RIP Harvey Wilbourne (1920-2015), war hero and extraordinary ordinary man

An obituary in Sunday’s Roanoke Times caught my eye, and before I knew it the tears were puddling on my toast. I’ve profiled scores of amazing people in my  career, but Harvey’s story was among my favorites. I loved his unflinching honesty. I really loved how fiercely he loved his wife.

A World War Two hero and fighter pilot, he had found himself, then in his late-80s, dreaming about the Japanese airmen he’d shot down. I remember him saying, “I can still see their faces. … They had families too.”

harveyTo which his wife, Nell, would then counter, comfortingly, “It was kill or be killed.”

Theirs was an ordinary story — a love story — I chronicled with photographer Sam Dean in 2007. They were doing what thousands in the Greatest Generation are doing or have done: moving into a better-than-average retirement community. And Nell was not thrilled in the least. She called her new much-smaller digs at Brandon Oaks “B.O.” for short.

She complained about having to give up her favorite knitting chair, which was ratty-looking and worn.

Harvey had to say goodbye to the duct-taped contraption he’d built to affix the telephone next to his recliner. They had to winnow down their massive collection of clocks. Every one of those clocks had a story, and I listened to them all.

When the movers arrived, the couple bickered gently with their grown daughter about what to keep and what to throw away.

But they were lucky people, and they knew it. When Nell couldn’t sleep the first night in their new abode, Harvey held her hand in bed till she drifted off with the aid of two Tylenol PM. They woke up the next morning to the chiming of the first clock they’d ever bought together in 1960, from a long-gone downtown department store.harvey and nell

Nell died in 2012, the not-quite-last chapter in their epic, 68-year romance. From his Air Force base at the start of the war, he had mailed her an engagement ring with a note that said, “Darling, now you know I am coming back to you.” He wired money home weekly so his mother could buy Nell an orchid to wear to church on Sunday. He named the single-seat P-51 Mustang he piloted Sulkin’ Susie in honor of Nell, whose middle name was Susan.

My newspaper columnist pal Regina Brett used to encourage me to write more stories like this — about ordinary people whose lives illuminate a cultural moment in time. The best ones are transition stories, in which people actively spar with the universal crap life throws their way, from aging parents to difficult children to the pain of losing your dream home. We should not be writing  for the politicians and officials, Regina said, but “for the waitress at Denny’s who’s been standing on her feet all day,”  and wants only to see a sliver of something hopeful, something real.

Harvey and Nell are together now, I’m sure of it, holding hands again and delighting in the holy hullabaloo of all those chiming clocks.


Roanoke Times, The (VA) – July 15, 2007

Harvey Wilbourne knows he’s a lucky man: Not every couple in their mid-80s get to move from their dream home into a comfortable — some would say posh — retirement community with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

This is what it looks like to be a privileged member of the Greatest Generation during a time when the average 65-year-old can expect to live another 19 years.

If you work hard and save carefully, if you win the lottery on matters of health and family, then it’s possible — though far from guaranteed — that you spend your twilight years perched in the catbird seat.

“They’ve had a great life with no regrets,” said their oldest daughter, Susan Gardiner, on the day of her parents’ June 25 move from their home in the Hidden Valley community to Brandon Oaks, a retirement center in Southwest Roanoke.

Harvey and his wife, Nell, have paid handsomely for a big apartment in a brand-new building, with one daily meal provided and the reassurance of nearby nursing care across the street.

Should they spill their coffee on the new white carpet, someone from the cleaning staff will arrive to shampoo the stain.

But Nell Wilbourne doesn’t feel so lucky. To her, the white walls and white carpeting imply a lack of personality. For months, she has struggled with the decision to move into a place she refers to — only half-jokingly — by its initials.

“I call it B.O.,” she said in March, shortly after they agreed to pay a $400,000-plus entrance fee. “When we built this house, I thought we would die here.

“But I guess going to B.O. is better than going straight to Evergreen” — the cemetery where many of her friends are buried.

‘We’ll keep each other’

The night before their June 25 move, Nell couldn’t sleep, couldn’t even turn over in bed. With her whole body throbbing, she thought she was having a heart attack. It was hours before she calmed down and got a grip on the real culprit: stress.

Harvey, on the other hand, had already sunk into a deep slumber, comforted by the sound of a much-needed rain. Mother Nature was finally taking care of his prized geraniums, something he hadn’t been able to do since the arthritis seized hold of his back.

They had held on to the old house for as long as they could, hiring a housekeeper and someone to mow the lawn.

But last September, doctors found a blockage in Harvey’s heart and rushed him into open-heart surgery.

Nell slept in his hospital room for two nights in a row. She had just given up driving, at the age of 86, and she was afraid to stay home alone at night.

Harvey viewed the surgery as a harbinger of things to come.

“If I had a stroke, she’d have a hard time getting back and forth to see me,” he said.

Their youngest daughter, Martha Cummings, invited them to move in with her family in Virginia Beach, but the Wilbournes couldn’t imagine reversing roles. As Nell put it: “We don’t want people to keep us. We’ll keep each other.”

They put their names on a waiting list for Westminster Canterbury, not far from Martha’s home. Westminster is a “continuum of care retirement community” — CCRCs, as they’re known — not unlike Brandon Oaks and The Glebe in Botetourt County. A burgeoning part of the elder-care industry, CCRCs offer full-service, till-death-do-you-part care that features independent apartment living, assisted living and nursing home facilities all on one campus.

Last fall, when one of their grandchildren moved to Roanoke, the Wilbournes reconsidered staying in Roanoke. It comforted them, too, that many of their former classmates from Jefferson High School were already at Brandon Oaks, where the three-story Dogwood Apartments, part of a major expansion, would open in May.

With entrance fees ranging from $94,100 to $430,000 — not including monthly fees from $1,673 to $4,363 — such options are beyond the financial scope of the average Roanoke-area retiree.

But Harvey Wilbourne had worked hard and saved even harder, retiring from Norfolk & Western Railway in 1980 when it was still Roanoke’s Big Daddy.

Although they splurged on golf, the Wilbournes lived simply. The ranch house they’d built 35 years before had its share of homemade contraptions, including a wall-mount phone that Harvey duct-taped to an end table beside his favorite chair.

And Harvey hadn’t just enjoyed the horticultural challenge of over-wintering his 75 geraniums in the crawl space underneath the house. It saved money, too, because he didn’t have to replace them every year.

With a railroad pension and a home that had more than quadrupled in value, the Wilbournes were able to pick from the priciest housing options, with the provision that their daughters would inherit 90 percent of the entrance fee upon their deaths. (In general, the less expensive the entrance fee, the smaller the refund.)

The deal was clinched when Brandon Oaks called to say an apartment was available on the northeast side with a balcony — perfect light for the begonias Harvey was planning to move with him.

But Nell was the hard sell of the two. “Look at the porch we have now,” she said in March, pointing to Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance. “Look at that view.”

A mile away, from the Brandon Oaks apartment balcony, she could make out the mountains if she squinted.

More prominent was the building that loomed from the other side of Brandon Avenue, that other portent of things to come: the Brandon Oaks nursing center.

And what would happen to all of their antique clocks? The couple had collected 55 in all, some dating to the early 1900s, including a favorite from an old train station in Ivor.

Their apartment at B.O. has room for a few, she said. “Maybe six if we’re lucky.”

Thinking of Nell

During their first two decades of marriage, the couple moved eight times for the railroad, where Harvey had worked his way up to department head.

When N&W moved him back to Roanoke in 1969, the longtime golfers joined Hidden Valley Country Club so Harvey could knock a few balls around during lunch. Every day, Nell made him a tuna-salad sandwich to eat at his desk so he wouldn’t waste his lunch hour eating.

It was during lunch one day when Harvey spotted the lot for sale. He nabbed it — for $6,000 — before the week was out. They paid $50,000 to have the house built.

It was a three-bedroom ranch designed to spotlight its location: The back yard spilled onto the No. 7 hole at Hidden Valley Country Club.

