Tom Junod, photo courtesy of ESPN.
In Dialogue with
Esquire magazine: “The Falling Man” by Tom Junod, photos: Richard Drew, September 1, 2003
Throughout a long and successful career, writer Tom Junod has brought his unblinking eye to a wide array of topics. He is a warm and welcoming writer with a gift for a fine turn of phrase, whether he’s describing the “chemical pyrotechnics” of a teenager’s drug dependency or “the wallop of white light” from a flashbulb that momentarily rattles one of his most famous subjects, the children’s television host, Fred Rogers. Junod has never shied away from difficult topics, and since that pivotal meeting with Fred (Junod’s wonderful 1998 Esquire profile captures the intimacy of this encounter), Junod has managed to combine in his writing an unblinking eye with a sensitivity and delicacy that are rare and, I would say, ethical.
Take “Falling Man,” for example, arguably Junod’s most famous article. In it, Junod seeks to uncover the identity of the man captured in Richard Drew’s photograph, published on page seven of the New York Times on September 12, 2001, of a man in free fall during the attack on the Twin Towers the day before. The photo became almost instantly taboo, disappearing from the public record, surrounded by an uncomfortable silence. In “Falling Man,” Tom chooses to probe the photo and the cultural reticence that surrounds it, uncovering in the process not only the probable identity of the subject but also something deeply affecting in the photograph and our shared humanity.
Junod attributes the delicate balancing act he pulls off in “Falling Man” to what seems at first blush an unlikely source: his experience of writing a profile of Fred Rogers, host of the long running preschool television show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and the relationship that grew out of it. “Falling Man,” Junod has said, was “a product of my relationship with Fred because I was able to bring a sense of theological doubt and simultaneous wonder to my work that I was quite able to do before.”
“What makes us most human,” writes Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuck, “is the possession of a unique and irreducible story, that we take place over time and leave behind our traces.” It’s in his willingness to turn an unblinking eye to his material that Junod discovers the traces that tell our unique and irreducible human stories.
Robert Stalker, Atlanta, Georgia
Esquire Magazine: Can You Say..."Hero"? by Tom Junod, November 1, 1998
Robert Stalker: William Maxwell has said that a writer might just as easily find his voice amidst other writers as lose it. When did you first become interested in writing? Who are some writers you appreciate and what about them do you find particularly interesting?
Tom Junod: Well, like all writers, I started as a reader. I read early, and I read continually. But I didn’t read particularly well — I went from reading comic books to reading boxing and football magazines. I read a few classics in high school, but I was also smoking tremendous amounts of dope, so the books I read were by Carlos Castañeda instead of, say, Carlos Fuentes. That changed in college. As a first semester freshman at Oneonta State in upstate New York, I took an American Literature Survey Course. I got lucky; I had an odd, impassioned teacher who wore the same suit and narrow tie every class, and had us read William Faulkner and Henry James. That was it for me — those writers who were somehow able to squeeze the whole world into a single elaborate sentence and tell a story at the same time. Though the classes started at 8 AM, I never missed one, and though I wrote in unreadable Faulknerian pastiche, I had started my life.
RS: I’ve heard you mention Robert Walser, specifically his so-called “micro-scripts,” the tiny jottings he made in the sanatorium in Bern. Is Walser a writer you admire or continue to read?
TJ: I read Walser because I read — and admire — Kafka and Sebald, and he occupies the zone between them. But I don’t like his writing as much as I like Kafka’s or W. G. Sebald’s — he’s neither as inventive as Kafka, nor as elegant as Sebald. What interests me is that as he wrote for decades in the sanatorium, his handwriting became so minuscule that no one could read it. When I first got out of college, I was not a writer; I was a handbag salesman. But I used to write on my road trips, on the backs of my business cards, and a few years ago, when I found some of those cards, I had to read what I wrote on them with a magnifying glass. I had written 500 or so words on business cards that measured 2x3 inches, the print so tiny it seemed Walserian — which is to say, a little nutty.
RS: I’ve heard you distinguish your approach to writing from someone such as New Yorker writer John McPhee who has published a book on the craft of nonfiction writing, Draft No.4. Has your writing process (“just hard,” I think you called it) remained the same over time?
