Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Presenting Complex Relationships

Photo: Compliments of Stephen Kurkjian

Author Stephen Kurkjian is known for his life-changing stories as an investigative journalist for The Boston Globe. He is a hero who grinds out the truth of a story to benefit the public. His tenacity in uncovering the facts is shown by his receiving numerous awards, and his winning the Pulitzer Prize three times puts Stephen Kurkjian within the most talented league of authentic storytellers.

Kurkjian reached such heights by developing a powerful writing style. He authored a nonfiction book, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, which creates such complex controversies regarding the theories behind the unsolved mystery, it is being made into a movie. 

I had the pleasure of getting to know Kurkjian while he investigated the art theft. I am thrilled to share his award-winning writing techniques over a series of articles where he brainstormed the elements of style. 

Presenting Complex Relationships

Stephen covers every angle with an emphasis on revealing the perceptions of the people he interviews, which read as fully developed characters. He introduces each prospective criminal with his back story. He uses the lifetime of struggles and desires to pave an explanation of how each could have been involved with the art heist. Stephen’s colorful descriptions made me care about the suspects. 

How do you develop a character a reader can relate while exposing their darkest sides?

The characters whom I write about have not been created by me as I write solely in non-fiction. What I try to convey about them is their uniqueness, what sets them apart from their criminal associates. For the most part, it is because they were smarter and/or more violent than their associates, and I try to capture/convey that as honestly as possible.

How to approach an interviewee. 

I like to let such associates describe/define themselves so as much as possible I seek interviews with the bad guys whom I am writing about. I am persistent in seeking their cooperation but never offensively so. (You have to remember these men usually have a tendency towards violence!) My first approach is to their lawyers so the target knows right from the start that I am trying co interview them, and why. I also let them know why I am seeking their cooperation – how they fit into the story. These men don’t like to be surprised, nor upset.

Establishing elements of back story.

It is important in writing about them in newspaper articles to try not to magnify their roles or mock them. I will include some of what may seem like their excesses – the frequency of their dropping F-bombs in their answers; their suspicious natures or narrowness of views – but I also try to get to what drives them to use violence, real or faked, as a tool in their everyday operation.

Support the allegation.

How to assure myself of that? Every case is different, but I always depend on documentation to prove my allegation – and not opinion or an unidentified source. Second, I make every attempt to confront the person whom I am writing about with the substance of the allegation before I publish it. That means giving the person a copy of the document on which I am basing my article, or providing them with the data on which I am basing my conclusions about their performance.

Level of proof.

After deciding on what story I am going to pursue, my basic rule of thumb of whether I have proven the allegation is “beyond a shadow of a doubt.” To be indicted on a criminal charge, it must be shown that the offense took place “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That’s not good enough for me because I believe that I am going to be taking away something even more valuable than a person’s liberty/freedom by a negative story, I am going to target his reputation. There is an old country expression that I was brought up on, lose your arm before you lose your name. So before I publish an allegation, I want to make absolutely sure that it is correct.

Getting the interviewee to open up.

In the end it is almost like asking the individual to confess his crime, or at least provide an explanation for why they did such an offensive act. The approach I take in such cases is to confront the individual in person and tell him or her that such criminality or corruption will continue to go on unless those who are caught in its grips speak up and explain why they did it.

What to report.

My job as an investigative reporter begins by answering two fundamental questions about a piece of information that has been presented to me as news (we call it a “tip”): 

1.) Is it true? And, can I prove it is true so I can document it. 

Once, I pass through those two gates, the next question that I must answer for myself and my readers is: 

2.) Even if it is true, is it worth the time and hard work that it is going to take to publish it in the paper? 

Choosing a hook.

As a rule of thumb, I prefer to spend my time reporting on issues that involve the greatest amount of people – so tips involving the public health, education, public safety and transportation gain my most interest. To write about a public works commissioner who had a lavish vacation home built for him free of charged by a developer whom he had favored with multi-million dollar contracts is going to draw headlines, of course, but is it a more important story than showing public transit in our community discriminates against poorer, black neighborhoods with slower service and more unreliable buses and drivers? Those questions must be asked by reporters and editors all the time.

Baiting the hook.

Since I am a news reporter I try to find the motivation that would explain why an individual might have committed a particular act. As you know, the reporter’s job is to answer these fundamental questions of an event – 

1.) Who did it? 

2.) What happened?

3.) Where did it take place and when? 

4.) How did it happen? and,

5.) Why did it happen? — the most important and difficult question to answer.

For more thoughts on factual writing, please see, Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Plotting Style & at Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Pulitzer Quality Writing.

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