Cage fighter’s faked death gives life to rich NYT storytelling

Last month, The New York Times continued its streak of publishing groundbreaking newspaper narratives with “Tomato Can Blues,” a longform account of a small-town Michigan cage fighter who faked his own death.

Reporter Mary Pilon crafted a mystery story amid the bloody world of amateur sports with a cast of carefully-etched characters, an eye for telling details and creative organization. “It combines lush illustrations and audio narration and reads like a graphic novel come to life,” praised the Nieman Journalism Lab.

Mary Pilon is a reporter with The New York Times. (Nikola Tamindzic)

In an email interview for the Poynter Excellence Project, Pilon, 27, unpacks the reporting, writing and collaboration behind this exceptional story:

How did you come upon the story and why did you decide to pursue it?

Having just finished some investigative work tied to our Westminster Dog Show coverage, my editors, Jason Stallman and Sam Dolnick and I met to talk about where I should next focus my energy. One of them threw a short wire story about an amateur cage fighter who faked his own death at me. We weren’t setting out to do anything big. I made some calls and got some of the Michigan fight promoters on the phone, but at that point, the Robinette robbery had just happened and even folks in Michigan were still trying to get a handle on what had transpired. Frustrated, I reported that back to my editors. Jason said, “Take a one-way ticket to Detroit,” which was a really gutsy move on his part. I threw some clothes in a bag and got on the next flight, unsure what, if anything, I would get on the ground. Was Rowan dead? Alive? What happened?

How much time did you spend in Michigan?

I was in Michigan, all told, about two weeks spread over two trips, but I continued to work on regular news coverage, chipping away at this story bit by bit. I drew maps and diagrams of where things happened and when, put together timelines, tracked down cage fighters and any public records I could get my hands on. I attended cage fights in Michigan, including at Streeters, interviewed dozens of fighters, but also tried to sneak in cage fights as I traveled elsewhere for other stories throughout the summer, hoping to get a context for the Michigan scene. YouTube clips, blogs, message boards and phone interviews with experts in the sport helped, too. Even when I wasn’t in Michigan, I wanted to be immersed.

How did you get Charlie Rowan to open up?

At first, I reached out to his lawyer, who told me no. My first stop when I landed in Michigan was the Gladwin County Courthouse when he was brought in for a hearing. I know this sounds crazy, but I felt like I had to see him with my own eyes, even if he wasn’t being interviewed, to confirm he was alive if we were going to report that in The Times. I began to find people — friends, neighbors, relatives — who told me more of the local buzz, taking me back in some ways to my roots as a small-town reporter in Oregon. People were incredibly kind with their time. I roamed in and out of gyms, coffee shops, people’s living rooms, fast food restaurants, the woods, just trying to absorb as much of that world as I could. Hard to not get a little Nancy Drew about it all. After a week on the ground in Michigan, I left thinking Rowan wasn’t going to talk, but I had enough for a modest Sunday story about cage fighting in the heartland, nothing more.

Soon thereafter, the bombs went off in Boston and I helped my colleagues cover the Marathon and the aftermath. Later that week as I was leaving one of the hospitals there, my cell phone rang and it was a collect call from a jail. I was shocked when the caller identified himself as Charles Rowan and said he wanted to talk. I pulled out my laptop there in Boston Common, exhausted and surrounded by police, and Rowan started to tell me everything. We kept talking on the phone and I flew to Michigan a second time to interview him in jail, then follow up on all the leads he gave me from our conversations. It’s not often a reporter gets to ask, “So was that before, or after you died?”

Your eye for telling details is remarkable, whether it’s the Rite Aid visible from the bedroom of Rowan’s girlfriend’s home where he hides during the memorial service to his many tattoos and the Skittles on sale at the local gun shop? How do you soak them up?

The Rite Aid bit I got from going to Rosa’s house, an address we had from a police report, and walking around the neighborhood. I use my phone as a note-taking device and took photos and videos of the house, Gladwin, the cage fights, which I returned to over and over again in writing and piecing everything together and shared with my editors. If a detail stuck with us over and over, we kept it in, thinking it would likely resonate with readers, too. The tattoos were buried in a police booking report and the Skittles came from a crime scene photo. I confirmed them with Rowan and the Robinettes, as well. We tried to verify as much as we could with as many people as possible and there were a lot of things we left out because we only had one source.

