Welcome to the seventh edition of The Fury Files, the most popular Internet Q&A in South Africa, at least according to my Cape Town in-laws. Check out previous versions with Tom Linnemann, John Millea, David Brauer, Joe Posnanski, Pat Coleman and Kevin Van Valkenburg.
This week’s guest is Michael Kruse, a writer on the enterprise staff for the Tampa Bay Times. If you’re unfamiliar with that paper, it’s because it was called the St. Petersburg Times until January 1, when it changed names to reflect changing times. But no matter where Kruse’s byline appears – and it’s appeared everywhere from ESPN, to Yahoo! to Charlotte Magazine and on Grantland, not to mention on the cover of a book – his work stands out. Kruse has been honored by a variety of news organizations for his writing, from the Associated Press Sports Editors to the Society of Professional Journalists to many more. It’s impossible to classify him as one type of writer, because he excels in every genre. As comfortable writing about sports as he is a fallen political leader, Kruse has a knack for finding unique stories that no one else wrote about or a unique angle on a story everyone’s written about.
For his newspaper, he’s written about the loneliness of a monkey on the run and the odd case of a Bruce Springsteen fan who faked his own death on a Boss message board. During LeBron James’s infamous first season with the Miami Heat – when everyone with a laptop or a microphone offered opinions on the superstar – Kruse profiled sports reporter Brian Windhorst, who has covered James since his high school days and left Cleveland for a job with ESPN when LeBron took his talents to a beach in Florida. He’s also passionate about helping other writers and championing the work of his peers, such as serving as a writing coach at a workshop in memory of the late, beloved editor Mike Levine (the video above is a piece of Levine’s).
In the last few months, he’s contributed to Bill Simmons’s Grantland, including a piece on the influence of the Oregon football team’s uniforms.
In 2008, Butler Books published Kruse’s book Taking the Shot: The Davidson Basketball Moment. It profiled the Davidson basketball team’s run to the Elite Eight in the ’08 NCAA tournament, which ended with a heartbreaking loss against eventual national champion Kansas. Kruse graduated from Davidson in 2000. All he’s done since is establish himself as one of the best feature writers in the country.
Here, Kruse talks about what he would change about his book experience, the value of silence, the thrill of discovering a long-lost police report, loneliness, the St. Pete Times – er, Tampa Bay Times – what he means when he talks about writing, and a whole lot more. Thanks a lot for your time, Michael.
In an interview with DRaysBay, you talked about how you consume news “all the time.” On Twitter, you’re a virtual treasure trove for delivering great links all day, whether it’s long narrative pieces or hard news stories. But what happens when you’re writing a major piece? In the final few days, as deadline approaches, do you cut back on all that consumption? It seems like it could overwhelm the senses as you focus on your own work. Do you get tunnel vision when writing a major story or do you continue to take it all in, all day long?
I didn’t mean that literally. I never “take it all in, all day long,” because I don’t think that’s possible. At least it’s not possible if I actually want to get anything done. Twitter can be a valuable tool, I think, if you use it right, but a huge time suck if you don’t. On my best, most disciplined days, I jump into the stream for finite amounts of time at distinct windows of the day – morning, lunch, late-night wrap. My Twitter activity, intake and output, is pretty much a reflection of my daily reading rhythms – print papers in my kitchen before I go to the office, links of the day at lunch, books and magazines at night after my wife and stepdaughter go to bed. To answer your question, though, yes – when I’m out reporting, or in a structure session, or up against a deadline, I’m almost certainly reading and tweeting less.
For someone who was “born outside Los Angeles and raised outside Boston,” how did you arrive at Davidson? And when did you decide to pursue journalism?
My father is a professor at Wellesley College, and I wanted to go to that kind of school – small, selective, liberal arts – but I didn’t want to stay in New England. Scads of schools like that up there, obviously, but I wanted to see something new, and was interested in the South in particular, for reasons I’ve never quite been able to pinpoint.
