Steve Kurkjian the Mastermind: Pulitzer Winning Themes

Photo: Kurkjian at The Boston Globe Pulitzer Prize Winners by J. Wilder Bill

Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Master Thieves, Steve Kurkjian on Pulitzer Winning Themes—

While Stephen tirelessly researches and investigations, his recognition wouldn’t have reached such heights without his 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.

Purpose of the Theme

Kurkjian takes responsibility as a journalist by informing the public of what it lost as a result of the art theft. His objective in writing the book creates his theme and ties the subplots together. He shares a personal curiosity about the theft because his father was an artist. He identifies with the value of history being taken away due to his ancestors surviving the Armenian genocide. He dedicated his life to bringing awareness to the public for the purpose of demanding justice.

Which qualities in a writer do you consider most critical in creating a story with an impact?

Ernest Hemingway, who began his writing career as a reporter with the Toronto Star, said in an interview years later that working for a newspaper can make someone a better writer but they have to have “quit” in time. By that, I am thinking he meant that if the reporter wants to become a creative writer they must give up the standards/principles that journalism is based on and depend on a different set of tools in capturing the readers’ attention. 

Whereas Fairness and thoroughness are needed in journalism, imagination is the essential element – and determination the difference-maker between success and failure – of the creative writer. (I recall an interview with Bruce Springsteen in which Ted Koppel asked him now that he was successful and well-to-do, how would Bruce write those songs which were so vivid about the underclass and the downtrodden. Only a hint of his songs stemmed from real-life experience, Bruce responded, the rest was pure imagination and the gifts of language and song.) I like to tell the journalism students whom I teach that they should have no illusion they are artists – we’re craftsmen, and –women. Your siblings who are cooks, ballet dancers or woodworkers are the artists in your family.

Present one theory, relay the facts from every angle, and then present another theory.

Since the crime that I was writing about in Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, has not been solved I needed to present the facts of the case in the clearest way. That included showing why a select number of individuals had been considered suspects yet the doubt that involved each of them, which meant why they were never indicted, and why they never assisted with any recovery.

Deliver suspense.

I knew the material would turn tedious if the reader enters the chapter or segment knowing that the individual isn’t going to lead to a recovery. But I still present them in their most human terms – what brought them to the attention of the authorities, what shreds tied the to the case, etc. –  and in that way made the reader like a mini-investigator capturing the thrill of the hunt as well as the frustration of the final say.

Is your style of leaving no stone unturned a secret weapon for creating award winning stories? Can you tell us what makes a writer rise to the level of winning a Pulitzer?

Working with diligence and determination, and writing with honesty and clarity are the essential elements of great reporting. I often say that the most powerful sentence in the English language starts with these words: 

“I am (name of the reporter) from (the local newspaper) and I would like to know….” 

Inspired by free press.

The reason has nothing to do with the name of the individual or even the news organization they represent, but more important because of the First Amendment to the American Constitution which ensures the freedom of the press. We have an essential role in a functioning democracy and it’s the reason why Jefferson wrote that if he had to choose between a free press or government, he’s opt for the free press. And the reason is that he knew that the only way that divergent views on public policies – those expressed by the minority party – would never get the attention of the public unless there was an independent press showing where the majority party was failing to meet its obligations to the citizenry, where tyranny, corruption or force was taking place rather than adequate performance. The press/media has immense influence in what the public thinks about the performance of government and major institutions in America, but it also has immense responsibilities in carrying out those responsibilities.

Clean writing style.

I would like to say that my creative writing was responsible for any of my three Pulitzers but it wasn’t. Creative writers don’t usually come out of journalism. There a terrific Hemingway quote, which I used in my book that goes something like this: 

“Working for a newspaper can make you a better writer but you have to quit in time.” 

Having spent a 40-year career in newspapering I can say definitively that I never quit my craft.

Facts for journalism.