“7th Heaven,” said the homemade sign next to their Keagy Road mailbox, and to the Wilbournes it wasn’t just a pun.

Nearly every day for more than 30 years, the Wilbournes golfed from their back yard. On Saturdays, they hit 36 holes.

When they weren’t playing golf, they were watching it from their glassed-in sun porch. “Made with double-glass Thermapane windows,” he recalled.

A 14-year-old duffer once made the mistake of using a three-wood on the hole behind their house, sailing the ball smack into the glass. “It didn’t break, but he should’ve used a soft pitching wedge,” Harvey said.

The couple were adamant about golf and even more adamant about golf-course navigation: Carts were for sissies. Even in their early 80s, the Wilbournes walked the course — and usually together.

“We’re a duo,” Nell likes to say, their bond forged even before they married in 1944. As a World War II fighter pilot, Harvey flew a single-seat P-51 Mustang named Sulkin’ Susie in honor of Nell, whose middle name is Susan. He wired his mother money to buy Nell an orchid to wear to church every Sunday.

There was less than a 50 percent chance he would come back from the war, and in Harvey’s squadron the numbers were even more grim: Eight pilots from his original group of 32 survived.

“I’m coming back for you,” he wrote, before flying his plane overseas.

Harvey flew 83 combat missions over India, Burma and the Chinese border, shooting down four Japanese planes. Lately, he finds himself cogitating on those days.

“I guess it’s natural at my age,” he said. “I think about those pilots I shot down. They had families, too, I know.”

“Yes, but it was kill or be killed,” Nell interjected. “You know that.”

Between his clock-winding every Wednesday and Saturday, between his meal routines (a turkey-bacon biscuit every morning), between wishing he felt good enough to get back on the golf course — this is what Harvey does more than anything else: worry about Nell.

They’ve been married 63 years.

“We’re still so in love,” he said recently. “I know that sounds so corny, but it’s the truth.”

Moving day

It took six strapping young men from Virginia Varsity Transfer four hours to move just about all the couple’s belongings. The Wilbournes’ daughters came from their homes in Arlington and Virginia Beach to help direct traffic and to wrap pendulums from fragile clocks — and to persuade their parents to winnow down their stuff.

There was the rickety plant stand that had held so many geraniums: “Let Mom pick out a new one of those for your new balcony,” Martha said to her father. “Of all the things you have, it’s really one of the least attractive.”

Harvey relented, finally, but only because the stand held bricks to keep it stabilized, and he didn’t want the movers to have to haul bricks.

There were the chairs Harvey had nabbed years ago when the railroad decommissioned the Powhatan Arrow, its luxury passenger train: “Are you sure you want to take those old railroad chairs?” Susan asked.

The upholstery was ratty and dated, and most of their space at Brandon Oaks was spoken for already with other, better-looking things. (Susan and her husband are buying 7th Heaven to renovate and rent out and, in a few years, they’ll retire and move into it themselves.)

The train chairs remained behind, destined for Harvey-doesn’t-know-where.

There was the holey recliner next to the duct-taped phone: “That’s my knitting chair, and we’re not taking it?” Nell huffed, when Susan told the movers to leave it behind. “It’s my favorite chair.”

“But you’ve got no place to put it, Mom,” Susan reminded her.

Nell waved her arms, another battle lost.

“We’re not going to be very comfortable at B.O. without our old stuff,” she said. “I may have to come back here and spend the night.”

That afternoon, Harvey and Nell sat in the den of their new Dogwood apartment. The furniture looked crowded in the space — a fact duly noted by Nell — and when she reclined in her leather chair, as she is wont to do, it hit the wall.

She didn’t say it, but Harvey knew what she was thinking: The knitting chair would’ve fit better.

Sleepless again

That first night at Brandon Oaks, Nell couldn’t sleep. Which meant that Harvey couldn’t sleep. “I tried to see that she was settled in before I dropped off,” he explained the next day.

As they lay together in the dark, Nell whispered to him: “When are we going to go home?”

“We are home,” he said.

He patted her on the back, squeezed her hand.

The next day, the daughters returned to hang clocks and pictures, and then old friends — some from their Jefferson High School days — started knocking on their door.

The begonias were placed in the northeast sun, and the leather recliner, although it had never been her favorite, was pulled out an inch from the wall.

The second night, Nell took a Tylenol P.M. and slept seven hours in a row. She woke up to the chiming of a mantel clock — the first one they ever bought, circa-1960, from a long-gone department store.

Harvey had moved it himself the day before, still wound and running. Nine of the 55 clocks made the move.

Facts, folly and my newspaper swan song

It was a fitting end, my newspaper swan song. A challenging story, my Sunday article was an update of the toughest story I ever wrote — featuring two “Pregnant and Proud” teenagers in 1993, back when Roanoke had the highest teen-pregnancy rate in the state.

The public reaction had been harsh. Shannon Huff, seated second from left, surrounded by her children and grandchild.

Shannon Huff, seated second from left, surrounded by her children and grandchild.

The outcry went national. It was very definitely personal, with more letters to the editor pouring in to decry the story — and the reporter who wrote it — than just about any other piece in our newspaper’s history.

The emotional toll it took on me was mighty — sleepless nights, fears that I’d sunk the reputations of two minors in a way that would forever set their lives on a downward spiral. I was 29 and pregnant with my first child, in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy. I was learning to give myself insulin shots at the same time readers were publicly calling me everything from racist to naïve.

That story — badly packaged and shallowly reported, true though it was — was not my finest moment in journalism, though it not only won awards; it also taught me many of my finest journalistic lessons:

That words matter.

That you can’t predict or influence the reaction people will have to a set of facts in a story.

That you can only do your best to present those facts humanely and fairly, digging as deeply as you can.

That, when in doubt, the medical code of ethics is always a good fallback: Do no harm.

I began trying to revisit “Pregnant and Proud” in 2011. The update seemed every bit as fraught as the first, filled with reluctant family members, depressing statistics, and rap sheets full of raw truths and damning decisions.

The main  subject, Shannon Huff, wasn’t sure at first she wanted another story written. By the time she was on board and the complex set of facts of her life came into focus, I wasn’t sure there was a story to tell myself — at least not one that did no harm.

But not many journalists get to revisit a story some 21 years after the fact. Fewer still get to report from the same place for the same news outlet for 25 years.

When people ask what my favorite part of being a reporter is, I try to describe the way it feels driving to an interview. Sometimes I’m nervous. Usually I’m hopeful. Always I’m running through the possibilities, prepping for the wrinkles that might emerge.

Sometimes moments of grace occur, such as when I told Shannon I’d never set out to harm her and apologized near the end of our first sit-down interview earlier this year. She stood to hug me, tears streaming down her face. She’d “been through hell in gasoline drawers,” as she put it, and her experience as a proud, pregnant teen — including the newspaper feature — had become her unlikely lodestar. She wanted badly now to prove her critics wrong.

The U.S. poet laureaute Natasha Trethewey once told an interviewer that writers have a responsibility to grapple openly and honestly with difficult subjects.  “When the Birmingham church bombing convictions came down, people on the radio were saying why open these old wounds? The problem with that thinking is assuming those wounds had healed. Some bones broken will forever be weak. … The best we can hope for is acknowledgment.”

Acknowledgment. That word was on the spelling test I took as an applicant for a feature writing job at The Roanoke Times in 1989. So was the word accommodate (some things you just never forget!).

The best journalists worry less about accommodating official viewpoints and more about acknowledging the little people caught in the web of tough circumstances, whether they’re showing up for court or for medical treatment, or standing in line at the VEC.

As the great reporter Susan Spencer-Wendel, who died last week of ALS at age 47, put it: “It was a privilege to go to work each day and grow democracy, to ferret out stories no one wanted told, to be trusted to inform and, yes, entertain our readers. When someone would ask me: ‘Who sent you?’ I loved to reply, ‘Well, ma’am, that would be Thomas Jefferson.’ ”

Nothing but the truth: It’s worth remembering the journalistic oath we made when we signed on for all the bad hours, low pay and sleepless nights, infused with the privilege of witnessing heartache and joy and, yes, judgment.

