by Nathan D. Battaglia
Eli Saslow sat in his rental car, lingering outside an unassuming five-bedroom house in the woods near Newtown, Connecticut, concerned how the family inside might perceive him. It’s not like he was arriving unannounced this spring morning. He had laid the groundwork for the interview, waiting a few months before contacting the Barden family after the tragic loss of their 7-year-old Daniel, slain along with 19 other children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the deadliest mass shooting at a primary school in U.S. history.
When the carnage occurred in December 2012, Eli’s bosses at The Washington Post sent him to cover the murderous rampage of 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who also killed his own mother before killing himself. Eli wrote a few short narratives in the aftermath of the mass murder, about the funerals for the victims, about the return of the surviving children and teachers to school. But he never let go of the story.
He watched TV interviews of six of the victims’ families who seemed to engender the collective grief of the nation, hoping to wring meaning from the pointless deaths of their children by lobbying to change the nation’s gun laws. If the gut-wrenching murders of 20 innocent children didn’t stir to action the emotions of people across the country, what would?
After it became obvious there would be little change to U.S. gun policy, Eli realized the timing was right to do a longer narrative on a Newtown family. But exactly which family? Often for him, this is the most critical stage of the reporting process, funneling from among the many choices the right person, the right character, the right family, in this instance, through whom a story should be told. He felt particularly drawn to the Barden family, who were in every TV interview and at the forefront of the lobbying efforts. Unlike some families of victims, they had remained in Newtown, where they were raising their two other children, ages 11 and 13. By spring, their determination had turned into despair, but they refused to give up hope that their son’s death could make a difference.
Eli’s pitch to the Bardens was simple: “I want to be able to make readers feel in some small fractional way what it’s like to be you,” he told them. “If I can do that, people will understand why all this matters to you and why this is important.” But to do justice to what they daily experienced, he wanted to immerse himself in their lives, whether that meant arriving at their home when they awoke in the morning, or watching them send their children to school on the bus, or lobbying the Delaware Legislature as they brought the battle for change to the states.
But the Bardens weren’t sure they wanted to open their doors to another reporter whom they feared would only reopen their wounds. They weighed the decision for days before agreeing to see Eli.
In the rental car in front of their house, Eli turned his thoughts from his own life to theirs. He needed to understand what they were going through, how they were feeling, how they might react to a stranger at their door. It’s that kind of empathy that helped him identify with a swimming pool salesman whose life had unraveled in the pursuit of the American Dream in his 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist story, “The Life of a Salesman”; the kind of compassion that enabled him to relate the feelings of food stamp recipients — among them, the elderly, the sick, the impoverished — in his Washington Post series that brought him the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism.
As a Post staff writer and an ESPN Magazine contributor, Eli reports from the margins of society — about an undocumented immigrant abruptly deported to Mexico and unable to communicate with his wife and daughter in the U.S., about the torment of an NFL football player who as a child watched his mother getting arrested in their home for dealing drugs, about a young graduate from a prestigious college who can only find work as a waitress — stories that capture the hope and despair of those on the outside looking in. He takes weighty public policy issues such as immigration rights, welfare reform and gun control, and reduces them to simpler narratives, he told an audience at Syracuse University, his alma mater, by making them “real on a human scale.”
The sources he develops into characters of his real-life dramas open up to him as they might a good friend. But Eli realized that gaining the trust of the Bardens wouldn’t happen automatically. It would build slowly after he knocked on their door, and presented himself as he genuinely is: an empathetic everyman who posts a pleasant smile on his pleasant face. He would introduce himself by his first name only and dress comfortably in a flannel shirt and worn jeans. He would play soccer with the Bardens’ son; help the Bardens’ daughter set up her lemonade stand; and would forge a bond with their family that Mark Barden now says “will last a lifetime.”
As he reported what would become the emotionally engaging, “Into the Lonely Quiet,” which won the 2013 Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest, he would never interfere or stage a scene or become a player in the story, choosing instead to observe the Bardens as their lives unfolded. That meant a lot of waiting around for things to happen — waiting to capture the right detail, the right emotion, the right scene, the right snatch of dialogue, as he masterfully engaged in one of the purest forms of narrative journalism; what Gay Talese calls, “the fine art of hanging out.”
