How one masterful feature writer psyches himself for battle
Well-crafted disaster stories remind us how exhaustive reporting provides more real drama than dramatic language. The density of detail allows the writer to create one terse sentence after another, coming like waves, pounding the reality of the disaster into your soul with specific images.
CAROLINA BEACH, N.C.–Hurricane Bertha smacked the Carolina coast Friday like the back of the devil’s hand, hurling its 35-mile eye across Cape Fear, blinding the beachfront with rain and wrecking homes and businesses with 105-mph winds that flung shards of glass through the streets.
Pay particular attention to what happens in the second paragraph:
Skies darkened. Trees tumbled onto power lines and plunged thousands of people into a blackout. Riptides and 9-foot breakers crashed into boardwalks. A pleasure boat struck a major bridge and shut it down. One woman died in storm-whipped traffic, and six other people were hurt at Camp LeJeune, a Marine base near the North Carolina shore.
You’ve been reading the work of Richard E. Meyer, whose work as a Times national reporter speaks to a near-religious appreciation of detail. Rick explains:
Details are what put readers right there, where it happened, when it happened, in the shoes of the people I’m writing about. (Relevant details, of course. Irrelevant ones don’t belong.)
When I’m doing rewrite on disasters, I like to pack the second and sometimes the third paragraph with the details that give this kind of immediacy. But it works just as well, sometimes even better, with feature pieces.
I try to remember the senses. A lot of what we know comes to us through our senses. Just watch Sesame Street. We learn four by seeing four apples, hearing four bells, feeling four fuzzy peaches.
So when I interview, I go through a litany of the senses.
Here are some questions from an old interview and the results in a feature story I wrote.
Q: Tell me about when you were a little girl and your grandmother came to visit. Picture her in your mind. What do you see?
From the story:
Nana would arrive wearing a housedress and black shoes with laces and little heels. She carried a black vinyl purse with gold-colored clasps and black straps. Her hair was white. She tied it in two braids, which she pinned on top of her head.
Q: When Nana chewed out your father for whipping you, what did you hear?
From the story:
She would haul herself up, double her fist and yell: “If you ever hit anybody again with that belt, I’ll take it and put it around your neck.” . . . Joe Horwat would squirm, back away and flee into the garage. Julia could hear him throwing tools and spitting into the kerosene can where he washed car parts. She would chuckle.
Q: Julia, when your father came to visit you in the hospital, what did you smell?
From the story:
She could smell the grease and his Lucky Strikes. She thought about the garage at home, and she wanted so much for him to pick her up and take her with him.
Q: When he leaned down and kissed your forehead, what did you feel?
From the story:
She felt strength in his kiss. It was firm, even rough: a man’s kiss.
Q: When the nurse came in to clean your teeth, what did you taste?
From the story:
She could taste a cotton swab, along with two fingers.
– – –
Details. Get them all. Not just black shoes. Black shoes with laces and little heels. Not just cigarettes. Lucky Strikes. Details. Details. Individually, they are very important. But taken all together, they are more important still. They help you convey your subject to your readers not just at the level of what can be seen and heard and smelled and tasted, but taken all together they help you convey your subject at the level that Henry James called the “felt life.”
Which is to say, they give your readers feeling for your subject that they just can’t get otherwise.
Rick’s April, 2000, reconstruction of a Tennessee school shooting, a Pulitzer finalist in feature writing, was another example of his devotion to detail. Here’s the beginning, as the mother in the tiny town of Frankweig first hears that there has been a shooting, and that her son is somehow involved:
The telephone rings at the Rouse home in Tight Bark Hollow.
It is a small house, shingled and solitary, huddled among the oaks and the hickories. Cheryl Rouse sits at a desk in the living room. She turns from her computer and picks up the phone.
In this instant, her life divides into before and after.
“Aunt Cheryl, you’ve got to come to school right now!” It is her niece, a freshman. “Aunt Cheryl!” she says, loud and fast. “Either Jamie’s been shot, or he’s shot somebody!”
“Jamie has shot somebody, or he’s been shot.” The line is silent. “Jamie,” her niece repeats. “Jamie Rouse. Your son.”
Jamie is 17 and a senior. He and his brothers, Jeremy, 14, and Adam, 7, attend Richland, a regional elementary and secondary school in Lynnville, about 20 minutes away.
