What is narrative non-fiction and how do you write a piece so powerful it is nominated for a Pulitzer? In this interview, Matt Hongoltz-Hetling talks about his process for finding stories worth writing about and how he turns them into award-winning articles.
In the intro, I talk about Spotify (possibly) getting into audiobooks and Amazon (possibly) getting into podcasts as reported on The Hotsheet, and the New Publishing Standard. David Gaughran's How to Sell Books in 2020; a college student who used GPT3 to reach the top of Hacker News with an AI-generated blog post [The Verge]; and ALLi on Is Copyright Broken? Artificial Intelligence and Author Copyright. Plus, synchronicity in book research, and my personal podcast episode on Druids, Freemasons, and Frankenstein: The Darker Side of Bath, England (where I live!)
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript below.
- From writing for pennies an article to writing a Pulitzer–nominated article
- What is narrative non-fiction?
- How does narrative non-fiction differ from fiction?
- Where ideas come from and how to begin forming a story idea
- The necessity of being respectful of the real lives being examined and written about
- Portraying interview subjects with shades of grey
- Turning hours of source material into something coherent
- Finding the balance between story structure and meaning
- Knowing when an idea is appropriate for a book
You can find Matt Hongoltz-Hetling at matt-hongoltzhetling.com and on Twitter @hh_matt
Transcript of Interview with Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Joanna: Matt Hongoltz-Hetling is a Pulitzer finalist and award-winning investigative journalist. He's also the author of A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear. Welcome, Matt.
Matt: Hey, thanks for having me on, Joanna.
Joanna: It's great to have you on the show.
First up, tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing.
Matt: I got into writing when I was eight years old and I wrote this amazing book. I don't want to brag, but I wrote this book about an elf that was fighting in a dungeon, and this elf had some items of a magical persuasion and used them to defeat all sorts of monsters. So, that was pretty awesome. And I've been writing stuff ever since.
I grew up knowing that I wanted to write, loving to read, all that. And then my career path never really seemed to go that way. I actually started a student newspaper when I was in college in the hopes that that would be primarily a writing occupation, but I found very quickly that it was more small business skills that were needed.
I was selling advertisements much more so than writing to fill the newspaper sadly. And so, at some point I had just got the pile of rejection slips that I think we're all familiar with. I just didn't really know how to go about getting into the industry.
I was literally writing articles for, like, 25 cents an article, these, like, ‘How do you fix an engine?' or not even an engine, nothing that complicated, but, ‘How do you clean a window?'
Joanna: Content farms.
Matt: Yes, right. Content farms. Yes. Thank you. But I was writing.
My wife encouraged me to submit an article for my local weekly newspaper in a small town in the state of Maine. And that led to me being able to write more articles, still for very small amounts, 30 bucks an article. And that led to me getting a full-time job as a journalist at a weekly newspaper in rural Maine.
And even though that was fantastically exciting for me, I always knew that I wanted to do more. And so, I was always pushing, looking for that next level that would allow me to write more of the stuff that I wanted to write. And so, that led to larger newspapers, and then magazine opportunities, and then magazine opportunities led to a book opportunity. Now, I'm happy that I am just on the cusp of publishing my first book. I'm very excited about that.
Joanna: We're going to get into that in a second, but I just wonder because this is so fascinating.
How many years was it between writing for a content farm to being a Pulitzer finalist?
Matt: That was actually the shortest journey that you can imagine. Within, let's say, two years of my first newspaper article. I wrote the article that led to my highest-profile resume point which was that Pulitzer finalist status. And that article was about substandard housing conditions in the federal Section 8 program. It's federally subsidized housing and it's meant to be kept up to a certain standard, and the article which I wrote with a writing partner demonstrated that it was not and that there were a lot of people at fault.
What really elevated that article, it was a good article and all of that, but what really got it that level of recognition was that it also turned out to be an impactful article. It happened to come at a time when other people were looking at the housing authority for various reasons. It really struck a nerve and our Senator, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, she took a very avid interest in our reporting and was motivated to encourage reforms of the national Section 8 system.
