Episode 3: The Hardest Story Eli Saslow Ever Told
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PAUL KIX: Hey everybody, this is Paul. A quick word before we start. Eli and I recorded this conversation before the latest shootings in El Paso and Dayton which is why we don't talk about them.
PAUL KIX: Welcome to another episode of Now That's a Great Story, the podcast that reveals an artistic worldview through a single piece of work and gives you the wherewithal to be just as creative in your own work. I'm your host Paul Kix. Today's guest is Eli Saslow, a staff writer The Washington Post and a dear friend of mine. Eli’s won one Pulitzer Prize for his feature writing have been nominated three other times. He's the author of the book “Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President, and “Rising out of Hatred.” Eli and I talk a lot about what makes for great books, great movies, great magazine pieces, and today we'll discuss a story that both haunts and inspires me: “The Lonely Quiet,” which is sort of an examination of life as a Newtown parent six months after the tragedy when the world has begun to move on. Eli, thank you for coming on the show.
ELI SASLOW: It’s totally my pleasure. I’m glad you’re doing this show, and I’m happy to be a part of it.
PAUL KIX: So maybe the best place to start with this is just a brief overview of the story itself before we delve into the particulars of it. So can you give the audience a sense of the broad outlines of the piece?
ELI SASLOW: Sure. I went to Newtown sort of right after the shooting happened for the post, and I spent maybe four or five days there doing pretty quick like a one-day turnaround type stories. And it was incredibly grim and just a heartbreaking place to spend time. But at that point it was sort of impossible to feel like you could get anywhere close to the heart of the... Everybody who had been directly affected obviously was besieged by media and essentially at that point, what I felt like I was there, writing about was sort of bird's-eye view of this big tragedy at where we're all of these 26 people had died. And it was really hard to write about the tragedy in an intimate way. And so I left there feeling like I wanted to go back at some point to try to get it right. And particularly, I wanted to go back to write about what this tragedy was going to become in the national narrative of the country because in those first days… You know, frankly, being there it almost seemed like a forgone conclusion that this was going to be a moment that changed the country’s relationship with guns. And then three or four months later when it was clear that that was not going to be the case, and that all of these families who had spent all this time trying to sort of make sure this tragedy meant something, they were returning back to Newtown into the lonely quiet. That felt like the right time to go, so this is a story about sort of what it was like for one family. And I think representative of many families to sort of grappe with the fact that only only had there been this sort of devastating loss but also that what was going to come from it was probably not all that much.
PAUL KIX: So you're hoping to get to one of the 26 families affected by this. How do you end up choosing the Bardens?
ELI SASLOW: That’s a great question. I knew I wanted a family that had sort of really put their heart into trying to turn the tragedy into something in terms of policy. So there were about six or seven families that had been going repeatedly to Washington DC in those first months and who had been sort of going around with pictures of their now dead children and sort of beseeching lawmakers to pay attention, to do something. So immediately my focus was narrowed to those six or seven families. Because they’d been the ones who had been very actively trying to make this happen. So then what I did, I began to research in sort of a very basic way and learned as much as I could about those six or seven families first without even talking to them. I watched all the tv interviews all of them had done, sort of created a little notes file with “here are the seven options,” and a few families stood out quickly for a couple of reasons. The Bardens -- who this family ended up being about -- they were particularly well spoken, just sort of wore their heart on their sleeves in interviews. Also I think they had -- I think I was drawn to families who had other kids, in part because it felt like in a story where so much was going to be devastating, if a family had lost an only child it might just be so unbelievable brutal that it was just too much to take. And also because having siblings who lost a brother gave me additional characters to pay attention to as well. So I liked the fact that the Bardens, there were siblings. And then eventually it comes down to two or three families and I called and spent time with them on the phone. And got a little more of a feel or sense that way. The Bardens -- Mark Barden, the father in particular -- was very warm and opening right away. And I think also the thing that made the Badens make the most sense was that very quickly it was clear that access was not going to be an issue. My pitch to them and all of these families was that I want to get close enough to them and spend enough time there to make people understand in some small fractional way what it was that they were going through and I think Mark got that and like the best sources do he almost because a little bit of a participant in helping me figure out then what the things were that I needed to see, that I needed to experience, and needed to be there in order to sort of capture accurately what they were dealing with.
