Interview by Chris Faraone & Dan McCarthy
Boston Strong was much more than a typical book project. Between deadlines, daily-changing storylines, and the high emotional nature of the topic-at-hand, it was a life-altering undertaking, the combination of humanity and journalistic gusto that make for passionate, genre-defining stories. We’re longtime acquaintances and admirers of Dave Wedge and Casey Sherman, and so they allowed us to prod them with questions of both a personal and professional nature. In all, a phenomenal complement to the book and precursor to the upcoming film of the same name …
Where were you when the Boston Marathon was bombed? And what were the first things that you thought, that you wrote in your notebook?
DW: I was the Boston Herald‘s City Hall reporter and was on my way to a meeting outside the building when I got a call from firefighter friend of mine telling me there were two explosions at the finish line. I at first assumed they were manhole explosions or maybe a substation explosion as had happened not long before the marathon bombings. I was on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester and was just starting to head toward Boylston when the firefighter called me back and said the JFK Library was on fire. I looked over toward the library and saw thick, black smoke, so I immediately sped to the library. I stayed there for a few minutes but it quickly became clear no one was hurt and it was likely not connected to what happened at the marathon, so I headed to the finish line.
The first thing I wrote in my notebook that day were some notes about the fire. At the finish line, I quickly started interviewing witnesses and runners, many of whom were crying and shaking. I ran into Councilor Tito Jackson who was also very upset and shaken. He had been at a party near the finish line just before the bombings.
CS: Yeah, I was working at the time so I was doing corporate communications in Boston and my office was in the North End. Bombs go off, we clear out, all our employees, and then it’s my decision because I was interested in it, not just as a journalist by trade, thinking I was going to write a book about it, I just wanted to see what was happening. So I got down to about here [Arlington and Newbury]. I couldn’t really drive anywhere, I forget where I dropped my car off. I tried to walk, this was about as far as I got around this area here, but it was just a tsunami of people. You could see the smoke, almost smell it to a degree.
How much material for the book was drawn from previous reporting, and what was the change of pace like in going to writing at book length?
DW: Most of the book is taken from hundreds of hours of interviews Casey and I conducted with survivors, first responders, city leaders like Mayor Menino and Gov. Patrick, witnesses and relatives and friends of those who lost their lives. Good chunks of the chapter on the Watertown shootout were from my first hand observations as I was in the middle of the chaos there that night and remained there until they caught Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. And much of the narrative of what happened there was taken from incredible details provided by Watertown police Chief Ed Deveau.
It was very different from the short pieces I generally wrote for the Herald, but I have written many longer magazine pieces over the years so that served as good training. I had also edited and done some research for colleagues’ books in the past, so that helped. But really working with Casey helped me immensely to really focus on my writing and tell the story in a direct and compelling way. Casey is a master storyteller and working with him was a perfect partnership.
Using the title “Boston Strong,” which came to represent so much, strikes me as a major burden. How did you interpret that weight, and how did you live up to any expectations that may have been out there?
DW: We chose it because the vision for our book fit perfectly with that sentiment. Our book is about the heroism of the day and the resilience of those impacted by the attacks. Our goal was to focus on finding those incredible stories of survival and recovery and tell the larger story of what happened through that prism. As tragic and sad as what happened here was, the response of the survivors, the regular people who ran in to help those hurt, first responders and our city leaders, particularly Mayor Menino, are the true legacy of that day. I think when people read the book, they’ll understand why we chose that title.
CS: We debated it. We [also] had Patriots Day, you name it, it was thrown out there. But it was just that the more we kept meeting these survivors and seeing how the tragedy had motivated them to do bigger things, things they never thought possible their whole lives, we kept going back to “strength,” “resilience,” and I said why are we trying to scramble our brains for something to think up when the slogan is already there. And I know we’re going to get people that roll their eyes about the name of the book because they think it’s a marketing ploy and a t-shirt, but to them I’ll just say “read it.”
As far as you split up duties, what were your specific roles?
