The Intimate Journalist

Walt Harrington is a writer’s writer with a strong moral compass, a compassion for others, and an abiding belief that all people are worth hearing, no matter how odd or foreign or even repulsive their views.

by Mike Sager

Perhaps it’s not the most conventional way to open a testimonial about one of the most impactful journalists in our modern wave of creative nonfiction, but looking back, my first meetings with Walt Harrington unfold in my memory as scenes befitting a romantic comedy, perhaps something a little bit antic, penned by the great Nora Ephron, another journalist (and novelist and screenwriter) who lived in Washington, D.C., and had a great gift for telling human stories.

For me, writing has always been a matter of love, and finding ways to make it, and ways to ever improve. Though Harrington was not my first mentor, and not my last, he was by far my most influential.

My “meet cute” with Harrington was set in the Washington Post newsroom in the late fall of 1980. He was a hotshot writer from a smaller paper who’d come to interview for an open slot as an assistant city editor—as you might imagine, there was a steady stream of folks coming through the doors of the Post, looking to break into the bigs. As for me, I was entering my second year as a staff writer, promoted improbably from the ranks of the copy kids, which I suppose implied a little bit of hotshottery of my own. Ungracious as it may seem here, this little bit of self-congratulation becomes important to our story. Harrington was the master who taught me his craft; I was the sorcerer’s apprentice. In all such tales, the resulting relationship goes one of two ways: great closeness—or the opposite. Four decades later Harrington and I are as brothers, united over long years by our shared pursuit of our singular missions, our dedication to our chosen form of art, our commiserations. To one another, we are the kind of family you choose.

Our first contact was actually no more than a glance . . . across a crowded room, sort of, though we were actually no more than three feet apart as Harrington was being shepherded to his next meet-and-greet. There was a strong and sudden connection. Dare I say we locked eyes? And then he was gone.

I don’t recall any swelling music but there it was.

Cut forward a few months. It is 1981, and Harrington is hired by the Post. In newspapers, there are many different kinds of journalists who contribute to the mix. Some specialize in “just the facts, ma’am.” They dig up city hall dirt and presidential corruption, and get to the bottom of local crime, politics, educational issues, and so forth. More recently there are other kinds who specialize in probing the internet or gathering data. In Walt’s case, he was hired to be what might be called, in today’s vernacular, a “writer whisperer,” tasked with handling the kinds of staffers who were most inclined toward storytelling. In those days they called these types of articles “feature stories.” I was assigned to Walt.

Any writer or editor knows the intensity of the relationship that can develop between these symbiotic partners. Whether it’s a “one-story stand” or a long-time collaboration, editing is intimate. An editor gets inside your work, your ideas, your precious prose, your expense account. He is the sun by which you rise and set. The sun to which you make sacrifice. In time, some such teams learn to work beautifully together, like dance partners, like lovers, each spurring the other to greater performance, the two creating something that is more than the sum of its parts, which is pretty much the definition of Harrington’s brand of journalism. I heard him say it a zillion times: You can give a bunch of reporters the same story assignment, and all will tell it differently. But very few will elevate the story into art.

We have our first meet-and-greet on a couple of semi-comfortable chairs designed to be a conference area, complete with a coffee table, set in an open space between the Weekly section and the Sports section, right in front of the “morgue”—an in-house, analog version of Google, also known as the library.

Walt has a folder of my work in his hand. I am 25. I have no idea of his age. He is, well, a grown-up.

Harrington proceeds to ask me if I’ve ever heard of a writer named Tom Wolfe. Seems he wrote a book called The New Journalism.

And that’s when I realize I’ve spent the past two years trying to reinvent the wheel. (And I guess nobody previously assigned to be my editor had recognized it either?)

My mind is blown.

In a way, you could say Walt Harrington gave me the gift of my own potential.

Like the journalism professor and department head he would later become, for the next year-plus I remained assigned to the City desk, he tutored me in the ways of a particular discipline he would later come to call Intimate Journalism—the title of his most influential textbook on journalism. He lent me books from his personal library; guided my reporting excursions into everyday life; and edited me line by line, gifting to my stories along the way an occasional literary flourish, as good editors sometimes will, no charge, the kind of fixes about which a writer never complains. One such early story would end up in a journalism text by another professor. Later several of my stories would be included in Harrington’s textbooks. That he thought of me as a suitable poster boy for his work, and collected me alongside more established writers, would greatly enhance my reputation. Of the hundreds of students and professionals he would teach, mentor, and lecture, I guess I was his first Frankenstein’s monster.

Not only did he selflessly undertake my schooling, but Harrington frequently took me home with him as well. I will never forget the delicious dinners cooked by his wife, Keran, at their cool apartment-with-a-loft space (which I would later inherit when their family began to grow), where I learned about jazz, arts and crafts furniture, and being a grown-up. With Keran’s indulgence, Harrington and I talked craft and salacious office gossip deep into the evenings. Beneath Harrington’s wisdom, enveloping it, permeating and informing it, is a wonderfully genuine humanness; if you tickle his funny bone, he’ll guffaw and slap his thigh. Likewise, at the heart of Intimate Journalism is Harrington’s strong moral compass, his compassion for others, and his abiding belief that all people are worth hearing, no matter how odd or foreign or even repulsive their views.

At the time we were working together daily, I was so engulfed by my own literary fire—fed as it was by the gasoline of Harrington’s teachings—that I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have this kind of attention. As it happened, I would much later learn, Harrington was only my editor because the Post didn’t have a slot for a writer. He wanted a foot in the door at the great paper, and the editing slot was open, so he took it when it was offered. Though I had no idea about his past University of Missouri journalism schooling, his two master’s degrees, or his intensive study of the craft (about which you can read in his interview with Alex Belth), he poured his knowledge unselfishly into me. As others share the inner glow of their religion, we shared the inner glow of our craft, and the special way he, and then I, have always sought to practice it.