On the eve of the publication of my first book, “Factory Man,” I recently quit newspapering in favor of the deeper dive of researching and writing books. I’ll seek out my usual underdog subjects, working through the issues I now know I was born to tackle.

I’ll mine for the facts, which will do what they always do: morph into falsehoods the more I learn and the deeper I go.

shannon 93



Shannon Huff, 16 years old in 1993, from the original newspaper article. Public radio reporter Beverly Amsler interviewed me about this story for a featured that aired here.

Bad boyfriends, bill-paying and ‘Harriet the Spy’: my advice to the Class of 2014


Thank you, Mary Baldwin College, for the honor of speaking to you on such an auspicious occasion. Thank you President Fox, esteemed faculty and guests, graduates, parents and friends.

Almost 30 years ago, I was in your seat. Probably I was daydreaming, deconstructing the commencement speaker’s tie or maybe the wave of his hair.

Probably I was thinking about how the hell I was going to fit everything I owned into my 20-year-old VW Beetle — and whether it would actually make the two-and-a-half hour drive from my college apartment in Bowling Green, Ohio, to the capital city of Columbus, without breaking down. I had roughly 24 hours to prepare for my first “real job,” an internship at a city magazine that paid $200 a week ‑ before taxes. A bore of a position for someone with big-city journalist aspirations, its main task was to update the magazine’s annual dining guide, which meant sitting at a desk and calling 600 restaurants to ask whether they served mahi mahi and took American Express. Every day, for three months.

I was excited. I was terrified. As the first person in my family to have gone to college, I had zero financial cushion to fall back on — no wealthy uncle, no wealthy friends, no more than a hundred bucks in my checking account. I was the daughter of a widow who made $8,000 a year test-driving cars for a Honda subcontractor. My student loans bills were about to come due, and the only thing holding my car battery in place under the backseat of my rusty VW was a broken cutting board my boyfriend helped jam between the rusty metal frame and the seat.

I speak to you now, almost-graduates, from the other side of that dark financial precipice. I tell you this as someone who’s turning 50 in 12 days and who wishes she could go back in time to counsel that scared 22 year old with the burgeoning anxiety disorder, and blanket her with giant beams of confidence. I wish I could whisper to her as she sleeps the deep, post-adolescent slumber of the twentysomething young. I would push back the not-yet-gray hair from her face and tuck it behind her not-yet-faltering ear. And I would tell her this:


Remember the lilacs. That’s my way of telling you to spend your time doing what taps into the essence of you, whatever that essence may be.

I was the last child of four — the middle-aged surprise — born to parents who struggled financially and in other ways. I was, practically speaking, raised as an only child — a loner who liked hiding inside the giant grove of lilac trees at the end of my street and eavesdropping on people who walked past. It was my humble sanctuary, a fortress of intoxicating scent and cozy, hidden paths. Safe and unseen, I spent hours there bearing witness to the beautiful and the strange, the just and unjust.

In the fourth grade, my teacher introduced me to the book, “Harriet the Spy,” which I inhaled. I was stunned to find a version of myself on novelist Louise Fitzhugh’s pages. Harriet was a young girl and aspiring author who put stories and facts together in new ways. She was nosy, sure. But she developed the confidence to forge her own way of looking at the world and, by putting forth her own fierce ideas, she discovered a voice that was distinctly her own.

In the decades that followed that awful restaurant guide job — we all have to start somewhere — I went in search of my own inner Harriet. I didn’t set out to focus my journalism on outsiders and underdogs, but lo and behold, after a decade of writing about them, it finally dawned on me that those articles were always the ones I wrote best: The African refugee who squealed the first time she heard a Diet Coke clunking down a soda machine chute and shouted, “There is a person inside that machine!”

The gritty Galax, Va., furniture maker who took on China in the court of international trade to keep his factory going — because those [expletive!] Communists were not gonna tell him how to make furniture!

The teenager who grew up in the projects but had the backing of a powerful African-American community that frequented the neighborhood library where she worked as a page. When Salena Sullivan learned she was getting a full ride — to Harvard, no less — the elderly library patrons put down the newspapers they were reading and wept. The librarian, who was her mentor and best friend, screamed.

I have to tell you, I did some weeping and screaming myself. What a privilege it was, being paid to travel outside my own ZIP code, to bear witness,  to hone my thoughts on these raw and complicated truths that I, and I alone, had noticed. As the writer Annie Dillard once put it: “You were made and set here to give voice to this: your own astonishment.” It’s a lesson worth applying to everything from journalism to nursing to theology.

Develop your own slant. Figure out what moves you and make that your life’s calling. Every time you feel the hair sticking up on the back of your neck, pay fierce attention.

The second thing I want to say to the little girl in the lilacs is this: Ditch the awful partner, the sooner the better. I kissed some seriously nasty frogs before I met a guy comfortable enough with his manhood to marvel at a sunset, and goofy enough to dance the robot backwards across the kitchen floor when I’m least expecting it — just to make me laugh.

Let me tell you why I believe that choosing who to partner with is the single-most important decision you’ll make: For a variety of complicated reasons dating back centuries if not millennia, women now comprise more than half the college student population but still only 20 percent of the country’s leadership positions. This, despite the fact that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability.

Staring down the barrel of 50, I am certain that I would not be as confident or competent a writer — or person — had I not married someone who has treated me his equal on everything from grocery shopping to laundry to kid-schlepping.

I’m a first-generation feminist, having grown up in a house where my mom did everything: She worked. She cooked and she cleaned. She hounded my dad on Friday evenings at the VFW bar so he would not drink away his paycheck before the groceries were bought. I’m not judging; my mom can stretch a dime farther than anyone I know, and she was a product of a very different time. Now 87, she still can’t figure out how I get away with NOT ironing my husband’s shirts.

Mom was widowed and in her 60s before she married the man of her dreams, a retiree who sculpted wooden birds and squirreled away his federal government pension so she’d be well provided for after his death. He bought her jewelry and during their weekly outings to the mall, he’d sneak away to pay phones to leave messages she could listen to later on their home phone. He sang: “I just called. . . To say. … I love you.”

Let me say it again: Life is fleeting. Only people who want the best for you should be on your team. Especially your home team.


My final takeaway for future me and for all you dear Mary Baldwin squirrels crouched among the lilacs: As much as you can, try not to obsess over  money. As much as you can, spend your energy engaged in meaningful work that makes you happy and enriches your larger community — and the rewards, I promise, will eventually follow.

How much money and fame does one actually need to be content? In 2012, Princeton researchers calculated that, once a basic level of comfort is attained, true happiness is achieved not through the accumulation of stuff but by having the capacity to share meaningful experiences with people. Scientists have actually proven that you’re better served in most cases by underindulging rather than overindulging — by buying less for yourself and doing more for others.

Earlier in my career, while many of my ladder-climbing colleagues moved on to bigger salaries and more expensive cities, I dug my journalistic heels into getting to know the readers of southwest Virginia. The salary wasn’t great, and during the height of the recession and the Internet revolution, my colleagues and I went seven years without a raise. But my midsized city was a great place to raise kids, with beautiful mountain vistas and friendly people, many of them surprising and quirky. I did a story once on Roanoke’s ELL school bus driver, a refugee from a war-torn country who, along with his grown sons, had launched two successful startup businesses in town. Why did the Rwandan refugee still bother driving a school bus for such meager wages? I wanted to know.

I interviewed parents and teachers alike, but it wasn’t until I actually rode the bus for a couple of days that I understood why he considered the ELL kids his calling in life. A five-year-old wearing a bright pink coat and braids sidled up next to me on the bus, grabbed my arm, and took a deep breath — smelling me.

“Mmmmm,” she said. “You smell like Beyonce. You a little bit old. But I like you.”

