George Johnson chases lightning

George Johnson

Some people fret over the chances that lightning might strike the same place twice. After three summers trailing lightning-chaser Tim Samaras on a unique photographic quest, science writer George Johnson would perhaps have been content with it happening just once. On assignment for National Geographic, Johnson patiently waited and watched as Samaras tried to capture a long-sought image. It was not to be, and that posed a conundrum: How to write about an unfinished quest and still leave your reader — and editor — satisfied? [Chasing Lightning appeared in National Geographic in August 2012.]

Here, Johnson tells TON co-editor Siri Carpenter the story behind the story:

How did you come to this story?

It was the summer of 2009, and National Geographic asked if I was interested in doing this story about Tim Samaras and his hunt to get this shot of a lightning bolt the moment the ground leader and the dart leader connect. This moment had never been recorded. His Holy Grail was to get this shot with this incredibly amazing Rube Goldberg-ish kind of camera — the Kahuna. They had already started with a different writer, and for some reason that didn’t work out. I said, “Sure.”

How important was it that you be there when and if he got the shot?

The original idea is that I would go out with him for a few days [on a few occasions ] — a week or two total — while he was chasing lightning storms across northeastern New Mexico and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and into Arizona and Colorado. I would follow him around; watch what he was doing; write about that, and, of course, if I was really lucky, he would get the shot that summer. If I was really, really, really lucky, I would be there when he got the shot, in which case I suspect [the story] would have been on the cover. The first summer we did this, he didn’t get the shot. My editor said, “We realized this was a long shot, both that he will succeed, and an even longer shot that you’ll be there when he does. But in any case it makes a great story, and the story is the quest.” So I wrote up the story of the quest and gave it to them in the fall of 2009.

After he had failed to get the shot.

Yeah. They liked the story. They paid me for it, which is nice. I found National Geographic to be a great place to work for, just very considerate of the writers. It was accepted, but they decided to give this guy another summer to go out and get the shot. They agreed that they would pay me extra for the additional field work.

Labor Day weekend was getting right toward the end of thunderstorm season, and he hadn’t been out yet because of technical glitches. Then there was a problem in the software guiding the camera, and he just never got it ready in time to get out [in 2010].

Then the question was, do we run this story and update it appropriately? He still hasn’t gotten the shot, but now the material is a year old. Why don’t we give him a third chance?

Originally the story was going to start with a long section of Samaras chasing lightning in the wild, and then it was going to be a more general story about the science of lightning. The thought, after that second summer, was that Samaras was going to drag the Kahuna all the way up to the top of the mountain in southern New Mexico, to the lightning observatory, and I would watch while they shot rockets into thunderstorm clouds. The rockets would be tethered to these long wires that draw down lightning from the heavens. Samaras would get a picture of tethered lightning, and this would be a great thing. It would be the second-best thing to getting it in the wild. The story would come full circle in the end in a very satisfying way.

Even if Samaras didn’t learn as much about lightning as he would have with natural lightning, the journey would be fulfilling to readers.

Right. You would have had this nice sense of it looping back to the quest introduced in the first section of the story: Samaras gets the shot. And it would have had a good shot of being on the cover of National Geographic.

So I went up there, and as I described in that scene, I’m huddled in the trailer in this ferocious thunderstorm. The wind is rocking us back and forth, and we’re being pummeled by rain, and then shooting the rockets up and inducing lightning bolts. Samaras fires up the Kahuna … and he doesn’t get the shot. Again.

That put you and your  editors in a bind, I’d imagine: What to do?

We decided, this is it. We’ve got to do the story, and we agreed that since he didn’t get the shot, we needed to recast it a little bit, into more of a profile of a man on a noble Quixotic quest. We’re catching him in the middle of what could turn out to be a really, really great breakthrough.

That involved some additional work, and it also involved going from the original size of the story — 3,000 words — down to 2,000 words. This meant losing the scene that I really, really loved where I went to the top of the mountain and spent time alone with the scientists doing rocket-induced lightning.

Let’s back up. Tell me about your reporting process on the road with Samaras.

