Steamboat Springs Journalist Rick Bragg writes mostly about the poor and the struggling.
He sat beside former murderers who lie in their prison beds, who need help going to the bathroom and barely remember their crimes.
He walked into the New York corner store where neighborhood teen-agers killed clerks for $20 and the store owner wears a bulletproof vest.
He listened to a woman tell the story of being sold at birth. "She never found her, but the search for her mother shook loose a secret," he wrote (New York Times, 1997).
It's the kind of prose that can be hard to find in today's journalism. Bragg uses words that paint pictures in the background and turns of phrase that explain things people could never say for themselves.
On Sept. 14, Steamboat residents can hear Bragg talk about his acclaimed writing style during the annual Literary Sojourn. Bragg will be one of five featured authors at the event. Others include Alan Lightman, Elizabeth McCracken, Bharati Mukherjee and Gail Tsukiyama. The Literary Sojourn is a collaborative effort of Off the Beaten Path Bookstore and Bud Werner Memorial Library.
Many writers complain that journalism is formulaic and that the daily grind can flatten their voices. But Bragg was lucky enough early in his career to have an editor who recognized his strength writing features about real people and encouraged him to pursue it. In 20 years of doing just that, he worked himself into a job at The New York Times, three bestsellers and a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
Most of his best stories are about the South.
"It was a place where playing the church piano loud was near as important as playing it right, where fearless young men steered long, black Buicks loaded with yellow whiskey down roads the color of dried blood and where cotton blew off the wagons and hung like scraps of cloud in the branches of trees," he wrote of growing up in Alabama.
It was a place that shaped the way he saw the world, a place he never forgot and never tried to forget.
He told a story to a reporter about the day he realized he wasn't right for the woman he married. He was in the kitchen of their Alabama home, eating a fried bologna sandwich and reading the sports page. His wife was looking at him wearing boxers and scratching his belly and she didn't see the man who would later win journalism's most cherished prize.
"I'm a Southerner," he said, "but not the gentility. I never pretended to be, never wanted to be."
He is now single. Which is probably for the best, considering his job has taken him all over the world, always to where people are the poorest, conditions the worst.
After Sept. 11, he went to Pakistan to cover the people there for the Times.
He wrote, "The poverty breaks your heart, as does the hatred here of Americans. People keep telling me it is not widespread, and I hope that is true. Perhaps I have covered too many demonstrations, seen too many shouts of rage, so my view is too narrow. It has taught me a good bit, but about what I'm not real sure."
Bragg is the author of "Ava's Man," "Somebody Told Me" and "All Over but the Shoutin'."
The books and registration information for Literary Sojourn are available at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore and Coffeehouse and Bud Werner Memorial Library. Tickets for the event, which sold out last year, go on sale in July.