PAUL KIX: Well, you certainly do and we’re going to dig into this story in just a second, but this is… out of all the stories you've done, this to me is the most visceral. I mean when I tell other people about your stories Eli I often say you know this is a story that you will read once and you will love it and you will probably never want to read it again. For me at least, it speaks to how it inspires me as a writer and editor and it also sort of haunts me. so I'm going to actually start with the first couple of paragraphs here. “So they had promised to try everything, so Mark Barden went down to the basement to begin another project in memory of Daniel. the families of Sandy Hook Elementary were collaborating on a Mother's Day card which would be produced by a marketing firm and mailed to hundreds of politicians across the country. ‘A difference-maker,’ organizers had called it. Maybe if Mark could find the most arresting photo of his seven-year-old son people will be compelled to act. It hardly mattered what Mark and his wife Jackie really wanted was to ignore Mother's Day altogether; to stay in their pajamas with her two surviving children. turn off their phones and reward themselves for making it through another day with a glass of Irish whiskey neat.” I love this lead because of how it picks up in the moment. you're you you start right away with, “they promise to try everything, so Mark Barden and went down to the basement to begin another project in memory of Daniel.” You tend to have that tendency to do that Eli to pick up right in the middle of a scene with something but at the same time you don't in a lot of your stories end up confusing the reader it isn't like you're starting somewhere that you have to backtrack to explain where you are and then you know that the story continues there's something else going on with just these first couple of paragraphs that I'm wondering if you can begin to unpack which is this closing line. It’s really the narrative conflict. you're introduced The Narrative conflict right away. “It hardly mattered. they wanted to stay in their pajamas turn off their phones and reward themselves for making it through another day with a glass of Irish whiskey neat.” so if I'm if I'm to try to summarize all of these points into a question maybe that question is what are you hoping to accomplish with with that opening line and what are you hoping to accomplish with that opening anecdote.
ELI SASLOW: Yeah that's a great question, I mean, I think in the contrast that you point out is a really good one and certainly a thread that I wanted to run through the whole story and that's why it was important to introduce here, which is the idea that none of this is enjoyable for them. They are doing these things -- they are going to pick out a photo of their kids for a Mother’s Day Card that’s going to be -- you know, this very intimate thing -- that’s going to be sent out by marketing firms to politicians around the country because that’s what they feel like they have to do. They’ve been given all this advice that the way to make something happen from this tragedy is to turn this tragedy into … to package it in a way that the country might pay attention. And its really an act of martyrdom. It’s brutal for them to go look through these pictures. It’s brutal for them to marinate in this. Really, what they would like to be doing was having a glass of whisky and just trying to get through the day which is hard enough. I wanted to make sure that that tension, which is a tread that runs through the piece, was introduced up high. I’m best as a journalist, as a writer when I’m writing observed scenes. So starting in the moment for me, this is what I was there for. Also, I think writing a story about Newtown which is so reflexibley familiar to almost everyone who reads it? I don’t need to spend a lot of time saying what happened or what it was or setting it up that way. People know, and I think trusting the reader enough to sort of drop them into the moment and have the story start moving is a really effective way to do it sometimes.
PAUL KIX: Then you go on and -- as we go through this, we’ll go really granular, and I also want to ask some broader things. But if we can stay granuar at least for this section because I think it's really instructive for the whole story. So they go on and they meet some very famous people in the month between tragedy and by the time you're talking with them: the President. it's lots of very big-name people and they’re -- as you were saying just a minute ago -- they're walking the halls of congress with a bag of these glossy pictures and they're trying to just get lawmakers to look at their son. And there's this and there's this line to use this still within the first paragraph, “beseeched lawmakers to look at their son, his auburn hair curling at the ears, his front teeth sacrifice to a soccer collision, his arms wrapped around Ninja Cat, the stuffed animal that traveled with him everywhere, including into the hearse and underground.” And I remember, Eli, when I read that last phrase -- you and I, we each have small kids, and when I read that I almost had to stop right there. This is already really hard and then there's the next paragraph which is, “almost six months now and so little had got through. So maybe a Mother's Day card. Maybe that would be enough.” And it's just like, you want this to be as difficult as it is. Am I correct?
