Christopher Anthony Jones is a British singer-songwriter renown for featuring the vocals and lyrics on "Going Wrong", written and produced by Dutch trance/progressive DJ and producer Armin van Buuren plus German trance DJ and producer Roger Shah. This track was present in the Dutch charts for nine successive weeks and has been viewed more than 19,000,000 times on YouTube.
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Hey everybody. I’m here to talk about whatever you’d like—life, writing, my sincere gratitude for all the fish—but especially about my new feature story in Esquire, “Away.” It’s about astronaut Scott Kelly, who will soon be the first American headed into space for an entire year. The mission is an analogue for a future Mars mission—a chance to study the long-term effects of weightlessness, confinement, and homesickness on a generous, sarcastic fifty-year-old man who loves his girlfriend, two daughters, and Texans football.
The story follows Scott’s journey as he prepares to say goodbye. An excerpt is here: http://www.esquire.com/blogs/news/away-scott-kelly-mission-excerpt. It’s about pooping in space, which I thought I should get out of the way quickly. The rest of the story is available for $2.99, because the Joker told me that if you’re good at something, never do it for free.
Sorry if you were expecting one of the athlete Chris Joneses. Boy, are you in the wrong place.
All right, signing out. Thanks for the questions everybody, and I hope you enjoy "Away." Maybe there's a good Vine to be made out of it.
How has the dawn of social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Updog, etc. affected the landscape of longform journalism?
I don't think it's changed the writing of them very much. It has changed the way they're received and the writer's interaction with the audience. I'm old enough that when I started, the Internet was just sort of coming into its own. I rarely heard from readers, except for inmates, mostly, who have time to write letters. I could also pretend that everybody who bought the paper or magazine read every word I wrote.
Now we know exactly how many people read a story, and how many didn't finish it, and they'll tell you how much you suck (or how much they liked a story, which is nicer!). It can be a bit hard to deal with and I haven't always done as well as I could have there. For me, anyway, it's led me to try to rely on the work itself for my self-esteem or sense of self-worth. You can't really control how something will be received. You just write the best story you can and hope it catches. But if you get too caught up in Likes and tweets, it can seize you up, I think.
Jones, love your writing––The Things That Carried Him is a masterful piece of work.
I'm interested in your approach you take to a story. Do you take the same approach: Do you interview set number of people, do x amount of legwork, etc. before you even begin writing? Do you write as you go? How many drafts and how much editing do you do before you send in a piece to editors?
And what the hell do you do to fight off writer's block?
I don't believe in writer's block. Never had it. Some days it flows more than others, but I don't get paid if I'm not writing. So I write. I have a plumber coming here tomorrow and I'll be pretty pissed if he isn't feeling pipes that much when he gets here.
I don't have a set number of people or anything like that. I report as hard as I can, for as long as I can, until basically I'm forced by deadline to write. I'll write some scenes right away, like, in the hotel room that night, just so they're fresh and vivid, but mostly when I get home from the road I sit down and just start cranking it out. My first draft is usually pretty terrible, but then I can shape it more than if I have nothing in front of me. I do a bunch of rewrites before I even submit my stuff. Then quite a lot of back and forth with my editor.
For me, magazine writing works because I feel like I have the time to do a good job. For some people, it would be mind-numbing. They couldn't live with a story for six months or whatever. That's heaven for me.
What's your process for choosing stories, and how did you find this one?
That's a good question. I actually love what Ira Glass said on here about it... I can't remember the exact quote, but it something like "It's like harnessing luck as an industrial product. If you want to get hit by lightning, you have to spend time in the rain."
Essentially, I'm always looking for stories. I probably pitch two dozen ideas for each one my editors take. This one, I've always been fascinated with space and keep an eye out. I wrote a story maybe ten years ago about Expedition Six, the mission on the ISS when Columbia was lost. I've been hooked since then. Scott's story is the next step in our journey to Mars. I hope one day I get to write the story of that landing, and then I'll keel over and die.
After your recent Penelope Cruz article controversy, I have to ask, what is it like to interview celebrities and write profiles on them?
Um, how to answer this? Generally, I don't like doing celebrity profiles. Sometimes you get a good one. I will always be a fan of Justin Timberlake, for instance, because we dressed like Bert and Ernie and went to ComicCon, which was a great experience. But it's usually a pretty strange deal, like a blind date where you're clearly the ugly one.
I'm not a particularly strong writer, so I like to report deeply on something, and hope that the details make people overlook the clumsiness of some of my prose. It also makes writing easier for me when I feel like I have a lot of material to choose from. Celebrity profiles, you don't always have that. With Penelope, we spent maybe ninety minutes in a restaurant (the worst setting for a story) and that's it. I didn't have much material. I'd gone to the bullfights and honestly thought they were a better story.
