“How to Build An American Car” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day One)

Buried near the back of the October 2012 issue of Esquire, parked behind articles about Clint Eastwood, Mitt Romney, and vodka, is “How to Build An American Car,” a beautiful look at the people behind a new model of Cadillac.

A story like this could be dull and tedious. Manufacturing is not usually a sexy, interesting topic. And a story about a new automobile sounds like something you’d read only if you were trapped in a dental office with no other option. But this is a brilliant work of research and writing by author Justin Heckert.

The story of the Cadillac ATS is really the stories of all the people who created it. It’s about people like Taki Karras, the designer who created the look of the car; Rick Kewley, the man who tests the steering wheel; Matt Highstrom and Cody Hansen who developed the on-screen interface, Ray Kiefer who designed the seat, Michele Killen who developed and picked the colors of the paint, and Stacey Silver, who installs parts of the taillights on the assembly line.

Nine photos of workers who created the car

Photo by Andrew Tingle

What makes Heckert’s story so effective is all the rich background and anecdotes we get on the people featured in the story. It’s a dozen personal profiles packed into a single story. Short-form and long-form collide.

For example, when he writes about Rick Kewley, the steering wheel expert, he describes Kewley’s hands, and how they compared to the hands of his father, also an autoworker:

Outstretched, the end of Rick Kewley’s pinkie to the tip of his thumb measures ten inches. He uses this measurement when he’s at Lowe’s looking for hardware, and he has been aware of that distance ever since his fingers stopped growing. He has a story about his hands. It’s short and sweet. When he was a boy, his father would place his hand and his son’s side by side, as a way to check how much the adolescent Kewley had grown. At some point a long time ago, Rick’s hands became larger than his father’s. Now Rick’s son, by the same measuring method, already has hands slightly larger than his.

When we meet Taki Karras, the designer who came up the with the shape and body for the car, we learn about his childhood in Dayton, Ohio and his early fascination with cars and design:

His father owned a grocery store in Dayton, Ohio, called Karras Market, on Wilmington Pike. There was a magazine rack at the store. Taki couldn’t reach the top row, which was stocked with auto magazines, so he used to ask people in the store for them, used to point. He would draw sketches of cars in the break room of the grocery store, Lamborghinis, Lotuses, cars people only dream of. One summer, when he was eleven, he was on a flight home from Greece with his family, and he was holding a toy Ferrari. A woman sitting next to him asked, “Do you want me to draw that for you?” She was an artist. She spent the flight staring at the toy Ferrari and working at her seat on the pull-down tray. When the flight was almost over, she handed him the finished picture as a gift.

Later, Heckert takes us on the road with the on-screen user experience designers and lets us ride along as they meet and study real-world drivers:

Cody met a man with a parrot. This was in San Francisco. The man with the parrot drove an old Infiniti. As he was driving, he turned to Cody, who was silently watching him, taking notes on a digital sketchbook. The man looked at a regular button on the side of his stick shift. He pointed to the button. “This is my Turbo button!” he said, and turned again toward the road. After their ride, Cody went into the man with the parrot’s apartment. They were sitting on a couch amid the clutter, facing each other. The man with the parrot was talking about his fiancée. How she liked to sunbathe in the nude. The parrot took a giant shit on his shoulder and he just kept talking.

Matt and Cody and the other members of the team met people who yelled at their kids. Who texted while driving. Who talked on the phone so much that members of team Journey wanted to stop taking notes and smack them. One woman asked the man next to her at a stoplight if he wanted to go on a date.

What makes this story brilliant is that it’s assembled with characters and little stories and moments like these that make it all a rich, human experience and puts faces on what would typically be an invisible, hidden process. Structurally, the story goes through the car, piece by piece, and we find out about real people who have some role in those parts. In the end, when Heckert describes the first-ever model of the Cadillac ATS coming off the assembly line and driving off into the world, the reader that every new car has hundeds of human stories behind it.

Read “How to Build An American Car” →

Getting lost in “Lost in the Waves”

I finally got around to reading Justin Heckert’s 2009 Men’s Journal feature, “Lost in the Waves,” which details how a father and his 12-year-old autistic son get swept out to the open sea. It’s a gripping, suspenseful, and moving story. One of the best nonfiction features I’ve read.

Here’s one critical scene in the middle of the piece, as Walt, the father, and his son, Christopher, have drifted apart and can barely see each other as it starts to get dark:

Out at sea, in the fading light, Christopher rose and dipped from Walt’s line of sight. Walt tried to talk to his son to keep him calm, reciting his favorite lines from his favorite movies. Christopher loved to sit right in front of the small television in his room and watch Disney videos all day. Sometimes he would put his eyeball as close to the screen as he could get it without touching. His all-time favorite scene was Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story, flying into space, saying his trademark phrase: “To infinity…and beyond!”

“To infinity!” Walt yelled to Christopher over the waves. He waited for Christopher to respond.

“To infinity, Christopher!”

“…and beyond!” lightly from atop the wave, as Christopher was lifted back into view. It didn’t sound like that when Christopher said it, though. It always sounded like “infin’ a beyon’.…” And he’d always send his fist into the air. That little fist pump — Walt did it in the water then, too, even though he was trying to conserve energy.

Why does this story work so well?

Structure. The story starts in the middle, with the father already out at sea at night. We learn that he no longer can see or hear his son. Within a few paragraphs the reader is pulled into the dramatic, terrifying moment at the crux of the story. A classic cliffhanger lead. And it leaves us there for a bit while the story goes back a bit and introduces us to Walt and Christopher and we learn a lot about them and their family situation. Eventually, we find out how they got to the water and what went wrong. When we finally get back to the moment when Walt is floating alone in the dark, the reader is much more invested in both characters. It’s not just dramatic, it’s emotional and more personal. Finally, the story closes on the aftermath of what happened. The structure fuels the drama and the suspense and makes the outcome much more powerful.

Scenes. The story is rich with scenes from before, during, and after the ordeal in the water. Heckert’s reporting and research is evident throughout the piece, especially as he re-creates key moments between the father, the son, and others. The scenes drive the story.

The Story. The structure, the writing, and the reporting are all excellent. But underlying it all is an incredible true story. That never hurts. This may be obvious, but writers sometimes overlook the most simple question: “is this story interesting?” In this case, the answer is an emphastic “yes.” And when you add skillful reporting and storytelling on top of that, the result is classic piece of nonfiction.

Read the full story here: Lost in the Waves

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.