ELI SASLOW: Yeah, for sure. I mean you have every choice certainly in this story -- and I hope in almost every one that I write is something that I’m thinking about and doing really purposefully. And I think one of the things, to take a granular questions and maybe make it a little bigger in terms of one of the things I struggled with in this story is that I knew this story was going to be brutal to read. Like heartbreaking to read and extremely difficult to read. But I think that if eventually I had to come to peace with the fact that doing it any other way wouldn't be doing justice to the thing. Of course it’s going to be brutal. And I think really what the story is asking you do is the thing that in so many cases that the lawmakers that they would go up to with the photo of their son that the lawmakers would not do, which is to look and pay attention and stare into the heart of something that is really, really dark. And I think in some cases -- both for the Newtown families and for people in all kinds of difficult circumstances in their lives -- that’s really the meaningful act that we can give them. Pay attention and to be willing not to look away but to look at something. And I think the way that things become brutal and really personal is through detail and so the sentence with his front teeth sacrificed to a soccer collision -- there’s reporting behind every detail of the sentence. It’s not just that his teeth are crooked, it’s how they got crooked. And it’s not just the stuffed animal in his arms, it’s NinJa Cat. And I think also the end of that sentence is so brutal in part because it’s quiet. The stuffed animal that had traveled with him everywhere, including into the hearst and underground. It’s sort of like, for the first part of the sentence he’s just like this happy, regular six-year-old kid that we can all picture with curly hair and stuffed animals going everywhere, running all over the soccer field -- and then the fact that the sentence takes you to that place is what makes it such a gut punch.
PAUL KIX: I think so, too. And there’s this line -- I think you and I have discussed in the past. Actually, I’m stealing it from another editor of mine. And he said when you have these sentences sentences that end and it leaves this affect that sounds like rain on a window sill. it's quiet but it is powerful and in this case it is truly haunting when you have those small moments. those are sometimes often the best moments, and I think you are just an absolute master of those small moments. so perhaps a larger question here is -- because actually with something I want to ask next. this is one more technical aspect of a but later and that later that first section you have this paragraph where Mark Barden is trying to find this picture for this Mother's Day card and and he goes, “something lighthearted, something sweet. He'd been sitting in the same chair December 14th when he received an automated call about a code red alert and much of the basement had been preserved in that moment. nobody the Foosball table because Daniel had been the last t0 play. His books and toy trains sat in familiar piles gathering dust.” So you're learning that from the Bardens, from either Mark or or from Mark's wife but my question is -- and it ties back in with a quiet thing -- you have this distinct ability among non-fiction writers and we'll get to this a little bit later later, I have a couple of other questions related to this, but you have this ability as a nonfiction writer to really use the tools and techniques of fiction writers and that little passage right there, “nobody touched a foosball table because Daniel have been the last to play it his books and toy train set their familiar piles Gathering dust” your your your briefly pulling the reader into the pain they've been suffering for the last 6 months but then you're pulling them right back to the moment of Mark Barden looking for the photo. And my question for you is that’s really well done and from whom did you learn to do that?
ELI SASLOW: That’s a great question. I wish I had a really specific answer for how I’ve learned it. What I will say that I think that may be helpful for the people thinking about doing really narrative work is, I think it’s -- people sometimes get this feeling if they’re writing a scene, everything has to happen right in front of them. Like you can’t play with time. It has to be purely procedural and the truth is that the best scenes are just more like life itself where all of these moments and feeling from these other times can exist in this same moment. So instead of having to go back and talk about that day when he got the phone call and to do that in a separate section of the story, having the fact that he was in the same place on the day when he got that all, not only am I introducing the thought of that day, but it makes this seem that more powerful. Not only is having to go through these pictures, but he’s having to do it in the basement where his son’s death is still so present. And I think sometimes thinking about a scene in a way you're incorporating environment and memory and all of these things into a scene can make the scene of the moment that much more powerful. The reporting challenge of that sometimes is when I’m with Mark in the basement and, despite the situation, I’m just sitting there next to him as he’s going through these photos, but the other thing I’m doing -- I’m looking around the room, I’m often with my phone taking pictures of the room so I can remember what things look like and I’m writing down notes about what everything looks like. Then I’m making notes about things I need to ask him later. When Mark is looking through those photos, I’m not asking, Hey! Who used to play on the foosball table? But I’m writing down that I want to ask him about those things later during a quieter moment when I might not be observing something. So I think it’s like a reporting challenge of making sure you’re paying attention not to just what people are saying but to kind of what’s behind the words and the environment in which things are unfolding in.
