By Matt Welsh
Eric Benson, a senior editor at Texas Monthly, wrote a feature story on Buc-ee’s and founder Beaver Aplin.
MW: What is your background? How did you get to the Texas Monthly? I saw that you were originally from New York.
Eric Benson: Yeah, I was born and raised in New York City. I moved to Austin six years ago and started writing for the Monthly five years ago. My path in journalism was I graduated from college and moved to Argentina for a year. I worked for a little English-language newspaper down there, writing a variety of things that not a lot of people read. I then moved back to New York and was an intern at Harper’s Magazine, which was a great kind of journalism boot camp. From there, I became the fact-checker at New York Magazine. I was in New York for four years as a fact-checker and then as a baby editor, doing research for a writer and doing some editing of shorter stuff for the front-of-the-book section.
Basically, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write what I guess we call now long-form features. That wasn’t really going to happen in the kind of time I wanted it to happen at New York Magazine. It was an entry-level job that I had and then next-stop-after-entry-level job. It was going to be tough for me to be a feature writer there. So, I quit. I thought I could make it as a freelance writer. When I was doing that, I also wanted to move to a place where it was a little cheaper to live and to a place that was sort of exciting. I had been thinking about Austin for a while. Through the years, I had become friends with some of the writers at Texas Monthly. So, I thought that could be a home for me as a writer. I moved down here. I did not have a job at Texas Monthly. I did not get anything into the magazine for the first year I lived here. I was writing and got features in a bunch of different places. I got my first assignments for the Monthly and was writing pretty consistently for them from the summer of 2014 through the end of 2017 as a freelancer. First as a just straight-up freelancer, getting paid story to story and then having a year-long contract in 2016 and part of 2017. I got on staff at the beginning of 2018, and that’s where I’ve been since.
MW: That’s a pretty eclectic background. How did you balance all of that? How did you approach that style of career not necessarily working in one spot?
EB: When you’re a freelancer, you write for wherever you can get a story. I had done some freelancing while I was at New York. The first few features I wrote, I made nothing on. It was all for places that didn’t pay but they would publish… The first real glossy feature I had was for Men’s Journal, which was a feature about the astronaut corps after the end of the shuttle program. That was still when I was working in New York. When I left, it was really just finding an idea and then finding a place that could take it. In the case of a place like Texas Monthly, finding a place where I could continue to write for, where I could forge good relationships with editors, and where not only was I taking them pitches but they would bring me ideas, too. That’s how it went.
I’ve never really geared my writing toward a specific publication. Certain places and certain pieces, I would write differently. I wrote quite a bit for Men’s Fitness. So, you can imagine a feature on why older athletes are more successful today is going to be written in a slightly different way than a ride-around profile of Terrence Malick. But generally, where I’ve written for has been me having an idea and finding a publication that will take it.
MW: About this Buc-ee’s story, how did you pick the angle you wanted to go at with this story? It’s a big story, it also has a lot of different aspects to it. How did you decide you wanted to approach this story from the owner’s point of view through a historical lens?
EB: That was a story Texas Monthly asked me to do. We had an editor here, who was the editor on the piece, who had been looking for stories. I think (the editor) actually just called up Buc-ee’s headquarters and asked to speak to Beaver, who is the CEO. Since Buc-ee’s had become a pretty big thing over the last 15 years, Beaver had not done a lot of press. There had been quite a few stories in local and industry press about Buc-ee’s, but it was pretty rare that you saw a quote from Beaver. The big exception was a story for Forbes that Beaver had participated in. Beaver really liked Texas Monthly, and that was one he wanted to do. I came into the article at that point. Beaver was on board, and we wanted to a story on Buc-ee’s. We had this guy who hadn’t been really press friendly who was going to give us access. The fact that it was going to be a profile of him, or that it was going to have elements of a profile, was sort of baked into the cake from the start.
I’ve written a lot of profiles. That’s also how I approach a story anyway. There were certain things that I know that a profile needs. A profile needs themes. If I am profiling someone, I want to see them in a bunch of different environments. I knew that I was going to need to go to a store with Beaver. That was the first thing that was clear. I wanted him to show me around one of his stores. I really wanted to go to the headquarters to see what was going on there and to see what Buc-ee’s headquarters was like. There were only three times I saw him. One time, which was the first time, he just happened to be in Austin. We got some coffee. We just talked about what the piece would be and a little about his life. A lot of that came in when I went to a Buc-ee’s with him and spent the day at his office in Lake Jackson.
MW: What were those talks like with him? It seems like he was hesitant to talk with you in the sense he didn’t want to be the focal point of the story.
EB: He wanted the story to be about Buc-ee’s, not about him. He didn’t have conditions, and I wouldn’t do a story where a subject had conditions. But that seems sort of appropriate anyway. The interesting thing was Buc-ee’s, but you also wanted to know who was behind Buc-ee’s. In a more typical profile, I would have done more biographical digging. I would have talked to childhood friends and things like that. In this piece that wasn’t really needed. I just wanted to focus on him and the store.
