Believing in what you write: Four Questions with John Branch

Interviews
John Branch

John Branch has been a sports reporter for The New York Times since 2005. His feature about a deadly avalanche in Washington state, “Snow Fall,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, and his work has been featured six times in “Best American Sports Writing.” His series about the death of NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the subject of his book, “Boy on Ice,” which won the PEN/ESPN Prize for Literary Sports Writing. His other books include one about a championship rodeo family in Utah called “The Last Cowboys” and “Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports.”

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

Believe 100 percent in what you write. I know people who have angles or hot takes that they don’t believe, but know it will get attention. I know people who write in ways (everything from angle to style to the words chosen) to please others, like editors or sources or readers. Be you. Your name is at the top. If you don’t believe in every word below it, why should anyone else? 

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I have a writing life at all. I never imagined it. I was a manager for Costco until I was 29. When I went back to school to get a journalism degree, I truly didn’t know if I would be any good at writing. I had never published anything. I thought it would be fun to be a reporter, and I figured I had read enough newspaper stories in my life that I knew good ones from bad ones. My first published article, I think, was a gamer for a baseball game as a stringer for the Denver Post, and the editor on duty seemed pleasantly surprised at how quickly I did it and how clean the copy was. People have been giving me opportunities ever since. Believe me, I sometimes don’t think I do this very well. I’m always about one painful graf or story away from thinking I’m a fraud about to be exposed. 

If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I’m devoted to non-fiction, so I’m a bigger fan of similes. They feel more honest. As a writer, I’m like a winding trail in the woods. You might not always see where you’re going, but I think you’ll appreciate exploring what’s around the next bend.  

What’s the best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Just go. That sounds like it has more to do with reporting than writing, but those two things are the heart and lungs of journalism. One’s not much good without the other. Every story starts with a foggy idea and lots of questions: What are the angles? Who are the characters? Where are the threads to pull? The answers can be hard to see, obscured by cubicle walls or the glow of the laptop, our preconceived notions or lack of imagination. The best brainstorming sessions end with an editor — I’m thinking of Jason Stallman at The New York Times — giving the best advice: Just go. It is never a bad decision. After all, my job is to take people places through my writing, and I can’t do that if I don’t go there with my reporting. Sure, I’ve written plenty of pieces that were reported and written from my desk. But I have never loved any of them.  



Craft Query: How would you answer these three questions?

May the writing go well.

Photograph by Danka & Pete courtesy of unsplash.com

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