The 2008 AltWeekly Award winner for Arts Feature talks about his work.
David Koon is an Arkansas boy; you can hear it in his voice.
“My father’s group came from the Dells. My mother came from the hills, and my relatives live all over. So I’ve been really immersed in the culture,” he says in a thick, Southern twang.
Born in Little Rock and raised outside of Benton (where Sling Blade was filmed), Koon left his home state after college, but happily returned a few years ago. As the associate editor for the Arkansas Times, the 33-year-old finds his MFA from the prestigious Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa gets put to good use.
“A lot of the things I know — how to create character, how to create mood and theme — translate straight across to features. I wouldn’t know the first thing about how to write about a car crash or man-bites-dog story or that inverted pyramid or the five Ws. I think a lot of people who gravitate toward alternative journalism and do it well come from a creative-writing background.”
How did you discover Mohja Kahf?
We get weird stories sent over the transom all the time — crop circle in Newton County or people are hunting Bigfoot in south Arkansas, something like that. Our editor, Max Brantley, has been a reporter, writer and editor in Arkansas for 35 years and he’s plugged in everywhere. One of the things we were given was a one-liner about a Muslim sex columnist.
What was the first thing you did for the story?
I called her up and chatted with her, and before long it became obvious she was so much more than just that one line. We emailed back and forth for a long time, and she set me straight about what she did. She wasn’t a sex columnist; she did short stories that were racy. She didn’t want to be seen as a victim or a rebel — the stereotypes of Muslim women. But she said people don’t understand women of Islam have sex lives and lust and dreams.
How much time did you two spend together?
I did one four-hour interview in Fayetteville, where she teaches at the University of Arkansas. Then we had another interview with her here in Little Rock for two hours. Plus we kind of followed her around. We actually followed her to the opening of a Harry Potter movie. She was going over to stand in line for the premiere on a Friday. So that was kinda interesting and funny, one of the kind of things you wish you had room for.
Did being male affect how you approached the story?
Yeah, I was worried about it a little, because I knew at some point we had to talk about sex. I was a little bit nervous about that part of it, but she makes everyone so comfortable. She is pleasantly contentious. She tries to make everyone around her think deeper than they normally would. We had a lot of pleasant moments and there were some moments where she was challenging my questions.
Is it difficult to write about someone you end up liking?
It’s hard to write a true picture of somebody once you’ve gained that rapport with them, but it’s something you learn to do as a reporter. The best way you can honor someone and what they’re doing and what they care about is to portray them with warts and all.
Did your own extensive creative-writing background help with your line of questioning?
She actually talked about creative-writing programs and how they aren’t really any good for anything. Then she asked, “What’s your degree in?” But, yeah, because we are both writers it helped us click. We’re both really passionate about creative writing, and we found a whole lot to talk about how students approach the work.
What was the community’s response to the article?
Mohja’s profile was really well received. Her story, however, because it did have some risqué stuff in it—like the sentence, “Are we gonna get dick?” — we got some backlash. We had a lot of calls on that one. I think we actually temporarily lost an advertiser or two, but everybody’s back in the fold now. I was really proud of our paper for not punking out by bleeping out the naughty bits from that story, especially in Arkansas, where we’re in about 1986 as far as attitudes of sexuality are concerned. I told my editor I didn’t know if I wanted to run the thing if we had to clean it up. That would’ve been an insult to the whole idea of what Mohja was writing about.
Read the piece that garnered Koon a first-place finish in Arts Feature (circulation under 55,000):
The Amazing Mohja (pdf)
Part of the 2008 “How I Got That Story” series, in which Academy for Alternative Journalism fellows reveal the processes of the writers and editors who won first-place AltWeekly Awards. These interviews also appear in Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2008.