Charlie Rose Interview with Jon Krakauer

Emile Hirsch plays maverick mystic Chris McCandless in <em>Into the Wild</em>” width=”440″ height=”229″ /><p class=Emile Hirsch plays maverick mystic Chris McCandless in Into the Wild

In this interview Jon Krakauer talks about Christopher McCandless and what drew him to the story of the young man who went “into the wild”. He says he felt a visceral tingle when he first read reports of the hunters who had found the then unidentified body of the young adventurer

And from the original article on which Into the Wild is based:

McCandless’s personality was puzzling in its complexity. He was intensely private but could be convivial and gregarious in the extreme. And despite his overdeveloped social conscience, he was no tight-lipped, perpetually grim do-gooder who frowned on fun. To the contrary, he enjoyed tipping a glass now and then and was an incorrigible ham who would seize any excuse to regale friends and strangers with spirited renditions of Tony Bennett tunes. In college he directed and starred in a witty video parody of Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault. And he was a natural salesman: Throughout his youth McCandless launched a series of entrepreneurial schemes (a photocopying service, among others), some of which brought in impressive amounts of cash.Upon graduating from high school, he took the earnings he’d socked away, bought a used Datsun B210, and promptly embarked on the first of his extemporaneous transcontinental odysseys. For half the summer he complied with his parents’ insistence that he phone every three days, but he didn’t check in at all the last couple of weeks and returned just two days before he was due at college, sporting torn clothes, a scruffy beard, and tangled hair and packing a machete and a .30-06 rifle, which he insisted on taking with him to school….McCandless could be generous and caring to a fault, but he had a darker side as well, characterized by monomania, impatience, and unwavering self-absorption, qualities that seemed to intensify throughout his college years. “I saw Chris at a party after his freshman year at Emory,” remembers Eric Hathaway, “and it was obvious that he had changed. He seemed very introverted, almost cold. Social life at Emory revolved around fraternities and sororities, something Chris wanted no part of. And when everybody started going Greek, he kind of pulled back from his old friends and got more heavily into himself.”

Billy tells nothing

Billy Graham, Pastor-in-chief...photo: Time

Billy Graham, Pastor-in-chief...photo: Time

Pastor in Chief from Time’s Nancy Gibbs and Michel Duffy has a perfect anecdotal opening:

You have to climb a steep and narrow road, past the moonshiners’ shacks and dense rhododendrons and through the iron gates to get to the house on the mountaintop that Ruth Graham built after her husband Billy became too famous to live anywhere else. By 1954, after she caught her children charging tourists a nickel to take a picture of their old house and noticed Billy crawling across the floor of his study to keep people outside from catching a glimpse of him, she knew it was time to move.

And as we read further we are promised so much. Gibbs and Duffy tell us that they visited their famous subject, Billy Graham, several times over thirteen months, and that the aging pastor who has been a fixture on the American political scene for over fifty years had agreed to talk to them about his unique relationships with the last 11 presidents. What a story!There are some lovely moments and the picture we get of Graham, as a lovely old man who has led a fascinating life but still retains his innocence, is finely drawn. We are told that the Presidential families and the Grahams could empathise with each other because they were all public figures:

For a preacher who had no church, and who spent his life preaching to football stadiums full of people he never saw again, the First Families gave Graham the rare chance to be a family pastor. He gave them a sanctuary; they gave him a congregation. He carried the families through times of loss–literal and political; several wanted him to be with them during their last nights in the White House. Richard Nixon collapsed in Graham’s arms at his mother’s funeral in 1967. Bill Clinton took him to sit at the bedside of a dying friend in 1989. Graham was the first person outside the family whom Nancy Reagan called when her husband died in 2004.

We are treated to intriguing little scenes such as his last conversation with Lady Bird Johnson:

Last month, Johnson’s daughters Lynda and Luci reached out to him as their mother was dying. Two days before she passed away, he called and talked to them, and since Lady Bird was awake and alert, they put the phone to her ear. The former First Lady and the former White House pastor chatted some and then shared a prayer together.

We are told he “thinks a lot of” Hillary Clinton. That Lyndon Johnson was obsessed with his own mortality and commissioned a “secret” actuarial report on the likelihood of surviving another term in office. But there are no real secrets revealed here although some startling hints are dangled:

Was it crossing a line when he invited presidential candidates to his crusades or sent along suggestions for their speeches at National Prayer Breakfasts? What about when he lobbied lawmakers on behalf of a poverty bill or an arms deal, or consulted with candidates on their campaign ads or their running mates? It was one thing to serve as Eisenhower’s or Johnson’s private pastor. But it was quite another to act as Nixon’s political partner, carrying private messages to foreign heads of state, advising on campaign strategy and assembling evangelical leaders for private White House briefings.

