Thread: Van Halen= the adjective
06.03.05, 06:44 AM #1
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Van Halen= the adjective
Appreciating "Deep Throat:" Q&A with Hank Stuever
By Chip Scanlan (more by author)
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With the speed and ferocity of a firehose, journalists blasted us with stories about Deep Throat yesterday. But in that deluge of articles and opinon, only one story made me laugh and think. Just 776 words long, a mere 11 paragraphs, "The Illuminating Experience of Being Kept in the Dark," displays the wit and wisdom of Hank Stuever, one of daily journalism's most clever writers.
The Washington Post is a newsroom brimming with writing talent. Wil Haygood, David Maraniss, David Von Drehle and Anne Hull (a Poynter trustee) immediately come to mind. Style writer Stuever stands out by regularly taking the road less traveled, returning with stories from a beat he's dubbed "American Elsewhere."
Hank StueverThe sentinel posts of Stuever's beat are not the cop shop or the school board, but "drive-thrus, the multiplexes, the strip, the drag, the freeway spans under construction, the futon places, the yogurt places, the 10-minute lube places, the Slurpees, the billboards offering open-sided MRI scans."
He's also the writer of one of my all-time favorite leads, from a piece on discount funeral homes: "Let's say you're dead."
I got to know Hank in 1994. He was a finalist for the nondeadline writing prize from the American Society of Newspaper Editors for a package of features he wrote for the Albuquerque Tribune; a year earlier, his story about a couple's wedding was a finalist for the feature Pulitzer.
"Stuever writes uncommon features that inform, illuminate, and entertain. He has a reporter's thirst for facts and the vision and voice of a writer willing to take risks," I said in the introduction to one of his stories reprinted in "Best Newspaper Writing 1994," a take I'd stand by today.
From Albuquerque, he moved on to the Austin-American Statesman before joining the Post's Style section, which came into being in 1968--the year he was born, as he notes in the email interview below. In 1996, his story about the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building and its aftermath in Oklahoma City, where he was born and raised, was also a Pulitzer finalist. Last year, he published "Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere," a collection of 26 profiles, esssay and dispatches from his days in Albuquerque, Austin and D.C.
Chip Scanlan: How did "The Illuminating Experience of Being Kept in the Dark" get in the Post?
Hank Stuever: Watergate was not The Post's only great project of the '70s -- another would have to be the Style section, which was started by Ben Bradlee and his staff in 1968 (the year I was born) and is still very much a vibrant part of Post (and Washington) culture. Here is the ultimate happy-hunting ground for reporters who write and writers who report, and so the essay I wrote about Deep Throat is really just a part of what the section does every day. We are always encouraged to cover all parts of the culture -- from the arts and trends to breaking news. There's no news event that cannot be considered for further illumination in the Style section, and it's always been that way. I enjoy trying to live up to that ideal.
Whose idea was it?
Sometime in winter, it seems like, the newsroom went through a brief rumor-flurry that Deep Throat was near death and some of us heard that one or two people in the newsroom had been told to get ready to write a big lead-all for A1 when it happened. That gossip blew over pretty quick, but somewhere in there, Joel Garreau, an editor in Style, came over to my desk.
Style has a great, standing feature called "Appreciation," which we use when someone of note dies.
It's not an obituary -- a form the Post already does very well on the Obits page or on A1 -- but it's more like a riff on a life. It's not always a favorable piece, either. (I always like to think of the Style Appreciation as the kind of conversation you'd have over drinks _after_ a funeral, after the obit.) So Joel said that the Style Appreciation on Deep Throat shouldn't be about the death of the man (whoever he was; of course we did not know) but the death of the --idea--of Deep Throat, and all the mythic qualities that would entail. Joel is not normally my editor (Henry Allen is), but he and I often share the same shorthand language on story ideas.
Before the false alarm abated and the rumors of Deep Throat's passing were judged to be greatly exaggerated, I had opened a file in my private basket to just jot down "death of the--idea--of Deep Throat" and just a few notes to myself and brainstorms along that concept, and kept it handy for the eventuality.
What was the assignment?
Here's where it gets kinda weird. I got back from a stint at the Michael Jackson trial in late March and started a temporary tour of duty as an assignment editor in Style, which I'm still doing. (I wanted to see what editing was like, and feel like I needed to cool my jets from writing/reporting for a while.) So I sort of assigned the Deep Throat essay to myself, with Joel editing. By midday Tuesday, as the Deep Throat thing really detonated online and on TV, the editors here quickly identified two angles for Style: a reported piece by Paul Farhi about how Vanity Fair got (and kept secret) the story, and my piece, which would be about vibe, about meaning, about (it's always about) what it feels like to know.
What kind of reporting/research did you do?
Exactly none. I know that's not the right answer, but understand my logic: It's an 800-word essay about things that the idea of Deep Throat (and the end of the secret) conjure up. It's not a man-on-the-street, how-do-you-feel story. And I was very confident that readers were going to get a complete report on the unveiling of Deep Throat for many pages in the morning paper. What I'm working from in this piece includes many things -- an admiring knowledge of Watergate and its status in pop lore, and years of listening to people talk about those days. One of the benefits of working here is getting to listen to people's old stories, and paying attention.
How do you manage to be witty and wise on deadline?
The only thing I can compare it to is something like a guitar-riff contest at the state fair. When it's your turn, you just get all Van Halen on it, and give it your very best moves, using everything in your arsenal -- reporting, talking to colleagues, talking to sources, talking to the funniest person you know. Googling and surfing like a beast. A quick contemplative walk downstairs for a Diet Pepsi. Some typing. Some pruning.
And let yourself laugh at what you're typing. I have no qualms about giggling while I write. Then you advance to the next round. Then you throw it to an editor that you trust, and he or she will help you take away some things and build up some things. It is not easy, and if it feels easy, then you've done something wrong, or not quite readable. You should read it the next morning in the paper and wish to have it back, another pass at a paragraph or two. There's something about an idea-piece on deadline very much like a deadline news story -- you always get more information (or more
ideas) once it's too late to put them in.
You pretty much say it all in your website bio on http://www.hankstuever.com/stories.html. Anything new to add?
No. Except that I think this kind of thing is possible at all newspapers, if they are willing to give it a shot. I wrote these kinds of pieces for the Austin American-Statesman and The Albuquerque Tribune as well. I think there's a tendency at smaller newspapers to not do what the Washington Post or New York Times or Vanity Fair would do. I believe it's always worth trying to get better writing into the paper -- any paper.
What questions haven't you been asked that you'd like to tackle?
May I say that my book, "Off Ramp," is being re-released in paperback this month from Picador?
06.03.05, 08:06 AM #2
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09.03.16 @ 05:50 AM
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Interesting use of the term "Van Halen" it when talking guitar...
Although I couldn't help but notice the title... "The Illuminating Experience of Being Kept in the Dark". That appears to be the new definition of Van Halening something!!!Woke up this mornin, got Blue Moon in your eyes...
06.03.05, 09:17 AM #3
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Women & Children First
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Originally Posted by Zahzoo
Yeah talkabout in the dark!!
The only part I read was the VH part.
Interesting alias for that guy - Deep Throat.RIP - Classic Van Halen
"A lot of people take Van Halen more seriously than we do." The Diamond One
By Rock Star in forum Main VH DiscussionReplies: 2Last Post: 11.17.01, 11:33 AM
By Rock Star in forum Main VH DiscussionReplies: 1Last Post: 11.15.01, 11:05 AM