You could call it foraging. It’s what the best journalists do, seeking to understand by listening, watching, questioning, exploring. You cannot do it from the chair in the office. Washington Post staff writer Anne Hull’s gifted stories about the new New South convey a far more varied racial and ethnic mix than the traditional white-black perspective and are remarkable on many levels — including the way complex themes are portrayed through familiar, even mundane, locales like the neighborhood Dairy Queen. They are tributes to the virtue of journalistic foraging, and to an organization like the Washington Post that will give staff members time and resources to pursue ambitious and complicated stories.
Poynter asked another journalist who excels at this kind of work, Tom French of the St. Petersburg Times, to interview his friend Anne about how she pulled it off.
-Jim Naughton, president of The Poynter Institute
Tom French: How did the project start? What was your initial idea, the thing that started you down the road toward this handful of people and their particular stories? What were you after?
Anne Hull: The project originally wasn’t a project. I went down to Atlanta to do a story about Latino gangs. There were two gang-related homicides involving Sureno 13 and Brownside Locos. The context of Atlanta was what was interesting. Gangs were as old as Jesse James but not Latino gangs in the magnolias. In reporting the story, I did the normal stuff: interviewing surviving family members, law enforcement, the district attorney, and others who knew the dead and the accused. I also rode with the Gwinnett County Gang Suppression Unit. I probably spent a month reporting out this story. I started writing but through the writing and talks with editors, we came to the necessary conclusion that gangs weren’t the story. The violence was the undercurrent of the larger story, an expression of something else that was going on.
I visited schools, talked to Latino students, went home with them, tagged along on weekend high school events, until I met Saul Avina. Saul is an amazing figure, an articulate force of nature who is both angry and supremely funny. Now the story shifts to something far wider than gangs but a lot more ambiguous: a Mexican’s coming of age in the white-and-black South. Saul’s best friend happened to be a girl named Nallely Ortiz. She said something once: “I don’t want to become a statistic.” Well, statistically Latinas are among the most vulnerable of American youth, with high teen birth rates, drop-out rates, etc. I met Nallely when she was in the 10th grade, before she became pregnant. Her journey became our story.
The Post‘s managing editor, Steve Coll, read a draft of Nallely and said something like, “Let’s do more of these, let’s go deep and wide, this is important.” From that conversation, we decided to attempt to document the internal and external struggles of second-generation (or 1.5 generation) immigrants coming of age in the New New South, a place with little context for immigration but suddenly overwhelmed by it. What did it feel like to be living inside this wave? This was our question.
All this is a long way of saying there were many false starts and wrong turns until we decided what the story was, and its scope and scale.
French: Sometimes it takes a while before a writer can identify what a story is really about, beneath the surface. How did you figure it out with this project?
Hull: Everyone figures things out differently. Some do it before they even leave the office. I do it by bungling my way through drafts, through talking with those I trust, and worrying a lot about missing the larger story. I spend as much time as possible on the ground reporting, in hopes that all the moving parts will somehow form into a clear shape. There is probably a much smarter and efficient method, but this is mine. You just keep dragging the lake, and soon a consensus builds within you about what is new or fresh that is happening before you.
There is no substitute for a good editor. Some reporters need editors who simply get out of the way and let them work. I need an editor who can help me do two things. One, help me find the outer edge of where a story is moving, and two, help me build railroad tracks to follow it down the line. Premise and focus. And then, focus, focus, focus.
French: If you would, talk a little about your frame. You had these huge issues you wanted to explore, and you had to find some way to bring them to life on the page. How did you pull that off? Why did you choose the outskirts of Atlanta? And once you chose that geographic area, how did you decide to zoom in on a Dairy Queen, a high school, gates A18 and A19 at the airport?
Hull: The 2000 U.S. Census was the prevailing document. We chose to focus on Nallely because, numerically, Latinos (specifically from Mexico) are the largest immigrant group to arrive in the South in the 1990s.
We chose Amy because of the large number of Asians who were transforming the former white-flight suburbs of Atlanta. I met her at school on one of the days where I did nothing but tour high schools, talking with Asian students and their teachers. I met Amy after the last bell. There was just something about the way she was juggling her books in the hallway. And she also mentioned that her mom worked in a nail shop, which was something I wanted to write about.
