He's passionate, dedicated, emotional, and a little verbose. George Getschow tells Michael J. Mooney why the Mayborn tribe cares so darn much about narrative.
by Michael J. Mooney
He walked in with what looked like 20 books in his hands and put them on the table. Then he went out to his car and came back with 20 more. Then more. A few students went out with him and they too came back in with stacks of books. Works of great journalism, narrative nonfiction. Authors like Capote, Thompson, Wolfe. Didion, Talese, Maclean, McPhee. Anthologies, biographies, books about both pivotal moments in history and the subtle spectrum of humanity. He lined them all up in the middle of the long table, from one end of the room to the other, before he introduced himself to anyone.
That was the first time I met George Getschow. It was July 2005, at The Spur Hotel in Archer City. Most of the students – myself included – had shown up the night before, at the historic hotel in that small town two hours west of Fort Worth. This was the first Archer City class George taught, and it happened to be my first class in grad school. I’d never met any of these people and I had no idea what to expect.
George pointed to the books in the middle of the room and explained that this was “literary nonfiction,” journalism written with traditional storytelling techniques — as opposed to the old-school newspaper inverted pyramid model. Characters, settings, the effects of change over time. He talked about the massive bookstore in Archer City, what was at the time the largest antiquarian bookstore in the country, owned by Larry McMurtry of Lonesome Dove and Last Picture Show fame. George told us that this — these stories, this research, this creative writing —this is what we would be doing over the next three weeks. Some of us, it turns out, are still doing it today.
We all stayed at The Spur that summer. We walked down the creaky wooden steps every morning, and we sat down in the dining room-turned-classroom, where an elaborate chandelier of deer antlers dangled overhead and Native American art hung on the walls. We were embedded in a town full of tales.
Our class was also a component of this new conference, what was called at the time: The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference of the Southwest. Hundreds of people gathered at a hotel in Grapevine, ready to see big-name keynote speakers like author Susan Orlean — whose life had just been turned into an Oscar-winning movie starring Meryl Streep — and Norm Pearlstine, then the editor in chief of Time Inc., overseeing a wide swath of the magazine rack, everything from Time to Sports Illustrated to Fortune to People. It was essentially Comic-Con for magazine nerds. For aspiring writers like me, it was a deluge of techniques, ideas, contacts, and inspiration. These were idols, insiders, authors operating at the top of the industry.
I ended up writing a story at the end of the class that summer. It was about the town’s mayor, who, when the only bar in town closed, would cruise the back roads with his friends, listening to country music, sipping beer, pondering life’s big questions beneath a sky full of stars. The students who were most serious about this kind of writing agreed to keep working on our stories, and try to publish them in some sort of journal we could put together ourselves. A few of us went around raising funds. We reported, wrote, rewrote, re-reported, and rewrote some more. By the next summer, 2006, we had a published collection of stories about the people and places in and around Archer City. Some personal essays, some reported narratives, some stories about the historic characters in the area’s past.
A couple of us went back for the Archer City class and the conference again the next year. A few of the other students in those classes have become some of my best friends in life. (A student in the 2006 class is now my fiancée.) As many of us have gone on to work at newspapers and magazines around the country — some have book contracts — we’ve stayed in touch. We come back to the conference every year. We submit stories and book proposals. We run workshops. We share our work with each other, and with George. Over the years he has become a mentor and a close friend to many of us, a perpetual champion of storytelling and storytellers. Every year the number of students and former students who return to Grapevine in the heat of July grows, as does the prestige and reputation of the conference. It’s become a national event, attracting some of the biggest names in journalism — and George isn’t shy about saying so.
He is, among other things, verbose. The conference is what he talks about most. He can steer any conversation in that direction. And he often gets emotional when discussing it. He travels to festivals, seminars, newsrooms, meetings all over the country, preaching the gospel of what is known now simply as “The Mayborn.” He spends countless hours every week talking to writers, editors, agents, publishers, sponsors, prospective attendees. He convinces busy people to give their time, money and energy. He cajoles nervous scribes to submit their work to the writing contest, getting dreamers to believe in themselves. He expounds on the immense value of stories, their power to change people, to change laws, to better the human experience. George isn’t modest about the conference because he knows the time and effort it’s taken to build over the years. The fact that it matters to so many people means an enormous amount to him.
