Being In The Room: Beck Eleven
Over the last few years, our print media landscape has benefitted from the emergence of a new group of talented young feature writers. This week, Gavin Bertram sits down with five of them.
It took several years for Beck Eleven to work her way into the features writing department at The Press, where her beat is human interest stories. She was a finalist in the Canon Media Awards’ Newspaper Feature Writer Human Relations category in 2012, and this year was a finalist for the prestigious Newspaper Feature Writer of the Year – Senior award.
What was it that drew you to journalism?
I guess I always liked reading and writing, and like most journalists I can’t do maths to save myself. So I was always going to go in that direction. After I left school I didn’t even think about journalism, it just didn’t enter my brain. I went and did a BA with Classics and American Studies and things like that. At the time I met a girl who was at Canterbury University doing journalism and she was just so confident, and I remember her talking about interviewing some politician. I thought ‘God, I couldn’t do that. I’m too immature, I’m not confident enough, it’s just absolutely not me’.
Then I went overseas and was working in London, at Fremantle Media, running the website and doing little interviews for a programme called The Bill, and for Neighbours as it was playing in the UK. And I ended up writing the website for Pop Idol and X Factor, when they were first on. I must have been about 31 by then, and I was home on a trip.
My family was from Timaru, and somebody told me about this one-year journalism course at Aoraki Polytech in Timaru. I went in and did a little interview and a tutor there, Dale McCord, said I could be on the course. I raced home to my grandma and said ‘how would you like to go flatting with me?’, and she said ‘I think you mean that the other way around don’t you?’ I ended up living with my grandma for a year in Timaru, doing this course.
Was feature writing always going to be your focus?
It definitely was, and I remember thinking it was a pain to have to go through this journalism thing and be in the newsroom and do these stories that really weren’t my scene. I wasn’t very good at them, and always liked to have the freedom to write a sentence that was a little less boring, and to be able to exercise that muscle that is writing long-form.
Writing news stories, I find them quite difficult, and I admire people that can get news stories. It’s just not me. I started off in the newsroom at The Press doing the environment round and it did my head in. I just wasn’t any good at it.
How have your feature writing skills been developed?
For me to get into the features team at The Press it involved a lot of just doing. One of my colleagues said, ‘if you want to write features, just start doing features’. So I spent quite a bit of time sucking up to our features editor and writing the odd feature whenever I could find time. Eventually I got into the features team here.
I’m not good at policy stories, I’m not great at issues, doing all that sort of thing, it perhaps bores me. There are other people out there who are really good at doing those things. What I like to write is about people and humans and humanity, and I really truly believe - and it’s a cliché - that everyone’s got a story in them and if you sit and talk to them long enough then you’ll find it. I’ve always written human interest stories and that’s where I like to go.
The things I enjoy are people describing other people; I find that quiet a brave thing to do. You meet someone for an hour or half an hour and you’re expected to sum up their personality. I find it a bit tough myself but it’s what interests me - really getting under someone’s skin.
How do the news reporting skills transfer to feature writing?
You get used to speaking to people, listening to people, tracking the right person down. Part of it is that news has to churn out and you have to be onto it and you have to be good at getting out so many stories per day.
But with feature writing you can tug one thread and it’ll send you off somewhere else and you end up following these different threads and then putting them all together. Those skills come from everything you learn in the newsroom, which is interviewing, picking the right people down, how to find people, what issue is actually interesting. They all come from a good grounding in the news reporting.
What makes a great feature, and how do you identify them?
I think storytelling. That’s as basic as any Greek play: there’s always a character, perhaps a goodie and baddie. It sounds cliché but if you’ve got a story of someone who’s gone from rags to riches or riches to rags, you’ve already got your story arc there. For me, what makes a great story is character: people who are willing to be really honest with you and let you know their feelings or why they’ve come from something.
It’s really up to you the interviewer to bring that out of someone and make them feel comfortable telling you, a stranger, the story as they would be sitting down and telling their best mate what just happened. That’s where you get those lovely quotes from. It’s really worth asking for the quote again. If something comes off as really bland, like all the fish heads we have to speak to from councils and boards and that sort of thing, they get so used to speaking in that corporate way that you have to make them comfortable enough to speak like a human being.
I like the colour and the language of a person to be able to speak for themselves. I always think that when you’ve got a story that’s interesting enough, you don’t need to overwrite it. As a feature writer you might think you're really good at the craft of writing, but actually you should never overwrite an interesting story. The trick is in the interviewing I think, not the actual writing.