Becoming an acclaimed narrative storyteller was not a boyhood fantasy. In 2000, when he graduated from Heritage High School in Littleton, Colorado, Eli was simply hoping to get into a college. He got into two of them – the University of Colorado at Boulder and Syracuse University. Because Syracuse offered more financial aid, that’s where he went.
At Syracuse, he found a job chopping vegetables in a cafeteria — not his childhood dream either. The son of two English teachers, he began reading The Daily Orange, Syracuse’s independent student newspaper. When he found out the paper actually paid students to write for it, he applied and got the job.
Because Syracuse was and is a nationally renowned basketball school, Eli turned his attention to the sports beat. DeShaun Williams, a basketball star at the university, had a reputation as a “bad dude” who would party all night, skip class and degrade women publicly. The jerk in Williams inspired the reporter in Eli.
“That was the first time I really thought ambitiously about an article,” he says. He and fellow Orange staffer Chico Harlan interviewed 30 people and hung out with Williams over several weeks, scooping up as much dramatic detail as they could find to build their narrative. Eli says the experience taught him “a really valuable lesson: Stories get exponentially better when you invest more and more time.”
The story reflected his early ease with narrative structure. The opening anecdote had enough dramatic pop to pull in even the most blasé of student readers. Williams had locked himself in the restroom of a bar, unresponsive to the pleas of men desperately needing to use the facilities.
“Within a minute,” wrote Eli and Chico, “two bouncers thump-thump-thumped on the door, demanding whoever was in there to get the hell out. The shouts were ignored. Inside, DeShaun Williams heard the pounding — he’s no idiot; he knew people were waiting. Too bad. They’d wait a little longer. He’d leave when he was finished receiving oral sex.”
The cub reporter was hooked, sniffing out stories no one else was telling at The Daily Orange — and telling them in a way no one else told them.
But narrative wasn’t his sole obsession at the Orange. There was Rachel Beckman, who also worked for the paper. During their junior year, Rachel, the assistant feature editor, and Eli, the sports editor, were assigned offices across the hall from one another. Within a few weeks, they were dating. Several years later, they were married. Rachel, who would become a magazine writer in her own right, became Eli’s front-line editor. She would listen to his stories as he read them to her and was sophisticated enough in narrative to know if they would engage the reader by the second or third paragraph.
Graduating from Syracuse in 2004, Eli landed an internship covering the high school volleyball beat for The Washington Post. Sports stories taught him to write fast, “because the game ends, and sometimes you’ve got to file, like, 10 minutes later,” he says.
Sports reporting also taught him that good writing doesn’t have to be done at a desk. While some writers have sacred spaces and writing rituals, Eli claims no special place where the mystery and magic of conjuring up well-chosen words takes place. “I sort of have to be able to write wherever.”
Even during his early days at the Post, he wanted to do more than crank out game recaps. He wanted “to find the more hidden moments and places,” as he puts it, “the people we should be paying attention to but often don’t.”
Still on the sports desk in 2005, Eli wrote compelling profiles of Dexter Manley, a former Washington Redskins player once addicted to crack who campaigned against teen drug use, and Joe Forte, a failed NBA megastar. Eli’s instinct for finding stories rife with irony, conflict, contradiction, complex characters and graphic detail got him noticed by his editors. “These were hang out stories where I spent a lot of time with people, and I was drawn to them because they seemed rich and complicated and about tensions larger than most of the sports stories I was writing.”
His Post editors took Eli off the sports desk in 2008, and assigned him to write feature stories about Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. After Obama was elected, Eli began writing narrative stories about a side of the White House often hidden from the public. His narrative in March 2009, for example, tracked the behind-the-scenes exploits of Norm Eisen, the White House’s ethics adviser. When top advisers to the president wanted to hire a former lobbyist, accept a gift from a former client, or brief a Cabinet member on Obama’s ethics policies, Eli reported, the White House powerbrokers would call “Norm.”
Eli told C-SPAN’s Book TV that seeking private moments with Obama in order to write personal narratives about the president was no easy task. The president was isolated behind a wall of press secretaries and staffers. “It only took me like a week of doing that job to realize that the president doesn’t really have personal, intimate moments,” he says.
