How Pamela Colloff became the best damn writer in Texas

Photo by Jeff Wilson.

Unemployed college graduate Pamela Colloff and her friend Margaret Brown in 1994 set off from New York on a road trip in a rusty Volvo with no real destination in mind. They were broke and wanted to live lives filled with adventure and art. Eventually they meandered to Austin, Texas. The plan was to stay there for just a little while, but Colloff couldn’t leave—the rent was cheap, only $300 a month, and affordable housing gave her time to write. And the other thing was, Texas got to her. “As soon as I came here, I just always had so many ideas. I think because it was different and entirely new to me, I had so many things I wanted to write about,” she explains.

Here in her accidental home, outside of traditional media epicenters, Colloff found her calling and created a dynasty. Hired by Texas Monthly as a staff writer in 1997, Colloff is now executive editor and one of the lead architects of the magazine’s national reputation for in-depth crime reporting and long-form features. In an era of quick takes, Colloff’s meticulously researched investigations, interviews, and profiles have received six nominations for a National Magazine Award, more than any other female writer in the history of the awards (she won once).

Yet the magazine that has been Colloff’s platform for 20 years is changing. In an interview for this profile, Texas Monthly’s new editor told CJR he plans to refocus the magazine on ‘lifestyle’ coverage. The prospect drew protest from the magazine’s fans, and the editor later clarified that travel and food stories will coexist alongside politics coverage and longform.

From true crime to oral histories to political profiles, Colloff’s gripping stories have earned her a reputation as a virtuoso of longform. Her writing is meticulously reported, lightly executed, and informed by a gut-level instinct for plot and character. Journalists and readers alike look forward to a new Colloff story as hungrily as Willie Nelson lusts after a blunt. But Colloff’s power is more than just her writing; it’s the community she creates. Writers she has mentored have published award-winning books, had works anthologized in Best American Sports Writing and Best Food Writing, and fanned out to prestige publications such as The Atlantic and Wired.

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“She’s the writer every writer turns to when they need help,” says Jake Silverstein, editor of New York Times Magazine and former Texas Monthly editor. Silverstein explains that writers frequently use Colloff as a sounding board as they develop pitches and form stories. “Most people know Pam as a great writer, but very few people realize what an important source of editorial feedback she is to the newsroom.” Evan Smith, CEO and founder of the Texas Tribune and former president and editor in chief of Texas Monthly adds, “Pam never forgets she too was a young writer once.”

Colloff herself downplays her role as a mentor; she explains that colleagues learn from one another. But her influence is undeniable: Many writers both at Texas Monthly and elsewhere cite Colloff as an influence and beloved mentor, including Nicholas Jackson, editor in chief of Pacific Standard, who interned at the Texas Monthly in 2009 and notes that Colloff has been enormously helpful throughout his career.

Colloff’s influence has also shaped Texas Monthly’s legacy. Michael Levy, who worked as a taxi driver and a guard at the Dallas County Jail, founded the magazine in 1973 when he was 27 years old. Together with founding editor Bill Broyles, a journalist and screenwriter, they established a legacy of investigative journalism and what Silverstein calls “literary longform.” In the early days of the magazine, writers came to work with talent like journalist and screenwriter Gary Cartwright and author Jan Reid.

“Now,” says Silverstein, “they come to work with Pam.”

***

Colloff, 45, grew up in New York City. Her mother is a lawyer and her late father worked for CBS as general manager of the New York City affiliate after a brief stint in politics. She was a good student and fell in love with writing in high school, after Allen Ginsberg came to give a reading. She convinced the best-looking guy she knew to ask Ginsberg if she could interview him for the school paper. He agreed, and Colloff was hooked. In an interview with Nieman Storyboard, she recalls, “I loved the idea that you could tell people you were a journalist—even if you weren’t really one—and that just saying this then allowed you to approach anyone and ask them pretty much anything.”