PAUL KIX: So let’s go towards the end of the first section now Mark still looking for things he's scanning to the next photo and then you have this line, “knowing the chronology, knowing what came next. ‘He has to be here,’ Mark says. Maybe he’d taken another, He flipped to the next picture but it was from four days later of a police car parked in front of the house.” And that's when he confronted again with the tragedy in and from there it's interesting because you go into what we in the business call a nut graph which is for those who aren't in journalism, here is broadly what the story is going to be about. and it's going to be about how they basically live their lives with this sort of pain amid this increasing level of apathy from the public. And then it goes from there, it moves into the wife's response about how she physically hurt and sometimes imagines that her Daniel is somewhere else. She has what she knows are these hallucinations -- I guess for lack of a better phrase -- but they are present all the same. And then it's into this section close quote about the Mother's Day card. “‘Will it make a difference now?’ She asked Mark. ‘I don't know.’” Your reporting this -- you're with Mark as he's doing all of this and then his wife, Jackie -- they're having this conversation, she's talking about her own pain and then, ‘Will this make a difference,’ Jackie says. ‘I don't know, Mark says.’” For you Eli, as you reporting this do you know why this is going to be the scene I'm leading with?
ELI SASLOW: No, in fact, there are stories where that happens, where I sort of know very quickly, okay, this is where the story needs to start. I would actually say in this story, figuring out where the story needed to start was the hardest part. I mean a lot of this structure I saw very quickly. As we get further into it, it sort of -- for pacing I knew that certain brutal moments were going to need to be followed by other things; that it’s built in part around a trip that they take to sort of lobby in Delaware, and I had a pretty good sense of where the story needed to end. But I think honestly what helped me figure out the beginning was knowing where the story needed to end, which is sort of the of the opposite of this moment in the first section. At the end of the first section, it sort of begins still in a place of fading hope for sure, but they’re still trying. There’s still this idea of we need to try everything. Will it make a difference? I don’t know. And setting up that moment allows for movement in a story as it goes on, we’re going to see will it make a difference? The answer becomes much more clearer as the piece goes on. So I think it became very clear for me and very important that the story needed to start for me in a place of them actively trying to do something because that makes it much more powerful at the end of the story, the realization is there’s nothing they can do.
PAUL KIX: Yeah, and I want to just talk about the World of The Washington Post here, too, because it is, of course, a wonderful newspaper one of the passions of democracy frankly at the same time what you do is fairly distinct from what everybody else does there I would say, what, there's -- I'm not being wrong in saying there's only a handful of people at The Washington Post who attempt to do on a regular basis with you do is that right?
ELI SASLOW: Yeah that's right. Maybe three or four people.
PAUL KIX: Why have you chosen this path?
ELI SASLOW:You know, mostly because I think for me what interests me most and what I care about most is people. And their experiences of the world and those are also the stories that stick with me the longest. I think just the days that I feel most fulfilled doing this kind of work are not writing days. They the kind of reporting days when I feel like I’m out spending time in somebody’s life and feel like I’m seeing something important that other people should also be able to see. These narrative stories are -- that’s exactly what they highlight. I’m sort of hoping when I write, my -- the effect of reading a story that is truly narrative, and by that I mean heavy scene and dialogue, not a ton of exposition. You know it’s -- there aren’t quotes said to me very often. It’s mostly dialogue between two people. And I’m hoping the effect will be like walking a reader up to a clear payne of glass where they can feel like they’re watching something unfold for themselves. And the result of that then is that the reader hopefully almost feels like they’ve had a direct interaction with the story. It’s not me telling them what to think. It’s not some authoritative voice summing up something for them, it’s them seeing something happen. And therefore hopefully the conclusions that they draw from it are that much sronger. Because if you have their own conclusions, it’s like they’ve seen the Bardens live for a week in the wake of this thing. Because of that, they've decided things about it and don’t feel like they’ve been told things about it. And I think that’s really a powerful kind of storytelling.
PAUL KIX: And you do this so well at the end of the second section. You aren’t there, the words are Mark Barden’s, he’s talking with somebody at the White House -- and he’s angry, but mostly he was unmoored. And now I’m going to quote from you. “So what is all this add up to now? Mark had asked a White House employee later that day when all the speeches ended. Because if it amounted to nothing at all, what was the logic, the order, the meaning of their broken lives.”
ELI SASLOW: Yeah, definitely. And I think I often rely pretty overtly on raising this question high up in the story in the text as a series of questions -- as a question, a cue to sort of drive momentum forward. I think that is the internal tension at the heart of this story. If they can’t figure out that this means something? Then what was the point of all of it. Like something has to come from it. That’s the only way that they can sort of rationalize or make sense of it. And I think we see them continue to do that through this piece.
