Friday, November 7, 2008

Author Interview-Kevin Vaughan

Kevin Vaughan is an award-winning journalist with the Rocky Mountain News. My previous blog, The Crevasse:Writing at its Best, shared my thoughts about Kevin's latest special project with the Rocky. Here is an interview with him where he talks about his writing and about his process for writing The Crevasse.

What do you enjoy most about writing?

I joke with another writer here that we enjoy "having written." In other words, the process itself is painful and hard, often, but the satisfaction comes when it is over. I actually enjoy several aspects of it. First, I love the chance to sit and talk with people and hear their stories. Second, I love those times when I am really in a groove, and the words are just pouring out of me, and it feels right. This doesn't happen that often, but it did in part of this story (chapters 3 and 4 were basically first-draft perfect; by that, I mean they were just the way I wanted them in my first draft, and editors and others loved them and made no significant changes or suggestions). I enjoy those times when you finish writing and you have to hit the button and it feels just right. Again, that doesn't happen all the time in the world I inhabit -- lots of times, with deadline arriving, I have to hit "send" before I would really like to.

How many people did you have to interview for the Crevasse?

For this series, I interviewed 10 people. The most extensive interviews were with Jim Davidson (probably 25-30 hours with tape-recorder running, and dozens of other, non-taped conversations). I also interviewed Mike's parents and brother, friends and climbing partners of his, and rangers at Mount Rainier. In addition to those 10, I probably talked to another 10 people to nail down various aspects of the story. These were sometimes as simple as one phone call to get statistics on deaths on Mount Rainier, or to track down the incident reports on the accident Jim and Mike went through.

How were able to take all that information and organize it into a cohesive story?

I concluded pretty early on that this, essentially, would be a chronological narrative -- that the action of climbing Rainier, the accident, and the escape would basically unfold as they had against a clock. The challenge, then, was where to begin and end. For I time, I though of beginning today, but that seemed weak because there just wasn't that much action today. So then I thought about it cinematically and envisioned the way it would begin as a movie. A quick clip of the fall. Then a backing up and slowing down and brushing in of the two main characters. Then the action. Chapter 5 was the most challenging, and I was conflicted about how to do it because there was NO action at all to drive it. In the end, I thought about all the questions I wanted to answer, and then sort of built it around those. Organizing it all was pretty easy -- I interviewed Jim chronologically, starting with his childhood, transcribed all those tapes, and then simply followed that as a map for the main guts of the story. Once I could envision the beginning and the end, they fell into place pretty quickly. But I am a very organized person when I write, and I followed that model here. I put together three three-ring binders with all my information in them, separated out. One section was Mike's writing. One section was the transcript of my interviews. One section was the official reports from the National Park Service. Having all of that well organized both helped my thought process and made it easier for me to pull together the pieces I needed to build the puzzle that became the story. That's a model I follow all the time. I also read and re-read my own notes and always start a list of things I have to think about and a list of things I have to include. I consult them often. The reason is simple: Often when I was younger I would come across a fact, or an observation, after I'd already written that I couldn't get into the story because it was too late. I didn't want to have that happen again, so I adopted this tack -- sort of a checklist that I was constantly adding to.

Did you know ahead of time how you were going to structure it?

I sort of answered that above, but I could see in my mind the guts of the story really quickly. When I was pitching the idea to my bosses, I wrote a very detailed outline. The one thing lacking at that point was the ending. The outline for the last chapter said only, "What it means." But I figured that it would come to me as I went, and it did. One thing I always try to do is to be very open to different ways of doing thing. I encouraged my editor and my writing friends to suggest completely different structures. That can be a risk to one's ego, but in the end I want the best possible story published. However, none of them had an idea of a way to do it significantly differently, so I took that as confirmation that the structure I had adopted was a good one.

The Crossing and The Crevasse were very emotional stories. How do you personally deal with all the emotions during the interviews and while writing it?

