By Amy Burgess
“I thought of the way I’d start the story, if I were you, by the way.” Tom Junod knows how he would start a profile on Tom Junod. Of course he does. Half teasing, half serious, the emailed carrot is a tempting rescue from writer’s block.
How would Tom Junod begin a profile of himself?
“Well, if you want to hear it, I’ll tell you. I thought you’d rather go your own way. I mean, I’m a control freak, like most writers; but I don’t know if I’m such a control freak that I want to control my own narrative...”
Well, maybe a little. He’s probably been thinking about how he’d start his own story all along. The opening is the most important part. It establishes the voice, and the voice guides the piece. He would know.
Any opening Tom would write about himself would be something unexpected. It would boast elements of literature and psychology and a high IQ. It would not be a lead you could learn in journalism school. He is, after all, awfully proud of skipping J-school on his road to success. “There’s no question in my mind that two years of selling handbags is better preparation for a career in journalism than journalism school,” he says. “It teaches you to open doors. It teaches you to deal with people.” Handbags? Um, OK. Journalism students … take note?
What Junod’s personal opener would not do is describe what he was wearing when he sauntered through the door of Starbucks to meet his interviewer outside Atlanta. His email advice, one week post-interview:
“As long as you don’t start: ‘One April evening not long ago Tom Junod sat in a fragrant green T-shirt and torn blue jeans…..’ (the New Yorker lead)
Or: ‘The first time I met Tom Junod he was wearing…..’ (the second kind of New Yorker lead)
Or: ‘It’s nearly eight o’clock at night and Tom Junod’s daughter hasn’t gone to bed…..’ (the aggressively present tense all-purpose magazine lead)
I hate them all, and won’t read past them.”
Here’s the thing: There’s no way he’s throwing down an article about himself without reading it, no matter how it starts. The truth is, what he wore that day was no accident. Tom Junod has deconstructed the clothing choices of his subjects for decades in print – everyone from Nicole Kidman fully clothed in his hotel bed to Mister Rogers disrobing at the gym – and drawn all sorts of amateur-psychologist conclusions about those choices. This is not the guy who is going to dress carelessly on the day the tables are turned and he becomes the subject. No, his choice will be as deliberate and crafted as his writing. It is, therefore, worth mentioning.
Tom Junod walks into the busy suburban Starbucks wearing faded jeans and a creamy-white, short-sleeve mock turtleneck that was a little too short on him. The sweater is at least 40 years old and it belonged to Lou, his late father, who was apparently a little shorter than Tom’s 6-foot-1 frame. Lou of the lady-killer charm, the velvety vocals, and the dress-for-success fashion tips memorialized in Tom’s National Magazine Award-nominated essay, “My Father’s Fashion Tips.” On this day Tom is following the major Lou rules: He’s “wearing white to the face,” and embracing the turtleneck as “the most flattering thing a man can wear” because “it fixes a man in sharp relief and puts his face on a pedestal.” He wore an almost identical sweater, in blue, the last time he was interviewed for a profile. Tom is not the superstitious type, so it’s likely he’s channeling Lou to wield that lady-killer charm. Tom’s reputation precedes him.
“You know he’s really good looking, right?” – Chris Jones, Esquire writer-at-large.
“He’s this really good-looking guy, of course. He’ll have you babbling nonsense.” – Skip Hollandsworth, Texas Monthly.
“You know, Tom’s a good-looking guy. … Ask him and you’ll get much the same answer.” – Lee Walburn, Atlanta Magazine editor, retired.
It’s almost fitting that Tom brought a bit of Lou to the interview, because he shows up in a lot of Tom’s writing. Sometimes he’s there directly, like in the “Fashion Tips” essay, the WWII memoir “The Time of Their Lives,” and the recent Esquire blog post about how much his salesman father hated Arthur Miller’s play, The Death of a Salesman. Other times Lou is the puzzle Tom is trying to figure out under the surface, as he writes about crooner Frank Sinatra and actor Tony Curtis, the guys Lou wanted to be. When Tom wrote “The Loved Ones,” about a family-owned nursing home hit hard during Hurricane Katrina, he was trying to figure out how to care for his own aging parents.
Deep down, Lou is the reason Tom writes. He inherited a few shirts and a lot of “moxy,” as Lou liked to call it, from his dad. Lou even set Tom up with his first job, and came to his rescue on the night that could have been his last. But it was what Lou didn’t give Tom that drives his writing to this day: a say. Tom was drawn to the big questions from the time he was a small child, but there was only room for Lou’s answers in the Junod house. “My father was a very domineering figure in our family,” Tom says. “And I remember saying to myself as a kid, ‘You can tell me what to say, but you’re never going to be able to tell me what to think.’ I think my writing probably grew out of that more than just about anything – this idea that, ultimately, I want to have my say.”
