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Tom Junod Q&A

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Jones, May 23, 2007.

  1. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    So, in response to the thread that started up over Tom Junod's latest story -- "Mercenary" in the June edition of Esquire -- I've asked him if he'd be willing to answer some questions from the gang here. He's been kind enough to agree to help out.

    For logistical reasons, I think it's probably easiest if you post your questions here or PM them to me. I'll pass them along to Tom, and then I'll post his answers. It's a little clunky, and it might not work out, in which case we'll change things up, but let's give it a try.

    Also, please be patient with the repsonse time; he's pretty balled up the next while.

    Essentially, Tom said that he'd much rather answer questions than just "opine" about the story or about his work. He might not get to all of them, but the questions can be about this particular story -- probably my favorite Tom Junod story ever, and that's saying a lot -- or about some of his previous stories, or about writing in general. Whatever might help the craft community here.

    A little bio on Tom: He started his career at Atlanta magazine before moving on to Life, Sports Illustrated, GQ, and now Esquire. He has won two National Magazine Awards and been nominated for several others, as well as the Michael Kelly Award, and is best known (lately, perhaps) for "The Falling Man," his story about a photograph of an anonymous jumper from the World Trade Center. He has also written groundbreaking profiles of Kevin Spacey, Michael Stipe, Hillary Clinton, and Fred Rogers, and in 2002, the seminal story "Gone," about Americans taken hostage in Ecuador.

    On top of everything else, Tom is an excellent guy, and I'm sure he'll put some real thought into his answers.

    As a spark, this is what he said about "Mercenary":

    "There was so much doubt when I was reporting and writing it. I mean, sickening, wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night doubt that I was doing the right thing... Believe me, there's no particular glory in this particular process. I got bilked. I wrote an 18,000 word draft on Zeke's life, and then I started checking it. I started out as a believer, which is why the story reads the way it does -- it starts out making readers believe, because I believed. I was never above this story. I was never the lofty cynic. I got lied to, I got victimized -- to a degree -- which made me determined to represent those whose lives he'd ruined. There was not a step of the way when I wasn't scared, and the odd thing is I got more scared when I realized that he was a liar and not a killer -- because then I lost my sympathy for him."

    All right, folks, fire away, or shoot me a PM. Hopefully together we can bang this thread into good shape. I have high hopes for it.
  2. Loved the Stipe story. What was the reasoning for that type of approach? What was the immediate reaction? Is the reaction the same even now?
  3. imjustagirl2

    imjustagirl2 New Member

    What was the toughest part of writing the story about John Walker Lindh (my personal favorite)? Did you fear backlash for making him the slightest bit sympathetic, that people would miss the point by focusing on that?
  4. Inky_Wretch

    Inky_Wretch Well-Known Member

    Geez, so many questions about so many of his articles ...

    Has he heard from Zeke or learned anything more about him since the article came out?
  5. Freelance Hack

    Freelance Hack Active Member

    Got a question on the Zeke story.

    Did Zeke call his new wife "Baby Doll" because that's what he called the Katrina volunteer? Just making sure I assumed that connection correctly.
  6. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Thanks guys, for these. Very good questions. I've also received some good ones via PM. I've forwarded the first batch to Tom. I'll post his answers when they arrive in my mailbox.

    In the meantime, please feel free to post or PM further questions.

    Thanks again.
  7. Seriously, thanks to both you and he for doing that. It's an amazing story.
  8. ShelbyFoote

    ShelbyFoote Member

    What was the point the light went on with the Zeke story? What was the clue/source that made him realize it was all a lie? And did he ever confront Zeke/Bill about the lies?

    Much thanks, Jones. I'll look forward to his answers.
  9. Pat_Forde

    Pat_Forde New Member

    Thanks for the opportunity, definitely. Love the work.

    I wonder, Tom, if we've all occasionally allowed ourselves to be taken by an embellished story because it's so damn good. Or at least turned a deaf ear to potential embellishments, or been slow to come around to them. I know a guy in sports I wrote about a dozen years ago who sounds very similar -- every story more salacious and sensational than the last, but always maddeningly short of proof.