Less than two years after we began working hand in glove, I was moved from the City desk to the Virginia desk—both of which, along with the Maryland desk, were part of a Metro section helmed by Watergate’s Bob Woodward. I deployed my newfound skills as a roving correspondent in the far territories of our circulation, bringing back odd and wonderful little stories from an area that turned out to include my family’s ancestral home.

While that move was meant as a promotion, clearly the result of my accomplishments under Harrington, there is a version of things in my mind where we were broken up as a team (at least in some measure) because we were getting a little too subversive for the old school newspaper people who ran the Post. Under Walt’s command, as I started to deploy the techniques of Intimate Journalism he’d taught—scene, setting, dialog, character development, point of view, deep research, empathy, and the rest—I also came to learn that the conventional press was still, during the early eighties, a bit suspicious of this type of work.

In the minds of some, the artfulness of Intimate Journalism smacked of fabrication. Many veterans of the newsroom believed it was too good to be true, literally. And it turned out some of this worry was well-founded: Most infamous was the Janet Cooke incident at the Post, when a young reporter won the Pulitzer Prize and then shamefully had to return it when her story was revealed to be a fake. But Cooke didn’t really practice Intimate Journalism or follow the rules, which began and ended with the journalism piece, the facts. In her case and others, the problem rested with the moral choices of the reporter.

Once, called into a superior’s glass office to discuss my methods of employing dialogue in a story, Harrington jauntily invoked the spirit of Wolfe, who actually had spent two years as a Post reporter. “Tom Wolfe was doing this kind of stuff in the Post twenty years ago,” Harrington said gingerly.

“Tom Wolfe was fired from the Washington Post,” the editor replied.

Later, and for the first of many times, Walt ruefully quoted to me a favorite line from the jazz artist Louis Armstrong: “There’s some people, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em.”

I have lived by that philosophy ever since.

In 1983, after writing a number of outstanding stories for the Washington Post Magazine, (all freelance, on his own time, alongside his editing duties) Harrington became a full-time writer again. Feeling constrained, I left the paper in early 1984—an example, I guess, of the rashness of my youth compared with his maturity (and his growing family obligations). Either way, our friendship continued. In time, I’d be dumbstruck to learn that my mentor was only six years older than I.

For the next 14 years, as the Washington Post Magazine reinvented itself as a glossy insert, Harrington did scores of profiles of people both famous and obscure. He liked to say his goal was “to make ordinary people extraordinary and extraordinary people ordinary.” And so he did. A selection of the best stories in both categories—eight articles—are collected here in The Detective: And Other True Stories, Harrington’s eleventh book, sponsored by NeoText and brought to you by The Sager Group. I could not be more pleased.

One foundational lesson Harrington taught and practiced was that “journalism stories should not be a mere collection of facts. Instead the stories should be about an idea the facts are used to illuminate.”

In this spirit, the title story in this book, “The Detective,” chronicles the moment-by-moment life of a Black homicide cop at a time when D.C. was the murder capital of the nation. But it is more than a gritty police ride along. It is also a story about the effect of the murder explosion in Washington on the psyche of the brave men and women on the front lines, and for all the rest of us watching at home on the TV news. Of note: many of Harrington’s stories were directed toward understanding the inequalities of race and economics, a portent of things to come.

Harrington’s profile of former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove takes the reader through the looking glass of the exacting, protracted, ritualized, and intimate process of writing a single poem. But it is also a story about the ethereal act of creativity itself. The collaboration between these two master craftspeople makes for a beautiful story, a perfect marriage of subject with reporter, form with content, information with images and ideas.

In “The Mystery of Goodness,” Harrington profiles a Harvard-trained lawyer who has dedicated himself to a $24,000-a-year job working to win freedom for men and women facing the death penalty. An examination of law and order and the penal system, it is also, at its deepest, an examination of human goodness and the power of Christian witness on others.

“The Reverend Comes Home” is a story about what happens when a once-powerful pillar of the community, too ill to care for himself, is taken in by his daughters at the end of his life. It is something we all face as humans, our parents’ diminishment, followed by our own. What becomes important are not our accolades or community standing, but our family ties.

This amalgamation of fine detail and large ideas, Harrington says, “is at the heart of all fine journalism. We uncover the facts and find the deeper meanings. Otherwise, you are wasting your time and a reader’s time.”

Meanwhile, in his position at the Post magazine, Washington’s “newspaper of record,” which then published one million issues every Sunday, Harrington was thrown into the spotlight as he was tapped to profile a series of newsmakers and historical figures, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, televangelist Jerry Falwell, Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, and many others. Famous or obscure, Harrington’s process was always the same.

No less a historical figure was the paper’s executive editor, Ben Bradlee, who had guided the Post through its glory days of Watergate. Bradlee once told a gathering that Harrington’s profile of a sitting vice president, George H. W. Bush, was the best political profile he’d ever read. Not lost in my memory—or Harrington’s, I am sure—is the fact that high-up editors had resisted giving Harrington the coveted assignment in the first place, in lieu of one of the more established star political writers who gave the paper its reputation. Who was this feature writer to dare stride in and represent the Post?

After the Bush story, Bradlee made sure this milkman’s son from Will County, IL, was well recognized among the staff for his worth, and compensated more on a scale with the others of his ilk. As time passed, Harrington would be asked to teach an in-house writing workshop.

Over four years, scores of the best reporters in the country chose to attend.

Most importantly—at least to those who ascribe to the notions embodied by Intimate Journalism—Bush and his family loved the article that landed on doorsteps that Sunday morning. Soon, the liberal Harrington and his African American wife found themselves invited to movies and functions at the White House. A lasting relationship with two presidents would result. We have included his piece about that, as well.