PAUL KIX: Your with the Bardens, you're hanging out with them one morning and you're talking about their other kids. and and so you're talking about the mother Jackie. “Sometimes Jackie watched from the window while her while her other son played alone in the yard where he'd once played with Daniel. She thought he looked lost. ‘You want to talk about something,’ she asks him? ‘I guess,’ he said. So now he was seeing a counselor who lets him lie down in her office and work his Rubik's Cube.” And then there's their daughter Natalie and Natalie is apparently by some of evaluations doing quite well. At the same time each morning had “become a battle because her newfound fear made her reluctant to leave home.” And I'm just going to, if you don't mind, I'm just going to get into this now.
“I’m sick,” she said now, rubbing her eyes. “I don’t think I should go to school.”
“Probably just allergies,” Mark said. “You’ll be fine.”
“I should stay home,” she said.
“How many times do we have to have this conversation?” Jackie said.
“I don’t want to go.”
“Please stop it,” Jackie said.
“You’re so lucky,” Natalie said.
“You get to stay home.”
“Do you even know what you’re saying?” Jackie said, her voice louder now. “You think I’m home because I want to be? You think I wouldn’t rather be going on with my life, going to work? Lucky? I’m not even having this conversation.”
So Jackie starts to cry and then Natalie starts to cry. And my question for you is -- first off let me ask another question first because to me this is one of those moments where it gets really raw really quickly. Do you ever feel like you need -- if you just leave the room and give the Bardens some for a little bit. Do you ever feel that way?
ELI SASLOW: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I feel that way all the time. I feel in the scene that you just read as this section goes on to a dire scene which I also think is particularly brutal, you know, of course, there’s a human instinct to -- you see people are hurting it seems like the respectful thing to do is to give them some space. But the truth is as a reporter, that is -- unless they’re asking for space? That’s the least respectful thing that you can do. The whole point that the Bardens wanted me there -- the whole point that they decided to let me spend time with them was they wanted people to see their lives rendered accurately. And there’s having to deal with this hurt and this messiness and this brutalness all the time. This is their life. For me, it’s a story, for them it doesn’t end. And so if I can’t sit in that hard space just for the brief amount of time to document it, then I’m not doing my job effectively. They want me there and they welcome me there to see what it was really like. So I think one thing that I remind myself of when I’m feeling awkward about being in a room is this is what all of us -- this is where I’m supposed to be. This what I’m supposed to do, and actually I think I try to remind myself that having that feeling actually means you’re seeing something worth seeing. We always hope for our story to go to intimate places and I usually feel awkward and sort of like, geez, I should really be here because I’m seeing something really intimate. And that’s -- those are the best journalism moments I’ve ever had. So I think I really just try to fight my instincts to feel awkward about it and just appreciate the fact that these are the reporting moments that we work for.
PAUL KIX: I’ve got a question about influence here. Your editor at The Post, David Finkel, is also a chronicler of the sort of stuff. And you and I have talked in the past about his books and in particular the books that he's written in Iraq. “Thank You for Your Service,” is, my gosh, one of the rawest, most accurate best --- frankly, kind of, it's not only on sparring but to me as a journalist, it’s one of those books where it's like I don't know if I could ever actually do what he did and in terms of just getting into people's lives and then trusting him that much. “Thank You for Your Service.” I’ll post this in the show notes along with Eli's work, I highly recommend that book. So I want to talk for a second about Finkel. Has Finkel influence your own career?
ELI SASLOW: Hugely. He’s, I’d say it’s rare -- it’s an incredible situation I know you often have with your writers where the story and the work feel almost like a beginning to end collaboration because… sometimes in journalism as reporters and editors we can kind of make the mistake of talking about a story first when it’s assigned and then when the story turned in. And the truth is that everything valuable about journalism basically happens in between there. And I think the lucky for me with working with David is that we talk about a story constantly. LIke from the conception of the idea, checkin in on reporting trips, talking about structure, and so then when the story comes in, it’s -- of course, there’s always work to do -- but mostly, the story’s in decent shape because there are no surprises. We’re arrived at the same place in some ways together. I think the other thing that has certainly influenced me about him and his work is just the general idea of stay and be there until you can get to the heart of the thing.
PAUL KIX: That was going to be my follow up. Because Finkel has been doing this a long time, being that intimate. And I’m wondering the extent to which over the course of your working relationship with him, he’s encouraged you to places that perhaps at first you were unwilling to go. Or to stay in scenes perhaps, you know, beyond that point where you felt uncomfortable.
