Chip Brown has long been one of the finest magazine writers we have. An exacting reporter and a deft stylist, Brown began under the tutelage of David Maraniss and Bob Woodward at The Washington Post and flourished as feature writer for glossy magazines, too many to mention here. He’s a longtime contributor to The New York Times Magazine—for an example of his best work there, check out this 2013 piece on the North Dakota oil boom—and more recently, National Geographic. We caught up with Brown recently to discuss a fascinating career that has taken him around the world, and specifically, the terrific work he did for Esquire.—A.B.
Esquire Classic: Your dad was a writer so I presume you grew up in a house with books.
Chip Brown: With books, and with judicious editorial judgment. My Dad was a very fine writer and editor — he once pointed out a passage in the manuscript of my second book Good Morning Midnight that he thought was “sonorous twaddle” and should be struck. I didn’t have to think twice about cutting it out. Growing up — I am the eldest of five kids — our family game was Scrabble. My parents would not hold back — they would gloat when they crushed us at the Scrabble board. I remember once using a word that my mother didn’t know. I still remember the word—saltatory. It means “of, or related to leaping.” I said, “You don’t know what that means, do you?” And she said, “Argh, I don’t!” Well she didn’t actually say “argh” but something along those lines. I was probably 12 or so. In my family, if you wanted to have power, if you wanted to be heard, you had to develop a vocabulary. If you didn’t have a vocabulary you didn’t really exist. You didn’t have to have a visual feeling for design or color; it was all auditory. Everybody was playing musical instruments; everybody had to be able to articulate their thoughts and opinions if you wanted to get anywhere. I always want to write because it was another way of exercising word power.
EC: Were you drawn to writing fiction?
CB: Yes at first but I discovered I needed the skeleton of actual events to support my voice. If a fiction writer puts a character in a red sweater there’d better be a reason; randomness is death in fiction. A non-fiction writer can fall back on “the sweater is red because that’s what color it is.” I like non-fiction because it is delimited, you don’t have to play God or pretend to know everything. In fact it’s about getting to the point where you feel you know a little something, even if only a very little bit, about an infinitely vast and mysterious world. It’s about unpacking what already exists, finding the deeper connections in material you didn’t have to create from scratch. You don’t have the responsibility for the patterns and relationships of the given world; you only have to find the meaning inherent in what exists, if there is any. I suppose it’s like working inside the strictures of a poetic form like a sonnet. I often feel like I’m a slave to real events, which is why I probably became a journalist. Though I’m trying to break out of exactly these constraints at my now advanced age.
EC: Were you aware of Esquire growing up?
CB: I remember coming into New York on the train from Connecticut when I was in college and reading the Dubious Achievement Awards issue for 1975 — January 1976 issue. I had written a paper on New Journalism in college and Esquire was one of the main venues of that movement to throw off the hidebound conventions of the trade. I was one of the editors of our college paper at Hampshire College, which was a brand new college started by Smith, Amherst, Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts. I was in the school’s second class. The paper — Climax, it was called— was organized and run by students. One of my first Climax stories was a very, very long and painfully sophomoric imitation of an Esquire piece in which I plumbed the Dante-esque nightmare of a mixer at Smith College where yellow school busses were disgorging locust-like hordes of drunken meatheads from Dartmouth. The horror! It was called “The Human Cannery.” I don’t dare re-read it for fear of being too mortified ever to write again.
EC: Did your parents read to you as a kid?
CB: I don’t remember them doing that.
EC: Did you get books for your birthday and holidays?
CB: Oh yes. I remember my Dad bringing home John McPhee’s famous Bill Bradley profile in The New Yorker and saying, “You might be interested in this.” And he handed me a hard-cover copy of Exley’s A Fan’s Notes and said — almost shyly for fear it might come across as sententious — “This has the ring of truth.” One Christmas I got a dictionary from my mother. Her inscription was: “Words Fail” which I thought was about the wittiest thing anyone could inscribe in a dictionary.
EC: Did you want to write about nature?