She was in a political position to do that because she held the purse strings for the housing authorities. And so, it happened to have this very disproportionate impact and because it led to a positive change for the Section 8 housing program in the United States.
I think the people in the Pulitzer committee must've loved the idea that this tiny little rural weekly newspaper where we had three reporter desks, one of which was perennially vacant, had managed to write a story that was really relevant to the national scene.
Joanna: Absolutely fascinating. And I hope that encourages people listening who might feel that they're in a place in their writing career where they're not feeling very successful and yet you bootstrapped your way up there to something really impactful, as you say.
We're going to come back to the craft of writing, but let's just define ‘narrative nonfiction.' Your book, A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, which is a great title.
What is narrative nonfiction and where's the line between that and fiction or straight nonfiction?
Matt: Narrative nonfiction, the way that I think of it is it's basically just like any other fiction book, or novel, or piece that you might pick up except for the events described in it actually happened.
When I think of the difference, it just seems, to me, to be such a small, tiny little difference between fiction and nonfiction because when you write fiction, you're starting with an infinite number of possible events to write about. And when you're writing nonfiction, you're starting with a universe of events.
You're starting with everything that ever happened in the entire universe. That's the material that you can draw on. It is so close to infinite that really, it's just a method of curation. You're going to select some of these facts and arrange them in an order that will create the same exact experience as a powerful piece of fiction writing.
A narrative piece emphasizes the same things that a fiction story would in terms of there's character arcs, there are transformations, there's setting. We want a climax, we want everything that you would want when you're writing a fiction piece.
Joanna: Interesting. And you said at the beginning that it's a tiny difference between fiction and nonfiction. And I'm like, ‘No, surely, this is the biggest separation.' So, I feel like people would have quite a different view on that, but it's interesting because you said there, ‘a method of curation,' and you select the facts, whereas with fiction, obviously, you make it up.
How can you curate truth in a way that serves your story but doesn't distort what really happened?
Matt: That's an excellent question. And I think you do have to be careful to keep things in perspective.
So, I was thinking, ‘What if I was writing about someone in the aeronautics industry or who was an astronaut or maybe someone else within the industry who is motivated by this idea that people want to,' or yeah, ‘that he would like people to colonize the stars?' That's, I think, a very common sci-fi-type theme, and it's also very apparent in the people who go into those fields.
And so, you might take a set of facts. I would ask that person, ‘What are some of the seminal moments in your career? What were the turning points? What were the important things that shaped you as a person?' And this was just an idea that I had, I would look at the amount of cosmic matter in our atmosphere. So, every time a meteor hits the atmosphere, we know it burns up, dust rains down on the earth and that dust becomes part of us. We breathe it in.
Then I would try to draw a timeline between some natural spike in the amount of cosmic dust in the air that might've gone into our subject's body, and that person's decision to get into aeronautics. So, you maybe get to describe that this fantastic spectacular event of a comet the size of a blue whale entering the atmosphere, burning up, raining dust down on, let's say, North America.
And this aeronautics person is 12 years old at the time, he's thinking about baseball, but then he goes to a museum two weeks later and he's breathing in more cosmic dust on that day than he would on an average day, and then he decides to become an astronaut.
You can paint a very poetic scene with that, but it's also very important that you're not actually suggesting or theorizing that the cosmic dust had anything to do with that person's decision.
It's a way to wax poetically about this character and to maybe access a greater idea which is that we all want to go colonize the stars to some extent. That's a very human thing. It appears in our very earliest writings on both fictional and non-fictional.
And you can talk about this amazing spectacular event, you can talk about this person's decision, and if you do it right, the audience will understand that you've just used this as a jumping-off point to explore some of these bigger concepts and cool narrative opportunities without actually saying in a false way that cosmic dust is what makes us want to go out there. So, I'm just saying that you can arrange those events in a way that gives it life, and vibrancy, and maybe some creativity.
Joanna: I like that example. And you brought up so many things that I'm thinking about there.
