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.

By the time I got there the town’s story had gone on the wires. It could have been a brief, but something about it drew me. The people said the AP had already been there. I decided to stay. I went to church that day. I had not expected how traumatized they were. They actually had set up an intake center at the armory for loved ones to report relatives whose remains were believed missing from the cemetery. They had a bulletin board. It was not what you’d expect. People wanted to see for themselves. They were concerned about a particular family member. This was a story about the survivors. The people were so sweet, small-town people, humble people. I wrote on deadline. I spoke to thirty people in three or four days.

The goal is to find a portal for the story. Whose eyes? The coroner who was under a lot of pressure; a businessman who was anxious and heartsick because he had a father and a stillborn son in the cemetery. I spent time with this man who was determined to find his stillborn son, whose casket he feared had been taken by the floodwaters. I was following the people. He was friends with the coroner. When we got to the cemetery, the coroner said, “I’m not supposed to let anyone in.” But seeing how distraught the man who had lost his son was, he let the two of us in. The businessman looked at the headstones, telling stories about the people. He went to the place where his family was buried. His son wasn’t there. The goal is to convey that to the reader. Tolstoy has a definition for art: the transfer of emotion from one person to another.

Seeing the Whole Human Being

Coming off of fifteen years of researching and writing the book, the things that people told me were things they had not told their own grandchildren. I was so grateful to be in a position to receive this gift they were giving, not just to me but to the world. There is a chemistry that has to occur in any interaction. I think it’s empathy. We use empathy. It’s not pity. It’s a way of seeing them as whole human beings and an attempt to understand what it means to be them in this circumstance. By listening, which is very hard to do—it’s hard to keep yourself from interjecting, to move them more quickly through the story.

Giving them the space to talk is a big part of it. It takes time to build up the sense of trust and courage. It is a really difficult thing to do. I don’t think people realize how difficult it is. We don’t have forever to get it in a linear fashion that we can just plop into a story. Getting it right is really difficult.

It’s a slow-moving reporting. It means being in the moment, with the individual—they cannot be rushed. Giving them time to enunciate things they never told anyone before: “I can’t believe I’m saying this to you.” We should stop and take note of how huge that may be for the person in front of us. It’s our job to make them feel safe to talk about difficult things, to recount these things for the greater good.

Pamela Newkirk is a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media.