This month sees the publication of Shadows Bright as Glass, the truly extraordinary story of Jon Sarkin. When Jon suffered a stroke, his life and that of his family changed forever. Once an ordinary, mild-mannered family man, he was transformed into a compulsive, temperamental artist. Here Pulitzer Prize-winning author Amy Ellis Nutt talks to the Piatkus team about how she tracked down this compelling story, her early writing career, the people who inspire her and the advice she has for young, budding writers.
How did you come across Jon's story?
I was interviewing a neurologist, Dr Todd Feinberg, in New York City for a story for my newspaper in 2002 and noticed a piece of art on the wall of his office. It was a series of abstract Cadillac tail fins from the 1950s. When I asked Dr Feinberg about the artist he told me Jon's story, in particular that Jon had contacted him after hearing him talk on National Public Radio about his book Altered Egos, concerning his work with people who suffer identity disorders after strokes. Jon wanted to know if Dr Feinberg could tell him what happened to him. They met and talked and while Feinberg was able to explain the nature of some of Jon's brain damage, he wasn't ultimately able to explain the source of his compulsive creativity. As happens, though, when Jon meets someone he sends them his art and writings, which he calls 'boltflashes', and that's how I happened to notice the unusual drawing on the wall of Feinberg's office.
How did you go about working with Jon?
After hearing about Jon from Dr Feinberg, I contacted him and interviewed him for a small story in the features section of my newspaper The Star-Ledger. This was about eight years ago. I visited Jon in Massachusetts and then attended his first art opening in New York and even after the small story was published, we kept in touch. We both had similar backgrounds and literary interests and senses of humour, so we became friends and over the years I watched Jon's art develop and deepen. I saw him go through terrible times, like the death of his brother, and watched him revel in good times, when his art became more widely recognised. I knew a few years ago that there was so much more to write about Jon than the short story I'd done years earlier, and because of our close relationship Jon agreed to work with me on a book.
What do you feel you learned from working with Jon?
It seems like such a cliché, but I learned from Jon just how resilient the human mind and spirit are, despite the most grievous insults and injuries. My research for other parts of the book on how science has sought to understand the nature of personal identity only underscored this. The human brain is a remarkable organ. No matter how much is taken away, it tries to find a way back, a way to piece itself together again. And what I discovered is that often the way back for the human brain is through connection with others. Consciousness, identity, soul – whatever you want to call it – is as much a function of how we relate to others as how we relate to ourselves. This was an astonishing as well as life-affirming realisation.
How did your writing career begin? Did you always know that was what you wanted to do?
I always loved writing. It's just that as a youth it was mostly (bad) poetry. In college I thought I wanted to be an academic, and so I got a graduate degree in Philosophy and taught for a couple of years at university level. When I realised I just wasn't going to be able to finish a dissertation for the doctorate, I sought out another career and a bit of good luck brought me to a reporter position at Sports Illustrated magazine in New York City. It was there that I discovered two things – that you could be a writer and make a living out of it, and that I preferred to be a sports fan rather than a sports writer. My job as an enterprise reporter and long-form writer at The Star-Ledger newspaper in New Jersey has afforded me all that and much, much more, which is why I've been there for nearly fourteen years now.
How do you hunt down a newsworthy story?
There are so many ways. Sometimes the stories are hiding in plain sight. My Pulitzer-winning series, called 'The Wreck of the Lady Mary', was one such story. It was a news item published in the back pages of my newspaper and briefly on our website, but it kept nagging at me.
Six men had died when a commercial scallop boat sank 65 miles out to sea and only one man survived. Even he wasn't sure what happened, the boat sank so fast. If six people had died in a car crash, there would have been a much louder and more immediate public outcry. I decided I needed to find out why and how these six men died. In an early interview I spoke to a marine expert who told me the reason so many boats go down with all hands on board and the accidents remain mysteries is because 'there are no skid marks on the ocean.' That spurred me on, and so did my realisation that there are few legal protections for commercial fishermen. In fact, large container ships – one of which I believe ran over the Lady Mary – are required to slow down for endangered whales, but not for commercial fishermen. That clinched it for me.
Newsworthy stories are all around us. Usually they are hidden until a good reporter gets curious and asks questions. Sometimes stories are hidden in government or court documents – it could be a single sentence or a couple of numbers that don't add up. Sometimes there is a small article in a magazine that you realise holds the kernel of a much bigger story; sometimes a story comes to you casually, in a conversation you strike up with a person on a bus, in a hotel lobby, or at a restaurant. And sometimes, if you're really lucky, the stories come to you – when someone calls you and says, simply, 'I have something I want to tell you.'
Who inspires your writing?
Great writers inspire me, and they are myriad. Off the top of my head, magazine writers like Tom Junod, Susan Orlean and Atul Gawande. Authors and essayists like Paul Broks, Nicholas Humphrey and Joan Didion. Newspaper writers like Anne Hull of the Washington Post, Dan Barry of the New York Times, and former newspaper journalists like J.R. Moehringer, Madeleine Blais and Angelo B. Henderson. I'm also inspired by freelance writers, novelists and poets, living and dead, from Truman Capote to William Faulkner, Walker Percy and Marilynne Robinson; from Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley and Yeats, to T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver and Louise Gluck.
You recently won a Pulitzer. Has this changed the way you approach writing?
No, not really. The only thing that's changed is that I feel more of a responsibility to share my insights, skills and tips with young reporters, which is something I've always loved doing.
Do you have any advice for budding writers?
Stay curious. It is the most important tool of a good reporter and only from good reporting can good non-fiction writing flow.
Shadows Bright as Glass is out now and can be bought from all major bookstores. For more information on Amy Ellis Nutt and her works please click here.
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