In terms of the rarity of her toolkit, she is like a unicorn, chased by chupacabra, eaten by Bigfoot. She is just an amazing person in every respect.”

After high school, she attended Brown University, intending to major in journalism. But there was a problem: Brown, which was her father’s alma mater, didn’t have a major in journalism. Undaunted, Colloff created her own curriculum of independent study classes and practical experience. She began writing for a now-defunct alternative newspaper. Her first story was about a fraternity that had been getting girls drunk and, as she told Tribeza magazine, videotaping them “doing various sexual things and then distributing the video tapes.”

“I went to the paper and brought them this story,” she says, “and basically learned how to report an investigative story from the get-go.”

The story was picked up by the Associated Press, and Colloff got to see her work directly impact campus policies. In an interview with CJR, Colloff recalls her early career, explaining, “That was very satisfying to realize that I could report on something and bring about change with my words.”

Then came graduation and the road trip and Austin. Their first night in town, Colloff and Brown went to a club called the Electric Lounge, where one of Brown’s friends was playing in a rock band. That friend was Chad Nichols, Colloff’s future husband. Their 2005 wedding announcement in The New York Times notes:

They were immediately attracted to each other. Mr. Nichols said that for him it was ‘epiphanous.’ Ms. Colloff said her epiphany came at the end of the evening of conversation when she noticed a novel on the dashboard of his truck.

Colloff told the Times: “He was reading Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, and he drove a pickup. … A very interesting combination.”

 

COLLOFF DECIDED TO STAY. She discovered Texas Monthly right away and pitched them for months (stories she no longer remembers) without getting anywhere. Finally, she landed an assignment with the now-defunct Details magazine. The article was on twentysomethings who were supplementing their income by becoming test subjects for drug trials at an Austin-based pharmaceutical company. To research the story, Colloff became a test subject herself and had a bad reaction to one of the drugs, “Which,” she recalls, “made for a somewhat terrifying experience but a good narrative.” After that story came out, Smith (the Texas Monthly editor at the time) brought her into the offices and offered her a staff job.

Smith remembers Colloff’s hiring a little differently. In 1995, Smith was home with his young daughter on parental leave, sorting through a pile of mail. He opened a cold query letter from a young writer, Pam Colloff. He was immediately impressed by the depth of knowledge she had for the subject. “It was the best query letter I’ve ever received,” recalls Smith. “The story was on a region of South Texas, where by accident or design, Peyote was legal. We had already run a story on the topic a few years before. But I was impressed by the depth of detail and knowledge she brought to the pitch. It was clear she had already visited and she had statistics. I said ‘no’ to the idea and ‘yes’ to Pam.”

Smith called Colloff and asked her to pitch something else, and she did—a story on the prison ministry program run by former special counsel to President Nixon, Chuck Colson. A few months later, Smith hired her for a staff writer position. He explains, “I don’t think we even had money in the budget for another writer at the time, but you don’t run across a writer like Pam everyday. She is truly unique in the best way. In terms of the rarity of her toolkit, she is like a unicorn, chased by a chupacabra, eaten by Bigfoot. She is just an amazing person in every respect. ”

Smith believes that the fabled pitch Colloff sent him is lost somewhere in his files, but it left a lasting legacy. Despite offers at magazines across the country, Colloff has stayed at Texas Monthly for 20 years. She and Nichols are now married. Nichols is a proofreader at Springbox, an Austin-based digital marketing agency, and he still plays with his band “The Transgressors.” They have two children, 9 and 5 years old, who run around shouting, “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!”

Writing in Texas has posed a unique challenge, namely the political diversity of the audience. The magazine boasts a subscriber base of 300,000 and more than 1.5 million page views each month. Colloff explains that because Texas is a red state, the print subscriber base is a lot more conservative than online readers, who come from all over the country. “There’s so much that I read that makes so many assumptions about the political beliefs of readers,” Colloff says. “If I write a story about same-sex marriage, I’m aware the entire time I’m writing it that a large number of people who are reading this may not be onboard with that idea. Trying to reach a diversity of readers I think makes for better writing. I think not making those assumptions has been good for me as a writer.”

