NORFOLK, Va. – This is the second and final part of a conversation with author and journalist Mike D’Orso, whose book Pumping Granite chronicled a Barre, Vt., quarryman’s sexual awakening.
Hey now. Beg your pardon. Misread my notes there.
Pumping Granite (And Other Portraits of People at Play) [Texas Tech UP, 1994] is a collection of narrative sport-related journalism that is getting a paperback edition nearly 20 years after its initial publication. It’s a great read.
Prince Books and Borjo Coffehouse are hosting an event for the new edition tomorrow. It starts at 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 7, at Borjo, 4416 Monarch Way, Norfolk. Borjo is at the corner of Monarch Way and W. 45th St.. There is nearby metered parking. The event is free. Beverages and eats will be for sale. Of course, you can also buy the book.
I caught up with D’Orso last week. The talk discuses how good reporters and nonfiction storytellers make their own luck, and how what you cover becomes a part of you. For those who missed the first part, you can find it at this link. Full disclosure: D’Orso and I are friends and former staffers at The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.
The last part got into reporting and spending time with subjects to find those special moments and notes that make stories sing – what D’Orso calls “telling detail.” We pick up with developing sense of place and then chew on how the writer comes to be almost one with the subject. This has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: One of the things I think you do well is world-building. A story that I think is a good example of that is “Beyond Bull Durham,” which is kind of this comic but tragic and also emotional story of a team that’s struggling, and through the eyes of this woman
You’re so right to catch that. Yeah, it’s hilarious, but it’s pathetic, and it’s real. It’s sad.
Q: How did you find that story initially?
I lived in Williamsburg, Va., for 17 years, so I always knew there was a Single A – the lowest level – minor league team … playing over there at War Memorial Stadium over in Hampton. I knew the Virginia Generals were over there, and I’d seen that the Generals had a horrible record. I thought I’d just go over there and do a story on this horrible [team]. That was the hook. Here they are, they’re at the lowest level of baseball, and they’re the worst. It was just so much more. I hardly talk about baseball [in the story]. There’s no baseball being played in the story.
Q: It’s not about baseball.
Right. The woman, she and her dad are really the central story.
Q: I learned a lot [about storytelling] from working with photographers at The Pilot.
So did I. We’ve talked about this.
[The photo department] was where I lived. That was my office.
Q: A story I talk about a lot when I talk to other writers is – Ian Martin was a photographer at The Pilot. He and I had to cover an event at a [child care] center where there was a [Heinz pickle] mascot, Private Pickle, visiting. And he and I got there and one of the first things that happened was that, when they were going to bring the mascot out to meet the kids, the costume couldn’t get through the door. So they pressed the head in, and the thing comes out, and then the head of the mascot pops up and the kids jump. [Laughter.] Ian and I just looked at each other, and Ian’s first thought was, “Okay, we’re not just doing a story about some mascot.” So that changed what it was.
Q: Can you talk about going out to do the story and how it –
How the story changes. Absolutely. When I first came to Commonwealth Magazine, which was my first job as a professional writer, I learned early on that I was going to be surprised. I was going to find a lot more than I bargained for. And it was important to be open to that. It’s a cliché that so many reporters come in with the story they want, they get what they want to get their quote, and they go out, and they write their story. You know. I haven’t seen that. The people I’ve worked with at The Pilot, they’re fantastic reporters. They come in as blank slates. Sure, you have a broad idea, an expectation, but you’re ready to be led wherever they lead you.
Q: Can you give me an example on this story?
With the Generals? Oh, my God. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, as soon as I met the general manager. She was this 20-something year old woman who knew nothing about baseball. I didn’t realize, basically, the team was a gift from her daddy. As soon as she said that, I knew who he was. [...]
And then all the evidence was just piling up. And, the thing was, she would share these stories with me and not realize how poorly they reflected. You know, like home plate being put in backwards by her brother. I went over a couple days. [The first day] there was a meeting. That was the meeting I opened up with. This kid comes in on a little scooter, and he’s in charge of program sales. … It was like manna from heaven.