CB: I was drawn to wilderness and wild places at college because Hampshire had an incredible outdoors program. Mountaineering, wilderness exploration, rock-climbing were all just beginning to become popular. The Outdoors Program was run by one of my professors, David Roberts, who is sometimes called the dean of outdoor writers. His most famous Hampshire student was Jon Krakauer. In my junior year some friends and I organized a 36-day expedition to the Arrigetch Mountains in the Brooks Range in Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle. We airdropped food and climbing equipment and, insanely, three-pound quality-paperback editions of Gravity’s Rainbow which we were then obliged to carry out. We landed on a lake in a floatplane and then hiked into the range, which is now one of the most spectacular parts of the enormous Gates of the Arctic National Park. When we camped under the Arrigetch Peaks they had only been seen by a handful parties in history. Robert Marshall visited in 1931, there were a few parties in sixties. It was an epic trip and the account I wrote of it became part of my senior thesis, and the first thing I ever published that someone thought was worth paying for — $175 for 20,000 words from a magazine called Mountain Gazette.
EC: And then you started your career in Alaska at The Homer News.
CB: I worked part time as the layout editor, and tried to write short stories on my days off. I lived alone in a cabin on a hill called Diamond Ridge with a 300-mile view of five volcanoes, part of the Pacific Rim of Fire. I eventually became the managing editor, with a staff of 4 that I was nominally in charge of. It was a lot of work and a total lark at the same time. There were 2,500 people in Homer and we had a circulation of 2,500. People would line up on Wednesday afternoon for the paper because there were so few diversions. No radio. No TV. No media, just the weekly paper. In a small town your job is just to establish for the record what everybody probably knows already via the rumor mill. You’re not the impresario of the news the way you are in a big daily. Homer was a lot like that TV show Northern Exposure — which was also created by a Hampshire student. A lot of Hampshire students went up there after graduating. It seemed close to, but not completely of, the grown-up world. At least to the influx of 20-somethings from the lower 48.
EC: What made you want to leave?
CB: A lot of my friends cleared out during my first winter. Living alone during the winter I found myself starting to find excuses to go into town. My first September there it rained for 37 days in a row, and September only has 30 days. Then came the snow, and the darkness — the sun rising around 9 a.m. and gone by 3:30 p.m. The male/female ratio was 3 to 1 men to women. I tried to fortify myself by reading Rilke’s letters. Rilke advised that young writers should “hew to what is difficult” but I don’t think even Rilke would have lasted very long alone in Homer during the winter. I remember one frigid night my neighbor massacred all of his chickens with a lead pipe because he realized it cost more to feed them than he made selling eggs. I was taking a lot of hot baths because I was always cold — I had a wood stove but my cabin was drafty. I’d set up all these traps to catch the voles that were trying to get inside because they were cold too. I would draw a hot bath and lie in it until I felt warm. It was so quiet I could hear the blood pulsing in my ears and moose crunching willow browse 100 yards away. And then suddenly BAM, BAM, like gunshots, the vole traps would go off, and there would be a desperate skittering sound. One night six traps went off like a Gatling gun and I had six poor dead voles to dispose of. I felt bad. It was a hard country for everyone in the winter.
My father offered to fly me home for Christmas. I swallowed my pride and went. When I went back as the managing editor with a full time job and vole-free garret, The Homer News had a new owner — Howard Simons, the managing editor of The Washington Post. Howard was the editor who gave Deep Throat his name. He had bought the Homer paper for $65,000 when he stopped over in Alaska on a flight to Japan. I took over as the managing editor under his tenure, and after a year, he invited me to come to Washington to interview for a job at the Post. I started on the Metro staff in September 1979.
EC: What was that transition like?
