Each year, the current class of Nieman Fellows chooses a winner of the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism. Winners have included reporters who’ve put their lives at risk to cover wars, urban violence, repressive regimes and organized crime. The Class of 2014 has chosen Texas Monthly’s Pamela Colloff, for what has become her specialty: deeply reported and moving narratives about wrongful convictions. The “power and humanity of her stories has helped force reexaminations into several cases and given them an impact far beyond the borders of Texas, where they take place,” the Fellows wrote in their nomination. Colloff, a National Magazine Award winner and one of Texas Monthly’s executive editors, has contributed some of Storyboard’s best-read pieces on narrative and story craft. We enthusiastically recommend:
>Her Annotation Tuesday! line-by-line of “The Innocent Man,” a National Magazine Award-winning narrative series about Michael Morton, who was wrongly imprisoned for more than two decades for the murder of his wife. The piece got a nice shout-out in May by the New York Times magazine’s 6th Floor blog. From the annotation:
The strain on the relationship became obvious. Nothing stayed below the surface for long, and Michael’s wisecracks began to have a harder edge to them. He openly complained to friends that he and Christine were not having enough sex and that she needed to lose weight. “His comments stung,” Gersky said. “Chris shrugged them off—she would say, ‘Just ignore him’—but they made other people uncomfortable. The bottom line was that Mike loved her, she loved him, and they adored Eric, and he was the most important thing to both of them, but they were definitely having a difficult time.” How willing were the Mortons’ friends and family to talk about all of this with you? What do you do, generally, if people won’t or can’t open up? They were not open at all. I spent weeks making phone calls and sending emails, and I kept hitting dead ends. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. As for what I do if people decline to talk to me: I usually start by writing them a letter and sending them some of my work. I explain in detail why I want to speak to them and how important they are to the story. Sometimes that is enough. Other times, I have to make connections with other people in a story, and gradually, as I interview more and more people, the folks who were recalcitrant to start off with will – hopefully – agree to talk.
>Her craft talk, with Esquire’s Tom Junod, at this year’s City & Regional Magazine Association conference, in Atlanta. An excerpt:
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.
>Her “Why’s this so good?” essay on David Grann’s New Yorker piece “Trial by Fire,” on the case of death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham. An excerpt:
… Grann, whose best narratives involve misdirection, also drops details here and there that suggest another story. He tells us that Willingham rejected a plea deal that would have allowed him to avoid a death sentence. He points out that there was never an obvious motive. Almost as an afterthought, he mentions that Willingham’s 2-year-old daughter had been punished previously for playing with a space heater that was in the kids’ bedroom. He does not call attention to these details; he just presents them without fanfare and moves on.
About these calls and letters you get: Do you weigh stories now in a different way than you did before the Graves story?
One of the things that’s hard is that part of my job is to be a storyteller. There are many innocence cases or potential innocence cases that I see which are very interesting from a legal perspective but aren’t interesting from a narrative perspective. I can’t write a story about every one of these cases, and so I have to find the ones that are compelling from both a legal standpoint and a narrative standpoint.
We also highly recommend the Longform.org podcast with Colloff, in which she says:
“There are many, many people who write and they have tragic stories, but they’re not necessarily compelling magazine articles. Figuring out what is a compelling magazine article and what isn’t is one of the more painful things about this. You can’t look into every case. But your job is to be a storyteller.”