In his reporting on fracking and military burn pits, award-winning writer J. Malcolm Garcia brings us into the lives of the people most affected — two mothers who lost their husbands to health issues caused by the burn pits; Northern Arkansas residents who see the degradation of their beloved towns as a consequence of fracking. In this Backstory interview, Garcia takes us into his reporting process and gives a few tips on how to take careful and detailed notes to give his reporting life. —Leticia Miranda
Leticia Miranda: What really struck me in all of your stories, but especially in “Toxic Trash,” is that it really read almost as a piece of fiction. Of course like you said it's all fact checked. It's true. I think the level of detail about the thoughts and memories of Jill and Dina are so distinct. Why is it important for you to describe your characters in such detail?
J. Malcolm Garcia: Well, it makes them real. If you sympathize or if Dina is real and people can read that and say, “Oh yes, I've been a parent. I remember telling my child not to eat a cookie beforehand,” then the loss of her husband is that much more moving because you understand this person. You can see yourself in that person's situation. So for me it's important to capture those details so the person is real and then you're going to care about their problems. You're going to care about the loss of her husband. Without those details, then I think it would be strictly a kind of a news piece about burn pits and about the bad effects and people would walk away and think, “That's bad,” and then they'll turn to the sports section, whereas I hope with the kind of details I provided there would be a lingering effect. People would feel badly for them and think that this isn't right.
Miranda: Could you walk us through your note-taking methodology? How do you gather these notes to be able to reflect them back later?
Garcia: Well, I'm old school. I don't use a tape recorder as much as an editor requires. But I just hang out, that's really the word. I mean I spent TKTK with Dina, I arrived at her house at 3 o'clock on a Friday, I think, and I stayed until 8. The next day I got there at 8 o'clock in the morning and stayed 'til until 8 o'clock at night. And then the third day I was there from 8 o'clock in the morning until about noon. In the morning I watched her take the children to school and the family getting together having breakfast, getting ready for school, etc, etc. And then she was, you know, alone with me and I just asked her questions about her life and the burn pits. When the kids came home, I caught more details of that, hung out with the kids and asked them questions about their life and also about their father and what it was like when he was sick. And then for me the process ends when I feel like I'm not getting any new information, when I'm hearing the same answers again. And then I think, well I've probably, you know, immersed myself as far as I can without just wearing them out for no reason. So then I left.
Miranda: For example, with this scene where I think it was Dina, the daughter was like “Oh, can I have an Oreo cookie?” Are you sitting there with your notebook out and writing down as they're speaking what they're saying? Or do you go back and remember later what happened?
Garcia: No, I'm writing the whole time. I'm writing the whole time. I had an editor on my first overseas trip (and I had never worked overseas before as a reporter), he said to me, “Always ask yourself what do you see, what do you hear, what do you smell, what do you taste, and what do you touch?” And I've used that those questions ever since. So when I'm in a house, I sketch a picture, literally, and I sketch a little picture of where furniture is, where the curtains are, colors of everything, and then I just write down conversations. Everybody knows what I'm there for. Sometimes they're a little self-conscious at first but when you hang out as long as I just described it's kind of like a reality TV show — they get used to the camera. They get used to the guy there with the notepad. And we're talking. I mean I'm not just a shadow staring at them and taking notes. We're chatting away. Usually I'm just writing the whole time. So that little Oreo scene, I was there, I can still see myself, I was at the counter, kitchen counter, on a stool, and they had that little dialogue, just like the same way the story ends. I was in the garage with Dina when her daughter said something about riding a bicycle and Dina said, “It's going to be ok” and the daughter said, “Maybe,” and Dina said, “Definitely.” I was just there writing way.
Miranda: So I also noticed with all of your writing, “Smoke Screens,” “Toxic Trash,” and “Backyard Battlefields” with us [The Investigative Fund], that in those stories, each of them are kind of built around a central character. So we have Dina and Jill, there's the Doctor. So you have these really prominent characters who really come to life on the page. But I'm curious about how you go about sorting through all of your sources you interview to identify which of your characters can kind of carry the narrative through?
Garcia: Well, with “Smoke Screens,” I didn't really have much choice. I had two families. It was just sort of jumping off into the deep end and hoping like crazy they'd say something worthwhile. Now Dina did. She was very powerful. The other woman, Jill, very nice person. She was very controlled and she didn't really want to reveal a lot because she'd break down. But what saved that section for me were the other voices within that section. There was a pastor, there was her son. So together they all filled out the story. The Dina section really carried by itself. So Dina carried that section. But the Jill section required other characters and their combined voices ended up, I thought, showing the pain of Jill. So you just really just have to assess what you have. You have to determine, what is the story? Obviously in my case it's about burn pits, but what am I trying to tell about these two families? And then going through your notes and finding those things that will get you to that story.