 

THE SECRET TO REACHING ALL AUDIENCES, Colloff believes, is simply the story. She focuses on the essential human element, something everyone can access—a mother picking up her daughter from school, a state employee just doing their best at their job. “That to me, is a story that can engage people than, if I start off with a different tone or with a bird’s-eye view of the issue”

Colloff is at her heart a storyteller, motivated to tell stories with purpose and meaning, without moralizing. “I’m much more interested in finding narratives that address larger questions—about gun violence, the criminal justice system, social inequality—that resonate beyond the facts of the particular case I’m writing about,” Colloff explains.

Smith adds, “Pam has always had an innate understanding of what journalism is, which is to not only tell people what they know they need to know, but tell them the things they don’t know they need to know. And that telling begins with a compelling story. Pam is the master of the story.”

Colloff knows she’s found a great story if she thinks of it while she is brushing her teeth or doing the dishes.

When they worked together, Silverstein called Colloff “Tenacious P” because she is one of the most driven, diligent, and thorough reporters he’s ever met. “She reads every trial transcript, usually even before she pitches the story,” says Silverstein. “And behind her polite and kind exterior is a tenacious and aggressive reporter, who has an uncanny sense of story that is driven by moral purpose.”

Colloff knows she’s found a great story if she thinks of it while she is brushing her teeth or doing the dishes. “When a story follows you, that’s when you know it’s the right one to tell,” she explains. But she doesn’t immediately begin making phone calls. Colloff tracks stories for years, through trials and appeals, waiting for the right time to report. Colloff can do this, in part, because Texas Monthly allows her the time let her stories steep like sun tea on a porch.

This dedication to story is one of the reason’s Colloff never begins articles with herself. She prefers to keep the voice of the story submerged in the action. As a result, her authorial voice is often so close to the narrative that it seamlessly slips in and out of the point of view of the subjects, revealing heartbreaking details and insights, often without the interruption of quotation marks.

This is exemplified in her story “The Reckoning,” which profiles Claire Wilson, who was injured and lost her fiancee and unborn child in the 1966 University of Texas Tower shooting. When Colloff writes about Wilson’s loss of the child, she writes: “Without the chance to hold the baby in her arms, Claire did not know how to mourn his loss; she had not yet chosen a name, and he felt like an abstraction, his face unknowable.”

Colloff’s writing evokes Wilson’s feelings beyond her actual words, slipping into the subject’s mind and heart. Her stories have a movie-like quality, which isn’t surprising considering that until his death in 1992, her father worked in TV news. Crafting words into pictures is in her blood.

Colloff attributes her vivid and minimalist style to her mentor and colleague, Skip Hollandsworth, an executive editor for the magazine who has also written several screenplays. Colloff recalls that Hollandsworth once advised her to remove the quotes from a draft. Hollandsworth denies dispensing such advice. “Anything I ever told Pam, she just ignored,” Hollandsworth laughs. “She already had an innate and impeccable sense of how her story should unfold.”

 

WHEN SHE SITS DOWN TO WRITE, Colloff organizes her notes using something she calls the “Skip Hollandsworth Method.” She takes everything from all her months of research—quotes, excerpts from newspapers, observations and notes—and copies them into a single Word document. That document provides the basis for the entire story.

It’s an almost cinematic form of organizing—pulling together the voices and scenes, and then spinning them out into a narrative. Her story “96 Minutes” was made into the 2016 documentary Tower. Scenes from her stories linger in the minds of readers for years. In “Flesh and Blood,” the story of a young couple who orchestrate the murder of a family and burn the house with the bodies, there is a moment when the father returns to the ashes of the house and notices the detritus of his past life—a Hot Wheels car; a broken ceramic cup; a horseshoe-shaped belt buckle that his children gave him for Christmas. The moment is evocative, full of the kinds of details writers struggle to collect and report.

