Story about a Marine’s suicide shows power of letting sources narrate
National Public Radio brags about its ability to produce “driveway moments.” The idea is that you’re driving home from work listening to a riveting story on NPR and pull into your driveway, but the story isn’t over yet so you sit there -- with the AC thrumming -- until the tale is told and you can turn off the engine.
The story we highlight today for the Poynter Excellence Project was a driveway story for me. It’s called “Coming Home: Nick’s Story” and it was produced independently by Long Haul Productions, run by Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister.
Listening to the full version takes about 20 minutes; the version I heard on NPR took about 13. I encourage you to listen to “Coming Home: Nick’s Story” either before or after reading the Q&A between me and the producers, which was conducted via email after an initial phone conversation. (The Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.)
We’ve selected this story for two key reasons, related to the mission and the craft of journalism.
It’s one of the primary missions of journalists to write about war. War has been and will always be with us. Think about the earliest two stories representing Western culture. The first is "The Iliad," which describes the consequences of waging a great war for a trivial reason. Its sequel is "The Odyssey," which still reminds us how easy it is to go off to war, and how hard it is to get home.
“Coming Home: Nick’s Story” takes the tale a step further, to the realization that getting home from war isn’t enough: Soldiers are changed forever, and often not for better. Post-traumatic stress disorder can drag a soldier, a family and a nation deeper into darkness.
On the craft side, we experience Nick’s story not through the voice of a reporter, but directly from two of the main characters: Nick’s mother and stepfather. This form of storytelling -- direct narration -- is a specialty of Collison and Meister. Here’s how they do it:
1. What qualities did you see or hear in Nick's parents that made them good subjects for delivering this story?
Maybe we should begin with a little background on our approach.
We’ve always believed that the keys to powerful aural storytelling are finding and developing great characters and presenting their stories in an intimate, direct way, without reporter narration, expert commentary or other filters. Outside analysis and investigative reporting has its place, but the stories listeners tend to remember -- the ones people feel most viscerally and remember the longest -- tend to be intensely personal stories told by ordinary people.
And because our narratives rely entirely on the voices of our characters, it’s critical that we find people who can tell their story -- intimately, specifically, and completely. If they don’t say it in our tape -- or at least allude to it -- we can’t include it in the final story. All this requires us to be extremely choosy when we decide whom to work with, and painstakingly thorough when we sit down to interview them. It can take months or years to find the right storytellers.
In the case of Anna and Michael, we met at a Veterans’ Day event in Pennsylvania, where Iraq war vet Jason Moon played songs about his experiences returning from combat -- it’s part of his terrific Warrior Songs project. When Jason told the story of his attempted suicide, we noticed a woman rush out of the auditorium, followed by her husband. They later returned, bleary-eyed, and introduced themselves to Jason after the show. (You can hear some of their exchange here.) Anna and Michael had just come from a funeral earlier that day for another young soldier who had committed suicide. We did a very brief interview on the spot in which Michael told the story of the phone call he got from Nick just before Nick killed himself -- a story that left us both teary.
Because we spend so much time with our characters, it’s important to us that we really like them -- and we immediately liked Anna and Michael. We also look for people who are honest, comfortable, and articulate -- good storytellers who naturally provide illustrative details that help set scenes and trigger emotion. Ideally, they’re in the middle of a major life event -- a major personal transition, loss, or a situation that speaks to a larger social or economic issue we hope to explore. Often, they genuinely want to help others by sharing their experience, which can makes an interview akin to a therapy session -- and that often leads to incredibly honest and intimate tape.
Such was the case with Michael and Anna. They were absolutely genuine and spoke with candor, passion and sadness. Their stories were peppered with evocative, everyday details many might not think to share -- things that added life and dimension, and a particular melancholy, to their tale. It was clear that they wanted -- even needed -- to tell Nick’s story. We were scheduled to leave town immediately after the show, but made plans to return and met them at their home a few days later where we interviewed them for five hours.
In the end, we spent about three days with them, and have kept in contact since our initial interviews as their other son -- Nick’s twin -- has struggled with the loss of his brother. In other cases, we’ve spent a year following our characters, and have in some cases maintained friendships over decades.
2. When choosing narrators, how important are their speaking voices? Are there particular characteristics of speech that are particularly desirable?