First of all is using the individual to highlight the universal. If you wrote a piece about how big the universe is or whatever, that's not narrative nonfiction. That might be one of your how-to articles back in the day. So, you've used someone's experience to highlight something universal.
Where do you start? Because this is a question that fiction writers think about all the time. Do you start with the theme of, say, space? Do you start with a character, say you met someone and you want to interview them, or are you starting with, in your case, I guess, a commission or are you starting with just your own curiosity and following where it goes? So, I guess, as you said, that you could write about anything in the whole world.
How do you decide what to write?
Matt: I've spent a lot of my freelance writing career trying to craft pitches that will convince editors to give me a green light and offer me compensation in exchange for a piece of writing. And so, that undergirding structure allows for all those sorts of scenarios that you posit.
I'm always keeping my eye out for things when something interests me and lights me up, then I try to think about how I can make that subject or person who has just lit me up into a pitch that is marketable. I saw a freestyle street rapper a few weeks ago and I was really into what he was doing. I just thought he was amazing because his shtick was that he would incorporate things about the world around him into his rhymes really seamlessly.
I thought, ‘Oh, this guy has got this really amazing talent.' And so then you start thinking like, ‘Is this something that I would pitch to maybe a magazine about rhyme and rhyme structure or is this something that might be more like…is this a cognitive or a neurological skill that he's developed and how might that fit into maybe more of a neuroscience type magazine or is this just a guy who's got the great American story of, he developed a skill on the streets as it were, and then launched it into a career, in which case, we have maybe more of a universal story that could appear in any major market magazine?'
I suppose usually what sparks my interest is a person but it's not at all uncommon for my interest to also be sparked by just a topic. And then I'm searching for those characters who can exemplify that topic.
Joanna: Your writing does focus very much on people and all characters, as you say, but I'm wondering where do you take it from then? How do you tease out the story? Do you interview them?
And again, when you have this material about that person, how do you highlight your story, but also respect the person because you might say that, so, you've got the pitch with the neurological aspect. So, you think, ‘Okay. I want to write about how his brain works differently to someone else, how he can do that,' but then you find out some awful thing and you think that, ‘Okay. How do I respect this person, but how do I also deliver on my pitch?'
How do we ask the right questions to make our characters real, but also be respectful, because this is real life you're writing about?
Matt: My own inclination and approach is typically to just jump in and that's often great because it allows me to maintain forward momentum and use real wishful positive thinking to just hope that everything's going to pan out.
But sometimes its failing is that I will go very confidently striding down what turns out to be a dead end. And so, maybe I pitch this thing as a neurological sciencey story, and then a magazine editor says, ‘Yes, let's do this.' And so then I go back to the subject and I say, ‘I'd like to interview you,' and tell them what's going on.
And in the course of the interview, it turns out that they are not at all representative of the category of box that I want to put them into. And then I've suddenly got this big, awkward problem where I am looking for a different subject to satisfy the magazine editor and trying to get value out of my initial subject and my interview with him by placing him into something that is more appropriate for him. But when I get to that interview phase, I typically like to already have a commission in place before I do that because it's quite a time investment.
When I do interview someone, I like to make them very lengthy, in-depth interviews. Rarely do I talk to someone for less than two or three hours. And in the course of that two or three hours, my interview style is to not necessarily focus too much on asking the right questions so much as just unlocking how they see themselves and what is important to them, and get them talking about what lights them up.
And by not having a very firm idea of where I want to lead a subject, and being flexible in what they can say, what I find is that I often wind up with a really interesting story that maybe doesn't quite fit the mold precisely for where I thought it would go, but it's close enough that I can bridge that gap and the narrative is so compelling and good that nobody cares if there's maybe a slight sidetrack, a slight departure.
And as far as what if you find out something bad about someone while you're in the course of that interview? You're interviewing a person and they suddenly put the interview on pause and speak very sharply or meanly to their spouse or child and suddenly you get the feeling like, ‘You know what, this isn't really actually a very good person.' So, what do you do there?