But in thinking about Hemingway’s statement, I have come to understand the reasons why it is such a truthful one. The newspaper account is primarily based on a strict adherence to facts. There is little left to the imagination, and the best pieces of fiction are based primarily on imagination. 

Imagination for fiction.

I remember vividly an interview that Bruce Springsteen gave decades ago and a reporter asked him now that he was famous and well-off how would he be able to capture those tales of the denied and downtrodden, whether in desperate cities or dried-out villages. Springsteen looked at him and said none of those stories had come out of any personal experience that Springsteen had – they all flowed from his imagination.

Unique perception for great story telling.

And it told me that the best of our writers are those with the most vivid imagination, who are willing to put in the hard work of hammering their stories into creative fiction. The story comes out of a single character or experience but then the writer, like the sculptor working at an anvil, has to hammer and hammer away until they have conveyed the essence of what their eyes saw in a moment’s notice or a chance conversation.

Faulkner said he gained the idea of Sound and Fury – perhaps the greatest work of fiction with the greatest title ever written – from a single scene: watching a little girl swinging high on a swing and exposing her britches while doing so. Now that’s an artist, that’s a creator!

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Thank you, Stephen Kurkjian, not just for sharing your five star writing techniques, but also for caring about your readers. Your devotion to writing transformed your family hardships and talents into a vehicle for protecting others. You’ve made a positive global impact that will continue for generations. 

Connect with Kurkjian at www.stephenkurkjian.com to learn more about the facts behind Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, and keep an eye out for the release of the movie.

For more thoughts on factual writing, please see, Stephen Kurkjian Mastermind: Plotting Style & Stephen Kurkjian Mastermind: Presenting Complex Relationships.

 

Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Plotting Style

Photo: The Boston Globe by J. Wilder Bill

Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Kurkjian brainstorms story structure and plotting.

In his non-fiction book, Master Thieves, Kurkjian begins with the suspect who has the most emotional connection to the crime scene and ends with the suspect who has the clearest motive. In between is a diverse cast of outrageous criminals who have complicated relationships with one another. He interviewed witnesses, investigators, and suspects for hundreds of hours. Then, compared their testimonies.

The evidence is layered with several theories that build on one-another. He holds back information, until he’s established his case to support a fresh theory. He concludes with documented proof.

What is your criteria in deciding the order you reveal the facts and introduction of characters?

With newspaper articles, the structure is almost always the same, and is built like an inverted triangle. The key element of the article is at the top of the story – and it is written as directly/powerfully as possible. These stories usually are written after months of reporting so there is a lot of material to wade through to figure out “what it all means,” “what do I have here,” and how do I convey this material so the most important element is at the top and potential lasting impact of the information is conveyed.

Pulitzer winner structure.

Remember in the movie SPOTLIGHT there was an internal debate on the team as to whether the original story that would be written would focus on one priest – Fr. John Geoghan – whom the Boston Archdiocese had moved from parish to parish despite a litany of complaints about his molesting boys at each past assignment or focus on that there were dozens of such priests within the Archdiocese who had such allegations against them. 

Strongest facts shape the lead and set up future stories.

In the end, the editor of The Globe decided the initial story would focus on Geoghan and that decision was primarily based on the fact that the Spotlight reporters had information on Geoghan which was more unassailably true than the conclusion that similar forgiving actions appeared to have been taken on other priests. Newspaper articles need to be accurate, especially investigative ones, and the fact that Geoghan was not a solitary figure within the Archdiocese, that there were so many other priests who had abused kids who had been treated with such forgiveness by the church, would be revealed with future coverage.

Research is critical.

Investigative articles like this are meant to shock the reader, to capture their attention. Often though the material is complicated and perhaps suggestive of an abuse rather than convincing. The necessity is to present the reporting as accurately as possible – with on-the-record interviewing; documentation; and data collection. Data rebuts or clouds the revelation must also be included as well as an honest effort to convey “the other side,” that is the explanation of the individual, agency or institution whose performance is being questioned by the article.