I’m glad I went to Davidson. I loved it. Still do. It was not a party, it was not summer camp for big kids, and it was not at all some rote, GPA-generating rigmarole. Davidson did for me what I think college does for people if they’re really, really lucky. It sounds highfalutin, but it’s true: Davidson is where I learned to work and think. It was an introduction to the reality that there are a lot of smart people out there, and they’re not messing around. Ready set go.
When did I start to pursue journalism? Pretty early in retrospect. I was the sports editor of the student newspaper at Wellesley High School and started writing stories for the weekly Wellesley Townsman probably when I was a sophomore. When it came time to look at colleges, though, I didn’t give much thought to specific journalism schools. Davidson has no journalism program. I was a history major.
Davidson College trivia question. And we’ll assume the school’s honor code extends past graduation and you won’t use Google. In which Revolutionary War battle was William Lee Davidson – the school’s namesake – killed and in which year did the British finally return his wallet that soldiers took off his body?
Honestly? No idea. Sorry. (Fury: Somewhere, the ghost of William Lee Davidson, and Kruse’s history profs, weep. Davidson died at the Battle of Cowan’s Ford. And his wallet came back home in 2001.)
Your book Taking the Shot came out in December of 2008, nine months after Davidson’s famous run in the NCAAs. To maintain that momentum from the previous season, it pretty much had to come out in time for the next season, but do you ever wish you could have had more time to work on it, perhaps have it come out in 2009? I might be projecting here, as I sort of wish I’d had a few more months to work on my own book Keeping the Faith. Would yours have been much different if you had more time to research or write?
Goodness yes. I should say here that I’ve never read Taking the Shot. I mean, I wrote those words, so I guess in some sense I’ve read them, but I’ve never actually read the thing in bound, finished form. I just can’t. It makes me cringe.
Looking back, that year was a strange time for me, personally and professionally, and I was … looking for something. Along came that team.
1. I took three months of leave from the Times. Not long enough.
2. I was so fascinated by the last 16.8 seconds of that regional final against Kansas that I convinced myself I could tell a story of more than 20 years through a series of actions that happened within less than 20 seconds. I am a structure freak, and a wrong structure is a fatal flaw, so this is an awful thing to have to admit: My 16.8 fixation was a fatal flaw. I built a custom cabin and then tried to fill it with furniture for a four-bedroom home. I tried to get around what I’d done with some tragically lengthy footnotes. I think of those footnotes now and I think of some interesting, valuable and totally earned pieces of reporting; I also think of the desperation. It’s not that the project was worthless. No way. I’m glad I did it, and hopefully some Davidson people are, too. But I do wish I had a do-over.
I love the line on your Twitter profile, “I let people keep talking.” But for a story that doesn’t have a tight deadline, how do you know when the reporting is done? When do you finally stop interviewing? When do you know you no longer need people to talk?
I know the reporting is done when I start hearing the same stuff. Every story’s different, no absolutes, but early in the reporting I cast a wide net, and somewhere along the way I can see a story start to show, and a structure start to form, and at that point I can get more focused about what I’m looking for and what other questions I need to ask which people. The line in the Twitter bio, though, comes from a belief in the value of the things people tend to say after they think they’re finished. I’ve worked at getting comfortable with what some might consider uncomfortable silences. It’s like the conscious opposite of cutting somebody off. People generally don’t like silence. They’ll fill it. Let them.
You’re known for writing about people others might not notice, but you can also write about famous folks like Steve Jobs. Is writing about a famous person or event tougher because you have to find a unique angle in a chorus of similar stories?
Writing about people who are “famous” is probably even harder than writing about people who aren’t, I guess, because lots of people want to write about “famous” people, and because “famous” people have people whose job it is to make your job harder, and because “famous” people have a certain story they’ve told and want to continue to have told. All of this makes arriving at something close to reality even more of a challenge than it is with everybody always. I suppose I wrote about Steve Jobs by writing about Josh Szponar. I wrote about LeBron James by writing about Brian Windhorst. And I was able to write about Stephen Curry the way I did partly because I knew Stephen before CBS knew Stephen.
