School of Journalism and New Media

The University of Mississippi

Bestselling author to students: Sweat the small stuff

Posted on: September 11th, 2013 by

Author Charles Graeber paid a visit to Meek School students this week to discuss his best-selling book “The Good Nurse,” about the serial killer Charles Cullen, the so-called “Angel of Death” who, before his arrest in 2003, murdered as many as 300 patients over the course of a 16-year nursing career.

Graeber explained how his six-year investigation into Cullen — and into the broken health care system that allowed him to continue undetected for so long – all started with the bizarre news clipping he’d been carrying around in his pocket, about a serial killer who wanted to donate a kidney against the wishes of his victims’ families. That clip inspired Graeber to write a letter to Cullen, asking if he would talk with him. Despite having turned away dozens of reporters in the past, Cullen agreed.

“At that point,” Graeber said, “I had the football.”

“It’s a little counter-intuitive to think that good story ideas often come from other news sources – it might seem like that story has already been told,” Graeber told students in Assistant Professor Cynthia Joyce’s JOUR 271 News Reporting classes on Tuesday. “But that’s not always the case – there was another story here that wasn’t being told.”

His initial investigation led to a feature story in New York magazine, “The Tainted Kidney.” That story, in part, launched a book deal, and the book became the basis of a two-part “60 Minutes” segment.

Curious about his reporting techniques, Meek students asked Graeber whether spending so much time with a serial killer required “psychological counseling.”

“In the middle of working on “The Good Nurse,” I was sent by Business Week to write a story about a family in Kamaishi, Japan, who survived the 2011 tsunami,” he said. “This was one month after [the tsunami] – and the fact that I was actually eager to go and sit around a campfire with the survivors was probably a pretty good indication of my mental state.”

That story – “After the tsunami: Nothing to do but start again” — earned the Overseas Press Club’s Ed Cunningham Award in 2011.

Although Graeber is obviously drawn to “big” stories, he emphasized the importance of sweating the small stuff — getting every single fact right, down to the tiniest detail.

“Never mind that for more than 15 years a killer was allowed to work in nine different hospitals — if the guy had been wearing brown shoes, and I’d said they were black, no one was going to believe anything else about the story.”

Graeber will be signing copies of “The Good Nurse” at Square Books on Wednesday, September 18 at 5:00PM

Watch the “60 Minutes” segments about “The Good Nurse” here.