, that would be giving up too much journalistic control. Like in all of our stories, when we talk to somebody and we decide what parts we’re going to quote, and what parts are not going to be quoted, I needed to have the power to make those decisions.
What has it been like for you, mentally and emotionally, to spend so much time talking to people who have experienced the worst of the pandemic?
It can be draining. I spent a lot of the year talking to people who were really having a hard time and suffering. I sometimes hang up the phone and just feel wiped out. But the bigger truth is that, for me, these are their stories and I hang up the phone from those conversations and I come back to my very fortunate, lucky, little pandemic life, where I have three kids who are happy and healthy and a strong marriage and nobody’s sick and we have our house in a safe neighborhood. My interview subjects — they go back to the traumas that don’t end when I stop talking to them. And the real courage in any act of journalism is always on their end. They’re the people who have more to lose in this exchange.
The bigger thing I’ve figured out as my career has gone on is that although sometimes these stories can take something out of me, they give me so much more. So many of the major themes I’ve spent my career writing about — rising inequities and vulnerabilities in the country, and also personal suffering and courage — if I hadn’t been doing work that felt meaningful to me during this past year, I would have felt really down about that.
Matt Tullis is director of Digital Journalism and an assistant professor of English at Fairfield University. He produces and hosts Gangrey: The Podcast.