An Interview with Eli Saslow

An Interview with Eli Saslow

An Interview with Eli Saslow

“People are flattered when you want to remember somebody who meant a lot to them. They’re relieved to talk about it – the interview can be cathartic for them. They want to talk a lot of times – it’s just a matter of being asked… One of the nice things in this job is the chance to make people feel better about something awful.”

“I guess mainly I try to target stories that can echo further than just in that one instance. That’s one reason I like writing enterprise stories about high schools so much – everything that happens in one high school, chances are, people can identify with that in thousands of high schools across the country.”

“The paradigm of the super successful sportswriter is that by the time you’re 30 or 40 years old you’re done with print and you have a radio show or TV show – you’re more of a personality than a writer. I really want to be a writer – this is what I want to do. Frankly, I don’t know enough about sports to get on a TV set and spew about the NHL one minute and MLS the next. I would be an embarrassment to myself – and the newspaper.”

Eli Saslow: Interviewed on December 20, 2006

Position: high school enterprise writer, Washington Post

Born: 1982, Denver

Education: Syracuse, 2004, communications

Career: Washington Post 2004 –

Personal: single

Favorite restaurant (home): Spices, Washington, DC “great sushi at a good price – impossible combination to find in DC”

Favorite restaurant (road): Jacquimo’s, New Orleans “everything is awesome, the fish is great – you have to get a bowl of the gumbo if you go there even if you think you’re going to hate gumbo – life-changing gumbo”

Favorite hotel: Marriott (anywhere) – “I hope I don’t travel enough to designate a favorite one”

Eli Saslow’s “Death of a Friend” excerpted from the Washington Post, November 3, 2006:

Greg Raymond had trouble gripping the telephone. His hands trembled. Shortly after 11 on a December night, Greg stood in front of the Baltimore City Detention Center with tear stains on his face and dried blood on his shirt. He felt dizzy. He gasped for breath. But he needed to make this call.

For the last 18 hours, Greg had paced in a cell and tried to comprehend the two facts that now defined him: His best friend was dead, and Greg was partly responsible.

So much about the previous night had felt ordinary, Greg thought. He and his alter ego, Matt Stoffel, former Johns Hopkins lacrosse teammates, both 23, went out for beers. They talked about college, about old memories and new careers. Then, a little past 1 a.m. on Dec. 11, 2005, Greg drove them to meet up with more friends, never considering how much he’d had to drink or whether his blood alcohol level was above the legal limit.

He crashed and watched Matt’s life seep away in the passenger seat. Minutes after his best friend left the scene of the accident in the back of an ambulance, Greg left in the back of a police car.

Almost immediately after Greg made bail and left lockup, he felt compelled to talk with Matt’s parents. He knew Glynn and Patricia Stoffel well, and he wanted to tell them that he loved Matt, that the accident had been his fault and that he was sorry. Greg didn’t expect their forgiveness. He could never even imagine forgiving himself.

Q. Is “Death of a Friend” a sports story?

A. It’s a sports story because they met through lacrosse – that’s about as deep as sports go in that story. The great thing about doing sportswriting is that sport is such a great window to look at other things. There’s so much drama inherent in sports – especially when you write about male friendships. For whatever reason they’re often so deep in sports, or have been built through sports and you can get at some relationships through sports you might not get otherwise. That made doing that story so much easier.

If I was a Style writer at the Post it easily could have run in the Style section. One thing the Post has made an effort to do is place stories on A1 – that one didn’t make it – but they’re trying to spread narrative stories throughout the paper. Which is cool, because it gives you a chance to write for different sections and work for other editors.

Q. What were your emotions in reporting “Death of a Friend?”

A. In my short career and short list of journalistic experiences that was definitely the hardest. It was the most involved I’ve felt in a story. The two guys are very close to my age and I could easily picture myself in the type of situation they had been in. I went down to Princeton where the kid who survived is coaching lacrosse and spent a couple of days with him. I really liked him and we became quick friends. I really liked the parents of the kid who passed away and I felt a tremendous burden to do them justice with the story.

Usually I’m worried about pleasing myself and editors and we’re taught not to care what the subject thinks because it could get in the way of doing a fair and objective job. But this time I did care. They had been through hell and some previous stories had caused agony for them. Those were the news stories after the incident, which came across to the family as callous – it was unfathomable that two lives could be reduced to blood alcohol level. But that’s the way it is sometimes and under a tight deadline circumstances might dictate that you can only report that much. I’m so lucky in my job in that I usually have time to go deeper, which is a luxury in newspapers now.