As a bonus we also include a different sort of Harrington piece, a personal essay about fathers and sons. For my money, this is the sort of Harrington work that perhaps shines the brightest, the memoirs and essays gathered from the waters of his own life.

Over the past four decades, as Harrington moved from editing to writing to university teaching (and administrating), and then on to retirement a few years ago—I followed in his footsteps. As the master craftsman passed his knowledge to me, so have I passed it to others, and they to others.

Blending Harrington’s methods with my own strengths, I was ever mindful of repping team Intimate Journalism, a brand that implied strenuous reporting, copious amounts of time spent, marathon transcribing sessions, and, above all, radical acceptance—an ability to see a world that is larger than you, a world that is complex and holds all kinds of competing ideas, with no true arbiter in apparent sight. Both Harrington and I have spent our lives walking miles and miles in the shoes of others. Along the way, we’ve tried, additionally, to place ourselves inside our subjects’ minds and hearts. I know we both feel better for it, the life lessons having outlived the stories. And I’m pretty sure we both feel lucky to have each other to understand.

Each Harrington story is a precious gem. Like a valuable piece of woodwork or a beautiful song, they stand alone as totems of thought and ideas, artful and full of insight. Even through the decades, they still feel fresh. By chronicling the ordinary lives of the famous and obscure with a hard-eyed compassion, he reveals not only the true natures of his subjects, but also the values they hold within the cultures they inhabit. In this way, his stories are as much about his readers as his subjects, a clue to understanding the conditions of others, something that could well serve our divided world of today.

And so, with this modest collection, we take great pleasure in sharing some of what this writer’s writer has wrought. It stands as its own testament.

Walt Harrington portrait by WBYK

Walt Harrington:
The Art of Crafting Narrative Journalism

by Alex Belth

The artfulness required to do intimate journalism is not mostly a God-given skill, but a craft. It’s crucial to think that way. Otherwise, we make the mistake of assuming that some people just have the knack. Some people do have the knack, but much of artful journalism, whether or not it is about ordinary people, is simply hard work.

Walt Harrington, Artful Journalism

As was the case in so many areas of American life during the 1960s and 1970s, there was a revolution stirring in journalism: it would become known as the New Journalism, a genre that sought to intermarry stellar reportage—accuracy, fairness, and balance—with the literary elements of the novel—scene, setting, dialogue, physical description, and a narrative framework.

Upstart magazines like Rolling Stone and New York, as well as alternative weeklies like the Village Voice and the Boston Phoenix, were most closely associated with this new style, but in the meantime, and perhaps a little more slowly, New Journalism forged a quiet but equally evocative path into the pages of mainstream newspapers as well.

As a newspaper reporter, and later, during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, as a staff writer for the Washington Post Magazine, Walt Harrington found his lane and flourished, creating his own brand of New Journalism, which would later be codified in a popular textbook. Authored by Harrington and published in 1997, Intimate Journalism was assigned for more than 20 years to thousands of undergraduate and graduate journalism students. Generations of longform writers working today have spent time studying the advice and techniques of this master craftsman.

During the early years of New Journalism, reporters and editors at newspapers questioned the form; they assumed that stories so well written and deeply insightful must have employed embellished truths and fictive storylines. Indeed, along the way, some newspaper and magazine writers betrayed that line of trust, none more infamous, perhaps, than Harrington’s one-time Post colleague Janet Cooke, who was forced to return her Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing after it was revealed that her story, about an eight-year-old heroin addict, had been fabricated.

Even so, the Post had been the first daily newspaper to turn its traditional “women’s pages” into a Style section that would eventually feature some of the best newspaper writing of the times. By trusting its writers to express their creative voices in all sections of the paper, the Post created a hothouse for great storytelling that became a template for newspapers around the world.

Partly by dint of his modest character and middle-class, Midwestern upbringing—and partly due to the constraints of working for a glossy magazine housed under the flag of a newspaper so recently burned—Harrington developed a strain of New Journalism that diverged from the muscular egotism of early practitioners like Jimmy Breslin, Norman Mailer, and Tom Wolfe. Instead, Harrington—who received master’s degrees in sociology and journalism from the University of Missouri—saw journalism through the humanistic lens of a sociologist.

Though some of his best-known work includes profiles of the famous (civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, poet laureate Rita Dove, Satanist Anton LaVey, religious right kingpin Jerry Falwell, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, and a then-sitting vice president George H. W. Bush, who would later invite the distinctly liberal reporter and his African American wife to the White House for a state dinner and movie night), the kinds of subjects who fascinated Harrington most were people (often Black) overlooked or undervalued by society and its cultural elite: a detective, a minister, an attorney who spends his life trying to save convicted criminals from the death sentences they face. As Harrington has written, “Unlike some stylishly interpretive journalism that aims to impose the author’s ‘attitude’ on the subject, my goal . . . is to be essentially self-effacing, to let interpretations arise from within the subjects themselves.”

Harrington, the son of a milkman, was studying for his master’s in sociology at the University of Missouri, on the way to a doctorate, when the Watergate scandal—which began when several burglars connected to then-President Richard M. Nixon’s re-election campaign were arrested in the office of the Democratic National Committee, located in the Watergate complex of buildings in Washington, DC—caught his imagination. “I mis-spent a summer watching the hearings in The Heidelberg Pub near campus since I had no TV,” Harrington recalls.

Inspired by the heroic doings of Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Harrington (like so many others of his generation) became fascinated by the potential of journalism to do good for society. He read Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism when it came out in 1973, followed by David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens and Levels of the Game. He also started reading magazines like Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Esquire, long known for carrying the torch of literary journalism. “It wasn’t long before I decided journalism looked far more fun and interesting than academic sociology,” Harrington muses.

