I’m sure no one else in the world cares a gnat about this. Well, except me. So, let me be clear that I know what javelinas are. And yes, I gravitate between using “javelina” as singular and plural, and “javelinas” as plural. I’ve seen a ton of them. Never slept with one. So, when in Episode 1 I ask Susan Woodward Springs, “Wait, wait a second…what is a javelina?” I’m doing that for the benefit of you, the listener, who may be listening in Sweden for all I know. But I imagine that a lot of people in Far West Texas I know may have been scratching their heads saying, “This reporter dude from Austin don’t even know what a freakin’ javelina is?”
If you haven’t guessed–you probably have–the reason for this is to get the source on tape explaining something, which is most often better than you doing it in narration. And you get great stuff, like Susan saying, “They’re kinda stinky.” And it gets a bit more of the host/reporter in the scene asking questions to get that dynamic response.
Sometimes I would warn sources up front that I might ask dumb questions like this on purpose, and to just roll with it. For example, having talked to muckraking journalist Jack McNamara for days on end in reporting all this, it would be absurd if in a recorded interview I suddenly asked, “Who is Amado Carillo Fuentes?” without giving him that heads up that dumb questions would be in the queue. The results were often pretty cool, with Jack probably thinking both things–he’s dumb, oh wait, he wants everyone to know–and suddenly spurting out, “Amado Carillo Fuentes, the Lord of the Skies….” dramatically.
I didn’t give Customs Agent Dan Dobbs that heads up. So, at one point when I asked, “And what is money laundering?” He replied, “What is money laundering?” And his tone carried disbelief, scorn, something akin to, “This jackass is supposedly investigating this case and asking me where Robert Chambers hid all his money and he doesn’t even fucking know what money laundering is?” So I had to say, “Well, can you tell us what money laundering is?” That, of course, is the safe way of handling these situations, but I kind of like playing stupid sometimes to get a more authentic response. Although, I will have to say that when you ask, “Tell us what <xyz> is….” in a question, you get the person to answer by naming the subject up front. “Tell us what buggery is?” And they respond, “Oh, well my. Buggery is when….” But you don’t get that intensive of a response. Well, I guess I’ll mix it up in the future.
This all became comical with my field producer Ryan Katz, who I spent four days with in West Texas doing interviews. Ryan was great at helping me in interviews when I didn’t ask the right questions, or when I didn’t probe hard enough in an interview. I would say, “Well, I think I’m done, but I know Ryan has some questions, because he’s a very inquisitive person.” Then I’d give him the floor. And he would go at it, sometimes probably doing the same tactic–asking dumb questions to get that perfect explanation from a source.
I loved Ryan also, because–besides being jovial and funny–he had worked on In the Dark (My faorite, in particular, is Season 2), my all-time favorite podcast with incredible reporting. But he was amusingly annoying in so many ways carrying around his dam boom mic and asking me questions like:
“Rob, can you tell us what scrub is?” (After me doing field narration describing the “scrub” leading to the mountains. Oh, I know, you may live in Sweden.)
“Rob, can you describe the products in Prada Marfa?” (What, am I fucking Italian fashion expert? They are shoes and handbags. Although I did my best.)
“Rob, what is a burro?” (A little fucking donkey. I think? Yep, they are just little donkeys.)
So I told Ryan, “That’s it. Call the production company. We need consultants now! A botanist. An Italian fashion designer. A zoologist or animal husbandry expert.”