It took time to build trust for them to feel comfortable with me. I owed it to them to do a fair job portraying everybody

Q. How long did you work on it and how much supervision did you have?

A. I went to Princeton for two days and spent a day at the family’s house. I did about five or six days of reporting and two or three days of writing and editing.

I don’t have one editor who supervises me. Technically I’m a high school enterprise writer. What they want me to do is write longer stories about topics that are not Redskins or Wizards – stuff more on the margin. With that story, because of the college tie-in, I worked with the college editor and a little bit with the sports editor on line editing. I was so glad to have that story in the paper and just have it off my chest. Everybody involved was happy with the end product.

Q. What personality traits do those stories require of a reporter?

A. A blend of traits. Mainly empathy, I guess. In situations like that I cease being a reporter and try to make everything as informal as possible. I don’t record everything and I never script my questions – I try to go in and have regular conversations. Your success depends so much on the people you’re writing about – people grieve in so many different ways. I always think that if anything happened to me, or my family, and somebody came to write an in-depth story about it I would have a hard time dealing with it.

But I have been surprised in that rarely have I had somebody say, “No, I don’t want to talk about it”. People are flattered when you want to remember somebody who meant a lot to them. They’re relieved to talk about it – the interview can be cathartic for them. They want to talk a lot of times – it’s just a matter of being asked. Reporters shy away from those stories because it’s hard to ask somebody if they want to talk about a personal tragedy. It’s a difficult thing to do and a difficult first call to make. But if you can get over that hump and get over that first call and put yourself out there a bit, I’m always surprised by the results and how willing and relieved people are. One of the nice things in this job is the chance to make people feel better about something awful.

Eli Saslow excerpted from Washington Post Magazine, October 29, 2006:

DREW HIXON SOMETIMES STOOD IN FRONT OF HIS MIRROR in the morning and pretended to get dressed for a different job, the kind he’d expected to have after graduating from college. He imagined himself as an up-and-coming businessman, and that it was important to look nice. Everything he wore needed to coordinate, even his sunglasses. Drew removed his earrings and trimmed his thin mustache, lingering in front of the mirror until he looked completely professional. Then he went to work and took orders from teenagers.

Doctors called it miraculous that Drew, then 23, held any job. But every time he walked into the Nike store where he worked, he thought: Failure, plain and simple. Not long ago, Drew had played college football, and Nike had provided him with its best merchandise for free. Not long ago, he’d interned for the Washington Redskins, where his father, Stan, is the wide receivers coach. Now he swiped shoes and shirts across a scanner at the Leesburg outlet mall.

Drew longed to tell everyone he met that he didn’t belong at this store, that he had been on the verge of accomplishing great things before a crushing tackle in a Tennessee Tech football game knocked him first close to death, then back to infancy. He’d spent months recovering, but he still walked with a limp, slurred his speech and struggled to retrieve words from a brain so badly bruised that it once looked like a peach hurled against a brick wall. Drew worried people would think he was a dummy.

Q. How did you report the Hixon story?

A. The hard thing about it was I came into it so late. The drama was his injury and recovery from it, but by the time I was assigned the story it had happened 18 months ago. I really liked the kid I was writing about – I became close with him.

I got lucky in that he was getting ready to take these tests to become a certified banker – and that provided drama in itself. It was a big moment for Drew as a kid recovering from a brain injury. I was able to see that first-hand, otherwise I was just reconstructing scenes. I talked to 45-50 people over the phone, people who were at the game, just so I could feel confident in writing that as a scene and I knew what was happening from a lot of angles.

Q. Was that your first story for the magazine?

A. Yes. It was so long – writing was such a different process. I write a lot of stories, which is expected of me, and some are long stories of 1500 to 2000 or 2500 words. But this was supposed to be 7,000 to 8,000 words and when I first sat down to write it was such an overwhelming thing to put together. But it was good to try – I felt like I was stretching myself, it was kind of a fun experiment. The feedback was pretty good on it.

I worked with magazine editors trained in narrative stuff and building scenes and voices in writing – it was so different than writing for the sports section where you don’t have the luxury of six weeks to change and rewrite scenes. It involved a lot more talking about writing and structure – which was cool.

