Q&A with Daniel Silliman, Crime Reporter, Atlanta, Georgia
Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
DS: I talk to people and write stories for a newspaper. It's pretty simple. I'm a crime reporter, so I mostly write about police and criminals and bad things that happen in my community—people hurting people, the world's being a dangerous and broken place.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
DS: What drew me to journalism, first, was the mere, sheer physical presence of paper. My dad read two papers a day, when I was growing up, and the remains were always scattered about the breakfast table, the living room, and the recycling bin on the back porch. So I picked up the habit of reading the newspaper and it was natural to think, when the opportunity arose, of pursuing journalism as a career.
How I got into crime reporting is a little harder to say. It was my somewhat dark disposition combined with an accident. During my first internship at a small daily paper, the crime reporter was quitting to go get a masters degree and she refused to call the grandmother of a teen who'd been shot during a marijuana deal. I didn't know what I was doing, but I had been reporting on parades and local, senior home events and I wanted something more. I was dreaming stories that were about life and death, about what it meant to be human. The veteran crime reporter was saying quite colorfully that crime reporting was "horrible." I was saying, "I'll do it. I'll do it. I'll do it." I ended up spending the afternoon in a very dark apartment, talking to the grandmother of a murdered teenager.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
DS: To be a good reporter, especially a good crime reporter, you have to go places you wouldn't normally want to go, talk to people you normally wouldn't talk to, and ask questions you normally wouldn't feel free to ask. I was always curious, which is a prime personality trait for reporting, but I was also naturally shy. The first time I had to call a stranger, an adult and an official, and ask an impertinent question, I shook. I wrote down everything I wanted to say, including the word "Hello" and my name. I learned to get over that. I knew I had crossed a line when, as an 18-year-old, I walked into a bar at 10 a.m. to ask about a bank robber who had been arrested there while drinking a beer.
Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?
DS: See the face of God in human faces."
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
DS: Anything that finds beauty in brokenness. Anything that goes into the fullness of despair and yet, impossibly, finds hope. In literature, Cormac McCarthy, James Ellroy, Graham Green, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, and, also, Flannery O'Connor, John Steinbeck, and Jack Kerouac.
In music, I'm inspired by Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Wilco, and Captain Beefheart. In painting, Grant Wood, Edward Hopper, and Picasso. In religion, I'm inspired by the Episcopal liturgy and the Christian faith expressed in traditional forms. I'm inspired by pacifism and universalism. I'm inspired by the work of Jacques Derrida, Rene Girard, Wendell Berry. I'm inspired, to let this list go random for a minute, by street preachers, Calvinists who believe in grace, Vietnam veterans, American road trips, blues, all-night diners, flea markets, and people who don't have an answer for the problem of evil, but have figured out how to love in an evil world anyway.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
DS: Because of the nature of the work, it's hard to have regular days. The hours are weird, and change all the time. Each day can go a million possible, different directions. There are still habits, though: morning coffee and the news on National Public Radio, a review of the daily budget of stories—who's planning to write what—and the mail, a check-up call to the deputy police chief, watching the noon news, soft deadline at 6 p.m., hard deadline at 10 p.m., the trip home around a lake, talking to my girlfriend, reading a novel (normally a crime novel, these days) before bed.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
DS: I love the keyboard on my computer. I love the way it clacks, while I'm typing, and I've found I use the tactile, mechanical instrument to help me think. Often I take notes while talking on the telephone, and I type in a fury, trying to go as fast as the person is talking. I love the reporter's notepads, which are basically one column wide, so you can write without lifting your wrist and just move down the page, and which fits perfectly in a back pocket. I love Google Maps, which can give me the geographical dimensions of a place, a crime scene, and can remind me of how it relates to the area around it, the distance between locations, etc. I use it all the time, and put that extra detail in my stories. I love the police scanner. I don't cover everything I hear on the scanner, but I have it stationed on my desk, and I listen to cops and Emergency Medical Technicians and firefighters talking in code. I listen to all the 9-1-1 calls getting dispatched and all the many, many emergencies that happen every day.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
DS: I got a call, one afternoon, from a crime reporter from Connecticut. He was working on a story about a man who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to life in my area, who was now facing a second life sentence in Connecticut. We exchanged information, and I researched the 61-year-old man's original crime. I went to the county court house archives, pulled up some microfilm and found myself delving into the mid-1980s, American South: a world of guns, cars, and arguments about money. It was a fascinating story, pulled mostly from old documents. We often are told that the evil of our time is especially bad, so it was interesting to go back to the time when my area was supposedly better, and find myself in a pulp fiction-ish underbelly. I ended up writing a long story, complete with a picture of the white-haired man, that spanned twenty years, 2,200 miles, four boldly-colored cars, two murders, and a lot of broken lives and desperation. It was different than what I normally write, in its age and scope, and I felt like I was able to give a good picture of the human condition and our history.
Comment: How do you plan your work?
DS: Most of my stories start as conversations. I keep in touch with police spokesmen, assistant district attorneys, and a variety of people, from security guards to court clerks to lawyers to law enforcement officers. We talk about crime, in all of its permutations and in all the phases of the criminal justice system, and I hear about things that would be interesting stories. I talk to my editor about what I've learned and pitch story ideas. Some stories—a murder or a trial—make it in the next day's newspaper without much discussion. Others, like a look at the questions asked of potential jurors or a review of the police department's beat system, take more explaining and I have to tell the editor why it will be interesting to the general public and how it affects the community we live in. I then go back to my sources, having an outline of the story in my head, and talk to them for publication. That background work and source cultivation is the larger and less publicized half of my work: trading information and having people who want to talk to you.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
DS: Often, reporting at a small, daily newspaper and reporting on the crime beat in particular, this work takes over your life. Both reporting and crime reporting can easily overwhelm you, depress you, and burn you out. It's important to find things in the rest of your life that are totally separate, which can be hard to do. I have connected crime reporting to the rest of my life, though, by understanding my work as looking at and retelling the human condition. Expanded to that point, I understand my crime reporting is related to my relationship with God, and I am pushed to pray more fervently that we all receive gratuitous grace. It is related to my reading, as I try to further my understanding of humans, the systems of this world, and the presence of God. It is related to my politics, as I become more attuned to and concerned about violence, and it is related to my personal relationships as I try to love more and listen more.