While finishing his sociology master’s degree in 1974, Harrington started taking classes in journalism at Mizzou’s lauded J school, and he received his master’s in journalism in 1975. Soon he became the editor of the Illinois Observer; his stories there were good enough to land him a job as a novice investigative reporter at the Guide, a weekly investigative newspaper in Harrisburg, PA. An award from the Pittsburgh Press Club, for best profile of the year, led to his next job at the Morning Call, a daily newspaper in Allentown, PA. From there, his stellar writing and more awards—from the Pennsylvania Press Club for investigative reporting and the Lowell Mellett Award for Media Criticism—brought him to the attention of the Washington Post.

Harrington began at the Post as the features editor on the city desk of the Metro section, which was headed at the time by Watergate’s Bob Woodward. Later Harrington returned to reporting, and for fifteen years delivered immaculate and probing longform magazine feature stories for the Post’s Sunday magazine (including a profile of Woodward’s former Watergate partner Carl Bernstein).

In 1996, Harrington traded his deep experience in the trenches (combined with his master’s degrees) for a tenured position teaching journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in time serving as head of the Department of Journalism and as an associate chancellor of the university.

Meanwhile, Harrington went on to write books. His first, American Profiles: Somebodies and Nobodies Who Matter (1992), is a collection of his Post Magazine stories. Crossings: A White Man’s Journey Into Black America (1993), which grew from a Post magazine story about his biracial family, is a stunning work of reportage and memoir that foretold America’s coming period of racial reckoning. At the Heart of It: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives (1996) would follow, featuring longform snapshots of everyday American lives, profiles of people like T. Deane Guy, a stock car racer; Jackie Jordan, a social worker in family services; and Sheri D’Amato, a girls’ soccer coach, which are intended to be mirrors held up to the lives of readers.

Next came Intimate Journalism: The Art and Craft of Reporting Everyday Life (1997). The landmark textbook emerged from a series of writing classes he was asked by Post editors to present to staffers. Over four years, more than 100 reporters, all of them good enough to have been hired by one of the greatest newspapers in the world, took Harrington’s classes in a voluntary quest to become better writers.

In 2002 Harrington wrote The Everlasting Stream: A True Story of Rabbits, Guns, Friendship, and Family. Published by the esteemed Atlantic Monthly Press, the deal was conducted personally with Harrington by the owner/publisher Morgan Entrekin, who continues to be a bold-face name in the industry. With The Everlasting Stream, Harrington enjoyed his widest mainstream success, a beautifully written and precisely reported memoir centered around rabbit hunting in the south-central Kentucky countryside with his Black father-in-law and his pals, and later also with his son, bringing three generations together in this ancient rite. (In the style of his icon McPhee, Harrington used a thermometer to record on various occasions the temperature of the stream in question; he also rigged himself up with a voice-activated recording device so he could make notes of impressions, wind direction, and other details while in the field with shotgun and camos.) In time the book was made into an elegiac Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary, for which Harrington was the screenwriter.

The success of Intimate Journalism, particularly the eloquence and passion of his take on the form, led Harrington-the-professor increasingly into writing about writing, and being invited to speak about “how narrative journalism gets done,” as the ever-folksy Harrington likes to say.

The Beholder’s Eye (2005) focused on the techniques for writing first-person stories. Next Wave (2012) sought to accent the continuing popularity of fine magazine writing at a time when death knells were sounding in the industry. Featured were a cast of up-and-coming writers, including Wright Thompson and Seth Wickersham, who have since become well known through their work at ESPN and on cable television. In 2013’s Slices of Life, Harrington curates the artful journalism stories authored by students in his literary feature writing class.

Even while teaching, Harrington continued to have his hand in doing journalism, including a series of beautifully etched portraits of men and women who work with their hands for This Old House magazine. In 2014 those stories were collected as Acts of Creation. His most recent book, Artful Journalism (2015), is the work of a master craftsman at the height of his powers and knowledge, a collection of deeply insightful and evocative essays that have inspired and informed several generations of writers who aspire to do journalism.

The Detective: And Other True Stories features highlights from Harrington’s long and storied career, with looks at a Washington, DC, homicide detective during the height of the homicide epidemic of the 1990s; the deeply considered art and craft of U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove as she works her way through writing one poem; a Harvard Law School grad who eschews a big-bucks job to make $24,000 a year trying to save convicted felons from death sentences; the trials and joys of a pair of sisters as they do their best to care for their aged, once-powerful father; an insider’s look at the extraordinary life of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks; a deeply reported profile of the 41st president of the U.S., George Herbert Walker Bush, followed by an account of the unlikely friendship Harrington developed with the 43rd president, George W. Bush, known then as Dubya. Finally, Harrington turns his thoughts inward with an essay about his own father and son, and the bridge between the generations.

Alex Belth: When did you first get interested in writing?

Walt Harrington: My older sister had been the editor of a high school newspaper. I was kind of a knucklehead and wasn’t involved in too much stuff other than having a good time. The adviser to the high school newspaper called me in at the beginning of my senior year and said, “Your sister was the best editor we ever had here at this newspaper. And I want you to be the editor.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know how to be an editor.” She said, “Your sister was really good at it. I’m sure you’ll be good at it.” Half the staff quit because I hadn’t even worked on the paper. I edited the newspaper my senior year and had a wonderful time. Our investigation into glue-sniffing on campus and our investigation of the failure of the hall monitor system—we gave somebody a fake pass and they wandered around the halls all day long with a fake pass and nobody stopped them. I was always in the principal’s office being yelled at for doing something in the newspaper.

AB: Did you know you wanted to go to school and study journalism?

WH: Not at first, no. I was going to work in a factory if I didn’t go to college, so I took college—Blackburn College—seriously. I was going to be a lawyer because I came from a blue-collar family. My father’s best friend was a lawyer and he always said, “You’re smart enough to be a lawyer.” So: I’ll be a lawyer, even though I had no idea what that meant. But in college I fell under the wing of a sociology instructor. He was finishing his PhD at the University of Missouri and suggested I apply to grad school there. So I did.