But something Obama said in a speech helped Eli scale that wall. Obama spoke about his policy of reading 10 letters a day out of tens of thousands dispatched to the White House. The letters inspired Obama to escape his leash and reach ordinary Americans. He began answering handwritten, personally signed letters that touched him. “I realized pretty quickly that was something that seemed personal and real and genuine,” Eli told C-SPAN, “something that I wanted to try to write about.” The Washington Post granted Eli a yearlong leave to write Ten Letters: Stories Americans Tell Their President. His first book was published in 2010.
Although his early attempts to interview Obama for the book were swept aside, he was caught off guard when the president invited Eli to the Oval Office. The interview only lasted 30 minutes, but Obama was candid about his frustration with his handlers and his scripted life inside “the bubble” — a frustration that the writer shared.
Researching Ten Letters took Eli across the country and out of the media-averse mindset of inaccessible politicians and sports figures. Writing 10 long-form narrative pieces about a broad spectrum of letter writers who inspired responses from Obama deepened Eli’s ability to immerse himself in the lives of others. It would take a week, maybe two, for him to build the kind of trust that enabled them to feel comfortable enough to share the more intimate details of their lives — a gay man who was bullied in high school and contemplated suicide, a “cleaning woman” who had lived cancer free for 11 years but could no longer afford health insurance, a staunch conservative who berated the president for not listening to all Americans. “Across the board, these people were brave and gracious and welcoming,” Eli said in an interview with Nieman Storyboard. “So much of narrative reporting is navigating interpersonal situations and building trust and building relationships that are really very complicated.”
When he returned to the Post from his book leave, he was assigned to the National Enterprise desk and attached to a team of roving narrative writers whose mission was to find big stories anywhere in the United States. The team works under editor David Finkel, winner of the MacArthur Fellowship — better known as “The Genius Grant” — and a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. Finkel says editing Eli is the easiest job in the world. “[It’s] about as good as it gets,” he says. “He was great to begin with. He’s only gotten even better.”
In the months before the 2012 presidential election, Eli says his editors were searching for a big narrative that captured the hard times many Americans were still experiencing. In researching the book, he had encountered swimming pool salesmen and grew fascinated with the notion that despite the downturn in the economy, they remained optimistic peddlers of the American Dream. He read countless swimming pool brochures and industry publications. And he began hanging out with swimming pool salesmen, “funneling,” as he does, among several in search of the right story to tell. He focused on Frank Firetti, the co-owner of the Blue Haven Pools franchise in Manassas, Virginia, who had severely downsized his business but not his optimism. It took Eli a full summer to “wear down” Firetti, he says, and to build trust between them. Every week, they would hang out together, and every week they would have the same “big conversation,” says Eli. Why was he writing about him? Firetti wanted to know. And why did he need to go on another swimming pool sales call when he’d already been on so many?
Eli’s response was similar to the one he gives all his sources: “I want to be there for long enough and get to know you well enough that the story can be as complete and honest as I can do,” he tells them. “That means I’m going to get to know you well enough that when people read it, it feels like you, and it feels right.”
All his hanging out must have felt right to the judges of the Pulitzer committee. “The Life of a Salesman” became a 2013 Pulitzer finalist in the Feature Story category, and it won First Place in the 2012 Best American Newspaper Narratives contest from the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.
What sets Eli apart from other reporters is his ability to get readers to care deeply about the people he writes about. He succeeds at this, his editors suggest, because he cares so deeply about his characters.
Take the millions of Americans relying on government assistance to feed themselves and their children. Eli transformed what in less empathetic hands might be a complex, issue-driven piece into an emotionally engaging six-part series of those deeply affected by the issue. In 2013, he traveled to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, where 40 percent of residents received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, more commonly known as food stamps. Food stamps had become so important to the local economy that businesses in Woonsocket relied on their customers’ SNAP payments to stay open. Many employees hired by such businesses relied on these benefits to feed their own families. To tell the story, Eli followed a young working father who received food stamps, walking with him down Privilege Street in Woonsocket to his job at a grocery store.
