Mar 21, 2009

Musical Chairs: MAGAZINES

The New Yorker's Amy Davidson is talking about magazines to a packed audience--lots of people on the floor. She's been doing a close reading of William Finnegan's Reporter at Large piece about a man with P.T.S.D. who killed his brother.

You can read the story, "The Last Tour," here.

What was the emotional challenge in editing this piece, an audience member asked?

"I was really relieved when Kellee [wife of one of the brothers] called Bill after the piece. I did want to make sure that we told this story in a way that was respectful, and that was tricky because this guy did shoot his brother. It's an awful, painful situation and you do want to make sure you are treating people who are already in a lot of pain--serving your country--you know, you want to be respectful while being brutally honest about what happened. But this is a war story, a story about people who were going somewhere and putting their lives at risk, to get at that larger meaning, to not treat this" as if they were some alien other.

Audience question: what are some things that you look for in a first draft?

"That the structure works--structure is very important, that I'm not confused, that there's not something missing in some way, that we've talked about sides of the story. Sometimes you read something and you think, I would have liked to hear from that it possible that there's another explanation for this. When you raise these questions the answers are often in the reporter's notebook. A good reporter has so much more information about a story than what appears in print."

Another audience member: more tips for writers? Questions I should ask myself?

"Is it fair," Davidson said." "....have you been fair to the narrative as well." It's also important to look at the chronology, she added.

On Finnegan's mastery of how to establish intimacy with sources fast:

"It's that ability to become part of the environment. He was able to sit down with Kellee, with their father and stepmother, and just have his presence there seem very natural. I think in some parts you get the feeling in his conversation with his father and stepmother almost as if they're talking to each other, that they're thinking out loud. It doesn't feel like an interrogation. It's as if he sat down in their living room and let them talk..."

Responding to another audience question, Davidson said:

"I chose this story because I think it's a wonderful story," Davidson said. "It's not that this piece is free entirely of what you're talking about, symbolism...[but] you can let people imagine it for themselves a little bit."

An audience member asked about the love-hate relationship of writers with their editors. If a writer is writing for the New Yorker, they must have a sense that they're pretty good. But for other writers--whose writing is getting ripped apart by editors often--it's tougher. How, as an editor, do you keep writers from getting demoralized? she asked.

"First of all, every single one of my writers are wonderful and a pleasure to work with in every single way," Davidson said. "...I don't know if I always understand the psychological impact of ..."this is a great piece, we're just going to have to cut a couple thousand words."

"Treat your editor if nothing else as a canary in a coal mine," Davidson said. If they're stumbling over a sentence, maybe their solution isn't right, but someone stopped there, "their fingers stopped there on the keyboard...they're not wrapped up in it, it's stopping them." They may have had the wrong solution "but would love to see a better solution."

1 comment:

  1. I loved Amy's session! I'm tweeting from Tom French's session on structure ( - he's great as well.