My top 5 of 2014

Top fives seem to be the trend this year — thank you, Chris Rock. So here are the five pieces I wrote that meant the most to me this year. As always, thanks so much for reading.

Precious Memories (ESPN). This story on Dean Smith, and how his UNC family is dealing with his dementia, ran back in March. I’m still hearing from people about it nine months later — the other day, I got a beautiful email from a basketball coach in Argentina. It’s a blessing when a story leaves those kinds of ripples.

You Can’t Quit Cold Turkey (ESPN). This piece on Jared Lorenzen cut deep with many of people struggling with their weight — and with lots of other addictions. It also gave me the courage to write a book about my own struggles. I’ll always be thankful to Jared for that, and for being so open and honest with his story.

22 Brief Thoughts About That Richard Sherman Interview (Forbes). 4.6 million page views and counting. I still can’t believe it.

Is Charlotte Southern? (Charlotte Magazine). Really enjoyed getting the chance to write down some of the things I’ve been thinking about the city I’ve lived in, and loved, for 25 years.

The Truth of Time (Dazzle Gradually conference, Rock Hill, SC). This is a talk I gave at a great little arts gathering early this year. It sums up a lot of what I’ve come to believe about writing — or any kind of creating, really. And as a bonus, there’s a beautiful poem at the end.

 

What made “Serial” work

ALERT WARNING ALERT: Spoilers from the last episode of “Serial” below. STOP NOW if you don’t want to know how it ends.

 

 

Here’s my Journalism 101 question about “Serial“: If Sarah Koenig had done the exact same reporting without anyone seeing it, and she took what she found to NPR — or most any other publication — would they have published the story?

Probably not.

She didn’t find enough doubt to spring Adnan Syed. She didn’t find enough evidence against the mysterious Jay, or anyone else, to reopen the case of the murder of Hae Min Lee. She said what she believes — “most of the time, I think he didn’t do it” — but in the end, she had to shrug her shoulders.

At most publications, including the ones I’ve worked for, I think most people would’ve stuck her notes in a drawer and moved on.

“Serial” did it differently. I hope all of us in journalism are paying attention.

Historically, journalists have hidden our stories from the public before they’re ready. There are some good reasons for this:

1) You might decide not to do the story (see above).

2) You don’t want the subjects of the story to reshape it before it gets out.

3) You don’t want to get scooped by the competition.

The huge, brave risk “Serial” took is that it chose not to care about any of those things. Koenig and her colleagues started posting episodes without knowing where the story would lead, much less how it would end. The audience got to see all those frustrations and dead ends play out — and it turns out the very things we hide are what people are drawn to. Listeners built blogs and flooded Reddit with speculation as it went along. There was a podcast about the podcast. Some of those fans are probably disappointed today that there wasn’t a big reveal of the killer. A little part of me felt that way, too. But knowing they started the story on a tightrope made it a whole different experience. Even though the pieces were taped, it felt like a live show where anything could happen. In the finale, Koenig said she was getting new information right up until the moment she taped. I was half-expecting her to stop her own show halfway through with breaking news on the case.

These loose-ended stories happen all the time — it’s just that the outside world rarely sees them. Every reporter has stories where you can’t get the key people to talk, you can’t find some important document, you can’t figure out how to make it hang together. I once spent months researching a book idea that I loved, but there was one crucial fact that I came to decide I’d never be able to know. So I put the whole thing away.

But what makes a story a story is not just reaching the goal but overcoming the obstacles in the way. In one sense, every story is a detective story. The genius of “Serial” is how it let the audience in on the detective work of journalism. In that way it reminds me of my favorite story of all time, J.R. Moehringer’s “Resurrecting the Champ.”

Of course, you have to understand that most detective stories are about the detective. The main character in “Serial” isn’t Adnan Syed. It’s Sarah Koenig. That’s a weird spot for most journalists. There’s no way to take yourself completely out of the story — every choice you make as a journalist is filtered through the way you see the world. Still, in general, we want the story to be about the people we’re writing about.

But I hope “Serial” widens the range of how traditional journalists think about how to do stories. Sometimes it’ll make sense to let readers in on the story early. Sometimes it’ll make sense to be more transparent about how you know what you know (and why you don’t know what you don’t know). Sometimes it’ll make sense to put the reporter at the center of the story, as a narrator trying to solve a mystery. Sometimes a few smart people in a newsroom will take that pile of notes that they can’t quite make whole, even though the story keeps them awake at night, and they’ll say: Let’s put it out there and see what happens.

