Good writers are creative, intelligent and imaginative. For long-form nonfiction writers such as Sam Quinones, other qualities – patience, persistence and stick-to-itiveness – are equally critical. Quinones grew up wanting to be a detective and reading crime novels. As a young journalist, he worked as a crime reporter in Stockton, California, during some of the city’s highest crime years. In the time since, he has applied that detective mindset and those crime-reporting experiences to his long-form narrative nonfiction, the result of which is vivid, engaging prose that transports the reader into the world of the story.
Writers of long-form know a story can’t be researched properly in one or two interviews or one trip to the story’s location. The process is much more laborious, and sometimes digging deep enough to simply pinpoint the story proves to be the hardest part.
Quinones, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times from 2004 to 2014, got his start in long-form journalism when he fled to Mexico early in his career, desperate to escape the drizzle and gray skies that grated on the Southern California native then living in Seattle. In Mexico, he discovered a freedom of direction and a relaxed schedule that allowed him to pursue the stories that interested him, of which there were many, and to hammer out the details for as long as the tale warranted.
“Mexico lent itself to great long-form narrative storytelling,” Quinones says. “I really believe there’s just more potential there than in most countries.”
This is partially, he says, because the Mexican media rarely covered the stories of anyone outside the upper classes, so that left the majority of Mexican people’s stories waiting to be explored.
At the time, Quinones was a young, broke, single freelancer, and he spent 10 years traversing the Mexican countryside, collecting stories such as one about Antonio Carrillo, a young man whose father, Mauricio, was killed by an evil gunman and notorious rancho terror. Carrillo, incensed, went across the border to the U.S., where he worked in a Gary, Indiana, steel mill until he had enough money to purchase a gun of his own. He then sent his father’s killer a letter, declaring his intention to return to and claim his revenge. He ended the letter: “Mauricio lives again.” And indeed, Carrillo returned to the rancho, where he shot and killed the gunman.
“These are the kinds of stories you hear in these little ranchos,” says Quinones. “It’s just mind-blowing stuff. It’s like a movie.”
Certain qualities in a writer make discovering stories and the collecting crucial details that build these kinds of captivating tales much easier. Quinones emphasizes a love of storytelling and excitement about the possibility of finding a story. Also helpful is an open mind.
“Very often, I think if you let your politics guide you, which is a boring way to live [and] a boring way to write, you will end up not finding those stories because you will shut doors to yourself,” he says.
Particularly in an unfamiliar or foreign place, be flexible, be available and be genuinely interested in people’s stories.
“That’s a great feeling for a lot of people, people who have never been asked,” Quinones says. “If you show them that you are sincere and you are interested, and then you keep coming back and you’re friendly, and you eat the food. Going through Mexico as a vegetarian is not really a great idea. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t eat your goat stew.’ I don’t think that works.”
Even in the U.S. gathering interviews for his new book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which chronicles the opiate epidemic in America and the way a group of heroin dealers from a mountainous region of Mexico revolutionized the narcotics trade, he found that the same tactics worked to convince people to share their experiences with him.
“You display your own intense sincerity and desire and that comes through,” he says. “It’s very hard to fake.”
In the town of Portsmouth, Ohio, a place with an extreme prescription painkiller and heroin problem, Quinones got the story by digging past the place’s established image.
Countless articles had been written about the over-prescription of opiates in the area and the exponential increase in overdose deaths. But in Dreamland, Quinones also tells the stories of parents whose children had overdosed and then made it their missions to turn the tide against addiction. He unearthed a culture of recovery, and he found these details by doing “a lot of hanging out.”
“I’m there, I’m writing about [all the negative stuff],” he says. “I’m not going to blink. I’m not going to say that didn’t happen, but I also see that things are changing here that are very interesting and kind of uplifting in a way I love.”
It’s not uncommon for Quinones to have to fish around for some time before locking down the story he’d like to tell. Instead of finding this frustrating, however, Quinones lives on the thrill of stalking his next tale.
“You can find the kernel of a story, you think there’s something there and you keep working it until it fully fleshes itself out, and the only way it does that is by you talking repeatedly with people over and over and being aware that there’s a story here and I have to find it,” he says. “It’s very much like mining. You think there’s gold in the hill there and you keep digging at it until you find it.
“The cool thing, what I love, is it’s often not what you were thinking you would find. That’s what’s exciting. Not that the world proves itself to be exactly as you thought it was, but when the world proves itself to be very different but equally fascinating.”
Dreamland started out as a series of stories in the LA Times about black tar heroin dealers from the town of Xalisco, in Mexico’s Pacific Coast state of Nayarit, but in researching those pieces, Quinones ended up uncovering a wide web of stories: prescription painkiller addicts turning to heroin for a cheaper high; a health-care system convinced by a Purdue Pharma that its drug OxyContin wasn’t addictive; young Mexican men willing to risk jail time to market and deliver drugs for the chance to return home with money.