These fascinating questions are raised by the authors but we are not privy to any of Graham’s answers. His role in lobbying lawmakers on an arms deal certainly sounds like a “line” was crossed and an exploration of this would have made for a much more revealing feature. I suspect there were strict guidelines about what could and couldn’t be written about and maybe this is Gibbs and Duffy’s way of hinting at what they can’t write about until after Graham goes to meet his maker. But in the end they don’t come close to fulfilling the promise of their stated purpose:

At a time when the country was bitterly debating the role of religion in public life, we thought Graham’s 50-year courtship of – and courtship by – 11 Presidents was a story that needed to be told. Perhaps more than anyone else, he had shaped the contours of American public religion and had seen close up how the Oval Office affects people.

In the end they add absolutely nothing to this “public debate”. All we get is Graham hagiography. It’s a perfect example of a beautifully crafted feature, on a fascinating subject that fails dismally because it says nothing so well.

Why do men kill their wives? – The Boston Globe

Why do men kill their wives? from the Boston Globe provides a great example of an effective anecdotal lead:

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, LISA HARTWICK WAS RIDING IN AN elevator in Boston when she overheard a conversation between two men. One of the men was going through a divorce, and he was venting to his friend about lawyers and child support payments. At that point, Hartwick recalls, the man suggested, within earshot of everyone, that maybe he should just kill his wife, that it would be cheaper and easier that way. Hartwick, the director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Recovery at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, was stunned. “I really didn’t know what to say,” she recalls. “Luckily, his friend said to him, ‘That’s a lot of money. I understand. I’m going through it myself. But you’ve got kids.’”

Writer Keith O’Brien then moves quickly, using the anecdote to frame the feature “question”. He continues:

It was probably just talk. The man was frustrated and likely never had any real intention of murdering his wife. Then again, who knows? Spouses kill spouses for many reasons. But the most intriguing reason may be this: Sometimes men – and let’s be clear here, it is almost always men – decide to murder their wives simply as a way to end a rocky, unhappy marriage and avoid a divorce that could ruin their bank accounts or trash their reputations or spoil a dream life they have concocted for themselves. It is bizarre, seemingly inexplicable choice, especially considering the type of men involved. They are not hardened criminals, by and large, but rather domesticated suburb dwellers with fine cars, big houses, and nice wives. When the cops show up after these same wives turn up dead, the neighbors are shocked. Not here, they say. Not this guy. He wouldn’t choose murder over divorce, the risk of prison time over child support payments. He wouldn’t do this. To observers – and ultimately to jurors – it makes absolutely no sense. And yet the list of apparently nice, normal suburban Massachusetts men who have made this decision is long and infamous.

He then moves into a quick set of exemplar cases and on to the timely reason for the feature’s appearance: “And now the state is gearing up for not one but two trials of high-profile alleged wife killers in Middlesex County.” The feature continues to skillfully weave, case data with anecdotes and expert opinion and comes full circle at its end with another anecdote and a similar question mark. After describing the case of Harold and Jamie Stonier, O’Brien concludes with an account of Harold Stonier’s testimony:

On the stand at his trial in 2005, he gave a wandering explanation for why he wanted to hire a hit man to off his wife. There were financial problems. He alleged that she was a bad mother. That she only wanted him for his money. That he was under a lot of pressure. That his job was very demanding. That his wife was out of control. That he was having a nervous breakdown. That he was trying to do everything he could to save the marriage. But it just wasn’t possible, he told the jurors, and he began to think about having her killed. As far as he was concerned, this was perfectly logical. Everyone having problems in their marriage, Harold Stonier testified, must from time to time think about these things. Right?

In another feature this could have well been an opener but in the context of the structure that O’Brien has used, coming back to an anecdote that mirrors his lead and raises a similar question works well. He leaves the reader pondering but he has equipped them with a set of stories and facts which allows them to think more carefully about his rhetorically posed question.

Fearsome foodie

Shelley Gare’s Weekend Austraian Magazine cover story on Melbourne Chef d’jour Shannon Bennett isn’t a ground breaking piece of literary journalism but it is a very good example of a lively, meticulously researched and well structured profile that also tells a wider story.Gare inserts a bit too much of herself into the feature for my liking but she is great at building in anecdotal detail and description. After a story about a Barcelona chef who has “has taken a green olive, pureed it, and then bound it back together with gelatine so that it has the mouth-feel of egg yolk but still tastes of olive,” Gare introduces Bennett’s restaurant Vue de Monde:

But the Little Collins Street restaurant has a similar devotion to detail and surprise. It serves a water, for example, that has been harvested from the cleanest clouds on the planet. It’s called Cape Grim Water, it comes from air blown up from the Antarctic over empty, icy ocean, and it’s offered to diners who are drinking particularly fine wines and want an absolutely neutral palate. The clouds form when the cold air meets the warm air over the north-west cape of Tasmania. There are just zero to 500 particles per cubic centimetre in the air, say the water’s bottlers, compared with 5000 to 10,000 particles in Sydney’s and 10 times that in China’s.Once collected, the water goes straight into tanks and is never allowed to come into contact again with the pedestrian air you and I breathe. It makes me think of larks’ tongues and peeled grapes, but when I finally taste this bottled rainwater it is like drinking dew from a meadow. Indeed, given the ingenuity and expense that goes into gathering it, I start thinking this water is pretty reasonable at $11.50 a 750ml bottle ($7.50 recommended retail). That is exactly the effect luxury is supposed to have upon us.

