Paige Williams investigates a dinosaur fossil underworld

Paige Williams

A dinosaur known as Tarbosaurus bataar once roamed what is now Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. About seventy million years later, its fossilized bones turned up at an auction in New York City, placing it at the center of a contentious battle between governments, paleontologists and professional bone hunters.

From the moment Paige Williams learned about the black-market fossil trade, she knew she’d found a great tale. After several years of stalking the story with a combination of obsession and patience, she turned her narrative to the case of T. bataar and  Florida fossil trader Eric Prokopi. [Bones of Contention appeared in the January 28, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.]

Here, Williams tells TON managing editor Christie Aschwanden the story behind the story:

How did this story come about?

Separating Topic from Story, the topic came up about three years ago when I noticed an inside-the-newspaper blurb about a Montana dinosaur thief.

I thought: What? People steal dinosaurs? People steal a whole world of fossils, as it turns out. I started looking into it as a possible book project and found the history of black-market fossils compelling in a way that interested me more than anything had interested me in a while. It was multidimensional, with such colorful characters; the thread ran through American history, the birth of formalized science in this country, the evolving concept of property rights, the byzantine U.S. Bureau of Land Management (which is really interesting, if you like that sort of thing), the industry of creationism, and two of my favorite subjects to read and write about: nature and crime.

I came to the idea from a crime angle but then got completely sucked in by the science, and by the ongoing tension between commercial fossil hunters and paleontologists. In the early stages I did a lot of wide-net reporting and speculative spending (not recommended) without knowing where any of it was going. And for three years none of it went anywhere, a special sort of torture. I spent a good chunk of that time trying to get beyond Topic and into Story to my own satisfaction, because if I’m going to spend a couple or several years on a book I want critical mass and a story that excites me.

The fieldwork was incredibly fun. A photographer/videographer friend and I went on T. rex digs in Wyoming and South Dakota, and to Badlands National Park, one of the biggest poaching hotspots in this country. We’re still trying to figure out what to do with all the footage and photos and reporting from that summer. The other wide-net reporting: I went to fossil-preservation conferences on spec, the Tucson fossil show on spec; talked to a million paleocrats; stockpiled lawsuits, some of which had spent a decade or more in court. I set up enough Google alerts to take down the Internet.

My apartment became 80 percent paleontology texts. I basically just saved string and kept looking for the true narrative. But I couldn’t find a way into the idea that seemed solid enough for a cogent proposal, much less a commitment. By last May, I had decided to drop it and look for another book idea when the Mongolia case broke. I remember reading about it online, in bed, and just slamming the laptop shut and going, “No.” You’d think I’d have had the opposite reaction but I didn’t. I was wrapping up a particularly stressful teaching year and I was tired, hoarse, discouraged, grumpy, and fossils had been nothing but a tease. I didn’t trust the story not to turn on me.

So I waited. I went away for two weeks at the end of the spring semester with my dog, to get some fresh air and listen to coyotes at night and read good books and eat good food and think about what I wanted to do with my life. In the meantime the Mongolia case kept developing; every few days I’d open the laptop and peek at it. It became irresistible and eventually I knew I wanted to do it, because it had so much of what I had been looking for: a narrative that dropped down into much larger international issues about who owns, or should own, these amazing prehistoric remains, which are so important to understanding the history and perhaps the future of the planet.

So you finally had your story. Then what?

By the time I pitched it, the outline was clear: the characters, the potential shape of the story, etc. Enough had happened that I felt the story gaining traction as a viable thing, with potential for both development and resolution. And that was before the criminal charges came into play. The criminal charges made things more challenging but also more interesting — more was at stake. So while the early reporting consisted of poking around in that particular slice of the paleontological world and trying to figure out who the reliable sources were, who the real players were, the second stage consisted of more focused reporting.

This story references a lot of court documents and other official paperwork. How did you go about collecting all these documents?

Slowly then all at once, to cheaply quote Hemingway. (Or was it Fitzgerald? I never can remember.) I started with the case file, what little existed at that point, and by reordering within the context of this story whatever materials I had already gathered. From there, expansion: exclusive source materials to fossil-show maps to public records. Nothing was too small. County building permits, for instance, offered details like the one about the size and construction schedule of Eric Prokopi’s backyard workshop. One question usually leads to another and with any luck the answers — or at least leads to the answers — exist on paper. Consequently, I live in a tinderbox. I keep thinking I should find a system to digitize everything but the feel of real paper and the possibility of marginalia are, to me, two of the great pleasures of working.

How did you keep track of it all without feeling overwhelmed?

Oh I felt overwhelmed. I used to fight and resent that feeling but I don’t anymore, because it’s inevitable. I’ve made an uneasy peace with the knowledge that I’ll wake up plenty of days, look at the pile of reporting, and just climb back under the covers. (Sometimes it’s easier to think under there.) Because I’m slightly or maybe profoundly obsessive I collect whatever I can find, bringing back not only the shiny bits, like a crow, but also the mundane stuff that may eventually prove important. It’s sort of Depression-era reporting: hoard it, because you might need it. I’d rather gather too much than not enough and then put it in an order that makes sense to me.

