Williams has traveled widely since her Observer days. I emailed her questions about her life and her work.
What gave you the idea for the New Yorker story “Bones of Contention”?
That one little blurb, in 2009, led to more or less a continual obsession with the subculture, and especially with the somewhat class-driven tensions within it, and the lengths (and risk) that scientists and commercial hunters will take in order to find, study, own, or sell the most spectacular specimens of earth history.
You might assume a story about fossils is static; in fact, the story of fossils in our culture is gorgeously dynamic. Fossils aren’t just alive in the imaginations of people who love dinosaurs; they’re alive in the sciences—with vital, morphing data about extinction and climate change—and, of course, on the marketplace, which is the source of such angst between commercial hunters and paleontologists.
One thing I was surprised to learn early on: the United States is one of the few dinosaur-rich countries on earth, and controversially unique in its approach to the conservation and protection of fossils. (If you find a T. rex in your back yard, it’s yours to keep. Good luck.) Anyway, if you’re interested in the full account of how the story came together, The Open Notebook did a wonderful piece about it.
I’ve just taken a professorship at the Missouri School of Journalism, yes, to teach writing (and related courses) specific to the craft of longform narrative. It’s not unlike my work at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard (where I taught for the past four years and, for the past three, edited Nieman Storyboard), and at other universities, including NYU and MIT.
I’ve taught other courses over the years—criticism, investigative, feature writing—but longform narrative is my favorite. Across platforms, across media, storytelling is the mother. Learn how to tell a good story and you can do it in any journalistic form: video, multimedia, comics, audio, etc.
The Mizzou students are so driven, smart, inquisitive, and respectful—it’s going to be a joy and an honor, working with them. The alumni list alone suggests the kind of talent that Mizzou turns out: Wright Thompson, Seth Wickersham, Ann Friedman, Justin Ellis, Jim Lehrer, and the Observer’s own Tim Funk. Oh and hello, didn’t Brad Pitt study journalism there? He told Terry Gross he quit two weeks before graduation; he’s supposedly a credit shy of a degree. He’s welcome to come back. I’ll tutor.
Will you divide your time between Columbia and New York?
My magazine life is in New York, so I’m back and forth a good bit. I’ve always been a road type; straddling two or more worlds isn’t an unnatural concept to me. It satisfies the whole yin/yang thing, as well as the wanderlust. And because I lived in New York for years, well beyond my three years in grad school at the Columbia School of the Arts, the city still feels like home. Charlotte feels that way to me, too, and always will.
I understand you're working on a new piece for The New Yorker.
A piece on capital punishment. That’s about all I can say for now. It’s one of the more fascinating aspects of public policy and regionalism that I’ve ever encountered
What did you learn as a reporter at the O that has stood you in good stead?
How to be a reporter and how to properly value storytelling. During my time at the Observer, there were so many journalists who were exceptional at one or the other, or both, and who served as important mentors by osmosis. No one did more to open my eyes to craft than did Foster Davis, whose workshop handouts (New Yorker pieces, especially E.B. White) and gift books ("The Careful Writer"), I still tote around with me, city to city. Foster taught us how to see the storytelling possibilities inherent in the land of fact, and how, while working as information gatherers, to think, with equal energy, like writers.
I was also fortunate to have worked with editors who were good to me, and who let me try things. When Mike Weinstein finally agreed to be my editor, he once agreed to let me try an audio sidebar to a story about the celebrated storyteller Ray Hicks. The story was “Ray & Rosa: A Love Story.” Ray was a masterful teller of “jack tales” who lived on Beech Mountain. He sang these eerily beautiful a cappella folk songs.
This was 1998, pre-multimedia at our paper. I recorded one of Ray’s songs, desperate for readers to hear it. Weinstein found a spare phone extension, and I played the recording of Ray singing as the outgoing message. We ran the phone number in the newspaper, with the main story, and readers called in, just to listen. Early interactive, for sure.
You earned an MFA from Columbia. What was your specialty?
My MFA is in fiction. The Columbia School of the Arts’ writing program has an exceptional nonfiction track but I applied in fiction for a couple of reasons. One, the faculty was strong: Ben Marcus, Alan Ziegler, Binnie Kirshenbaum, David Gates, Richard Locke (hands down one of the best lecturers I’ve ever heard), Richard Howard, Victoria Redel, Sigrid Nunez, Kathryn Harrison, so many others. And the alumni, inspiring: Jonathan Ames, Susan Minot, Karen Russell (she was a year behind me but I’m listing her here because she’s terrific), Wells Tower.
Secondly, I wanted to immerse myself in that world with the idea of moving toward the art form After Journalism. I suspect that After Journalism is an illusion--one never really quits--but we'll see.
Paige Williams' Twitter link: https://twitter.com/williams_paige