Eli developed other stories in the series, traveling across the country to illuminate the hidden lives of people living on society’s margins. He found a bus driver who delivered meals to poverty-stricken children in Tennessee, a congressman who worked to eliminate SNAP benefits because of his belief in the dependency it creates; and a Florida recruiter who signed up the aged for SNAP — elderly people who had worked their whole lives but lost everything during the Great Recession.
For Eli, reporting on these desperate families proved challenging, both emotionally and ethically. He wrote about one Washington, D.C. family, the Richmonds, whose SNAP benefits weren’t sufficient to feed them through the month. To make up the difference, they depended on food pantries, but because they didn’t have a car, the family would have to walk to them. And if they didn’t arrive early enough to beat the long lines, they might still go hungry.
On a frigid morning in late November 2013, Eli planned to accompany the Richmonds on their hike to the food bank. The air was biting. The streets were icy. So the family asked Eli if he would mind driving them. The Richmond’s request meant they realized the reporter had compassion for their family, which made Eli’s decision all the more excruciating. He explained that he couldn’t drive them to the food bank because he needed to experience firsthand the harsh reality of their lives so readers could enter into their experience, too. “If they were starving, I would help them,” he says. But unless a person’s life is in danger, he does not allow himself to interfere with a story and impact what he observes.
The Washington Post published his series in an e-book titled American Hunger. For his efforts, he was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. In keeping with tradition, he was asked to address the Washington Post newsroom. Instead of talking about the challenges he faced in reporting the story, he recalled the plight of the Richmonds, who arrived late at the food bank between Thanksgiving and Christmas to find all the turkey gone. Only sweet potatoes were left. Using old family recipes, the Richmonds managed to feed their family on little more than the sweet potatoes. They even invited Eli to sit down and eat with them. But he knew he would have plenty to eat that day, like he does every day, and couldn’t bring himself to accept the Richmonds’ generosity. In telling the Richmonds’ story to his colleagues, Eli fought back tears. “I hope that some of the attention goes to the people who are letting us into their lives, where the attention belongs.”
Last year, the Saslows relocated to Portland, where Rachel grew up, to raise daughters Chloe, 2, and Sienna, 4. They settled into a two-story house a few miles from Downtown Portland across the Willamette River.
Crossing the bridge, Eli sometimes looks at majestic Mount Hood in the distance and wonders whether moving close to an active volcano was a responsible decision.
He offices in an unstructured and unconventional building called Hatch, a space that could easily double as the set for the TV show Portlandia. It’s communal, meaning there are no assigned offices, no assigned seating, and on most days Eli has no idea with whom he’s rubbing elbows. The office dog, like the office workers, comes and goes as it pleases. Unknown by his officemates, Eli toils away in obscurity, his national renown not a matter of record here.
He reaches for his bulky, black backpack and pulls out the tools of his trade. One 4-by 8-inch reporter’s notebook follows the next as he flips through pages scribbled in handwriting even he has trouble deciphering. He mostly runs tape for politicians or athletes when he is on the clock, he says, choosing instead to take notes for the sources with whom he embeds, finding it less obtrusive, easier to blend into the furniture and let life happen.
That’s what happened when he immersed himself with the Bardens for a week, taking notes by day as he hung out with the family, going with them to Costco, going out for ice cream, careful not to miss any moments while they were awake unless he sensed they needed time alone. At night, he would return to his hotel room and type up his notes, using the photographs he shot with his iPhone to aid his recollection — photos of the menu at the diner where Mark and Jackie had gone to escape the pain of their memory, only to stumble on the birthday celebration of one of Daniel’s classmates who had survived the gunman’s bullets by hiding in a closet. Photos of Daniel that his father kept in their basement to keep his son’s memory alive: Daniel as a 4-year-old wrapped in his mother’s arms, Daniel dressed as an elf for Halloween, Daniel with a new haircut just two months before he was murdered.
The telling photos, like the unobtrusive note-taking, like the artful hanging out, would help Eli set the scenes for his storytelling, enabling him, as he does with much of his work, to take on the enormity of an issue like gun violence in America. But rather than focus on NRA lobbying or Tea Party posturing or liberal handwringing, he can reduce the story down to one image, one family, one son — and make his narrative “real on a human scale.”