I’m privileged to know my community through my work. When a big story breaks in my region, there’s a strong chance I’ll know some of the people involved, or at least know someone who knows someone. Degrees of separation can be bad when you want to dash into 7-Eleven to buy coffee cream in your pajama bottoms and see five people you know. But by and large, connectivity is what everyone craves — even the loners among us.

A writer friend told me recently, upon the sale of the proposal for my second book — which is set in a rural Virginia crossroads in the Jim Crow south — that I’d succeeded because I’d managed to make my “small” stories universal and therefore luminous and large. He marveled, “Every corner of the world is as big as the world itself.”

What he meant was, every place is as vibrant as the next — if you’re engaged in it. You’re here today with a much larger and more sophisticated sense of the world than I had almost three decades ago. You’ve spent four years or so honing your own distinctive voices. Now, it’s time to be heard.

Just don’t forget to season your own corner of the world — wherever it ends up being — with your own slant, that tilted way of looking at life that you and only you can provide. Find your own stand of lilac trees, be still amid them, and exhale.


Photos courtesy Mary Baldwin College, May 18, 2014

Naked Baseball Players — and Four Other Things I Gleaned from Michael Lewis

lewisThe moment Michael Lewis first spotted the Oakland A’s naked, the germ of the megahit “Moneyball” began forming in his brain. What he saw was this: Fat rolls abounded on more players than not. There was a pitcher with two club feet. Not only was the locker room not a pretty picture of buff athleticism and six-pack abs, it was — most importantly — the counter-intuitive thing.

The fat rolls and dimpled cheeks presented Lewis with a niggling image he couldn’t shake, one that would lead to pure storytelling gold:

How the hell had the A’s cobbled together a winning team out of this holy mess?

For “Moneyball,” that was Lewis’s aha image — the lucky inspired moment that changed everything that came after it.

I had my own hair-on-the-back-of-my-neck book moment the first time I heard that John Bassett III had his factory workers deconstruct a made-in-Dalian dresser to prove that the Chinese were illegally selling furniture at less than the cost of materials. Furthermore, the gritty Galax furniture maker had surreptitiously traveled to the hollows of northern China, with a Taiwanese translator-turned-spy in tow — to find out from whence factory the cheap dresser came. That’s when it hit me: This was a much bigger story than a newspaper article, with tentacles stretching from the hollows of Virginia to the halls of Washington and, finally, to Asia and back.

Or, as my agent put it when he read my first proposal, “Holy shit, Macy! You’ve stumbled on ‘Moneyball’ — with furniture.”

On the eve of the release of his new book, the instant bestseller “Flash Boys,” Michael Lewis spoke Friday to the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. I was in Phoenix at the same conference to talk about how one goes about turning an article into a book — from my own new fat rolls (gardnered via 420 pages worth of sitting down, to write “Factory Man”) to dealing with difficult story subjects.

Here are some takeaways from Lewis’s freewheeling talk, delivered breathlessly and cheerfully before he was ushered out of the conference hall for his next media event. (He wasn’t allowed to talk specifically about “Flash Boys” because “60 Minutes” had a story running Sunday and had embargoed the material. But since “Moneyball” had been my guidebook for “Factory Man,” which publishes July 15 by Little, Brown and Company, I really didn’t care. . . .)


  1. GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR “BEAT”: The best stories come about when the subjects have no idea they’re doing anything special at all. In the Oakland A’s Billy Beane’s case, they were using data to make business decisions. . . about baseball. “A lot of business is boring,” Lewis said. “The people in it don’t even know how to explain it. People in sports don’t say, ‘Wow, this is just like making plastic.’ ” People who aren’t daily business writers, then, tend to see things beat reporters overlook. (He encouraged editors to turn reporters loose when they have a real passion for an off-kilter nugget stumbled upon on their beat. Even a boring subject can come alive if it’s told through an appealing character.)


  1. ALWAYS LOOK FOR THE COUNTERINTUITIVE — the person or event that stretches the bounds of what’s normal in your subject arena: When Lewis first spotted the A’s naked, “I said to the front office, ‘They don’t look like professional athletes. And the second in command goes, ‘That’s exactly the point. We’re in the market for people who don’t look like baseball players. If they’re handsome, they’re overvalued. We’re looking for defective human beings who happen to play baseball.’ ”


  1. HOW TO SLOW-COURT A BOOK SUBJECT: “Don’t ask to sleep with them on the first date. Don’t even kiss them.” He interviewed Billy Beane every day, for hours a day, for a year. (Beane didn’t realize he was the main subject until the book came out. His main objection to the book, though, had nothing to do with being misled: It was that his mother would object to his constant use of the word “fuck.”) Leave little crumbs of unanswered questions for later interviews. “You never want your subject to think, ‘How am I going to get rid of this guy? You train them to want to say, ‘He leaves before we’re done!’ ” The goal is to make you and your notebook invisible.
  1. STORY STRUCTURE AND NOT NOT SCREWING AROUND: Lewis lays all his notes out — in paper form, not digital — on the floor. “It’s like a river full of rocks. I have to cross the river by jumping rock to rock to get to the other side. How do I get there?” The reporting never stops. He starts writing when he feels he has the first 30-40 pages formed in his head. He gives his publisher mini deadlines “and I hold to ‘em by the hour,” sending 60- to 70-page chunks at the end of every month. “And I gun for that deadline. I screw around without a deadline.”
  1. DON’T BRAG ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW; BURY YOUR BABIES INSTEAD. A book isn’t an excuse for you to tell readers how much you’ve learned about the stock market or baseball or football recruiting. A book is ONLY a story. “When I’m done, I’ve hidden how much I know. You want your book to create the illusion that it took you two weeks to write it. You have to have a willingness to ruthlessly get rid of stuff.” Never say, “I interviewed 200 people,” pulling back the curtain on your reporting/writing process. “Don’t flip on the fluorescent lights over a candlelit dinner,” Lewis said.








Saying goodbye to my 2013 story beacons: RIP Mary Thomas, Eddie Wall and Charlie Pullen


She sewed at Bassett-Walker Knitting mill. She cleaned in the Bassett Furniture corporate offices. She took care of middle managers’ kids and cleaned people’s homes and, judging from her recent funeral, Mary Thomas took care of the rest of the factory town of Bassett, Va., too.

We should all be blessed to experience the kind of  jam-packed sendoff that Mary Thomas had on November 24, where funeral attendants wearing white nursing uniforms handed out cardboard fans, and the choir blew the rafters off. Friends spoke hilariously about Mary’s “Let’s Make a Deal” purses (“She had whatever you needed in that thing”) and her home remedies — including her secret cure for taking the sting out of a burn. She could do it in person and over the telephone. “You could just feel the fire comin’ outta you,” one speaker recalled.

Mary Thomas, 81, and her husband, Junior (aka, Joon), are two characters in my forthcoming book, “Factory Man,” which recounts the rise and fall of factory work in a small Southern town. They were some of my favorite story beacons — connectors who helped me understand the place I was trying to describe, beginning with the curvy, snake-filled holler where Mary and Junior were born and where they lived the entirety of their lives (previously named Snot Holler, Carver Lane and Chigger Ridge). They also went out of their way to introduce me to other people I needed to talk to and know.

They were astute interpreters who didn’t shy away from controversy or raw truths about race, class and sex. They understood the gray nuances of life in a company town. After everything that had happened to Bassett, and to their friends and families, they wanted the story, finally, to be told.

And they were kind, never once letting me leave their home without handing over an icy bottle of water and a pack of Nabs for the road, thinking my hour-long ride home to Roanoke from Bassett was fraught with danger at every turn. Junior insisted on driving my Subaru down his winding driveway, both of them admonishing me to “be careful” and “have a blessed day!” as I drove away.

They helped me research family stories, volunteered for fact-finding errands to save me the drive, and once, during a visit with our mutual friend Naomi Hodge-Muse, they literally had me in tears and collapsed on the floor. The stories featured William “Porkchop” Estes — a neighbor who was Naomi’s stepfather and Ruby Bassett’s longtime driver — and another relative of Naomi’s who once blew out his television set with a shotgun after watching a wrestler take a slam in the privates. (“Just because he didn’t like what he saw on TV!”)

