We chose Erin Sullivan’s story about a 9/11 survivor as our latest Notable Narrative for the usual reasons − interesting characters; strong, memorable writing − but also because it contained the watermark of a takeaway for surviving trauma. “Watermark” because, as in all good narrative, the writer stays out of the way and lets the story unfold via action and detail, not exposition or sermon. You won’t find any meaning-of-life one-liners that can befall a harried writer or infiltrate a story via weak or tyrannical editing; this thing is solid, with some gorgeously turned sentences. We asked Sullivan, a Tampa Bay Times reporter since 2006, to talk about how she did it, and she was gracious enough to chat via email even though she was home sick. (For that reason, we kept it brief.)
Storyboard: How did you find this couple?
Sullivan: I can’t take credit for this one. We have a partnership with Bay News 9 and the reporter in our office told me about it. I believe (story subject) Charlie Caraher or his wife contacted their station to see if they wanted to do a 9/11 story on them. This partnership is great because I work in a bureau and, like all newspapers, we have diminished resources. We all have to work together to survive. The partnership is especially great on breaking news when there are a lot of doors to knock on.
What were the challenges?
The biggest challenge was time, which is something I believe most reporters can relate to right now. Thankfully, we had a one-year intern (the amazing Alex Orlando, watch for his byline) who started on Sept. 4. My interview with Charlie and Catherine was slated for Sept. 6. I had been covering breaking news, the sheriff’s office and courts, so being able to have a good solid chunk of time to listen to Charlie’s story might have been difficult. Alex is taking over breaking news, so now I will get to focus on courts and larger stories. I’m extremely grateful to my editor, Bridget Hall Grumet, for making this happen.
That was the biggest hurdle, making sure I could absolutely be present with Charlie and not worried about having to leave because of some disaster and checking my phone every few minutes. The interview was smooth because Charlie wants to talk and needs to talk. I was there for a few hours.
I started writing the story in the late afternoon on Friday because I had another story to finish first. Before beginning to write, I watched some 9/11 videos to get that feeling present in my head. What a terrible day. I can’t imagine someone I love having to endure such a horrific ending. I tried to think of Charlie, at his cubicle, wondering what he wanted for lunch, hearing a whoosh and standing up to that nightmare.
I started the story differently because I thought readers would be very tired of ledes that begin with someone inside the World Trade Center. So I started it off in the present, at Charlie and Catherine’s home in Hudson:
They hear frogs at night now. It’s different.
I tend to like quiet intros. But my editor thought we should get immediately to 9/11, which is why it turned out as it did. And I think she was right because people seemed to like the story and I’m writing to you now because of her decision. But if anyone has any thoughts on that, I would love to hear it.
One line is especially potent: “Even though Charlie was far up, he could see them hit the ground, terrible red blossoms.” How did you get there, both in the reporting and the writing?
In addition to speaking about the day, Charlie has also written about it. In an essay, he described watching the first man falling. “Blood bloomed like an early fall flower,” Charlie wrote of when the man made impact. This is where I got the idea for “blossoms,” from Charlie’s description in his essay and during our interview. I asked him many questions about watching the people fall.
The piece is 911 words long, with the space-break elements. Intentional?
Wow. No, not at all.
Where were you on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001?
I was sitting in my friend Claire’s house in Leeds, England, when another friend called and told me to turn on CNN. I had been in London since January 2001 on a foreign correspondence internship with the Associated Press. I worked there until about June and then took some time off, which was amazing. I had always been intense about working in college and it was good to learn about life outside of journalism. I waitressed in a diner and learned to play chess and how to cook. I wasn’t very good at any of those things, but it was fun. I feel lucky and appreciative of having that time. After watching the news, I got on a train back to London. I attended the 9/11 memorial service at St. Paul’s Cathedral and then went to a pub by myself and drank and read about the tragedy in the papers and cried. But I felt far away from what happened and I still do. Our nation endured something together and I wasn’t here for that. I came home some weeks later and then started working at the Birmingham Post-Herald in late December.
You cover courts, cops and breaking news for the paper. Your stories are so terrific in their readability and detail, and you have a talent for including narrative dialogue, like this bit from the one about the tanning-salon robber:
The second time he hit the place, the same woman happened to be working.
”Really?” she said, according to a deputy’s report. “Again?”
”Yeah, again,” the robber said.
Any reporting/writing philosophies you’d like to share?
I think the most important thing I want to share with other reporters is that you don’t have to have a feature writing job to do good work. So much has changed for all of us during these past years. We are all doing more with less. I used to feel like I was rushing around to report and write one story a day. Now it could be several briefs and a story or two, plus uploading photos. But you always have to work with what you have. I used to think no good stories could be done over the phone. Now, a lot of us are tied to our desks because we are juggling more work and can’t spend a few hours driving to and from a scene unless it’s really big breaking news. I think talking to people in person is always better, of course. But, if you can’t go, you do whatever you can to make it work. This story (about a family that lost everything in a house fire) was done 100 percent by phone. As was this story about a naked intruder. (Gizmo was found safe, by the way.) And if all you’re doing is a brief, it doesn’t have to be boring. (There are a lot of nude crimes in Pasco.) I tend to write about horrific things, so that is why I try to write in a very simple way. The more terrible the story, the more understated the writing needs to be. Also, I always try to use dialogue if I can get it: from reports, court documents, witnessing it. Trials are great for that. If I can’t get dialogue, I like to use as few quotes as possible. But it also depends on the type of story you’re writing. Sometimes a story needs to be more traditional because of the story itself (sometimes a press conference really is just a press conference) or because of time constraints, or because that might be what your editors are looking for in the story.
You do the best you can and go home and try again the next day. With our struggling industry, and the difficult things we witness for our jobs, it’s easy to get down sometimes. My advice to other reporters is to focus on whatever good thing you can, in those low moments. Sometimes, on a rotten day, the only thing keeping you going is the newsroom banter, and that’s okay. That’s reality. Sometimes it’s one sentence in a story that you really liked. And sometimes it’s getting to write about somebody like Charlie and then the honor of talking about it, this strange business that is a part of us, to a place like Nieman Storyboard.
Erin Sullivan has been a Tampa Bay Times staff writer since 2006, currently covering cops, courts and occasional features. She grew up in Ohio and attended the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. During college, she also studied at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, Denmark. After graduating from OU in 2000, she was a Pulliam Fellow at the Indianapolis Star and then worked for the Associated Press in London on a foreign correspondence fellowship. Upon returning to the States in late 2001, she worked at the Birmingham Post-Herald, the Commercial Appeal, and the Orlando Sentinel before joining the Tampa Bay Times. Sullivan has been a finalist for a Livingston Award and, in 2004, became the youngest person ever inducted into the Scripps Howard Hall of Fame. She tweets at @easullivan.