After a nearly three-month hiatus, the Fury Files make their triumphant return (thanks to those who signed the online petition demanding their reinstatement. We heard you). Check out previous editions with Tom Linnemann, John Millea, David Brauer, Joe Posnanski, Pat Coleman, Kevin Van Valkenburg and Michael Kruse.
This week’s guest is Chris Jones, a guy with a common name but uncommon talent. Jones is a Writer at Large for Esquire and has won two National Magazine Awards. A few months ago he took over as the backpage columnist at ESPN the Magazine. He was an original contributor to Bill Simmons’ Grantland. He’s also written two books, Falling Hard: A Rookie’s Year in Boxing, and Too Far From Home, A Story of Life and Death in Space. And even though it’s been silent for awhile, Jones’s blog – Son of Bold Venture – was an insightful, entertaining look into the life, and mind, of a writer. You can also follow him on Twitter at MySecondEmpire.
Jones has written some of the more memorable magazine stories of the past decade. He won the National Magazine Award for 2004’s Home, which told the story of the astronauts who were on the International Space Station when Columbia exploded in February 2003. And he won the award for 2008’s The Things That Carried Him, the remarkable story of Joey Montgomery, a soldier killed in Iraq. But everything Jones writes is a must-read, whether it’s a feature on an athlete or a politician, a movie star or a movie critic. Read his piece on Ricky Williams. Read all of his features on John McCain. Read his profile of Jeff Bridges. Read his famous story on Roger Ebert. Read his piece on the guy who outsmarted The Price is Right. And for god’s sake, read his story on what it’s like being a paramedic.
Not all of his stories are serious or require dozens of interviews. He’s just as fun to read when he writes about a fistfight with a hippie named Jericho or the best bar in America (which just happens to be in Minnesota.)
So far, 2012 has been a fascinating year for Jones, though he would likely use a different word to describe it. He’s written two major pieces already this year, one on the escaped animals from a private zoo in Zanesville, Ohio, the other on Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro. Unfortunately for Jones, two other magazines also did major stories on the escaped animals in Zanesville and Robert Caro. And both came out at the same time as his Esquire stories. This did not make for an entirely happy Writer at Large.
Jones is from that mysterious land to the north, Canada. He started his professional career at Canada’s the National Post, where he earned acclaim as a sportswriter. The start of his Esquire career is somewhat legendary, at least among writers and those who long to be writers. While still at the Post, Jones walked into the Esquire building in New York City unannounced, with donuts and a dream (memoir title?). He was able to talk an Esquire editor into reading his work. Months later, while unemployed and practically homeless, he earned a shot with the magazine and made the most of it, becoming Esquire’s sports columnist (read all about that beginning in this talk he gave late last year). That gig eventually turned into his current position, where he’s established himself as perhaps the best magazine writer in the country. Many people have heard of Jones’s magazine ploy and wished they could do the same, perhaps forgetting that the most important things in his arsenal that day weren’t snacks, but a lot of talent and even more desire.
Here, Jones talk about Robert Caro, the importance of endings, writing about writers, Mike Weir’s greatness, duplicate stories, a famous sex column, the lifespan of a long-form writer and much more. Thanks a lot for your time, Chris.
As I read the Robert Caro story, some anecdotes reminded me of your own career and I wondered if you saw any parallels during your reporting or writing. The ones that stood out to me:
* In an interview with Pagie Williams, your editor, Peter Griffin, called you “obsessive.” You write that Caro “bristles” at the word obsessive when it comes to his own reporting and researching. Do you bristle at Griffin’s description or is it spot on? And when Caro talked about his methods, inside were you going, “Yeah, man, I get it. I get it.”
Ha, well… I mean, how do I answer this? In no way do I want to compare myself to Robert Caro, who is a hero of mine. Just being able to spend time with him in his office was awesome for me—this was one of those stories that I could have happily disappeared into. But to answer your question, I don’t bristle at the word obsessive. Caro doesn’t like that word, because he thinks it turns what he does into something weird, something like a sickness. It doesn’t have that connotation for me. It’s like the word “addiction.” That word has a negative connotation for obvious reasons, but you can be addicted to something positive. Then we call it a passion. Reporting, for me, is a passion. Caro has done things I never would do, mostly because I don’t have the time, but I understand what he does, totally. So can I say that? I marvel at him, but I understand him. It’s not like he’s otherworldly to me. He’s more like a better version of me.