A character’s speaking voice is less important to us than their ability to tell their story. That said, it’s a definite plus if a character’s voice is by its own nature illustrative -- in Anna and Michael’s case, there’s definitely a hint of that western Jersey/working-class Pennsylvania affect, and we think the cadence and tonality of their voices is a particularly evocative layer that adds depth to their story.
3. How many hours of interviewing are necessary to produce a 20-minute narration?
It varies. In this case, our initial interview lasted five hours, and ended only because we ran out of drive space on our digital recording equipment. We went back a month later and interviewed Anna and Michael for another three hours or so. We also had Anna take us to Nick’s grave and to a nearby veterans’ memorial that refused to inscribe Nick’s name because he did not die in combat.
It’s not unusual, even for shorter stories, for us to collect over 40 hours of tape. Where we can (and where it makes sense), we like to include at least one verité scene -- an active scene helps with production. In this case we had a tiny travel budget, so our options were limited.
4. With two narrators going back and forth, how do you decide who says what? Are you interviewing them together or separately?
We strongly prefer to interview people individually. It’s generally easier to produce stories this way, as in our experience people tend to talk over one another, which yields confusing and unusable tape. Plus people tend to get sidetracked when they’re interviewed in couples or as a group.
Taking people one at a time -- and asking them many, if not all, of the same questions -- is also useful in production. In constructing a vignette, we can choose from different versions of the same story, told in different voices. Having several takes allows us to cut back and forth, to play with cadence, voice, and presentation, and to fill in any gaps.
All that said, we broke that rule in this story by interviewing Michael and Anna together at their dining-room table; we simply didn’t have the budget to stay an extra day. So before we got started, we asked them to, as best they could, speak one at a time -- and for each of them to respond to each question separately. We were lucky in that even when they strayed, they played off each other, fleshed out stories, corrected each other and reminded each other of things the other forgot.
As an aside: We always let people finish talking before asking the next question. This honestly can try our resolve -- and it results in a lot of completely unusable audio -- but we think it helps create a safe place for people to explore a topic or story and know they are being heard. Often, people will wander around as they talk through something. We’ll think it’s going nowhere and they’ll surprise us by ending with some truly great reflection or observation that ends up a key moment.
5. How do you keep track of chronology to tell a coherent story? What happens, for example, if your sources tell you about Thor and then about the gun and then about the band and then about Thor? Do you take the Thor parts from the interview and put them together, and then the gun parts, etc? Does the chronology and arc of the narrative govern more, or does topic govern more?
Almost all our initial rough cuts are chronological; it’s a critical organizational tool, especially for initial edits that cull tens of hours down to 20 or 30 minutes. Once the skeleton in place, we’re in better position to “dress” a narrative with detail, or reorder things for better understanding or effect.
As an example, in “Coming Home” we really didn’t talk with Michael and Anna about Nick’s love for the superhero Thor until our second set of interviews -- but once we had the general chronology in place in our edits, we were able to weave Thor into the narrative arc throughout the piece.
6. How much editing do you have to do to create a coherent order? How much are you moving stuff around? Do you work from a plan, a storyboard, a script?
We probably went through 10 to 12 edits on the full version of “Coming Home” -- and that’s not unusual. Not only do we have tons of tape to sort through, but this kind of character-driven storytelling requires that we craft the full narrative without scripts, “expert” drop-ins, or other devices that might get us from one chapter to another. If we don’t have it in interview tape, we don’t have it. So we have to do our best to adapt to what we have without compromising the story. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle where you have to search the entire house for the last few pieces.
And to that end, we always have the interviews transcribed word for word -- this helps us quickly find a phrase or even a word that might connect the dots, or perhaps make the narrative clearer. And we do move things around from time to time, but with “Coming Home,” where there was such a clear timeline, it’s usually a case of removing or adding something in the chronology.
7. Is anything scripted? Are the narrators ever working from notes? Do you have to ask the characters to repeat anything?
Everything Anna and Michael said was the result of an interview question. We didn’t script anything, and they were not working from notes. We did ask them to retell or clarify things -- to elaborate on details -- and occasionally we asked questions that may have anticipated a theme we thought we’d draw out in production. Asking them to tell stories separately, from their own perspective, helped immensely in filling out the narrative.
