Tag Archives: Eli Saslow

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.

How to Add Physical Description to Dialogue

12 Jan
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.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow wrote a feature for The Washington Post, “A Survivor’s Life,” on Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, one of the survivor’s of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

A key difference between beginning and experienced writers is the ability to handle the attributions and descriptions within dialogue. As we improve our craft, we work from “he said with glittering eyes” to “he guffawed” to “he said” to “he said, looking hard at her” to, finally, something better. Well-written dialogue uses carefully chosen physical details to push forward or expand the dramatic moment and the reader’s understanding of it.

An excellent example of this skill (and, frankly, an excellent example of pretty much every type of good writing) is “A Survivor’s Life,” Eli Saslow’s recent article about a 16-year-old girl who survived the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon. It was published in The Washington Post, where you can read it now.

How the Article Works

The article focuses on the relationship between the survivor, Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, and her mother and primary caregiver, Bonnie Schaan. In the opening paragraphs, Bonnie needs to run to the store to buy juice and ice, the first time she’s left her daughter alone since the shooting. Here is part of the dialogue from that scene:

“Do you want me to call someone to come sit with you?” Bonnie asked.

“No. Jesus. I can take care of myself.”

“Blinds opened or closed?”

“Damn it, Mom. Just go!”

Bonnie grabbed her coat and opened the door. She could see the market across the street.

“You’ll be okay?” she asked, but Cheyeanne didn’t answer.

This dialogue is effective for several reasons. First, attribution (identifying the speaker) is used only when necessary. Second, the attributions are kept simple: no screaming or whispering or begging, just “she asked.” Finally, physical details that we’re shown serve a clear purpose. Bonnie grabs her coat and sees the market across the street, making it clear how close the store is and how little time Bonnie’s daughter will spend alone. It’s a small detail, but it reveals so much about the situation. Bonnie is running literally across the street to buy two items, and yet she’s scared to leave her daughter for that long.

In another scene, Cheyeanne tells the story of  the shooting, something that Bonnie doesn’t want to hear. What results is dialogue with only one person speaking:

“The thing I keep thinking about is how that bastard stepped on me,” she said.

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.

“Like I wasn’t even human,” Cheyeanne said. “Like I was nothing.”

Bonnie may not speak words, but she is still communicating. It’s not intentional communication, but nonetheless, she’s revealing her thoughts: she doesn’t want to hear this information, a fact that is shown by how she redirects her attention from what is being said.

Finally, there’s a long tradition in stories, particularly war stories like “Speaking of Courage” by Tim O’Brien and “Soldier’s Home” by Ernest Hemingway, in which characters speak but aren’t heard—at least not in a meaningful way. The same thing happens to Cheyeanne in a coffee shop with a sign posted that announces, “Ten percent of proceeds go to victims!”

“I actually was a victim,” Cheyeanne told the girl at the counter, after she’d ordered her drink.

“Of what?” the girl asked.

Cheyeanne pointed to the sign.

“Oh. No kidding?” the girl said. She smiled. She handed out the drink. “Straw?” she asked.

In this case, the physical description (she smiled, handed out the drink) tells the reader how to understand the dialogue. For example, if the description had instead said that the girl “trembled, her hand shaking as she handed out the drink,” the dialogue would be understood much differently.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s add physical description to dialogue, using “A Survivor’s Life” by Eli Saslow as a model:

  1. Use description to add context to dialogue. Saslow writes dialogue showing how nervous Bonnie is to leave her daughter alone, but that nervousness takes on a different meaning when we see the store across the street. So, find an exchange of dialogue that refers to something or someone (I know that’s a vague instruction, but it’s necessary.) In short, find a noun that one speaker references and feels something about (happiness, trepidation, anger). Then, show that noun to the reader. If there is some difference between how we see the noun and how it’s being discussed, that difference will provide context for what is being said.
  2. Use description to replace dialogue. It’s no secret that body language is a significant part of human communication, yet we tend to strip it out of dialogue. Or, we add meaningless details, the equivalent of someone clearing their throat. One strategy is to summarize what a character is communicating or thinking or feeling. This is different than a summary of what the character says, as anyone who has snapped, “And what is that supposed to mean?” knows well. Keep that summary in mind as you write the dialogue. If possible, delete one line of dialogue and replace it with a physical action. The goal is to communicate the same thing as the line of dialogue but without speaking. The result can be a more nuanced scene.
  3. Use dialogue to interpret dialogue. In the scene in the coffee shop, Saslow uses the description to help us understand the barista’s line, “No kidding?” The description shows her smile and a single action, but you could also describe a character’s clothing, posture, or what the character does immediately following the dialogue. The goal is to reveal the impact that the conversation has on the character.

The goal is to add nuance and depth to dialogue with physical description of the characters and the things around them.

Good luck.

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