I think it is very important to acknowledge the bad in people. And it's almost a necessary component. If I am not writing something both bad and good about a person that I'm writing about, then I know I'm not really doing a very good job because I don't know any people who are 100% good and I don't know any people who are 100% bad.
Oftentimes, if I'm talking to someone who we might think of as the hero of a narrative, they're doing good work, we're spotlighting them because of some amazing accomplishment they've done, I think it's really important to throw in a couple of negative character traits or details that will add a note of reality to your writing.
And conversely, if I'm interviewing someone who has committed murder or if I'm interviewing them because they're a bad person, then I'm always really looking for that redeeming quality because some murderers have just had a very bad day or gone through a very bad period in their life and maybe had some disadvantages in the first place.
Even though they've done this terrible, awful thing, there's still some context that you can provide that humanizes them. I think that most of my subjects, I think, appreciate that. Certainly, I've written about some people who've been very unhappy with how they've been portrayed. But I think most people appreciate it when you portray enough facets of their character that their true personality comes through.
Joanna: I've not done this kind of writing. So, I find it fascinating. I've been doing this podcast for 12 years and I have many, many, many hours and a lot of transcripts of material and I've thought many times, ‘It'd be great if I could go through and find all these snippets and turn this into something.' Working with transcripts is really hard. You just mentioned, you have a three-hour interview. So, presumably, you're recording this and you're taking notes as well.
How do you turn all this source material into an article? What's your curation and what's that process?
Matt: I am the kind of person who hates to throw things out. My wife will tell you that that can drive her nuts. And the same is true of my writing. I like to start with everything that has been said, even in a three-hour interview, and then just slowly apply criteria that squeezed some things out.
I always wind up with more material than will fit in the space that I have allotted. And then that encourages me to try to cram more words and more facts into smaller spaces and that results in this real efficient distillation. I think that's another good thing maybe about not being too goal-oriented when you write.
What I typically do is I'll interview someone, we'll have the three-hour interview. I've got copious notes, I got an audio transcript. If I am feeling up to it, I will transcribe every word of that audio interview which is grueling. Sometimes I will use one of those online programs that will convert it and spit out a transcript for you. And that transcript is never perfect, but you can make it perfect by listening and going through. And then I just slowly go through and clean it up.
Often, it's not like writing at all. It's like just fixing things. I might go through it and just correct all the typos in my transcription. And then I might go through and remove all the garble and then I might go through and anything that seems like a cohesive thought, I might put quotation marks around and put on the, ‘he said,' or the, ‘she said.'
Then I will maybe strip out, I'll say, ‘Oh, here, this person talked for 10 minutes about their mother and they were actually quite redundant, but here, this one time they said it, it was the most striking of the eight times they said the same thing.' And so, I will move those other seven iterations down to a notes section at the bottom.
And in this way, I am slowly shrinking and squeezing the text that is there. And if there are things that they've said, points they've made that are important, but that they didn't say it particularly well, then I might write a paraphrase and put the originals down in my notes section.
And then at some point, I will create a series of categories that represent different areas of the story, and then I will sort all of their quotes into those different categories. And all of this stuff that I've just talked about is very mechanical. So, even if you're not feeling particularly inspired, you can go through this rote, brute-force process and nibble away, and nibble away, and nibble away.
What you find at the end is that you actually have the bones of a story.
Often, the story will also involve going through the same process with multiple people and other sources of information, but once you've arranged all that stuff under the subheadings, and then you start to rearrange things within those sections, you find that you are suddenly, magically two-thirds of the way there.
Joanna: That's fascinating. I want to ask about this Pulitzer thing because I know everyone's so interested. And really, this is one of those prizes that is, for many people, a life goal, and you've actually won other awards. You're a multi-award-winning writer.
What's interesting to me is you talked about a story that made an impact. Substandard housing conditions is not the most inspirational thing for most people, but it's interesting. Presumably, you're not winning these prizes for your beautiful sentence structure.
For those authors who obsess with grammar and exact sentences, where's the line between that and story and meaning?
