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.
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!
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.