I arrived in 1972 and was doing sociology for the first year. Then Watergate started to happen. Got my attention. Woodward and Bernstein, everything exciting was journalism at the time. And I thought, I’m going to go into journalism. And somewhere after my arrival, I realized the University of Missouri has one of the best journalism schools in the world. I applied for the master’s program and got in. I finished my master’s in sociology and then did an extra year to get a master’s in journalism. In the journalism program I fell under the sway of another mentor, Ed Lambeth, who ran the Washington reporting program. In my last semester, in 1975, I went to the Washington reporting program in D.C. that was part of Mizzou. The whole program was breaking news, and I had no interest in breaking news. Everybody said you have to go work for the AP. You have to go work for the UPI. But again I had no interest in breaking news whatsoever.

AB: What journalism were you reading at the time?

WH: I had started to read Esquire and Rolling Stone, of course. Jimmy Breslin, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe. Later, Joan Didion. Also David Halberstam, especially his book The Best and the Brightest. And Robert Caro’s book on Robert Moses, The Power Broker, and Final Days by Woodward and Bernstein. Reading these books I realized that journalism could be more than bureaucratic political coverage; it could actually be unraveling the human dimensions of power politics and policy.

AB: How did you begin your professional career?

WH: I had an old friend from undergraduate days who had taken a job as a researcher at this failing little political magazine in Springfield, Illinois. They couldn’t get anybody to be editor of the magazine because it was only paying $165 a week. It was terrible. It was basically a kind of an advertiser rag for state legislators. He told me that if I came and would be the editor that I could do whatever I wanted. And so against everybody’s advice, I did. But then I got a couple of traditional newspaper jobs—first in Harrisburg and then in Allentown—where I had a newspaper apprenticeship, covering everything.

AB: Was the goal to write magazine features?

WH: Well, I remember when I left the Harrisburg paper and went to Allentown. I was driving in the rain, two years out of graduate school, and I was going to be a Sunday reporter, which meant that I could do what would have been then called “takeouts” or what is known as “longform” today. You had a whole week to do a story. Wow. I became familiar with how ordinary life was meant to be examined and interpreted in profound ways. That’s in the search for real meaning in ordinary life. I thought, well, I can write 20 articles that are each like a short story and I can collect those in a book. So even early on in those days, I thought in those terms. But it was a long time before I was able to put that all together because of the complexity of finding a place that will let you do it. It was easier in those days because newspapers were making so much money that they were willing to experiment in ways that they hadn’t been in the past.

AB: How did you get to the Washington Post?

WH: So I was in Allentown for a year and a half. At one point, Don Nunes, a reporter from the Washington Post, came to interview for the city editor job at the Allentown paper. I was assigned to court him around, take him out to dinner, show him the town. He read my stuff and said I should be at the Post. I said I’d have to think about that. I did and applied. Shelby Coffey, the famous editor of the Post’s Style section, called me and said, “Well, your stuff looks interesting. If you’re ever in Washington, come on in, I’d like to talk to you.” Okay. It wasn’t an interview. It was, come talk to me. So naturally I happened to be in Washington in the next few weeks. And I went in, I talked to him and he said, “Your stuff looks promising but I don’t have any jobs.” He told me to stay in touch and maybe something would come up. I’m walking out the door and this guy, Don Nunes, gets off the elevator and says, “What are you doing here?” I tell him I was just talking to Shelby about a job in Style but he doesn’t have any. Don says, “We’ve been looking for a feature editor on the City staff for ages. They can’t find anybody they want,” he said. “Come on, I’ll introduce you to the City desk.” We go to the City editor and Don says, “This is Walt Harrington. Shelby Coffey is trying to hire him. But he doesn’t have a job right now, so I think you ought to talk to him. So I talked to him for a while. Before long, I’m this kid that Shelby is trying to hire. And of course, he wasn’t trying to hire me, but I didn’t say anything. I came back in two weeks, went through a day of interviewing and they hired me. It was that fast.

AB: How long did you work as an editor?

WH: I edited at the Post from ‘81 to the middle of ‘83. I was on the Metro staff and we had wonderful people. Bob Woodward was the Metro editor. It was an intensely creative time, and there was a lot of freedom to experiment. Yet there were limits on what you could aspire to do. Then I went to the Washington Post Magazine and worked there as an editor. I wrote on the side and then within months I was just working as a writer. I wasn’t editing anymore, but the only way I was hired at the time was because they had an editor’s slot open, not a writer’s slot.

AB: It’s true that money at newspapers enabled a certain kind of opportunity for you, but it also sounds like so much is good fortune and just dumb luck. Did you enjoy editing?

WH: It was interesting. You learn to edit from a distance. You also have the experience of writers resisting you, and you have to stay open to the fact that those writers are correct. Sometimes, you’re not always right. They’re correct. Sometimes there’s something that you’re not seeing, or more likely in my own experience as a writer, it reveals that the writer has not done a good enough job of making clear what he or she is trying to do. Most writers have a switch that they can flick when they have to read their own work to try to edit it themselves. They still have a switch that they flip that allows them to step back a bit, but it’s much more difficult to do for your own work. I enjoyed editing early on in my career. Since I didn’t do it for that long, I was probably too heavy-handed. I wanted the writers to tell stories the way I wanted to tell stories—you know, especially for writers who maybe were not in complete control of what they were trying to do.

AB: When you transitioned to writing, did you have a good relationship with your editors?

WH: Anybody who is worth their salt wants a strong editor. A good editor asks questions. Asking: How do you know that? Do you really know that?

AB: How were you able to apply the novelistic devices that are the foundations of New Journalism in a newspaper?