Matt: I think it is all-important including the sentence structure. I always take the position that grammar, and grammar is not really all that important other than in the service of making points very clearly. I really tend to take these very esoteric grammar points and just chuck them out the window because I want somebody to be able to understand what I'm saying.
Oftentimes, adhering very strictly to the rules of grammar impedes the knowledge of the layperson who I want to be able to read, and digest, and appreciate my article. I don't want to poo-poo sentence structure too much. I think there are so many articles written that you're trying to break through the noise of, and stand out in some way. I think the stories that I've been awarded from various organizations and for various things, they've all gone through the same basic process as many of my stories that have not been so recognized and have not turned out necessarily all that good.
But for whatever reason, there was a perfect alignment where the person that I happened to be talking to happened to exemplify that issue just right and the setting happened to work out and the climax of their personal story… there's a lot of just happenstance, I suppose, in that once you've been commissioned to write a story, you're writing that story.
And sometimes the material will support a real cracker-jack breakout story. What's more often is that as you go through the process, you hit an obstacle that you have to smooth over in some way and you turn in a very serviceable, perfectly good story.
But the things that I think really allow it to break through and get head and shoulders above tend to be things that are out of your control. You're going to do your very best job of research, you're going to do your very best job of writing, you're going to use all the good phrases, you're going to exert full control of your mastery of time and space, you're going to jump around in the narrative if that's in the timeline rather, if that's what the narrative calls for.
If you want to focus on the beating of a fly's wings, for some reason, you will do that. If you want to jump back into prehistory, you'll do that. And after you've employed all of those tricks and techniques to craft the very best story that you possibly can from the material, sometimes the material itself will just harmonize perfectly and get you to that place to achieve that potential that you hoped that you could. It's a little bit of luck and magic, I suppose. We can't always summon it or bottle it.
Joanna: Coming to the book, A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, which, again, I love the title. It's great. What was it about this idea that made you decide to turn this story into a book-length project rather than a long-form article?
How did you know, ‘Right, I'm going to write a book about this?'
Matt: I was first commissioned for an article on the same topic. The story for those who don't know, it's about a group of libertarians which is a fringe political movement within the United States and their emphasis is on personal freedoms and personal rights.
This national group of libertarians decided to come to one small town, and just take over the town, and turn it into their utopia. Soon after they tried to enact this kind of crazy heist of the town, the town started experiencing bear problems. And so, the book is about how those things are connected.
I was initially commissioned to write an article based on the unusual bear activity that was seen in that town. I was interviewing a woman for my local newspaper about her difficulties in accessing VA benefits. And she was what we stereotype as a crazy cat lady. She was a little bit of a shut-in, she had a bunch of cats milling around, and I asked her about her cats because it's a good icebreaker, and I like cats.
She said, ‘I used to let them outside, but that was before the bears came.' I was like, ‘Oh, well, that sounds really interesting. Forget about the VA. Tell me about bears.' She just started talking about how a bear had eaten two of her cats and how the bears had become very bold and aggressive and were doing weird things.
I started asking around town, asking other people if they had also had bear experiences that seemed unusual. And when I had a feeling for what was going on in that town, I pitched the magazine article and I was really excited to get this magazine article. I really wanted to do a great job on it because ‘The Atavist Magazine' is a good platform and I knew that it would help me to make the case to other magazines that I could write really good narrative stuff.
I went back to town and went through all the interview process and all of that. And when I wrote my first draft for that magazine article, it was 32,000 words. And they would have accepted 4,000 words. So, the article, which I was very happy with, was still very much of a compromise of what I wanted to say about this bizarre situation involving libertarians and bears in this town.
I got in a couple of the best anecdotes including a situation where a bear fights a llama, but there was so much left unsaid, so many colorful things. In that case, I just had this massive trove of colorful materials sitting in my pocket. I knew that there was a very large narrative there because I had already written probably half of the book-length on it. So, it just seemed very natural to write a book about it.
Joanna: Is it a comedy?
