Going Long (and We Mean Really, Really, Really Long)
The Hamilton Spectator's Jon Wells has but one job—to write extended serial narratives. Mostly they're about crime in his city, but there was one about the nasty industrial inferno that claimed the life of a steeltown firefighter. In conversation, Wells explains how he keeps it all together without losing the plot
The newspaper medium is an easy mark for ridicule. Itscaricature consists of the inverted pyramid, the 5 o’clock deadline and a strict adherence to “just the facts, ma’am.” Yet for a half-decade Jon Wells has worked within the supposedly rigid confines of his daily newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator, and repeatedly tested the limits of long-form journalism. Since 2003, thedailyhas published six of the diligent reporter’s oversized features.
These stories aren’t mere double-page spreads appearing in hefty Saturday editions. The first, “Poison,” weighed in at 160,000 words and ran over five weeks and 31 instalments. Wells won a National Newspaper Award for that one. The other five serials — “Sniper,” “Heat,” “Post Mortem,” “Emergency” and “To the Grave” — have all been published at similar lengths.
Review online editor Sara Chappel sits down with Wells to talk about his ideas, his research and the writing process for such large-scale projects.
Sara Chappel: What kinds of ideas are you drawn to?
Jon Wells: I wanted to be a sports writer when I was a teenager. I used to write stuff at home when I was 11, 12 years old, on my own, just kind of making up stories. Every game has a built-in, natural narrative: there’s a beginning, middle and an end, and there’s a winner and a loser. That’s the real basic skeleton of a sports narrative.
Most of my series are crime stories, but I don’t think I’m drawn to crime stories themselves. I’m drawn more to writing about people who encounter great challenges in life. Certainly in crime cases this manifests itself in the detectives who investigate these horrible murder cases and the families of victims who have to cope with loss.
There’s always some kind of hook that gets people into the narrative and tunes them into the plot and what happens at the end. But in between are the profiles, so I’m getting into the minds of different characters and what makes them tick — good or bad. Crime stories are filled with extreme examples of people behaving very badly. Criminal Minds and CSI are about people trying to get at the core of what makes an evil mind work, and I’m also interested in trying to show for readers what makes someone tick, who’s operating beyond the pale of what we would term to be civilized or humane behaviour.
In the one I did on the firefighters — “Heat” — the main character dies of cancer. That wasn’t a crime story per se, but it was about a family dealing with the horrible loss of its father and husband.
SC: Do you come up with the ideas or are they proposed by your editors?
JW: “Poison” was suggested by former editor-in-chief Dana Robbins. He had the idea that I could do something big with the story about Sukhwinder Singh Dhillon [who had been convicted of poisoning his friend, Ranjit Khela in 2002, and his first wife, Parvesh Dhillon, a year before that], but no one told me how big. To take chances, to stretch my legs and to try to write the best thing I’ve ever written were pretty much the only instructions Dana gave me.
The second, “Sniper,” again was Dana’s idea. The third, “Heat,” was mine. I suggested writing about this huge Plastimet fire that happened in Hamilton [on July 9–12, 1997] from the perspective of the firefighters — a real human drama, like the television series Third Watch. The fourth, “Post Mortem,” was an idea I got from going through our files of trials and stories we’d written and finding one that had a heavy CSI feel.
“Emergency” was my idea as well. I was trying to see if I could write more of a live narrative — something happening in the here and now. It was one of the most challenging concepts I’ve attempted because I didn’t know how it would end. That was stressful — hoping that it would come together as a narrative. The last one, “To the Grave,” another crime story, came about when I was researching the “Post Mortem” crime series. One of the detectives said, “You know, the one case that was really horrible was this one.” And I thought, “Oh, I should come back to that sometime and see if I can do the full treatment.”
SC: When you get an idea, what do you do then? What’s your research process?
JW: The first thing is to outline the general narrative arc of the story. It will certainly go through changes when I start writing — what do I want to show off the top, what do I want to hold in my pocket until later in the narrative and that kind of thing. But in terms of the general arc, I’ll write a timeline of events to help me develop the skeleton of the narrative. The rest of the process, no matter how long it takes, is putting meat on the bones and filling in the blanks. It’s a matter of determining the characters and then interviewing like crazy everyone who might be a character.
If it’s a crime story, I’ll gather court transcripts and read the stories that have been written about it so I can start to accumulate this volume of detail. Every tiny bit helps when you’re trying to fill out a narrative that’s going to last for at least 30 chapters. Through doing that, I conceptualize how the plot will progress. You’re trying to write a plot that’s sustainable, so you don’t want to splurge with all the great stuff in chapter one — or you’re in trouble.
One of the things Dana was telling me about doing long features was “over-report and under-write.” I always have this temptation to include every voice I interview so I can show the reader, “This is what I did, here’s the work I did.” But that’s not helping the reader.
SC: Where did you learn to report?
JW: I went to University of Western Ontario for my undergraduate degree in political science, and wrote sports for the student paper, The Gazette. Before I started my undergrad degree I was encouraged to take something that required a lot of writing, which for me was politics. I did a lot of big essays and stuff like that. Then I went to Carleton for the Master of Journalism program. Although I already had a pretty good grounding in writing, you can always learn more. That was two years and a great experience. Then I worked for the Guelph Tribune, a weekly paper, for five years. That was a great learning experience, too, because there were only three reporters. So there was a lot of chance to write features — not six-page features, but 20-inch profiles of people. That really helped me for the long-form journalism.
