Editor’s Note: This is the 34th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”
Mara Shalhoup’s AltWeekly Award-winning feature story, “Learning to Hit a Lick,” describes how Falicia Blakely, an 18-year-old prostitute, was convinced by her pimp to murder three men for money. Yet it was not the seedy details that attracted Shalhoup to the story — it was the complexity of the people involved. After getting to know Blakely and the victims’ families, she found that the story was not difficult to write.
The depth Shalhoup achieved in the narrative series was appreciated by Creative Loafing’s Atlanta readers. In fact, after the initial installment was published, she was approached repeatedly by people who appreciated the human focus and couldn’t wait to read the rest of the story.
A graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry Grady School of Journalism, Shalhoup is Creative Loafing’s news editor, which she describes as being a “writer/editor hybrid.” She has been nominated for the Livingston Award and was one of three finalists two years running for the Atlanta Press Club’s Journalist of the Year.
Where did the idea for this story come from?
I had written a shorter story based on Falicia Blakely, mostly about the rarity of the state of Georgia seeking the death penalty against women — or any state, really for that matter. I had written it right before the movie “Monster” came out, so it was a timely subject — the idea of this prostitute turned killer.
After the initial story came out, the victims’ families contacted me and said that they felt that their deceased relatives were portrayed as unsympathetic characters. What they said struck a nerve, so I tried to get their side of the story and kind of struck up a long-term relationship with the families while we were all following the case. Then Falicia pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison and wasn’t up for the death penalty. But by that time I was engrossed in the story and had all the family stuff built up.
Do you regularly write about the criminal justice system?
I do. As the paper’s news editor, I don’t get to do as much writing as I would like, but in the past I have written about the justice system, social issues, any way that the system is not helping people. I started out as a cops reporter at a daily paper. I loved doing those stories because they have so much drama in them. But, I burnt out on the dailies and didn’t find that format good for the kind of writing I wanted to do — narrative long-form stories. There are certain stories that you just cannot tell in twelve inches in the metro section.
How had the mainstream press covered this story?
In some ways, the format of the dailies allows for a certain level of disrespect in that they have to say what happened and then move on to the next thing. I think they definitely found her situation as odd as I did, but they didn’t go in depth and find out about her horrendous upbringing and all of the societal problems she was facing.
At what point in reporting did you realize that it was going to be worthy of a long-form format? And that it would be best told from the point of view of Falicia Blakely?
The first time I met her, I don’t even think I asked but four or five questions. She was so articulate and just wanted to talk, and she was in jail and so had nothing but time. I mean, she has HIV, so she has a limited amount of time. But I think that no one had ever sat down and listened to her in her whole life. Falicia has a very distinct speaking voice so writing it from her point of view was easy.
Was there any point in your reporting where what you had thought previously was turned on its head?
What surprised me about speaking with her was that she didn’t gloss over anything. She had been raised to survive on a manipulative approach. I had gotten to know the victims’ friends and I expected to have to second-guess her, but her memory was amazingly clear. She didn’t contradict herself, she wanted it to be real and she wanted people to learn from what she had gone through.
There’s a theory that some people kill to get attention. What made you feel comfortable with giving a murderer this amount of attention?
That is something I had to wrangle with — I was worried that people would say that this story would glorify or sensationalize what she had done. So, I was trying to play it very straight and not be preachy in one way or another. I was expecting some negative backlash but what wound up happening was that it touched a nerve with a wide group of people. Especially with a community that we don’t come into contact with-people who are poor and live in the inner city, who typically don’t read our papers as much as we would like them to.
I got a lot of e-mails where people said, ‘My mother/sister/best friend went through something very similar to this and I passed it on to them.’ I got letters from cops too. People saw it as a cautionary tale, which wasn’t my goal, but it spoke to them in a very real way. That’s because in Atlanta there are a lot of people who struggle with crime and poverty.
Tell me about the research, writing and reporting process.
I started working on this story about a year before it was published. I was following the case and attending many court hearings, so a lot of it was sporadic. I spent the first part of the research process gearing up to write about a trial that didn’t happen. By the time I wrote the story, it took about 10 days. I wrote it pretty quickly because I had done a lot of the track work and it was easy to fill in. Of course, it went through a couple of weeks of edits.
How cooperative were the families once they realized you would be speaking with the killer?
They knew. In a situation like that, I always tell them. I asked them if there was anything that they wanted me to ask her because they would obviously be uncomfortable doing so themselves. I think, in the long run that they were glad that I talked to her. I don’t think they felt shortchanged by the fact that the story essentially ended up being about her.
What problems did you run into while reporting? How did you work around them?
Well, I wanted to speak to the other girl, the co-defendant, but she was still awaiting trial and would have had everything to lose by speaking to me. I wanted to speak with the pimp as well, but I couldn’t find him and the investigator for Falicia’s defense attorney knew that he was very guarded and very savvy. He disappeared and then turned up in jail on unrelated charges after the story was written.
One of the contest judges said he wished he knew what you thought of Blakely but he didn’t find that in your story. Did you make a deliberate decision at some point to conceal what you felt?
I thought that was very funny — I don’t think anybody really cares what I think about her. I might have one opinion or another, but I wasn’t out to judge her. I wanted it to be a very straightforward Truman-Capote-esque story. My feeling about voice is that if you’re reading about a subject, you want to hear that person’s voice, not the writer’s voice. Commenting on it is almost editorializing it in a way.
What did Falicia Blakely think of the story?
She liked the story a lot. It also made her a minor celebrity in prison. I did some follow-ups.
How do you feel about the critics who say that this genre of journalism is dying and that any story can be boiled down to a thousand words?
My only evidence is that after this story ran — it ran in two parts — my phone rang off the hook and people wanted to know how it ends. I got a hundred e-mails in three days, and, for me, that’s proof enough that people want to read this type of thing.
A lot of people found ways to relate to Falicia Blakely. We have these conversations at work all the time. Obviously, this long-serial narrative is not for any story. But if there is one story that I can’t stop thinking about, if there is something that I read on a police blotter that just keeps coming back to me, then I probably won’t be the only one who finds it interesting.
Who are your reporting models? Who are some journalists whose work you admire?
Tom French and his crazy serial narratives! His work is amazing; he is one of my favorites. Anne Hull at the Washington Post does the type of narrative that I aspire to — she finds beauty in everyday life. Also, Katherine Boo at the New Yorker.
What advice would you offer to other writers who are attempting to master this craft?
Attend seminars and workshops. I’ve attended many, like the Nieman one at Harvard, and I’ve gotten so much out of them. And, the best way to do it is to read the masters and try to talk to them. Ask them: how do you organize your notebook, how do you find the right detail, how do you turn it into such beautiful narrative?
Erika Beras was a 2005 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She is currently a student at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York.