Brian Sweany was named editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly in 2014. Here in the 2009 Mayborn magazine, he discusses the relationship between editor and writer, in this case, Skip Hollandsworth, whose 1998 story in Texas Monthly about the murder of wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent in East Texas became the 2011 movie “Bernie.”
The Odd Couple: At Texas Monthly, a straight-laced editor and an off-the-wall writer wrestle over words
By Jordan Bostic
Image by Holly Dutton
We are only 14 minutes into our lunch when Texas Monthly writer-extraordinaire Skip Hollandsworth drops the word “breastaurants.” I know this because his editor, Brian Sweany, takes considerable joy in pointing it out. The conversation first took a turn toward the female anatomy when Skip eyed the young waitress’ skin-hugging tank top, revealing both bolstered cleavage and tanned bellybutton, and wondered aloud, “Are they trying to turn this place into a Hooters?”
Seated on the patio of Jake’s Hamburgers in Uptown Dallas, Brian downs a hamburger with fried jalapenos called “bottlecaps” (“the main reason to come here,” he says) while Skip accessorizes his cheeseburger with a leafy salad. The side orders throw me: Their reputations have proceeded them, and Skip is supposed to be “a trip” while Brian is known as a “total boy scout.” I find myself wondering, Did Skip really just order a salad? Before I can process these new roles, the two men quickly jump back into their proper reputations. Brian politely asks to trade a bottlecap for one of my sweet potato fries while Skip reaches over the table with a sly grin and snatches a crinkled orange string from my plate without asking. The conversation turns to Dallas’ infamous $30,000 “millionaires,” which Skip claims he used to be “back in the day when he was chasing girls” and living larger than his wallet. Before I know it, we’re talking about urinals.
Brian and Skip are renowned members of the elite editorial community at Texas Monthly, the award-winning magazine based in Austin, which has somehow continued to succeed as other magazines bite the bullet. Texas Monthly won the National Magazine Award for general excellence in 2009, competing against the Atlantic, New York magazine and W magazine. Texas Monthly’s winning formula stresses narrative journalism. Brian and Skip’s latest collaboration, which has been one full year in the making, is an article with the potential to plant itself in the hearts of readers.
With only greasy napkins remaining on our plates, we decide to head to the Texas Monthly advertising office where we can talk in private about Brian and Skip’s latest collaboration, away from chesty waitresses and bathroom humor. Arriving at the Uptown office, Brian cleans off the conference table while Skip bustles around the fax machine, looking intently for something. Brian pulls out a pile of paper confined in a manila file folder, points at the scribbles of blue ink all over the printout and espouses on today’s lack of handwritten edits. “See, these are old school edits. No one does this anymore. I’m the old fart of the office!”
Texas Monthly’s odd couple is soon engaged in a lively debate over the proper use of “compare with” and “compare to.”
“I don’t think that’s right,” Brian says firmly.
“I got it from EnglishForums.com!” Skip exclaims.
“I’ve never even heard of it,” Brian says dismissively, shaking his head.
Skip shakes his head and breezes out of the room. Skip is rarely stationary during our time at the office, keeping a frenetic pace between the fax machine and conference room.
Brian glances at me and cracks, “We’re two words into the story and it’s a complete disaster.” He continues, smiling while speaking under his breath, “I’m totally right — and the other thing is, we have a house style that would definitely trump anything from EnglishForums.com.”
In this miniature battle, Brian has emerged victorious, and he is obviously pleased. Skip was perusing the obituaries in The Dallas Morning News last year when he came across a photograph of the “most handsome young guy” in his football uniform. Reading the obituary, Skip realized it wasn’t a young man who died, but a man exactly Skip’s age. The obit showed a picture of man in his teens. In 1973, John McClamrock was a popular high school football player when one bad tackle on the opening kickoff left him paralyzed. He couldn’t even get into a wheelchair or sit up. Everyone in Dallas in the 1970s knew John and had followed his plight, Skip learned. John was confined to his bed for the next 34 years and had recently passed away, on March 25, 2008. Skip knew there was a great story there, but he had no idea how close it was going to hit home.
“[John] went to Hillcrest High School, which is a few blocks from where I live, and for years I’ve driven past one particular house that was this broken down, crumbling-walled, un-kept-up house,” Skip remembers. His voice, enthusiastic and compelling with a tinge of Texas twang, shows he is a talented storyteller not only with the written word, but orally as well. “[The house] looked frozen in time. And this is where sometimes just years of journalism instinct kick in and I thought, that’s where the boy lived.” Skip’s hunch was right. John had been bedridden less than a quarter of a mile from Skip’s home. There was a compelling story there, Skip sensed. He called the McClamrocks, invited himself to the post-funeral visitation, and quickly began to immerse himself in the McClamrock story.
It wasn’t long before Skip had gained the trust of the remaining McClamrock family. John had been cared for exclusively by his mother Ann — “one of the big raging beauties in Dallas when she was young,” Skip says — and a younger brother, Henry. Skip learned that John’s mom had prayed everyday to let her live one day longer than her son so she could always care for him. Weeks after John’s death, she passed away, leaving Henry as the only survivor of the close-knit McClamrock family unit. “I became Henry’s therapist … [he] worked out some of the grief he was going through by me going over there and asking lots of questions he hadn’t been asked before,” Skip remembers. “That’s the relationship you want to get with the source. You want them to see you as the person they will confide in and there’s a kind of catharsis in them telling you stuff.”
Brian had told me during lunch that Skip has an “unbelievable way of ingratiating himself within the community to get people to talk to him where it’s almost like they can’t wait to talk to him.” What Skip does is simple, old-fashioned reporting. He takes time to get to know people. When Skip had time off from working on other stories, he would visit the McClamrock house. He made calls to everyone who knew John, gradually collecting anecdotes for the story.
