What drew you to investigative reporting?
I actually wanted to be a feature reporter in the beginning of my career. I wanted to tell life stories. I ended up getting a job in Memphis and spent six years there. Memphis is kind of like a smaller Baltimore in the sense that it’s crime, it’s every day, it’s hard news, and I worked for a really tough news director who wanted tough news told. So I had this narrative writing style. I’ve always loved the writing part of reporting, and I’m thrown into this cauldron of like, hard, breaking news. Eventually I melded into this hard news reporter. I covered these horrific stories all the time, but I always tried to find characters that drove the story. You can experience the stories through their narrative. That’s how I went about developing my narrative style through broadcast news, which I continued in Baltimore in the same way. After a while the investigative reporter moniker just kind of developed organically.
What was it like transitioning to writing a book? Did the length ever become overwhelming?
I had no idea what I was doing. When Ed asked me to write the book, I said, “You’re crazy. The longest thing I’ve written is a seven-minute piece about a serial killer. I don’t know what a book is. No.” But he really liked the way I’d been telling his family’s story and said that I should challenge myself and really think about it. I took a couple months to think about it and did some research, trying to understand the publishing industry, which I knew nothing about. After a while, I thought, 'What if I just treated each chapter as a long-form investigative piece that I’d do several times a year anyway?' So I wrote an outline, storyboarded all my chapters, figured out what interviews I’d needed, and finally I thought, 'I think I can do this if I can digest it as one chapter at a time, if I looked at it through that prism.' That’s how I got it done.
In your book, one traumatic event dramatically changes the life of so many people. How did covering the story affect you?
Well, I’m still friends with Ed. He and his son Matthew were at my wedding, and my wife fell in love with them, too. Anyone who meets them are really just enamored by this family and the strength that they show. They’re just this electric group of people that you can’t help but be impressed by when you start talking to them. They’ve become friends to me. I’m constantly in awe of how Ed handled everything. He doesn’t think it’s a big deal. He’s very humble about it because he doesn’t know how not to be humble about it. If that had happened to me, god forbid, I don’t know that I’d have the fortitude to be able to do what he did. I think I would’ve crawled up and hated the world for a good part of my life. I’m in awe of the strength that he has.
Every reporter, through the course of their career chasing down stories, will always come across one of two that they’ll put in their back pocket and think, "Oh, that’ll make a great book." I have like five or six of them over the course of my career, where I’d love to go back and write a book about them. The one thing that is the common thread in all of those stories is how the main character kind of pivoted from real trauma and was able to use that to do good. I don’t know that I possess those skills as a human being, but I can definitely see it in other people, and when I do, it’s super special to me. I feel like I want to spend more time telling that person’s story.
Without giving away the end of the book, I wanted to talk about the interview you facilitated between Ed and the trucker who killed his wife. Had you ever experienced an interview that was that intense?
I will tell you without any hesitation, I have done thousands of interviews throughout my career, and some of them have been huge news-makers with presidents and important people where you have to sit down and prepare and all of that stuff, but this interview, by far, was the most challenging, emotionally explosive, volatile, and fascinating interview I’ve ever done in my life. Period. End of story.
I had no idea it was going to end up that way. It was Ed’s idea. When I was writing the book, he wanted this man’s side of the story, and I completely agreed. The key to any story is to get to the real heart of it and expose what’s down and dirty about it. We need to know what his deal is, beyond the court documents and beyond the court records and all that stuff that was public record. Let’s get to him and see what he actually thinks. Ed and him had developed some sort of relationship, with the letters back and forth, so he set up the interview. I had no idea it was the anniversary of the crash until I landed there in Cleveland. I had no idea that it was the time of day that it [the crash] happened when we were sitting on his porch. All that was just circumstance.
Yeah, that was chilling to me, reading that.
Nuts. And it just developed that way because Ed went back for the family reunion, which they always have that time of year, so it had made sense.
It seemed like at one point you just threw off your reporter cap and just melded into this crazy scene as it unfolded. How do you strike a balance between being a professional and being a human when you’re in a situation like that?
Well I’m conducting an interview between these two men and I tried to keep it on the rails as much as I could because you could tell that both of these men had things to say to each other that were not gonna wait for a journalist to help facilitate. Once I got what I thought I needed to tell his side of the story, there was nothing that I could do other than let these men have their moment, so I just basically shut up. At that point, I was a spectator as much as I hope the readers are, going, “What in the f— is happening right now?” And it got a little dicey there at the end, screaming and yelling and I’m packing up a microphone, trying to put my shit in my bag and get off the porch. I had no idea what was gonna happen next. It was nuts. My heart was beating through my chest for like five minutes as we were driving away from that. It was honestly one of the most incredible interviews I’ve ever conducted in my career. And that’s when I knew, “Oh, I think we have a book here.”