Personal philosophy: “I would love to have the time to figure out my personal philosophy.”
Last June, I happened to pick up a copy of The Stranger and opened to a story called “The Bravest Woman in Seattle.” I couldn’t put it down, and I couldn’t forget it.
The story, by The Stranger’s associate editor Eli Sanders, reached into the dark night when a deranged man broke into Jennifer Hopper and Theresa Butz’s South Park home, raped each woman repeatedly, and, after promising not to kill them, stabbed Butz to death, leaving Hopper to grieve the woman she planned to marry.
The story won Sanders the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for feature writing this year.
“I assumed that they would get in touch with you in advance, give you a little heads up,” says Sanders. On the day the announcement was supposed to be made, he went to the Pulitzer web page, “and there was my name.”
After graduating from Garfield High in 1995, Eli headed east to study journalism at Columbia. Those days were good to writers, and upon graduation he landed a three-year residency at the Seattle Times. Following a short writing hiatus, he returned to the craft, freelancing for The Stranger and going on to become a news assistant for the New York Times Seattle Bureau before being hired by The Stranger some six years ago — at this point he can’t remember exactly how long he’s been at the city’s popular alternative weekly.
A glance at Eli’s list of stories shows his aptitude to master an incredible breadth of topics: In-depth features, comprehensive profiles — including one of Isaiah Kalebu, Butz’s killer — politics and sex stories (but are they so different?), marriage equality and religion, campaign trails and criminal trials that call hard facts and the human condition onto the floor for reckoning.
“In my work I have to dive into a lot of different worlds,” says Eli. “There’s always this incredibly steep learning curve. That, to me, is always the hardest part.”
Eli, who was raised Reform, says he relates to Judaism “in my own personal idiosyncratic way, like we all do.”
Though not observant, Eli’s relationship to his roots comes through in his stories, like “The Jewish Problem” for The Stranger, a look at Portland’s shape-shifting Jewish scene on Tablet, and most recently a profile of Faygele ben Miriam, an early Seattle gay marriage activist, also on Tablet.
“I like weird characters. Feygele is a weird character,” he says. “I’m drawn to characters like that. I enjoy the process of getting into their world a little bit more.”
After he absorbed the news of his prize, Eli says The Stranger’s office manager ran out to fetch champagne, and everyone at the paper later went out for drinks — joined by his mother, as well as Jennifer Hopper. Eli has developed a strong friendship with his subject since telling her story.
“It’s been one of the most remarkable and wonderful parts,” he says.