It was pretty simple math. I don't have the material to write a good story, and I'm not a good enough writer to fake it. So, how about this story instead?
I don't recommend doing that by the way. Editors generally want you to deliver the story they've asked for.
Were you able to see/touch any of the equipment or gear going up with Kelly?
I saw his Soyuz capsule being put together in Kazakhstan, but they don't let you touch any of that stuff. The oils from your skin can damage the equipment. I will say it's interesting to hang out with astronauts, with people who've been to space. Maybe it's just in my head, but they seem different in a lot of ways. They look like us, but they aren't like us.
Huge fan Chris. Even if my question isn't about you.
What do we have to do to get Wright back on Twitter?
I suspect Wright is never coming back to Twitter and will be happier for it. We've all attracted our fair share of non-admirers who try to get in your ear. Wright's found the best way to fight back. He turns off his computer and books his next flight to Uruguay or Sri Lanka or Bosnia.
How do you feel about porridge?
I am not big on porridge, and when people sprinkle raisins into it, I want to puke.
I actually had a hard time following the placement and purpose of the giant hole at the launch site. Did Kelly actually climb down the whole thing?
Crap. Sorry. Let me try to do better... Below the rocket and its pad, there is this huge crater that has been dug out. I mean, it's really big. And the rocket kind of hangs suspended over it, over a hole in the pad. The crater is there to give the rocket's fire somewhere to go. If you didn't have the crater, the rocket would burn itself up before it had chance to lift off. So the crater is like an escape for the fire. (The shuttle also had this, a little different... Giant ditches filled with water, which is where all that steam comes from in the pictures of launches.)
A day before launch, Scott and the rest of the backup crew went down into the crater to look up at the rocket from underneath, which is kind of a tradition. They check out these beautiful boosters from a pretty amazing vantage point. It's not a good place to stand once the rocket's lit up, though.
After you find your stories and even after some interviews, do you use any kind of outline? What time do you find yourself getting more done? I'm more interested in the sitting-down-to-write part more than the reporting part.
Also, music. I remember you tweeting about Godspeed!'s "East Hastings" influencing the Joplin piece, but anything else come to mind as the soundtrack to your writing process?
I answered another music question... But the other song that I always think of is "Little Motel" by Modest Mouse. I ripped off its structure for my Roger Ebert story. Carbon copy.
I don't outline. I write my ending first, usually, so that I know where I'm going. And then I don't really write in order. If I know a particular scene is going into the story, and it's fresh, I'll write it and then juggle around with stuff later. It's pretty rare that I start with the first sentence and write from there.
That's not to say there's any one right way to do this. Lots of great writers outline. Some of my heroes do, and I've tried to write that way because it works for them. It doesn't work for me. A lot of the little connections, nice little echoes or whatever, don't emerge for me until I'm writing. I'd miss them if I were writing to an outline, I think.
I write at night, with music. Lots of great writers write in the morning, in silence. You do what feels best to you.
Thanks for the answer! I know its not the most exciting question to have to answer, but I was very much on your side during the Jezebel attacks. It seemed like a shitty situation. Anyway, I love your commentary on twitter & in Esquire! keep it up
Thanks E. I'd rather people define me by the space story, say, than that one, but that's not really up to me.
Hey Chris. Your Zanesville story is probably my favorite piece of long-form journalism ever. Wondering, how many ideas come to you from editors versus how many you come across and pitch yourself. Do you ever land on some story that you just know will be an amazing write-up? Thanks.
Esquire is great about making sure you're pretty much only writing stories you want to write. Sometimes they're from my editors, sometimes they're something I've found. But most of our bigger stuff, we just agree that it's the right story to do. I pitch all the time. You don't usually know you have a good idea in your hands until you start reporting. For sure, early on, you get a feeling when you have one on the line. It doesn't happen often, but it's a pretty electric feeling when you know you have a good story going if you don't fuck it up.
I took a mag feature writing class recently with former Chicago Tribune Pulitzer winner (da bawse) Julia Keller, and we talked about your Ebert piece, which was one of her favorites and mine, too. Do you think writers have to have a certain level of empathy to write well? Not just stories that involve human frailty, but any subject/any story...
I think empathy is a pretty important quality for a narrative writer. I think if you're writing about someone and their life, you have to try to understand what it's like to be them, in their shoes. That's often really hard. I can't really imagine what life was like for Roger, not being able to eat or talk. I can't really imagine what Scott's goodbye to his family will be like when he leaves to spend a year in space. But I can try.
I think the idea that journalists, at least narrative journalists, are supposed to be objective is a load of bullshit. I'm supposed to spend a week with Roger Ebert and not feel anything? What kind of freak would be able to do that?
For me, the goal should be truth, and empathy—like curiosity, like care—is a good instrument to get to the truth.