I have the ability to sort of go into reporter mode during an interview, and even in the most heart-wrenching situations I don't really get that emotional, at least at the time. Sometimes afterward, when I am away and alone, it hits me, and I try to embrace it. I'm an emotional person by nature, and I know that trying to suppress it won't work for long. So if I get emotional, I let it happen. But again, that usually happens after the fact. Another thing I do is talk to those close to me about what I am feeling. Sometimes that's my wife Colleen. Sometimes that's other writers here who have been there. One of the good things about the emotion is that it helps me see what parts of a story might really touch a reader. I resolved years ago to never be one of those people who never let anything bother him, because I think that's a recipe for long-term mental health problems.

How long did it take you to write The Crevasse?

This is hard to answer in a sense because I consider thinking about the story writing, in a way, and I thought about it a lot. But the best I can tell you is this. I wrote chapters 3 and 4 in two sittings over two days -- probably 10 to 12 hours total. That was back in May, and based on them I got the green light for the five-part series. I barely touched the series between mid-June and Sept. 1 because of the Democratic National Convention. When I got back to it after Labor Day, I basically had four weeks to get the rest of it written. That time included interviewing and so forth. There were many times when I worked on it late at night for an hour or two, and some days when I literally stared at the screen all day writing. If I had to guestimate total writing time, I'd say 40 hours. But that was spread over months of on-again, off-again work. But there were also times the last week before publication when my editor, Jim Trotter, and I worked for two hours on one chapter just talking about words. In the end, we might have revised a handful of sentences. I don't know whether to consider that writing time -- I guess it was.

What was the most challenging part about writing the story?

I would say in this story it was letting go of some really good stuff. I had an embarrassment of riches here -- much more informtion than I could cram into a piece that was approximately 30,000 words. There were many scenes that Jim, in particular, shared with me that were powerful, but even though I had a great amount of room I didn't have room for everything. It's a nice problem to have, but it's hard, as a writer, to look at something that would just make nearly any other story and toss it aside because it's not strong enough in this one. A case in point: Jim had a long, emotional phone call with his dad late the night after he got out of the crevasse. But using it would have diluted the power of the phone call to his wife. I ultimately decided the phone call to his wife was more important -- it was his first reach out to the outside world after escaping the crevasse. Again, a nice problem to have, because it means you really have to think about what you are using. But I also think that forces you to distill the story down to its best elements.

Do you believe in writers block?

Well ... um ... I ... don't ... know ... how ... to ... answer. OK, my attempt at humor. Yes I believe in it. It happens sometimes -- sort of the opposite of those times when the words are just pouring out of me. I'm lucky in one sense: In my business, there's always a deadline, and not writing is not an option. When I am stuck, I force myself to write a sentence. Even if it's junk, I get something down. Sometimes I'll make myself write a half-dozen or more sentences and then go back. I look for a better way to write each one. Pretty soon, I have something that, at a minimum, I can live with. Sometimes, I'll look and its even good. I wrote one chapter in The Crossing that I hated when I wrote it. I showed it to a few of the writers here I work closely with, and they all liked it. I still didn't. Then I let it sit for a couple weeks and read it again, and I liked it. Now its one of my favorite chapters. I would be in trouble, though, without a deadline, because I know on those occasions when I was stuck that I might just walk away. Having a deadline often forces the writer's block out of me.

Do you have any advice for new writers?

Read and write. Read writers you admire and go out on a limb and read stuff that might not, at first, grab you. As you are reading, think about why certain sections grab you or move you. Think about the power of the words there -- and what's not there. Sometimes the unsaid thing, the unanswered question, is much more powerful than what is said. My favorite book of all time is The Onion Field. I have read it about five times, and every time I make more observations about Joseph Wambaugh's absolute mastery of that story. On the writing front, I would say to write and write and write, even if you think the stuff is junk. And grow a thick skin. Writing is hard, because you put down the words and then you hand them over to someone else and it hurts when they don't like them. When you can adopt the idea that you should be pushing yourself for the best possible story, it makes criticism hurt less. This is a hard thing -- it took me years to get to that point. Writing is so personal, it's hard to expose yourself that way. But if you can get into a mindset where you embrace it, you will find that your writing gets better.

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