CB: Okay for the very first story — the desk editor seemed pleased to find the words elegiacal and detritus in my maiden story about trees that had been toppled during a hurricane. Though he did change detritus to debris. But then it was awful. I tightened up. I was overwhelmed. I forgot how to write. I went from a town with 2,500 people where I was just confirming what everybody already knew, to a newsroom of 500 reporters pickling in Ben Bradlee’s “creative tension” and where, as my friend Blaine Harden liked to say, some of them wore trench coats with slits in the back for their dorsal fins. I was assigned to cover the cops and schools in Montgomery County north of Washington in Maryland. I didn’t know anybody. I was commuting to the bureau in Rockville Maryland in a Fiat with disc brakes that kept locking up, which seemed to be the automotive equivalent of my mental state too. You can’t write unless you feel you are free to say anything in any voice. I couldn’t seem to master the compulsories of a Poststory in a key of my own. Like many new hires I was on probation.
EC: How did you snap out of it?
CB: As things turned out, it was a dog who saved my career. Montgomery is one of the richest counties in the country, and I was assigned to write a story about a new phenomenon called Neighborhood Watch patrols. I went out on a patrol one night with a guy from Potomac, Maryland, one of the poshest places in Montgomery. The neighborhood watcher was patrolling with his standard poodle whose name was Bentley. It seems so obvious now that I can’t imagine why it was such a revelation at the time, but when I was back in the office writing the story — on a manual typewriter on paper called six-ply because there were literally six copies being made of each keystroke — I had the wild career-saving thought that I ought to include Bentley’s name. Not only did Bentley’s name capture Potomac’s atmosphere of privilege and paranoia but it leavened the piece with something comic, and something comic in the piece unleashed me, or rather my voice. Over the next four or five months I stopped trying to write like what I thought a Washington Post reporter should sound like and just tried to bark like myself.
EC: You said David Maraniss was your first editor. What was it like working for him?
CB: I learned an awful lot from David. I can still hear him say something that, again, seems absurdly basic now but at the time was a revelation: Every paragraph must advance the story. Among many fine editors I’ve had, I rank him as one of the best. Another would be Will Blythe, who was the literary editor of Esquire when I was working for the magazine and encouraged me not to be afraid to throw in an occasional quote from E.M. Cioran, the great Romanian philosopher, whose wonderful screwball provocations include lines like “One always perishes by the self one assumes: to bear a name is to claim an exact mode of collapse.” And there is also Julie Grau who now has her own book imprint Spiegel & Grau. I remember Maraniss once said even if you are writing about someone who is corrupt, rotten to the core, you can’t take away their humanity. You have to kind of cradle them when you write about them. It doesn’t mean you pull a punch, but you can’t be self-righteous or snide or judgmental. That just makes you look worse.
EC: You want to let them hang themselves.
CB: If it’s a capital offense, maybe that’s right. But in a way there’s editorializing in that too — in letting the reader make the righteous judgment — only it doesn’t seem as objectionable. And it’s truer to life, not to say more decent, to make room in what you write for the frailties of your own character, or to allude to the degree that all of us are imperfect.
EC: Did Maraniss encourage you to work on having a strong point of view or moral position?
CB: Not in the sense of consciously taking up issues with a moral agenda, but yes, in the sense of having a moral sensibility. He told me to work on my coldness. He would say, “Don’t be uncharitable.” Actually that might have been advice for managing a bollixed love life, not journalism. But it carried over.
EC: I wondered about that in your Esquire profile of Deepak Chopra? Was it difficult to be charitable to him? I didn’t think you were that harsh at all.
CB: Well, I didn’t really struggle because I liked Deepak — he is very charming, and his ideas at the time, recycled and updated as they were from the ancient wisdom known as the perennial philosophy, seemed sort of fresh. He had credentials a lot of New Age exponents didn’t have, like an M.D., and he’s a magnificent silver-throated speaker. You know your being lulled by what seems, and may well be, nonsense, but it’s hypnotizing all the same. And an ayurvedic massage with sesame oil dripped on your third eye — which was part of his spiritual spa program — is an authentic trip to the moon. Long after the story came out, at one of the early Consciousness Conferences put on by the University of Arizona, I was talking to a neuroscientist from India who described Deepak as “the used car salesman of the perennial philosophy.” But I wanted to give him a forum for his ideas, far fetched as they may have been. All progress in science depends on outlandish ideas that challenge conventional wisdom, and it’s never a good idea to prematurely say what’s wheat and what’s chaff.
