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Emotions & journalism: Esquire writer gives seminar at alma mater

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By Madeline St. Amour

Photos by Hannah Brigida Infantado

Tom Junod is a person just like the rest of us.

Yes, he’s been nominated 11 times (and won twice) for the prestigious National Magazine Award, he writes for Esquire, and his work can move people to tears, but he’s still a normal guy. When he finishes a talk with journalism students and opens up his computer, the first sites he checks are the first apps that students check on their phones: Facebook and Twitter. 

But Tom Junod’s words are not just like ours.

They’re precise and powerful. They’re active, not passive. They’re a bullet shot at your head, not a cannonball blasting at your feet.

They are, after all, why he was invited back to Albany, home to his alma mater, the University at Albany. Junod spoke to journalism classes, and he gave a seminar for the Writers Institute at UAlbany. On the 14th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, he performed a reading of his piece “The Falling Man” at the New York State Museum. At every event, people filled the room.

Junod tells a pretty good story. He tells them like a magazine journalist would write them — with details and color.

Take the story of how he began his career as a writer as an exmaple. When Junod graduated from UAlbany with an English degree, he wasn’t sure what to do. He knew he wasn’t Charles Dickens, but he also knew he wasn’t fast enough for a newspaper job.

So he did the obvious. He became a handbag salesman, driving his cream-colored Chevy Impala around his territory of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana six days a week for a “maniac” boss.

“I would find a store and walk into it with my two sample cases and I would say, ‘Would you like to buy my handbags?’,” Junod said. “And, that’s journalism. Right there.”

One day he was in a hotel room in Los Angeles with another salesman, “partying” “smoking weed… and drinking scotch.” Junod went into the bathroom, but he left the door open. While standing there, a .45-caliber revolver was pressed to his head and clicked.

For the better part of an hour, Junod and his friend had to lay face down on the floor, before crawling to the tub. His friend begged for his life, and the trigger was never pulled.

After that, Junod realized that he needed to start doing what he actually wanted to with his life: write.

“I went home and I wrote a completely unfussy, nonfiction account of that [night],” he said.

That’s when he found the style he would use to write dozens of pieces for the likes of Esquire, GQ, and Life magazines. It was the style he would use to write “The Falling Man.”

Junod said he knew he was going to write about the photograph “The Falling Man” once he saw it on page seven of the Sept. 12, 2001 edition of The New York Times. Two days prior, he had been coming back to New York from a trip culling information for his article “Gone.” The plane flew past the World Trade Center, which he remembers seeing on that clear day.

“I just remember thinking to myself, what a marvel this thing was,” he said. Two days later, it was gone.

For four months, Junod and an Esquire researcher worked on gathering information for “The Falling Man,” before he sat down to put together the full story, which took another month to get just right. He knew he had the first sentence when he felt chills run up his arms after writing it.

The story takes the reader on a journey to figure out who the falling man really is, while at the same time analyzing the taboo feelings around the photograph. While reading, Junod displayed images on a screen in the Huxley Theater at the museum — “The Falling Man,” “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” “Napalm Girl.”

Eventually, “The Falling Man” would come to be an iconography for history, as Richard Drew, its photographer, said to Junod. It shows a moment in history. We should look at it, he said, because it happened and can’t be undone, like many other iconic photos.

Junod would tap his foot or swing his leg a bit as he read, like a nervous tick. He took a long pause when he finished the sentence: “They were all, obviously, very much alive on their way down, and their way down lasted an approximate count of 10 seconds.”

When he started again, it was with a wavering voice that cracked and fell at points. “They were all, obviously, not just killed when they landed but destroyed, in body though not, one prays, in soul.”

When he was finished reading, he admitted it was tough for him to get through. Junod doesn’t buy the idea that journalists should be “removed observers.” 

“It’s an emotional job if you’re doing it right,” he said.

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