* You’ve talked about how you usually know your story’s ending immediately and often write it first. And Caro, you write, “knows the last sentence of the fifth book, he says–the very last sentence. …The way he knows the last line for the final volume on Johnson, he has always known the last line for each book before he writes it.” So with this story, when did you know your ending? Did it take some time or was it the second Caro talked about his own process?
I almost always know my endings, and I’ve said that for a long time without knowing that’s how Caro works, too. So that was a nice little bit of justification. (It’s impossible, the more I think about it, to write a story like this about someone you admire and not hope to see at least a little of yourself in him. I’m just wary of making any kind of comparison. But here, it’s a fact that we’re the same.) When he said that quote, about writing to the last line, it definitely stuck in my head. I thought, I wonder what the last line of the new book is? I didn’t get the galleys until after that conversation. I was down in Florida, my family and I had rented a house on the beach, and I was reading this mountain of unbound pages, and I got to the last line: “But he had done it long enough.” I just about crapped myself. There it was.
* You describe the time in Caro’s life when he met with his Simon & Schuster editor, who told him the publisher wasn’t going to provide any more money for Caro to finish The Power Broker and didn’t really see any potential for the book. This at a time when Caro was wondering how he was going to feed his family and afford his $362.73 rent. I thought back to the somewhat-famous Chris Jones Creation Story, part of which includes you landing your first Esquire assignment while living in Arizona, jobless and broke. Were you at all surprised Caro still had such vivid memories of his own tough days? And with your own past, now that you have established yourself, does it seem like another lifetime or is that beginning still something that drives you?
No, I’m not surprised he can remember those days. I was not in the same spot he was in, obviously—I didn’t have a child to feed when I found myself in my own spot. And I hadn’t poured five years into a book that wasn’t close to finished. But I remember a lot about that time, very clearly. My parents were poor growing up—I mean, the First World version of poor—and they carry that poverty with them, even though they ended up doing very well for themselves. I can remember my Mum smelling an orange not that long ago, and it reminded her of the orange she got for Christmas one year. When she was a child, an orange was a Christmas gift. When we first came to Canada—I was born in London—we did not have money, and I can remember that. I was probably four or five years old, and I can remember our family cutting up a Mars bar into five pieces and it being a very big deal, like Tiny Tim and that fucking bean. We always had a roof, and we always had food and clothes, I don’t want to make it out like we were dirt poor, and eventually, like I say, my parents worked their way into becoming professors and we ended up very comfortable. And when I was broke in Arizona, I knew I could always go back to my parents; I knew that I wasn’t going to starve. But I remember that feeling of panic, that stress of running down to zero. When you don’t have money, you appreciate having it. Money doesn’t drive me, I wouldn’t say, but I definitely like having it. I would always choose to have it, and I would always feel better for having more of it. The only people who romanticize being poor have never been poor.
I love the scenes in the Knopf offices with all the old guard talking about the book’s release. You write: “‘We should be getting the galleys back any time,’ Hourigan says, smiling a hopeful smile. She, like Mehta and Gottlieb, doesn’t seem to have any idea that Caro is locked inside his office on the twenty-second floor of the Fisk Building, jammed hard against the fifth paragraph of page 452.” Did you have any devilish desire to tell them, “Uh, guys, Robert’s laboring a bit.” And with your own stories, have there been times when your editor is quietly, confidently waiting for your story, totally unaware of troubles you might be having, or are you always pretty good with smooth deliveries?
I’ll confess here that I broke that journalist’s code about not becoming involved in the story. When I first went to New York, I had timed it so that I could walk with Caro to Knopf with the last box of pages, that triumphant finish. You’ll notice that scene is not in the story. He wasn’t anywhere near finished, and I told them that he wasn’t finished, just to see their reaction. My favorite was Sonny Mehta’s: “We need the book.” He said it purely factually. We need the book. And they did.