What’s your view on the differences between writing features for newspapers and magazines?
I love reading a good, well-researched and interestingly written magazine feature, and it’s definitely somewhere I’d like to go in my career. It’s a different muscle. We’re asked to write features that are between 1500 and 2500 words. I think on the anniversary of the first quake here I wrote one that was 4000 words and that was pretty big for a newspaper to publish. You have to know that if you’ve got 1200 words to write a profile then you can’t do one of those really long explanatory intros that last paragraphs. You have to get to the nut of it pretty quickly.
To what extent do you seek out stories, or do they come to you?
Someone once said this to me, and I find it to be true - ‘find your own damn stories otherwise you'll end up writing what the editor or the editor’s wife or husband dreamed up overnight’.
Because I’m writing about people I think they’re a little more difficult to come by. You can look at a newspaper and find some news story and be set off into an issue, and that’s a good way to find subjects. I did one on rustling recently because there are a couple of high profile cases here. But last year I did one on Christchurch’s best scrabble player, who was the most unassuming, laid-back truck driver from Rangiora who smoked and drank, and you just would never have expected him to be the best scrabble player. That one I only got because I happened to pop in to see a contact that morning and we had a bit of a laugh and a chat about nothing like that. She rang me later in the day and said ‘this guy’s a bit interesting, what about that?’
To find stories about human beings you actually have to like human beings and talk to them. I don’t always find that quite natural with my personality to be honest, as I’m a bit shy. If you’re doing a story about someone who doesn’t want to be written about that’s one thing, because you have to be reasonably good at confrontation or getting people to talk anyway. But if you’re a naturally shy person, and I think a lot of writers are, you really have to dig deep to get into it.
How rigorous is your research before you start interviewing?
Not very at all, I’m ashamed to say. If it was someone who I knew I had to be really onto it with, or I had a deadline that was the next day, then I’d do my research the day before. But I quite like just going in reasonably fresh to something. I know with someone who’s relatively well-known then I’m asking them questions they’ve been asked before, but why shouldn’t I, because the second time they tell it they might come up with something else. Once you look at what someone else has written you’re in that real danger of feeling like you’re following and you don’t want that.
Is it always necessary to interview broadly?
The first few interviewees will probably interview really well, and then you decide you’ve got enough on that subject. You might get someone else who’s saying roughly the same thing, and without sounding too rude you try and get them to broaden off and talk about something else, or you cut that interview short. Sometimes you have to be brutal and not even include them in the story. You do learn that, particularly in newspapers, because you just don’t have time to interview loads of people.
Last year I had this real passion project, about a homeless man who died in a fire, which I entered into the Canons. A man who died in a fire had no name and he was homeless and that was it. That’s how I started it - he was homeless and nameless and dead in a fire, and the next day they identified his body, and the next day they announced it.
That’s almost how I went into the feature, describing this unrecognisable burnt body, that actually then had a name, and then had a story behind it, and he had relations and friends. I was really lucky with that one; I had everything. I could go and visit the house that he died in because it hadn’t completely burnt down. I went to see it a month or two after he died and it was a hot day and I could still smell that charred smell. I had a visual view of it, a smell of it, all those senses, and I managed to track down his brother, an adopted sibling, I found a diary that he’d written. He died in a fire with no possession basically, but he’d written a diary when he was in prison. There was a diary, and a backpack.
I managed to track down so many people, and while there were a lot of other people who wanted to talk they couldn’t, because they were with social agencies and had privacy issues. A lot of people knew Terry Baker, so I was just lucky that every time I pulled one thread I got another.
What was it about that story that made you want to pursue it?
I had seen that someone had died in an abandoned building, and in Christchurch there are a million abandoned buildings now and people moving in and squatting in them. But nobody had died in one. I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought but our court reporter, because this man had 300 convictions and was a real character, he wrote a little piece about him saying that he was a character and had those convictions and in fact he’d once stood up to represent himself and got bored while he was talking and ended up going ‘do dah do dah’, which became known as the ‘do dah defence’.
I thought, right, I’m going to find out a bit more about this man. Then you think ‘how on earth do you find out about a man who is homeless on the streets with very little contact with people?’ But as it happened, because there are so many social agencies, he had contact with a lot of people who’d tried to help him. But they had to give up in the end because he was so far gone.