Cheryl is a wisp: 5 feet and 2 inches, 98 pounds. She is 40 years old and has dark hair, flecked with gray, and deep brown eyes. Her husband, Elison, has been on the road for two days driving an 18-wheeler somewhere in the South. In the half-hour since the boys have gone to school, she has taken a shower, put on jeans and a sweatshirt and sat at her Compaq 386 to work on an inventory of shock absorber parts for Gabriel Ride Control Inc. over in Pulaski. Her hair is still wet. She is barefoot.
She runs to the bedroom, grabs some socks and tennis shoes. She finds her purse, and she races out the door. It is getting colder, but she does not put on a coat. Jamie has the Chevy pickup, so she runs on. The chill air blows through her damp hair. Her tennis shoes crunch on the gravel. She turns an ankle and stumbles but regains her footing and keeps running. It is a short dash now to the home of her husband’s mother. Panting, Cheryl knocks. She feels a stab of guilt. She cannot look Jamie’s grandmother in the eye.
“Jamie shot someone at school, and he’s been shot,” Cheryl says. “Beth called and said. I don’t know any details. That’s all I know, is what she said.”
She takes her mother-in-law’s car and turns right on Tight Bark Road, then left onto Beech Hill Road, past the Church of Christ where she and Elison attend every Sunday and on Wednesdays as often as possible. Two more right turns, then a left onto Buford Station Road. Dozens of cars pass her going the other way. Kids, all of them, leaving the school. Something is definitely wrong. She grips the wheel. Her knuckles are white. She feels shaky, a little weak. She had felt her blood drain during the phone call, and it has not come back. A right turn on Highway 31, and she pulls into the driveway at school.
It is 8:30 a.m., a half-hour after classes usually start. Richland has 1,400 students and teachers. Hundreds are outside. Some are crying. She parks in the first space she can find and runs through the main doorway. It opens onto a lobby and the administrative offices. Students and teachers are milling about. Some are in tears. Straight ahead is a hallway. Its doors are closed. She looks to her left, up another hallway. It is sealed with yellow tape. The tape says: Police Crime Scene, Do Not Cross.
“Who are you?” someone demands.
Softly, Cheryl Rouse gives her name.
“This is the perpetrator’s mother,” a man says. Everyone looks. The significance of the word “perpetrator” does not sink in. Cheryl says her niece has called to say that Jamie has shot someone and that he has been shot.
Another man takes her to an office. “Somebody’ll come and talk to you in a little bit.”
“What about Jamie?” she asks.
Jamie Rouse: “It was too late for me. It was just too late. In order for me to change, I had to be broken. It got to the point where my mind wouldn’t be molded. It had to be broken.”
Like most mothers, Cheryl has a routine. She sets her alarm for 5:30 a.m., gets up, makes coffee and drinks a cup. Only then does she awaken her eldest, Jamie. Next she wakes up Jeremy and finally Adam. While she takes Adam to meet his bus, the two older boys get dressed. On this morning, Jamie puts on black jeans and a black T-shirt, emblazoned with a picture of the heavy metal band Pantera. As Jeremy leaves for school with a cousin, Jamie reaches for a Remington Viper .22-caliber rifle on his gun rack. He goes to his father’s closet and takes down a brick of cartridges. It holds 500 rounds. Jamie uses a lot of bullets squirrel hunting and target practicing, and Elison buys them by the brick because they are cheaper. There are 443 rounds left. They are Winchester long-rifle, high-velocity bullets. Jamie slips 10 into a clip. He takes the Viper, the clip and the rest of the bullets outside, and he tucks them out of sight near the house.
Cheryl returns from the bus stop and sits for a moment in her brown cloth recliner. She says goodbye to Jamie as she always does. “Have a good day. See you this afternoon.” This morning, however, he does not reply with his usual “Later!” Instead, he stops just inside the front door. With a hesitation that will haunt her forever, he turns to look at his mother. “Well,” he says, “I guess I’ll go now.”
As he steps onto the narrow porch and starts down the stairs, Steve Abbott calls. Steve is one of his best friends. Jamie is still in the yard. Cordless receiver in hand, Cheryl goes to the door. She shouts to wait. Her voice barely carries in the misty morning, through the sycamores and the dogwoods. Jamie takes the phone. Steve asks when he will be at his house to pick him up for school. A little early, Jamie replies. In fact, he is on his way. He returns the telephone to his mother, and she takes it back inside. With Cheryl out of sight, Jamie goes to where he has hidden the Viper.
