One of the first things Esquire writer Chris Jones told his audience gathered in the Herg last Tuesday afternoon is that he has a reputation for being a dick. “This is a safe room. You can say whatever you want,” Jones said. “Later, if you bash me on Twitter, I’ll work to end your career.”
Jones writes because he doesn’t like talking much. And when he writes, he writes for magazines, not books. He didn’t go to J-school. In high school, teachers told him he should be a writer. But he got an undergrad degree in politics instead. And then a masters in urban planning. Go figure.
After what he claims was the worst job interview of all time, Jones got hired at a Canadian newspaper and became one of 12 inexperienced writers who worked under one enthusiastic editor. Though Jones’ roots are in sports writing, he now works under his contract with Esquire, for which he writes six feature stories a year.
Read on to find out more about the talented writer who won the National Magazine Awards for feature writing in 2005 for his Esquire story “Home,” about astronauts stranded on the International Space Station after the space shuttle Columbia disaster, and “The Things that Carried Him,” a deeply moving account of one soldier’s last trip home.
How he got his foot in the door at Esquire: “When I was going into Esquire, I was dumb enough to think I could walk in and talk to David Grander, the Editor-in-Chief, as a 25-year-old baseball writer. The janitor told me to talk to Andy Ward, the sports guy at the magazine. The security guy let me call him. I simply told him I wanted to get on his radar. I bought the janitor and Andy a box of donuts. I gave Andy some clips to read while I was sitting there, and actually insisted he read then right then and there. What I wanted to know from that day is if this is possible. He told me I was on the right track. Six months later, they called me. I bribed my way into Esquire with donuts. I’m Canadian. In Canada, donuts are a form of currency. Twitter is the modern donut.”
What he does for Esquire: “The Esquire ideal is for the reporter to be able to tell the story. When he goes home, he just writes it as he remmbers it. If I need to look at my notes or listen to a recording, it might not be as important. The things you remember are the things that count. Let the facts take the readers where you want them. There is an audience pressure when you’re writing for a big magazine. Six story contract a year. One-year contract. You’ve got to perform. Why am I so competitive? Well I like my job.”
Why he loves his job: “Great jobs still exist. I love my job. I can’t imagine having to go to work. I love being paid to go to events where people pay to go, like the World Series. I do it for the adventure. It gives me the life I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m very happy.”
On finding your sweet spot: “Interesting thing about journalism: it’s a broad field—TV production, to radio, to books, etc. You won’t be good at all of those things. Everyone has a sweet spot. Newspapers weren’t my sweet spot. I wanted magazines.”
What matters most to him in his stories: “For me what matters is the ending, the finishing note, the reward. Readers should feel happy that they read the story. For me that’s more important. The ending is the destination. A lot of my stories are a collection of scenes.”
On good reporting: “A lot people think they can bluff and write their way in or out of a situation. You have to do the actual reporting. There’s nothing worse than having to write a 6,000 word story, and only having 3,000 words worth of reporting. Reporting is work; its labor: putting that effort into it, being a good listener, putting the miles in. Don’t be lazy. You wont get the story unless you do the work. The art of hanging out is good reporting. The ideal is for the subject to forget you’re a reporter. Your job is to become their confessor. It’s a strange set up, asking for them to tell you everything. Good to plant the seed early. Reporting is grunt work.”
On interviewing: “I give them a preamble. I tell them: ‘this story is important to me. I’m asking these questions for a reason. Details matter. I want to get this story right.’ Should feel like a conversation. Ask the questions you’re interested in. What are you personally curious about? You can’t fake curiosity. I pitch the story because I want to know. People can suss out bullshit. I’m not looking for quotes; I’m looking for the story. Doesn’t use a lot of quotes. People are afraid of sounding dumb. Your job is to smooth out as many speed bumps. Make people comfortable.”
How to handle emotional stories: “I never get detached. The idea that you’re supposed to be detached is asking the reporter to be a sociopath. The goal isn’t objectivity; it’s truth. That’s my measure. You get closer to the person when you get involved. The stories that you get into, you get the most out of. But don’t try to beat readers over the head. Don’t try too hard to pull the emotion out of the reader. If you present the inherently moving details, people will feel it. ”
On the field of journalism: “The journalism field has a really broad range of money. There are lots of people making no money. When you start you won’t make money. There are people who make a lot of money. The more rare your skill set, the more money you can make. I know a writer who has a 17 million, 5-year contract.”
On receiving awards: “This business is very subjective; it’s grey. You’re rarely a 100 percent. I tend to view the world in a black and white way. And awards are black and white. You know your story was the best of the year.”
How the Internet changes things: “Internet has made things different. There’s immediate feedback, which is often negative. I can take criticism from smart people very well. What I can’t abide is stupid idiots saying shit. I also can’t ignore it. I would never say anything online that I wouldn’t say in person. Now with Twitter, you can.”
Advice for us students and recent grads: “I wish for everyone to find that perfect sweet spot. Great writers aren’t necessarily great editors. Vice versa. You won’t be working at The New Yorker next year. There are people better than you, but you might be better than others in the future. Some of you won’t get there. But the idea of not trying and missing out is the worst thing. Easiest thing you can do to improve: listen. Be a good listener. They’ll tell you everything. It’s such an easy thing for you to do. Details. People warm up to you. It’s a simple thing.”
****Quotes edited for clarity