The stories had nothing to do with furniture-making or the global economy. But listening to them made for the single-most entertaining afternoon of reporting my book.

I think of the Thomases every time I look in the obituaries and learn that another member of the Greatest Furniture-Making Generation has passed. These were men and women who helped construct a rich industry (as well as a rich family dynasty) while making a modest but upwardly mobile life of their own.

Eddie Wall, a Bassett native and longtime factory manager, died in August at 73. Like his grandfather and his father before him, Eddie worked for Bassett Furniture for more than three decades and was happy to describe the cutthroat and pain- and prank-filled world of American furniture-making in its heyday.

eddie wallHe gave me names and phone numbers of other people to call, and described what it was like to watch a worker die right in front of him one day at the J.D. Bassett plant. A saw had worked itself loose from a machine and flew into the main artery near the man’s groin. “You could follow the trail of blood where he was trying to get to the nurse’s office,” Eddie recalled. “I’ve often wondered if I’d thought to grab a rag and put my knee on there and hold it, maybe he could’ve made it.”

Early in my research, Eddie schooled me in both furniture lingo and southside Virginia accents. Back when I couldn’t tell whether my interviewees were calling the area where the dried lumber enters a plant the “rough end” or the “rough in,” Eddie set me straight on the rough-and-tumble rough end.

Finally, my heart goes out to 97-year-old Mabel Pullen, who lost her husband, Charles, earlier this week — at the age of 95. Their stories aren’t included in “Factory Man,” because I only met them recently while reporting another story related to food insecurity, prompted by cuts to the federal food stamp program.

But we spoke about what it was like to be born into a sharecropping family in the Jim Crow South, and they reinforced many of the stories I’d heard from others. About not learning to read because you were too busy working the fields when the tobacco came in and couldn’t go to school. About the pros of factory work (buying property, a family first) and the cons (discrimination and tough working conditions).

It was a privilege to meet Charlie Pullen, though he was no longer lucid enough to talk. Still trim at 95, he displayed a hearty appetite as his daughter, Janet Johnson, whipped up four eggs and a skillet full of gravy on a late-October morning, and he lapped up every bite.

The couple would have qualified for food stamps but they were too proud to apply, Janet explained. One reader was so moved by the newspaper story that he sent me a very generous check for them. So back to Truevine I drove  the week before Thanksgiving to deliver the gift. When Janet saw it, she showed me the Thanksgiving dinner wish list she’d just jotted down. She said she’d had no idea how she was going to buy the food.

“God bless you a double potion,” she said, hugging me and saying she’d put the donor’s name on her church prayer list.

I often tell people that working as a reporter is like getting paid to get a graduate degree in whatever you’re interested in.

But the even bigger gift is getting to know people like Charlie Pullen, Mary Thomas and Eddie Wall.

May their souls rest in peace, and may my words do them the justice they deserve.

Janet Johnson, 70, feeds her parents breakfast most mornings at their Franklin County home in Truevine. Roanoke Times photo by Stephanie Klein-Davis

Janet Johnson, 70, feeds her parents breakfast most mornings at their Franklin County home in Truevine. Charlie Pullen (right) passed away earlier this week at the age of 95. Roanoke Times photo by Stephanie Klein-Davis

Bro’ing down: Chris Thile on sincerity and the creative process

Photograph by Meredith Roller from FloydFest 2012

Photograph by Meredith Roller from FloydFest 2012

I sat in on an hourlong master class recently with mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile because my 15-year-old musician son had a school conflict and couldn’t make it. (Someone had to do it!) About five minutes into Thile’s funny, intimate and totally revved up pre-concert talk about what gets him jazzed about music — what makes him really want to bro down with the work, as he put it — I realized I should take notes not just for my son but for all my creative pals.

Here are some Thile-isms, fresh from the mouth of a current MacArthur Genius. Thanks to the Music Lab at Jefferson Center’s Dylan Locke, who let me sit in on the talk and who elevates everything he touches — by making sure the musicians passing through Roanoke pause to pass some of what they know on to our kids.

Sincerity has to be foremost in any creation. Which explains the meteoric rise of Adele: She may have a stunning voice, but her music is technically and artistically meh. What Adele provides in spades is what people crave most these days, Thile said — the fact that she’s “a shining beacon of sincerity.”

In an age where friends gather only to spend half the time talking/texting to people who aren’t in the room, the Adele phenomenon is a symptom of the “huge gaping hole in our society of human connection,” he said. Asked to name musical examples of the intersection of sincerity and virtuosity, Thile raved about  The Beatles and Radiohead.

And then, in an astonishing display of singing, mandolin-playing and mile-a-minute talking, he was kind enough to break down what works about one Radiohead tune here in a nine-minute riff. (Thanks to Tom Landon for recording/editing/uploading it to youtube for me.)

Writing takeaway: Readers crave connection. Find the stories that are equal parts head and heart.

Study the work of others, always asking: Why does this piece work? Or why exactly do I hate this piece? Sometimes you don’t like something because it challenges you, and that honest self-reflection can lead to challenging new insights about your own process. Articulating why you love/hate a piece of music will help develop the sound of you.

Writing takeaway: When something wows you, read it again and again until you really know it. Go the extra step of articulating why that combination of words/sentences/observations/rhythm works for you. As the journalist Pete Hammill once said: Study the work the way a magician susses out a new trick. Figure out: How did he saw that man in half?

Develop your own voice, even if it means initially just imitating the people you admire, said Thile, who later played every note of Bach’s “Sonata No. 2 in A Minor” without a piece of sheet music. (He’s been studying Bach half his life, according to my colleague Tad Dickens, who wrote a fabulous review of his concert that night.) “You’re the only person in the world who likes the combination of things you that you like,” Thile told the students.

Thile gave a one hour master class to the students at the Music Lab, then gathered for pics after his concert — that's my bass thumper, Will, on right.

Thile gave a one-hour master class to the students at the Music Lab, then gathered for pics after his concert — that’s my bass thumper, Will, on right.

Imitate the works you love but with the goal of striving for something that’s brand new. “If you pay attention, you can  figure out where you might take the music, where you can change the moment and go your own way with it. It’ll get so you’ll hear this thing, and you wish that something else was there instead — then, go write that thing.”

Writing takeaway: Originality can transpire from copying the masters, obsessing over the work and debating it with your friends. Develop a passion for it, in other words, because it’s important, and you love it, and you can’t imagine doing anything else. Try to be brave enough to give the masters a nod while at the same time taking the work in your own direction.

What works for Thile may not necessary work for others, though. How had Thile, at just 32, managed to develop such confidence in his process, I wondered? I didn’t get the opportunity to ask, but fortunately Thile was in town the same time another creative genius was all over the news. Canadian short story writer Alice Munro seemed genuinely shocked when an NPR reporter called to ask her what it felt like to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Often compared to Chekhov, Munro maps the complexities of rural women in Canada, exploring how they cope with the quotidian of “food and mess and houses.” The story sent me to a Paris Review interview, in which Munro explained that she studied Southern women writers like Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers because they gave her the idea that it was OK to write about women who lead marginalized, small-town lives.

Damn what’s fashionable, write about what you know, all the while protecting your own creative space. “When you live in a small town you hear more things, about all sorts of people,” Munro told her interviewers. “In a city you mainly hear stories about your own sort of people.” Munro ended up creating a territory uniquely her own, and she stuck by it in her own quiet, persistent way.

Unlike Thile, Munro spent more of her career steering clear of the New York literati and does not bro down often with her writer brethren. She told one interviewer that it would have intimidated and, ultimately, distracted her. Instead, she found her own quiet path down a  country road, far from Thile’s hipster Brooklyn scene.

Writing takeaway: Both geniuses found their unique pathway into the pantheon of artistic genius. They never try to write, sound or act like anyone other than who they actually are.