Gare spent four days at Vue de Monde (yes it is spelled that way she tells us because of a misprint on early stationery that they decided to stay with) and she builds in some fine descriptions of the place and of the chefs at work:

My first glimpse of Vue de Monde is at 10am one Tuesday when the high white space of the restaurant is empty, the cool dark pierced only by the pale green tracery on the water glasses and the glint from the hand-forged Laguiole Inox cutlery from France. But already, the long open kitchen is flooded with golden light, like a stage. There are heavy mirrors suspended above the two marble-topped “passes” – where the food is passed from the kitchen, assembled on plates, and passed to the waiters. The mirrors reflect the chefs as they do their prepping. Some have been at it since eight this morning. They will work until close to midnight, then be here again early tomorrow. At this time of day, the tableau looks like a foodie version of Rembrandt’s study of dark and light, The Night Watch.It’s also the time of day for hours of drudge work. Apprentice Matt Butcher is starting on a 20kg bag of potatoes which must be peeled, sliced top and bottom and then put through the French fries cutter. A young English chef-de-partie, Alasdair Hancock, is cutting potatoes into half-moon slices, and then piling them into pyramids for potato mille-feuilles to go with the paper-thin Wagyu. On another day, three chefs take two hours to produce 48 vacuum-packed serves of Murray cod which will later be poached. It will be enough for about two days. A young kitchen-hand manfully surveys a massive tray of dark brown cooked hare legs which have to be turned into confit. A small pie stuffed with rare quail breast and quail mousse studded with foie gras cannot be baked until another chef-de-partie has scored its puff pastry lid 32 times.It reminds me of artisans hunched over their precious work, ruining eyesight, fingers, backs and shoulders as they create something they believe is a privilege to make. “Arthritis at 25,” Hancock says. “They don’t tell you that at college.”

This last para is also typical of the way she uses “quick quotes” to add personality and contrast to her reporting.Like all good profilers she has clearly interviewed a large number of people to get a handle on Bennett. She uses them to build up a picture of the determined and demanding 31 year old. But she uses their quotes selectively.Her structure is quite complex and she meanders in and out of anecdotes, comment, background and interview with her subject but she maintains a beautiful sense of flow with smart connecting devices.

But that’s Crazy Talk

Sharon Weinberger’s extraordinary feature for the Washington Post Magazine about “TIs” – people who belive they are “Targeted Individuals” of government mind control experiments – is a fine example of suspending judgement and allowing a sympathetic portrait to emerge from an unusal story. She does not avoid the humour in the story but she never laughs out loud at her subject’s expense:

IF HARLAN GIRARD IS CRAZY, HE DOESN’T ACT THE PART. He is standing just where he said he would be, below the Philadelphia train station’s World War II memorial — a soaring statue of a winged angel embracing a fallen combatant, as if lifting him to heaven. Girard is wearing pressed khaki pants, expensive-looking leather loafers and a crisp blue button-down. He looks like a local businessman dressed for a casual Friday — a local businessman with a wickedly dark sense of humor, which had become apparent when he said to look for him beneath “the angel sodomizing a dead soldier.” At 70, he appears robust and healthy — not the slightest bit disheveled or unusual-looking. He is also carrying a bag.

It is also beautifully structured with the story of Harlan Girard as the anchor of the narrative, but far from the only voice. Weinberger introduces us to other TIs and pursues research and reporting that tries to determine what exactly the Pentagon is doing in the area of mind control. It is an excellent example of a feature that combines research into a broader social issue and intimately told stories of those whom it affects.In the end it comes full circle and ends with a celebration of Girard’s survival:

For all his anguish, be it the result of mental illness or, as Girard contends, government mind control, the voices haven’t managed to conquer the thing that makes him who he is: Call it his consciousness, his intellect or, perhaps, his soul.”That’s what they don’t yet have,” he says. After 22 years, “I’m still me.”

Grizzley attack

Thomas Curwen’s narrative about Johan Otter’s encounter with a grizzley bear is one of those features that grabs you and wont let you go – just like the grizzley in attack mode:

JOHAN looked up. Jenna was running toward him. She had yelled something, he wasn’t sure what. Then he saw it. The open mouth, the tongue, the teeth, the flattened ears. Jenna ran right past him, and it struck him — a flash of fur, two jumps, 400 pounds of lightning.It was a grizzly, and it had him by his left thigh. His mind started racing — to Jenna, to the trip, to fighting, to escaping. The bear jerked him back and forth like a rag doll, but he remembered no pain, just disbelief. It bit into him again and again, its jaw like a sharp vise stopping at nothing until teeth hit bone. Then came the claws, rising like shiny knife blades, long and stark.

It is dynamic wordcraft that recreates the frenzy of the attack through the rhythm of the writing.Curwen told Narrative Digest that he received over 400 reader emails about the story and his experience with the piece convinces him “that the salvation of newspapers lies in narratives.”