The book marked a significant change in style for Quinones. Although he loved Hunter S. Thompson and the Gonzo journalism trend growing up, he usually makes a concerted effort to keep himself out of his stories. As he explained, when American male journalists write about Mexico, there is a tendency to “write it as if their manhood is at stake.” As in: “I drank with the hombres and I slept with the women and I took on the most corrupt officials and I did this and I did that and I, I, I, I, I…”
That style doesn’t sit well with Quinones, and for the most part, his work rarely includes that most self-centered of pronouns. But in Dreamland, he found there was no other way but to include his presence.
The book travels through time and space, covering the FDA approval of OxyContin in 1995, the Opium Wars of the 19th century and the spread of black tar heroin dealing cells run by Xalisco boys to cities and towns across the U.S. Quinones and his interest, his obsession, were needed to hold the narrative together. Ergo: I.
“I didn’t feel like I could tell the story coherently if I didn’t have a thread going through it all, and that thread through it all was me,” he says. “I didn’t go into that lightly, but I didn’t see another way of doing it.”
Once he sits down to write, Quinones is ready for the blank screen. “If you’re having trouble writing and you’re writing nonfiction, I always think the problem is you just don’t know enough. You just haven’t done enough reporting.”
While working at the LA Times, Quinones covered the story of a Cambodian refugee who established an empire of doughnut shops in the Los Angeles area. In one of many interviews with the Cambodian Donut King, as Quinones dubbed the subject Ted Ngoy, Ngoy told Quinones the story of his nephew, who fled to the U.S. during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
The story goes like this: Ngoy’s nephew was sent to a re-education camp in Cambodia and managed to escape. He and his fellow fugitives trekked through miles of jungle to reach safety at the Thai border. Panthers stalked them; they walked in streams to avoid leaving a scent trail. At any moment, they could have been ambushed by Khmer Rouge gunmen. Even after making it to Thailand, the nephew spent a year in a refugee camp before finally getting on a flight to Los Angeles. Uncle Ted was at the airport to pick him up when he arrived, and in the backseat of Ngoy’s car were giant trays of doughnuts.
“What are those?” the nephew asked, never having encountered a doughnut before.
“He’s come out of this like surreal, apocalyptic scene,” says Quinones. “And Ted goes, ‘These are doughnuts. This is what we do in America.’
“That story right there, you could write that story,” Quinones continues. “It’s not very hard to write that story. But you need to know that story, and you need to have spent the time to know that.”
Quinones makes the writing process easier by writing even as he continues to do research. After transcribing an interview, he’ll write down interesting anecdotes. In that process, he realizes where the holes are in the story, which he fills in during subsequent interviews.
“Even though I know that probably 90 percent of it will never see publication, it’s just a way of working through,” he says. “The more you write about something, the more you understand it, and the more the story begins to take shape.”
Writing wasn’t always such a breeze for the man once dubbed “the most original American writer on Mexico and the border out there.” In the process of publishing his first book True Tales from Another Mexico, Quinones ended up heavily editing many of the stories after he received the first galley proof because he felt they were paced like the newspaper stories he was used to writing.
“There was far too much attribution,” he says. “In books, people don’t need to attribute in the way you need to attribute in a newspaper story. He said, she said, constantly. You have to find ways of letting people know, this is how I know this, but not be so lead-footed about it. ‘The villagers would remember years later.’ Something like that.”
After the revisions, which Quinones is very grateful to the publisher for letting him make, he felt True Tales flowed more easily and had a luxurious feel to it. It no longer seemed like he was rushing through the story to make sure his reader could finish the paper and get to work on time.
“That doesn’t mean sloppy, wordy, verbose writing,” he clarifies. “It’s more of a style of trying to tell people the story and not leave out details that you are fascinated by, but at the same time making sure that the writing is strong and muscular and not verbose.”
He’s also found that stories are better told when you can focus on a single character. Find the person who embodies the concept of the story and dig deeply into his or her life and psyche. He offers the example of Zeus Garcia, one of many from the Mexican state of Oaxaca who has devoted a large portion of his life to basketball. Quinones had been fascinated by basketball-obsessed Oaxacans, some of the shortest people in Mexico, but it wasn’t until he found Zeus that the he could properly tell the story.
And finally, he suggests, watch movies. Quinones admits he’d like to try screenwriting someday, and he greatly admires the craft of movie-making.
“Watch how movies tell stories,” he says. “For example, where to enter a scene. There’s a lot of redundancy in writing. If it’s a great movie, you enter a scene just at the right point and not from the beginning, usually not from the beginning. Something is already going on.”
Keep in mind though, that you, the writer, may have to enter the story from the end and work your way all the way back to the beginning and then travel the length of the story back and forth a few times before you have enough shape to tell it.
If you learn one thing from Sam Quinones, it is this: Patience and persistence are key. They don’t call it long-form merely on the basis of word count.
Sam Quinones on howjournalism became a book
“Before Dreamland, I had spent time writing about crime in U.S. cities, about immigration from Mexican ranchos, about drug trafficking in both countries. It seemed to me that all of that, and more – the marketing of painkillers as well, rural America’s decline and the excess of suburban parts of our country – came together in a tale that began when, years ago while working for the L.A. Times, I stumbled upon the strange story, in West Virginia, of sugar-cane farmboys from Mexico up in the U.S. selling heroin like pizza.”
Megan Kaplon is a contributing editor at The Writer.