I first became aware of Justin Heckert through that old writerly emotion: jealousy. I noticed that he’d won not just one but two Writer of the Year titles at the City and Regional Magazine Awards. When I read his stuff, I saw why. Justin is one of the most lyrical writers working in magazines today. I’m quite pleased to publish my own interview with him about three stories he selected for discussion, but would be remiss if I didn’t also point people to the insightful, behind the scenes Q&A he wrote about “The Hazards of Growing Up Painlessly,” a great story he wrote for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.
The Generalist: Can you talk to me a bit about your origin as a writer? From what age did you get interested in writing? You attended the University of Missouri Journalism School. To those of us in the field, that means a lot. Can you talk a little bit about your experience there and what it’s meant?
Heckert: Well, I’ve wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember. A few years ago I came across a small bound notebook assignment I’d been given in grade school. The teacher had asked us students what we each wanted to be when we grew up. The notebook contained the answer for every student in that class, along with an explanation. Along with mentioning a disdain for Umbro shorts, I wrote, “I want to be a writer.” It’s just always been the case. I still want to be a writer, when I grow up. My mom is a writer, a published writer. She has also been a teacher of English Lit to kids and teenagers for nearly 45 years—she started teaching when she, herself, was a kid, at 19. It all stems from her.
The journalism school at Missouri was an accident. I didn’t apply to the university thinking I’d major in that. And unlike pretty much everyone in the J-school there (they come from all over the world), I’m actually from little ole Missouri. I knew I wanted to write but I didn’t know what to major in, or how eventually I might end up practicing writing. I had interest in art and creative writing—at one point in my life I also wanted to be a cartoonist, or an illustrator. I had never written an article before I was accepted into the J-School. I had never read a “literary magazine story/newspaper story” at all. I met some amazing people in the J-school, some really competitive, talented people, who I still call my best friends. I saw what they were doing, and eventually started reading the kinds of magazine and newspaper stories I wanted to try and emulate. Mostly everything for me had to do with that group of people, the atmosphere it fostered, and how much I was reading. I feel lucky in that for me it feels like it was a matter of being in the right time and place.
The Generalist: I remember I had a professor at the University of Florida, Bill McKean, who had us read Timothy Crouse, The Boys on the Bus, Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing, Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and spun my whole head around. Any particular authors, books or pieces you remember having that kind of effect on you? I remember being stunned that journalism—something I equated with newspapers—could be so moving. And, ever since, I love getting a hold of interns at Philadelphia Magazine and saying, “Hey, have you ever read ‘The Silent Season of a Hero,’ by Gay Talese,’” to which their answer is usually, but still shockingly, “Who is Gay Talese?”
Heckert: It’s really hard to pick one thing. I’ve been influenced, in a way, by everything I’ve read, good and bad. But, for example, I do remember very early on reading the Mr. Rogers story by Tom Junod and The House That Thurman Munson Built by Mike Paterniti—two of the first magazine stories I was given to read in J-school—and having my eyes opened that journalism could be like that.
Heckert: I reported and wrote “And In The End” when I was 25, and I remember wanting to write about people who deal in death. The people who have to see it every day as part of a job, and what that does to them, how it affects them, if they ever get accustomed to it. I ended up seeing a lot of dead bodies for that story. And hanging around a morgue at odd hours. And was present at crime scenes. The story contains, in spots, some of my best and most lyrical writing, still. But looking back I wish I’d focused on one case, all the way through, instead of just random scenes from different cases. When I was working at a city and regional magazine (and Atlanta is one of the truly great ones), most of my ideas came from just taking a big topic, and finding a local angle. Not finding a specific story that I wanted to do, but, for instance: if I knew I wanted to write about AIDS, or the National Spelling Bee, I just had to find a local way to focus those ideas. Writing for national magazines has been vastly different because it’s impossible to just pitch that you want to write about a big idea, without knowing a specific story as a focus.
