March 7 2012 12:00 AM

'Horse Soldiers' author Doug Stanton shares insights at MSU lecture


Doug Stanton was just outgrowing his “Cat in the Hat” stage when the author Gay Talese, one of the progenitors of the “new journalism” movement, wrote a seminal article for Esquire on Frank Sinatra that still influences the Traverse City writer.

When Stanton talks about writing he often circles back to Talese’s 1966 gem of reporting, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” and how that single article was instrumental in his writing career.

Stanton, the author of “In Harm’s Way” and “The Horse Soldiers,” is a chronic multi-tasker, and Sunday was no exception as he talked about his upcoming visit to Michigan State University while making a dry ice delivery to his father.

A graduate of Hampshire College and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Stanton still talks with amazement that Talese wrote the 16,000-word article without ever interviewing Sinatra, basing everything on interviews with his friends, acquaintances, business associates and “blonde” admirers (who today we would call groupies) to create a very intimate, almost cinematic portrait of the performer.

The Traverse City author has not only embraced the narrative non-fiction style of new journalism; he took it one step further by deconstructing the Talese article. The term “new journalism” broadly describes a style of writing that adapts a literary style in place of cut-and-dried reporting, often with a lack of objectivity. Some of the most noted new journalism writers are Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Joan Didion and Norman Mailer.

Stanton said he carefully dissected the article about Ol´ Blue Eyes to piece together how Talese wrote it.

“I asked myself what questions Talese would have had to ask to write the story,” Stanton said. “That’s how I learned how to do an interview. You can learn everything you need to know about interviewing from that single article.” 

Stanton also gives credit to his spouse, Anne, who was a newspaper reporter at the Traverse City Northern Express.

He also learned that serendipitous local connections — in this case, author Jim Harrison — can help launch a career. Harrison, a novelist who was living in the Traverse region, was also a contributor for Esquire and introduced Stanton to an editor, which helped him land some assignments, including celebrity profiles of Woody Harrelson, Harrison Ford and George Clooney.

One article Stanton is especially proud of is a profile he did on rock star John Mellencamp for Men’s Journal. “It wasn’t about music. It was about larger issues, such as identity. It was about how a man does his work and who they are when no one is looking.”

Stanton followed Mellencamp on tour and recalls noticing what he called the musician’s “odd shoes.”

“I’d never seen anything like them before,” he said, and he found himself crawling around on the floor to discover the name of the brand.

“God’s in the details,” he said.

Years later, he would find himself applying those principals while writing his two New York Times best-selling books, both of which delve deeply into men at war, something which Stanton has never experienced personally.

In “In Harm’s Way,” he follows the men of the USS Indianapolis, which was sunk by a Japanese submarine after delivering components of the atomic bomb during World War II. More than 800 men perished, mostly from shark attacks and exposure, before rescuers were able to reach the 316 survivors.

The story was originally a magazine piece, but after attending a reunion of the survivors, Stanton decided the piece could be expanded into a book. The story of the Indianapolis sinking had been told before in detail, but he decided to look at it from a personal viewpoint of survivors.

However, when he decided to look into the early war in Afghanistan very little was known about the small group of Special Forces that rode horses into battle.

He would do hundreds of interviews to piece together the military action. The only way he could do that was to talk to the participants, who are normally reticent about talking to writers.

Recognizing his lack of knowledge about the military, Stanton said you can’t underestimate “the power of a dumb question. Asking a dumb question can be disarming.”

He believes his lack of knowledge actually “built up an urge for (the Special Forces members) to talk to me. But you really don’t know why someone will let you in.”

His naivety and persistence worked. He recalls an interview with Col. Mark Mitchell that lasted nine hours, followed by innumerable phone calls. Stanton also visited Afghanistan twice while doing research for the book.

Both “In Harm’s Way” and “Horse Soldiers” are being developed as movies.

During his visit to MSU, Stanton will talk with two classes about writing and his experiences, in addition to giving the World View Lecture sponsored by the Residential College of Arts and Humanities on March 19 at the Wharton Center. He said for today’s young people something doesn’t exist “unless it’s on Facebook or Twitter.”

In the class on mythic heroism taught by Residential College of Arts and Humanities Dean Stephen Esquith, Stanton will talk about his experiences writing about the World War II and Afghanistan veterans and explore what it means to be a hero in modern times. “Very broadly, heroism is the name they put on tragedy after the shooting stops,” Stanton said.

 His message to them will be something he learned while writing “In Harm’s Way”: “Heroism is doing the right thing when no one is looking.”

Doug Stanton

7:30 p.m. March 19
Cobb Great Hall,
Wharton Center