An Interview with Eli Saslow

14 Jan
Eli Saslow is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Washington Post.

Eli Saslow is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Washington Post.

Eli Saslow is a reporter at the Washington Post, where he covered the 2008 presidential campaign and has chronicled the president’s life inside the White House. He won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his year-long series about food stamps in America. Previously a sportswriter for the Post, he has won multiple awards for news and feature writing. Two of his stories have also appeared in Best American Sports Writing. He is the co-founder of Press Pass Mentors, a program that pairs professional journalists with low-income high school juniors and seniors to help them become great writers.

To read an exercise about adding physical description to dialogue, inspired by Saslow’s article, “A Survivor’s Life,” click here.

In this interview, Saslow discusses finding the central source of tension in a story, the gray area of attributing feelings to people, and reading Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried as he reported on the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon.

Michael Noll

The article is titled “A Survivor’s Life,” and yet it begins with a focus on that survivor’s mother struggling to interact with her daughter as she recuperates from the attack. It’s a subtle move, but it really shifted my perspective on the story. I guess it’s tempting to think purely in terms of shooter/victim, but this story makes clear that there are many people who are affected. Why did you choose to start with the mother instead of the survivor from the title?

Eli Saslow

I knew pretty early on that the mother was going to be a major character in the story. In some ways, she is the most active character—she is doing everything in her power to love her kid back to normal, and her efforts drive a lot of the action. Plus, there is so much tension between Bonnie and Cheyeanne, and I thought that tension could help drive the story forward. Also, I thought that Bonnie was also the most redeeming aspect of the story. She is trying so, so hard.

When I write, I always want to know exactly how a story ends. I find that I write toward that ending, like a destination on a map, and if I don’t know the ending of a story, I get lost along the way. I knew that this story was going to end in that moment of terror for Cheyeanne, with her calling out for her mom. That also reinforced that Bonnie needed to be a big part of the beginning of the piece as well.

Michael Noll

When the article shifts to the survivor, Cheyeanne, you write this:

By then, the college had reopened. What remained of her Writing 115 class had been moved across campus to an airy art building with windows that looked out on Douglas firs. They were forging ahead and coming back stronger, always stronger. That’s what the college dean had said.

I’m interested in this line: “They were forging ahead and coming back stronger, always stronger.” One of the things that I’ve heard journalists say in the past is that every line must be attributable and verifiable. Yet this line seems to fall into a gray area. It’s the words of the college dean and something that Cheyeanne might remember hearing with some bitterness—but it also seems like an inference you’re making about the distance between official statements and people’s reality. What is your approach to a line like this?

Eli Saslow

Very good question. You are right that this is more of a gray area line. It is Cheyeanne’s recollection, but I went back and checked her memory against what the college dean had actually said, which was not verbatim but pretty close. In this case, the most important thing was to give readers a feeling of how those words felt to Cheyeanne—and not necessarily tell readers the exact thing the college dean said. His exact words weren’t important or memorable—but the memory of them had stuck with Cheyeanne. I think that’s more important and also does more to put readers inside her head and honor her experience.

Michael Noll

Your physical descriptions are outstanding. For instance, when Cheyeanne is talking about the shooting, you describe her mother this way:

Bonnie shifted on the couch. She flicked dust off the armrest. She noticed a dirty plate on Cheyeanne’s bedside table and reached over to grab it.

These are small details, especially the flicking of the dust. I would imagine that it’s difficult to notice such things when you’re first meeting people, that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by what you’re hearing, seeing, and inferring. Had you spent a lot of time with Cheyeanne and Bonnie before this moment arrived? If not, how do you settle into a moment of time so that you can notice details like the ones above?

Eli Saslow

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow wrote a lengthy feature on Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, one of the survivor's of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

In “A Survivor’s Life,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow wrote  about Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, one of the survivor’s of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

Thanks for that. I think all narrative stories rise and fall on small, observed details. The goal with these stories is to make readers feel like they are in the room with Bonnie and Cheyeanne, and it is the details that make people feel real. I spend a lot of time with the subjects of my stories to get the details right. I might not notice something on the first day, or the third day, or the fifth, but maybe I will notice in the second or third week. I spent dozens of hours sitting in Bonnie and Cheyeanne’s living room with them. Some of those hours are quiet, and there is nothing to do but look around and pay attention to the details that bring scenes to life.

Michael Noll

When Cheyeanne tells the story of the shooting to her brother, he struggles to know what to say or how to act. He’s not the only one. Cheyeanne’s mom doesn’t want to hear the details, and her brother’s friend asks about it but then seems to forget that he asked. I was struck by the similarity of this situation with fictional stories like “Speaking of Courage” in Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried and Ernest Hemingway’s story, “Soldier’s Home.” In both, soldiers come home from a war and find that they can’t talk to anyone about what they experienced and that people can’t understand the stories or don’t want to hear them. Did you research survivor’s experiences before talking with Cheyeanne so that you could anticipate certain behaviors or feelings? Or did you go in with a blank slate, so to speak, to avoid developing preconceptions of what you might find?

Eli Saslow

I actually reread The Things They Carried as I was writing this story. I think it is important to have a bigger context of a person’s experience. I always want to know as much as I can. I’d also written a good bit about trauma and isolation before (most recently in this piece), and I carried those reporting experiences into this piece as well.

January 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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