You wrote on Twitter that you will be covering the execution of Robert Waterhouse next month. Have you ever covered an execution before? And what kind of story do you anticipate turning out? There are countless angles, all of them tough, from the victim’s family to the condemned to the legal machinations to the death penalty argument to the scene itself at the prison. Will you go in with a game plan or with a blank slate, ready to report on everything?”
I’ve never covered an execution before. It’s one reason I volunteered. This is something we do, we kill people for certain crimes, and I want to see it. I anticipate writing a daily story. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll try to read everything that’s been written about Robert Waterhouse, and I’ll try to read some of the best stories ever written on executions, and then I’ll drive up to Starke with my pen and pad and open my eyes and ears.
What’s your relationship like with your editors and how do they influence your work? Do their critical contributions come during the writing of the story or even earlier during the conception and reporting? And even though you do work at a newspaper that still devotes a lot of space to worthy stories, are there ever disagreements over story length? And if so…who wins?
My editor here at the Times is Bill Duryea. I’ve been working for him now for three years. He’s made my work immeasurably better. It’s not like I write what I write and then he tells me what I did wrong. We talk about ideas in their earliest form and then we talk about what I’m learning along the way during reporting and what that might mean about what to do or where to go next and we talk about structure before I do the first thing to start putting stuff into a Word file. The draft he gets is the draft we’ve discussed. No surprises. This makes final edits usually pretty minimal and painless. I can’t recall an argument over length. We decide what kind of space a story needs and deserves and then I write to that space.
What are some of the more influential stories for you, whether they were in magazines or newspapers? Stories that aren’t just personal favorites, but ones that perhaps influenced your style or interests or reporting and writing tactics?
A lot of people read and talked about the Kathryn Norris story – I see you have some questions about it down below – but for me the most influential piece might be the one I did on former Republican Party of Florida boss Jim Greer.
1. It was hard.
2. It took me out of my comfort zone. I didn’t, you know, KNOW anybody in the RPOF, or really in Tallahassee. I started at zero.
3. It was an exercise in faith in the work. The first thing I did was read everything that had been written about him, ever – I do this, by the way, to the extent that it’s possible, with almost everything I work on – and in this case that took, like, a full week, and THEN I had to go try to produce something new and distinctive.
So many days reporting that story, days that became weeks, were spent dialing phone numbers that MAYBE belonged to people who MAYBE had known him 20 years ago. But a little thing from this person and a little thing from that person started to add up to a partial portrait of the man, which I then could use to try to convince somebody else to tell me just a little bit more. Information leads to information. I kept hearing about this thing with this stripper, to the point where I knew SOMETHING had to have happened, but it’s also the kind of information I can’t use and just attribute to people, even 100 people. I needed the police report. But the police report had been destroyed because nobody had been arrested and by statute enough time had passed. It technically no longer existed. But SOMEBODY had to have kept it. Who? People who didn’t get along with him at that time.
So I went to the local public library and read through the microfilm of the papers from back then and wrote down the names of people who had come in contact with him around that time, local politicians, citizens who made it a habit of going to public meetings, outspoken gadflies. I also requested the minutes of the meetings he was a part of and plucked from them the names of the people who typically went to watch. And I started calling them. Asking if they had the police report. No? Who might? I did that until somebody said yes. I drove over to this person’s house, the last thing I did on a Friday night before driving home for the weekend, and it was as if this person had been waiting for years for someone like me to show up at the door and ask to see the manila folder. I called Bill from the road and left a message on his cell. “I got the police report,” I said, “and it … is … amazing.”
You’ve written many stories that surely caused other writers to think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” or made them regret not following through on an idea or simply impressed them with the angle and approach. Do you have any examples of a time when you were on the other end of that scenario? Was there an angle you regret missing or a subject you wish you would have tackled before someone else did?
