Pulitzer Prize winner and longform writer extraordinaire Eli Saslow took questions from readers in The Washington Post’s first-ever Tumblr chat Aug. 5.
Readers asked about his story ideas, his reporting experiences and his writing process behind series such as the award-winning food stamp project, which won Saslow the 2014 Pulitzer Prize.
Below, three of the most interesting questions and answers — follow The Post on Tumblr to see the chat in full and join the reader community there.
Q: Hi Eli, Thanks for doing this chat! You often write about people who are experiencing financial hardships or living in poverty. I’m wondering if there are situations in which you’ve felt compelled to help (i.e. buying a meal for a hungry child while you’re interviewing a family). Are there cases in which you’ve had to let a troubling event or situation play out for a story?
A: Good question. There are often times when I feel compelled to help, but as a journalist I know that’s not what I’m there for. I tell myself (and I mostly believe this) that the best thing I can do for people is to write about their lives the way they actually are — not to sugarcoat it or help them in some small little way, but to try to write about them with honesty and empathy so that the wider world knows about their problems or struggles and understands a little better.
If you start reporting stories as an advocate — or if you start becoming an active catalyst in the lives of the people you write about — you are there for a different reason.
But sometimes there is still guilt in that kind of reporting. It doesn’t feel good — or quite right — to spend 16 hours with people who are hungry and then to go back to a hotel and eat a sandwich. If I was with people who were starving, of course I would buy them food. But when I’m there with them, my job isn’t to alleviate their struggle but to illuminate it, if that makes sense.
Q: Who is a writer right now that is really inspiring you or has helped motivate you throughout your career?
A: My direct editor at The Post, David Finkel, is the person I am writing for in my head on every story, and from time to time I dig back into the archives to read his work. That’s usually a mistake, because mostly it makes me feel like whatever I’m writing isn’t going to measure up, but it is a nice way to motivate by fear, I guess.
As for writers I admire, there are so many — lately I’ve been reading a lot of fiction, but I also read magazine stories and newspapers and pretty much anything I can get my hands on. I have two little kids, and sometimes it is hard to make time to read, but I’ve found that if I’m not reading the quality of my own writing drops.
Q: I know this is a really basic question, but I genuinely want to know. Where do you find your stories? When you’re focusing on just a few big stories each year, picking the right ones seems like it’d be the most important part of the process. How do find ideas and how do you know which of your ideas is going to be a winner?
A: Finding good story ideas for me starts with a really big idea — say: I want to write about immigration — and then the idea gets smaller and smaller and more specific the more I learn about it. It is like working through a funnel, until you’ve got an idea that is not just about immigration, but about one person, in one place, in one moment rich with tension that says something big about the immigration moment we’re in. That process usually involves a lot of research and phone calls and pre-interviews until you find the right thing. It is like casting for characters, and I think it is the slowest and also most important part of reporting for me. I might only spend four or five days reporting on the ground for a story, with the subject I’m writing about. But I often spend twice as long finding that person, and finding that particular story.
Stay tuned to learn more about the date, topic and guest of The Post’s next Tumblr chat.