Saturday, April 5, 2008

On writing: Julia O'Malley, Anchorage Daily News

Julia O'Malley of the Anchorage Daily News won this year's Scripps Howard national award for human interest writing. I read a couple of her stories -- "Child monk atones for dead brother," and "Homeless in Anchorage" -- and asked if she'd talk about them for our blog.

Her responses include some thoughts on how stories end -- or don't. We've talked a lot about conflict/resolution and finding the ending that ties off a story, but we've also talked about stories that don't have that 'perfect' ending, and she has some interesting things to say about that.

Here you go:

Q: On 'Child monk atones for dead brother': Did you face a cultural challenge in reporting/writing about the Lao community, and if so, how did you gain the understanding of and feel for the culture you needed to write this piece? Did you know ahead of time that this particular story was there, or did you find it while on a more general mission, i.e., to find out what impact the man's death had had on his family or community?

A: The first challenge to reporting the story was language. I had a hard time finding people to translate that I trusted.The older generation didn't speak English, but I found that children, especially oldest children (some who were in their 20s) were really good interpreters and also helped me navigate cultural issues.
About a year before I wrote about the young monk, I wrote a story about a Lao woman who worked as an interpreter. I followed her for 6 months before publication. She really helped me get a feel for the community and the temple. I stayed in touch with her after the story came out, and I returned to the temple several times just to visit, that's where I met Andrew.
I think so much of finding stories is just putting yourself in the right place to witness them. In this immigrant community, it took doing a few routine simple features to make connections and get a feel for things.

Q: The last line -- "Maybe he'd leave after the summer, he said, letting he eyes pass over the faces of his mother and grandmother in the crowd, before settling into his special place at the edge of the altar." -- strikes me as a juxtaposition of family (i.e. what he has 'lost') and his new life (i.e. what he has gained). If I'm reading that right, can you tell me about your decision making in crafting that ending?

A: My frustration with that story was that there was so much that I had to leave out. I could have used 30 more inches, honestly. But I chose to end there because that was quintessentially the dilemma of the piece, Andrew's feelings of being torn, between his parents and the monks, between his feelings of obligation to his culture and his little boy desires.
The hardest thing for him, it seemed, was just to make a decision. Sometimes things don't tie up neatly. You finish reporting, but the story keeps on going.

Q: On 'Homeless in Anchorage': After '...and her life began to fray,' the next few grafs tell us her story so far. I feel like you wrote that to give us the feel of what her jumbled life is like (perhaps what the inside of her head is like). Can you tell me how/why you wrote those grafs as you did?

A: I wanted to slowly pull the reader into the chaos she dealt with. I didn't want to judge her, or diagnose her, I just wanted to tell her story the way she told it to me. I wanted the reader to draw his/her own conclusion.

Q: There are some terrific small details at different points of both this story and the monk story (paperwork in her breast pocket along with some toilet paper, white socks peeking out of the robes). Why did you use those? And generally, when you decide whether to use a particular detail, what are you looking for? What work do you want the detail to do in the story?

A: I believe details shouldn't be in a story for details sake. Too many details crowd the narrative. I pick them carefully, because they are a moment where I'm turning on the microscope, so I want then to be significant, to work to move the story forward or reveal something about a character.
When I pick the detail, want it to be specific and singular. Instead of "The cafe was full of elderly people," I would try to hone it down, like, "I watched a man with a walker shuffle toward the door."

Q: The homeless story starts with a conflict (she had to find another place to sleep). It ends without a clear resolution (she has not found another place). Why did you decide to end it at that point in her story?

A: As a reporter, I've had a bad habit of wanting to tie everything up in a bow at the end. I look for that perfect out quote or try to come up with a last graph that draws things to a happy conclusion. The thing I'm working on in my writing is letting go of that. It can be so pat and inaccurate. In real life there are so many times when things are messy or when two conflicting truths exist at once. I chose that ending because at the end of the day, she was still dysfunctional. She's trying to get someplace, to change her life, but like a lot of the chronically homeless, she's got particular challenges that make that very hard.