Before I met Amy, I had another candidate for the Asian story and spent a great deal of time with him. We met through a Vietnamese nun who works for a social service agency. But in the end, he didn’t work out because he couldn’t quite articulate some of the things that Amy could.
My editor on the project, David Maraniss, is big on what he calls “touchstones.” In a series, you can’t bombard the reader with successive, deep profiles of one person. You need to mix it up, let in some air, change the pace. Why not locate one of the days in an actual place instead of within a person? We needed to find a place that would capture the cross-currents of all this new immigration. I hung around Waffle House quite a bit — lots of scrambled eggs and raisin toast breakfasts — and wondered if it would be right. I made a serious pitch to the corporate HQ of Waffle House. They said no. Then I tried Dairy Queens because lots of DQs in Georgia are owned by Indian immigrants. Three Indian DQ owners in the Atlanta area turned me down or they didn’t feel right. Then I met Riz Momin, the owner of the Dairy Queen we profiled, and he felt exactly right, and he agreed.
“In a series, you can’t bombard the reader with successive, deep profiles of one person. You need to mix it up, let in some air, change the pace.Along those same lines, we wanted another touchstone, and what better than Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport? We decided to profile an immigrant who was slightly older, out of high school and in the low-wage workforce. At the airport, I spent several days trying to find the right worker, and loitering around the concourses, watching, talking, trying to learn. I met with the Aviation Authority and learned who had the cleaning contracts at the airport, which is how I found the company Adama Camara worked for. I made my case to the vice president, who agreed, and put me in touch with his janitorial workforce at the airport.
It’s like most reporting: You start one place, and 300 phone calls and interviews later, you end up getting where you need to end up. But it’s helpful to have some idea of what you are looking for. And once you find your place — a high school, a bathroom, an apartment complex, a highway — you consciously keep that frame in mind.
French: Last year, you wrote a story for The Washington Post‘s Sunday magazine that examined class and race and economics through daily life inside a Fresh Fields grocery store. Was there a natural progression from that piece to this project? What did you learn in that grocery store that stuck with you?
Hull: Fresh Fields is a “touchstone,” one of those places that captures a moment. It was in some way extremely easy to harness. Ninety percent of the reporting was done under one roof. The story was physically contained. You walk in the door and open your notebook and by the end of the day or night, you have two notebooks, filled with dialogue, interviews, and observations. It was all right there, everyone riffing off each other, remarking, critiquing. You just had to get out of the way.
That’s probably the most valuable lesson. As reporters, we always want to interject — with our voices, with our journalistic language, with awkward asides that don’t contribute to any particular point other than suggesting to the reader that we took a lot of notes. I believe the reader wants the reporter to get out of the way. No lectures, no grandstanding, no third person in the room. Let the people speak. In their language. This sparseness is hard to achieve but it’s just a matter of paring away so that the story is really a set of bones. And the set of bones comes from the reporting.
French: Too often, people like Nallely and Adama — people living at the margins, fighting for a way in — are invisible to the rest of the world. Why did you want us to see them? And how did you earn their trust enough to gain the access required to give us such an intimate look into their lives?
Hull: Earning trust with an individual — not an official, but a regular person — is fairly easy. Too easy sometimes. Almost anyone who tries can do it, if they have the time and interest in making their case. What’s hard is hanging around someone and seeing things that are hard to see, and then explaining to that person why you need to keep seeing their life unfold. You have to restate your case — not sell like some con man — that you are trying to accurately capture their experience. Ultimately, it is their choice. I don’t believe in cajoling someone into participation.
There are so many dodgy and painful moments that come from spending intense time with a subject. It’s funny. This so-called narrative journalism has far stricter ethics than traditional reporting. Why is it that someone who covers (insert beat here) can take sources out for expense-account dinners and lunches, yet we can’t even give someone 50 cents for a bus ride because it alters the true experience? But this is just the way it goes. I think trust comes when a person can watch you attempt the highest degree of fairness, and they see you keep coming back.