ELI SASLOW: I think he has. If not directly, then just through a sensablity that has almost becoem shared of just knwoing sometimes you want a story to fuck you up a little bit and you want to feel things. And I think as a journalist, I always feel like if I’m reporting on something, and I’m not feeling it? I’m not moved by it, I'm not sort of a little bit rattled by what I’m seeing, then how in the world is a read who never saw any of this stuff first hand ever going to feel anything. So I think there’s embracing the idea that you should try to get to places to make you feel things, because that’s also the way to make readers feel things.
PAUL KIX: So I want to now move to something you alluded to just a minute ago which is the family, Mark and Jackie, they get out of the house Sort of terrible hour in which Daniel used to be home with them the other two kids had had already gone to school but Daniel was still home with him before he got on his bus for school and so they don't want to be home in that hour. They decide to go to lunch they go to a neighboring town in the hopes that they won't run into anybody from Newtown, but then they not only me a family from new town but it's a new town mother and a son who is seven. The Newtown mother comes by and she says, oh, it’s his birthday today and Jackie goes:
“Should we leave?” Jackie said, whispering to Mark, once the mother was out of earshot. “Would it be easier?”
“It might be,” Mark said.
But instead they sat at the table and watched as the waiter brought the boy a gigantic waffle covered in powdered sugar, berries and whipped cream. They watched as the waiter stuck a candle into the center of that waffle, and as the mother sang “Happy Birthday” and took a picture with her phone. They watched as the boy swept his fingers through the whipped cream, smearing it across his mouth and face while his mother laughed. “You’re so silly,” she said.
This boy, who had ended up in the other first-grade class at Sandy Hook Elementary.
This boy, who had hidden in the other bathroom.
ELI SASLOW: It was brutal. I think in my 13, 14 years of doing this work I can’t think of maybe a handful of moments like this one when I just wanted to disappear into a crack in the floor. Just being in that close proximity to that much hurt. You know, and so in those moments, what I’m trying to do is change the air as little as possible. I don’t even want to flip a page in my notebook because just anything would sort of change they dynamics of that moment, and it doesn’t feel like I deserve to. So I think I was taking notes on the page that was out and then when the moment had passed, excused myself to go to the bathroom and then wrote down furiously more notes. Not because they wouldn’t want me sitting there writing them down at the table, but just because it felt to me like a violation even though that’s what I was there for. Yeah, so, it’s complicated. I think a lot of people -- I remember when this story came out, people would remar, oh my gosh, it’s so -- what are the chances that you were there with them for that meal? And there’s some truth in that. But I think the other thing that isn’t in the piece, and that of course never shows up in these types of stories is -- I’m sure I sat at restaurants, at meals five other times with the Bardens where things like this didn’t happen. And I think part of this kind of reporting you need to see a lot more than you’re going to write and all different reporters do that all kinds of different ways. Some people make really long trips and imbed for really long periods of time. I, like you said, like you, I have little kids at home and try to keep trips short. So what I do is basically is whenever I’m on a trip, I’m spending every waking moment with the people that I’m writing about. That means in this case, Mark and Jackie, they told me when the first person in the house woke up, which would be usually James who’s Daniel’s oldest brother and school started first for him. And he would wake up at 6:15. And every morning when he woke up, I would just get there, get inside the house, and James would let me in, and then I would just hang out until people were going to bed. And so I think a lot of reporting in these kinds of scenarios is just maximizing time so that you can be there when those moments like this one in the diner occur.
PAUL KIX: The other family goes away:
“Oh God,” Jackie said, shoulders trembling, questions and doubts tumbling out as she tried to catch her breath. “Why did we wait to enroll him in school?” she said. “He could have started a year earlier. He could have been in second grade. He was old enough.”
“We were thinking about what was best for him,” Mark said, knowing the cycle that was starting, the blame, the need for absolution. “We wanted him to be one of the oldest.”
And I want to focus not so much on the pain in this passage, but in this very brief aside, “the blame, the need for absolution.” This is again one of those instances where I think, Eli, you're influenced by not just journalism but novelists, maybe movies, I'm not sure. “The blame and need for absolution,” that;s capturing an entire world that Jackie is feeling in a quick aside between quotes. And I guess my question for you here is, thinking outside of journalism, who are the novelists or who are the screenwriters or directors or whatever, the singer-songwriters -- because you know this podcast is trying to cover all of that in creative types -- who were the people that have really influenced you to say yes, I can I can actually apply those techniques to the journalism that I wanted to?
