How a star freelancer found her way from Marfa, Texas, to The New Yorker

Rachel Monroe. Photo by Emma Rogers.

THIRTY MILES OUTSIDE the West Texas town of Marfa is the world’s unlikeliest swimming pool: a 35-foot-tall rusted steel tank, formerly used to replenish locomotives traveling through the desert, filled to the brim with hundreds of thousands of gallons of icy water. The Tank, as it is known to those who have been, is located on private property; to soak in its frigid water is to break the law.

Rachel Monroe, a freelance writer and Marfa resident of five years, knows exactly where the Tank is, but, while she generously offers to take me for a dip there, she won’t reveal its location on the record. Marfa writer Sterry Butcher once wrote a short piece about the Tank, in the June 2016 issue of Texas Monthly, and never heard the end of it from locals.

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“I’m not going to mention where it is,” Monroe says. “You want to get everybody mad at me?”

In June 2015, the trajectory of Monroe’s journalism career, just one year old, could be drawn as a long, vertical line. She’d written three much lauded crime stories—one each in the Oxford American and Outside, plus a Livingston Award-nominated feature for Matter, called “Have You Ever Thought About Killing Someone?” Magazine editors and literary agents were soliciting pitches and proposals. Monroe’s knack for being ahead of the curve on stories about to enter the zeitgeist was uncanny.

So, when word reached her that New York poet Eileen Myles had bought a house in Marfa, Monroe pounced, pitching a story to New York magazine. Having interviewed Myles once on Marfa Public Radio, Monroe felt comfortable asking Myles to conduct their next interview in a more casual setting. En route to the Tank, they stopped at the Dollar General to buy some pool noodles to help them stay afloat.

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During the interview, Monroe beamed as Myles spit out line after quotable line. “This is going to be the easiest piece in the world,” she remembers thinking. Sun-baked and happy, Monroe prepared to descend the Tank after the interview. She grabbed her digital recorder, full of material for her story on Myles plus untranscribed interviews for a couple other pieces, which she had balanced on the rim. Monroe placed the recorder in the strap of her bathing suit top and then bent forward, trying to find her footing on the ladder. Then she watched, horrified, as her recorder fell into the Tank and slowly sank to the bottom.

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After she reached her car, Monroe sped back into Marfa and recreated the interview from memory, all the while sitting on an off-the-record bombshell that Myles was dating “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway, who would come out six months later in a New Yorker profile and write a fictionalized version of Myles into her Amazon show. Once more, Monroe proved to be prescient: A flood of pieces on Myles followed Monroe’s New York story, including three New York Times articles in the first four months of 2016.

Monroe’s ascent is a testament to the ways dogged reporting, sharp prose, and an ardor for the truth can overcome the shortfalls of remote geography. Though she lives thousands of miles from every traditional media bubble in the country, and lacks any formal training in journalism, Monroe has become one of the most celebrated young features writers in the country in roughly three years.

In short succession, she has published a deluge of longform stories on a swath of American subcultural topics—smokejumping, forensic psychiatry, pick-up artists, de-transitioning, and the shortcomings of the gig economy, among others. In 2017 alone, Monroe published two hit features in the New Yorker. The first, an April story on lifestyle Instagrammers, encouraged her editor Willing Davidson to greenlight a second feature, on the nebulous world of essential oils, published in October. Beyond that, Monroe has a slew of assignments for prestige magazines in various stages of reporting and editing, a book deal with Scribner, and the attention of numerous top magazine editors in New York, Los Angeles, and beyond.

 

I have a pathological need for independence. Like a cat.

 

ON ITS FACE, MARFA is the picture of small-town Texas. The stucco, salmon-colored Presidio County Courthouse squares the city, towering over adobe casitas that dot Marfa’s one-and-a-half square miles. The 2,000 locals eat at one of a handful of restaurants, many of which are open just a few hours each week. Doors remain unlocked and dogs run free on pothole-filled streets. There are no stoplights, no medical specialists, no movie theaters. Cell phone service is abysmal. The nearest commercial airport is 185 miles away. Tumbleweeds don’t routinely glide across the landscape, but at times, especially at dusk, it feels like they should.