What he talks about less is his own history in journalism, the fact that he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, that he won a George Polk award, that he was once the youngest bureau chief in the history of The Wall Street Journal. Many of us know his wonderful and patient wife, Cindy, and his son Garrett, a pilot in the Air Force. And some of us have heard stories over the years, about George spending nine months reporting undercover in a labor camp, about covering oil and gas in the 1980s, about the time he made celebrated author Bryan Burrough cry after Burrough, a cub reporter at the time, had been rude to a subscriber. But George doesn’t often talk about the struggles he’s had, the sacrifices he’s made. The amount of time he’s put off working on the book project he started more than 20 years ago. The time he’s spent away from his family.
This summer will mark the tenth Mayborn conference. There are a couple of us who have been to every one. It’s strange to think back on all the speakers, the great writers who’ve passed through (and stayed in touch), all the accomplishments people have had through the years. I wanted to sit down with George and talk about a lot of these things. I met him at The Wild Detectives, a bookstore in the Bishop Arts District of Dallas that also serves beer, wine, sandwiches and cheese plates. I had a few ideas for things we should discuss, but predictably, George had his own ideas. We greeted each other and caught up briefly, but as soon as I turned on the recorder — before I could even ask him my first question — he told me he had some thoughts he wanted to share. It was nearly 10 minutes before I spoke again.
What follows is a condensed version of our conversation (you’re welcome), edited for length and clarity.
George Getschow: Before you begin your silly line of questions with your piece of paper and all those questions, I want to say something about the Mayborn conference that I think matters. It’s this: Anything worthwhile is worth toasting. So here you are, and here I am, and we’re sitting in this incredible independent bookstore that evokes what the conference is all about, about literature, about something enduring, about great storytelling. And that’s what the conference is about. I would have to say that whatever you ask me, really it’s all going to revolve around the story. And the story is that the Mayborn conference has become the pre-eminent literary nonfiction conference in America. That’s not a small thing. It began with a little germ of an idea and it’s evolved into something that matters.
We’re about making a community of writers that care about each other, who care enough to support and nurture and love one another. That’s a strange word when we talk about literature, right? Loving one another, that’s what this is all about. It’s about a place where people can come together and share how much they care. They love each other enough to help each other become better writers. We’ve succeeded in creating something special.
It’s been anything but a one-man show. If it not for people like you, Mike, and The Dallas Morning News, and Bloomberg and Village Voice Media, and our incredible agents — the list goes on and on and on. People have converged and coalesced around the Mayborn conference because they see there’s something valuable here. This is not just another conference.
For me, what makes the Mayborn so special, is that it’s not hierarchal. There’s this gestalt feeling. People come there and they sense right from the beginning that this is something different. Our speakers speak and then sit down in the conference auditorium like everybody else. They ask the same types of questions our other conferees do. They make themselves available to everybody there. So in the end what we have is this tribal mentality that we’re all in this together. I go to conferences all over the place. And that’s what sets us apart.
I’ve got to tell this story about Bob Mong [Editor of The Dallas Morning News]. I’ll never forget it. In 2004, before we launched the conference, I sent Bob the list of speakers that I wanted to bring to the conference. There were a lot of Wall Street Journal people, as you know, Susan Orlean, people like that. He looked at it and said, “Wow, this is incredible.” Bob sat at a table with Mitch [Land, the founding dead of the Mayborn School of Journalism] and me, and said something like, “This is something special. This is something we want to stand behind. This is something we want to support. Gathering a group of narrative nonfiction writers, and people devoted and dedicated to narrative nonfiction, that’s what we want to do.” He said he supported this idea and he stood behind it. They immediately did and they’ve stood behind ever since. The Dallas Morning News, right from the beginning, seized on this, and said this is a project worth doing. We sold out our first year, and here we are 10 years later, and by all accounts we are the narrative nonfiction conference that really matters.
MM: Where did the idea first come from?
GG: It came from Mitch Land. He wanted to have a local journalism conference. One that would bring in great writers, that would attract people from around Dallas-Fort Worth. We had this luncheon at, I think it was La Madeleine, and what we talked about was doing the conference in Archer City, home of Larry McMurtry. That was Mitch’s idea. And it was a pretty exciting idea. It sounded really great.