There were other writers — I’m thinking of a hapless hitman from The Weekly Standard — who were all too happy to go snide on Deepak. (That agenda-driven writer had to retract and apologize for parts of his story.) And David Hirshey at Esquire got in a jab with the headline he wrote for my piece: “Deepak Chopra (Sniff!) Has a Cold”, which essentially was tut-tutting the author of Perfect Health for not being in perfect health himself. For my part I thought the best way to challenge Deepak’s extreme Vedic idealism which posited that consciousness precedes the material world and reality is essentially made in the mind was simply to wonder if he would champion his views on the train tracks outside the conference hall. All during his lectures, I kept hearing the whistles of passing freight trains, brute symbols of the material world, blasting out a kind of contrapuntal refutation of what Chopra was advocating.
EC: Okay, let’s backtrack to your start at Esky because you won a national magazine award for feature writing for your first story for the magazine—“The Transformation of Johnny Spain” in 1988. How did that story come about?
CB: Johnny Spain was an assignment from Adam Moss. He gave me a pile of documents and a letter and said, “I’ve got this big case, I don’t really know what it is but see what you can make of it.” I remember Lee Eisenberg telling me I didn’t need to explain the Sixties or the significance of Johnny Spain’s bi-racial history. In other words, I didn’t need to write what at the Post was called the “so what” paragraph. I could just let the narrative run, relieved of the awkward obligation of having to step out of the story and tell the reader why the story was important or worth reading. AP stories start with everything you need to know in the first sentence. The Washington Post style was two paragraphs of atmosphere and then the “so what.” When I switched to magazines the “so what” wasn’t a sentence or a paragraph, it was often a section that presented a thesis, an argument, or an idea that would be played out and dissected in the course of the story. It was a higher order of thinking — and harder to pull off for being that.
EC: What effect did the National Magazine award have on your career?
CB: The best thing was that I didn’t have to pitch stories. For 30 years people asked me to write. I could propose things and sometimes I have, but mostly I got to entertain assignments, and do things I never would have dreamed of doing myself in subjects such as ballet, Egypt, indigenous cultures. I got to indulge my curiosity — the greatest gift for any nonfiction writer, apart from money.
EC: You profiled three authors for Esquire—August Wilson, John Edgar Wideman, and Ken Kesey. They are all compelling, all for very different reasons. The lede to the Kesey profile is pitch-perfect. How did the idea of the artist as magician—who is always vulnerable to losing that magic—come about?
CB: Kesey himself suggested writers were magicians with signature tricks, and during the time we spent together, he was always showing me magic tricks. He thought of his art as a magic trick, the writer shows the reader an empty palm and then presto, by sleight of hand produces a dove. What made all this poignant was not just that Kesey couldn’t pull off his signature trick with the finesse he once had but that as E.M. Cioran once said, magic is the lowest of all the arts, and to frame literature as magic made it seem like trickery not genuine transformation. When I was traveling with him, Kesey who had written a new novel that was not up to the caliber of his first two runaway successes, was reduced to reading a children’s story to an audience of adults at Claremont College. It’s a great story, for sure—Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear—but it was poignant to see him hoping his grown-up audience would revert to five-year-olds to judge the literary merits of his work.
EC: August Wilson was on our minds recently what with Fences being up for some big awards. What do you recall about Wilson?
CB: What I remember of August, who was maybe the most self-effacing and modest great playwright in American history, (or so he seemed in 1989) was the long rainy night I spent with him and three of his oldest friends driving around their old Pittsburgh haunts, listening to them tell finely-honed stories and josh and razz each other. I would say the texture and depth of their friendship was unlike anything I had known in my own life, and I realized those deep bonds were how all of them had survived what at times were very difficult racial injustices.
EC: Your first three stories for Esquire all featured black protagonists — Johnny Spain, John Edgar Wideman and August Wilson. But these were all assigned to you so that was just by chance, right?