Tom has been having his say for more than two decades now in national magazines, working for Sports Illustrated, Life and GQ before joining Esquire in 1997. He avoids “responsible journalism” at all costs (Esquire’s editor-in-chief David Granger uses “responsible journalism” as an insult) and scoffs at the idea of detached, “objective” reporting. He doesn’t understand how a writer could detach himself from a story, or why he would want to. Instead, Tom throws himself into the middle of his stories, shaping his own opinions with dogged reporting, then building his case sentence by sentence. He holds the record for National Magazine Award nominations – 11 – and he’s won twice, for “The Abortionist” and “The Rapist Says He’s Sorry.” His writing has become standard curriculum in journalism schools – an irony (and compliment) that is not lost on him. He penned one of the best magazine stories of all time – “The Falling Man” – about the photos of people who jumped to their deaths from the World Trade Center on 9/11. Lee Walburn, Tom’s editor when he started out at Atlanta Magazine, admires the risks he takes in his writing, always pushing to the edge of the cliff. Chris Jones, a fellow Esquire writer-at-large and National Magazine Award winner, says Tom’s stories have such an unmistakable fingerprint, he’d know he was reading a Junod story even if it had no byline. “It’s the stuff you aspire to,” Chris says.
David Granger, Tom’s long-time friend and editor at both GQ and Esquire, gives Tom full license to roam the pages of Esquire, wielding his opinions and arguments as weapons, his middle finger on a hair trigger when America’s sacred cows wander into his sights. Last year in Esquire, he blasted through right-wing opposition to find Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and accuse him of hating America. (Though Tom had to admit he liked the guy. “Evil people can be very charming,” he says with a shrug.) Then he turned his guns on the left to write about Jon Stewart, accusing him of wanting to be Roger Ailes. He dropped a theological bomb on religious philosophers in “Intelligent Design,” arguing that the creation-evolution theory couldn’t hurt science, but it would kill religion. He favors the element of surprise when making his point, whether he’s writing about a politician (“Hillary Clinton has a Sexy Mouth”) or movie stars (“Angelina Jolie Dies for our Sins”). When he gets duped by a pathological liar, he writes “Mercenary,” a masterpiece of tension and twisted truth that ensures he fires the final shot. When America refused to look at the tragic photos of 9/11 suicide jumpers and declared them a taboo subject, Tom shoved the pictures back in our faces in “The Falling Man,” re-opening, and then healing, a national wound in 7,300 words. He will not be silenced, even for the sake of his own mother, telling millions of readers that “My Mom Couldn’t Cook.”
Instead of trying to perfect his own voice as a writer, he searches out a different voice for every piece, and that voice guides him on his search for the “higher truth” in the story. Scott Raab, Tom’s friend and fellow writer-at-large for Esquire, calls Tom’s deep dive into the psyche of his subjects “method acting for a writer.” While writing for GQ, Tom got inside the head of a rapist for a chilling look at the rehabilitation of sex offenders in “The Rapist Says He’s Sorry.” He wrote like an amped-up shooter in “Pull the Trigger,” a story about a handsome young killer on death row. He took on the soothing voice of a children’s program to write about finding grace with Mister Rogers in his profile, “Can You Say… ‘Hero?’”
But what comes across as self-assured mastery in the finished pieces, feels more like “desperation” and “hell” when he’s struggling through it, he says. There are four basic emotional stages of writing, Tom says. “I’m shit. I’m a genius. I’m shit. I survived. That’s basically it, isn’t it? You think, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe how horrible I am.’ And then you lie to yourself long enough to write your draft and you’re like, ‘I’m Mozart!’ And then you’ve handed in your draft and you haven’t heard from your editor in a day and a half, and you’re like, ‘Oh no.’ And you start reading your draft and you think, ‘I can’t believe how awful I am.’ Then you rework it and it’s closer to what you wanted at the beginning, and you’re happy. And you’re exhausted. And you do it again.”
“If you want a good dog, walk your dog,” Tom says, delivering another opinion-as-fact, this time in his kitchen. He crouches to strap the gentle-leader onto Carson’s muzzle as the pit bull dances in place, momentarily forgetting the joint problem that usually makes him limp. Carson was a bait dog in a dog-fighting ring when Tom rescued him, the latest in a line of misunderstood attack dogs he and Janet, his wife of 27 years, have owned. When Tom hears that the Dog Whisperer on TV gives the same advice, he boasts, “I have never seen the Dog Whisperer. You know why? Because I am the dog whisperer.” Of course he is. He’s just written a draft he likes for his latest Esquire story on drone strikes, so he’s reveling in the short-lived
“genius” stage. He shows no traces of the scared 22-year-old who got backed into nonfiction writing at gunpoint.