I will rarely call Peter if I’m having trouble. I call him a lot when I’m working, but it’s usually with good news, that I got a good detail or that the story is coming along. So, yes, I would say when I have had troubles, he has been unaware. There was one instance, when I was supposed to write about John Edwards and I wasn’t getting near him, despite various promises, that I called Peter and had a meltdown with him about it, but I can’t think of another time I’ve done that. My job is to deliver the story on time and at length. I sometimes miss the word count, but I don’t think I’ve ever delivered a story late. I wouldn’t be very good at my job if I did.
The Caro story has so many cool stories, from the search of Florida to find one guy, to how Caro proved an anecdote about Robert Moses’ parents from 1926. Is there one of those stories in particular that stood out to you or that you were especially amazed by? And were there any passages cut from the story that had some fascinating details like those that were published?
My favorite is the Florida anecdote, the one about calling every trailer park in every town with “beach” in its name. I mean, what a task, especially back then. Nothing like that was cut from my story, but I’m not sure I’d ever be able to do justice to Robert Caro’s files. I mean, when you see the pure physical scale of the material he’s working with, it’s incredible. He has photocopies of the little cheat sheets LBJ was handed when he was meeting heads of state at JFK’s funeral. Say this to this guy, and say this to this guy. They’re amazing. Just Caro’s files are artifacts all on their own. Never mind the books. Just all those transcripts and photocopies. They’re an enormous resource. I should have asked him what’s going to happen to those, after. See, I missed that question. Caro wouldn’t have missed that one. Dammit.
First it was GQ and the Zanesville story. Now Charles McGrath, The Times and Robert Caro. In the first nine years at Esquire did you have anything similar to what you’ve experienced twice in the past four months? And do you worry about getting some type of complex over this with future pitches or stories? Is there any potential for maybe stretching too much on a story idea because you will at least know no one else would do it?
No, it’s never happened to me before, that duplication. And to have it happen twice in a few months, on two stories that I worked really hard on, makes me wonder what I did wrong in a past life. (I already know what I’ve done wrong in this one.) I don’t really want to get into it, but neither of those release days were much fun. And when you write a story like this one or like “Animals,” you want to be excited about its coming out. One of the rewards of this job is that small bit of basking you can do after a good story drops. I don’t like sharing the basking. There isn’t enough of it as it is.
I don’t think I’ll start stretching. But I will say, if I see another reporter on my next assignment, you will read about that incident in the papers.
More intimidating: Writing a profile of a great writer (Roger Ebert) or interviewing a man (Caro) who has interviewed countless people, knows every trick there is and very well might be silently questioning your tactics as you talk to him? Or, writing a mini-biography on perhaps the greatest biographer in the land? Or is it simply thrilling being able to tell the stories of men who have written so much about so many others?
Intimidating is the right word, I think, Shawn. For both cases, but maybe for slightly different reasons. I admire both men; there was no objectivity here. With Roger Ebert, I was nervous because he’s a critic, I knew he would read the story, and I suspected that he would write about it after it came out, which he did. And I was trembling when I clicked on that blog entry, because Roger could have really done a number on me, if he’d so chosen. He probably had it within his spectrum of possibility to end my career. Instead, he was very generous, and I appreciated that generosity so much.
With Caro, I’m nervous because of his reporting and writing chops, and I think even by accident, readers, the way you did with the opening questions, will subconsciously compare what I did to what he does. Well, I can’t win that comparison. I will get beaten into the dust. But I like to think he’ll read the story and give a little nod after. I don’t believe he’s read it yet, because it’s not out in print yet, but I hope he sees the work that I put into it. I will say, though, that writing about another writer is a challenge, especially one you admire. I felt a lot of breath on the back of my neck, for sure.