The editing was so great – it was the first time I worked hand-in-hand with an editor throughout a whole story. Usually you write a story and turn it in and then editing happens. With a magazine story the editing and reporting were simultaneous. We met two weeks into the reporting and talked about structure even before I sat down to type.

I did it on top of other stuff I was doing for the sports section. I worked on it over three months, and at the end I took off eight or nine days from sports to write it. The whole process was daunting at times, and stressful at times.

Q. What was the background to your ‘Nigerian Connection’ story?

A. That was a three-parter – it started when a 7-2 Nigerian kid came into our area. I started looking into his background – and as I learned more and more about him I found out how messed up his background was. The paper was good enough to send me to Lagos, which was a great experience I hope I never have to re-create. It was a wild place – I’d love to go to Africa and just have time to explore.

The first part was about this kid and it introduced the whole way these kids get over here. This kid was helped by an NBA agent who used his connections to prep schools and secured letters from Joe Leiberman asking for a visa – he was denied four times but finally got here. He still hasn’t played but he’s now in Connecticut where he may play. The next part was a straight narrative from this basketball camp in Nigeria where they haul fifty 6-10 guys into a gym in front of a small handful of junior college coaches. It’s incredibly depressing – they’re begging the coaches to bring them over – it’s grim. The third part was about a guy – Joe Smith – who traffics these kids.

Sometimes it’s shocking that people are willing to talk when you call them. Joe Smith is doing something slimy in bringing Nigerians over here and trying to profit off them if in fact they make it big. I expected him to hang up, but actually what happened when I called him was that we chatted for a half hour. He invited me to Philly and said he’d show me his business and that things were going great. People are so happy to have a reporter interested in what they do. If you can stroke their ego a bit they’re happy to talk about it.

Q. What do you look for in a good story?

A. I guess mainly I try to target stories that can echo further than just in that one instance. That’s one reason I like writing enterprise stories about high schools so much – everything that happens in one high school, chances are, people can identify with that in thousands of high schools across the country. You don’t get that anywhere else. If you write about being a starting NFL quarterback very few people can say I know that person or I can relate to that. But if you write about being a high school star quarterback everybody knows the star quarterback in high school and people can relate to social situations around that. The cool thing is that it’s so relate-able.

In November a kid in West Virginia ran for 660 yards in one game and broke a record and I did a story a few days later. On the surface it was about a kid who lives 150 miles from our paper who wasn’t going to play major college football. But on a deeper level it was about sportsmanship and rivalries – there was so much more there – it was a good story that echoed a lot further. They put it on the front page of the paper – the reaction was huge because everybody had an opinion on it. You identified with the losing coach who wanted to protect his team from humiliation. Or you identified with the other coach who wanted to do a nice thing for this kid to have a national record.

Q. Is it the connection to the community that makes high school sports so fertile for stories?

A. Yes. You couldn’t pull out stories like that as often about the Nationals or Redskins. With pro sports your pool of teams becomes a lot smaller. In high school sports there’s something interesting going on all the time – with so many thousands of high schools. There’s such a wealth of real estate.

Q. Doesn’t the traditional career path lead to covering pro sports?

A. It’s not a hierarchy I’m interested in following. Even though I have no doubts I would get so much better at a lot of different things if I stepped into a pro beat and covered the Wizards or the Nationals or Redskins, it’s not something I want to pursue, because in part I just know the strains of that lifestyle and I don’t think I would find it fun. Also because I just think I have a pretty clear idea I want to write longer narrative stories and do some magazine stuff and write for other sections of the paper. I don’t think I need to do a beat to do those things.

Q. You work on a star-studded staff. How has it influenced you?

A. It is definitely star-studded. The great thing about the Post is that every day you not only get an awesome sports section but also a great National section and Style section – there is such a wide variety of writers beneficial to read every day. I’m also lucky to have a group of friends whose stuff I always read and whose work is good – we help each other a lot.

Q. Who?

A. Chico Harlan at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – he does news takeouts. Jeff Passan at Yahoo. Greg Bishop, a feature writer at the Seattle Times. Wright Thompson at espn.com. Darrel Slater at Newport News. My network is just so helpful. That was the best thing about Syracuse. The J-School was fine, it was good enough, but the school paper and the other people who worked there were tremendously helpful.