“Lost in the Waves” happened because I saw a blurb about Walt and Christopher and their epic night at sea. My wife (Amanda Heckert, EIC of Indianapolis Monthly) actually sent the blurb to me. I did some reading around and found that there hadn’t been a big story written about them. So I pitched it around (somewhere Mediabistro did a thing about the pitch), and waited. While I was waiting, I received an email from an editor at Men’s Journal named Terry Noland, out of the blue. Asking for ideas. At this point in my career I was 28 years old, three years into my job as a contributing writer at ESPN The Magazine. But they never seemed to have a problem with the idea that I wanted to do non-sports stuff for other magazines. So Terry assigned me that story.
In 2011, as part of research for a story about zombies in Atlanta and The Walking Dead, I was riding along through the woods far south of the city with someone from the show’s production staff. Near the studios in Senoia where they make the show, we took a wrong turn that led us through an obliterated portion of the woods. It was where an entire little town used to be, now gone. “This was Vaughn,” the production guy said. I made a mental note that I would come back there. One person was rebuilding a house at that time. I’ve read a lot of stories about tornadoes, some good and some not—but I didn’t ever remember reading one about an entire place vanishing.
The Generalist: You know, finding the Vaughn story (“The Town That Blew Away“) that way is so instructive. That was about staying alert, about being open to something beyond the story you were there to pursue. When I read over the three pieces you’d suggested, I was re-reading one of them and seeing two others for the first time. What struck me about all three is that I feel like you head straight for the existential. I mean, these stories all deal with areas of life and/or the sorts of dark events that, not to be too dramatic about it, cause people to question the meaning of life. To what degree is that what drew you to them? If those sorts of stakes aren’t in play, is it harder for you, as a writer, to warm to a piece and give it the same level of attention?
Heckert: Ha, I dunno. Maybe it’s just those three stories. Some of the best stories I’ve done have nothing to do with those very high stakes, nothing to do with darkness, or death. Some of my favorite stories that I’ve done are about happier things. No matter what it’s about, you have a few paragraphs to hook me, which is how I’ve always been as a reader—so, when I’m writing, that’s where the drama comes from; I always try to have some tension in every story.
The Generalist: Now I have one specific question about each piece. Your story on the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office is almost a kind of anti-journalism. There was “no reason” to do this story, at that time, at least in the way reporters traditionally think about these things. The story isn’t tied to a scandal, a political maneuver, or a particularly compelling and current criminal case. The last line of the subhed that sells the story is “…the men and women of the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office have a lot of work to do.” And frankly, I think we need more journalism like this—a peek into a world we normally don’t get to see, merely because that place is intensely interesting. Still, how the hell did you convince an editor to buy this piece?
Heckert: I was good at coming up with a lot of ideas, and my editor at the time, Rebecca Burns, let me go out and see what I could find. She trusted me as much as anyone ever has. I never really had to do my best to convince her about anything. The work I was doing then was speaking for me. If I was passionate about a story idea, she usually at least let me see what I could find. And I don’t want to paint her as someone who said yes to everything—it wasn’t that easy. But this particular story came at a time when I was on a bit of a roll.
The Generalist: Your MJ story, on the father and son who get dragged out to sea, is one of my favorite things I’ve read in the last few years. I don’t want to give too much away, but what surfaces over the length of the piece is this sense that the episode at sea is really a metaphor for their relationship, in general. The boy is autistic, and he and his father have developed a kind of communication over the years but the difficult nature of their bond really comes into play during this crisis. Did you realize this part of the story—the thing that really gives the story its power—was in play before you pitched the piece? Where, along the way, did you discover this? This is kind of a selfish question on my part. In fact, I ask because I have to confess, more often than not, I pitch a piece based on what turns out to be some very superficial or obvious appeal. Then, pretty deep into the process, there is often a moment where I am doing the Homer, slapping my forehead and saying “This is what the story is really about!”
Heckert: My pitch (gleaned from the few things that had been published about their experience) was about a heroic dad jumping into the ocean and trying to save his son. I knew their relationship would be a huge part of the story, but “Lost in the Waves” really turned out to be nothing like my pitch. Not about a heroic dad trying to save his son. Unless you’ve reported the story and written it on spec before you pitch it, I find this happens after every pitch. The story just always changes, sometimes significantly so. I didn’t realize how much the story would be about the family, and what it’s like to try and raise this boy. Someone I really admire emailed me after reading it and said this: “It managed, I think, without saying so, to link the enormities of the sea to the enormities of family love.” And I just use that any time someone talks to me regarding what it’s about. Because that’s what I was trying to get at. It’s so much more than a story about being lost at sea. And yeah, I completely agree with your last line there. That’s just what happens.