ELI SASLOW: It’s a great question, and I think I struggle to name names because the answer is so vast. I think, like, I’m reading fiction all the time. Probably more fiction than non-fiction. I forget -- definitely more fiction than nonfiction because I tend to enjoy it even more. And certainly like movies, I’m often thinking about structuring stories in a very cinematic way. I hope. I’m thinking about what’s the perspective of this scene. I’m almost thinking, like, where’s the camera angle. What are we doing in and what are we doing out. And also thinking about the progression of a scene that way, too. And I think, again, going back to what we were talking about earlier, there’s -- a scene is never going to be good if it exists in a vacuum. It has to be -- scenes in stories and in movies only work when they have to have purpose. I think that’s one of the things that you and I both admire about really great scripts. There’s an economy of language and things just move. And they have to move. And I think that’s a really good thing to learn. But also the other thing is every scene in the movie is in there, not just because it’s interesting but because it has a purpose. And I think that’s something I certainly take with me in every scene that I write. And I think something like that line you just read, where just as an aside after a quote it can say, “knowing the cycle that was starting, the blame, the need for absolution,” it’s a reminder to the reader that this is not a scene happening in a vacuum. This is a something that replays every day. And we only need to touch on that once to see to see, like, oh my gosh, I can’t imagine doing this again and again and then again. But we do need the reminder that it does echo over and over.
PAUL KIX: What ends up Happening in this piece is you see Barden's response to people's empathy and they've seen it before and for instance when they go to Delaware to try to argue for a bill that's really by the way incredibly watered down like there are you half as amazing aside as like well this, the gun restrictions could mean X except for Y caveat or Z caveat. And it goes on and on and on, and it’s a really watered-down bill. But they go there nonetheless and they’re met with people who want to try to say we are here to support you in one of the things that the Bardens say in the Hockley say -- another family that didn't make an appearance -- is just you know will will you actually read out the names of the kids because that's what's happened before and just -- it's that it's the family's posing that question that makes it all the more troubling in some sense. And I'm wondering about America's -- like, is one of the things you're trying to argue in this story, Eli, is almost like America's cynical sense of empathy, in that, oh, we’re here for you but only insofar as it can keep our attention? Is that something you're trying to get out of this?
ELI SASLOW: For sure. That’s definitely something that I hope is one of the things that’s infuriating about reading this story is that so much lip service is paid to how important this is. And the parents, you know, going around and having to stand again and again for another moment of silence is terrible for them but also they have sort of realized in this country the devil’s bargain is the only way to get something is basically put their grief on display. And so -- but that’s a really horrible thing, right? And as the piece moves on to the next section, it’s a press conference that this governor of Delaware has arranged that it’s just equally brutal. It’s basically like trotting these parents out for show. In this case, the Newtown parents were coming on the heels of a Virginia Tech survivor who’s already been there and..
PAUL KIX: Gabby Gifford who’d already been there. You see how this will mean nothing. This will mean nothing. Your pain will mean nothing for America. And you never have to say that, Eli. You never have to say that.
ELI SASLOW: No, because I think it’s -- and I think this scene, the scene in that press conference, which is the second to last scene of the story, is -- it’s, the power of it is that you see that Mark and Jackie are trying so hard. Basically all of these PR and marketing people have told them what to say, and have told them what to do, and even though it’s incredibly brutal and it’s all in this rehearsed pre-packaged way, it’s the one thing that might actually make their kid’s death matter so they do it. And the fact that you see Mark and Jackie dying on the sword in that section, I think, then, it sets up the last section in this -- in the transition to the last section in this way where sometimes they wanted to talk about this tragedy in a way that wasn’t polished, and it wasn’t appropriate for a press conference. Or, you know, in a way that was real. And I think that was a big part of how I structured this story was knowing that that was probably going to be effective.
PAUL KIX: So let’s move to the last section. And I remember the first time I read it, I thought, is he actually going to go there? Is he going to discuss the morning itself. and you do it in a very very graceful Artful way. I am actually not going to read it just because if I do, I might break down. how long did it take, Eli, before Mark told you about that morning?
ELI SASLOW: Ooooh, we talked about it repeatedly but I’d say in the full depth, it wasn’t until the second trip, and I’d been there for a long time, and I knew them really well. But also that morning what occured really, in really weird ways. Like when I was there reporting. I remember walking by this little play structure that he had in the yard, and it makes him think about a time when Daniel had fallen and gotten cut. And then thinking about that time was bleeding. Suddenly, Mark was thinking about the last time and trying to imagine what that was like. So I think those conversations almost always snuck up in reporting.