Socially and politically, Marfa shares nothing in common with Monroe’s childhood home. Monroe, who turned 35 in September, was born in Richmond, Virginia, and grew up in a conservative suburb just outside the city, a place where townsfolk still celebrated Lee Jackson King Day instead of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and the local high school was named after a Confederate historian. When she was in fourth grade, she wore a Clinton/Gore shirt to school, which led Monroe’s art teacher to whisper “Right on” under her breath.

Her parents, both doctors, encouraged their little “read-y, write-y kid,” as Monroe remembers. When she visited her grandparents, Monroe would play around in The Print Shop program on their computer, creating a family newspaper called “The Monroe Mews,” a nod to her love of cats.

She took a year off after high school to travel. When her flight to Nepal out of Dulles on September 11, 2001 was canceled, she never rescheduled it. Instead, she worked at a local bakery and spent three months studying Spanish and photography in San Miguel, Mexico. That fall, she enrolled at Pomona College in Claremont, California, where she studied under David Foster Wallace, who became her thesis advisor.

Monroe hesitates to talk about this part of her life. She hasn’t read Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s Wallace biography, because she still has a hard time with his death. Monroe is protective of their relationship as well as self-conscious about over-claiming its importance.

The impression Wallace left upon Monroe, though, is indelible. Wallace brought his notorious attention to detail to bear on his students’ work, even in his “Intro to Creative Writing” class. He marked up every story with three different-colored pens, and provided students with two- or three-page, single-spaced letters with insightful comments.

“I was spoiled, I’ve never been line edited like that before… or since,” Monroe says. “Having somebody take us that seriously was transformative.”

Monroe took two more classes with Foster Wallace, during her sophomore and senior years, and kept in touch with him sporadically after graduation. He set her up with a job at Dalkey Archive Press, a Champaign, Illinois-based publisher where he once worked. (Monroe turned it down when she was offered a Fulbright Scholarship.) After a year spent studying women and literacy in Morocco on the Fulbright, Monroe enrolled in an MFA program at Johns Hopkins University to study fiction. Wallace died during her first year at Hopkins.

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“Sometimes I wonder if his situation had anything to do with [switching to nonfiction],” Monroe says. “Maybe it was just a better fit.”

While in Baltimore, Monroe lived in a warehouse that was later shut down following the December 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. Surrounded by friends and a rotating cast of 20-year-old anarchists, and paying just $350 per month in rent, Monroe made a living adjuncting for fiction undergrads at Johns Hopkins and writing for a website called Baltimore Fishbowl. She also started writing longer, more thoughtful pieces—first for a website called This Recording, and eventually an essay for the New York Times’ “Modern Love” section, about camping in the backseat of a Moroccan cab while two lovers, who had been forbidden to see each other, made out in the front seat.

After a year in the leaky, freezing, and illegal warehouse, Monroe started looking for a way out of Baltimore. She started taking long road trips by herself—to Asheville, Detroit, and eventually Los Angeles. Though writers seemed to flock to LA, settling down would require Monroe to get a real job, and she didn’t want to commit to that yet.

In April 2012, on her way to California, Monroe spent a night in a small desert town about three hours east of El Paso. After, she couldn’t get Marfa out of her mind. On her way back east to Baltimore from Los Angeles, she was supposed to head through Montana, but she detoured so she could spend more time in Marfa. She spent a week holed up on a self-imposed writing retreat in a big white house next to El Cosmico, a local hotel and campsite owned by Texas tastemaker Liz Lambert. She extended her stay by another week, and then another. After six weeks in the desert, Monroe decided to move to Marfa, without a job or any close friends within 300 miles.

“I have a pathological need for independence,” Monroe says, “like a cat.” She has lived in Marfa ever since.

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I think that’s the benefit of living out here. I wasn’t surrounded by a bunch of people with magazine jobs and magazine trajectories, so I really did get to make it up on my own.