“It was semiautomatic, but I liked the way it looked too. That was the one I wanted. It didn’t look like an old-timey [gun]. It looked like a modern gun. I mean, that’s the way it was. Black.”
Jamie places the rifle, the clip and the bullets onto the seat of the family pickup, and he drives out of Tight Bark Hollow. Seventy-five miles south of Nashville, the hollow is named for an early settler so stingy that people said he was tight as the bark on a tree. Jamie stops in the nearest town, Frankewing, population 300, where Steve Abbott is waiting. Jamie puts a Morbid Angel CD into his new Sony Discman and turns it up:
Hatework . . .
Hatework . . . and the Earth’s left burning
I call death . . . death is answering me.
Steve Abbott sees the gun, the clip and the ammunition on the seat. The night before, he remembers, Jamie had told him he was going to kill a girl at school, the principal, a coach and a state trooper who had given him two speeding tickets. Steve eyes the rifle. “Who is that for?” he asks. Jamie replies, “It’s going to happen today.” Steve has heard Jamie make threats before, even against a girlfriend and his own brother Jeremy. But Jamie has never done anything. Besides, Steve knows him: They have worked together on cars, hiked in the woods, played Super Nintendo. Gun or no gun, he thinks, Jamie is a friend–not a killer.
On their way out of Frankewing, they stop at a BP station. Jamie stocks up on Marlboros. With the rifle across his lap, he drives toward Lynnville, population 357. He turns on Abernathy Road and stops at the hillside home of another friend, Stephen Ray. The radio is turned up loud. Stephen walks up and rags them about it. Then he sees the gun and the bullets. The day before, he remembers, Jamie had said something about getting a cop and stealing his car. Stephen thought Jamie was kidding. He poked him and said, “I’ll help, if I can drive.” Now Stephen asks, “Who are you going after?” Either Jamie or Steve–the music is too loud to tell–laughs and replies: “Hobbs and whoever gets in the way.” Wayne Hobbs is the high school principal. Stephen Ray does not believe it. He replies: “You’re crazy.”
Jamie suggests to Steve Abbott that they switch places. Steve drives the Chevy pickup back down Abernathy Road. With Stephen Ray trailing in his car, Steve turns right on Buford Station Road. Jamie holds the rifle in his lap. Steve hears him say that now he can shoot the trooper, who usually parks in front of the Richland campus. Steve starts to wonder, even to worry. Jamie has to be joking, just acting big. When they turn right on Highway 31, they will be able to see the school. It is a collection of single-story tan brick buildings with gray trim and covered walkways, sprawled alongside the road. Steve will later say that if there was a cop, he would have turned south away from school. The trooper is not there. So he turns north, toward campus. Maybe now, Steve thinks, Jamie will drop whatever is bothering him and forget about it.
Steve pulls the pickup into the main entrance for students. He turns left to park where he usually does, up by the football field. “No, wait,” Jamie says. “Park over here in the front.” It is Jamie’s truck, so Steve leaves it, nose out, alongside several cars on a strip of grass in front of two portable classrooms, near the north doors to the school. Jamie grabs the rifle and jumps out. The clip is in. Only now, Steve will testify later, does he believe that Jamie is going to do something.
Steve hurls his door open and climbs out.
“Jamie!” he yells.
But Jamie keeps walking.
“Jamie!” he yells again and again.
Jamie does not stop.
Steve gives chase, but he gets scared. He freezes up, slows down. He tries to run. Jamie is more than 20 feet ahead of him.
At 7:55 a.m., on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 1995, James Elison Rouse walks into the north hall at Richland School. He has brown eyes, black hair. It is cropped in back and on the sides, but it is a foot long on top and tied in a ponytail. He has a high-average IQ of 115. He is 5 feet and 7 inches, and he weighs 122 pounds. He has a deep voice, short strides and a hunched-over gait. He is carrying his Remington Viper .22-caliber rifle with the cartridges in its clip.
“I don’t remember feeling angry. I wasn’t feeling nothing. Like I said, I don’t remember feeling anything. Period. Empty. Hollow. I guess that ’empty’ would be probably the best word. I was just–I wasn’t the same. I wasn’t feeling anything, that’s the point. All day. I mean, you know, I was empty the whole day. Just nothing.”
He walks through double doors and down the hallway. It is noisy. He walks to the right, a foot or two from the cinder-block wall. It is lined with steel lockers. He walks by four classrooms. They have students and teachers inside. He walks with his head up. The pace is normal. He walks with the butt of the rifle tucked up under his right arm, like a hunter carrying a gun through a field. Some students walk in front of him, others walk behind, still others pass him going the other way. Some notice his gun. They think it is a joke. One of them notices his face. It is blank. Jamie does not speak.
