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.
In the book, one of the most recent examples is Dr. Robert Joseph Foster, who made a treacherous drive across the mountains from Louisiana to California. He faced many experiences which were heartbreaking. He had not told his children anything. They knew he was from Monroe, Louisiana. That was about all they knew. He had not told them how difficult life had been and nothing about the drive, which was a seminal passage in the book. People who had read the book the first few months it was out, they knew more about these people than their own children knew. It was too painful. They had suppressed it from their memories and identities. They didn’t want to burden their children. They wanted their children to start fresh.