“Serial” was solid journalism, it told a compelling story that got millions of us hooked, and it became the most popular podcast of all time. Seems like a good chance to take again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book announcement

I’m too excited to give this a fancy buildup so I’ll just say it: I’m writing a book.

Here’s the announcement from the site Publishers Lunch:

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Yeah, I can’t really believe it either.

There are a lot of things I don’t know yet — we’re at the beginning of a long, long process. Apparently, now that the publisher likes the idea, they actually want me to write the damn thing. So it’ll be awhile before you get to hold a copy in your hands — although, if you’re reading this, I do expect you to not only hold a copy in your hands one day, but actually, you know, BUY it.

I’ve been thinking about this book for a long time, as I’ve tried to untangle not just my own struggle to get in shape, but the struggle of so many others. I’ve touched on it a few times, most recently in my piece for ESPN on Jared Lorenzen, but there’s a lot more to talk about. It’ll be hard. Trying to make yourself better in some way is always hard.

But I’m thrilled for the chance to tell this story, and to find out what it’s like to write a book — something I’ve always dreamed of. I’ll keep you posted on how it’s going along and along. Thanks to everyone for the support all these years. And to all of you who asked “When are you going to write a book?” — finally, I have a decent answer.

The Hilton sisters and me

Well, I’m in a movie. It’s a documentary called “Bound By Flesh” and it tells the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who were sideshow sensations in the ’20s and ’30s — they sang, played several instruments, and appeared in the cult horror classic “Freaks.” Their long trip through the shadier parts of show business ended in the early ’60s, when they landed in Charlotte, broke and looking for work. They spent the last few years of their lives here, and when a Broadway show about them launched in 1997, I wrote a story about their time in town.

A couple of years ago, I got an email from a woman named Leslie Zemeckis. You know the work of her husband, Robert — he directed the “Back to the Future” movies, “Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away,” Denzel Washington’s “Flight.”  Leslie is a filmmaker, too, and she had decided to make a documentary about the Hilton sisters. She came to Charlotte to interview me and a bunch of other folks who knew about Daisy and Violet in one way or another.

The film came out a couple of weeks ago, and it turns out that Time Warner Cable has it on demand — you can also get through iTunes and Amazon and other places. So I checked it out. It’s an interesting look at two women who had a rough but fascinating life, defined by the little ribbon of flesh that connected them.

I’ve done interviews for this sort of thing before where I didn’t make the final cut. But I’m in this one, starting about an hour in, and Leslie lets me yap about the Hiltons quite a bit in the last half-hour. I’ll just have them send the Oscar straight to the house. I hate tuxes.

Here’s the trailer:

 

A bit of North Carolina trivia: The world’s most famous conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker — they’re the reason people came up with the name “Siamese twins” — ended up living on farmland in Mount Airy. They married sisters and fathered 21 children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friends doing great work

dubberlyI’m lucky to have some really creative friends who are putting some amazing stuff out there in the world. I wanted to let you know about three things that you should really get ahold of now and in the near future.

— Jamie Dubberly was a year behind me in high school down in Brunswick, Ga., and even back then he was a killer trombone player and music nut — I remember a Saturday night driving around town with some buddies when he pulled out a cassette of a trombone player we just had to listen to. We were mostly listening to Journey and Rick James back then, but we gave in, and he was right: The guy was awesome.

Now Jamie is the awesome trombone player making records. He’s teaching and playing out in the San Francisco area, and he just finished a new CD with his group Orquesta Dharma. He funded the CD through Kickstarter — it’s the one and only Kickstarter project I’ve chipped in on, and it was worth every penny. Jamie’s idea was to blend traditional Latin rhythms and horn parts with the New Orleans second-line style. The record is “La Clave del Gumbo,” and it’s just great. It’ll be available on Amazon, iTunes and elsewhere Aug. 5; in the meantime, you can hear the tracks “Jazzy” and “La Esencia del Guaguanco” (plus a bunch of great older tracks) on Orquesta Dharma’s site. This music will make you happy. Go check it out.

Beth Macy is a wonderful writer (and even better person) who spent years writing features for the Roanoke Times in factorymanVirginia. One of the stories she covered for the newspaper was the impact of American jobs going overseas — especially in the furniture business, which used to be the big industry in southern Virginia and northern North Carolina. Most of the factory owners threw in with the Asian companies that were copying American furniture at a much cheaper price. John Bassett III — a black sheep of sorts in the Bassett furniture family — decided to fight. And that’s the story of Beth’s great book, “Factory Man.” You will love JBIII, and you’ll want to slap him every few pages at the same time. He’s a complex hero, and this is a complicated story, which makes it so nice that it’s in the hands of someone who can tell the story with style and grace and humor. Beth’s amazing. And if you don’t believe me, the New York Times says so, too.

