There’s a scene in A False Report I think of often. Stacy Galbraith, a police detective in Golden, Colorado, goes home after work. She tells her husband about a case she’s working—a rape investigation with all kinds of chilling twists. Her husband works at another police department, nearby. He listens, then tells her: We’ve got a case just like that.
What are the odds of that conversation? There’s no calculating, but I’m confident they’re long.
The next morning, Galbraith sends an email to her husband’s department, asking for information. A fellow detective, Edna Hendershot, responds. The two join up. They share critical details, pool resources, reach out to other police departments, build a team, and, in time, close in on a serial rapist who figured this would never happen. He knew how police worked. He studied them. For whatever reason—turf, distrust, insufficient networks—police struggled to work across jurisdictional lines. That’s why the rapist committed his attacks in one jurisdiction, then another, then another.
Four years after Galbraith sent that email, putting everything in motion, I received one of my own. It was from my editor at The Marshall Project, a news organization that writes about criminal justice. The subject line had two words: “Oh shit.” My editor, Bill Keller, had just learned from an editor at another news organization, ProPublica, that ProPublica was chasing the same story that I had been working on for months.
That story? This story—the story of a serial rapist who attacked women in Washington, then Colorado, the story of how the first woman he raped was not believed and was even charged with filing a false report. In partnership with the radio show This American Life, I had been working on the story in Washington, with plans to go later to Colorado. T. Christian Miller, a ProPublica reporter, had been working on the story in Colorado, with plans to go later to Washington. Well, T—he goes by T, not Christian—crossed state lines first, and discovered he had competition.
Here’s what could have happened next. Here’s what would have happened next, in years gone by. ProPublica could have rushed its story into print. It could have taken whatever steps were necessary to beat us. I’ve worked in places with two papers. That’s what news shops do. We compete. But that’s not what happened here.
T and I joined up. We snapped our two halves of the story together, to make a whole. And the story was the better for it. Writing is often viewed as a solitary enterprise. “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” Hemingway, ever the martyr, said upon receiving his Nobel. Maybe that was true for him (although I have doubts). But the telling of this story, each step of the way, relied on teamwork and trust.
T and I wrote a 12,000-word story, published online. We had five editors. Each one made the story better. One came up with a brilliant idea for structure. Another saved us from an epilogue that was much too long.
Producer Robyn Semien and I drafted a 9,000-word script for This American Life. Then I traveled to New York and learned how writing, for radio, is a communal act. We sat around a table. There were maybe eight of us, including Ira Glass. Each person had a laptop. Each laptop had the script up—in editing mode, not “read only.” We wrote through the story—together, everyone typing away, words flying in, words flying out. It was terrifying. But it worked.
As for A False Report, an agent once told me that publishers shy away from books with two authors. Too often, she said, the writers aren’t talking to each other by manuscript’s end, which can make editing a wee difficult. T and I found our way through. I favor dashes. He favors colons. We swapped some colons into my chapters and some dashes into his chapters. We still talk to each other.
Next up will be an eight-part dramatized series, scheduled to air later this year on Netflix. The working title is “Unbelievable.” The writing will, again, be the work of a team, this one comprising Susannah Grant (an Oscar nominee for Erin Brockovich), and the literary power couple of Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. Their marriage has somehow survived joint writing projects. They even take walks together in which they hash out the finer points of a story’s plot.
Who knows what Hemingway would make of that.
The plaque for the 2019 PNBA Book Award for A False Report will be presented to Ken Armstrong at a local, independent bookstore, location and time TBD. nwbooklovers is posting original essays from this year’s award winners as featured posts in January and February. You can enjoy essays from past winners of the PNBA Book Award in our archive.