WH: The wave of New Journalism made us aware of the possibilities. The other part was mastering the craft, figuring out how in the world do you get the good stuff and then make it seem like real life, of a life lived. Not some literary construct. That was always the undertaking, that was always the ambition, even though I wouldn’t have articulated it like that at the time. Working for the Post it simply meant that you had to develop a set of absolute techniques. If you wrote that the gravel cracked under his feet when he walked, you had better have that recorded in your notes. When I later did The Everlasting Stream, it was still pre-electronics, I carried a compass with me and would record which direction the wind was coming from, checking my compass. That would be in my notes. Or if I had a tape recorder, I would talk into it and record where the wind was coming from. I learned all of this at the Post. In the early ‘80s, they moved lawyers into the newsroom at the Post. Lawyers would be in the newsroom asking you questions, and they’re thinking of the courtroom three years from now—how is this going to look? In that environment, you really were attuned to being able to answer for your reporting. I never felt that was inappropriate. There were people who argued and fussed about it, but I was not one of them. I figured they were protecting me.

AB: How did it inform your reporting?

WH: In a way, it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you work for a place where you have to verify everything as a reporter, you go forth on a story knowing how to collect information. And it makes you sharper and more attentive to details. And this kind of writing comes alive in dialogue, in inner monologue, in concrete details that all need to be reported and verified.

AB: The kind of journalism you practiced is almost like an extension of your interest in anthropology and sociology.

WH: Yes. The standard ethical stance of anthropology is first you absolutely do no harm to your subjects. In journalism it is: you tell the truth to your readers. And those two can actually conflict because sometimes the truth is going to harm the people that you’re writing about. The answer in anthropology is, of course, anonymity. Sometimes that’s the answer in journalism also. I mean, one of the things Mike Sager, with whom I worked at the Post, objected to most about mainstream journalism was the idea that you were almost never supposed to use anonymous subjects or sources. Mike’s attitude was that three quarters of the world is stuff going on that people don’t want anybody to know about, and we’re not supposed to write about them? And so, you know, Mike would do things about upper middle-class heroin addicts but he didn’t use their names. Of course those kinds of stories have the same problem that anthropologists have, which is—how do we know you’re telling the truth? How do we know you’re not making this stuff up? The whole reason to reveal your subjects and your sources is so that people can confirm and check them, you know? And in qualitative sociology and anthropology, you can’t do that. Trying to do this kind of work at a place like Washington Post Magazine meant there was no room for slippage. There were a lot of straight news people who weren’t too keen on this kind of stuff. They thought we were fancy pants trying to write these kinds of things.

AB: You wrote freelance for other magazines outside of the Post. Did you either appreciate the Post culture more or did you get a sense of, wow, not everyone’s that rigorous? Or did you find, uh, just different experiences, other places?

WH: I didn’t do a whole hell of a lot of freelancing, to be honest. I wrote for Life magazine and the editing process was very, very tight there. When you’re getting good editing, it comes in layers. You get a conceptual edit. Then you start getting finer and finer gradations. And you’re just really fortunate if you have somebody who really wants to pay attention. And someone who is not trying to hammer you or trying to bend you into something that they would prefer.

AB: Have you enjoyed working as a teacher and passing along the tradition of narrative nonfiction to students?

WH: Absolutely, it’s been incredible. When I was in graduate school I was in a class—I don’t remember what it was, exactly, probably advanced reporting or something. I was doing a story and wanted to make it special. And the teacher, a guy who had worked at a famous national newspaper, told me that I should probably find another career, that journalism was not for me.

And I can literally remember walking back to my apartment, leaving his office, it was pouring down rain. And I’m thinking, my God, here’s this guy from a big-time national newspaper telling me to find another career, you know? Then I thought: He does not know what I’m trying to do. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m trying to do, but he does not know what I’m trying to do. He’s not helping me do what it is I want to do. He’s trying to tell me I can’t do it. And I had read enough to know that people did do it. He just didn’t know it. So I’ve never, I’ve never used his name, but I always think about that. I’m never going to give a kid that kind of advice. I’m never going to tell a kid you can’t do this or that. You try to help them figure out what are the opportunities for them, try and find what they want to do, and help teach them how to do this kind of work.

Click here to purchase a copy of The Detective: And Other True Stories or scroll down to read an excerpt below

Washington Post cover, Nov 1992

The Detective

“Everything has gone to extremes,” says D.C. Homicide detective V.I. Smith. Follow him into the front-line trenches, at a time when Washington was known as the Homicide Capital of the nation, and you quickly see what he means—and understand the deadening weight of his sadness.

A MAN GOES 22 YEARS without being afraid, without giving his own death a glance, without worrying that the map of the city’s criminal ways and rhythms that he has always carried in his head might be obsolete. A man goes 22 years climbing the ladder from beat cop to blue-boy elite, to homicide detective. A man goes 22 years to earn a reputation as a “90 percenter”—a detective who puts the souls of nearly all his victims to rest by closing the book on their murders. A man goes 22 years, and then the waters he inhabits shift and roil with unpredictable currents, until murder isn’t murder anymore, isn’t a biblical sentence that friends and lovers and fathers and sons impose on each other in storms of rage and recrimination. A man goes 22 years and finds himself leaning casually over a corpse on Halley Terrace in Southeast Washington, about to be made aware. That man—Detective Victor “V.I.” Smith—flips back the dead man’s coat and sees a blue-black machine gun, an Uzi, cocked and ready to fire.

Detective V.I. Smith is fearless, at least his police buddies think he’s fearless. He has waltzed into Barry Farms, one of the roughest housing projects in Washington, at 4 in the morning, disappeared for an hour and returned with his suspect in tow. He has raided crack houses alone, lined up the drug heads and sweated them for reconnaissance on the spot. V.I.’s cop friends can’t imagine him being afraid of anything. But tonight, after Halley Terrace, V.I. talks and talks about his shock at seeing that Uzi. About how six of his last seven murder victims have been packing guns. He doesn’t reveal it to his comrades, but V.I. realizes that for the first time in 22 years as a Washington cop, he was afraid. Oh, maybe he’d been afraid before and hadn’t realized it, imagined his feeling was excitement or readiness or the flow of adrenaline. But there’s no mistaking or denying the emotion that surged through V.I. Smith on Halley Terrace tonight: It was fear.