Carson’s limp seems miraculously healed as he jogs along the road, stopping only occasionally to sniff bushes or a mailbox. Tom lives in a heavily treed, hilly neighborhood in Marietta, Georgia, with shaded, manicured lawns and azalea beds mulched with pine needles. He jokingly calls men’s magazines “the ghetto in which I have spent most of my life,” but he only telecommutes to the ghetto. He lives in suburbia where he cooks breakfast for his daughter every morning, walks his dog at 11 a.m., prepares dinner for his family, and often writes at a tiny cottage-style Starbucks in the parking lot of a grocery store. Trips to the Esquire offices in New York are rare.
It’s a different life than he expected in 1980, when he graduated with a degree in English from the State University New York-Albany and expected to break into the New York publishing scene. The roar of a landscaping crew’s lawn mowers and hedge trimmers almost drown out his voice as he follows Carson up the hill at a quick pace, talking about his short-lived stint as an economics major, and then a psychology major, adding more and more English classes for fun. Wearing loose jeans and a stonewashed blue T-shirt, he grins ruefully when he talks about college, remembering how “the big three” – Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald (not to mention the cute blond English major he met in the study lounge and eventually married) – changed his major and the course of his life. Up until then, his reading stretched from football to boxing magazines. “The minute I started reading great writers I was like, If you could do it, that would be the greatest thing to do.” New York City, alas, didn’t exactly open its arms to the would-be novelist.
Sitting at Starbucks the day before, with young baristas shouting orders and cappuccino machines hissing in the background, the worldly-wise Tom gave way to the young, naïve Tom, reliving the night his life nearly ended and his writing life took off. Lou had set up Tom with a job selling handbags in Dallas, Texas. Tom traveled the state by day, hawking purses at specialty women’s boutiques, and tried writing fiction at night.
He was at a handbag convention in Los Angeles with Lou and a bunch of other salesmen when father and son went out for a birthday dinner. Afterwards, Lou dropped Tom at his cheap digs, “the Gala Inn Towne – a dump,” and went back to his room at the flashy Bonaventure Hotel. Tom and a friend were hanging out, drinking and rolling pot in a hotel room (their door open), when they were robbed at gunpoint. Tom says he was actually in the bathroom when the robber slipped in and put the gun to his head. The gunman spent 45 minutes searching the room while Tom and his buddy lay face down on a cheap bedspread, “my undie’d ass hanging out there.” For the final humiliation, the gunman forced them to crawl to the bathtub. When Tom’s friend pleaded for his life – “Please, Jesus! Don’t kill us!” – the robber was infuriated. “Don’t talk like that. I’m a God-fearin’ motherf----er myself.” The robber made his escape, arms full of men’s suits, cash and weed. “He left us a joint so we could smoke it and calm down after he left,” says Tom, shaking his head.
He can smile now at the stranger-than-fiction ending, but it shook him. Lou came and whisked them away to the safety of the Bonaventure. “I was like a little kid,” Tom remembers. “I think I went to sleep that night holding my dad’s hand. It was pretty intense.” That “seismic experience” brought his life into focus, he says. “I knew I didn’t want to sell handbags for the rest of my life.” Over the next few months, he wrote his first nonfiction piece about that harrowing night. Until then, he had thought a writer’s only options were novels or newspapers. Fired from the salesman gig a few months later, he moved to Atlanta to be near his brother and pursue this new world of nonfiction. He held odd jobs – loading trucks, waiting tables, writing press releases, whatever it took – and freelanced on the side until Lee Walburn gave him his first staff job at Atlanta Magazine.
Walburn taught Tom to look for the “higher truth” in any story, but Tom’s intensity while writing is something his boss had never seen before, and has not seen since. “I used to say that Tom lost at least 10 pounds on every story. He would lock himself up. He practically wouldn’t eat for days while he was trying to get that story, the writing part, exactly the way he wanted it. He would come out looking like we had him locked in a cage or something,” Walburn recalls.
Tom’s rewrites are still notorious today, more than two decades later, at Esquire. He confesses to driving his editor David Granger nearly crazy with his obsessive rewrites, often starting over from scratch late in the editing process. When Tom and David first started working together at GQ in the 1990s, Tom thought his stories needed to be perfect when he turned them in, no need for an editor. “His attitude was in no way ‘whatever I write will be perfect.’ No, it was that he should master his material and tell his story in such a way that it couldn’t be improved on,” David says. He cites “The Abortionist,” for which Tom won the first of his two National Magazine Awards, as one of those perfect pieces, needing little editing.
Editing Tom’s stories is a tricky task because they are so complexly constructed, David says. “Sentences build upon the sentences that preceded them. Ideas lead to other more complex ideas. Most of his best stories are hard to change, except in full, because of their structure.” Changing a single part usually requires reworking the entire piece, he notes. “As a result, we often push the boundaries of our publication schedule and drive our research and copy departments to distraction as Tom perfects his stories. And the vast majority of the time, it’s worth the effort.”
