Eli Sanders, CC ’99, doesn’t remember much of Kenneth Jackson’s History of the City of New York class.
“I took a really good nap in the back aisle—but I had a really good time on the bike tour,” Sanders, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing, said via phone on Wednesday.
He also doesn’t remember his Literature Humanities teacher’s name—though he loved the class, as it “forced you to read great stories”—but he does remember the unmentionable things he did in the Spectator office’s dark room as editor in chief in 1998.
Spectator “ate my life in college, but it was really fucking fun,” he said. “Every day you’d show up after class, have dinner and arguments and little triumphs, hopefully maybe a lot of laughs, but usually too few, with a bunch of people who you love and hate and can’t stand and at some point can’t believe you’re not with anymore.”
But Sanders said it’s funny how little has changed.
A Seattle native, he interned at the Seattle Times directly after graduating from Columbia, and after a three-year residency took up bike messengering. That’s still among his favorite jobs, along with being a delivery boy of “a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and a movie and condoms” for the dot-com business Kozmo.
“I knocked on some weird doors answered by some weird people,” Sanders said. In the end, he stuck with journalism, where he still has fun. “Part of what I like about journalism is getting to enter all these corners of the world that you don’t get to enter otherwise.”
After working with the Boston Globe, the New York Times, among others, Sanders settled with Seattle’s The Stranger—a “scrappy little alt-weekly,” as he called it—whose slogan is “Seattle’s Only Newspaper” and whose editor is a sex columnist.
The morning of the Pulitzer Prize announcement, Sanders said he assumed he hadn’t won since he hadn’t received a notification before the results were published. Only after checking the website, showing the page to his editor, and calling someone else to confirm did his win register.
Spectator friends sent him text messages and emails of congratulations upon hearing the announcement. One friend reposted a picture of Sanders—as he writes on his website, “many haircuts ago”—posing with “60 Minutes” journalist Andy Rooney at a Spectator dinner.
“I love that,” he said.
The Stranger is the fifth alternative weekly to win a Pulitzer. The jury called Sanders’ article, “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” “a haunting story of a woman who survived a brutal attack that took the life of her partner.” The day after the board awarded Sanders the prize, The Stranger wrote that the reaction to the award by the subject of the article was more meaningful than the award itself.
Jennifer Hopper, who remained anonymous until after the piece was published, congratulated him in the office the day of the announcement, saying that she pictured her deceased partner celebrating.
“The reporter-subject relationship is always an unconventional one,” Sanders said. He met her for coffee after the crime in 2009, but since she couldn’t speak to any media during the trial, he said he grew acquainted with her through her testimony. “It was a story that cried out to be written. I didn’t want to let go—I couldn’t let go.”
The heavy material in the case and local nature of the paper forced Sanders and his editor to define what should and should not be said in the piece, a process which Sanders found challenging. Though many comments on his article came from locals who knew those involved, the feature speaks to a wider audience.
Sanders said that while some may have followed the case and forgotten about it, “The Bravest Woman” extracts themes that “can be telling, almost universal issues to explore.”
“The simple fact of her courage … was incredible to watch. Violence, sexual assault, faults in the criminal justice and mental health systems—none of that is unique to Seattle or to the local community,” he said.
Sanders said that he became a journalist to report on stories as compelling as this one, and settled on alt-weekly journalism “to tell the stories that the mainstream media can’t or won’t.” Grateful for the luxury of the long-form, he added, “The world is complicated and it’s hard to describe the world sometimes in a very short story.”
For now, Sanders said he plans to stay at The Stranger. He is in planning stages for his next story.
“I’m pretty well-conditioned at this point to feel like I need to be working. But obviously, this is a great kind of interruption,” he said.