 

JOURNALISM NEVER FIGURED into Monroe’s plan. She was an occasional essayist, and she wrote poetry and short stories for herself. She had conducted a few interviews for blog posts, but she had never gone on a reporting trip or cold-called a potential source.

“I thought, ‘I can’t be a journalist because I like being fanciful with my words and real journalists aren’t allowed to do that,’” Monroe says. “All these bullshit writerly flourishes, I’m very attached to them. I don’t know how to be objective.”

Before Monroe moved to Marfa, she read Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, an account of the 1949 Mann Gulch wilderness fire in Montana that killed 13 people. She became obsessed with firefighting and first responders. When she arrived in Marfa, Monroe joined the volunteer fire service. Just a year earlier, a house just two miles outside Marfa had gone up in a blaze, leading to the largest grassland fire in Texas history. Monroe, who is still part of the volunteer fire service, keeps an emergency pager on her at all times. (Though she hasn’t yet been involved in a major fire, Monroe has fought a number of wildfires, among others.)

In April 2013, a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, exploded. A local medic named Bryce Reed was arrested and subsequently charged with arson, and Monroe reached out. After Reed got out of jail, he called her back because, as he told her, she was part of some unspoken first-responder fraternity. Without confirming any of her interview requests except for Reed, she drove to West and started asking questions at the local fire station, despite a prominent “No Media” sign on the door.

“I figured I’d show up wearing a firefighter T-shirt,” Monroe says. “One guy asked for my card, and I said I didn’t have one. He asked, ‘What kind of reporter are you?’ I said, ‘A new one.’”

Oxford American published “Fire Behavior,” a knotty profile of Reed and the tale of the a  devastating fire that rocked the Central Texas town, in 2014. Both Longform.org and The Atlantic listed the story among the year’s best.

Butcher, the local writer who caught flack for publicizing the secret swimming spot, says Monroe’s extraordinary curiosity serves her well as a nonfiction writer and as a Marfan.

“What stuck is she’s a thoughtful listener,” Butcher says. “That makes for a successful small-town liver.”

Monroe mainly subsists on the steady work she gets writing blog posts and white papers about retirement and finance for a Maine-based agency called The Writing Company. Combined with the relatively low cost of living in Marfa (she rents a one-bedroom adobe home from former Marfa resident and current features director at Hearst Digital Media, Whitney Joiner, for $700 per month), Monroe has the freedom to pursue the stories she wants to tell—Texas, crime, and utopia, according to her Twitter bio—taking months and sometimes even years to fully report them.

“I think that’s the benefit of living out here,” Monroe says. “I wasn’t surrounded by a bunch of people with magazine jobs and magazine trajectories, so I really did get to make it up on my own.”

 

Reporting seems hard enough with a family; reporting from here would be a double layer that might make it prohibitive. I just deal with it, because I’m only accountable to myself.

 

TEXTING FROM A BLACK FLIP PHONE she bought for $20 at the Dollar General, Monroe invites me to a midday get-together at her friend Jana’s house, where she and a few friends are trying out an Amazon Prime-delivered shipment of indigo dye on T-shirts, hats, napkins, and curtains. After the ink dries, all the clothes from the six friends are washed together in Jana’s machine. Moments like this, the communal atmosphere and slow-going and freewheeling days are a big reason Monroe is in Marfa for the long-haul.

As her writing career ascends, though, she sometimes feels disconnected from the larger media world. When she attended the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in July, she relished the nuggets of media gossip that seemed to permeate most conversations. She doesn’t get that in West Texas, where her closest friends move in non-journalism circles. She also gets the feeling that she was behind in some way, in awe of plugged-in writers like Brooke Jarvis, with whom Monroe participated in a roundtable on freelancing at the Dallas convention.

“You’re at such a remove,” Monroe says. “I left that conference feeling pretty depressed.”

The freedom that Monroe affords herself cuts both ways. She can disappear in Marfa; Butcher and Monroe both say that most people in town don’t read The New Yorker. But when she reappears in New York or Los Angeles or any other place where journalists gather en masse, she sometimes comes away feeling like she could be doing more.

