It’s humbling to realize how much you learn when you spend the time. It’s a relationship. That’s the first date. They’re assessing you as you’re assessing them. You have so many layers. I would go see them every morning. We would go to school together. It would be two below in the morning. One morning the kids were very late coming down from the apartment. I went up there and the mother got an aerosol can of religious oil and started spraying the kids. They didn’t have any reaction. It was clearly something she did all the time. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what was going on. No one ever said anything. Afterward I mentioned in an almost casual way—“I noticed that, and is that something you do often and what’s the goal?” And it was one of the things she did to protect them. It couldn’t in the literal sense, but she believed it would protect them, and it’s a powerful scene in the story. It gives readers insight into the lengths to which an inner-city mother felt she needed to go to protect her children from a violent world. That’s an example of the humanity. What do people do when they’re in violent circumstances, when gang activity is a regular part of their lives? This is one of the things she did. It was not the lead of my story. It was well into the piece. The reader was not ready to be exposed to something like that right up front. They may say, “That’s a bizarre thing.” They’re not ready to absorb the magnitude, the show of love and protectiveness that was coming from that mother. That’s what I mean about the humanity. They needed to be seen like anyone else. You have to first understand the world that they’re in. I opened up with a universal experience; the universal fear of every parent. Bringing the reader and protagonist together in a shared humanity, and then over the course of the narrative they can be exposed to additional things that the mother feels compelled to do because the experience is so extraordinary. I wanted readers to really understand what it was like to be a child in tough situations in the city.
When I won the Pulitzer, I heard from lots of different people, but it meant so much to me to hear from some of the people I had written about. The principal at Nicholas’s school sent flowers and telegrams. But it’s not about me. The methodology works so the people are not being portrayed as perfect. It’s a full story, meaning there’s a humanity—getting that balance right is a real challenge. They’re human beings in a tough situation. There’s an imperative to try to show the fullness; otherwise people are not going to feel the connection.
Following the People
During the floods of 1993 I was in Hardin, Missouri, a small town that was flooded so badly that the cemetery was washed away. There were so many places to write the story of this flood, so many places to go, but I ended up choosing to go to this town. The floodwaters washed away the cemetery so the people were grieving all over again. They had grieved already for their mothers, their fathers; they were re-experiencing it. They were emotionally dislocated by it. I remember talking to one woman and I said, “Where did you live?”, and she couldn’t remember her own address. She began looking at her bag to find something that had her address, a bill, a letter. She was teary-eyed and glazed in her facial expressions. It was stunning to me what you’re exposed to. We were in the middle of trying to arrange to talk. She couldn’t tell me where she lived. That became its own story.