“I literally did my first interview one year ago, and I told Brian about it maybe a week or two later,” Skip explains. “I told him some of the details I knew, and they were just really powerful and moving.” Skip knew he had something there, but he continued to put it off. He had a gripping opening scene, taking the reader back in time to the tragic accident in 1973, and he knew he had an emotionally charged ending. The challenge was writing the second act. “It’s a difficult story to write because there is very little action in the story,” Skip says, “which was 34 years of a guy lying in a bed, a total still life.”
“I’ve written nine drafts, easily,” Skip says. “And you’ve had multiple sections within those drafts,” Brian interjects. Through strategic edits and cuts, Skip and Brian pared the story down to 7,500 words. “OK, I’m panicking, I can’t find some stuff for the fact checkers that I’m sure I brought,” Skip says while rushing out the door. Brian looks at me and shrugs off Skip’s scattered behavior, like an older brother used to his little brother’s antics.
Brian takes this opportunity to poke fun at Skip. “The joke I’ve always made is that if I get in trouble in Dallas, socially, I just say, ‘You know Skip Hollandsworth?’ And if I ever get to a place where there’s nothing to talk about, I always say, ‘Let me tell you what Skip Hollandsworth did the other day.’” “HA HA,” Skip deadpans from the other room, still positioned by the copier. Brian whispers to me: “Try to edit him on a monthly basis!”
Brian’s mind is soon back on the McClamrock story. “With this piece, the worry is that it will be too Reader’s Digest,” Brian says, detailing how it would be easy to “overshoot the story emotionally” and end up with an overly sweet end product. “My sense is that, in his hands, it’s going to rise above that,” Brian says, sincerely admiring Skip’s talents. He pauses for a moment, thinking. “I admire [Skip’s] tenacity to stay after a story like this.”
Brian leans in across the table and lowers his voice. I find myself leaning, too, knowing something big is coming. “The secret is, I really like him a lot,” Brian says, grinning widely as he leans back in his chair. I didn’t have the heart to tell Brian his “secret” was out as soon Brian belly-laughed at Skip’s urinal tale (which involves Skip at a fancy New York hotel, mistaking a fountain outside a men’s restroom for the urinal). Brian’s incredulous “I can’t believe you never told me that story!” had given him away.
As the editor, it is Brian’s job to get the writer to the finish line. Sometimes that means reeling Skip in to keep the story progressing. But Brian is careful not to dictate to one of Texas Monthly’s biggest talents. “I’m not going to tell Skip to do anything. I’m just going to make suggestions.” Skip, for his part, kept an open mind about Brian’s ideas for the McClamrock story. It was, he says, “one of those rare occasions where you have a lot of give and take [between editor and writer], and you had time.”
Brian’s literary bent comes out when discussing the nitty-gritty of long-form narratives. The lede, Brian explains, is a complicated thing. “How does it introduce our characters? Does it set up the themes of the story we’re trying to explore? Does it put the narrative in the right direction?” To drive home his point about getting a narrative on the right course, Brian uses an analogy: “I always sort of think about it like the boat is at the dock, and the lede is when you are pushing off from the dock.”
“Hey Skip,” Brian shouts to Skip in the next room, “How are we on the lede?”
“Do you really want to talk about this right now?,” Skip responds, halfway muffled by the whirring fax machine. Brian tells me they have two ledes to decide between on the McClamrock story, and they’ve been going back and forth on which is better. “You spend so much time wondering: Did I do it as well as I possibly could do it? And by writing this sentence, did it force me to write this next sentence? And if so, did I start off the right way?”
“What I hear from our writers is it never gets easier — that by writing one story and getting it under the belt, it doesn’t make the next story any easier,” Brian says. “That’s why there are so few people out there who can really do it at this level … To think that [Skip] started with an obituary in The Dallas Morning News and was able to spin it out into this length of a story over this period of time, I mean, that really is a particular brand of talent.”
Today the McClamrock issue will be sent to the fact checkers and copy editors. The article is destined for the May 2009 issue, allowing two weeks to get it polished to perfection. The copy editors will scan the piece very carefully, fixing grammar and typos, even sometimes doing their own reporting if they find a missing piece of the story. Brian explains that while the copy editors are doing their job, the team of fact checkers — Texas Monthly keeps four full-time fact checkers on staff — will be checking every thing in the story independent of Skip. “The fact is that these stories are very, very complicated,” Brian says.
It’s Brian’s job to coordinate the process, from idea conception to fact checking and copy editing, through to completion. The copy and fact reports get returned to Brian and he combs over them with Skip, making decisions on whether to go with the suggested changes or whether to keep the work as is. “There is a certain level of indulgence that we say, ‘Oh, well, we’ve got the story and we want to take up all this space,’” Brian explains carefully. “If you’re running this story and not five other stories, does it live up to the level it needs to? I think that’s what you always worry about.” After a year of tackling this challenging narrative, Brian and Skip are ready to bust through the yellow tape like two marathon runners holding hands through the finish line.
Skip is in the doorway again, still clutching the manila folder filled with pages. But the folder looks a little fatter this time. “I sent this down [to the Texas Monthly office in Austin], along with all the fact check stuff,” Skip tells Brian. Brian nods in approval. Skip turns to me, asking if I will be at The Mayborn Conference in July. Yes, I say, but he’s already halfway out the door. “See you in July!” he yells to me.
Brian shouts after him, “All right, thanks buddy …” Brian looks at me and shrugs. He knows Skip is already long gone.
To read Skip’s story on John McClamrock, go to www.texasmonthly.com/2009-05-01/feature2.php. His story on Bernie can be found at www.texasmonthly.com/story/midnight-garden-east-texas