I got in my Jeep and started driving from Santa Fe to where I was meeting him in this little town called Springer. As I almost got there, the fuel pump on my Jeep went out. A tow truck driver was able to give me a ride up to our rendezvous point at just about the time Samaras was arriving. It worked out perfectly because this way I ended up joining Samaras, riding shotgun for the first few days I was there.

It was so amazing to be riding shotgun with this guy. In his cab he has a computer screen with real-time weather radar, as well as GPS, and he’s looking back and forth between this and the road. He’s looking at the simulated storm on his computer screen, and then out at the real storm. He’s barreling down the blacktop in the panhandle, occasionally reaching up to get his microphone to talk to the car in back of him, and multitasking and taking his glasses on and off to focus on the road or on the screen.

Seems like your Jeep breakdown was probably a boon for your reporting.

That’s where I got all of my best material. I think now if my fuel pump hadn’t gone out and I had been one of the cars following, it just wouldn’t have worked as well. I probably would have quickly realized that and ditched my car somewhere and ridden with him.

What were you doing during that time?

I was sitting next to him in the cab, and talking, interviewing, and writing down what he said. I would write down the back-and-forth banter with the vehicle behind him, and watch the radar screen mounted in his truck cab, and take page after page of notes — and take snapshots of both the blobs on the radar (so I know where they were at different times) and signs by the road in case I need to recreate where I was when something happened.

When you were in the midst of that scene with the cow in the image frame as Samaras was trying to get the lightning shot that first summer, did you recognize it as a starring scene at the time?

There was scene after scene that day, and if I remember right, that was the only time conditions seemed good enough, where lightning was consistently striking at the same place when they actually fired up the Kahuna. But I had taken detailed notes on several earlier scenes during the day in case that didn’t happen.

They were firing up the Kahuna, so I knew that if they got the shot I’d want to have really rich, thick detail. And even if they didn’t, I might end up using this.  It was the first time I was actually seeing the Kahuna working, and the thing with the cow made a nice little aspect of that.

What is your approach to gathering detail for scenes like that?

I just write down everything. I try to keep noticing things, whether it’s sounds or images. In that case, [in the scene with the cow] I was inside a trailer and looking out the back, and I can see the lightning storm, and then I can see Samaras working with all these instruments. He has all these video screens in the trailer so you can see the radar blobs moving across the screen, and you can hear the electronic voice — I call it the Lightning Lady, announcing the proximity of the storm. It was just this glut of information. I was reflexively writing this stuff down, glancing at my watch every few minutes, writing down the time. I had a recorder running as backup, and then I was taking shots and making sure the clock on my camera was set to the right time so I could put this all together if necessary. Of course, you end up with 99 percent more stuff than you actually use.

Did you transcribe all that yourself?

I never really transcribe tapes verbatim. I would go through my handwritten notes and type them up, and then as I did that, I would listen to the recording, and sometimes use that to correct my notes. If something on the recording wasn’t very interesting, I wouldn’t transcribe it, but every once in a while something really good would jump out.

I find, even with formal interviews, it’s not worth the huge amount of time it takes to transcribe the whole thing. I’ll look at my handwritten notes and then listen to the whole tape. A lot of times I’ll end up listening to the tape two or three times and writing down quotes, and where they are on the tape, so I can go back if I want to expand on it and listen to more. But if you listen to the tape that way several times, the really good quotes become stuck in your head, and then you remember them when you’re writing and [you can] go back and check them.

Are there any other lessons that you can pull out of your reporting for this?

It was very different from the kind of story that I usually do, which is done at a much more leisurely pace, where you spend a long time reading papers and books and learning information and going to conferences, and going back and forth to scientists by email, talking to them on the phone. It was very different doing this real “you were there” kind of reporting, which I really enjoy. I hadn’t done a lot of it since I used to cover the police beat for the Albuquerque Journal.

It’s good to do things that you don’t normally do because it sharpens your senses and your writing. I had to do so much throwing out of good stuff in this story. But even though it’s frustrating, it’s not a waste because you learn a lot from writing it, and it sharpens your skills as a writer.

What was your planning process? Did you outline?

I never really outline things, but I knew there were going to be certain scenes and sections. I imagined the story would start describing Samaras driving. That just really struck me, the whole visceral experience.