The thing that made that feature interesting wasn’t just that it was the life of one man; it was that it had themes of addiction and adoption and nature or nurture in there as well. This man was adopted out as a child to quite a wealthy family and died homeless with nothing, an absolute alcoholic who was so far gone he’d drink meths. Whereas his brother stayed with the natural mother, who must have had some bad mental health issues that had her hospitalised. He ended up becoming a police officer and then a pastor. The first time these guys crossed paths, despite the fact they were birth brothers, was when one was a cop, and the other was behind bars.
But you wouldn’t have known any of that when you started?
Not at all. You can imagine once I got off the phone with the brother, who told me how his life had turned out, and how his mum was, you can imagine there was this recognition that this had some fantastic story elements to it.
What is the ideal environment for a profile interview?
Always the environment that they’re most comfortable in. This week I did one on a man called Kypros Kotzikas, who’s the founder of United Fisheries; a Greek man who I’d heard had come from a little village in Greece, to owning one of the top 10 fishing ventures. And I’d heard he was a bit of character.
When I went to sort the interview out I asked for it to be at his home, but he was going to be in his office. I thought ‘damn it’, but his office was fascinating. He had stuff everywhere, ornaments and collections from around the world; he had a steam room at the back of his office, so it really was the best environment for it.
But for the photograph I organised for it to be at his home, and I went with the photographer. I didn’t really take any notes and just soaked it in a little bit more. It was really fantastic, I got to hang out with his dog and take home some feijoas. That might seem rude, but if you’re getting on with somebody and have a little bit of a personal connection, it works. Have a cup of tea with them, don’t hurry them.
How do you order the information that you’ve gathered before you start writing?
I wish I could say I had a logical, non-chaotic brain that allowed me to set out a structure, but I don’t at all. I have to think of the story in my head. I’d love to be able to retrain myself and be the kind of person who sits down and gives it a good 10 minutes planning beforehand.
But we’re lucky that we work on computers and as you’re reading through you can copy and paste massive chunks and put them up higher or down lower. It amuses me that that is how I write, because I’m always happy to look at any colleagues' features and I can automatically see how they should do it. But I just can’t do it for my own.
How enjoyable an experience is the actual writing?
It is always a bit torturous. I just wish I could write faster, but I can’t. I write an intro, delete it three times, write it again, and every time I read as I’m going through, I read from the top again. Something like writing, although it’s a skill you can learn, there’s always going to be a bit of natural madness to it I think.
In newspapers you don’t really get the opportunity to do one draft and then a second draft. There’s nothing better than being able to finish something and go home and sleep on it and come back and have another look.
How important to you is feedback after publication?
It is nice but it’s not a must have. I think you have to be pretty satisfied with something yourself before you put it out. The people in the industry, your bosses and stuff, you very rarely get feedback from them. I guess where I get mine is somewhere like Twitter, with people talking about something and saying that it’s interesting. That’s always nice, but at the same time you’ll get people who comment online, and I find that people just read what they want to read. If you want to be happy and personally buoyed by good comments then you have to take on the bad ones as well. Sometimes it’s better to ignore everybody.
And what about journalism awards and industry recognition?
If I had some I’d be stoked. I was a finalist a couple of years ago, and this year is the big Senior Feature Writer one. That made me feel brilliant, I was really pleased by that. But at the same time I know not to get my hopes up and it’s not that much of a big deal as long as you keep doing what you’re happy with. But jeez, wouldn’t it be nice anyway. I’m the one lone female who does human interest among these three really experienced, well-known writers who do these amazing issue-based things. Mine are just little stories about human beings.
I can’t remember if I entered it, I think I did, but I did one when I was house hunting myself. I saw an ad on TradeMe that said ‘family home for 53 years’, and I thought I might go and see that person and see what it’s like having 53 years of memories. It didn’t matter what they say, 53 years of memories, there’s going to be something interesting in there.
This guy was happy to yarn with me for ages and ages, and then he told me the reason he was moving out really was because his wife had died. He told me how she’d stayed at home for as long as she could, then she went into the hospice and he was actually holding her when she died, and he said ‘then whoosh, I felt her soul leave’. I barely kept it together, and then walked out apologising because I was crying and I don’t think it’s very professional to cry at an interview, and I had to pull over to the side of the road and just sob.
So you just never know where you’ll get your best stories from.
Being In The Room continues throughout the week.
Follow Beck Eleven @beckeleven