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UNDER THE RADAR: Of all the prizes handed out at the National Magazine Awards, one of the most prestigious is reporting, and it’s usually passed around among a small number of publications — The New Yorker, the New York Times Sunday Magazine and Rolling Stone have each won twice or more in the last decade. But this year the winner was Chris Heath, a Pet Shop Boys expert and a onetime biographer of Robbie Williams. Heath won for an 11,000-word piece in the March 2012 GQ on a wild animal hunt and massacre in Zanesville, Ohio.
Heath’s name doesn’t have anywhere near the same level of recognition as previous winners of the award, the Lawrence Wrights and Sebastian Jungers, but he’s been a stealth workhorse at men’s magazines for the past 20 years. “I’ve waited many years to get an award for Chris Heath,” GQ editor in chief Jim Nelson said in accepting the award. “This man is to my mind one of the best writers working today.”
Nelson had reason to be thankful. Heath had already helped GQ secure bragging rights over Esquire, which had dispatched its own correspondent, Chris Jones, to Ohio but was not nominated.
At 49, Heath can hardly be called an “It” boy. A British expatriate, he now lives in New York and made his name following the pop duo the Pet Shop Boys on their 1989 tour, which resulted in a book, “Literally.” His favorite song? “It changes, but it’s probably ‘Being Boring’ and ‘Love Comes Quickly,’” he said.
He started writing for American magazines in 1990 with a piece whose subject he can’t quite recall now, but that was notable, to put it in perspective, because it appeared in the first redesigned issue of Details by James Truman. He’s been quietly turning out cover stories for GQ for the past 10 years, usually alternating between celebrity profiles and newsier reported features.
“I think they’re the same thing. Every story you do is different, but they’re all about people and how they’re making sense of the weird things that happen in their life,” he said. His subjects in GQ following Zanesville included the actor Michael Fassbender and the economic and social collapse of Greek society. “I’ve got no desire to narrow that range of subjects.”
When, in October 2011, 56 wild animals escaped from a private zoo in Zanesville — leaving their owner, Terry Thompson, dead in their wake — the story, which made national headlines, had the sad, sordid pathos that is the key ingredient of the deep-dive magazine treatment, and award-winning features.
“There was a lot of talk on the first couple of days about whether we’d do something straight away. I immediately thought there was something bigger than the whole event,” Heath said. Independently, Esquire had the same thought. In December, Heath was in Zanesville, and as these things tend to go, Jones from Esquire was also there running around, and that’s when both magazines realized they were chasing the same story.
“No one’s got an exclusive right over these things,” Heath said.
There were other, more substantial complications in the reporting. To tell the story of what happened on the night the animals escaped, Heath relied on police transcripts and interviews with the detectives. But to get into the weird, insular world of animal collectors, he had to persuade weird, closed-off animal collectors to speak to him. “I got used to knocking on people’s doors and going around the back and seeing a tiger cage in a very suburban setting,” Heath said. “Understandably, they’re kind of wary of talking to people. Some people who would talk to me, they knew that what they considered their way of life was under attack.”
Few of them wanted to talk about Thompson on the record, complicating a story that needed a main character.
“The first week I was in Ohio, I got nowhere on that. I’d spend endless amounts of time tracking people down, and they’d hang up on me,” Heath said. Two weeks later, part of them spent traveling around Ohio and Indiana, he still had no idea who Thompson was.
“I just carried on. I made little breakthroughs on the phone,” he said.
Back in England for Christmas, Heath, who was already writing, found on a conspiracy-theory Web site a crucial lead, someone who said she had gone to school with Thompson and knew his then-high school sweetheart.
“I went searching for her, hoping that she’d live in the area, and it was her. That was a huge breakthrough,” he said.
In the hands of a less able writer, the zoo owner could have been easily portrayed as another troubled misfit. But Heath’s story humanizes Thompson, a high school free spirit drafted to Vietnam, and describes the personal setbacks that culminated with his apparent suicide in October.
For his prize, Heath beat Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker; Robert F. Worth, a former war correspondent at the New York Times, and Pamela Colloff, an executive editor at Texas Monthly, who has multiple nominations to her name. At the Ellies, she won a separate award, feature writing, for a two-part series on a wrongful criminal conviction in Texas.
Heath said he wasn’t sure of the reception to the story prior to the nomination.
“I tend to be tucked away from the world. I’m not corresponding a lot with people. I’m out there reporting the next story. Feedback is very filtered,” he said.
So what is next? When he won the award, a GQ cover profile of Robert Downey Jr. had just hit newsstands. Heath was reluctant to get into the details of his next assignment.
“When it comes out, you’ll understand why I couldn’t explain it anymore. If it works, it’s quite something,” he said.