Friday, July 6, 2007

Writer's insight on the 'Grizzly attack' story

If you haven't read the grizzly attack story , it's worth your time. It fascinated me, so I e-mailed the L.A. Times' Tom Curwen with a couple of questions. He provided some great insight into how he put the story together, from how he got the access to how he focused to the story to a lot of great stuff in between.

One interesting note: He is an editor, not a staff writer there, so he used time here and there to work on the story until he gained enough momentum that he got cut loose for about a week to finish it off.

One more note: He's jazzed by our focus on writing, saying he thinks it's critical whenever we can "to think away from the inverted pyramid and to reimagine story-telling as a vital, energetic and surprising expression that taps into readers' curiosities, interests and needs."

Here are his thoughts on the grizzly story:

How did you decide when in the story to weave in background, and how much time away from the storyline was just right?

As the question implies, backsteps are always a gamble. In the case of this story, I was lucky to have a compelling narrative -- and a simple chronology -- that could tolerate any momentary breaks in the action. I'm a big believer in delayed gratification and wanted to tease out the drama of the attack as long as I possibly could. No detail was too small to include. Each allowed me to create a crescendo in each paragraph, in each small scene, before stepping away (I think readers appreciated this too; a number wrote to comment on how it allowed them to catch their breath).
But that said, I never take readers for granted, and for better or worse, I believe they have an extremely short attention spans. Therefore, any step back has to be written like haiku, no single word wasted.

When did you decide to try to do a story like this?

I first read about the attack in an AP story that ran after Johan was discharged from Harborview Hospital in Seattle. It was a well-reported piece but just the bare-bones. At the time, I was editing the paper's Outdoors section and had just written a re-creation of another bear attack that had taken place that summer up on Alaska's North Slope, and I knew from reader response that bear stories never fail. Then, within weeks -- and rather coincidentally -- I was visiting a family member at Scripps Memorial Hospital, and I noticed a man in a halo walking down the corridor. It had to be Johan, and I knew this was my chance (a sign?).
In the beginning, I had no idea the story would have so many fascinating components. I just thought it was a bear attack, but as I got into the reporting and learned about the helicopter rescue, for instance, and the scalp surgery, I knew I had a narrative that could go the distance.

When (in the timeline of the attack/recovery) did you secure the access?

Rather than approaching Johan first, I went to the nurse in charge of his recovery. I wanted to give the family space; clearly his treatment was far more important than anything I needed. She put me in touch with the hospital's public relations manager, and after I explained how I wanted to write this story -- with an emphasis on the recovery -- she spoke with Johan and passed his phone number onto me.
Winning the trust of a stranger is a tricky business, but I was helped by the fact that other media (newspapers and television) had so inundated Johan with interview requests that he appreciated someone willing to take a slow, calm and methodical approach. As I explained how I work and how I imagined telling this story -- getting into the psychological angle of his recovery, sending him a tape recorder to capture moments and feelings when I wasn't around -- the more Johan opened up to me. I think he has as much respect for narratives as I do and realized that it was a story perfect for sensationalization (Bear Bites Man!), which he wanted to avoid that at all costs.

What, if any, ground rules did you have with Johan, the family, doctors, etc.?

When I explained to Johan what a narrative is, I told him that I would need complete and exclusive access. I was up-front with him every step of the way. I told him that I would need his medical records. I told him that I would do a FOIA on the park's report about the rescue. I hid nothing from him, and I told him that he had to be open with me, especially if there was any part of the reporting that made him uncomfortable. I explained that we would talk about it and then decide whether or not it was critical to the story.
Of course, along the way he was tempted by other magazines and mediums (Oprah, for one), but after a month or two, I was able to appeal to his conscience, explaining how the LA Times needed to break this story first and that the paper had already devoted a lot of time and money in reporting it. Fortunately, he understood and respected that agreement.

How did you get the level of detail in the story?

I was lucky. Not only was Johan very forthcoming (it became clear to me that our interviews and email exchanges were becoming a form of therapy for him) and his memory of the events completely lucid, but also everyone involved in the rescue and the recovery seemed to have the whole incident seared into their brains.
Also, my editors were terrific and played no small role helping me uncover every detail. The first draft of the story was an ungainly 15,000 words and contained a number of extra characters and characterizations (which would probably find room in a book but not in a newspaper story). We decided to scale the story back by focusing strictly on Johan's point of view. I consequently spent a day with him, allowing him to fill in as many blanks as he could. It was a smart decision. It forced me to dive deeper into his psyche, and it shortened the piece by about 5,000 words.