GG: Until we went to Archer City and saw that there was one hotel and a bed-and-breakfast. So we could have housed all of 20 people. And I said to Mitch, “If we’re gonna do it, let’s do it big. Let’s do it in a way that’s going to make a difference.” And to Mitch’s credit, he immediately understood that. It was his idea to go to Archer City and it was also his idea to start the Archer City writer’s workshop. Once we talked, he realized going national — well it wasn’t even national. We talked about having a regional conference.
MM: Southwest was in the name the first couple of years.
GG: It was. [He laughs, then sighs.]
MM: What do you think about when you reflect on the early years of the conference?
GG: We tapped into a hunger and thirst for great storytelling. There was a pent up hunger and thirst. At that time there was this growing emphasis on blogging and social media and digital media, and it seemed like the platform had become more important than the story. The technology became more important than the storytelling. Some people saw the conference as an opportunity to say, “Stories do matter. They’ll always matter.” That’s why we got into it. In the end, great stories are the only way we can communicate with each other, the only way we can cross millennia and continents and do all the things that great stories do. You asked me about when it started. I turned immediately to all my Journal friends to help me do this. Barry Newman, Ken Wells, Norm Pearlstine. They were really wonderful. They all came down. They all saw this as a chance to talk about why narrative nonfiction matters. And they did.
MM: What are some of the highlights for you, the first things that flash to your mind?
MM: Or is it all one big blur?
GG: There are a lot of highlights.
MM: What sticks out? We had Norm Pearlstine talking about a then-pending case involving Karl Rove and a journalist in jail. And Susan Orlean talking about a 10-year-old shooting rubber bands at her butt. And Gay Talese walking around in his suits, talking about interviewing John Bobbitt. Or Nan Talese taking the microphone during a Joyce Carol Oates Q&A to talk about James Frey and Oprah Winfrey.
GG: God, they’re so numerous. Every year has brought a new highlight. Bob Shacochis standing on stage, threatening to have a boxing match, to duke it out with one of our conferees. It’s a high torque, high-energy experience for most people. People engage on a deep level. You have these deep discussions. You have people who are willing to talk about things that they wouldn’t talk about anywhere else. Nan Talese’s defense of James Frey: No matter what you think about James Frey, her defense was a highlight for me because there was an editor standing up for her writer, even though by all accounts the guy was a douchebag.
MM: And she called Oprah “sanctimonious.”
GG: Yes! Exactly. To me there’s something noble about that. It’s important. If you’re a writer, writing for Nan Talese, you’ve got to say, “My God, that woman has courage. She’s not going to quiver over public opinion.” That’s what the conference does. It brings out people like Nan Talese, who are willing to stand up for their authors. It’s not something you can take lightly. The world of literature was reined in against her, and she essentially said, “Fuck You.” And you’ve got to admire that. The conference inspires people to not be cowardly, to be brave about things that matter.
MM: There have been some interesting confessions.
GG: You’ve got to say Gene Weingarten was one of the greatest highlights of all time. Here was a guy that taught a lesson in journalism ethics, in the course of 50 minutes, that no classroom could match. Brian Sweany [an editor at Texas Monthly] was supposed to be the moderator. Poor Brian sat there on stage, and Gene just took over. Brian knew at that moment there was something special going on. Brian’s one of the smartest journalists I know. He realized that it was time for Gene to do what Gene was going to do. And what Gene was going to do was give a master’s course in ethical journalism. It was picked up all over the country. It was picked up because what Gene had to say was the sort of thing journalists really face in their lives. It was about situational ethics. That discussion was so sophisticated, and yet so simplistic, that you had to go away from that and think about it for the next — I’ve thought about it for years.
MM: That afternoon still comes up in conversation.
GG: The discussions that go on there aren’t just considered for a day or a week, they’re considered for years. I use Gene’s lecture in my classes. I have my students read it and study it. There are so many other highlights. The conversation with Gary Smith, another lesson all journalists need to know. He said so many important things, but I’ll never forget, he said he spends a lot of time before he ever interviews somebody going to a place and hanging out in that place and getting right with himself. He was studying Zen Buddhism and philosophy and preparing himself so that there was nothing standing in the way, between him and the story. And that’s such a lesson. I’d never heard that before, but it sort of changed my thinking. If you’re not right, if you’re anxious, if you’re nervous, if you have issues going on in your head, there’s no way you can channel what someone else is trying to say to you. He also talked about the roll of silence in interviews. Just keep your goddamn mouth shut. He’s good.