PAUL KIX: I just want to say real quickly because Mark wants to know everything Jackie does. not she doesn't know anything about that last day but Mark wants to know everything so once you figure that out Eli you're like there's a journalist and he was like, okay, well if I'm going to learn about it, I'm going to learn about it from him, right?
ELI SASLOW: Yes. Exactly and also I thought a lot in writing the details about that wanting to do it in a way that still honored Jackie and her desire not to know and I think that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t go as far as I could and mention that they’d got his effects from that day and left them upstairs unopened in the attic. I just want to say, too, the reason I put this in the last section is, first of all just structurally. The piece is building into the absolute heart of the misery here and so that’s one reason I have it here. The other thing, again, is Mark’s memory of that morning come in a scene that doesn’t take place that morning. A neighbor has come over after they’ve gotten back from delaware and her conversations about it puts Mark back in that head space, so it gives us a very natural transition to take us back there and sort of walk us through exactly what happened. And there’s one line -- a think some editors of The Post, their instinct was that I need to go further in describing what was in there and the last few sentences of this description are, like, so Mark went in there with the FBI so he could walk-thru and get a tour.
“He could hear the shouting over the intercom in the main office, where the principal had been shot, and he could hear the shooter’s footsteps on the linoleum hallway as he walked by one first-grade classroom and into the next, Daniel’s. He could see the substitute teacher scrambling to move the children into the corner, where there was a small bathroom. He could see all 15 of them huddled in there, squeezed together, and somewhere in that pile he could see Daniel.”
And I think I did not want to go farther than that? I think nothing of what I would write next would be as powerful as any readers imagination about that.
PAUL KIX: It’s almost like -- and I don’t mean this comparison to come off as tactless but it’s almost like the first time I watched “The Blair Witch Project,” and you’re imagination of what could have happened is worse than actually ever seeing what could happen. So it’s interesting how chose, once again, to go quiet there. And even youust reading that now, is something I don’t think I could actually do. Once you hear how Daniel dies, does it affect you, Eli? What I mean by that is, so we’re both fans of the nonfiction writer Eric Larson and he wrote a book from Nazi Germeny, “In the Garden of the Best,” is that right?
ELI SASLOW: Yes, that’s right.
PAUL KIX: And I remember an interview he gave after that where he said he never wanted to examine Nazi Germany again because the reporting itslef took its toll on him and he began to have nightmares. If I’m remembering correctly, he lost weight. It was not -- he got to a point where he was not in a good headspace day after day. I’m wondering, you’re with the Bardens for how long? All told?
ELI SASLOW: A couple weeks, probably all told.
PAUL KIX:Is there a point where reporting this story -- or even more specifically, when you finally heard from Mark about that morning. Is there a point where the story begins to affect you?
ELI SASLOW:Oh, yeah. This story, it ruled me. I think I had -- there were some lucky coincidences of reporting timing for me. I spent a week there and then very coincidentally it was my younger brother’s wedding the weekend in between and then I went back there so I had this incredible burst of joy in the middle of this really dark reporting stretch. But I think this story take it out of me. But at the same time, I -- this is always a hard thing to explain. Because first of all, talking about how difficult it is for me, or in general as a writer, talking about how difficult things are to observe is -- it’s almost not quite fair. It’s like appropriating a grief or a hardness that’s not ours to have. For the Bardens I was in proximity to something very hard for a relatively brief period of time so what I was feeling was so infantesimal compared to what they were feeling every day so even though it’s true that knocked me for a while, and it really did, it’s their pain to have, and the other thing, I think, as much as this story took out of me -- and it took a lot out of me -- it gave me so much more. The whole reason I do this job that I wanted to do as work is to tell stories that I feel like might matter and might make people think about things in a more empathetic way and to understand experiences that were different from their own. And I feel like I was able to do that. And that gives me so much of a sense of purpose. And it’s -- this kind of work is much more sustaining for me than it is depleting. I think I just always want to be careful to acknowledge that side, too. It’s both of those things. It is depleting, but it’s also really sustaining.
PAUL KIX: Thank you, thank you. That’s a wonderful response. If you like this episode -- if you like any of the episodes you’ve listened to, please go on to iTunes, rate it review it, say you like it, tell your friends about it. And it has been my great privilege, Eli, to have you on this episode today, so thank you.
ELI SASLOW: Thank you, and at the risk of verging towards the less formal, I want to thank you, too, always for your great friendship and your editing and your own great work. It all means a lot to me. And it’s influenced me as well. So thanks, Man.
PAUL KIX: Thank you. All right. We’ll be back next time. Thanks everybody.