Editor’s Note: This is the ninth 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.”
Michael Little is fairly clear on what he likes to write about: "failure and futility — and losers. I’m very interested in people who don’t survive the undertow, you know?"
Since he started writing arts and music pieces for the Washington City Paper seven years ago, his passion for losers has inspired him to write the story of the lead guitarist of a failed rock band and a piece on turn-of-the-century Washington grave robbers. He is currently at work on a book about Washington’s sordid underworld. His arts feature that won a 2005 AltWeekly Award, “Lunatic Fringe,” tells the story of a woman consigned to an insane asylum in the early 1900s and the intricate, bizarre piece of needlework she created during her time there — a work valued then as an insight into her mind and valued now as "outsider art." Little’s piece draws on a tremendous amount of research and explores not just the life of this enigmatic "artist" herself but also the world of the institution that kept and studied her — a world she ultimately could not cope with.
When he isn’t writing, Little works in Washington, D.C., as an editor for the Government Accountability Office.
How did you come to start writing about “losers?”
One day I wrote to the City Paper and asked if I could write little music reviews. They let me do that, and I wrote a few pieces and then a few cover stories for them. I liked the cover stories; my first was about Punky Meadows, the lead guitarist of this tragically bad band, Angel. They were like the anti-Kiss; they all dressed in white! Anyway, I found out that one of the original members was operating a tanning salon outside the city, and it turned into a really cool article.
I’ve always been drawn to mental illness and people who can’t survive life, who can’t manage in a day-to-day world: underground artists, outlaws, various types of criminals. I feel sympathy for that. I guess I’ve always been close to the edge myself; I’ve found it difficult to sort of live day to day at various points in my life. I’ve always felt vaguely superfluous so I’m drawn to similar figures.
Like Adelaide Hall, the woman in your needlework story.
The woman in the needlework story found life impossible. She basically ended up spending the second half of her life institutionalized. And yet in her mind she led a rich fantasy life, and it all came out in this piece of needlework.
It was really an amazing feeling, working on this story. This woman had a life of invisibility; she had no real family, she led a forgotten, painful life. And it felt kind of amazing to speak for her, to say this woman was alive and it was an important life. Even if she hadn’t done that small piece of needlework, she was someone, and she suffered, you know.
How did you discover the story, and what made you want to pursue it?
Michael Little traveling in Pennsylvania; photo by Jeffrey Little
Actually, it was handed to me by the City Paper. Someone found something on the Internet. There had been an article written on the piece of needlework, and they handed it to me, like, "Can we make an article out of this?" At first I was hesitant. I’m not particularly interested in needlework, and I’m not an art critic, but what attracted me to the story was the mental health aspect of it and the outsider art aspect of it. My knowledge of art is sketchy at best.
I became fascinated by her, by the lack of detail. No one knew anything about this woman: when she was born, when she died. I felt cool being able to dig it up — finding out where she was buried, visiting her grave. It was my first taste of becoming a small-time private investigator, and I became kind of addicted to it.
This woman had died in a mental hospital over a hundred years ago; how did you go about finding out who she was?
I started digging through D.C. records, state records, land-tract records. I basically tried to reconstruct this woman’s life through the records. I had to go to the National Archives, dig through the records at St. Elizabeths hospital. I got lucky because a lot of those records are very sketchy. Once I got that stuff, it was really important for me to get the scene right. I wanted to be able to say, well, if she lived in this neighborhood as a single woman, working as a lace maker, that was pretty good. She wasn’t living in abject poverty.
And then I had to do research into the Civil War in Virginia — because she had referred to her father as "The Colonel" and I wanted to find out more about him because he was the most important person in her life. He turned out to be this very deranged alcoholic. I became very obsessive-compulsive about being sure that I had the right people and the right times and the right names.
Once you had unearthed all that information, how did you go about making it all into a coherent and compelling story?
Well, I saw what the story was from the start: I basically wanted to tell the story of her life. She has this one seminal moment — she meets this psychiatrist, and this psychiatrist suggests that she do this needlework — and that was the moment that she entered history.
So you decided to focus in on that moment.
Yeah, because we have some of that on record because the psychiatrist wrote about the woman. Some of the things this woman tells her are obviously very painful. It’s obvious that she led a tortured life. The needlework itself was just a series of strange figures who obviously had some significance for her; and so then it was like, what can I find out about those formative years? Actually, I think I overdid some of those details. I got hung up on trying to figure out when her father died, when each of her brothers died. It got to the point where I was locked into all-day genealogical searches, looking all day on Web sites trying to find people who were maybe related to them. I got kind of vaguely crazy.
How were you able to cut yourself off and bring the story into focus?
Leonard Roberge, the arts editor, helped me with that, with shaping the story. When I gave him the first draft, I think it was detail-heavy; I tended to get lost in where she lived each year of her life (I found out she lived just down the street from me). I had gotten lost in my own story. My original story was almost as much about me finding the stuff — me the sleuth — and Leonard was like, "No, no. Nobody cares."
What was the editor most interested in?
He had me drop a lot of the street locations and suggested I talk more about the work of art itself. I think he wanted it to be readable, and he really did do miracles with it. If I had published it like I wanted it published, frankly, I don’t think it would have been nearly as good an article. I mean, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I haven’t agreed with him on everything in the past, but in this case he was right. And it also forced me back to the drawing board and make me really rethink the story, shift my focus. And that was good. I remember it as a very traumatic but wonderful experience.
Well, like any writer, I don’t like my work being manhandled; there’s no getting around it, I just don’t like it. I’m not talking words, I’m talking whole paragraphs. he would say, "You know, this has to go," and it’s heartbreaking. It’s not an easy process.
What has been your general experience writing for an alt-weekly versus other markets?
I certainly feel like you have more freedom. I wrote for the Washington Post for a while, just music reviews. It’s odd. I feel like the Post tampered with my words less — although I was writing shorter pieces – but it also felt very impersonal there. I like the fact that if you’re working for an alt-weekly, you can come up with crazy ideas for long articles that I don’t think a daily would ever publish. And the alt-weeklies let you go where other papers can’t go, which is into someone’s mind.
Do you always write about local topics?
I don’t know how to say it except that I’m in D.C. I live here. I’m more than willing to do things that aren’t D.C.-related. In fact, I kind of dislike this town, in a lot of ways. But I have met a lot of cool freaks. Under the radar there are a lot of weird people here.
There’s so much research that goes into a story. How do you decide if a story is worth it? Is there a leap of faith involved?
Yeah, there is a leap of faith, but you go from what you did last. I was a lot quicker to jump on an article about gravediggers after the needlework story because I already knew how to do that kind of historical research. I never thought I’d be a journalist; it’s not my trade; I just kind of fell into it. But when a story gets in your blood, it’s a beautiful thing.
Isaiah Thompson is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and was a 2005 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a freelance writer and educator.