French: Like all of your writing, Rim of the New World was extremely cinematic. Though the subject matter is obviously different, these four pieces — their energy, their colors and rhythms — reminded me particularly of the films of Paul Thomas Anderson. Following Amy and Cisco and your other subjects, I kept thinking about scenes from “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love,” even “Boogie Nights.” Do you find any inspiration in Anderson’s movies? What other filmmakers inspire you and what have you taken from their work?
Hull: The cross-cutting and layering in those movies are beautiful and far from accidental. My own weaving is more the function of a chaotic mind. Some degree of chaos is good for action-building; other times, you need absolute quiet and individual focus. Standing inside the drive-through window at the Dairy Queen, you see, you hear, you smell, and you take notes as fast as you can. There is a wildness to what’s happening in front of you — and inside you, as you absorb it.
You can force yourself to be consciously aware of opening up your senses — literally write on your notebook: VOICES, SMELLS, WHAT SEE — but the internal spirit is about allowing yourself to feel something while you are reporting.
And then when it comes time to write, you somehow need to avoid all the emotion, if that makes sense. Don’t let your emotional seams show. Let the characters come through and breathe. Read Susan Orleans’ essay, “The Maui Surfer Girls,” or Kate Boo’s New Yorker story on welfare reform. These writers show you that it is possible to capture something winsome and fleeting and heartbreaking, without sentimentality, and yet when you finish reading, you want to weep.
French: In the past when you were working on lengthy assignments, I know you’ve made your own soundtracks — mix tapes filled with music that takes you inside the emotional heart of whatever you’re writing about. What did you listen to while you were working on this project?
Hull: I listened to the music that the characters listened to, which meant Outkast, Staind, P. Diddy, Radiohead, and Salief Keita. Also lots of FM radio, because they did. Music, like photographs, is a way to stay close to the reporting. Ending a reporting trip is getting one last glimpse before the lights go dark. Sometimes the music helps you remember.
French: Most writers are all too familiar with terror. What were the moments when you were paralyzed, when it was too much or you didn’t think you could do it? How did you move forward?
Hull: Terror was actually the soundtrack I listened to. The extended play version of “you’re fired.” I was in Stuckville for a long time as the Nallely piece morphed along. I was sure I was going to get canned or at least put on probabation. To counter the slowness, I sat at my desk for a long time, hoping something would snap, or maybe the bosses would see my body, if not my byline.
“I was sure I was going to get canned or at least put on probabation.”How do you come out of this? It could be as simple as writing a good paragraph or even a good sentence, that sets you down a fresh path. It could be reading fiction, something really unbridled that gives you the courage to write more freely. But generally the antidote is more practical. It’s important to make out a daily writing schedule and stick to it. My colleague David Finkel told me to set up rules for myself, such as, “You can’t go home until you finish a section AND also start the next section so that you’ll have something to start working on tomorrow when you come in.” And no cheating.
On long-term projects, maybe the answer is to work at home for a week or so, just to mix it up and break the spell. Change habits that slow you down. Honestly assess how you spend your time. Unplug from your e-mail and only allow yourself to check it once a day. Computers in the newsroom have become like Game Boys. They can be incredibly distracting toys in the midst of an incredibly distracting environment.
French: David Maraniss, your editor on this project, is an excellent writer in his own right. What did you learn from him?
Hull: Two things: discipline and abandon. He is a highly disciplined and productive writer. At the same time, within this rigidity, he believes in “letting it flow.” Don’t be overly structured in the organization of a piece so that you don’t leave the psychological space to riff here and there, or alternate the grand with the pointillist. Freedom within discipline; it’s an idea Maraniss extrapolated through one of “While editing, Maraniss can sniff out what he calls ‘deadening language.’”his subjects, Vince Lombardi.
While editing, Maraniss can sniff out what he calls “deadening language.” These are phrases that feel familiar to the ear, or phrases such as “foreign-born” that are fine in more conventional news pieces but in the life of an intimate story, they tend to club you on the head. We tried hard not to let the nut graphs read like nut graphs. We had news to deliver, for sure, and needed to frame our stories, but the language needed to be similiar to the rest of the stories.
French: Reading the series, I was struck by the vividness of the world that was being mapped out before me. The “exit-ramp civilizations” of Waffle Houses and convenience stores, the larger landscape of “cruelties and glittering temptations,” as you put it — all of it was both familiar and startling. How do you manage to see so clearly, to notice things that are right in front of us but that most people miss?