That said, we have had moments of desperation where we needed a character to help us move from one section of tape to another -- situations where we pored over transcripts and couldn’t find anything that would get us from Point A to Point B. In those cases (which thankfully are few) we have gone back and asked questions specifically designed to yield tape to would bridge the gap. Scripted copy usually sounds like scripted copy, especially when read by a character who otherwise is speaking very naturally. We try to avoid that like the plague.
8. Radio and music go hand in hand, of course, so what role did the sound features have? Do you have any standards and practices related to natural ambient sound versus sound you edit into the story (like a musical score for a movie)?
Usually, we do collect more natural sound -- we call it ambience -- in the process of documenting verité scenes with our character, and use it quite often. “Coming Home” was an exception, though, as we recorded only one very quick verité scene -- that of Anna going to Nick’s grave -- so there’s very little natural sound in the story. The “drunken” Auld Lang Syne and the M-80 on New Year’s Eve were production devices used to suggest scenes and give the story more texture.
As for music, we try to use it sparingly, only when it really contributes something to the narrative. We were lucky that Uriah Heep’s “Lady in Black” ended up serving as a key component in the story. This allowed us to use the song as a production device, with music allowing listeners to take a breath at key points as the story progressed, and offering an aural through-line that we feel really holds things together.
9. If I count correctly, the version of Nick's story on your website is about 20-minutes long, while the version I heard on NPR was about 12 minutes. How would you describe the differences, with special attention to what was deleted for the NPR version?
NPR’s longest time slot these days is about 13 minutes long -- and stories in that slot usually can’t be more than 11:30 long, as the host introduction and credits eat up the rest of the segment. That meant we had to cut about 8:30 from the full-length version (which aired on KCRW’s “UnFictional” and was supported by their Independent Producers Project).
We worked with the terrific Gerry Holmes of "All Things Considered." He gave us some notes on what he felt we could lose, but he pretty much left it to us.
Cutting a piece we’ve worked so hard to craft is always an excruciating process; in the case of “Coming Home,” we’re pleased with what aired on NPR, but some of the detail and nuance we love so much had to go.
We probably had an additional five painful edits to get the piece to time, going though the transcript line-by-line, removing sections and details that didn’t compromise the basic narrative. The biggest cuts were references to Nick’s fascination with Thor -- including Nick and Michael’s Christmas exchange of Thor t-shirts before his suicide, along with the return of Nick’s Thor t-shirt after his death. This hurt, as we really felt that the Thor storyline suggested Nick’s naïveté going in -- that he was in fact a kid going into a battle he just wasn’t ready for.
We ended up taking some of the material we had to lose for NPR’s version and working with a great musician/illustrator, Tim Fite, on an audio slideshow meant to accompany the story; that’s on our Story/Site.
10. Along those lines, what’s the function of the related video and audio elements you placed on your website in support of the story?
Listening to Anna and Michael’s story raises lots of questions -- questions that they, as grieving parents, simply aren’t equipped to address. The Story/Site we designed for “Coming Home” is meant to tackle some of this, by offering resources and background for people who’ve listened and want to know more. It also proved a really compelling creative outlet for us, a place where we could elaborate on themes and issues raised in the story that we couldn’t contain in the audio narrative.
As we’ve discussed, NPR’s time restrictions forced us to drop most of the material about Nick’s fascination with superheroes, particularly Thor. The “Coming Home” Story/Site gave us an excuse to craft -- and a venue to create -- a special illustrated feature devoted to Nick and Thor.
While we’re proud of what’s on the Story/Site, only a handful of listeners made it there. NPR did post a few links, but they apparently weren’t enough to drive listeners to the features and support material. So our next challenge is to get people to that content by collaborating more with NPR.org and exploring other ways to drive people to the site.
This feels particularly important as we try to garner support for future work. “Coming Home” was partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts primarily because of the Story/Site concept. Simple audio stories aren’t enough to entice most funders these days; there’s a real expectation that every project have a prominent multimedia component. And while we’re excited about ways in which we can enrich and supplement our work online, we admit that we long for the days in which a story, told simply and from the heart, was enough.
If you run into a work of journalism that deserves close inspection, please email us at ExcellenceProject@poynter.org. If we use your suggestions, we’ll give you discounts on courses and Webinars at Poynter News University.