The Generalist: Your story on a tornado that swept through Vaughn, Georgia is one of my new favorites. The challenge here seems primarily structural to me and what you arrived at moves with such great pacing that I can only imagine you wrestled with it and cried over it and pulled a few muscles. In sum, you go 1. Aftermath, then you take us through the tornado itself in sections 2, 3 and 4, then we get the Immediate Aftermath in 5, and finally bring us back to essentially where we started (and beyond) in the final sections. I think a lot of people would have been tempted to start with the storm, but to take us back to my question about how you arrive at your ideas, and your existential bent, you chose to start in the aftermath, which I think in some ways, as you make clear, is every bit as challenging, if not more, than surviving the storm itself. I’ve written a lot here—too much. But please, tell me about how you landed on this structure and perhaps anything else that occurs to you from what I laid out here.
Heckert: Nothing nearly as involved as that. It’s terribly simple. I wrote the words “Vaughn, Georgia” on a blank page and just let them percolate there for a while. I liked the way the name of the town sounded in my mind. Then I just went from there, sentence by sentence. Writing one—reading it, then writing another, then reading the two, then writing another, reading the three, and so on. That’s how I write. It has to build that way. I knew I wanted to use a metaphor in the story about doves and pigeons, and how people choose to look at things. Other than that, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about structure. I wrote the story, more or less, in a day or so.
The Generalist: I caught a tweet from Thomas Lake, about “Lost in the Waves,” in which he noted how hard you worked on the lede for that story. That opening section is just epic. Is there any story for you to share about writing that?
Heckert: I spent a while on the beginning of that piece because I had a friendly deadline, about 10 days to write. But no matter the deadline, the same could pretty much be said for most every story I write. I am usually dealing with tighter deadlines. No matter how much time I have to write—a day or two, or a week—I spend it trying to figure out the best and most compelling way to start a particular story. I can’t, like, start in the middle. I have to get that first sentence right. So, right now and for the past few years, I’ve been fighting through this phase of trying to write perfect first drafts. Self-editing and polishing to a microscopic degree, hoping the editor will be really pleased with what I turn in and not have to do a ton of work. And to the point of either banging out a rough draft or polishing it until you think that it frickin’ gleams—I see so much advice that I either completely disregard, or vehemently disagree with, I don’t want anyone to take this as the way it should be done. Whatever works, you know. And this has worked for me.
The Generalist: I am addicted to hearing about the process writers I admire use. And here, I really am talking about the very basics. Is there a particular time of day or night you tend to write? Do you write a story straight through, till you get to the end, then start fiddling with the words? Or do you go line by line, re-reading all that came before as you progress? Do you have an office at home? How’s it set up? Give us a sense of how you work.
Heckert: Line by line. Write one, read it, write the next, read the two, write the third, read the three, write the fourth, and then read all of them again—until I have a graph. And all the way through like that, through the whole story, mostly, while I’m writing (If I’m 5000 words in and have more to go, I’ll stop doing that if I can). And usually my writing hours are the hours of the graveyard shift, because I hate getting up early to do anything. I feel like epiphanies come to me easier in the quiet and dark of the night. And I don’t write with music, because the words themselves have to be like a type of music in my empty head. And as I get older it gets harder to grind through the night like that. I do work from home. And actually, while I was writing recently about a clown, I actually tried listening to music, and it turned out pretty well. I’m open to change.
The Generalist: Finally, anything to add? I am going to point journalism students toward these writer interviews on a regular basis. What would you tell them? No pressure. Just a few lines…
Heckert: I’ve always been high-strung. And a perfectionist. And supremely disappointed when even the tiniest break didn’t come my way. And I’ve taken a lot of things personally when dealing with editors, because of the effort I put in on every story, when I just shouldn’t have taken the shit personally. It’s just the business. My only advice to younger writers is probably to just chill out, and let it all roll off your back, and just put your head down and write as much as you can, no matter the place. I’ve been doing this professionally since I was 23, so I’d probably go back and tell myself to just chill the fuck out.