At this point we went on for a few more minutes about how great Gary Smith is, recounting no fewer than six of his stories.
MM: How has it been 10 years? It doesn’t seem like that many to me. Or does it feel like 40 for you?
GG: That’s a good question. What does 10 years feel like? It feels like we are well established. It feels like we’re entrenched. We’ve established something enduring, like literature itself. This can be a lasting gathering. It can survive because people really care. [He stops talking, and nods for a moment.]
MM: I also want to talk about you, your life—
GG: Wait a minute. I have more to say on that last question.
MM: “How has it been 10 years? I have more on that!”
GG: I do have more on that.
MM: You know I’ll end up having to cut your answers way down, and we still won’t get to about half of the things I want to talk about.
GG: I understand. You can do what you want with it. But what we were saying before is important: 10 years is monumental. Sort of like a book you spend 10 years writing. That’s not an ordinary book. That’s what Isabella Wilkerson does. That’s what Rick Atkinson has done. That’s what Lawrence Wright and Bob Shacochis do. This hasn’t been a one-year project. This has been a 10-year project. We’ve accomplished something really quite extraordinary. Other universities have come to us and asked, “How did you pull this off?” My answer is always: We simply tapped into a hunger for storytelling in a way that no other schools around here thought about. The focus has always been the pure, raw story. Storytelling endures forever. The conference hasn’t tied itself to any one platform. It hasn’t tied itself to new media. It’s all about storytelling. So that’s something else that distinguishes the Mayborn. It’s about producing the story that touches people in a way they’ve never been touched before.
MM: People outside of Texas are surprised to learn about this strange literary enclave, here of all places.
GG: Texas in many ways embodies what the conference is all about. It’s had this fierce independence. It has this notion that you can realize your dreams, that you can go from being an unpublished writer to a published writer. In Texas there’s this belief, this can-do attitude. Texas has a lot of characters that defy stereotypes. I also think the Mayborn conference defies stereotypes. We’re anything but traditional, anything but normal. This is what writers are. We’re a weird gathering of people who are willing to do anything to produce something enduring, something that makes a difference.
MM: If we get to nothing else, I want to at least ask you about toasting. You’re known for your toasts. You’re infamous actually. You like saying things in the form of toasts. Where did that tradition begin?
GG: [He laughs.] I have no idea. I wish I could answer. [He ponders for a moment. I employ Gary Smith’s advice about silence.] I think it began in Archer City actually. I never toasted once when I was at the Journal. I think it was Archer City. I really do. I think I was so emotionally moved by seeing young people, like yourself, who would go from the room where we had our books and people gathered around the table. And folks would charge out — they would literally charge out in search of stories, in search of something that they could connect with, something that they could believe in, something that they could fashion into a story. To see you guys work so hard, working 24-hours a day for three weeks, how could I not be moved? How could I not be charged? So actually, that was the first time I gave a toast actually. Maybe on the night of that last class day.
MM: That was the first time?
GG: The students in Archer City changed my life. You know I’d worked at The Wall Street Journal for 17 years. It was a professional environment. Even though we were doing great journalism, we didn’t sit around and spend all evening long and talk about stories. We didn’t wake up in the middle of the night thinking about how to make the story better. We didn’t workshop stories. We didn’t do that. In Archer City, we had a community of writers. The community cared about one another, and they cared about helping one another. I’d never experienced that before in my life. It was as new to me as it was to you. That workshop, 2005, I had never experienced anything like it. I’d been through workshops, but nothing with this deep commitment, this deep bond. People like you, the bonds you formed in Archer City, all these relationships carry on.
At this point, George grabbed the recorder and held it up to me.
So, you’ve asked me a lot of questions, but I want to know from you — I’ve tried to express in every way I can why the conference matters. But I want to ask you: Why does the conference matter so much to you?
MM: So you’re just interviewing me now with my own recorder?
GG: What? I’m asking you.
MM: The conference has been intricate to the building of both my social and professional lives, George. It’s become part of my identity. I’m a writer, which is important to me, and that has happened through the conference. A lot of my friends, I know through writing, or through the conference directly, including my fiancée and several of my best friends.
GG: Right. This isn’t just about a conference. This about creating a writer’s life. It’s not just about getting together once a year, it’s about a group of people that cares very deeply about one another and about what we do.