Colloff’s light touch allows the scene to be rendered vividly through the voice of her source, without embellishment. Hollandsworth notes that Colloff never feels the need to dramatize, “She let’s the story tell itself. She doesn’t load it up.”

Colloff approaches her oral histories with the same light touch—“96 Minutes” and “Dreaming of Her,” a recounting of the murder of Selena Quintanilla Perez, weave together the voices of witnesses into a perfect plot, with all the rise and fall of scene, action, and denouement. This process requires months of extensive interviewing, research, writing, and exhausting fact-checking (Colloff says each story is scrupulously footnoted).

Hollandsworth explains that Colloff can so easily enter into the minds and hearts of her subjects because she is an excellent listener. “She just listens and let’s people hang themselves,” he says. She is personable and ready to laugh. And this goes a long way to establishing a relationship with her sources.

 

IF PEOPLE DON’T ANSWER HER CALLS, she sends letters, and she follows up with her interview subjects and works to maintain a cordial relationship even outside of the story. Colloff tells the people that she is interviewing that they will soon become sick of her, and she does her best to follow through on this light-hearted threat. She has dinner with their families, journeys with them to the places where their lives were changed, and reads thousands of pages of court documents.

This closeness is apparent in the writing. In her article “The Witness,” a profile of Michelle Lyons, who witnessed 278 executions for the state of Texas, Colloff inhabits Lyons’ memories.

She could still picture Ricky McGinn’s mother, an elderly woman who had arrived at her son’s execution in a floral dress and pearls. Michelle would never forget watching her try to rise from her wheelchair so she could see through the large pane of glass that separated her from the death chamber. On the other side lay her son, who had been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a twelve-year-old girl. McGinn was flat on his back, each limb restrained with leather straps, an IV line stuck in each arm. The old woman, her wrinkled hands pressed to the glass, had watched intently as her son’s body went slack. Michelle thought about her as she drove to work that morning. When the Houston skyline rose up in front of her, she realized her face was wet with tears.

“I don’t have any tricks,” Colloff says. “I just try to be a nice person and hope that works.”

Colloff keeps the lines of dialogue open even after the story is written. As a result, sources come back and continue to share stories with her. Claire Wilson, the subject of Colloff’s article “The Reckoning,” was also featured in “96 Minutes.” Michelle Lyons had been a source for writers at the magazine for more than a decade. They were talking one day, and Lyons told Colloff she was having trouble looking back on some of the executions she’d witnessed as a part of her job. That comment turned into a feature story, and that feature story earned Colloff her fifth National Magazine Award nomination.

Colloff tells the people that she is interviewing that they will soon become sick of her, and she does her best to follow through on this light-hearted threat.”

Colloff’s connection to her sources is a testament to her skill as an interviewer. To get ready for an interview, Colloff says she “over prepares”—researching and compiling a list of questions.

But once she is in the interview, she only glances at her notes once or twice to ensure she hasn’t missed any questions. “A good interview is a conversation,” Colloff notes. “It’s not an interrogation where you are trying to get them to say something incriminating.” She doesn’t like to use a recording device; instead she just listens. After the interview, she will record her recollection of the conversation in a recorder.

Still, Hollandsworth says there is surely a list of district attorneys who regret talking to Colloff on the record: “She is just a good listener. You want to tell her everything.”

It’s a truth I learned firsthand while trying to interview her for this story. Colloff prepared for our interview by reading my articles and asked me questions about my writing and family. At the end of our discussion, she could have easily written a profile of me. That’s just part of her magic.

One of the most notable stories of a source opening up to Colloff was during her research for “Unholy Act,” her story of a cold case and a priest with a dark secret. She showed up at the doorstep of John Feit, a suspected murderer who hadn’t returned her calls or letters. She ends the story with his chilling words in response to her request for an interview:

He stood there for a moment, as if pondering what to do next. There were many things he could have said that he did not: That he was innocent. That Irene’s murder had been a senseless crime. That he was tired of strangers knocking on his door, asking about a terrible thing that had happened a long time ago. Instead, he said something that I would think back to many times in the weeks to come.