TJ: I can’t say that I wish I wrote like John McPhee, since everyone has their own voice and his is so different from mine. But I wish that I could organize my material like John McPhee. I read his advice on writing with pangs of envy, wondering what it must be like to assemble a piece of writing on index cards instead of by means of a first catastrophic draft, a second calamitous one, and a third one that promises no pleasure, only relief. A few years ago, I spoke to a college class and described the four stages of my process this way: “I’m shit, I’m a genius, I’m shit, I survived.” That still holds.
Tom Junod, “My Friend Mr. Rogers,” The Atlantic, September 2019, Photo: Puppet: Andy Gent, Photograph: Grant Cornett; Prop styling: Anna Surbatovich
RS: Reading “Falling Man,” I am struck by your treatment of photography and aesthetics. Are there writers on photography that you admire? Sontag? Malcolm? Dyer?
TJ: All of the above. But I’m also an admirer of Michael Lesy, who wrote the strange classic culled from gruesome old newspaper photographs, Wisconsin Death Trip. He contacted me after Esquire published “The Falling Man” in 2003, and asked if I was interested in editing and introducing a book of historical photographs. I begged off, telling him I was too busy. I don’t have many regrets in my career, but saying "no" to Michael Lesy is one of them.
RS: What have you been reading lately?
TJ: I try to read three things at a time — a book in print, a book on Audible, and a book of poetry. The book in print that I’m reading is Alice McDermott’s 1992 masterpiece, At Weddings And Wakes; the book I’m listening to is The Confessions of St. Augustine, which is so tedious that I’m not reading it so much as putting it to use when I wake up in the middle of the night, and the book of poetry that I’m reading is The Father, Sharon Olds’ unsparing account of her father’s death. I’ve read five novels by Alice McDermott and four books by Sharon Olds, and can’t recommend either of them highly enough, especially if you grew up Catholic on Long Island (McDermott) or are interested in the limits of autobiographical self-exposure (Olds). St. Augustine, not so much, but I’m writing a memoir and The Confessions is a cornerstone of both that practice and the Catholicism that compels me to finish a book by such a relentless blowhard.
RS: Janet Malcolm famously opens The Journalist and the Murderer by saying that every journalist knows that what he or she does is morally indefensible. In an interview with Suzanne van Atten in Atlanta magazine, you arrive at something similar, saying that journalism occasionally demands that you “set your humanity aside.” Did the writing of your profile of Fred Rogers and the relationship that developed from it change the way you feel about that?
TJ: Well, Fred changed a lot of things for me. I wrote about him at time when I had gone from believing in my own bullshit swagger to doubting it, particularly my determination to “look evil in the eye and make it blink,” or whatever I was telling myself that I was doing back then. Fred offered me the opportunity to look goodness in the eye and attempt to understand it. In so doing, I found out that goodness is just as interesting as evil, and even more unaccountable in its existence — indeed, something of a miracle.
That said, journalism still calls upon its practitioners to make calls to people who, in many cases, have no desire or even reason to pick up the phone. Trying to tell the truth — particularly someone else’s truth — is a hard and often painful thing to do, and just recently I lost a dear friend over a story I wrote. But the sheer difficulty of the journalistic process has made me appreciate, more and more, the people who participate in it, who somehow place their trust in a total stranger because they think that the story the stranger is trying to tell is important. I’ve always known that having the trust of a subject or a source is essential; thanks perhaps to Fred, I now think that it’s very nearly sacred.
RS: In “And the Fighter Still Remains,” you write of the boxer José Haro that nothing frightens him more than the idea of waking up with no memory of what just happened to him. Much of your writing touches on issues of trauma, memory, and storytelling — of what we remember and what we repress. Or, in the case of “Falling Man” and the Todd Hodne story, of what the official record wants to suppress. What do you see as the relation of story to these issues of memory, trauma, and repression or suppression?