Two years later . . . everything squeaks. The heavy doors squeak. The metal swivel chairs squeak. The drawers in the metal desks squeak. The file drawers squeak. The keys of the old manual upright squeak. The room—No. 5058, dubbed Homicide North because it is isolated two floors above D.C.’s other homicide offices in the city’s Municipal Center—is a concerto of squeaks. Its other noises—the hollering voices, the clamoring phones, the electric typewriters, Gilligan’s Island laugh-tracking on the beat-up TV, the two coffeepots spitting mud, the hand-held walkie-talkies belching static—all add layer upon layer of volume, creating finally a kind of jangled symphony.

What will stop this din and turn the entire room of nine men prayerfully silent are three words their ears are tuned to as if they were set on a private frequency: “stabbing” or “shooting” or “homicide.” When the police radio dispatcher speaks any of these words, everything stops, hands reach for tiny volume knobs on radios and everybody waits. Usually, it’s a false alarm and, just as abruptly, the noise once again envelops the momentary silence like a stadium cheer after the crack of a long ball.

The men in Homicide North are tonight “on the bubble”—cop talk meaning that their squad of detectives is on call to investigate the city’s next murder. Detective Jeff Mayberry, a short, wiry, close-cropped, jet-propelled 34-year-old in a tight blue sports coat, is riding the top of the bubble in his rotation as lead investigator on whatever horror is next offered up from the bowels of the city. He has ridden the bubble aloft for four duty days now—and no murder. At least none on his 3-to-11 shift.

“You believe it?” he asks in frustration. No murder in a town that sees almost four murders every three days!”

“You’re bad luck,” comes the rejoinder of his partner, Joe Fox, a respected and bearded 41-year-old bear of a detective who has a compulsive squint that constantly edges his wire-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose. He is called neither “Joe” nor “Fox.” He is called “Joefox.”

“Screw you, Joefox,” Mayberry says.

Seated at the end of a row of desks in a corner under a wash of fluorescent light in front of pale curtains that hang off their track is V.I. Smith, looking out of place in this seedy domain. At age 46, he’s quiet and self-contained, talking softly into the receiver of the old phone atop his desk, which isn’t unkempt like most of the others. He’s chatting with a woman who lives on W Street NW. She has been peeking out her window tonight to see if the drug boys V.I. wants to bust and shake down for tips about a recent murder are hanging on the street. They aren’t.

Leaning on his elbows at his desk, talking into the phone, V.I. looks less like a tough city cop than, say, a prosecuting attorney or an FBI agent. He’s 6 feet 4. Naked on the scale, he goes a trim and powerful 230, only 10 pounds over the weight he carried as a freshman basketball star at Howard University nearly three decades ago.

His face is wide and handsome, chiseled. It smiles rarely. In temperament, V.I. is terminally cool, never nervous or edgy. The more excited he gets, the more deliberately he speaks. And the more deliberately he speaks, the more trouble whomever he’s speaking to is probably in. Even V.I.’s laugh is deliberate, with each “hah” in his slow “hah-hah-hah” being fully enunciated. In dress and style, he resembles a new-breed jazz player: His hair and mustache are short and neat, his shirt is crisp, his tie is knotted tightly and never yanked loose at his neck, and his suit, usually bought at Raleigh’s, is always well-tailored and never cheap. Unlike some of his detective pals, V.I. would never wear brown shoes with a blue suit. He dresses to the nines because, having grown up on the streets of Black Washington, he knows that a man who dresses well is ascribed a dose of respect in that world, and every small advantage counts, especially these days.

The guys in the office call V.I. “the Ghost “because they rarely know what he’s doing from minute to minute. With his reputation as one of Washington’s best homicide detectives, V.I. comes and goes at Room 5058 pretty much as he pleases. But if the radio calls out a murder, he’s on the scene, appearing as if from nowhere, like an apparition. Of Washington’s 65 homicide detectives, V.I. Smith figures he’s the only one without a regular partner. That’s because Joefox, who came with V.I. to homicide seven years ago on the same cold Tuesday in February, used to be his partner, until the green and gung-ho Mayberry arrived from uniform four years ago and was assigned to Joefox for diapering.

Joefox and V.I. eventually took the kid aside and told him how it was going to be: The three of them would be partners, meaning that any one man’s case was also the case of the other two. If Mayberry listened and studied and showed respect, he would learn the art and science of unraveling the darkest of human behaviors from two of the masters. And that’s how it came down, with Mayberry now a fine detective in his own right. So when Mayberry is riding the bubble, Joefox and the Ghost are riding with him.

When the bubble seems to burst tonight, it’s no thriller. A man named Willis Fields, who lived in a Washington boarding house, died at the Washington Hospital Center burn unit today, and the death was passed on to Detective C.J. Thomas, whose job it is to investigate and certify natural deaths. But in the hospital file he discovered that the 56-year-old man had told a nurse that “they” had poured alcohol on him and set him afire. Willis Fields was in the hospital 10 days, but his story fell through the cracks. Nobody called the police about his allegation, which means the inquiry will start nearly two weeks cold, no leads, only an address.

“C.J., why is it every one a these things you do, you always get us?” asks Mayberry. “Remember that guy on Suitland Parkway? Been there two years? Six shots to the head?”

“And what did you tell me?” C.J. asks.

“Man, that’s a natural!”

“Well, here we go,” says V.I., in his smooth, lyrical baritone as he palms a radio, unconsciously pats his right breast coat pocket for evidence of his ID wallet, pats his left breast coat pocket for evidence of his notebook, and heads out the door in his athlete’s saunter, a stylized and liquid stroll, a modern cakewalk.