Brandon Sneed just talked about this about Tom Lake’s terrific story on Michael Jordan’s high school coach. Me? I looked at that photo of the kissing couple of the Vancouver hockey riots the night they happened and made myself a note to come back to it in about six months and maybe pitch it to Grantland. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one with that idea, because of course Chris Ballard did it and did it well. But that happens. It’ll happen again. So it goes. There are so, so, so many good stories out there, and the most ambitious hope is to do even the tiniest fraction.
I want to ask a few questions on the Kathryn Norris piece because I don’t know if there’s another story I read last year that has stayed with me like that one. You gave a great behind-the-scenes examination of the story with Paige Williams, which everyone who read the original story or simply loves great writing would appreciate. But a few other questions:
1. When did you decide on the style of the story? It’s written in almost clinical fashion but with devastating details that allow the story to unfold. Did you know even before writing it that you really wouldn’t use quotes from those you did talk to? Did you have the story outlined in your head even during the reporting or were there revisions during the writing portion?
The way I look at it, the reporting IS the writing, not just with this story but with every story. More on that later.
2. You were able to talk to people who knew Norris, investigate her belongings and read through court documents. Was there any person you wished you had been able to talk to or any information you had sought out but were unable to find?
I wish I had been able to talk to her sister.
3. What type of reaction did you get from the community? I can’t imagine there would be negative responses, but I have a friend who wrote about the death of a homeless man several years ago and was mocked on one site for writing a “Requiem for a bum.” Was there any negative feedback?
Surprisingly little. Specifically: I got one email from a reader basically accusing me of making public the life of a woman who was clearly private. I was expecting more of that. I knew the story had more or less gotten across what I wanted it to get across when I got an email really quickly right after it first went up on tampabay.com. It was from a woman who said she was going to send the link to her children because she was afraid of dying alone. Here’s the thing: Bill and I talked a good bit about this during the reporting of this story. This cannot be a longer, better-written, news-of-the-bizarre blog post. This cannot be macabre voyeurism and that’s it. That first email was devastating, but it was thrilling, too.
A great strength of yours is that you can write about everything from in-depth examinations of fallen political figures to the wonders of a pennant race. But some of your most memorable stories deal with loneliness or isolation, whether it’s the Norris story, Springsteen fan Oren Czernia or even the Pinellas monkey. Is there something that draws you to those types of subjects?
Everybody’s been lonely. Me included.
A note about the story about the monkey: I started reporting that before the Saturday night in downtown St. Pete when I ran into the woman who is now my wife. And I wrote it after that. I don’t know that I would’ve been able to do that story in quite that way if it hadn’t worked out quite like that. From time to time, I go back and I reread that story, certain lines especially:
Being alone on occasion isn’t a problem. It’s a chronic state that starts to wear you down and ultimately snuffs you out.
People who are alone tend to make self-destructive decisions. They might drink too much or not eat right. They start giving up.
That story was grounded in reading and reporting. But I guess what I’m saying here is it came also from somewhere inside me. I knew this stuff. I knew it was true.
It only recently changed, but what has been the effect of the paper’s name change to Tampa Bay Times? It’s still the same paper that’s won eight Pulitzers and earned a reputation throughout the country for its reporting and storywriting, but it did lose the “St. Pete Times” brand. Do you miss the name or in a world where newspapers have so many other issues, has the impact been negligible?
I wanted to work for the St. Pete Times because the St. Pete Times was the St. Pete Times, and I’ve now worked here for six and a half years. So there was some nostalgia with the change of the name. But the name meant the most to two groups: 1. People who live in St. Pete proper. 2. Journalism nerds.
To everybody else, though, it had become somewhat misleading. It had come to connote something smaller than the paper actually is. The Times is the biggest paper in Florida, and at this point it’s actually the biggest paper in the Southeast – bigger than Atlanta, bigger than Miami, bigger than Orlando, and way bigger than Tampa. This isn’t my realm of expertise, but evidently some people from around the country – people, say, involved in national advertising – at times were making decisions based on the misguided notion that the Tampa Tribune was the bigger paper because the city is the bigger city. Or that the papers are essentially equals. The name change hopefully helps clear up that confusion.