“Why am I fucking around in Marfa tie dying my shirt?” she says. “People are doing these real, powerful stories so well. Maybe everybody feels behind.”

And then there’s the logistics of it all.

After a recent midnight flight following a reporting trip to Minneapolis, Monroe crashed at the $45-a-night Coral Motel in El Paso instead of trudging home in the middle of the night. Afflicted with glaucoma, Monroe stacks reporting trips and eye doctor visits in El Paso on top of each other to make efficient use of her time.

“I think it would be very hard if I had a family,” Monroe says. “Reporting seems hard enough with a family; reporting from here would be a double layer that might make it prohibitive. I just deal with it, because I’m only accountable to myself.”

 

There’s still the panic with every individual piece.

 

MONROE’S FIRST NEW YORKER PIECE, called “#Vanlife,” examined a burgeoning movement through the eyes (and van) of two successful Instagrammers, Emily King and Corey Smith. Monroe spent a week with the couple, sleeping in the loft of the pop-top, made even more claustrophobic because heavy rains confined them to inside the van for most of the trip. A self-described introvert, Monroe took long runs to give herself and the couple space. Fascinating beyond its subjects, her story includes several passages that wryly poke holes in the social media fantasy that career Instagrammers project.

Smith had a particular image in mind: King sprawled in the back of the van, reading a book about Ayurveda with Penny nestled next to her, and an “Outsiders” decal featured prominently on her laptop. As Smith shot from the front seat, King tried a few different positions—knees bent; legs propped up against the window—and pretended to read the book. “Sometimes it’s more spontaneous,” she said apologetically.

Though Monroe was already a household name among longform story aggregators and senior editors at prestige publications, “#Vanlife” made the Marfans who read The New Yorker realize they had a star in their midst. It’s a notion from which she recoils.

“That inspires in me a feeling of great panic,” Monroe says. “I have a weird relationship with attention. It makes me feel very exposed.”

Monroe’s essential oils piece is one she had pitched to New Yorker senior editor Willing Davidson before the “#Vanlife” story, a conditional assignment if she could get a major player involved to speak on the record. She flew to Salt Lake City for an essential oils conference but, when she couldn’t get the interview, New Yorker editor David Remnick wasn’t interested in pursuing it any further. Once the “#Vanlife” story came out, Monroe says Davidson told her the essential oils story was back on.

“I had been researching this for a year before I went to the convention, pitching it everywhere, and nobody wanted it,” Monroe says.

Davidson, who has never met Monroe in person, says she immediately “got” the New Yorker style, and that her first draft on the #Vanlife piece straddled the line between cultural criticism and in-depth, specific reporting. He also had no idea that Monroe is relatively new to writing narrative nonfiction.

“It wasn’t apparent,” Davidson says. “She started very professional and thorough, and she seems very practiced.”

“#Vanlife” was the most read story on the New Yorker website for weeks. One month later, Monroe sat poolside and sipped a margarita as publishers bid on her debut book, the story of four women—a detective, attorney, killer, and victim—whose lives were transformed by violent crimes. A Life in Crimes will be published in September 2019, around the 50th anniversary of the Manson Family murders. Monroe has stopped accepting assignments for the next year in order to write the book, something she calls “painful,” as new magazine stories pop into her mind constantly.

Monroe worries her career may not be sustainable, that editors might forget her while she finishes the book. Monroe calls it the “freelancer paranoia,” despite all appearances from the outside that her career is fully formed.

The specter of freelancing doesn’t care if you live in Brooklyn or Big Bend, or if your words have been printed in the same font as Janet Malcolm and John McPhee. Monroe, like the rest of us, still sits before a blank screen every day. She nervously sips seltzer and doubts her ability to summon that elusive string of elevated prose. She feels better than she did in 2014, but that tinge of self-doubt is unyielding—for her, and for every writer.

“There’s still the panic with every individual piece,” says Monroe. “Will this succeed or fail on its own merits?”

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Chris O'Connell is a writer and editor in Austin, Texas.