Attila Futaki’s illustrations helped tell The New York Times story of a cage fighter who faked his own death.

Evocative animated illustrations by Attila Futaki add a powerful storytelling dimension to “Tomato Can Blues.” How closely did you work with the artist?

We hadn’t done anything quite like this before and still wanted to be as accurate as possible. Attila lives in Hungary, so we used a file-sharing service to share relevant reporting materials (police reports, story drafts, photos and videos I shot with my iPhone, etc.). He sent us back sketches that we reviewed…then refined and inked them. One example: the shot of Rowan’s feet at the gun store originally had him in boots. We knew from interviews and the police report that he wore sneakers, so we changed it. Another: the “ROWAN” tattoo above his navel in the cover shot where Rowan is getting punched was in one of his old fight photos and confirmed in a police report.

Why did you wait a long time to reveal that Rowan is a source for your story?

We wanted there to be suspense, but at the same time not feel like we were “tricking” readers. Same with the opening. We wanted readers to step into the world as we had — completely confused — and keep them enticed as we had been in the unraveling.

In the process of reporting my upcoming book, “The Monopolists,” I did a lot of research on story structure, a new and foreign art to me as someone with more of a background in shorter news stories. My editors are longform veterans and we tossed around movie trailers, true crime articles, book chapters, to try and get a handle on the structure. “Tomato Can Blues,” too, was an exercise in figuring out how to keep readers hooked while still being factual. I think journalists can learn a lot from screenwriters and novelists about how to arc facts, which was a huge task here.

What were the most helpful resources?

I found myself dissecting works that I have long loved (“The Third Man,” “Casablanca,” Coen Brothers films, Woody Allen’s humor writing and movies, anything F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ken Kesey, Alice Munro, on the nonfiction front, passages from Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Truman Capote, dog-eared copies of The New Yorker, etc. ) and thinking about what made them so effective. I reread Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” and also find the writerly manifestos of Steven Pressfield, Christopher Vogler, Stephen King and Robert McKee to be great roadmaps when lost on the proverbial drafting highway.

The kicker quote is very poignant. When did you decide that would be the way you would end the story?

Rowan, often without realizing it, had oddly prophetic offhand comments about life and death throughout the course of our interviews. As soon as he said that, I knew it had to go somewhere important in the story and it quickly made sense as an ending note for the piece. It’s a bizarre, George Bailey story in some ways, set against the backdrop of a really economically hard-hit part of the country. Rowan is one of only a few people in the world who had a glimpse of what life would be like for others if he was dead. We knew early on that these themes of life and death, feeling caged, had to be woven throughout the story and somehow resonate in the end. As cheesy as it may sound, it was through “dying” that Rowan said he learned about life.

What has been the reaction to “Tomato Can Blues?”

You can never predict the outcome of a story, but I’m thrilled people liked it and the reaction was great. Many people picked up on some of our inspirations — Truman Capote, Gay Talese, the Coen brothers, Ernest Hemingway (his work on boxing, in particular), to name a few.

Some readers have asked what Rowan thought of the story. Due to restrictions at his jail, Rowan has no Internet access, but his lawyer passed along a copy of the paper to him and I spoke with Rowan on the phone after the story ran. “I wish I went global for other reasons than this,” Rowan said. “But you know, maybe someone will take my story and use it to help themselves.”

Chances are that many journalists would read “Tomato Can Blues” and say, “I want to do stories like this.” What advice would you give them?

It sounds obvious, but try and report the hell out of a story and be okay with not knowing where a story is going to take you. When we started, it’s not as if we said, “Let’s do a big written piece, audio book and graphic novel about cage fighting in the heartland.” We started out with curiosity and went where the reporting took us. I’m lucky to have editors who embrace the unexpected and we have a dynamite multimedia team that helped us take the project to another level. Another huge lesson is that stories like these are really team projects. There’s sometimes a temptation to be a lone wolf reporting, but Tomato Can would not have been possible without the patience and effort of my colleagues here.

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