What's a story you've always wanted to write but haven't been able to yet?
I'm still hoping to write it, so I don't want to share the answer here. GQ MIGHT BE WATCHING.
Can you talk about the reporting process behind the excerpt you posted? A lot of science was skillfully distilled to some very accessible prose.
Thanks for that. Basically, I think a good reporter isn't afraid of looking dumb. I ask a lot of pretty stupid questions. I learned a long time ago that bluffing—pretending you know more than you do—gets exposed pretty quickly, either to your subject or your readers.
In this instance, some of the first time I spent with Scott, over about six months of on-and-off reporting, was at the toilet mockup. And the question astronauts always get asked about first is how you poop in space. So I thought the toilet was a good way to introduce the idea that everything changes—you have to re-think the way you do every little thing—and also a little reminder, for me I guess, not to overlook something because of my gravity blinders.
An example of that... I asked Scott if he was always cold up there, because every picture his hands are tucked into his armpits. Well, that's because like everything else, your arms float too, so he'd end up looking like a zombie all the time. That never even entered my head as something to think about.
As a writer in a world with so many writers - kind of like a rock in space - how do you interact with other writers?
Depends on the writer. Most of my friends are writers, and we talk a lot about the work and how we might do better, and we try to support each other in what can sometimes be a pretty tough exercise. We help each other out.
But I'm really competitive, too, often ugly in my desires. That's because this is a competitive business, and I really like my what I do for a living. I'm not looking to lose it. On those rare occasions when I've gone head-to-head with somebody, I've done my hardest to beat them. I started out as a baseball writer, and that's a really competitive racket, and I've never lost that feeling of... what? Fear, drive, want, love... All sorts of things. This is more than a job for me.
Could you beat Hemingway in a bourbon drinking contest?
Me and two idiot friends tried to break Hemingway's daiquiri record at the El Floridita in Havana once. It seemed like a beatable number... 16 or something like that. We were not aware that they were triples. Things didn't go super well after round eight.
Hey Chris, thanks for doing this.
I first heard of you through Twitter and quickly became a fan of your writing as well. The Zanesville story still stands out to me, such an exciting read.
Then you introduced Honeycrisps to me and that changed my world.
Couple questions: How is you Second Empire coming along?
Do you ever pitch a story more than once, maybe years in-between?
Ha, I was painting trim in my den this morning. It's coming, slowly but surely.
I often pitch a story more than once. Certainly for months and months. Roger Ebert was one like that. I think one of Esquire's tests for doing a story is if the writer won't shut up about it. Passion counts for a lot.
Honeycrisps fucking rule.
Hi Chris. Thanks for doing this. I’ve loved your work since the first time I read “The Things That Carried Him.” A recent favourite is your Antarctica piece for Afar magazine. A few years ago, you wrote about music for writing. I’m wondering: what songs are you writing to now, and what was the soundtrack for writing “Away”?
Thanks for the kind words. I love music and always write to it. This story, I wrote to instrumental, epic stuff a lot—lots of Sigur Ros, Explosions in the Sky, This Will Destroy You, a song called "Peace" by Paul Kelly. Editing I listened to a song called "Song for Zula" by Phosphorescent. I just had it on a loop. It's a great song.
Just out of curiosity, how'd you end up writing for Esquire? What's it like?
I've been reading the magazine for a decade now and, as a college journalist myself, working/writing for Esquire is near the top of my bucket list.
Also, for the flak your piece on Cruz got, I rather enjoyed it. Big ups on the Zanesville story as well. GQ and Esquire both put up brilliant pieces in their own right, and it was super interesting to get two different takes on the subject. Thanks for that.
I thought the Zanesville thing was really instructive, as shitty as it was at the time. It was pretty stressful. But two very different stories came out of the same event, and I thought it was neat to see, even though we started with the same horses, we ended up in different places.
I love writing for Esquire. Best gig going. It's long story how I got there, but I was a newspaper guy and I just went into the office cold. Met a great editor named Andy and that's how it started—sitting at his desk, asking him to read my stuff, hoping he liked what he saw.
What's the process of working with the design team like on a piece like this? How much input/veto power do you have? Is it all virtual or ever in-person? So you went to Texas and Kazakhstan?
I went to Texas, Russia, Kazakhstan.
I have no control/input on the design. Sometimes in journalism, depending on the shop, you're supposed to wear a bunch of different hats: You're a writer, a photographer, a videographer, a designer. I'm lucky to work at places that believe in single mindedness. I write the words. We have editors, factcheckers, photographers, and designers who do their jobs. I don't even think about the design. They're professionals, doing what they were supposed to do and doing it well.
2010 Paraguay: great or greatest soccer team ever assembled?
Clearly the greatest, if you hate goals.