• April 2013

Tom Shroder on Humor, Winning a Pulitzer, and the Power of Words

Tom Shroder is an award-winning journalist, writer, and editor for more than 30 years.

As editor of The Washington Post Magazine, he conceived and edited the story, Fatal Distraction. Written by award-winning journalist Gene Weingarten, the article probed the case where a toddler named Chase died in a hot car after his father accidentally left him there in the summer of 2008. The story asks: “Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?”

It was awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. Shroder also edited and contributed to Pearls Before Breakfast, which was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

In addition to being an author and editor of narrative journalism, Shroder is one of the foremost editors of humor in the country. He has edited humor columns by Weingarten, Dave Barry, and Tony Kornheiser. And, he conceived and launched the internationally syndicated comic strip, “Cul de Sac,” by Richard Thompson.

Shroder is also the author of three books, including his most recent, written with former oil-rig captain John Konrad, “Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster.” It was singled out among all the Gulf oil disaster books by the LA Times, which said that it “marries a John McPhee feel for the technology to a Jon Krakauer sense of an adventure turned tragic.”

His most recent editing project, “Top-Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State,” by Dana Priest and Bill Arkin, was a New York Times bestseller.

We sat down with Shroder in his home in Vienna, VA, to talk about his books, including our April 2013 Book of the Month, “Old Souls,” as well as his experience as a writer and editor at two of the nation’s top newspapers — The Miami Herald and The Washington Post.

  • Scroll down for our Q&A.

Inkandescent: First, let me say that we originally met when I was also working at The Miami Herald and you were the editor of the prestigious publication, Tropic magazine. Staff writers included Dave Barry, Gene Weingarten, among other notable columnists, and the art director was the amazing Philip Brooker.

I was a cub reporter at the time, and you were kind enough to accept and publish two of my essays, one about my father, called Daddy’s Girl, and the other about my experience being left at the altar, Prince of Darkness. I am grateful to you for publishing those posts.

So tell us, what drew you to journalism? And what steps did you take that landed you top spots on the staff of the Herald and the Post?

Tom Shroder: I went to the University of Florida, and was interested in being a novelist. I wanted to be able to affect people the way the best novels I had read affected me. I took a creative writing class with a really wonderful and quirky writer named Harry Crews. I loved it, but I noticed that unless I had a specific deadline for a story, I never really met it.

When I was still a student, on a year abroad traveling in Spain. I got off by myself to a mountaintop overlooking the Mediterranean. As I watched the sea crash against this cliff, I had a realization: I knew that I wanted to write, but to be successful I knew I needed more deadlines. I decided to join the student paper when I got back to the University of Florida.

Fortunately, this was a great time to get into journalism. It was right around the time of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. It was also the time where new journalism was getting a lot of attention, which was basically using the techniques of fiction and nonfiction in article writing.

I went to the newspaper office, which was in what was once the kitchen area of a former fast food place. The news desk was under the stove hood—there was still old grease on it; it was really disgusting.

I said, “I would like to work for the paper.” He said, “Do you have any experience?” and I said, “Well, no.” He said, “That doesn’t matter. Just show up.” In fact, that was great advice. I did show up, and I ended up realizing that I had a lot more in common with the people in the newspaper office than I did with the people in the creative writing class.

Inkandescent: Did you find that you had a talent for telling stories?

Tom Shroder: I did because my real inclination was to tell real stories, reported stories, in a way that made them feel like fiction because they were narratives with telling detail, suspense, and resolution. I found if you got deeply enough into any good, real story, it had all of those things. It was just a matter of being able to get close enough and deep enough into something to be able to tell it with that kind of authority.

That was the beginning of my journalism career. What I’ve wanted to do from the beginning has been to tell these great stories from real life and mine them out like they were gold. Then bring it all together and show people what took weeks or months discovering.

Inkandescent: How did you end up working with Gene Weingarten (pictured right) and Dave Barry, among other notable humor columnists?

Tom Shroder: When Gene Weingarten was going to become the editor of The Miami Herald Sunday magazine, he was looking for a number two. I was at The Cincinnati Enquirer at the time. I had submitted some clips to the Style section at the Miami Herald but didn’t get the job; I was disappointed about that. Then I got a call from Gene Weingarten, and he says that the Style section had brought him their final candidates and asked him what he thought.

He said to them that they should get Shroder. They said, “Oh, no, he wants to write the big feature stories, and we need someone who is going to produce a lot on a daily basis,” so they picked someone else. Gene said what he wanted in his editor at the Sunday magazine, and I told him that I had never edited professionally, but I did edit for the college paper years ago. He said, “I don’t care. What I really want is somebody who can approach each story as if he was writing it himself, and to hold every story he works with up to whatever standard he holds himself up to.”

I thought that was intriguing enough, so I started doing it—and I never turned back.

Inkandescent: How did you come to be the editor of the Herald’s Sunday Magazine, “Tropic,” and then land a big job as editor of the prestigious Washington Post Magazine, where you and Gene won the Pulitzer for your work on the story, Fatal Distraction?

Tom Shroder: Gene came to The Washington Post, and I got his job at “Tropic.” And I eventually was called to come to the Post and take over his job there. Eventually, Gene ended up working for me as a writer and columnist. And now, I edit his syndicated columns.