MW: So, you didn’t do as much biography in this. But there’s still a ton of history in this, in the sense, it’s almost a biography of the store itself.
EB: Right, exactly. The piece starts a little unusually, which was something I pushed for. When he told me that his grandfather had owned a general store in Louisiana, I knew immediately that was something I really wanted to raw out in the piece. It’s sort of an unusual thing to do for an ambitious guy to start a gas station convenience store. He had these fond memories of his grandfather’s gas station convenience store in this little town in Louisiana. That had been kind of a touchstone for him, especially when he was younger. I thought that was a real key to him and a real key to Buc-ee’s.
I knew I wanted to talk to his dad… I really wanted to talk to him about the store, his own father and what that place was like. The more I learned about it, there was a real resonance with Buc-ee’s.
MW: There’s a lot of information in this story. How did you organize all the information?
That first section was purely biographical of the grandfather, the father and him. I knew from there, I wanted to go from this little store and him starting his little store to what it is like today. That was going to be a hard cut.
That first section with him touring me around the store was going to be a way to slip in a bunch of information about what a Buc-ee’s is like. For readers who haven’t been to Buc-ee’s, you need to establish pretty early in the story what this place is like, so you’ll understand what the fuss is about. From there, I needed to give more background information about how other people view this store and why this brand was special. There was a natural progression about weaving in facts about the store and commentary about the store with the history of the store. From 1982, when the first one was founded, we weave that in with the beginning of the travel centers and the travel centers getting bigger to today.
MW: How did you organize your information while reporting it? That flow is intuitive but at the time it may not have been as intuitive.
EB: I’m not thinking about that when I report. I organize everything in a program called Scrivener. I’m taking lots of notes. There’s the portion of my work that is interview based. It’s me talking to the main subject of the story, talking to secondary sources and then scenes I’m witnessing… There’s a whole portion of the work that is just research. It’s me on internet databases looking through old clips and reading through a lot of different stuff. I’m seeing what jumps out and what’s new and posting that into a big file.
One thing in this piece that was a little unusual in terms of a primary source, I saw the federal lawsuits they had been involved in. I saw that they had a federal lawsuit that went all the way to a jury trial, which is pretty rare for a lawsuit between businesses. I thought it would be really interesting to get the transcript of that jury trial because I knew that there would be information that would come out during a jury trial in testimony. Beaver testified in court where he would say things that he might not be willing to say in an interview. A lot of the information about how much money the store made comes from the trial and transcript.
MW: I’ve read your series on the Branch Davidian Incident in Waco. This story is a wide departure from talking about those things. You’ve written about a lot of other things. How do you move from one intensity or one area to another like that so frequently?
EB: I think it’s all really the same thing, what I do at least. I’m not a subject matter expert. I’ve never been a beat reporter. Most of my pieces have some element of profile in them. It’s finding someone who has a really compelling story to tell, talking with them and asking really specific questions. It’s finding scenes either by doing things with them, watching them doing things or getting them to tell you really vivid stories you can reconstruct into actions.
There’s often a research component with what else has been written and what else they’ve said. The balance is different depending on what the story is. It’s really being curious about people, wanting to learn from people about what they do and asking a lot of questions.
It’s like cooking different styles of cuisine. You can cook Thai food. You can cook soul food. You can cook Italian food. What you’re going to taste is all pretty different, but a lot of the techniques you use to get all of those things are the same techniques in the kitchen. A good cook should really be able to do all of those things. If they’re curious, want to learn and aren’t worried about having to do it one or two times to get it right, I think it’s sort of similar. The skill that I do is magazine journalism. It doesn’t really matter what the subject matter is.
MW: You’ve been all over the place. What advice do you have for younger journalists trying to make it? What advice would have for somebody who is trying to make it in the magazine world?
EB: I don’t think I have on piece of advice or one prescription. I think one important thing to know about certainly magazine journalism at this point is that it’s a very uncertain, constantly changing environment. It’s one where there isn’t a clear path. This isn’t like becoming a lawyer or doctor where the profession has real steps to take. There really aren’t clear steps. I think if you looked at the top of the profession, whether editors or writers, a lot of them would have different paths to get there.
I’ve known people who have tried to freelance out of college. I think that is going to be extremely difficult. I would definitely not recommend that for anyone. It is really, really hard when you’re starting to freelance. Most editors won’t give you the time of day. If you haven’t really gotten anywhere in the industry, I imagine that would be very frustrating and could drive you out of it pretty quickly.
I usually tell people getting an internship in New York or D.C. is generally a pretty good way to go for a short period of time. That’s kind of where the profession is based, particularly New York for magazines. You’ll meet a lot of people who also want to be in magazines. You can figure out if that’s the place you want to be long term, or if you can do it somewhere else. It is certainly easier to do it somewhere else if you’re a writer than if you’re an editor. There aren’t that many magazines that are based outside of New York. You can be a writer and write for anyone from anywhere. In many ways, it’s an advantage not to be in New York because you’re closer to stories that are in the rest of the country that are fascinating to magazines. You can have a head start on them.