At the risk of getting too precious about Process: I’ve always loved asking other writers how they work — especially how they manage vast amounts of incoming information — because I thought someone might have the magic answer. But the truth is, there’s probably no possibility of consensus. Every reporter is different, every story is different. The story I’m working on now is very different from the dinosaur story, so the process can’t help but be different. I tried uniformly applying a variety of  “systems” — note cards, wall-sized outlines, all kinds of things. Color-coding and cross-referencing may or may not have been involved. I may or may not own a triple hole-punch. Ultimately, though, I felt I was spending more time playing reporter/writer than being reporter/writer — the systems search, I realized, was a form of procrastination. Here’s what I do now, and it’s very basic: Bring the scraps back to the nest, arrange them chronologically, develop a timeline that shows everything more clearly, and then build out from there, hewing to that backbone yet following each thread to its known end. That’s just an organizing principle, not the same as story structure.

You did a lot of travel for this story — to Denver and Florida and New York. Did you also go to Mongolia?

No. Early on, we talked about my going but decided we didn’t know enough to warrant a trip. At one point I tried getting on with a team of scientists heading into the Gobi but (a) they have a strict no-journalists policy, possibly because, as one paleontologist told me, they “go feral” out there (which made me want to go; feral scientists? sign me up); and (b) the trip would not have served the strict narrative mission of the story. It would’ve been a great adventure, no doubt, but it was important to weigh the potential reporting yield against the time and money involved. Is it worth it to travel to the other side of the world just for a few lines of description about the Nemegt Basin or a hotel in Ulaanbaatar? My editor, a brilliant dude, thought no, and I agreed. My time would be better spent here, chasing the domestic core of the story. It was totally the right call. I’d have had to travel within a particularly narrow window of time, and at that point I’d have gone blindly and inefficiently into the field without getting a sense of what I needed narratively.

This story runs eleven pages in the New Yorker. How do you go about structuring something this long and complex?

The structure announced itself with the auction. It seemed like a no-brainer of an opening. The rest unfolded from there. The section on Mongolia and the history of fossil preservation in the U.S. and the contradictory laws, some of that stuff was easy to go ahead and write, because I already knew it and had most of it in my notes. It wasn’t possible for every section to be truly modular — every section couldn’t simply go anywhere — but I played around with placements. The big structural note from my editor was to move the first Prokopi family section higher, which was dead on. In terms of the writing, as scenes became available I wrote them. It didn’t mean I ended up using all of them, but I went ahead and wrote them before the ink in my notebook dried.

The story has a lot of characters, and yet I never felt lost reading it. I suspect that’s because it’s so neatly divided into chapter-like sections. As you were writing, did you think of these sections in terms of their characters?

Oh good, I’m glad to hear that, thank you. It’s one of the things we talk about in the narrative journalism class that I teach at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard: Who is this story really about? Who needs to be in this story? Does the character actually advance the action or not? And if not, can that still be okay? You could argue that the T. bataar buyer, the New York real estate fellow, didn’t need to be in the piece at all, but the details were unexpected and interesting; they added something — texture, maybe — and, more to the point, their absence might’ve left a hole in the story. Who spends a million dollars on a dinosaur skeleton? Why? That the buyer had attachments to important environmental and nature organizations made his role all the more intriguing, I thought. In some ways the characters influenced the structure (the buyer belonged only deep in the piece, for instance) but straight chronology influenced it even more.

You have some wonderful characters in this piece. One of my favorite lines in the story is a quote by Kirk Johnson. “The day Sue got auctioned is the day fossils became money.”

It helps that Kirk Johnson is brilliant and hyperarticulate and quotable. He’s one of those rare scientists who is bilingual in academia and Everyman-ness — at home in both worlds to the extent that wherever he goes his enthusiasm for the field sort of ignites everyone around him. He’s the best ambassador for paleontology that I’ve met. When we went to the big fossil show in Denver he was still, at that point, the head of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and five weeks away from starting his new job at the Smithsonian. The commercial guys teased him about giving up Colorado for Washington, D.C. — to them it was like trading Eden for hell — but you could tell they respect and like him, and that he takes the time to listen. Johnson is a diplomat in the best sense of the word.

There was another scene that really struck me. It’s at the end, when the main character’s wife is feeling devastated by what’s happening to them and she tells her husband that their life is “pretty much over.” And then she asks rhetorically, “And for what? For bones? No one’s been murdered. We restored a dinosaur.”

That stood out to me too, when it was happening. At that point we had all been talking about what was next for them now that Eric Prokopi faced federal smuggling charges and was pleading guilty. The Prokopis were sitting on one side of their champagne-barrel table and I on the other, and they had been directing all their comments at me. At this point in the conversation, though, they started talking to each other, which is the best possible scenario for a narrative journalist if what you’re witnessing is an authentically human moment, which this was. Arriving at that moment goes to the heart of what narrative is often about: ears, eyes and patience.

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2 Responses to “Paige Williams investigates a dinosaur fossil underworld”

  1. [...] just unfair. Paige Williams’ story on dino-smuggling was SO good & her story of *finding* the story is [...]

  2. [...] Far from done and dusted. Digging deeper into the story about the dinosaur fossil underworld. [...]

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