As Tom and Carson reach the halfway point in their two-mile walk and turn back toward home, Tom points to his dog as the perfect illustration of his writing process. “Now on the way home he limps. Slowness. Dawdling. All the excitement is over. All the motivation is over. Carson on the way is the first draft. This is the rewrite on the way home,” he says, laughing. “Come on, Carson.”
Tom pushes the envelope on what is and is not allowed in journalism. When he couldn’t get the kind of in-depth access he wanted with REM’s Michael Stipe, he made up the facts (“but only half”) to suit himself. (“I think Michael Stipe comes alive in the fictional section,” he told Billboard in his defense.) Only after David Granger called to say he loved the piece did Tom tell him it wasn’t exactly true. In general, Tom doesn’t think he uses the “fictional techniques” usually ascribed to narrative journalism, but he does use his imagination. “If a piece is going to work, you try to imagine the people that you’re writing about. You don’t make up details – except on certain special occasions … but when you are writing factually, you need imagination to guide your hand, to decide the facts you are going to use.”
He regrets his imaginative approach to another story, “Kevin Spacey Has a Secret,” which was Tom’s first Esquire assignment after moving over from GQ. Feeling cocky and bulletproof after GQ and Esquire famously fought over him, Tom played coy with the question of Spacey’s sexuality, causing a firestorm in Hollywood and a celebrity boycott of Esquire. He regrets the coyness, but not the content. A framed cover of that story hangs over his desk “as a reminder,” he says, “not to do anything stupid.”
Personal feelings, however, can’t get in the way of his truth. In his story, “Jon Stewart and the Burden of History,” he skewered the host of “The Daily Show” even though he likes him a lot (and has a recurring dream where they are great friends). “If I’ve pissed people off – and believe me, I have – I’ve tried to do so for a purpose, and that purpose is freedom – an avowal that I have the freedom to do my job as I (and, of course, my editor, and Esquire’s editor, David Granger) see fit,” he told Missouri School of Journalism students in 2009. Critics fault him for overwriting and for drawing connections and conclusions that are too obtuse to follow, such as his 2007 Angelina Jolie profile which began, “This is a 9/11 story.” Ron Rosenbaum, on Slate.com, blasted the “existential pompousness” of the profile, which he dubbed the worst piece of celebrity journalism ever written, saying he wanted to save the writer – he never mentions Tom by name – from future celebrity assignments.
I wish I was a really good narrative writer. If I had one dream, it would be that. But I’m not.
Back Home, Tom kicks back on the forest- green sofa in his daughter Nia’s playroom, bare feet on the low table in front of him, Carson falling asleep in his lap. Tom bites into an apple as he bemoans the unfulfilled book contract he’s had for 15 years. He thinks about that contract “Every. Single. Day,” he says, but he has never been able to settle on a topic that needs a book-length treatment. Tom is no hired-gun writer. He can’t write about just anything. He has to be personally engaged at a deep level or he’s useless. “When I’m not writing out of some sort of sense of personal investment, I’m just a shitty writer. I’m just not good at it,” he claims. “If I start writing standard pieces like, you know, New Yorker-y pieces, I just sound really inept.” He thinks of his pieces as arguments – as much with himself as anything – and his unorthodox story structures are just what he has to do because he’s no good at standard narrative structures. “When I do try to do them, they completely fall flat. They always get cut. They always seem stupid and obvious. It’s not what I do,” he says. “I wish that I was a really good narrative writer. If I had one dream, it would be that. But I’m not. So I have to sort of figure out what to do on the edges.”
Tom is wearing blue and yellow yarn around his wrist, a small remnant of red knotted in with the others. His 9-year-old daughter ties them on his wrist when he travels, he says, reminding him to always come home to her. Fatherhood has not mellowed Tom’s unflinching approach to tough subjects and complicated terrain, but he claims he has lightened up some compared to his past obsessive, gloomy dives into writing and rewriting hell. “My writing used to be a huge, huge thing. Especially before I was a dad,” he says. Now he tries to be present, even when every thought wants to wander to the story brewing in the background. He tries to work so that his family doesn’t see any difference between when he is writing and when he is done writing, he says. Then he throws his head back and laughs out loud, salt-and-pepper curls bouncing on his forehead, admitting that Janet would not agree with that notion at all.
The “genius” stage doesn’t last long on any story, and the drone-strikes piece is no exception. Weeks after that first draft seemed so brilliant, he started over from scratch. “I’m rewriting the whole thing,” he says in an email. “Man, that first version was shit.” A week later, he’s on the ropes again, feeling scooped by a story in The New York Times.
Some things even Tom Junod can’t control.