TJ: I started as a pint-sized sleuth, a spy in my own house, trying to figure out what my father was up to. That made me the person I am today, unhealthily interested in secrets and truth. That sounds sort of grand, I know, sort of highfalutin’, but so many stories I’ve written have to do with the question of what’s forbidden, what’s forgotten, what’s tellable and what’s not. A few years ago, I decided to write a story about college softball. I love college softball and I wanted to celebrate college softball. So I went on the road with a college softball team but didn’t encounter the joy I expected and pretty soon I knew something wasn’t right. The story I wound up writing was a long investigation into a coach’s sexual abuse of some of his players, and the silence that surrounded it. This was not my intention. The story was supposed to be sort of a puff piece, for God’s sake. The coaches welcomed me. Six months later, they were gone.
José Haro, subject of Tom Junod's article “And the Fighter Still Remains” ESPN.com, August 16, 2017 photo: Michael Friberg
RS: What drew you to the story of Todd Hodne, the Penn State linebacker whose crimes you reported on for ESPN?
TJ: He grew up in my hometown, and I played football against him in high school. I knew people who knew him well. But he went on his spree of predation when I was still in college, and it shocked me — that the person who was what I sort of wanted to be, a football star, had deep inside him a capacity for profound evil. So, I wrote a note to myself when I was selling handbags, a reminder to one day write about him, perhaps in shrunken Walserian hand. I thought back then I would write a novel. Instead, I wrote 32,000 words for ESPN.
RS: How did you come to collaborate with Paula Lavigne on the Todd Hodne story and how did collaboration change the writing process for you?
TJ: I began working on the story of Todd Hodne the way I start working on many stories — there was a moment when it became personal. When I found out that he died in prison in April 2020, I started making phone calls to his former teammates at Penn State. Paula came in when we first began to understand the horrific scale of Hodne’s predations. We knew we would have to start calling his victims, and Paula had broken some of the biggest and most consequential stories linking athletes, athletic departments, and sexual violence against women.
As for the writing process — Paula held me to an incredibly high standard of investigative practice not just in the reporting but on the page. I’ve always considered myself a good reporter; I’m not shy about asking questions or, if need be, knocking on doors. But Paula is one of the best investigative journalists in America, and I learned a lot from her about how to find and request essential documents and also about how to speak to sources who have experienced severe trauma. I brought a lot of narrative experience that helped sustain our story, “Untold,” over its eventual length of 32,000 words. But Paula insisted, at every turn, that the story should give Hodne’s victims and survivors their voices, and the extent to which we succeeded in doing that is the extent to which the story makes me most proud. Her collaboration was transformative.
RS: There’s a moment in the Hodne story, astonishing to me, where one of his victims, Betsy Sailor, expresses sympathy for Hodne, saying that when he was convicted of raping her, she felt “that this is a person that’s now lost to us.” Did you find yourself feeling any sympathy for Hodne?
TJ: See, that’s why I do what I do and love what I do. If I had never written about Todd Hodne, I never would have met Betsy Sailor, or Irv Pankey, or any of the other heroes of that piece. Now I know them, and my life is better for it, richer for it, because they are unbelievable human beings — because they have faced evil, and have responded with the best of themselves, not the worst. They’re astonishing and inspiring and in a story that is often extremely graphic and extremely dark, there they are, full of grace. So, I guess if Betsy Sailor has sympathy for Todd Hodne, I should, too, although I’m not sure if sympathy is the right word. Perhaps “understanding” is a better one, because I have the feeling that he was in a lot of pain. He just caused more pain than he himself endured.
RS: How did you go from Long Island to Texas handbag salesman? And then, how did you go from handbag salesman to professional writer?
TJ: I was an English major at the State University of New York at Albany, where I transferred after two years at Oneonta. I was painfully literary but I had no idea what to do for a living until my dad the handbag salesman got me an interview with one of the “hot” handbag lines at the time. I got the job, and an enormous territory in the Southwest — Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma. I didn’t know how to get a job in my chosen field so I figured I’d get “experience” in a field my Dad chose for me, and then write about it. Well, I got all the experience I needed, and more: I traveled six days a week, and then I was held up at gunpoint in a hotel room and nearly killed. A few weeks later, I was fired, but after spending many a night in many a Holiday Inn or Best Western trying to write fiction, I finally had something to write about. I had no idea that nonfiction existed, except as newspaper reporting. But I wrote a nonfiction account of what happened in the hotel room, and I’ve been writing nonfiction ever since.