You’ve shown your versatility by superbly writing in newspapers, a book, the Charlotte magazine and online, most recently with Grantland. Do you find that you need to change your reporting or writing style depending on the medium? What the are advantages to telling a particular story in a particular medium? In other words, do certain subjects work better as an online piece, a newspaper feature or a magazine profile?
Not really. I kind of think stories are stories.
Pick a writer for each of these assignments.
* A book recapping a national title by the Davidson basketball team, a tourney run that included victories over Duke and North Carolina (you’re allowed to ghostwrite Lefty Driesell’s foreword, at least).
* A 3,000-word profile of Fausto Carmona…or the man known as Fausto Carmona and the story of how he became Fausto Carmona.
John Jeremiah Sullivan.
* A 1,500-word analysis for the Wednesday paper after Mitt Romney drops out of the race on Tuesday at 11 p.m. after losing the Florida primary.
When you think about your own strengths as a journalist and look back at your stories, do you give more credit to your reporting or to your writing for the memorable pieces you’ve produced? And say you arrive at the office in the morning. Is your ideal day going to be spent out researching or reporting at your desk gathering info or at your desk writing the story?
Here’s the more later about reporting and writing: It’s not an either-or thing. No amount of writing is going to rescue shoddy reporting. There’s no one way, and people have to figure out what works for them and what doesn’t, but to me writing isn’t what happens when you sit down in front of a computer, blank screen, blinking cursor, and clickety click click until something sounds good. No.
I’d say with most stories I spend less than five percent of my time actually sitting in front of a computer and keyboarding in the words of the story. With some stories it’s MUCH less than five percent. So here’s what I mean. Reporting is the work done to see the structure, build the structure and fill the structure, right? I think about story and structure as I report and I decide on a structure somewhere toward the end of that process. I do that almost always without referring to my notes or even looking at them. The story is this. Here’s how it should be told. That structure usually has sections – three? five? more? – and in the sections are a certain number of paragraphs and in those paragraphs are a certain number of sentences. Each section has to accomplish a specific something, same thing with each paragraph, same thing with each sentence, from one to the next to the one after that and so on and so forth.
At this point in the process, I’m not thinking about what’s the lead, or what’s the best word, or how does this sound. I’m thinking about these very particular parts and how they’re going to move the story forward. In a Word file, I put down these parts – sections, paragraphs, sentences – and I not only order them but I number them. Here is where I open my notebooks and I stack the facts I’ve earned by reporting and place them next to the appropriate numbers. I print that out.
Then I leave the office and go sit somewhere, usually Kahwa café, not far from the Times, and I use a ballpoint pen to scribble in the margins the sentences of the story. I do that by taking the best of the best from the stacked facts to say what I need to say at that moment in the narrative. This is the point – really the first time – when I start thinking about how I want this to sound. The concern, I guess, is that I make the process so mechanical, maybe even artless, that I strip it of the possibility of … magic? But I don’t trust myself to sit down and make magic from scratch. At least I don’t believe that magic just happens on its own. Or at least I don’t trust that it will happen enough to make that my default.
My hope in doing it this way is that I’ve done so much of the rigorous thought work up front that by the time I get here, to this point in the process, my mind is more free to fire in fun, serendipitous ways. It’s not a random jam session. If music happens, and it might or might not, it’ll happen because I’m reading the notes. Plenty of my colleagues and friends don’t do it this way. Nobody I’ve ever encountered does it quite like this. This feels like maybe a lengthy and self-indulgent way of saying: I outline. But the point, I guess, is that I consider all of it WRITING. What most people probably consider the writing? I’m just typing. I go back to the office and I open a new document and I type in what is already all but done.