SC: How do you pace yourself when you’re in the middle of an enormous project?
JW: I just try not to fall behind. Once I started gathering information for “Poison,” even before it was coming fast and furious, I was trying to develop a rapport with the investigators. If you want them to open up to you with the kind of detail that you want for a narrative, you really need people to trust you. So there’s this process of just getting to know them, and that takes a while. So a month or two in I feel a little panicky because I don’t think I have all that much. And the editors come over to my desk and say, “Well, what have you got?” And I go, “Well, not much.” You have to be patient.
SC: So what do you do to get people to trust you?
JW: I always think if I can just get my foot in the door, if I can just sit down with them, it’s a lot friendlier. There’s an intimacy that comes from sitting down with anyone. That can provide some trust, and then it’s a case of getting them to see that you’re — hopefully — a person who’s not out to get them. And maybe you tell them that: “I’m not out to trick you.”
Word of mouth helps as well. If you’re doing your first interview, you have no track record. You’re relying on your sales skills. My father was a salesman, a great golfer and just a really personable guy. I’m not nearly as extroverted, but maybe some of that salesmanship rubbed off. You have to be able to look someone in the eye and believe what you’re selling — in this case, your integrity. You’re selling your ability to write something that’s not going to make them look like an idiot.
SC: Is there anywhere in particular you like interviewing?
JW: I like going to the person’s house. A coffee shop is okay. A cafeteria’s not very good — you have colleagues coming in and out. An interview room is cold and empty. I’d rather be in a person’s house if for no other reason than you can see what books are on the shelf and photos are on the wall. I was doing a long profile of [Hamilton Tiger-Cats running back] Jesse Lumsden a few weeks ago and by the end of it he was showing me the artwork on his wall. So I led with that.
SC: Do you sit down to write once you’ve got your research done, or do you write as you research and then piece it all together?
JW: I try to write as I go as much as I can — that’s easier when you’ve got a lot of time. With “Poison” and “Sniper” I took about a year to put each of those together. When I did “Poison,” for example, early on I interviewed the forensic pathologist who did the autopsy on this poisoning victim, and then I went to the library and researched poisoning cases, and wrote this chapter I called “The Autopsy.” It could have been a stand-alone feature. I wrote about 60 inches just on the autopsy mixed in with a profile of this pathologist, and then just shuffled it away and moved on. By the end I had almost a series of segments or chapters, and I started fitting them together. That’s how I stayed ahead of the game with “Poison.”
With the one I did last year, “To the Grave,” the deadline was tighter. I had about three months, which probably sounds like a lot, but not when it’s a 13-part series with 60 inches a day. And that was a difficult story. It was a case I wrote about and it never went to court, so it took a lot of arm-twisting for the police to talk to me. It was a matter of being quicker on my feet to try and figure how the story was going to go. As I was interviewing, I wrote the timeline. I couldn’t write it in scenes. Basically, I sat down: Chapter One. Even as we were laying out the pages for the series, I had a great interview with a cop who had arrested the killer at the hospital. They’d gotten into a big fight there and I didn’t even know that. So a one-liner that read, “He was arrested at the hospital, read his rights and taken to the jail,” changed to a detailed scene that read, in part, “He fought like a wild animal and was kicking and screaming against the glass doors of the emergency room….”
At a certain point, you do have to say, “Okay, I’m going to leave it alone, I’ve got to move on, I’ve got to polish what I have,” but it’s an ongoing process with the research and the writing. I never really say: “Now I’m done researching. Now I’m going to write.”
SC: Did you find out something that made you say, “Oh no, I wish I’d been able to put that in?”
JW: I’ve rarely felt that I’ve missed the hook or the potential payoff that would have made the story so much better. It’s more the little things. You become so obsessed with getting the little details that make it sing. For example, with “Heat,” the firefighter story, I’ve kept in regular contact with the widow and the son of Bob Shaw, the firefighter who died, and every so often — once or twice a year — we’ll get together for dinner. They’ll start telling old stories about Bob: “Oh, this is the place he used to come — we used to eat here all the time.” And I think, “Well, why didn’t you tell me that?” For the book [Heat: A Firefighter’s Story (Lorimer 2006)] I went back and used some of these extra details.
SC: Do you need anywhere in particular to write?
JW: It’s not the most peaceful place, but I’ve written most of my stuff at my desk at the Spectator. For the last series, when I was really under deadline, I spent some solid time at home, where I had total silence. I could write for a free half hour without checking email and without anyone bugging me and without listening to ambient noise. It’s amazing what you can get done. You feel like you’ve worked for three hours and think, “Okay, that’s a day for me, but you’ve only worked half an hour.”
SC: Do you keep a notebook?
JW: I use a notebook for reporting, but I find myself scribbling on little pieces of paper in my car as I’m driving — which is not recommended! As soon as I finish an interview, I’m writing in my head in the car on the way back. I’m thinking aloud about what they’ve said and what they’re like. I’m already starting the process of developing a portrait. Even driving to work, I’ve called my own voicemail if a thought comes to me about something. If I have my tape recorder, I’ll tape myself talking to myself. The process of writing never actually stops. Even when I’m watching TV or movies I pay attention to what the show’s writers are doing to the viewer: What’s the device they’re using? What’s keeping you locked in? You can have the most lyrical writing in the world, but if no one wants to read the whole story it’s not much use.
by Sara Chappel
Sara Chappel was the Online Editor for the Spring 2008 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.