DW: I think we both brought a lot to the table – certainly my reporting skills were an asset to the project, but Casey is an expert interviewer as well and as I said before a great storyteller. I think my experience covering the marathon bombings and the shootout and manhunt in Watertown for the Herald helped give this book a visceral feel and a unique perspective. As I have throughout my career, I tried my best to handle every interview for this book by balancing my quest for truth with compassion and professionalism.
Is there anything you guys have found to the response of the project or announcement of the film project that the national media have gotten wrong?
CS: More so about the movie project. At first we took heat when it was announced there would be a movie about it, and we were blasted in the press. “It’s too soon, how can anyone make a movie about this?” and we knew the angle we were taking, which was this is going to be a story that’s a tribute to the city, and not take away from it. And the stories of heroism and sacrifice that we wrote about and will be portrayed in the movie, people need to see that and need to be inspired by that, because it needs to be a history lesson and again, 20 years from now people will watch the movie on cable as opposed to going back and finding our book. Granted, Hollywood is Hollywood and some things will be recreated or dramatized just for a movie going audience, but the theme and the core of the book and the movie will be the same, which is making sure people know that it’s not easy. And that the threat will always exist. You know, when we went to France a year ago and were talking to survivors on that trip that were very nervous, because it was a high profile trip, and they believed that “alright, you’ve gathered 100 of us survivors in one spot, is there a terrorist organization out there that will target us?” We didn’t realize how real of a possibility that had been until Charlie Hedbo two weeks ago. So the constant fear of survivors is real, their heads are always on a swivel. Even if a door closes abruptly behind one of them, many of them jump or even literally hit the ground. And you know they’re always going to have that fear. It sickens you.
What do you say to yourself before making your first contact with a victim of something as horrific as the bombing of the Boston Marathon?
DW: Honestly, these were some difficult interviews at times. I guess I just tried to put myself in a very calm place before the interviews so I wouldn’t start off like a bull in a china shop and instead could ease into each discussion.
Interviewing folks who lost a limb or limbs or a loved one is never a comfortable topic. But these are amazing people whose outlook – despite what happened to them – remains very positive. That’s inspiring. And so many of them are just good people. So that makes it easier. We also were lucky to have traveled to France with many of the survivors, so we were able to break down some walls and bond with them a bit away from Boston.
Who is a subject or subjects who you expect to be exchanging holiday cards with for years to come?
DW: Well we’ve been lucky enough to become close with a lot of the survivors and families of the victims. I count many of them now among my friends. I also developed a great rapport with many of the people involved: Watertown Chief Ed Deveau, former BPD Commissioner Ed Davis, former City Councilor Mike Ross, and Mayor Menino. I enjoyed covering Mayor Menino for a decade plus and really became pretty friendly with him in his final years. I’ll always cherish the personal time we had and the advice he gave me and miss him very much.
CS: I can tell you who we’ve already been exchanging cards with. Dave and I were the only journalists invited on this “healing cruise” in France, that was 2013, first Christmas after the bombing, and we went with 100 plus survivors of the bombing, and were with them there over 11 days. We got a chance to really know them, we laughed together, we cried together, we bar hopped all over France together, and we bonded until the wee hours of the morning. We needed that, and they needed that as well to really get their stories across.
Are either of you following the trial closely? And if so, are you taking notes, preparing for follow-up reports, a paperback edition, etc.?
DW: We are following the trial closely. We will both be dropping in to observe from time to time and will be doing an epilogue for the next printing.
CS: We have to, because we’ll update the book and we’ll be jumping in and out of the trial during the course of it. Because a lot is still unwritten about it, including the FBI’s role in this case. What we found out was that the relationship between local authorities and the FBI wasn’t as seamless as it was portrayed at the time. There was a lot of distrust between BPD and the FBI.
Finally, where should people look if they want to keep up on updates related to the “Boston Strong” movie?
CS: Boston Strong Book on Facebook and Twitter. Dave and I have been constantly keeping people updated, because we understand the sensitivity around the project and we want to be sensitive to it. We want to let people know what we’re doing and what we’re thinking about doing, and it’s amazing: once the initial blowback about the initial movie announcement came and went, as survivors got to hear about our approach, got to meet us, they would say, “How can we be involved in the project, we want to be in the movie,” and that’s an amazing thing. It’s cathartic.