On writers and their stories

by Brian Clarey

On writers and their stories

I am harboring heavy thoughts inspired by two young men who recently, and at different times in the last couple weeks, sat in the very same chair across the desk from me in my office. One was an aspiring journalist looking for an internship at this paper.

The other was Austin Carty, the High Point native who appeared, often shirtless, on “Survivor: Panama — Exile Island” in 2006.

Carty is also a writer, with a published novel, 2003’s Somewhere Beyond Here, and a new collection of essays, High Points and Lows, in bookstores now.

Carty came to make a pitch: a feature about an up-and-coming country star on the verge of either breaking through to mainstream success or becoming totally irrelevant. It’s pretty good stuff, and I gave it the green light.

I’ll be honest: I had never read a word Carty had written save for maybe a cursory glance. But what the hell, I figured. How bad could it possibly be? And, I reasoned, I’d be pretty stupid not to run a piece by a guy who was voted one of the 30 Hottest “Survivor” Castaways by Entertainment Weekly.

As it turned out, Carty’s story about a bus ride with Randy Montana is a fantastic profile that examines the music business in general, country stardom in particular and the reason everybody wants to be Willie Nelson. The result is this week’s cover story, “Waiting,” on page 14. I urge you to give it a read.

It would have been easy for me to dismiss Carty as a pretender whose appearance on a national network reality show had little to do with his writing chops and more to do with his abs — which, admittedly, are admirable. But since his television debut, he’s been doing what writers do: write. Fortunately for me, and for our readers, I based my decision on his work history and local ties, plus the fact that my wife and I watched every single episode of “Survivor” that year.

Contrast Carty with Victor Lopez, the Guilford College student seeking an internship. While attending at GTCC, Lopez won a student essay writing contest in The Nation, beating out undergrads from Yale, NYU and Middlebury with the tale of his conception in a mental institution, a life under foster care replete with beating and abuse, a plea for the president to form a federal oversight committee to help forgotten children.

It was pretty powerful stuff, and I was looking forward to meeting him.

The young man who visited my office practically vibrated with energy and the sort of manic enthusiasm that when harnessed properly, I thought, could be a valuable trait.

Lopez talked a little bit about his award-winning essay and his current work at The Guilfordian, and he spoke a bit about the types of stories he wanted to do. All well and good.

But Lopez didn’t stop there. He mentioned that he was e-mail buddies with Noam Chomsky, the 81-year-old philosopher and generative grammar theorist. He mentioned his father, who Lopez said was a Department of Justice lawyer in Washington DC, and an internship at The Nation.

Impressive — but wait, wasn’t he conceived in a mental institution? We began talking about the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, the only openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, and Lopez revealed that he and Robinson had a personal relationship. It was when we were chatting about crime in Greensboro and Lopez announced he was friends with Elton Turnbull, who ran a massive cocaine trafficking organization out of the city before heading to jail in 2003, that I began to get awfully suspicious. He said Turnbull hung out at a bar Lopez used to own.

But Turnbull operated through the Virgin Islands, and I thought Lopez had said the bar he had owned was in Puerto Rico.

No, he said. It was the Virgin Islands. I realized Lopez was either one of the most remarkable young men in the state, or else he was the biggest hustler I had met since I left New Orleans 10 years ago.

The first thing we checked out was the easiest: A quick Facebook message to Richard Kim, senior editor at The Nation — where, incidentally, YES! Weekly News Editor Jordan Green actually did intern in 2000 — revealed Lopez had never interned there, and, Kim said, the magazine would be fact-checking the one essay they did publish.

I caught him in another inconsistency as well: Lopez told me during the interview he was 27 years old, the same age he claimed to be in 2008, when he won the essay contest in The Nation. And that was enough for me.

So. No internship for Lopez. Cover story for Carty. One man is thwarted by a fabricated past, another overcomes prejudice — mine — to win a spot as my new favorite freelance feature writer.

Didn’t see that coming.