As a Canadian, can you offer up any defense for this TSN SportsCentre piece that made Mike Weir’s 2003 victory the No.1 Masters moment of all time? Not Jack in 1986, not Larry Mize in 1987. Not the first Tiger victory and not the Tiger Slam. Mike Weir, little lefty Canadian. No. 1. There’s knowing your audience and then there’s this. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gAnwAdRpaE
You need to understand: Mike Weir winning the Masters is one of those moments up here. I have a spot memory of it, sitting on the coffee table in front of the TV in our old apartment in Ottawa. The streets were empty. It was a very big deal, and Mike Weir is one of those guys that everybody up here just likes. He’s one of us, which made it feel as though we all won. I can’t imagine that a single Canadian was rooting for Len Mattiace, that poor bastard.
Is it the No. 1 Masters moment of all time? Of course not. That moment was when I sat in the stands at No. 12 watching the Masters with Wright Thompson, drinking in the sun.
All memories are local, is what I’m trying to say.
During your years at Esquire, what’s one story subject a colleague at the magazine had that you wish you would have come up with?
I can answer this question without hesitation. I was talking to Peter one day, and he asked me whether I’d seen the YouTube video of the people in the freezer when the Joplin tornado hit. I knew exactly what he was talking about; I’m not sure why, now, but I was in the first few thousand people to watch that video. I saw it early. Then Peter tells me that Luke Dittrich was headed to Joplin to write about the people in the freezer. I think I said about 17 very bad words in a row. I hate not seeing a story when someone else sees it. I should have seen that story. But Luke wrote the shit out of it. It’s been nominated for a National Magazine Award this year. I hope with all my heart that he wins. [Fury: Here’s that story]
How did you pitch Home? That was your first long-form piece at Esquire, correct? To that point you had been a sports reporter for a newspaper and then filled the sports columnist role for Esquire. Had you been wanting to expand your work from the moment you started at Esquire and just needed the right story? And was there any concern from the editors about taking you out of the sports box?
I pitched that story the day Columbia exploded. (It was the first non-sports feature I wrote, I think, yes.) Literally, a few hours after the accident. I didn’t know anything about space, really, but I knew there were guys on the space station, and I figured they were having some kind of day. This was before I was working with Peter; I was working with my first editor at Esquire, Andy Ward. So I called up Andy and said we should write a story about those astronauts, and he, rightly, pointed out that it would probably be very hard to talk to them just then. So I kind of put it in my back pocket, not really pitching it to Andy, but reminding him of it every now and then. Then I read an account of the return of Expedition Six, how they had nearly died on re-entry, and I pitched it again, this time to Peter. (Andy had left for GQ, and the fates had moved me across to Peter.) Peter said no, I think because he was worried that someone else would write the story before we’d be able to, because of our long lead times and the fact that it was this huge story. So I looked for that story, and it never came. For some reason, Expedition Six fell clean through the cracks. I pitched it again a few times, and finally Peter said yes. I’m not sure whether there was any fear about my writing a non-sports story, but it did take some convincing, for totally understandable reasons.
My career, Shawn, in a lot of ways, is defined by moments of inexplicability. A few times, someone says yes when they had every reason to say no. Peter saying yes to “Home” was one of those moments. It changed everything. I won the National Magazine Award for it, became a Writer at Large at Esquire because of it, got a book and a movie deal out of it, and ended up working my way out of the sports column because of it. I wasn’t looking for any of that, really, but it all happened because Peter said yes when he could have easily said no.
Your ESPN the Magazine backpage columns have been well-received. Was there any hesitation to take the position, considering it comes with a pretty big target attached (see: reactions to Reilly, Rick’s past decade or the revolving door on SI’s Point After). Have you found it tough coming up with ideas or writing in such a smaller space, or are you enjoying the change of pace from the long features that take up most of your year?
I hesitated about the ESPN: The Magazine column, sure, because I wasn’t certain that I could do it well. It’s a pretty high profile piece of real estate, and ESPN is a big company, and Chad Millman, who offered me the job, was taking a huge chance in offering it to me, I think. I gave him a lot of outs. But he never wavered, and that gave me the confidence to say yes, finally. And I’m glad I did. I like that little confined bit of property. It’s a totally different form of writing—it took me a few columns to realize that you shouldn’t think too big with them, because that space requires a real economy of thought—but I enjoy it and I think some of the columns have been good. And by the way, I think that magazine, quietly in some ways, has become a very good magazine under Chad, better than it’s ever been. I like building things and being part of building efforts, and I’ve been proud to play my one-page role in that particular construction project.