“The speculation intrigues me,” he said. Then, as he turned to shut the door, he added, “God bless you, dear.”

The story is also one of the few times Colloff put herself in the narrative. That time, she explained, “I simply had to, there was no other way.” John Feit was arrested last year.

Colloff’s preternatural ability to encourage sources to open up doesn’t mean each story has worked out. Colloff has walked away from stories when she couldn’t get the details she needed, sources weren’t forthcoming, or resistant to talk. “Sometimes you just work around the holes in the story, and it makes the story more interesting, and sometimes you can’t and you have to walk away,” she says. Colloff once dropped the now-famous story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who had been wrongfully executed for murdering his wife and children. She was scooped by David Grann, who beat her to a source. “He wrote an incredible story,” Colloff recalls. “I wasn’t mad.”

A significant influence on Colloff’s writing is her friend and colleague Kate Rodemann, who serves as the magazine’s deputy editor. Rodemann taught Colloff to refrain from editorializing in her writing and, instead, to simply and methodically lay out the facts. Colloff explained that in 2010, she wrote a story about Anthony Graves, who was wrongly convicted of murdering a family of six people in Somerville, Texas, and sent to death row. While writing the story, Colloff was outraged by the facts of the case, and her first draft seethed with moral indignation. “Kate worked with me to strip out that emotion and in doing so, made it a much more powerful and persuasive piece. Her point was that if I just presented the facts of the case and didn’t editorialize and tell readers what to think, they would come to the same conclusion I had—that Anthony was innocent. But because readers would have to connect the dots and work to reach that conclusion on their own, they would be all the more devastated by it.”

Recently, Colloff’s focus has changed from true crime to stories that show the personal impact of national politics, yet lessons of story and focus remain the same. She explains that the best example of the kind of storytelling she strives for is a documentary film, The Thin Blue Line. “It’s visually arresting and deeply engaging and works on every level as a great narrative, but at its heart, it is a brilliant piece of investigative journalism, and it exposed a horrendous injustice.”

Colloff has spent the majority of her career on longform journalism. Even her independent study projects at Brown were 4,000-word profiles on landmarks in and around Rhode Island. Despite her background, Colloff is not dismissive of shorter stories. “Quick takes and quick reporting are important too, but I think you can’t just have that. You have to have some of those more deeply reported stories. Yet, no one has figured out quite how to make that possible.”

It would seem that for now Texas Monthly has cracked the code. Hollandsworth explains that the magazine was founded with a rich heritage of storytelling.“People sometimes think Texas is crazy and that these stories just happen here, but I don’t think that’s quite it. These stories happen all over, in places like Oklahoma, but there isn’t an Oklahoma Monthly to cover them.” He pauses. “Why? Well, that’s above my pay-grade, I guess.”

Part of the answer to that question is that Emmis Communications put its money behind longer, deeply reported stories. The 2016 sale of the magazine—from Emmis to Houston-based private equity firm Genesis Park LP—means the future of this desert oasis in the media landscape is a bit murky. However, new editor Tim Taliaferro in an interview says Colloff will remain at the center of the newsroom: “We all revolve around her.” A few days later, he added, in a note to readers after a CJR story about his vision for the magazine: “Let me also say that I am committed to covering politics, as Texas Monthly has done since its inception, and to uphold its tradition of longform journalism.”

As for Colloff, she says she is considering a book-length project, but she hasn’t settled on a topic. Meantime, she is working on a very big story that she is excited about, but couldn’t talk about just yet.

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Lyz Lenz is a writer based in Iowa. Her writing has appeared in Pacific Standard, Marie Claire, Jezebel, and The Washington Post. She can be found on Twitter @lyzl.