Advice From Some Journalism Supernovas: Robert Caro, Anne Hull and NYT Managing Editor Dean Baquet

I’ve just spent a week feasting on a serious journalism smorgasbord, beginning with the 75th reunion of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Among my favorite parts was Jane Mayer’s I.F. Stone award acceptance speech. She reminded all the journalists in the room that our sole loyalty should be to our readers, not our sources — advice I personally can’t hear enough in this era of government obfuscation and what I call the P.R.-ification of everydamnthing, from schools to cops to the local chamber of commerce. (Even in Roanoke, you have a better chance of getting a doctor on the telephone these days than an official source who will actually come right out and tell you what’s going on.)

Publishing stories the federal government does not want out in the public realm can be quite scary, the New Yorker writer conceded.

But, quoting Lord Northcliffe, Mayer said: “The news is something someone wants to suppress. All the rest is advertising.”

Mayer talked about what it was like working under the clamped-down authority of the Obama administration. LBJ biographer Robert Caro took the audience back to an earlier media landscape that was different but no less clamped down. It was a thrill watching Caro being interviewed on stage by another of my reporting superheroes, Washington Post reporter Anne Hull.

With her hands perched together in a cool triangle, Hull asked Caro how he uses email, knowing the answer before she asked it and letting the pause linger for effect.

Robert Caro, one of the greatest reporters living, doesn’t use e-mail at all.

Instead, at his Columbus Circle office, to which he wears a coat and tie every day, he picks up the telephone. Better yet, he returns to his subjects — in person — again and again. He’s turned just about every page of some four stories’ worth of documents in the LBJ presidential library. To understand Johnson’s Texas Hill country, Caro literally dug his hands into the shallow rocky dirt because it represents the very fiber of the 36th president’s being: In politics as in farming, you’re dead if you make a mistake.

When Hull asked about his belief that “truth equals time,” Caro spoke of the luxury he has in getting to know his sources deeply over the course of writing his four-going-on-five LBJ biographies. His editor doesn’t give him a deadline, he said — to an audible gasp in the hall — and each book typically takes seven to eight years.

Which is why he wears a suit and takes the phone off the hook when he writes — to remind himself that this is serious, important work.

“You just keep going back to people,” he told Hull. “The luxury of time is, you can become friendly.”

And, if dinner and wine are involved, maybe even a bit sneaky — as long as the truth is your aim.

Caro confided that when he was trying to get one LBJ colleague to open up, Caro and his wife, Ina, took the interviewee out to dinner with the man’s wife. Ina would distract the wife so she wouldn’t hear her husband spilling the beans to Caro and remind him that some things might be better left unsaid.

For a recap of other speakers at the Harvard event, some of the videos are posted here. For narrative junkies, here’s an awesome list of 75 tips culled from Nieman Storyboard, along with a trove of Nieman “moments” posted here, including my own.

Then Came Smorgasbord: Part II. . . .

After spending a weekend with some of journalism’s heaviest hitters, I spent three days getting to know the profession’s burgeoning stars. A speaker at the Foster-Foreman Conference at Penn State University, I read from my forthcoming “Factory Man” and talked about the importance of getting on the ground with every subject you can find — in the Caro mold.

megan 1

I love how the AWSM (young women sportswriters) wanted to know about the perils of trying to balance home, kids, marriage and journalism. Tough questions!

Here’s the news coverage of my talk, along with an honest-to-goodness handwritten thank-you note that arrived in today’s actual mail. (Megan K. Flood, your mama raised you right!)

Several other students e-mailed follow-up questions, and one asked if he could get his picture taken with me after reading my entire blog, though he scolded me for being a social media slacker: “Ma’am, you haven’t tweeted since Sept. 23!”

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“What’s up with the dearth of tweeting, ma’am?”

I also brought back some inspiration from Pulitzer-winner Dean Baquet, the managing editor of The New York Times and the keynote speaker of the conference. Baquet, 57, began by cautioning reporters not to take the cliché way out, as he had done once early in a career.

He called out his own coverage of a rape trial in New Orleans, a story in which he’d described one of the witnesses as a “two-bit actor.” It was a biased story that made even the prosecutor in the case embarrassed for him — and one that still makes him cringe.

Now, Baquet spends his days going head-to-head with CIA and NSA officials, navigating some of the most ethically fraught situations in journalism today: Edward Snowden, Wikileaks, Chinese officials’ blocking of The Times’ website in China.

A self-described workaholic, Baquet spent a lot of time checking his phone last Monday evening — his i-Phone happy newsroom makes fun of him for his old-school Blackberry addiction, he said — to see if the government was still shut down. Alas, it was.

Baquet was refreshingly humble about mistakes he’d made and how far he’d climbed to achieve the pinnacle editing position he holds now. His mother had a third-grade education, and the first time Baquet flew on an airplane was for his interview at Columbia University, where he majored in English.

He encouraged students to read, read, read, especially books about history and politics — from the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, to the intricacies of how bills turn into laws, to why relations between India and Pakistan are forever strained.

To fully grasp the war in Afghanistan a few years ago, he recalled e-mailing one of his correspondents to ask what he should be reading in order to better understand — and edit — the stories his reporters were filing from the field. The answer surprised him: Tolstoy’s “Hadji Murat,” a novel about betrayal and revenge.

Baquet, whose wife is a fiction writer, said novels are his favorite after-hours reading, though he regularly takes dozens of news stories home with him to review.

“Don’t get so caught up in ambitions and aspirations that you miss the process of becoming a journalist,” Baquet told the students. “And always take the job that will teach you something you don’t know.”

The Grey Lady may still be copy-heavy, but Baquet seemed to hold the greatest optimism for the future of multimedia narrative journalism, citing the Times’ recent projects, including “Snow Fall” and “The Jockey.”

“I think the best journalism is actually being produced right now,” he said. “You’re coming into a great profession that deserves to survive and thrive, and you’re gonna have an absolute blast.”


It was pretty cool sharing a billing — as well as a poster — with Dean Baquet.

There Are No Great Stories in the Newsroom (or on Twitter)

jmu cover1HARRISONBURG, Va. — They had just returned from mostly unpaid internships, two or three months of working for free. The managing editor told me she posted to her student newspaper’s website between assignments at the entertainment weekly where she worked. A diner in town had closed, a James Madison University institution, and she’d read about it on Twitter, then posted a brief story to the site.

My talk was supposed to be a back-to-school pep talk for the editors and page designers at the student newspaper, The Breeze, to remind them why journalism matters. I was about to turn in the revisions on my 110,000-word book, “Factory Man,” and I was incredibly tired of sitting at my computer for 12 hours at a stretch. When it came time to prepare my PowerPoint for the talk, it hit me that I could avoid technology (sort of, if you count scissors, tape and a phlegmy sounding scanner on its last leg) and get my main point across at the same time.

I love technology and use it all the time. Especially Command-F on my Mac desktop when sifting through my 530-page manuscript for some hard-to-find detail.

But my main message to the neophytes is that you can’t truly provide the  civic connective tissue that your readership deserves if you only talk/Facebook/tweet with the same people you already know. Too many reporters, young and old, rely on technology as a crutch.glue

Technology bridges geography and time zones, but it is no substitute for wandering around a community you don’t already know. Talking to a grieving mother about her son, who overdosed on heroin, then talking to the mom whose son is about to go to prison for selling him the drugs.

“You have to be there,” says the master, Gay Talese. “You have to see the people. Even if you don’t think you’re getting that much. … One of the problems of journalism today is how we are narrowing our focus and becoming indoors in terms of internalizing our reporting. The detail is what I think we’re missing.”harry

I’d all but finished my book reporting on the hollowed-out factory community of Martinsville and Henry County when a friendly source took me on one final tour. I’d already written about the demolished factories, but it wasn’t until I actually saw Harry Ferguson on his backhoe, burying the last literal chunks of the last factory in Bassett, that I understood it viscerally: “If you’d told people in Bassett 10 years ago that I’d be up here today burying this factory, they’d have said you were a complete fool,” he said.