Hull: It’s hard to say where some phrases come from, but the observation is just forcing yourself to pay attention. Anyone who looks over the side of an interstate and sees the Taco Bells and Quik Trips clinging to the pilings just can’t accept this as natural. They are man-made, like a fake lake in a new subdivision.
How do you learn these things? Report it out. Maybe it takes riding the landscape with a native or old-timer who can point something out, to let you know how the geography has changed. Try to pay attention to road signs (“Tara Boulevard”) or the names of subdivisions, and all the little monikers of this civilization. And then step back from the notebooks and think about the absurdity of why it’s necessary to have 20 fast-food restaurants clumped in a five-block strip.
French: What’s your response to newsroom traditionalists who wonder aloud whether stories like Rim of the New World belong in a newspaper?
Hull: Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like “newsroom traditionalists” increasingly have little ground to stand on. Putting aside the Dickens era, for 25 years now — in this post-modern period, anyway — narratives have been effective and engaging ways to explain events. The evidence is there, and even the smallest papers are making attempts at this form.
“‘Newsroom traditionalists’ increasingly have little ground to stand on.”On the other hand, there is truth to the criticism that the form can be over-used or applied to the wrong situations. Maybe the standard is, “Well, readers loved it.” But readers also love “The Guiding Light” and “Married With Children.” What is our responsibility? Is a good yarn enough? Or should we push ourselves to say something deeper, with more sociological resonance? Some stories — a battle in Somalia, for instance — implicity have the weight of importance. But don’t use a cannon on a chicken. Some stories can be told small and well.
I think “newsroom traditionalists” can be won over if the narratives — used on the right target — employ the basics of journalism: exhaustive reporting, fairness, accuracy, and a sense that there is a larger story behind the particular story.
French: Although the themes of these stories are serious, you made room for tiny moments that were subversively funny. The dropout who insists, “I’m home-schooling myself.” The woman at the airport, giving dating tips to her African immigrant co-workers. The guy who takes a look at his friend’s furry platform shoes and asks her, “Dude, how many Muppets you kill to make them shoes?” How do you find those moments, and how do you get them down in a way that doesn’t interfere with your larger issues? Maybe I should put it like this: How do you create a world on the page that’s big enough for both joy and sorrow, for irreverence and solemnity?
Hull: Because real life has all these elements. To leave them out would be deceptive. And when you hang around people, these moments come out. You write them down in your notebook, exactly as they occur. And you realize that it’s these so-called small moments that illuminate a person: the way they think, they way the talk, etc. I have never in my life heard the phrase “I’m home-schooling myself.” That is going in the story. If not the story, I will self-publish a book if only to get the line in print. It rings with authenticity and realness.
One of Maraniss’ favorite lines was in the Nallely piece, where her older brother, Ruben, a short-order cook, describes the restuarant where he works by saying, “Fried chicken is our signature dish.” This comment is one of pride and authority, directed at something that is so clearly drummed up and consumeristic. That mixture is poignant. When trying to get lines like this in the paper, it helps to have an editor who sees beauty in the small and sincere. So many editors would cross that line out. So when you want to use one of these lines, make sure you have a defense for it. These moments and asides should be used sparingly. And then turn back to your “larger” issues. Pivot right back into the stream of action.
French: Your final piece of the series — the one about the African immigrant working at the airport — ends with him on a bus, riding home:
“The day is wan and pale. Summer is gone but there is no fall, only a lack of color and heat. On the bus to Flat Shoals, Adama sits under a Church’s Chicken ad. Three pieces and a biscuit for $1.99. Someone has scrawled on the seat in front of him, DA SOUTH.That’s one of the most graceful, powerful endings I’ve ever read. Could you talk about it for a moment and tell us how it was decided to close the series with that piece, and with that specific scene?
“The bus passes pines and red clay, and rumbles over railroad tracks. The windows are open. A breeze blows across the silent passengers, anesthetized by fatigue. Adama closes his eyes and falls asleep.”
In deciding the order of the four stories, our managing editor, Steve Coll, argued that Adama should end the series, in part because of that ending. It says exhaustion, it is elegiac, and the metaphor of exhaustion sort of hangs over the immigrant struggle.