CB: Yes it was. Though once editors think you can write about a particular subject they look for things in that vein. One of the editors told me they got a letters from readers assuming I was African American. But I don’t think I was asked to write about John Edgar Wideman because he was black but because he was a central figure in a family tragedy — his younger son Jake stabbed a boy Eric Kane to death on a summer camp trip in Arizona.
EC: And you didn’t talk to him for the story, correct?
CB: I tried to but neither he nor his wife would consent to being interviewed. I can’t say I would have done otherwise myself if I were in their position. I wrote that story before I had kids and there are a few things I would tone down if I wrote it today. A few words here and there perhaps. It was a terrible tragedy for everyone involved. When I was researching and reporting it, I found what seemed to me an irresistible metaphor, which was the figure of a circle — the headline in fact became “Blood Circle.” The circle surfaced in the circularity of the fates, in the way that Wideman’s son was obsessed with spinning wheels, in way the family moved to Laramie Wyoming where they could circle their wagons against the dangers that had beset them in Pittsburgh. Again and again circles kept coming up. I was so enamored of the figure as way to structure the story I probably beat it into the ground. Craftsmanship is marred if the craftsman is too pleased with his work. That’s something you learn later in life, I think.
EC: What did John Edgar Wideman say about your piece?
CB: I didn’t hear from him, and didn’t expect to. I did unexpectedly hear from his wife who left a message on my answering machine. All it said was: “Chip Brown, this is Judy Wideman. I have never worn mascara in my life.” Click. I have no reason to disbelieve her. That detail was in the piece because it had been told to me by someone who had seen her at the courthouse when her son was being sentenced to prison and told me Judy was crying so much mascara was running down her face. I couldn’t verify it but I believed it. The woman who told me seemed very conscientious and sympathized with Judy’s suffering. She was not being catty or cruel. Maybe she saw somebody else or maybe she saw some eye shadow, I don’t know what it was, who knows? But the description incensed Judy Wideman and of all the things she might have said, she said no more than that. Not long afterwards, they jointly wrote a letter to Esquire saying what a gross invasion of their privacy the magazine had perpetrated.
EC: Wideman did continue contributing to the magazine though.
CB: Yes. I don’t think he hated the magazine, just the story. Actually I don’t know if the story even mattered to him. He had much more anguishing things on his mind. I know his agent Andrew Wiley was contemptuous of the very idea that someone would write a magazine piece about the case. I can still hear him brushing off my interview request saying something like “John Wideman isn’t interested in being quoted in glossy magazines” like there was something loathsome about the caliber of the paper that corresponded to the moral sliminess of the reporters making the invasive interview requests. There was a story about the same tragedy in Vanity Fair which seemed much more judgmental to me.
I actually felt uneasy about not protecting Eric Kane’s mother from her own ferocity. There was one line where Eric’s mother said to me, “We could have John Edgar Wideman killed but we chose to work within the system.” And then she reached for a plate she had set out for our visit, which was laden with large ripe strawberries. She took one and sank her teeth into it. I was mesmerized by the primal quality of the act. I included that scene with the strawberry as a little grace note which, of course added — perhaps unfairly, but literally — some teeth to what she had said. Teeth. A visual note of rapacity. It made her seem to be a lioness who would rip the jugular out and devour the father of the boy who killed her boy. I can understand her feelings. And the fact is she said what she said, she ate the strawberry as described, it all happened, it was not invented, it was true. But was it fair? Was the effect fair? Was the impression it left of sublimated carnivorous fury fair? I don’t know. The effect was something the writer staged with her help, and probably, certainly, not something she herself intended to convey. It’s possible I am overthinking this….
EC: Do you often look back on stories and find things that you would do differently?
CB: There are almost always sentences I would rewrite. Adjectives I would cut out. Verbs I would improve so they were more expressive and could carry the weight I had been trying to support with adjectives, which is what verbs can do. Line for line you can always find a way to say more with less. But the larger flaws — the failure to mine more deeply as Melville once said, the inability to refrain from the impulse to moralize, the failure to understand something with both exactitude and compassion — those are the more painful flaws I wish I could correct but obviously can’t. I fear in “The Accidental Martyr,” the Esquire story about the gay American sailor Alan Schindler who was murdered by a shipmate in Japan, that I might have editorialized too much about the culpability of the Navy. But that’s me talking as a 63 year old about a story I wrote when I was 39.
