Legendary Texas Monthly writer Skip Hollandsworth is used to working hard for a story. He’s been widely recognized as one of the premier writers of longform non-fiction in the magazine world for three decades. Many of these narratives spanned more than 12,000 words and required months of investigation, research, interviews, fact-checking, and rewriting.
For his efforts he’s received a National Magazine Award, had three of his articles turned into TV movies, and had his 1998 piece “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” turned into the film Bernie, which was released in 2011 and starred Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley McClaine. The film, directed by Richard Linklater, was critically acclaimed and received several awards and nominations, including a Golden Globe nomination for Black.
Skip Hollandsworth knows that the perfect story requires time.
But his first foray into the investigative podcast world has stretched him and exhausted him in ways he could never have anticipated. Before I even asked him a question, he had something he wanted to get off his chest: “Writing a podcast takes hours! It’s ridiculous how long it takes. It’s such a time suck!”
“The bosses have always wanted me to do one. I didn’t want to do a podcast that would be just redoing an old article I had done years before.”
The making of Tom Brown’s Body, which is both an eight-part podcast series and a three-part magazine story, has required the 63-year-old self-professed “old fart” to step out of his comfort zone and learn new skills, new technology, and, as he says, develop “new muscles.”
And he’s done it all in service of a dark, twisted, fascinating mystery that unfolded, and continues to unfold, in a little-known part of the Texas Panhandle. It’s exactly the type of story that Hollandsworth was born to tell. And despite those challenges and all the extra work, he’s greatly enjoyed his first foray into podcasting.
“If you’ve got good characters then a podcast is a lot of fun.”
Hollandsworth cut his teeth at local newspapers working in the sports departments before joining Texas Monthly in 1989.
Avid readers of Texas Monthly feel a genuine jolt of excitement when they see that a new Skip story is in that month’s issue. So it’s no surprise that his editors have been pressuring him to use his storytelling abilities in a different medium. In addition to writing skills, Hollandsworth was blessed with a voice perfectly suited for a Texas-based podcast. His Texas accent is just heavy enough to place you in the right state of mind, but not heavy enough to be distracting. As a longtime reader who has never heard him speak until the podcast, Hollandsworth sounds exactly like I always thought he would.
Though he isn’t a huge podcast fan, he said he’s listened to many of the highly popular podcasts like Serial and S Town. He was ready to try his hand at the new medium, but he didn’t want to force anything. It had to be the right time and the right story.
“The bosses have always wanted me to do one. I didn’t want to do a podcast that would be just redoing an old article I had done years before,” Hollandsworth says. “And I didn’t want to do one that felt like an old episode of Dateline with a simple three-act structure with an easy ending.”
Hollandsworth always has his ear to the ground trying to find the next engrossing tale from the state of Texas, so when he heard about the mysterious disappearance of a popular teenager in the Panhandle town of Canadian, TX he started digging. “I had heard about this story and had done a couple of interviews. I was telling an editor who is much more tuned in to podcasts about how many twists and turns and narrative cliffhangers there were built into this story and he just looks at me and he says ‘podcast,’” Hollandsworth recalls.
Though he was looking at this as his next major magazine story, he felt that the specific nature of this story would lend itself well to the multi-part podcast series. “For a narrative to work on a podcast you need lots of ‘and then’ moments, which are just ‘and then this happened’ and ‘he says this and then this happened.’ At the end of 30 or 40 minutes you leave your audience wanting more for your next episode,” Hollandsworth explains.
Heading out to Canadian to talk to everyone from the victim’s mother to the local sheriff to the bombastic private investigator was no problem for Hollandsworth. Talking to strangers, understanding their motivations, and getting to the heart of a story have always been his strong suits.
He had no qualms about being in a room with someone who could have been involved in a murder or a cover-up. No, he was much more concerned with trying to get everything recorded.
Putting it all together
“I don’t even know how to screw a bolt in. I was completely crazed. If it wasn’t for my wife we still wouldn’t be doing this podcast. She got up there and put it all together,” Hollandsworth says.
Hollandsworth is far from a handyman, but with the help of his wife Shannon he was able to build a studio in an extra bedroom of his home. He lives in Dallas, which is about three hours north of the Texas Monthly headquarters in Austin. So he was receiving packages in the mail with parts for the studio, which Shannon would then put together so he could sound as professional as possible despite his lack of podcasting experience.