I’d also like to give a little plug to my editor there, Ed McGregor. We didn’t know each other when I started there, but we’ve found a nice little groove, I think. I can be a huge pain in the ass—I’m pretty sure we’ve killed nearly as many columns as we’ve run, because I’ve changed my mind or taken a weird run at something—but he’s been very patient and kind with me. I’m still learning the shape of things in a lot of ways, and he’s been really helpful.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: A good editor means everything, and I’ve been very lucky to have some terrific editors in my life.
For someone who’s so passionate and such a champion of magazine writing, you’re seemingly not as enthusiastic or outspoken about writing books, even though you have written two and have had deals for more. Are you a little gun-shy with the form at this stage or is it simply a matter of needing to find just the right project?
I have not enjoyed writing books. I really dislike my first book in a lot of ways, because I don’t think it’s very good and I signed a really bad deal that ended up costing me more money than I made. (Not an exaggeration.) And the second one, the space one, I like more, but it never did what I hoped it would do, so I don’t look at it with the satisfaction I might have. I can find satisfaction in a private mastery of something, but with a book, you put so much into it—for me, at least—you need to get a lot out of it for it to feel like a success. I’m built in a way that means I probably would never be satisfied with a book unless it was a bestseller, and I’m not sure I’m capable of writing a bestseller. So, here I am, stuck but still dreaming.
How important are the pictures (and graphics) that go with your stories? In a 10,000-word story, can the photos still add things that even the best sentences can’t quite capture? And at Esquire, do you work closely with the assigned photographers and give them ideas or are they pretty much on their own?
We don’t work with the photographers, no. One of the blessings of working at a place like Esquire is that everyone has their one job, which means they can do that one job well. I don’t believe in our modern jack-of-all-trades model of journalism. I want to write. And if a photographer told me what my lede should be, I’d probably kick him in the dick, so I’m not telling a photographer where to point his camera.
But it’s hugely important, the art, the design, the editing, all the components. It’s a collaborative effort. “Animals,” for instance: I fucking love how that story looks. Love the photographs, love the design, love the title. I think that story kicks ass, and that feeling, a lot of it, comes from the stuff I didn’t do.
Do you ever wonder why Esquire will put certain stories (like, I don’t know, a piece about women in the bedroom) online while pieces like your story about your battle with depression and suicidal thoughts only appear in the magazine, severely limiting the audience for an article that could actually help as many people as the sex story enraged?
I actually don’t know whether there’s a formula as to why some things get posted and some don’t. I wish the sex thing didn’t get posted, not just because of all the stupid tiresome shit I took about it—which, incidentally, proved my point—but because it was part of a larger, fun package, and if the people who’d read it online, as a standalone thing, had read it instead as part of the package, they wouldn’t have been nearly so upset. But seriously: If you’re upset about that, you need to re-evaluate your priorities in life. It’s a 300-word piece about some bad sex I’ve had. If anyone should be upset about that, it should be me.
You know what’s really upsetting? That sex piece drove traffic at Esquire.com for a week. It got thousands and thousands and thousands of hits. My Caro story will be lucky to get a quarter as many. That depresses the hell out of me. It makes me understand those little click bitches online, and I don’t ever want to see the world from their point of view.
Of all your classic stories – the astronauts, Joey Montgomery, Ebert, Ricky Williams – one underrated article that still sticks with me is one that maybe didn’t get as much attention: your days as a paramedic, simply because it was about men and women, including yourself for a spell, who spend their days saving lives. Are there ever days when you wonder, What in the hell am I doing writing when I could be out there saving? Or were those apprentice days quite enough of that life?