Matt: I would call it a dark comedy. There is a lot of very funny stuff, I think, and I do stray into the comedic quite a bit. But there are also some very, kind of, weighty issues. A woman gets attacked by a bear. That's not funny, but there's also just all sorts of goofy stuff.
The llama thing is great. There's one situation where there are two old women who live next door to each other on a hill, and one of them is absolutely terrified of bears. Every time she cooks steak inside, she won't go outside for a day because she's afraid that the bears will smell the steak on her. And meanwhile, her neighbor has been feeding the bears doughnuts for 20 years and has a crowd of bears sitting outside her home waiting for her to come out with doughnuts and buckets of grain twice a day.
There's just a lot of really absurd situations that I was privy to. And I milk them for all I've got.
Joanna: That's so funny. It's so funny there because, of course, the truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction. And I guess that's what you're doing with narrative nonfiction is you are finding these stories.
We're almost out of time, but I do want to ask you because in your original email to me, you said, ‘I think a lot of writers start off like I started out, isolated and bereft of helpful connections and not the person who is going to schmooze at an event or something.'
How you have managed to do these things and even interview these people and get over those initial issues?
Matt: I think for most of my life, even while being very passionate about writing, I never felt like I was plugged into the writing community. I feel like everyone who went to get an advanced degree in writing, their professor could hook them up and their former colleagues would go out and join the industry and in places that would be helpful to them.
I just felt, like, really locked out of all of that. And schmoozing is definitely helpful, but, Joanna, I know that there's a certain component of your audience that is never going to schmooze because it's not their thing, and if they try really hard to force themselves to schmooze, they will sound like they're someone who's trying really hard to schmooze, right? It's just not going to be in everyone's nature and it wasn't in my nature.
I think even though the non-schmoozers have a disadvantage relative to the schmoozers, the non-schmoozers can get by on the basis of purely professional relationships which is what I did. As a journalist, I did develop a certain skill set in talking to people, but I've never been the guy at the cocktail party of other writers and editors who is like, ‘Hey, hire me for your next opportunity.'
I think for me, the key was to always I started small, I started writing for newspapers. I sent endless pitches and queries with different ideas and I slowly got better at sending those pitches. And every time a story of mine turned out that was something that I was proud of, that turned out pretty good, I added that to my portfolio.
And when one editor gives you a chance, lends you that sympathetic ear and gives you a chance to write for the next tier of publication that you're interested in, if you satisfy that editor, you may not have schmoozed them, but you have a working relationship with them. If they're happy with your work, that's all you need.
If you don't have the ability to schmooze your way into that, you still have an editor that you're working with. And perhaps you can ask that editor if they have other people in the industry who might also be willing to look favorably upon a submission from you where you're not just in the slush pile.
And you go through that process 100 or 1,000 times, and if you pay attention while you do it, you walk out of it with a group of a dozen editors that you can send a pitch to who have some idea of who you are and whether or not they like your work and your writing. And you're just always working to increase that circle of editors who look on you favorably.
Over the years, what I found and was very happy about was that those editors also bounce around from one position to another. Every time someone you know moves from one publication to the other, you want to try to maintain some contact with their initial publication and approach them in their new position and see if that might allow you to expand your horizons a little bit.
It's an iterative, slow process. It's not as easy as going to a cocktail party or a bar and palling around with the people who hold the reins to these publications, but it does get you there.
Joanna: That's great advice because I know I'm an introvert, many people listening are introverts, and knowing that the long-term professional approach is great. I think that's true if it's people submitting to short stories or if people want to get into traditional publishing, then all of that's quite true.
Where can people find you and your work and everything you do online?
Matt: Oh, thank you so much for asking. You can find me on Twitter @hh_matt. If you Google my name, you'll get to my website at matt-hongoltzhetling.com, and you can find my book, A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, on Amazon, any major online retailer, and through the publisher which is PublicAffairs, a subsidiary of Hachette.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Matt. That was great.
Matt: Joanna, thank you so much. This has been fantastic.