Having a community to talk journalism with is crucial. My Syracuse friends are spread out, but every week Chico Harlan solicits links from everybody – about 45 people connected with Syracuse. It’s a fun thing – we look forward to reading what other people are doing. We get some Daily Orange links – it’s a good hodgepodge of stuff. Chris Snow is on the list – I followed Chris as sports editor of the Daily Orange – he’s GM of hockey operations for the Minnesota Wild now. Apparently he’s enjoying things in the hockey world.

Q. Do you have any contact with your fellow Post staffers?

A. Mike Wise the most, when he’s in town he’s in the office. The situation with our columnists is unique. Sally (Jenkins) lives in New York and is on book leave. (Mike) Wilbon and (Tony) Kornheiser aren’t guys you are going to bump into in the cafeteria at lunch. (Tom) Boswell lives in Annapolis and doesn’t come into the office much. I see those guys when I fill in on the Nationals sometimes, or do sidebars on the Redskins. But they’re not in the office all that often.

I would say that many days I will be the only one in the office – other times there might be two or three or four reporters. That’s out of about 25 or 30 staff writers in sports. It’s so different than the Metro section where everybody is in the office every day. In sports people travel so much. I go in every day because I have a one-bedroom apartment I share with my girlfriend and I would go crazy if I was in that every day. I need room to pace and I like having structure in my day. I like to get up and go to work and then come back from work. Otherwise if work is continuous and you do it all the time – I don’t think I would focus as well.

Q. Are you doing multi-media in your work?

The Post is embracing multi-media – it bought a radio station and it hired a slew of videographers. On longer stories I’m accompanied by a camera and/or a sound technician. It’s cool to see your story with a five-minute documentary accompanying it, but it also changes the dynamics of reporting, I did a story about a football team in a city detention facility – and when I was sitting there interviewing the kids the sound technician was there and had me miked up – it was hard to get the same sense of intimacy. Obviously the best reporting comes when you just hang out with these kids informally – a notebook is pretty non-threatening. But when they see a camera and a mike on your collar their demeanor changes. It’s a pretty new thing – I’m trying to work with it and blend it more effectively with my reporting.

  1. Is an on-air presence necessary for your career?

A. It probably would be helpful, but it’s just not something I want to do. It’s just another thing that makes me think sportswriting isn’t the thing I want to do long-term. The paradigm of the super successful sportswriter is that by the time you’re 30 or 40 years old you’re done with print and you have a radio show or TV show – you’re more of a personality than a writer. I really want to be a writer – this is what I want to do. Frankly, I don’t know enough about sports to get on a TV set and spew about the NHL one minute and MLS the next. I would be an embarrassment to myself – and the newspaper. Fortunately, my editors realize that and wouldn’t ask me to do it. If I could babble and filibuster with enough personality it might make me a tremendous success but it’s not something I want to do.

I’ll try to keep writing. With the way newspapers are going I don’t know about the future of narrative journalism. I think people always will be interested in reading those types of stories – they can grab you and read like a movie and have the same kind of drama – but I’m not sure people are willing to flip through 15 online pages to read it.

Q. As a member of the ADD generation, aren’t you paddling upstream?

A. It’s terrifying. Even for myself I find I like reading more online than spreading the paper out in front of me on the breakfast table – which is scary because I don’t want anybody to feel that way. But I’m hopeful that if stories are good enough people will want to read them. If that isn’t the case I’ll just keep trying to write longer stories and hope people get to the end.

Q. How did you get your job?

A. I got an internship after my senior year. I interned for the Star Ledger after my junior year and did well enough that they were willing to keep me on. I was potentially going to work for the Star Ledger when the Post kept me on.

I thought it would take years to get to a place like the Post, but I stumbled into the situation. I made the most of my internship but it’s a lot of luck. Sending out internship applications for three years teaches you that pretty thoroughly. I do a pretty good job but a lot of people at smaller papers would do just as well – it’s not a perfect hierarchy by any stretch. There are so many good people out there – a lot of it is luck.

Q. What do your parents do?

A. They’re both teachers. My Mom teaches Special Ed and my Dad teaches English in middle school. You can imagine how two teachers corrected my grammar from a very young age. I’m the oldest of three boys. One brother is doing Teach for America – he’s teaching 6th graders in Compton. The fact that he’s getting his ass kicked by his job makes me feel my job is so easy.

(SMG thanks Eli Saslow for his cooperation)

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