Thanks for saying that about that story, Shawn. It was really important to me, and I think about it more days than not. I thought really seriously about leaving writing to become a paramedic. I mean, really seriously. Because I watched people come back to life in the back of that truck, and once you see that, you’re not the same person ever again. Everything else pales. Sure, I can think that my stories might mean something to people, and I hope they do, but I’m pretty sure they haven’t started up someone’s quiet heart or taken the hot dog out of a choking kid’s throat. These last few months, with the duplicate stories and the bullshit that happened with that sex story, believe me, I’ve been thinking plenty about it.
Speaking of life and death, in an interview with Jeff Pearlman, you talked about how “some ridiculous percentage of my bigger stories feature at least one body. It’s hard to explain, but once you’ve written about life and death once, it’s hard to go back to writing about stuff that doesn’t matter as much.” Do your celebrity profiles and sports features provide some type of balance to all the heavy subjects you spend a lot of time tackling? Do you try to arrange some lighter fare around the life-and-death topics?
Yeah, here, I always think of David Halberstam, who mixed his big important books with what he called his “little entertainments.” I need to mix things up, for sure, because I tend to feel my stories pretty deeply, at least some of them, and too many heavy ones in a row can put me under pretty well. After “Animals” and the Caro story, I actually asked for something lighter and just did the reporting for a couple of celebrity stories. Had a nice week in L.A., sat by the pool, did some work, had a few drinks. Sometimes you need to give yourself chance to catch your breath but keep swimming. Those sorts of stories are perfect for that.
We talked briefly about this over delicious onion rings but I’d like to ask again about whether there’s anything to the idea that long-form writers have something of a shelf life. Frank Deford started getting burned out on them in the late-80s. Gay Talese, the master of the form, is still best known for the pieces he wrote in the 1960s. People talk about Rick Reilly and his lost fastball. Kornheiser. Among other examples. Is there a prime age for long-form writers? Why do some get burned out or simply lose their edge, aside from, well, the fact you pour everything you have into reporting and writing year after year after year, all the while knowing each new story is going to be judged against your previous work? Is there a way to fight off the decline? Is it something you ever think about? Or, since there are plenty of writers in their 50s and 60s doing just fine, is this a ludicrous theory that sounds smart after four beers but not so much now?
This is something else I think plenty about, because if I was right when I was younger, I should be right around my career peak, which is alarming for a few reasons. I decided a long time ago that the late 30s were the sweet spot for my kind of journalism (I’m 38), because you have some wisdom and experience under your belt, but you haven’t started to crumble yet, either physically (well, not that much, at least) or in terms of the investment you’re willing to make in a story. I think intuitively, that kind of makes sense, that you might start slowing down. You have money, maybe you have a wife and kids who are growing up and you want them to know you, you get a little tired of airports and hotels. Maybe you don’t make that extra phone call you once did. Maybe you kind of fuzz that one last edit.
And yet, like you say, there are lots of guys older than that, older than me, who are doing terrific work. I mean, the guys at Esquire, many of whom are in their fifties, are doing some of the best work of their careers. Tom Junod, for instance, puts everything into a story the way he always has. And theoretically, of course, the beautiful thing about writing is that you can always get better at it. It’s not a physical trade, really. It’s a mental trade, a trade of practice and effort, and there’s no reason that should fail you, at least not until the parts of your machine start falling off.
So, no, I would say that four beers in, we maybe weren’t thinking super lucidly about this. Absolutely, the math applies to some guys. And other guys are impervious to math. What separates them? I have no idea, really. Desire, I guess, is the easy answer. The ones who want to do it still do it.
With me, I don’t know. I would be really surprised if I’m still a full-time magazine writer when I’m 50. I’ll be pretty surprised if I’m still a full-time magazine writer in five years. I don’t want that to sound as though I’m ungrateful for what I have; I have been totally blessed in amazing ways, and I’m thankful for my life and career every day. I am a very lucky man. But maybe that’s why I’m always vaguely surprised when I wake up each day and realize this is what I do. It’s never seemed real to me, exactly. I’ve never lost that feeling that I’m about to get carded and tossed out of the bar, so I’m always thinking about what I’ll do when I land on the streets.