Tom Junod article on Matt Damon in Esquire, August 2013
RS: What brought you to Atlanta?
TJ: After I nearly lost my life in Los Angeles, I lost my job in Dallas. I didn’t know what i was going to do next, but I figured that if I was going to die, I didn’t want to die as a handbag salesman. My brother Michael asked if I wanted to come to Atlanta and stay with him for a while. We’re very close, Michael and I, and always have been. So, my girlfriend Janet — now my wife Janet — and I moved from Dallas to Atlanta, thinking we’d stay for a year and then move back to New York. That was a long time ago.
RS: Your article “Deal of the Century,” about Barclays executive Bob Diamond’s bid to purchase Lehman Brothers, squeezes quite a bit of suspense out of some complex financial transactions. How did you develop your knowledge of Wall Street and do you continue to follow what you identified in the piece as “the era of global financial consolidation”?
TJ: I had no knowledge of Wall Street then and have no knowledge now. Every bit of insight on display in that story was developed for that story and went no further. I had scorn for the occasionally clunky prose of financial writers until I tried writing a story about finance myself. My God, it was hard — as always, the catastrophic first draft and the calamitous second, but in this case the desperate rabbit-from-the-hat third, when I still had no real understanding of rabbits.
RS: The picture of your father that emerges from “My Father’s Fashion Tips” is of a real character. Hilarious at times. I laughed out loud when you related the story of when he told you to burn your grey shirt because you should always wear “white to the face.” Toward the end of the piece, you mention having been for years afraid of him. In another piece, “The Terrible Boy,” you mention having once brought another boy to tears because you could not control your own tears around your father, and in an interview with Suzanne van Atten in Atlanta Magazine, you say that you are at your worst as a father when you think what your own father would do. As someone who had a very conflicted relationship with his own father, I’d love it if you could talk a little about your relationship with your father and how you think it may have shaped your writing career and how you think your writing career may have shaped your relationship with him.
TJ: When I was a child, nobody made me cry like my Dad. When I grew up, nobody made me laugh like him. He was an overpowering person, seductive and terrifying. But somewhere along the line I realized he was also ridiculous, and that was one of fundamental discoveries of my life because it put us on suddenly even footing. I remember sitting at the dinner table as a boy, responding to one of his diatribes with a silent promise: “You can tell me what to do but you can’t tell me what to think.” I believe that the groundwork for my writing career was laid then and there. I also believe that my writing — rather than my writing career — is what allowed me to understand, laugh at and love him. I needed some kind of space of my own, some kind of margin between me and him, and writing is how I found it.
RS: You write less about your siblings. Can you tell us about them? Are they creatives, like yourself?
TJ: My brother Michael has been a godsend to me from the day I was born. He is ten years older than I am, but until he went to college, we shared a room without him ever complaining, at least in my earshot. That tells you what kind of guy he is. My sister Cathy is Michael’s twin, though I suppose I have to force myself to use the past tense here. Cathy died on May 31, 2022, of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. She was diagnosed nine years before she died. She taught me to love soul music and tried to teach me how to dance, and even when she no longer remembered my name I could sing and dance with her — I could reach her by singing and dancing. But that disease took everything in the end, even the music.
RS: Like you, I love cooking. What are some of your favorite dishes? How do you think cooking and what you call “the freedom and thralldom cooking confers” relate to your writing life?
TJ: Cooking and writing are all about the same things: first, patience; second, the challenge of liking your own food; third, you can’t be afraid to *cook* whatever it is you’re cooking, cook to the point of transformation instead of just heating it up; fourth, more salt than seems reasonable; fifth, freedom; sixth, thralldom.
Tom Junod is a senior writer at ESPN and has wrote for Esquire and GQ. He has won two National Magazine Awards, a James Beard Award and the June Biedler Award for Cancer Writing. His work has been widely anthologized, and his 2003 9/11 story, "The Falling Man," was selected, on Esquire's 75th anniversary, as one of the seven best stories in the history of the magazine.
Tom Junod with Dexter
photo: Janet Folk
Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer.