Talking About Writing: Jeff Maysh, author of ‘Handsome Devil’
The third in a series of conversations with British journalists and editors about nonfiction writing.
Jeff Maysh is a freelance writer and author based in Los Angeles. A former staff writer for Loaded magazine (which closed in 2015), Maysh moved to the US in 2010. Since then he has written for The Atlantic, Playboy, BBC News Magazine and The Verge, among others. He had two stories on Longform.org’s “Best Of 2015” list, and has just released his first the Kindle Single. Handsome Devil is the biography of Victor Lustig, a notorious 1930s conman who once sold the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal.
You started at Loaded, which is one of the ‘lads’’ magazines that have shut in recent years, along with FHM, Nuts and Zoo. What made you make the move to LA?
I’ve always been intrigued by American narrative nonfiction. I remember being at Loaded around 2010 and somebody passed around a copy of Michael Paterniti’s GQ article “The Suicide Catcher”. Working on a men’s magazine in England and seeing that — it was men against boys. And we achieved so much at Loaded, but I wanted to go where the big stories are and, for me, America has always been that place.
I remember I did a story for Loaded a few years back. I came over here to Texas and trained to become a Rodeo clown. And I got very badly hurt [laughs], which was quite funny. But it was the most amazing story: a couple of the rodeo clowns had left Wall St because of the crash. I remember writing it and it being cut down, I think, to 400 words, a double-page spread. The picture was the bull’s horn going into my buttock. And it was just… the story was so much bigger than that. So it’s a long answer to your question, but I wanted to come to America to do stories that were bigger than British magazines would allow me to do.
What was that like at first? Did your experience in the UK help, or did you have to start over?
I mean, it was impossible. I think I made it looks easy, but it’s taken four and a half years. I remember being on the plane thinking, “OK, I’m number three on the masthead at Loaded, the second biggest magazine, or whatever it was at the time, in England. I’ll probably end up at GQ or Maxim…” I had this wish-list. It didn’t happen. Pitching was impossible; I never got an email back. I play football over here for a British soccer team, and a lot of the players are Eastenders guys, Hollyoaks guys, and they’ve experienced the same thing. What you’ve done before? Nix it. You’re literally starting again. And it’s refreshing for me, because I think I’d made mistakes before in the past in England and I think a fresh start was good as well.
Yeah. Loaded over here has its own connotations: lads’ magazines haven’t done well, there have been big campaigns against Page 3 in recent years. Was it also an opportunity, in a way, not having that association?
It was. I mean, it’s no secret that I had embarked on a new way of living half way through my career at Loaded — I quit drinking, had a fresh start. Coming to America, looking through issues of Loaded through those American eyes… I don’t know how we got away with the things that we did. I mean a lot of former men’s magazine writers have written these amazing mea culpas in the press about how much they’ve changed. I never wanted to do that. I wanted the work to speak for itself. And I think that it has. America can be conservative, it can be liberal… but one thing’s for sure, they’d all have a collective heart attack if they read a copy of Loaded from 2004.
A lot of your most read pieces have been crime stories. What drove your obsession with crime reporting?
I’ve been obsessed with crime writing since I was a kid — Truman Capote, James Ellroy. I’ve been lucky since I’ve been in America to have met James Ellroy and I’m just flattered to now call him a friend. He’s been a huge influence on me, and he gave me some really stellar advice when I was starting to get into crime stuff here.
How do you go about finding your stories? Because many of them are completely bizarre, or historical. Pez smugglers aren’t on the news agenda often.
I do have a bunch of weird Google Alerts. People now send me stuff that they’ve seen. With the Bombshell Bandit, I became aware pretty quickly that it must be someone with a double life — almost everyone I profile is leading a double life, like the female wrestler who’s also an undercover narc.
But this is a story I’ve got to tell about America and why it’s so good for stories: I was in Michigan reporting for Playboy, you know the Pez outlaw story? And I was in a bakery in a town called Dewitt, a tiny, two stoplight town. I went in to get some lunch, and they heard the accent and said, ‘what are you doing here?’ I said, “I’m a crime reporter, with Playboy.” And the woman behind the counter said: “Oh, you must be here for the fake wedding.” So I said, “No, I’m interviewing a smuggler from the 1990s.” I told her the whole story, and I left, and I sat in the car and I ate my sandwich. But it was really bugging me — what was this woman talking about? So I went back and said, “What do you mean, the fake wedding?” And they said: “Oh, the cops round here, in the 90s, they threw a fake wedding to catch all the drug dealers in town”, and she told me the whole story. I was glued to the floor. I was like: “That’s the best story I’ve ever heard”. I went back and did it, and that became a thing for The Atlantic, which is one of the biggest stories I did last year. But that there were two ridiculous longform stories in this small town in Michigan really illustrates how rich America is for stories.
How do you convince people to speak to you? There’s a lovely moment in the West Ham piece, where the guy asks why you want to speak to him in the first place, and say “I explained that his story is an allegory for hope”.
Well the West Ham guy, Steve, I think he was just baffled that I was still chasing the story. It can be difficult. The Bombshell Bandit was difficult because she was in federal jail, so I had to write to her in prison. But I think Americans are born storytellers. In schools here they do “Show and Tell” — it’s a huge thing for kids. I don’t remember ever doing that growing up in Croydon, it was more like “sit down and shut up”. Americans love to tell a story. I think particularly felons feel they need to get their side of the story across.
When you did that West Ham piece — you worked on that story for 10 years. How do you keep motivated on that? Or was it something that came back out of the blue?
I had been obsessed with that story since it happened. I long believed it to be a myth — I’d tried to write it for Loaded, in fact I did write it for Loaded, but couldn’t find Steve Davis. I wrote it up as part of a bigger series about unbelievable football stories. I think every reporter has that one story that you can’t let go. I’ve been forever checking in with the message boards and stuff… annoyingly when he replied I’d just left the country and had to fly back to meet him. But it was my first really long story, my first American story — it was for the soccer magazine Howler. So it kind of changed the direction of my career as well.
Let’s talk a little bit about your book, Handsome Devil. It’s another slightly insane crime story.
This is the true story of Count Victor Lustig, who was one of America’s most flamboyant con men. He was operating in the Depression era, that kind of Gatsby-era of America. He’s most famous for reportedly selling the Eiffel Tower to scrap metal merchants. It’s a story that sounds like fiction, but isn’t, so obviously it’s right up my street. It was a dream to get the commission and be able to put the amount of reporting work into this to make it stand up. There’s no living sources. I relied upon literally thousands of pieces of source material, some that had only recently been declassified by the Secret Service. A lot of the stuff I was holding in my hands was being read for the first time in the New York Archives and Records office. So the reporting was really exciting.
What kind of challenges does that create? There’s also that aspect which is the unreliable narrator. These characters are by their nature con men.
Yeah. This is America, as well, in how thorough the reporting has to be — just the detail that the criminal wore size 8 shoes is something that has to be double-checked against a number of sources. Victor Lustig was measured by the Bertillon criminal measuring system, which was used to identify crooks. It was considered better than fingerprints, they’d measure everything from his earlobes to his leg… and you cross-references that with a report from a thrift store where he’d bought a pair of 8 1/2 shoes, and his prison records, and you build it up. That’s just one detail, his shoe size. I managed to get his entire record, 1,300 pages from Alcatraz with his personal letters in. It’s slow going, it’s really slow going.
What I couldn’t work out is where you first came across the story. It had been out there apocryphally before, but never in this detail.
A couple of researchers came to me with this theory that Victor Lustig had actually escaped from Alcatraz. They wanted an investigative journalist to come at this from an investigations angle. They were obsessed that he didn’t die behind bars. I’m not sure. The evidence is pretty conclusive. But you can’t get past this guy — he’d escaped from captivity a number of times, from the most inescapable prisons in America; he was renowned for being a master of disguise… you can’t put it past him.
There are twists right up until the end. A lot of your stories have twists at key points in the story. Do you have that twist in mind from the beginning? Or do they show up in the reporting?
Yeah. I like to leave a kicker at the end of all my stories — the West Ham one, there’s a big kick in the nuts at the end of that one, and there is at the end of my book. I think it’s like the Dickens thing — make them laugh, make them cry, but you’ve got to make them wait.
How much research are you doing before you’re pitching that story? Do you know that you’re going to find these amazing twists before you start?
I can’t offer any advice on pitching, because I am the world’s worst pitch. [Laughs] Those stories you’ve read are the only emails I’ve ever had back from editors. Pitching the Pez outlaw? What editor would take that, a story about a Pez-smuggling farmer from Michigan in the 90s? There’s absolutely no news agenda — it’s a miracle Playboy took it. It turned out OK, thankfully. It’s funny, a couple of editors emailed me after that saying, “You should have pitched this to me!” And I said: “I did!” [Laughs] So I’m the worst pitch going, I can’t offer much advice on that.
I do a lot of reporting first, just to see if the story is really there. Because you need a lot of stuff to make it an in-depth story. People often confuse longform for just being a really long story. Longform refers to the length of time in which you report it, the number of elements that are in the story. You don’t know until you’ve done a lot of work.
Are you ever tempted to take on easier stories, like celebrity profiles? There are British writers in LA who make a living from celebrity interviews for the weekend newspaper supplements.
To be honest, I’ve never been asked. I’ve never been asked to go ice-skating with Jonah Hill. No, it doesn’t really interest me. I don’t really have to. I’ve been quite fortunate, in I kind of have a beat… I got an alert on Twitter, longform.org had done the top heist articles, and I had three stories on there. I was like, “Oh, gosh, I guess that’s my beat — I guess I’m the heist guy”.
Do you think you would have been able to do those kind of stories in the UK, financially speaking, without having other gigs on the side? Do you have other gigs on the side?
No, only write what you see. I don’t know. I mean, there’s fewer people doing those in-depth stories — the BBC News Magazine, the Guardian doing long reads is fantastic, it’s exciting to see that it’s being embraced now. I was really excited to read Tom Lamont’s story for the Guardian about the pubs, which was fantastic — it opened on a scene, ‘the grim reaper came in…’ Before it was a bit stiff upper lip. You’d never see dialogue, fiction-style dialogue, which you’re starting to see now. I’m excited to do more stuff for magazines in England. My next story is actually based in England, it’s a spy story based in London, and I’m not ruling out doing it for a British title.
How far do you go down that road before you decide: OK, there’s not a story here?
It’s all about character. I feel like if you’re pitching a story and there’s a good character in it, that’s half the way done. Like: the Wedding Sting, I knew there was an undercover cop in there with a shady past, a former alcoholic and drug addict, and it was a story of redemption. And it’s conflict. I was talking to Sam Rowe, a British journalist, while he was reporting a story. We were talking about it, and I remember saying to him, ‘Where’s the conflict in this story?’ And when he found it, that was the ‘wow’ moment. In all good narrative nonfiction, there’s a conflict at the heart of the story.
Speaking as an editor, none of your stories really have any news value. They’ve got a lot of drama, great narrative, but there’s no reason for an editor to put them in the June issue vs the July issue. A lot of magazines still have that obsession with the news agenda. Are there certain outlets who are more welcoming of those stories?
You’ve just got to hope the editor has got a book full of Donald Trump and gender issues, or something, and want something that is completely bizarre. I’ve got no interest in writing about Donald Trump, turning out 400 word pieces, it doesn’t interest me at all.
OK. Recommendation time: what writers do you love?
You have to read everything that Michael Paterniti writes. His aeroplane crash story should be required reading. Also I really recommend a podcast by a guy at the LA Times called Steve Padilla. What he says about writing in this podcast is the most valuable writing advice I’ve ever been given — it’s really good.
How was the experience been of doing the book, versus doing a piece for The Atlantic or Playboy? Are you now having to gear up to promote it?
I don’t know yet. I guess I’ll have to get my top hat and cane out. I don’t know. I’ve been very lucky in that the last few stories I’ve done have had that viral push behind it, and a lot of people have read them.
My next story is coming out any day now. It is a story set in the world of midwestern high school cheerleading — and it’s a crime story. Of course.