Dallas is also about a five-hour drive from Canadian, the town Hollandsworth was traveling to for his interviews before the COVID-19 pandemic changed his course. His stories are often marked by his ability to describe the characters and settings involved in specific details, down to the price of their shirts. But with the pandemic preventing him from traveling, he had to rely much more on phone conversations than he preferred. This added to his challenges, but also taught him valuable lessons.
Many of those lessons were about technology, like learning how to use Tape a Call Pro, an iPhone app that records both sides of a phone call. He used his iPhone Voice Memos to record his in-person conversations as well. While an audiophile might prefer a digital recorder equipped with microphones, Hollandsworth enjoys the feel of his field recordings.
“I like the podcast sort of having a gritty quality and not feeling like it’s all studio sound,” Hollandsworth says.
Learning to shut up
Despite being constrained by technology and the pandemic while reporting this story, he felt freed from the confines of print while writing the podcast scripts. Instead of having to describe a subject’s reaction to a question, like “he paused, touched his chin, and thought before answering,” Hollandsworth was able to use the actual audio of the subject’s answer in the podcast.
“You let the audience hear the silence and that speaks volumes,” Hollandsworth says. “You don’t want your writing to be fancy or particularly beautiful; you want your writing to move your listeners to the next part of the story.”
It wasn’t just the writing part that he had to alter for the new medium. He also had to change the questions he might normally ask. Podcasters, like radio and TV interviewers, must never ask “yes or no” questions. One thing Hollandsworth has always kept in mind when doing any interview is to get comfortable with silence. Or, as he puts it, “You’ve got to learn to shut up. Shut up when you ask the question. When they finish a sentence don’t say anything because there’s a good chance they’ll say another sentence that is really valuable to the way the flow goes in a podcast.”
As with all of his narratives, Hollandsworth wants to stay as much out of the way as possible. The characters themselves are the ones moving the story along.
If learning new technologies and a new medium, covering a complex and ever-changing mystery, and a global pandemic weren’t difficult enough, Hollandsworth also had to be writing the Tom Brown’s Body story for the magazine as well. It was a challenging balance to strike, made even more head-spinning by the fact that new information, and new interviews, came in at a blistering pace.
Spinning the wheel
“You’re calling sources as they’re reading about themselves in the magazine, so if they’re mad at what you write then they’ve got a decision to make about whether to return your phone call. So far so good, everybody’s talking still,” Hollandsworth says with a chuckle.
Typically, when Hollandsworth turns in a major piece for the magazine the print version is final. There aren’t more twists and turns that he can add to the story, but for Tom Brown’s Body the piece was broken up into three different stories. The first, a 12,000-word yarn laying out all of the major details, came out in the September issue. The second, a 6,000-word story filled with twists and ending on a major cliffhanger, came out the following month. The final article, another 6,000-word story, is in the December 2020 issue. That article had already been turned in (way after deadline, Hollandsworth says), weeks before the final podcast episodes were written or recorded. This means that the final podcast episode has more details and newer information than the magazine story. And, without spoiling the ending, the potential for more episodes and magazine stories about this twisted tale remains a very real possibility.
The balancing act that Hollandsworth managed while simultaneously writing for print and podcast was modeled after Dirty John, which was both a podcast series and a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times (and eventually a TV series). Of course, much of the information overlapped, but podcast listeners get the added bonus of hearing the real voices of the subjects along with other audio treats. Meanwhile, readers of the magazine stories got a jump on the major details and plot points by reading the full stories before the podcast episodes came out.
A hallmark of Tom Brown’s Body is the amount of local small-town gossip that the mystery has created. Instead of dispelling myths and rumors, the podcast and magazine stories may be spinning the rumor wheel even faster. That has provided him with plenty of new material. “Everybody is responding to what everyone else is saying about them and that ups their ante, so it’s sort of fascinating psychology,” Hollandsworth says.
That small-town rumor mill has made this story more fun than just about any he’s ever worked on, despite the dark subject matter. Hollandsworth said that a podcast is fun with good characters, and this captivating tale is full of people who fit that bill.
“There’s not one single person I don’t like. Yes, the private investigator is bombastic but he’s so darn colorful he’s captivating. Yes, Penny Meek is a mystery, but of course I want to figure out what drives her,” Hollandsworth says. “And then there’s the woman I call who fills me up with gossip every week. How can you not like her? She’s slandering half the town!”
Editor’s note: Here’s a trailer to whet your appetite (psst, Texas Monthly, don’t put ads on your Trailers)