EC: I understand what you’re saying but you could argue that not having a point of view in “The Accidental Martyr” would have been a mistake. There was a crusading nature in doing that story at all, exposing the hypocrisy of the Navy’s official stance on gay bashing.
CB: I’m not saying forgo a point of view, but think harder about passing judgment. Self-righteousness is a ruinous and diabolical temptation now blighting us all on the Internet.
EC: How long did you report that piece?
CB: I went to Japan for three weeks. I’m a cheap traveler — extravagance offends my sense of Yankee thrift — so I think it wasn’t hideously expensive. As I remember I took at least two trips to San Francisco, some to San Diego, one to an impoverished suburb outside St. Louis. I was critical of the Navy in the story because they released all these documents and were trying suddenly to be open about the incident because — or so it seemed to me — being open about the details was a way of absolving the Navy command of any responsibility.
EC: Do you recall being happy with the story?
CB: I was very excited by the structure of the story, which I found thanks to something Iris Murdoch once said. She said you can tell a reader what’s going to happen over and over again without destroying the suspense because what the reader cares about is the how it happened. So I can tell you that Alan Schindler is going to die, he’s going to be beaten to death by one of his shipmates because he was gay; you know what’s going to happen but there is still suspense because the tension comes from how the crime unfolds. A lot of putting the story together is just intuitive carpentry. A well made piece is satisfying like a well-made chair. But the only thing that makes me truly happy is if the last line lifts the whole thing off the ground.
I was very happy with the last line I found for “The Accidental Martyr.” It came after the description of the horrific beating and took you right back to the opening, but also into the future in which the poor dead sailor would be resurrected as the martyr of a cause. As I remember it went: “And Seaman Allen R. Schindler lies alone on that dire floor, unconscious and near death. He knows nothing of the new life to come.” I’m never really happy unless the last line of anything I write lifts the piece into the air. There always ought to be a feeling of being elevated, even exalted, by the last line. And yet of course paradoxically it has to close the shop too — it has to pull down the steel shutter with an emphatic sense of finality that nothing more need be said. If that paradoxical thing happens, it’s possible the story is great. If it doesn’t happen, you probably wish you hadn’t bothered to read all the way to the earth-bound end.
EC: Are you always conscious of doing that?
CB: Oh for sure. I often know what the last scene will be but not the exact way the whole thing will finally be buttoned up. One of the great pleasures of writing is discovering the right rhythm of the right last words. If I can’t find them I often want to gouge out my eyes.
EC: Can you boil that down to paragraphs?
CB: Sure. There should be a sense of closure at the close of every paragraph too—every paragraph of some length. A paragraph is not an arbitrary break in the text; it’s a unit of thought. If it seems arbitrary, there is something flaccid about the movement of the piece, like a festering stretch of slack water in a dammed river. I like things to have shape and a current. Profluence, John Gardner called it. A good section in a magazine piece should be a little story unto itself, with a clearly demarcated opening and closing. It should have a bite or a lift or a rush or a button at the end of it. I also sometimes think of stories in terms of music. The lede section is like the overture to a Broadway show—you can hear samples of all the themes that will be elaborated on later. The music analogy also allows for variations in scale. Some pieces are like chamber music, and some are large and complex, scored for the whole orchestra.
EC: Is the last line even more important than the lede?
CB: The lede is the next important thing. But at the risk of belaboring this point, nothing is more important than the final line because it’s how you let the reader go. My main goal as a nonfiction writer is to invoke a sense of poetry, to smuggle poetry into prose, which goes back to my original drunken love of words for the sheer sound of them, notes of music signifying nothing. Because my instincts are poetically based, not moral, I am hoping always to leave the reader resonating with something transcendent and beautiful, even ineffable, because in the end, when you get down to it, my mother was right: words fail.
[Photo via Chip Brown]