Inkandescent: I understand you took the buyout package at The Washington Post when they offered it. Talk about the changes you have seen in journalism in the last decade, and what is your forecast for what journalism will look like in the years to come?

Tom Shroder: What happened toward the end of my newspaper career was that all of the trends that made newspapers successful began to contract. In fact, it was a historical accident that newspapers made money hand over fist in the first place.

Fortunately for journalists—and readers—they used that money to fund really great investigative, feature journalism, and having articles with in-depth, narrative stories, all very expensive. It was never cost-justified, but it didn’t matter, because every time someone bought a paper for the classified ads, they were contributing money to this.

Inkandescent: What do you believe is the biggest reason for the shift?

Tom Shroder: It used to be that you had to have a printing press, which was a pretty expensive proposition. Now all you needed was a PC and you could be a competitor to a newspaper. Suddenly the money started draining out of it, and papers inevitably started shrinking dramatically and so did the resources they were spending on the editorial product. That was not fun.

I tried to be really creative and resourceful for a while, but then you realize there is no bottom; it is just going to continue to go down.

Inkandescent: Is that when you decided that the future for what you wanted to do was in books?

Tom Shroder: It was, because people were still buying books. Yes, the book industry is changing too, but people have in their DNA a desire to understand the world through stories. They don’t really understand the world through reports and statistics.

Inkandescent: Your books do tell great stories, especially Fire on the Horizon, about the Gulf oil disaster. A review in the Miami Herald called it “a fascinating look at a little-understood industry and a fast-paced and emotional story of the efforts to save the Deepwater Horizon. The authors’ account of the workers’ race to save themselves is thrilling and suspenseful, and yet the book is also a sensitive account of the lives forever changed.”

Tom Shroder: Thanks, and yes, this is a good example because there were millions of news stories about that accident. But until you tell the real story—the story of the people who lived through it, including what they saw, felt, heard, and how they understood the world in their own way, you didn’t understand what happened there.

Inkandescent: What kind of feedback did you get on that book?

Tom Shroder: I had a lot of people tell me that they read all of the stories and thought that they were going to feel like they knew everything they needed to know, but read my book and thought, “Oh, now I get it.” That happened throughout my journalism career and that was really what I was trying to do. I think that ever since we told each other stories around the fire during the Paleolithic era, it has been the way we experience life, and it is the way we understand it, through narrative.

Inkandescent: The same was true of your first book, Seeing the Light, a biography of Everglades photographer Clyde Butcher. It featured black-and-white images of what Kirkus Reviews called a “primeval-looking landscape,” noting that “Clyde Butcher’s unusual life as chronicled by Tom Shroder and John Barry is nearly mythic in its sweep.”

That’s a pretty great review! And now you are working on your fourth book, which has the working title, “Acid Test.” Tell us about it.

Tom Shroder: This is about a movement that was underground for years and has now come above ground to rehabilitate the use of psychedelic drugs for serious purposes as an aid in psychotherapy among other things. In fact, doctors used to treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder with psychotropic medication—and most recently they have begun to do trials where they are using MDMA (ecstacy) with psychotherapy to treat people with combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a huge problem for not only our country but also the entire world.

There are estimates that 12 percent to 20 percent of Americans who went to war in Iraq or Afghanistan are coming home with some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. If you just want to look at it from a purely monetary point of view, it will cost taxpayers close to a $1 trillion over the next 30 years. It is a huge problem, and there isn’t a really effective treatment for it. The drug that they are using for that in the trials is MDMA, which is also known as ecstasy. It was known as the party drug, which made it difficult to do the research because people are scared of it or don’t take it seriously. In preliminary trials, it showed tremendous effect.

Inkandescent: And you are following a veteran through the process—a man who had very severe PTSD, and for whom none of the treatments he was getting did any good.

Tom Shroder: That’s right. He was on the verge of suicide, which is also epidemic. I think most people are aware of service people committing suicide. A lot of it is related to PTSD. He went through the trial and is now one of the most emotionally strong people I’ve ever met. He is a relative kid, in his mid-20s, but he is incredibly mature and he faces a lot of life difficulties, but faces them with a lot of grace.

Inkandescent: How does the MDMA help?

Tom Shroder: The MDMA seems to quiet the fear and anxiety part of your brain. Part of the problem with PTSD is that whenever you get close to the root causes of it, your body goes on high alert and the alarms start shrieking. It just makes matters worse. That is why people can’t cure themselves or work themselves out of it.

The MDMA not only quiets the fear and anxiety and gives you a sense of feeling protected, but in therapy it enables you to go into these dangerous areas and start to untie the notes. It also seems to heighten memory, especially of emotionally significant events, and propel it to come to the surface where it can be felt and dealt with in a non-fear environment. That whole combination seems to be incredibly effective in helping people short-circuit the patterns that have kept them locked in the PTSD cycle.

Inkandescent: That sounds really interesting. When is the book coming out?

Tom Shroder: It should be out sometime in the next year.

Inkandescent: Thank you so much for your time, Tom. We look forward to reading “Acid Test,” and to interviewing you again when it comes out.

To listen to our entire interview with Tom Shroder, click over to the Inkandescent Radio Network.

Shroder is also the newest addition to our Inkandesent Speakers Bureau. Click here to view his speaking topics.