Where Stories Are: Four Questions with Tom Hallman Jr.

Tom Hallman

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

Read. Everything. Constantly. If you don’t read, you can’t be a writer. Want to be a musician? Then you have to listen to music. I often ask writers what they are reading. They tell me what TV shows and movies they watch, but struggle to come up with anything they are currently reading.
Books, magazine pieces, short stories and news stories need to be part of a writer’s ongoing curriculum. 
Working on a moody crime story?
How would Elmore Leonard handle it?
Trying to tell a historical story?
Look at what William Manchester did with Winston Churchill.
Want to grab a reader?
Get Harlen Coben, Stephen King or Lee Child. 
Learn from others.
If you work at a newspaper, get out of the office. Stories don’t exist there, but out in the world. Stay in the office and you will be re-writing press releases or covering news events that every TV station has already covered.
Want originality? Get out there where people are living.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The ability to continue to grow and learn. I feel like am always in grad school, learning how to be a better interviewer, better storyteller. I like the process of storytelling. There is no finish line. I want to get better with each story.
I remember my first big story in my career. I thought I’ll never get a story that good again. I was wrong. I just had to go find it.

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

A cat.
I’ve been around Hells Angels, surgeons, cops, kids, teachers, loggers, drug dealers, gang members, nuns. I’ve watched a baby die. I never act like I am better than anyone else. I never judge anyone. I act the same around people whether that is a CEO or a janitor.
Most days my lunch hour consists of me walking around downtown Portland. I’m curious, like a cat. 
I overhear conversations. I wander into places. I talk with strangers – usually people who rarely get noticed.
A few months ago, I was walking to work early in the morning when I saw this man reading a book in his truck. I stopped and asked him what he was reading.
He held up a book: The Rise of Germany, 1939-1941.
This was a scruffy looking guy, the last person you would ever imagine reading that book.
I asked him why.
He said he loves to learn by reading books about all subjects. He was on a break, which means he was working while the rest of us were sleeping. He told me his job is cleaning the city’s public toilets.
No higher education.
Yet every morning he reads in his truck, his classroom.
That’s how you find stories.

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

The tip came from Jack Hart, my editor on some of my best work: Read a story out loud. Such a great way to hear the flaws in a story.
My tip is this: When I have something long, be it for the paper, or a book or a piece magazine piece, I always make a hard copy. I edit that. I always end up cutting about 20 percent from what I thought was a completed story.

Tom Hallman Jr. a senior writer for The Oregonian, is considered one of the nation’s premier narrative writers. During his career, he has won every major feature-writing award, including the Pulitzer Prize, some for stories that took months to report, others less than a couple of hours. The stories range from the drama of life and death in a neo-natal unit, to the quiet pride of a man graduating from college. A common thread in all of Hallman’s stories is the exploration of the character’s heart and soul. 
He is a frequent contributor to Readers Digest. He is the author of four books. His book, “Sam: The Boy Behind the Mask,” was published in 2002. He writes a column on writing for Quill Magazine. Hallman has been a speaker at National Writer’s Workshops and at papers across the United States. He has taught at USC, Notre Dame and Brown University.

May the writing go well.


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