So I attended my own makeshift factory funerals. I journeyed by kayak down the Smith River, the reason the factories were built where they were. I trounced through an overgrown, chigger-filled cemetery searching out the overturned graves of slaves-turned-sharecroppers-turned-furniture factory finishers. I talked to dozens of the 20,000 people who’d lost their jobs to globalization and offshoring over the past 15 years, and still had a palpable, almost desperate desire to tell me what it was like trying to live on $8.50-an-hour part-time jobs with no benefits, and the indignities suffered in line at the VEC.

Get away from your damn Smartphones and computers, I told the budding journalists — some of whom were live-Tweeting my talk! — and go back to the basics: paper, scissors, real people. Be the glue, as the great reporter Mary Bishop once taught me, connecting stranger to stranger, if only for an instant.mentors

Find mentors at every stage in your career. Feed the friendly photog, who is your extra set of eyes and the best on-the-scene collaborator you’ll ever have. (My book would not exist without the keen eye of freelance photographer Jared Soares.) Seek out the kind of tough editing we all require and deserve and that secretly drives us crazy; that red pen-wielding hardass who sends you back to your subjects again and again — until, finally, you understand what it is you’re trying to say.

ppt JMU-8

When a student wanted to know how to show diversity among the largely white, upper-middle class population at JMU, I told her about my first tough editor, Wendy Zomparelli (we called her editing sessions Zomp Stomps), who used to send my features back to me if they didn’t accurately reflect the diversity of our city’s population, down to one-quarter of  our sources being African-American to reflect Roanoke’s 25 percent black population. Every single time. It was the greatest training a young reporter could have.

Stories are everywhere around you, and things aren’t as simple — or as lily white — as they look on the surface, I reminded her. What about the men and women serving your lunch in the gourmet cafeteria? What about the student down the hall whose parents are renting out their newly spare room to pay for your $20,000 state tuition and room and board? What about the uptick in college drinking, opiate abuse in the suburbs, campus rape? Subjects that are all grist for digging beyond the obvious, life-is-good Twitter/Facebook feeds. Ask around. Be genuinely curious. Be friendly. Be skeptical. Above all, keep digging.the book process1

It’s the trust-building and context-layering that require the most attention, I added, showing them the holy mess that turned into my 28-chapter book  — complete with a brick from the demolished Bassett furniture factory that Harry Ferguson handed to me. Between all those arrows and statistics; between the numbers,  timelines and literally hundreds of interview notes — that’s where the magic lies.

Focus on the people, especially those whose voices aren’t typically heard.

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What Would Robert Caro Do? (I finally got to ask.)

From the back cover of a reporter's notebook, where I tape reminders on story structure, Caro-style digging and other inspirations.

From the back cover of a reporter’s notebook, where I tape reminders on story structure, Caro-style digging and other inspirations.

Twenty-six people were featured in the iconic Air Force One photo of Lyndon B. Johnson being sworn in as President of the United States. Standing next to him was Jacqueline Kennedy, just 43 minutes after her husband was pronounced dead.

The prize-winning journalist Robert Caro, who’s spent four decades chronicling the 36th president in a series of acclaimed biographies, had examined the records and talked to most all of the 26 people on board the plane that day, many of them multiple times. Then it hit him: After thousands of interviews about Lyndon Johnson, after decades of archives-combing, he’d never thought to interview the photographer who’d taken the picture.

So Caro found himself calling the Florida home of 89-year-old retired White House photographer Cecil Stoughton, praying he wasn’t actually calling Stoughton’s widow.

“My name is Robert Caro, and I’m writing books on Lyndon Johnson,” he told Stoughton’s wife, nearly 50 years after the photograph was made.

“Oh, Mr. Caro, Cecil has been waiting for your call.”LBJ photo

Caro, the two-time Pulitzer winner, brought down the house with that bit of meta-journalism during a recent panel on book-writing organized by the Lukas Prize Project, a joint project of the Columbia School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. I was in the catbird’s seat, sitting on the dais between Caro, who’d just won the Mark Lynton History prize for “The Passage of Power,” the fourth of his five planned LBJ books; and Andrew Solomon, who’d won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize for “Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.” Still a month from turning in my own work of narrative nonfiction, I was there for “Factory Man,” which had won the J. Anthony Lukas Book-in-Progress Award.

What would Robert Caro do? I had asked myself that question numerous times during the writing of my book about globalization and a struggling Virginia furniture-maker named John Bassett III, who’d taken on China and a tidal wave of corporate greed to save hundreds of jobs.

Now I had a chance to ask Caro that in person. The question had already sent me on a quest to interview an 86-year-old ambulance driver about an EMT call he’d made 30 years before. (Caro’s editor, who was seated in the audience, told me she roared at hearing that story.) It had sent me kayaking — white-water rafting, actually — down Virginia’s Smith River, which is 42 degrees year-round if you want to know. (Oh, I know that intimately, after plunging in head over tree branch.) It had sent me back to some of the same subjects over and over again, resulting in new material every time and my own new insights on prompting memories and, maybe more importantly, a subject’s genuine trust.

At the start of my project, I had taped a quote from Caro on the outside of my notebook: “There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts, and the more facts you manage to obtain, the closer you will come to whatever truth there is,” he told a Time magazine interviewer last year.

I had 11 months to complete my manuscript, not a decade, which is what it took Caro to turn in his fourth, 700-page installment. His pace is so methodical and slow, The New York Times’ Charles McGrath has pointed out, that it’s taken Caro longer to write about LBJ’s years in power than LBJ spent actually living them. Among the things I learned during the hourlong panel:

Caro makes detailed outlines, which he types on an old Smith Corona Electra 210 then pins to the walls of his Columbus Circle office, near New York’s Upper West Side. The very first thing he does is write a two-sentence to two-paragraph summary of each book — all the better to authoritatively digress from your theme if you know intimately what your theme is.

He does better when he has a last line in mind, something he can aim toward. The moment Caro heard the subject of his first biography, Robert Moses, tell an audience that people weren’t sufficiently grateful for his work, it occurred to Caro exactly how he would end his seven years of research into the life of the urban planner who built and bulldozed much of New York — with the line: “Why weren’t they grateful?”

Similar to Caro’s tracking down the 27th set of eyes aboard Air Force One, Andrew Solomon spoke about the process of trying to court the parents of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold for his book about children who are markedly different from their parents, including kids who are cognitively, physically and psychologically impaired. Solomon’s book is full of bitter truths and surprises but always from the perspective of a journalist who is proud to bear witness to the “shimmering humanity” of parenting.

Respectfully but persistently, Solomon kept asking for interviews, even when the original response had been no. He corresponded with Sue Klebold for two years before she agreed to meet him for coffee — only to cancel at the last minute, saying she and her husband had changed their minds.  Solomon told her he’d already purchased the nonrefundable ticket from New York to Colorado for their meeting — whether that was true or not, he didn’t say (I got the sense it wasn’t). But the Klebolds finally relented out of guilt, and ended up talking to him for seven hours during their first meeting alone.

They were thrilled that, finally, someone was more interested in understanding them — including the things they loved about their son — rather than judging them.

Solomon allowed himself to be moved, letting the emotions of his characters drive the theme of his book and the contextual reporting, not the other way around. His structure developed around the idea of what it’s like to parent profoundly different children, but he let his characters shape the final form as he winnowed 25 potential stories/interviewees down to ten over the course of 11 years.

“I tried to be awake to the possibility that the stories I was hearing were going to maybe change from what I thought I was writing,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to find the stick figures to back up points I’d already thought up. But I hoped that by talking to large numbers of people and [using] a more inductive process, I could get to the point of having my idea take shape around the people.”

In fact, he didn’t fully delve into the intellectual armature of the book until he was five years into story gathering mode. “I always thought if you ended up writing the book your proposed, it probably wasn’t worth investigating,” he said.

Friends asked me later what it was like meeting Caro, one of my heroes. He’s friendly and at the same time distant, putting his hand on your arm when he talks to you but volunteering — in a way that beats you to the punch — that, alas no, he does not blurb other writers’ books. (Fair enough, I thought, given that he’s in his late 70s and still has that fifth LBJ book to write.)

