How to Write a Prize-Winning Profile

An Interview With Ariel Sabar

Ariel Sabar is a Washington-based author and journalist who recently won the top national award for best profile from the City and Regional Magazine Association. His prize-winning piece, in the July 2012 issue of The Washingtonian, was a deep dive into the life of John Wojnowski, an alleged victim of clergy sex abuse who has spent a decade and a half in a lonely vigil outside the Vatican’s U.S. Embassy. The contest judges said: “Ariel Sabar’s unforgettable story of a man committed to following his conscience to the extreme is sharp and graceful and based on the kind of reporting that bores into the heart and mind of this tortured subject.”

Sabar grew up in Los Angeles and graduated magna cum laude from Brown University. He interned at the L.A. Weekly and Mother Jones before landing a daily newspaper job at the Providence Journal. In 2001, he left the Journal for the Baltimore Sun, where he covered the U.S. Naval Academy and National Security Agency and was the first reporter to interview families of the military reservists implicated in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. He left the Sun in 2004 to write his first book, My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq. A memoir about his father’s past in a community of Aramaic-speaking Jews in northern Iraq, Sabar’s book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography and was excerpted in the New York Times Magazine. His second book, Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York, which he calls his “beach read,” won praise as a “beguiling romp” (New York Times) and an “engaging, moving and lively read” (Toronto Star).

Sabar covered the 2008 presidential campaigns as a national correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and is now a full-time author and independent journalist. His writing also has appeared in Smithsonian, Harper’s, Boston Globe, and The Washingtonian, where he is a contributing editor. For more, visit www.arielsabar.com.

Q. How did you go about writing the lead for your profile of John Wojnowski?

A: Because John is such an intense man, I wanted the lead—in its tone and symbolism and pacing—to mirror the fevered workings of his brain. In the opening paragraphs of a profile, I try not just to describe my subject, but in some ways to have the language embody them. That is, the lead should work on the level of both content and form. The focus on symbols of time and the jagged, almost conspiratorial connections between his environment—the atomic clock across the street, the date minders in his pocket, the innumerable hours he’s spent in his Quixotic duel with the church—were, I hope, a kind of evocation of how John sees and experiences the world.

Q: How do you decide if someone might be a good profile subject?

A: For me, the ideal subject is both richly idiosyncratic and part of something bigger than themselves. They’re both deep and wide.

By deep, I mean that their personality and biography are meaty and textured enough for the writer to show, at a fundamental level, what a subject wants, who they are, and how they got that way. The more eccentric the subject, the more apt you are to hold the reader. A failed profile is often a failure of reporting. If you dig deep enough and talk to enough people, you’ll find that almost anyone is interesting.

By wide, I mean that the best profile subjects don’t live in a vacuum. Good profiles show how their subjects’ lives intersect with larger currents of history and culture—whether at right angles or oblique ones. Subjects don’t have to be famous. John Wojnowski, the retired ironworker who has spent a decade and a half in a vigil outside the Vatican embassy, was not just a deeply anguished loner. He was part of a broader narrative about the long and difficult road to justice for people abused by priests. But he was a sort of outlier in the movement, and that’s what made him interesting.

An icing-like ingredient is an all-access pass to a person’s life, or as close to one as you can get without them getting sick of you. This isn’t always possible. I’ve written about subjects who wear a kind of reporter-proof force field, which leads me to rely more on friends, family, and other associates—and sometimes to post-publication regret from the subject that they didn’t take part and allow themselves more of a voice in the piece. But ideally, the subject is comfortable enough with who they are—or vain or unguarded enough—to let you be a fly on the wall. The DC nightclub impresario, Joe Englert, was a good example. I’d get calls and texts from him at all hours saying, “Hey, I’m about to go to my tennis lesson, Want to come along?” or “I’m about to have a staff meeting at one of my bars. You in?” In general, the more a subject lets you into their lives, the stronger the profile.

Q: Once you’re interested in profiling someone, what do you do next?

A: The first thing I do is read everything that’s ever been written about them and everything they themselves have said or written, online or on TV or in print. I’m lucky that my neighborhood library is the Library of Congress, which is a bountiful resource. I make this exhaustive review so I can be as smart as possible before we meet, and also to identify original story angles. If a subject has been profiled before, I don’t want to do a retread. I want to try to see something new, to try to connect dots that other writers have missed, so that the piece is fresh and gets at something hopefully truer than the ones that came before.

As I read clips and other writings, I use Word to create a detailed chronology of their lives, from birth and childhood to the present. In the case of my profile of the last King of Rwanda, that chronology ran 114 pages, because of how much history his life had intertwined with. For that story, I downloaded reams of reports from U.N. Visiting Missions to Rwanda in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which offered a contemporaneous look into his toppling from power. While the process can be tedious, I’ve found it often turns up revealing material that other writers may have been too lazy to look for.

Kierkegaard said that life is lived forward, but understood backwards.  The chronology I make at the very start of reporting becomes indispensible just before I start writing, because—like an aerial map—it allows me to see the recurring patterns and longer narrative thread of a person’s life.

Q: Do you try to balance talking with people who admire and don’t admire the subject?

A: It depends on the profile. If the person is controversial, I think you need to talk to at least a few critics. But if it’s, say, a quirky nightclub owner, I’m not sure you need that as much. That’s not to say you don’t portray people’s shortcomings or self-delusions or flaws; none of us would be human if we didn’t have those, and profiles that leave them out lack credibility and are often puffery. Good profile writers convey a person’s frailties or vulnerabilities in more subtle ways. We shouldn’t need to rely on a talking head to say, This guy can sometimes be overbearing or depressive or clueless or whatever. We should spend enough time around the person that we can see—and describe—those moments ourselves. This gets back to the old saw: Show, don’t tell.

Q: Do you tape record interviews or just take notes?

A: For me, the decision is practical. If we’re doing a sit-down interview, I usually will just type on my laptop. I type fast enough that I can keep up with people talking. Electronic devices are so ubiquitous these days that most people take no more notice of an electronic notebook than they would a paper one. If my subject is giving a formal speech or talk before a public audience, I’ll tape as well, for the sake of perfect accuracy. But if I’m shadowing a subject, I usually just have a paper notepad. I’ll supplement the notepad with a digital recorder in my shirt pocket if I’m moving around so much that writing is difficult—as it was when I was trailing some guys on turbo-charged pogo sticks for a piece on extreme pogo for Smithsonian.

I’ve also come to make greater use of my digital camera as a reporting tool. I use it both to capture the setting in which a scene or interview is unfolding and to remember the subject as they were in that setting. When I’m writing, I’ll often want to journey back to that place in my mind, to remember how it felt to be there. A series of photographs or a short video helps me get there. Photos also allow me to recover details of place that may elude me when I’m in the thick of note-taking or when a scene is fast-moving and there’s too little time to get every last detail down on paper. What were all those things piled on that shelf at the homeless shelter? What was that extreme pogoer wearing when he did that back flip? I don’t have to guess, or realize only after I’ve left, that I failed to examine something closely enough. I now have a digital image to consult.

Q. Any suggestions on how to open up someone so they talk more freely?

A: Just be a friendly, non-judgmental, and normal-seeming person. Show sincere interest in what your subjects are saying. Treat them like human beings.

Comments

  1. Barbara van Achterberg says:

    Great interview and great answers. I didn’t realize just how hard Ariel worked to get that story. No wonder it won a prize, with all that work and all that good writing.

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