Then once you do that you feel places where you need to pause and give a little context about what he’s doing, and just slowly fill in the background. You get to the point where so much of it is just serendipity. He said some great thing like, “Whenever the rainbow comes, it’s game over.” That feels like the end of a section. I knew then it’s just natural structure at this point. People have read about this guy, and now you really need to step back and say while you’re there that summer is thunderstorm season in the southwest, and every year for the past blah, blah, blah, and then fan out further and say a little bit about what’s at stake here: the questions about lightning.

Then you’re going to return to the road and pick up with another scene, which is the one where we saw the little tornado, and again, that way we’ve gotten him through an entire day, pausing in the middle to give background.

Originally in section two I take the long drive up to Langmuir Laboratory, and I have a quote from Bill Winn saying, “Tim Samaras chases lightning. We wait for it to come to us.” So I thought, “Nice transition.” I describe going up to the top of the mountain, and sitting there and spending probably a 700 or 800-word scene describing the whole thing. Structurally, this is where I step back even further and talk more generally about the science of lightning and the big questions.

Obviously, you have to return to Samaras in the end. It’s a fairly simple structure, and then he either gets the shot or he doesn’t.

My original ending was [about how] I went to this place in New Mexico called “The Lightning Field,” and it’s an environmental sculpture that was done by the artist Walter De Maria. It’s a square mile of remote land in southern New Mexico, and every couple hundred feet there’s this steel-pointed obelisk. There’s a whole field of hundreds of these things laid out in a grid, and the idea is it’ll attract lightning. But it hardly ever does. I used that as a final scene to contemplate how wonderful it is that we still have these mysteries like lightning. But it was immediately decided that the scene probably was too oblique for the story, so that, along with the Langmuir scene, ended up on the cutting room floor.

Speaking of the cutting room floor, can you say a little about the editing process on this story?

The editor, Jamie Shreeve, was wonderful and had some really good insights, and occasionally I was trying to say something, and an idea would pop into his head of how to do this, and there were a couple places where that was a real help.

Can you think of an example?

There’s a sentence that I really like, at the end of the piece, where I’m describing Samaras, and not getting the shot. Then Jamie said, “Well, this is not going to run in August. That will be during lightning season when people are reading this, and we have to look to the future in a way, even though we don’t know what he’ll be doing.” We don’t want for the future to prove the obvious assumption to be incorrect. So he came up with this really, really nice sentence: “I would be surprised if he isn’t out there now, one eye on the road and the other on a new storm throwing violent colors onto his laptop screen.”

It’s funny: when I read that, I thought, “This just sounds so much like George.”

You know, that’s Jamie Shreeve’s sentence. But when I got that back and I was reading the edit, I thought, “God. That sounds so much like me.”

He must know you well.

I guess so. By this time we had been working on the story for years — I was starting to think of it as, like, my part-time job, doing this article. Anyway, I was very pleased with that line. I don’t think I tweaked a word there.

Is there anything that people wouldn’t know from reading the piece that you would like them to know?

I hope the piece gives the sense that this is a small part of a very large endeavor involving really, really interesting people. One thing I really regretted when I lost that middle section was having more information about Bill Winn, who’s a fascinating character. You could easily do a profile just centered around Bill Winn. Ken Eack was one of the other scientists I worked with, and Elisa Eastvedt was this amazing woman who was down in the bunker shooting these rockets every day. All of them deserve so much more, yet were left on the cutting room floor. I want people to know that there’s so much more out there.

A glimpse behind the scenes:

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2 Responses to “George Johnson chases lightning”

  1. [...] and this week The Open Notebook, an excellent website about the craft of science writing, published a look behind the scenes describing how the story came to be. It was fun to relive the saga. Best of all was the chance to [...]

  2. Kendall Powell says:

    Thanks George and Siri!

    I love this: “It’s good to do things that you don’t normally do because it sharpens your senses and your writing. I had to do so much throwing out of good stuff in this story. But even though it’s frustrating, it’s not a waste because you learn a lot from writing it, and it sharpens your skills as a writer.”

    So true and yet hard to put into practice.

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