From left: Moderator Nicholas Lemann, Robert Caro, Beth Macy and Andrew Solomon

From left: Moderator Nicholas Lemann, Robert Caro, Beth Macy and Andrew Solomon

When I had a minute alone with him at the end of the evening, I asked how he might handle a sticky ethical issue I’ve been wrestling with for several months. “I don’t know, but I sure am looking forward to seeing what you do with that!” he said, beaming his bright-white smile and shaking my hand one final time.

Then he was off to hail a taxi with his faithful research assistant and wife, Ina. He had made a point to share the glory, asking her to stand up as he accepted his award, noting that she did not complain when they had to sell their house to help finance an earlier book. Throughout his  career, Ina Caro was the only one he trusted enough to help him with research.

My friends and I headed to a bar while they waited for their cab. And I thought of another bit of advice I’d taped to my notebook at the start of the project, sent by my storytelling mentor Mary Bishop, in the form of a poem by David Whyte. While it’s good to take inspiration from the masters, the real magic happens when you find your own way into a project and develop your own Caro-like work ethic, starting with the genuine sound of your own voice and “the ground you know, the pale ground beneath your feet.”

The last stanza of David Whyte's "Start Close In"

The last stanza of David Whyte’s “Start Close In”

The Book Slog Blues (Part II)

Furniture departments were segregated in Southern factories until the 1970s. This is Stanley Furniture's rub room in the late '20s or early '30s. Photo courtesy of Coy Young.

Furniture departments were segregated in Southern factories until the 1970s. This is Stanley Furniture’s rub room in the late ’20s or early ’30s. Photo courtesy of Coy Young.

The more I learn for my book-in-progress, the more I am humbled by how stupid I was when I wrote my proposal for “Factory Man.” I actually told my editor at Little, Brown & Company that I was halfway through my reporting, when in fact that figure was probably closer to 5 percent.

I wasn’t lying when I said it. I had just forgotten the central tenet of good writing: It’s all about great reporting. The more you learn, the more you realize you didn’t know anything before.

What do I wish I’d known before I started writing my book five months ago, after 20-some years of pining to land a book contract?

The connection-making mind needs frequent breaks. It needs mid-afternoon walks up Mill Mountain and breaks to make chili verde, and it craves any help and inspiration it can unearth along the way.

So I tape things to my computer, and atop the notebooks I carry with me on interviews. I write down nice things my book writer pals say to me, such as these aptly incongruent affirmations from Roland Lazenby: “You’re fucking fearless” and “Don’t be scared.”

I read and reread things like this partial paragraph from a profile of hip-hop pioneer Ahmir Khalib (Questlove) Thompson, written by New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger:

 . . . He had an unending appetite for pop culture, a prodigious memory for dates, and a compulsion for cross-referencing them. He can tell you, for instance, that Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE headquarters on May 13, 1985; that Tony Orlando guest-starred on “Cosby” that month, and that “Soul Train” was a rerun that week.

Stand back and look at the contextual heavy-lifting accomplished in just two sentences. Marvel at the astonished, easy tone. Count the status-defining details — where the subject lived, what he watched, who he listened to and what it meant to live inside his brain in the spring of 1985.

John Updike once said we like characters like Becky Sharp and Mr. Quilp because “what we like is life — and if the character is alive, we don’t apply any other criteria.” That’s another inspiration I’ve clipped, with thanks to Martin Amis, who recalled it in an interview with Vanity Fair writer John Heilpern.

The deeper you dig into a subject’s history, the tougher the material-culling will be. I’ve never spent this much reporting time focusing on one industry through one person and, the truth is, we might both be suffering from interview fatigue.

In a one- or two-shot interview, you save the tough questions for the end. But what do you do when the interviews are spread over more than a year? You spread the tough stuff out and hope for the best.

I’m not writing a hagiography, I remind my main character. I’m not writing a biography. So let’s put an end to the embedding jokes about Paula Broadwell and General Petraeus right now!

I’m writing a book about globalization in which he is a heroic main subject but he’s not a saint because, let’s face it, he’s colorful, he’s clever, and he seems to genuinely care about the plight of his factory workers. But he ain’t a saint.

When I worry that maybe I’m stirring up stuff that should remain hidden in history’s dusty archives, I turn to the new U.S. poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, who said this in a recent interview:

It is better if we grapple with [history]. Openly and honestly. And include parts that are difficult. … When the Birmingham church bombing convictions came down, people on the radio were saying, why open old wounds? The problem with that thinking is assuming those wounds had healed. Some bones broken will forever be weak. They will ache and cause pain. The best we can hope for is acknowledgment. What drives me crazy is when people don’t want to acknowledge!

I try to keep central in my mind: I may be writing about wealthy CEOs, but I’m also writing about their impact on tens of thousands of displaced factory workers whose stories are too rarely told.

“Factory Man” contains both history and current events, encompassing a decade of double-digit unemployment in Martinsville, Va., the recent sweatshop fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and what life was like for a bunch of hardscrabble sawmillers in 1902. The subject is as deep as it is wide and meandering, and that’s what keeps me awake so many nights because I know that finding exactly the right narrative, and the right tone to tell it in, are crucial.

So I write and, like the old sawmillers-turned-furniture men, I try to cull the good wood from the bad. I talk to people on the phone and I visit people, and then I talk to them again on the phone. I’ve driven from nursing homes to trailers to communities so exclusive that they purposely don’t show up on GPS.

I read through court transcripts, annual reports and simplistic old newspaper clippings.

I love, love, love the librarians and the curators, especially Pat Ross at the Bassett Historical Center, and Bill Bishop, the genius at the International Trade Commission who returns my late-night emails — by 6:45 a.m. And people like Bassett barber Coy Young, who just happened to have a stack of archival photos from Stanley Furniture during the Depression.

I really love, love, love my across-the-street neighbors Scott and Jean, who just yesterday brought me a mixed CD and homemade chicken soup to cure my strep.

My husband, Tom, is so patient with all my non-cooking and non-hygiene, he’s the real saint of my book. My son Will comes into my office at the end of his school day and still, at age 14, beams, “Hey mom, how was your day?”

Same as it ever was. I practice Ass In Chair and, for several hours a day, I try as I type to weave story from facts. I rarely take showers or leave the house, except to walk the dog up the mountain. I haven’t seen my hairdresser in six months and it shows.

I worry because I know what Robert Caro says is true:

There is no one truth, but there are an awful lot of objective facts, and the more facts you manage to obtain, the closer you will come to whatever truth there is.

 I was lucky to stumble into coffee not long ago with Internet journalism guru Clay Shirky, whose parents live in Roanoke and who very kindly offered to read my draft and give feedback. Just as I’m lucky to call on writers like Roland, Annie Jacobsen, Bret Witter and Andrea Pitzer, who advised me to “start recruiting readers now!” — among many other useful things.

Such has been the ongoing lesson I’ve learned from this project, this career, this life: The more exceptional the individual, the more generous they tend to be in sharing what they know.

It had been awhile since Shirky’s heralded book, “Here Comes Everybody,” was published by Penguin, and initially Clay said he had no advice to offer. Then he remembered a tip, a nuts-and-bolts editing suggestion that is applicable to both writing and life.

When the publisher’s copy editor sends his or her edits, simply click “ACCEPT ALL.” It saves time in the long run, and if you stumble on a change you don’t like as you’re reading, you still have time to make that sentence sing.

I’m not sure my ego will let me ACCEPT ALL blindly without previewing the changes first, but if it gets my butt out of this chair a moment sooner, it could be just the thing.

What do Elvis, Louis Philippe dressers and Dalian, China have in common? They're all featured in this maze of scribbles that is my whiteboard outline for chapter 17.

What do Elvis, Louis Philippe dressers and Dalian, China have in common? They’re all featured in this maze of scribbles that is my whiteboard outline for chapter 17.