“Factory Man” is one of the books caught up in the crazy war Amazon is waging against the Hatchette publishing company, so it shows up as unavailable on Amazon. But here’s a trade secret — lots of other places sell books! So try somewhere else for a change. Better yet, go to your local bookstore. “Factory Man” is out July 15.

ggrSomehow, in the middle of a busy spring, I forgot to write about how much I loved “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk.” My buddy Ben Montgomery, a fine feature writer for the Tampa Bay Times, tells the powerful story of the first woman to walk the Appalachian Trail — a 67-year-old great-grandmother who didn’t even tell her family she was going. Emma Gatewood was walking away as much as she was walking forward, and Ben spends time unraveling Grandma Gatewood’s past as he describes her struggles and adventures on the trail. Ben reports down to the dirt, and he writes like a singer, and you’ll get so swept up in the tale that you’ll forget you’re reading a book — which is the best feeling a work of art can give you.

 

Road trip: Milwaukee

We were in Wisconsin recently to take my wife’s parents up to see family — Alix’s dad grew up in Milwaukee, and they have lots of kin in and near the city. It was the first time I’d been there for more than a day or two. Milwaukee is a gorgeous old city, mostly because it didn’t tear down its brick and stone in favor of glass and steel. Downtown has dozens of buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Milwaukee was a national center for beer, meatpacking and tanneries. It must have smelled terrible back then. But it’s beautiful now.

We hit the lottery with our hotel. I picked the downtown Hilton Garden Inn because it was the cheapest hotel in the center city the week we were there. I checked to make sure it had good reviews, but I didn’t actually read the reviews, so we didn’t know until we got there that the hotel is a National Historic Landmark called the Loyalty Building. Among other things, the hotel used to be the headquarters of the Northwestern Mutual insurance company. The safes are still there on the first floor, with beautiful artwork on the doors.

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Across the street from us was Downtown Books, one of those used bookstores where they had ladders in the aisles because the stacks are so high. We spent a couple hours (and 50 or 60 bucks) in there one morning while one of the regular customers came in and sprawled on the floor to play with the resident cat. We were also three blocks away from the Milwaukee Public Market, which resembles Seattle’s Pike Place Market all the way down to the big red sign outside. We had two good lunches there — one at the Green Kitchen inside, the other at Cafe Benelux catty-corner from the main market building. Our food highlight in Milwaukee, thought, was ice cream at the Purple Door. We tried lemon cardamom (interesting) and salted caramel (world-class).

Two favorite sights: The Grohmann Museum at the Milwaukee School of Engineering is devoted to art about the evolution of work. There’s a sculpture garden on the roof and three floors below, mostly paintings, that depict farmers and weavers and carpenters and steelworkers and such. The paintings are mostly Dutch and mostly stunning. Not far away, in the old Pabst Brewery complex, the Brewhouse Inn incorporated a lot of the old brewery structure — including the tops of the copper brewing barrels.

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There’s also a restaurant where, as you might imagine, you can get PBR on draft.

But we spent a lot of time just strolling the Riverwalk downtown, where the Milwaukee River heads toward Lake Michigan. We took pictures with the Bronze Fonz, and Alix’s dad told the story of Gertie the duck right before we ran into a statue of her. I’d love to live in one of the condos overlooking the river — at least from May to October.

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There’s a lot we didn’t do. We had already been to the Milwaukee Art Museum, so we skipped it this time. We didn’t go to the classic old German restaurants like Mader’s and Karl Ratzsch’s. The Brewers were on the road. But we filled the days without all those things. Milwaukee is a cool town.

Side notes from the road:

— On the way up we stayed in New Harmony, Indiana — one of those small towns where people tried to form a Utopian community back in the 1800s. Utopia didn’t take, but New Harmony is a beautiful small town, and the New Harmony Inn is simple and lovely and close to everything.

— Some of Alix’s family lives south of Milwaukee in Racine, where the traditional pastry is the kringle — a ring of crumbly layered goodness about as big around as a football. We tried kringles from Larsen’s Bakery (one apple and one pecan, if I remember right) and O&H (cherry, I think). Every bite of every one was heaven. They ship.