For the fracking story, all of that takes places in Arkansas, but I actually also went to Oklahoma. But I realized as I was writing that I didn't really need the Oklahoma piece. The people in Oklahoma really weren't saying anything differently than the people in Arkansas. People in Oklahoma, nothing against them; they were real nice folks. They weren't offering me the level of detail or the uniqueness of approach like a diary, or like somebody who was in his eighties and had lived generations in a particular place that is now being ruined, or somebody who is an Iraqi war vet and is now having flashbacks to Iraq because of the fracking. They didn't offer anything like that that really compelled me. So I decided that rather than having a real diffuse story that'll have maybe half a dozen people in it, I could focus on a handful and go into that kind of detail to show their stories, so, again, that people could care, they would care for their concern about fracking.
Miranda: I noticed that you sometimes punctuate your stories with excerpts of Facebook conversations or the notes from the Arkansas man about what he had been experiencing and seeing. I'm curious, at least for the Facebook conversations, how you've tapped social media in your reporting and what kind of advice you would give to other journalists on that front.
Garcia: Well I guess I hadn't even thought of it really as social media. I think Dina mentioned to me that she had never met Jill but they had Facebooked each other all the time about because she was seeking Jill's advice since Jill had started this support group for people. So I just asked to see the Facebook messages if she still had them and she did, and I read them and I thought they were real powerful. And it was a way of establishing the relationship these two women had, even though they had never met, and it was a way to push the story forward as well. I wish I could be more profound but it just made sense to use them so that's what I did. I guess that would be my advice: tell the story the way it makes sense. And I know that sounds simplistic, but that's what I would suggest to people. If it makes sense to tell a story by using excerpts from diaries and so forth then just do it, don't think about it too long. Go with your gut. If that's what makes sense, then do it and hope you have an editor open-minded enough to consider it.
Miranda: How do you think it helped push the story forward from your perspective?
Garcia: Well, because it really showed the pain of the moment. When I'm talking to them they're reflecting back and they're pretty graphic, particularly Dina. I mean, her husband had only been dead a year. So she had a lot of raw wounds still. But the Facebook messages really, I thought, captured, put you in the moment when her husband was dying and she's fighting this bureaucracy. Puts you in the moment with Jill when she's kind of reliving the pain of losing her husband because she's helping Dina. So it's just another layer of telling the story. So in a way the story is within the story. The Facebook excerpts are almost a second story so like alternating chapters. But I thought it really put people in the moment in that time when Bill McKenna [TKTK HUSBAND] was dying. You got that desperation of what was happening.
Miranda: Even though a lot of your stories are based around characters of people you interview, like in “Toxic Trash” it's very clear you did some real old school investigative reporting, asking really hard questions of the military and trying to dig for these answers that they just didn't want to give. I'm curious in your reporting on military burn pits, you came up against a lot of challenges and you write about that in getting information from the military. I'm curious to know how you overcame those challenges or how you managed to get the information you needed to complete the story?
Garcia: I knew going in that the military wasn't going to talk to me about this. If they ever admit to the tragedy of burn pits they're going to face more lawsuits than they can count so I knew that wasn't going to happen. But I also know, just from just everyday life, that people who don't want to admit something, if you ask them questions, often times the answers they give are either so preposterous or so assumptive that in effect they give you an answer, or they can say something that is so ludicrous that when put side-by-side with the real life experience of someone like Dina or Jill, you see the lie of what they are saying. So there was a lot of information that was just damning in and of itself. So when I went about the reporting, I wasn't looking for bad guys necessarily, but I was looking for answers and I was prepared that I would have to find answers indirectly. So there was the one piece in the Virginia Quarterly Review [WHAT PIECE IS THIS? URL?] where I had a lot of reports that actually were instruction manuals on how the military answers burn pit questions, which was pretty damning. And then I had a list of chemicals found in military burn pits, which again was pretty damming. And then there were the comments of the people I interviewed that I don't remember them but they were [inaudible] praise. So if you know you're going up against the wall there is no reason to break your head against it. What you do is just find out where there are some cracks in the wall and use those cracks as information, because that can just be as revealing as a flat-out admittance of public wrongdoing.