Carolyn Foster and Carol Yancey, teachers with classrooms diagonally across from each other, are talking about cooking. It is Carolyn’s turn to host Thanksgiving dinner for her extended family. She has asked Carol for a recipe. “I have [it] this morning,” Carol tells her, and they go into Carolyn’s classroom to make a copy. They step back into the hall and are going over the directions when Jamie walks by. They are the first teachers he sees. Both look up. Carol Yancey thinks, “What are you doing with that gun?” A student hears…
– – –
This story began as an effort to dissect a school shooting months after the Columbine High shooting. Rick researched past shootings and plucked this one, in which Jamie Rouse went to prison for killing a teacher and a student at his high school in 1995. He figured that because the case was no longer in litigation, the family might be more inclined to talk.
It didn’t come easy. Rick began by simply showing up and knocking on the family’s door. He asked the mother if she’d help him reconstruct the tragedy. They started talking. He warned her he’d be around for a long, long time. They kept talking. Months later, the family’s other children started talking. And then the father. And then, eventually, in prison, the killer himself. The story was published as an eight-page special section.
Rick recounted his odyssey at a lunch gathering of several dozen Times reporters and editors. Some observations:
The stark narrative needed no nut graph.
Space limitations often require a foreshadowing mechanism because you don’t have enough room to let the story play out. But here, “you don’t want to give the story away. I wanted the reader to discover it the way I did.” That explains why the audience doesn’t understand the full cruelty of Jamie’s father until the second half. “The story let you discover [the parents’] own involvement [in Jamie’s behavior] as they became aware of it…It let you discover their guilt as they did.” Rick credited his editor, Kit Rachlis, for championing the no-nut-needed approach.
Why did the family consent to having its story told?
“When you come in as a stranger and not judgmental…when you open yourself up to whatever they have to say…you can be a psuedo-shrink. There’s a lot of catharsis.”
How many times did he have to take his subjects through the same ground to get the right details?
Several times, usually. “I worry about getting down layer after layer. You base your questions for the second layer on what you learn in the first.”
On his economy of language:
I’m not big on adjectives and I hate adverbs even more…I long ago fell in love with a simple declarative sentence.” In the interest of showing rather than telling, verbs are the strongest tool.
Why did Jamie’s father agree to be interviewed after refusing for months?
“He got curious about what his wife was telling him” about her interview experience. In what Rick sensed was an effort to keep control, the father would only talk while driving the truck he used to haul steel–and insisted that Rick help him unload. “I did it for 2 ½, 3 months…eventually I could load and unload a truck in an hour.”
The experience built empathy: It was the father who eventually suggested that Rick interview Jamie in prison–something both parents had insisted would never happen. “All the trucking with Daddy, we’d be riding at 3 a.m. in Indiana and he’d get emotional and have to pull over, and he’d eventually say, ‘You know, you ought to ask Jamie that question,'” and I’d say, ‘That’s a good idea.’ It fell in my lap.” It took weeks of negotiations for prison officials to let Rick conduct the interviews without a guard.
Did he use a tape recorder as well as a notebook?
Yes, and the tape transcriptions filled more than 60 three-ring binders.
How the hell did he organize that?
Times researcher Anna Virtue devised a computer-based method to separate the narrative into chronological and topical segments. For example, the father’s recollection of Jamie’s first five years were in one file, the mother’s in another.
There are two prime forces that drive a story, Rick said: (1) The chronology, which provokes this reaction: “What happened next, Agnes?” And (2) the rising and falling fortunes of the protagonist, or in this case the family, which provokes this reaction: “Oh my God, are they gonna make it or aren’t they?” He initially structured the story to consist of 14 chapters, with “turning points” at the front and back of each, but reluctantly abandoned that strategy for a simpler structure when the newspaper moved up the deadline to coincide with the anniversary of the Columbine school massacre.
Was it hard to write the story after forming that close a bond with the family?
It’s a fact of life. You have to create that bond to get the story. “Then you have to do the opposite of that to write the story.”
How did the father react to his portrayal?
“I sent him a copy, and I called the house, and I got him on the phone…there was this silence on the other end. Then he said, ‘Well it was OK…I had to put it down a couple of times…But you know, it’s the truth.’ And man, that’s all I needed to hear.”