Theme trumps motivation.

When it comes to motivation I pretty much subscribe to the explanation that Sidney Pollack gave to George Clooney who asked in the movie Michael Clayton why a colleague may have committed suicide: “Because people are fucking inscrutable, that’s why.” I can divine a host of reasons as to why a person might make an act that I would be writing about – greed, ambition, hatred, fear and even loyalty. But most often my readers aren’t interested in motivation – as an investigative reporter, my assignment is to come up with stories that they would not have otherwise known about had it not been for my reporting.

Facts boost story transitions.

The stories that I most often deal with are complicated matters, replete with data, anecdotal information, quotes and summary paragraphs which often serve as transitions. That’s a lot to pack in, and I like to organize the material before I actually sit down to write. The outline is what I call the spin of my story.

Sentence structure.

Being complicated, I try to write as directly as possible, and the more complicated the material, the shorter my sentences. I am wary of making the material tedious to weigh through so I arrange my paragraphs in such a way that every succeeding paragraph is going to address a question that might naturally flow out of the previous paragraph.

Establish the lead and summary.

Once I have finished stacking the material in as seamless a fashion as I can, I usually know what my lead will be, what my summary paragraph will be – at The Globe we use to call it the “who-ha” graph which basically translates into why the reader should be spending his valuable time in reading it, taken together what do the facts of the article say about the administration of justice or effectiveness of a particular agency that we are writing about.

Isolate shocking facts.

The outline will also isolate the major abuses that my reporting has found, and present them in a clear, hopefully powerful way, and include quantifiable data that shows the reader that the reporting is solid/accurate and substantive. 

Do you develop a story by plotting the arc of a hero’s journey before you investigate, or does the information you learn develop the pattern of the plot?

I spend an inordinate amount of time during and after completing my reporting in analyzing what I have found. That material – the proof that supports/proves – the lead is presented in summary form in the top third of the story. In addition, the top third contains the summary graph that presents how the abuse happened but also the underlying causes for it and what that abuse says about the overall integrity/effectiveness of the institution in question.

Show the how, why, and what in first third of story.

At the Globe, this paragraph is called “the who-ha” graph and is meant to convey the overall significance of what the article has revealed. Investigative reporters are in the end social scientists who have discovered something new and aberrant that has been taking place in our community and that this aberration is having a negative effect on the people within the community.

Selecting a hook.

During my career as an investigative reporter, I liked working on issues/articles that affected the largest number of people. Such stories usually involved me with public health, education, safety, transportation and the health of the local economy. These agencies that provide these essential services – schools, police and fire, economic development, public works, public hospitals, and courts – are paid for by the taxpayers’ dollars and it is an essential for newspapers and media organizations to be evaluating how effective they are doing their jobs. If the police are making fewer arrested for domestic abuse; if minorities are being stopped and frisked for minor traffic offenses; if the survival rate of cardiac patients is less (or more) at our local hospital; of some neighborhood streets get quicker snow plow services than others because politically-connected people live in the favored neighborhoods – then all of those possibilities deserve attention or at least awareness.

Standards for a journalist.

Reporters are trained in the essentials of journalism – fairness and thoroughness – in every course that they take. Such standards are maintained at every newspaper, regardless of their size, in the country and readers should be aware that such standards underlie every article that they read, and know that they can depend on the product of that reporting.

An example of objective and complete reporting.

Such an approach worked for me when I confronted a priest who several men had alleged had sexually abused them years before. This was during the height of The Globe’s coverage of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and was shown vividly – with one major inaccuracy – in the movie SPOTLIGHT. 

Stephen Kurkjian continues brainstorming at Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Pulitzer Quality Writing & at Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Presenting Complex Relationships.

Stephen Kurkjian the Mastermind: Presenting Complex Relationships

Stephen Kurkjian at a book signing

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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