    So did you learn anything about safeguarding against that? I mean, this is a liar on a breathtaking scale, but we probably all deal with exaggerators and embellishers. Beyond old-fashioned fact checking, any other safeguards you think might be appropriate when working on the Too Good To Be True Story?
  10. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Lest anyone thinks this thread has died a death, Tom's been playing single parent this weekend. He said he'd have the first round of answers this week.

    Thanks for your patience.
  11. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    All right, the first round of answers. Each of these are about the Mercenary story. (Some of the questions were repeats, so don't be hurt if the language of the questions is someone else's... Just first come, first serve.) More of Tom's replies, including about the Stipe and John Walker Lindh stories will come shortly.

    Q: What was your first inkling something was amiss with Zeke's story? Can you describe the moment? What were you thinking?

    A: Well, obviously, I always knew -- from the very beginning, from the moment he stood up and introduced himself -- that he might be lying. I suppose I'm gullible, but I'm not so gullible that I didn't think there was a possibility he was full of shit. But he just kept passing tests, all along the way, or maybe I just kept promoting him. Indeed, I was relieved when he passed his tests -- like when I asked him about the photo of the sniper and he fed me the line of shit about the French Foreign Legion. Now, he was pretty impressive, when he gave me that jive about "Second Para, out of Corsica" -- I mean, his answer was instantaneous, and he didn't blink. But, looking back, I fed him the answer in advance. "I know who it is. It's a guy from the French Foreign Legion." What I should have said was: "I know who it is. Who is it?" And then the story -- his story -- would have fallen apart right in front of me. But I didn't. And so, yes, I was a little like a prosecutor feeding cues to a little kid testifying in a recovered-memory case.

    But at the same time, a few things aroused my suspicion. One of the strangest was the fact that a lot of the stories he told involved the number nine. Nine people were killed in New Orleans by Blackwater, according to Zeke. His handler handled a roster of nine guys like Zeke -- nine guys who were "national security assets." He spent nine days in jail after he was arrested for attempted murder. He lost nine friends in Iraq. In simulated attacks on nuclear energy facilities in the states, he killed nine guys himself, a feat for which Pete Domineci hated him, and vowed revenge. And so on. He was incredibly artful and creative in his lies -- see the transcript of my interview with him -- but his resources weren't inexhaustible, and he clearly fell back on a kind of patterning. I also suspected him when he went and looked for pictures of atrocities and found a box of screenplays instead. But none of that stuff stopped me from writing an 18,000 word draft detailing his exploits and his current agony. And of course what stopped me -- or the magazine -- from printing that draft and joining forevermore the ranks of journalistic dupes, was the fact-checking process. The first lie that didn't pan out: the UPI photographer. And then his claim that his grandfather was one of the original Flying Tigers. And then everything else.
  12. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Q: Are you going to change the way you write or report because of this? More skepticism? Even considering all your experience, it seems this story in particular was a watershed moment of sorts.

    A: I'd like to think that I'll never be as invested in the outcome of a story as I was with Zeke. I was rooting for him to be telling the truth, if that makes any sense. And I don't know if I'll ever do that again. I mean, I know something now that I didn't before -- that people like Zeke exist. Of course, I knew that people lie, and that there were liars. But people like Zeke: a guy who can confess his deepest darkest, a guy who can invite you stay at his house and call you one of his best friends in the world: no, I didn't expect to run into such a creature. To be quite honest, I read the interview transcript, and I still can't quite believe he was lying. But he was, and now I suppose that if I run into someone like him again, he won't be so exotic -- and I won't make the mistake of believing him as a way of furthering my own ambitions as a journalist. You know: "I've got a great story here...if it's true." I'll start asking pointed questions earlier in the process, not just of him, but of the people who know him. I didn't do that with Zeke, because I was afraid of him getting shut down. I was afraid of the government shutting him down, I was afraid of Blackwater shutting him down. So I didn't call Blackwater or government sources, and let the lies hang on longer than I should have.

    That said: I'm a believer. It's in my nature. So I can't imagine going into a new story, looking for the lie. That is, indeed, why I decided to go ahead with this story, after I found out that I'd been hoaxed. I was afraid that if I didn't deal with this now -- if I didn't deal with Zeke, and expose him, no matter what -- I'd never be able to write and report the way I once did: as a believer. There would always be this worm of untruth and fear nibbling away at every story I tried writing. So I went after it, and became obsessive about it. That was the real watershed moment.
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