The address for Willis Fields is wrong—2119 11th St. NW is a vacant lot. “They probably got it turned around,” V.I. says, as the threesome mills about the grassy lot, looking lamely around, shrugging. It’s just before dusk and the hot summer day has begun to cool, but except for a man staring at them intently from the sidewalk in front of the Soul Saving Center Church of God across the street, the block is empty of people, quiet.

V.I. knows this neighborhood. He spent years living nearby as a kid, attending Garnet-Patterson Junior High over at 10th and U streets, Bell High School at Hiatt Place and Park Road and Cardozo High just up the hill at 13th and Clifton streets. This block of 11th Street isn’t Beverly Hills, but it’s a stable block that doesn’t fit V.I.’s image of the crime at hand. An old man is more likely to be set on fire on a block where guys hang out drinking liquor, where there’s a lot of street action. He nods down the road. That sounds more like the block back at 11th and U, with a corner market and a liquor store nearby. Sure enough, when the office checks the address the detectives were given, it’s wrong. Willis Fields lived at 1929—near the corner of 11th and U.

When the men arrive at Rhode Island Avenue and Brentwood Road NE, the scene, as it always does, seems not real, somehow outside of time and place, like a page brought to life from a paperback novel: The shooting ground is cordoned off in a triangle of yellow plastic tape (POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS), and squad cars and cruisers are parked every which way, as if they’d landed as randomly as dice thrown in a tornado’s game of craps. The crowd of mostly women and youngsters is congregated in the vague and dreamy light of street lamps beneath huge and gnarled trees in the scrub-grass yard of the L-shaped Brookland Manor apartments. A police helicopter flutters overhead, its searchlight scanning a block nearby. The cops know this stretch of Rhode Island as a drug market, and that’s the first scenario V.I.’s mind starts to build. One shot, large caliber left side of the head. That’s all he knows.

V.I. steps into the triangle and begins to think in the language of the scene before him. On the sidewalk begins the pool of blood, not red, but a thick, syrupy black. The blood has cascaded over the curb and run southwest with gravity for about five feet, where a pile of leaves and debris has dammed its flow. The young man who was shot was alive when the ambulance left, but this is a large pool of blood, and V.I. figures Mayberry is off the bubble. On the sidewalk is a footprint in blood. Could be that of the victim, the shooter, a witness, a passerby, an ambulance attendant. A few feet away is a lonely quarter, heads up. On a waist-high embankment, where the sidewalk meets the yard about six feet from the street, stand a Mountain Dew bottle and a can of Red Bull malt liquor.

The details seem trivial, but a homicide detective’s life is a sea of details, a collage of unconnected dots gathered and collated. In the end, most will turn out to be insignificant. But at the time, a detective cannot know the revelatory from the inconsequential. He must try to see them all, then hold them in his mind in abeyance until the few details that matter rise forth from the ocean to reveal themselves. V.I. begins to link the dots in the scene before him. For instance, a man who is shot at such close range was either hit by someone he trusted or by someone who sneaked up on him. Maybe the Mountain Dew and the Red Bull belonged to the victim and to one of his friends, who were sitting on the embankment looking toward the street, talking, laughing. From the darkened yard behind them the shooter moved in. The victim fell forward, his head landing at the curb and spurting blood with each heartbeat. His buddy bolted. If the dots are connected correctly, that buddy is a witness. If not, he could be the shooter.

Suddenly, from the crowd in the dreamy light on the scrub-grass yard, comes a long, awful scream. In five seconds, it comes again. And then a woman runs wildly through the crowd, crashing into people as she goes. She disappears into a door at the elbow of the L-shaped Brookland Manor. On the chance that this might be a drug-boy shooting, V.I., Mayberry and Joefox will not wander through the crowd or canvass the apartments looking for witnesses tonight. Until a few years ago, it was virtually unheard of for witnesses to be killed, but today they are crossed off like bad debts. Witnesses know it, cops know it, shooters know it. It’s simply too dangerous for witnesses to be seen talking to the cops after a shooting, especially at night when the drug boys are out. V.I. plans to return tomorrow afternoon to do his canvass. But after hearing the woman scream, he invokes another law of experience: “You get people cryin’, they gonna tell ya somethin’.”

With this in mind, V.I. saunters toward the door at the building’s elbow and the crowd parts and murmurs as he passes. On the darkened stairs up to the second floor, a place filled with the smells of a dozen dinners cooking, he finds the woman’s mother, who says her daughter knew the victim but doesn’t want to talk to the police. V.I. doesn’t push. He gets the daughter’s name, her apartment number. One of the problems these days is that victims and suspects are usually known on the streets only by nicknames that the cops don’t know. So V.I. asks if the victim had a nickname. The mother says, “K.K.”

Click here to purchase a copy of The Detective: And Other True Stories

Original Washington Post layout

Washington Post cover

Original Washington Post layout

Washington Post cover

Washington Post cover

Original Washington Post layout

Washington Post cover

Original Washington Post layout

Original Washington Post layout

Original Washington Post layout

Mike Sager is a bestselling author and award-winning reporter. For more than forty years he has worked as a writer for the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, GQ, and Esquire. Sager is the author of more than a dozen books and eBooks. Many of his stories have inspired documentaries and films, including the classic Boogie Nights. He is the founder and publisher of The Sager Group, a content brand.

Alex Belth is the editor of Esquire Classic, the magazine’s digital archive, as well as the editor of The Stacks Reader, a website dedicated to preserving great journalism from the Golden Age of magazines. He’s been a contributor to Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Deadspin, and The Daily Beast, and created Bronx Banter, one of the original New York Yankees blogs, which the Village Voice called a “New York City treasure.” In a previous life, he worked in film post production for the likes of Ken Burns, Woody Allen, and the Coen brothers.