Q&A with Pulitzer Prize winner Eli Saslow May 14, 2014
By KENT BABB
The Washington Post
A month ago, the Washington Post’s Eli Saslow was announced as the Pulitzer Prize winner for explanatory reporting. His start came about a decade ago in the paper’s sports department, on the most meager of assignments, and he continually worked his way up. He’s now on The Post’s highly decorated national enterprise team.
Saslow’s rise came through meticulous reporting and thoughtful writing, and eventually his editors allowed him to write longer. Though still only 32, he’s now seen as one of America’s best writers of narrative journalism, and for my money, he’s the best writer in the land – and not just because he’s my friend and colleague. His Pulitzer-winning series on the role and shortcomings of food stamps in a post-recession America and his feature on the lonely journey of parents who lost children in the Newtown shootings should be required reading for anyone interested in journalism.
This week he was nice enough to share some of his thoughts and secrets with the APSE Writers Wing, and among other topics, Saslow discussed how he earns subjects’ trust, why he still dabbles in sports writing even with a challenging workload in his day job, and the reasons why stories aren’t good just because they’re long.
Babb: Many writers hope to write in-depth, narrative pieces. When and how did you notice that you had an interest in these types of stories, and how did you begin pursuing that interest?
Saslow: I got interested in this type of storytelling early on, probably in college, but I didn't have too many opportunities to do it for a while. My first beat at The Post was covering high school volleyball in Anne Arundel County, a beat that didn't necessarily lend itself to 100-inch pieces. I was mostly writing 10-inch game stories, but I would also try to make time to always work on one ambitious story at a time — things that weren't usually on my beat, but that didn't conflict with any other beats, either. Sometimes those stories would take a few months, and I would do them on nights, weekends, whatever, but they were also the stories I cared the most about, and they let me practice the kind of writing I really wanted to do. I think the first ones were on Dexter Manley and Joe Forte, Washington athletes who had kind of burned out in various ways. Once the sports editors saw those stories and others, they liked them (or at least parts of them) and began to help facilitate a little more time for me to do the longer, narrative pieces.
Babb: I am among those who think a background in sports journalism prepares you for all manner of reporting. We write frequently about success and loss, adaptation (or not) to failures and new challenges. Then again, I have never worked outside sports. Where do you stand?
Saslow: Absolutely. Sports writing is about the best way to learn how to do any kind of writing, for all of the reasons you mention and more. I also think covering sports teaches you how to write SCENE, which is the most important thing in narrative journalism. As a sports journalist, your whole job is to watch and then to write about what you see in a way that feels fresh, new, immediate. Also, you learn to write often and write fast, which is always useful, no matter what kind of work you want to do. And you get to write about something that at least FEELS high stakes, with tension and drama — and even if those elements are sometimes a little manufactured, those are the elements that are essential to any good story.
Babb: Sometimes these stories can seem overwhelming, whether because of the topic or just the sheer terror of knowing you have to write thousands of words. How do you begin thinking about a subject? Here, I’ll give you a specific sports example: Last year’s terrific ESPN The Magazine piece on Tyrann Mathieu, a guy who had been written about many times, in many ways. What is your Step One on approaching an assignment like that?
Saslow: Step one is always trying to get as much time with and around the people you are writing about as possible. That's not always easy to do. But my pitch to Mathieu was essentially the same as my pitch for every story: "I want to write about you, and I want to do it right. I want to write about you in a full way — not in a one-dimensional, expected way. That doesn't do you or anybody any favors. I want to do justice to you by writing a story that feels whole, good stuff, bad stuff, whatever. But an honest story about you in this moment, right now." Usually, I find that if people are actually convinced that you REALLY want to get it right, they are happy to give you time. They want to be understood. They want people to see where they are coming from. So then it just becomes a matter of knowing when to ask questions and when to fade into the background, so you can watch little bits of their lives unfold. With Mathieu, I hung out with him for two or three days, and some of that time was structured interview time. But by far the most useful time was when I was just following him around, hanging out at his house, watching him Skype with his girlfriend, listening to him crave weed — whatever. The quiet, observed moments are usually the most impactful in a story.
Babb: In your job at The Post, you take on some heavy, time-consuming projects. Why are you still drawn to sports stories and the assignments you take on throughout the year?
Saslow: In part because the stories I do for The Post are so heavy — which I love, and which is a kind of journalism I really believe in. But it makes me want some kind of other blend in the mix. I didn't write about sports for several years, and I missed it. This gives me a way to dive back in on some fun stories — not that sports stories can't be serious, because they can be as serious as anything. But my work in the last few years for The Post has been about extreme poverty, guns, etc., so sometimes even a serious sports story can feel like it offers a tiny bit of levity.
Babb: One of the remarkable things you do seems so simple but is so damn difficult: You get in the door. Into the diner with the Newtown parents, into the line at the food bank, into Michael Irvin’s mind as he prepared for his Hall of Fame speech. You mentioned during your Pulitzer speech that you’re not sure you would let someone that close. So how do you go about earning your subjects’ trust enough that they let you in?
Saslow: Thanks for saying that, man. You do it too, so I respect that praise from you. I think earning trust and earning access happens in both big ways and little gestures. Big: in everything I do, I try to make the people feel respected and heard. Most people want to know that what they are going through matters, and that people are paying attention, and I think it can be gratifying for them to have a willing listener. Small: I eat at the places they want to eat, I wear things that I know will make them feel more comfortable (I'm not tucking in dress shirts when I'm writing about food stamps), and I always leave my cell phone in the car when I'm reporting, so that I am not tempted to look at it. I want to give undivided attention to the reporting at hand.
Babb: Before you start writing (and maybe even before you start reporting), what do you do to get past the everyday-ness of some of these stories? You’re not afraid to take on a topic that has been written a lot. Going back to the Mathieu piece, how did you determine what the story was, and then what did you do to begin to understand his complexity?
Saslow: I think the biggest thing with any story is to know that everyone is complex, and nothing is as simple as it seems. Everybody has good things and bad, mistakes and successes, and that's what makes people interesting to write about. If you start from that point — the idea that, Hey, this story is going to be complicated and interesting — then it is just a matter of getting to the heart of the story and finding the interesting pieces. I mostly believe that ANYONE is interesting if you spend enough time with them and care enough to find out the compelling stuff. With Mathieu, I figured out pretty early on that what makes him relatable — and what makes his story bigger than just himself — is that he is trying to piece his life together in this incredibly high-pressure moment. And so, when I was with him, there was this collision of two big things: He had a crazy amount of stress, and the thing he had always relied on to relief that stress was the one thing he could no longer do. That's a lot of tension, and I think it is a tension people can relate to.
Babb: Ten years ago, around when you and I were graduating from college, we heard that journalism was trending shorter. Which is interesting, because although Twitter now rules the world, there’s also so much #longform out there that it seems chic to write long; that a story is somehow better just because it’s more than 2,000 words. How, then, do you go about making sure a story deserves its length and placement? In other words, how do you make it count?
Saslow: I try to make sure that a story earns every sentence. Every sentence should be reported. Stories feel long if they are full of what feels like WRITING — whether that's a writer imposing his voice or opinion on a story, or just longwinded stuff. But stories — even 5,000 word stories — feel compact when every sentence is detailed, factual and concise. Long stories are not necessarily good. In fact, I think more often long stories end up being worse than short stories, because they are harder to manage. They longer my stories get, the more ruthless I am on trying to make sure each sentence is driving the story forward.