Q: There’s humor in the story, but I don’t feel like you’re making fun of them.
Absolutely not. I always have compassion for my subjects. You know, show don’t tell. I want to bend over backwards to give them humanity.
Q: There’s a love in there for the game.
That’s what I got from the players a little bit, and a respect for the game, too. The respect. I hope that came through without saying it overtly. [...]
We get so deep into the story, and we’re in an absurd world. When I switch the story in that section to the players’ viewpoint, we’re reminded, hey, for them, this is baseball. These guys want to play Major League baseball. This is their life.
Q: Did you have contact with them after the story ran?
He wrote me a thank you note. He thought it was a great story. The dad. [...] I didn’t get any anger or praise from her.
Q: The last story in the book, about Dennis [Byrd, a former New York Jets player with whom Mike co-authored Rise and Walk: The Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd; the 1993 book chronicled Byrd's struggle to walk after a spinal injury caused paralysis].
It was about writing.
Q: Well, let’s talk about that.
That was a story – I had no medium to share that story. I’d just finished writing that book, and I was immersed in it. It was in me. It was in my mind. And I thought sharing that story gave readers a glimpse into what we do and how we do it. This was the perfect opportunity to share this interesting little glimpse of what it takes, just a little slice of reporting. Just out there in the middle of a prairie at midnight in Oklahoma with this NFL football player who is paralyzed. That’s what life is all about – having experiences. Who has more experiences than people who do what we do.
Q: In the original epilogue you talk about that process where you become ‘entwined’ with the source.
And then leave like a one-night stand.
Q: Can you talk about what happens when you’re really open or really present when you’re reporting?
When I’m open and present with the subjects?
Well, that is the key. From the very first story . The Pilot is the first newspaper I worked at and the only one. I had already developed a process of reporting after three years with Commonwealth Magazine that I share myself with – that you [the subject] understand what I’m there for. I’d make that clear at the start. Everything is fair game. There’s no off the record or whatever, unless – and then we’ll talk about it – there is. With that understood, I’m a person and so are you, and I’m going to share myself. We’re going to have a conversation. We’re going to have a relationship. I’m not going to interview you. We’re going to have a conversation. It’s not just a one-sided assault, you know? And there’s no transgression. There’s no journalistic violation there at all. [...]
It’s also not any kind of subterfuge. I am interested. That’s the kind of person I am. When I talk to writing groups and they ask, ‘what are the keys to writing?’ Really, it’s what kind of person are you? How are you with people? There are so many people I’ve seen come and go and they’ve gone to journalism school and know all the nuts and bolts, but their social skills are lacking. That’s where it all starts. When you talk about creative writing, that’s as creative as anything else. What is your approach to people? How do you get them to open up. I do it by sharing myself.
Q: When I first came to The Pilot [in 1996], some of the [sources] would be surprised at what ended up in stories. Do you ever get people feeling violated by what you included?
I’ve never had a person — I think it’s because I really do put myself in their shoes, and I also put myself in the shoes of a, kind of, imaginary court of journalism. You know, there’s going to be judges judging me. I really put myself in their shoes. I’ve had spouses call me after a story or write me and say they broke down in tears. They didn’t know this or they never saw their husband open up or whatever. That’s a big point of pride for me, that I do earn their trust.
Q: If you’re talking to a young reporter, and they’re going out to do a feature, do you want them to talk through ground rules? Like, ‘Hey, here’s what I’m doing.’
Right. People, they’re not just material. They’re not just fodder. That’s a mistake some young writers make. They lick their lips. You’ve got to keep the sense of the humanity of your subject. [...]
I always keep in mind how will I feel to pick up the paper and see myself eight columns wide and see myself there laid bare and naked. And that’s going to live forever. I feel tremendous responsibility, whether it’s positive or negative, that it’s accurate. That it’s true. [...] It’s not them that I’m after. It’s the truth – the story. You can ‘get’ anybody. I’m out to get great story.
For more about D’Orso, visit his site via this link. Playing us out is a message about granite from our good friends in Barre, Vt. – and beyond: