How I Got That Story: Malcolm Gay

The 2008 AltWeekly Award winner for Arts Feature talks about his work.

St. Louis, Mo., says Malcolm Gay, is ripe with unassuming stories.

“You run into people who will be working in obscurity and they’ll oftentimes not quite realize how good a story they have.”

It’s a contrast to the media savviness Gay experienced in the Bay Area, where he attended graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley, and was a New Times (now Village Voice Media) fellow at the East Bay Express. In 2004, he was transferred to the Riverfront Times, where he stayed for more than three years before deciding to become a full-time freelancer.

Gay, a 35-year-old Colorado native, has written for the New York Times, St. Louis Magazine and Wired, and still contributes to RFT, where he writes a food column and crafts long-form stories.

“That’s much more my area of interest and why alt-weeklies have always interested me — for the ability to work longer stories and bring greater context to current events. That’s why I got into journalism — wanting to understand the world more and be a firsthand witness.”

What made you pursue an interview with Qiu Xiaolong?

I had been wanting to write about him for a while. He’s been written up in the International Herald Tribune; he’s huge in France. So he kind of lives this international presence and does it all from this very anonymous south county Missouri residence because a very na├»ve or innocent action on his part was viewed as dissidence in China. I pitched it to my editor, Tom Finkle. We talked about it very sporadically for a year or so, and then he had a new book coming out, and I finally said let’s pull the trigger on this.

How did you first reach out to Xiaolong?

I think a lot of people are uncertain about a reporter calling them and saying they want to do an in-depth profile. He deals with press on a fairly regular basis but usually in terms of reviews. There was a certain amount of that dance — “Where do you want to take this story?” And I was very straightforward. I said, “Look, I think your story is so anomalous, I think people will want to know.”

What was the interview process?

I probably met him five or six times. We did different things, like meeting at his house or going fishing. One of the challenges of writing about a writer is that what they do physically and in terms of their day-to-day existence is very uneventful. So it’s hard to bring drama and animation to those scenes. His life is a very quiet and uneventful one; his inner world is much more tumultuous. That’s the challenge: to access that inner world and make it evident in the story.

Was Xiaolong bothered by how much time you asked to spend with him?

I think he understood how I envisioned the story and how I wanted to write it. He’s familiar with our paper and magazine-style journalism. He knew what it took. I don’t always tell people it’s going to be that intense, but I told him what it would involve. And I think he got it. Sometimes people don’t.

What kind of interviewer are you?

One of the difficult things of getting somebody to talk about a story they’re very familiar with is that they’ve told the story to themselves and others so many times. You have to get them to re-imagine it and tell the story fresh. I use a notebook and digital tape recorder and try to take as many notes as I can because transcribing is hell. If something interesting is being said or happening, I’ll write down the time on the tape so I can go back and methodically extract the things I’m looking for.

Was there anything you were worried about asking Xiaolong?

One thing I was worried about was I didn’t know how traumatic the Cultural Revolution had been for him and the fact that his mother had a nervous breakdown after their house was raided. Obviously, it was a defining moment in his life, but I didn’t know what those waters were like, so there was a certain amount of concern. When I interview someone who has gone through something, I try to get trust before diving into difficult waters. The truth is he was incredibly open about it and I probably didn’t have to sidestep it.


Read the piece that garnered Gay a first-place finish in Arts Feature (circulation 55,000 and over):
The Case of the Shanghai Shamus


Part of the 2008 “How I Got That Story” series, in which Academy of 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.