Weekend Reading

Dungeons & Dragons, Gisele Fetterman, Kyrgyzstan, and Fashion Week

We go back to school with works by Keri Blakinger, Anna Peele, EurasiaChat, and Rachel Comey

“The Dungeons & Dragons Players of Death Row” by Keri Blakinger in The New York Times Magazine in partnership with The Marshall Project
‘For a group of men in a Texas prison, the fantasy game became a lifeline — to their imaginations, and to one another.’

Keri Blakinger is a seasoned criminal justice reporter. She’s covered prison conditions since her time at the New York Daily News, and her memoir about her journey from being incarcerated to covering incarceration came out last year. But the interviews she conducted for this story about a crew on death row in Texas who found a way to live beyond the prison walls in Eberron, a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting, ventured into what was once uncharted territory for her. An interview with one of the players, Tony Ford, included such an unusual line of questioning that Blakinger managed to stump an intrusive prison spokesman. “I showed up for this interview, and unlike every other interview that I have ever done, [the spokesman] actually sat down next to me. You’re doing all the interviews through phones and there’s two phones that connect to the box where the prisoner is — he picked up the other one to listen in on the entire call. He was sitting so close to me, he was touching my knee. He was clearly just trying to intimidate me,” she told The Fine Print. “The entire interview was me asking really nuanced plot points about their adventures in Eberron. The look of increasing confusion on this man’s face was fucking delightful.”

When Blakinger first heard about the D&D games while covering death row for the Houston Chronicle around 2016, she knew as little about the game as the spokesman. “I knew in broad terms what it was. Obviously, enough to know that this would be a good story. But I had to learn a lot,” she said. “I actually called Keith Baker, who created the Eberron campaign setting, at one point, just to be like, ‘Am I completely fucking this up?’ He was very generous to get on a call with me and answer very simple questions.”

Once D&D’s presence on death row was on her radar, she began routinely asking about it as she reported other prison stories. She first recounted the adventures of a death row fantasy raiding party for Pop-Up Magazine in 2019, but that story focused on different players. She zeroed in on Tony Ford and Billy Wardlow as central characters when she joined the Marshall Project in 2020 and went to a meeting with the Times Magazine about potential collaborations.

She knew Ford and Wardlow could hold down a longer story for three reasons. First, they were renowned in their gaming world. Second, they’d developed a profound friendship through the game. When Wardlow’s execution date was approaching, as part of the clemency petition, Ford filed an affidavit that mentioned D&D. But perhaps most importantly, for reporting purposes, they had strong memories and a relatively clear sense of chronology. “When you’re interviewing people who’ve been in solitary for more than 20 years, it can be really hard to find someone who is good at telling their narrative because time sort of blends together,” Blakinger said. “It’s really hard to find someone who can reliably tell you about a narrative over the course of 20 years in a box.”

Though the story’s events mostly concluded in 2020, the pandemic and prison reporting conditions slowed Blakinger’s reporting. At first, the prisons were on lockdown, and snail mail wasn’t an appropriate medium for the questions she needed to ask. Even when visits were allowed again, the terms were difficult. “I could only interview for one hour in person every 90 days, so that was a built-in barrier in terms of getting adequate access,” she said. “Sometimes the editor would ask a specific question or be like, ‘Can we add a section on this?’ And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, not for 90 days. I need to go visit again.’”

The pandemic slowed down another thing. Despite Blakinger’s immersion in Wardlow and Ford’s imaginary world, she’s still never played a game of D&D. “I sat in on a few, but they were all remote, so I didn’t get a chance to play,” she said. “I tried, but it was difficult to be a novice joining an existing D&D crew in the middle of a pandemic.”

“Our Lady of Pittsburgh” by Anna Peele in New York
‘Gisele Fetterman has steered her family through hell and back. What’s a few more fires?’

When Anna Peele started thinking about writing about the Fettermans earlier this year, Senator John Fetterman caught her attention first. The story of the Pennsylvania Democrat’s rise to the Senate while dealing with the effects of a near-fatal mid-campaign stroke and the in-patient treatment he received for depression not long after taking office was inherently dramatic. But soon, Peele’s attention turned to the challenges facing his wife, Gisele Barreto Fetterman. “I was like, ‘Man, it must be so challenging to have your partner get their dream job and in the process of getting their dream job go through two enormous health challenges,’” Peele told The Fine Print. “Then I started looking into her and was like, ‘Oh, fuck, she’s a firefighter. Oh, she ran a half marathon. Oh, she smokes pot. Oh, she wants to legalize psilocybin. She’s rad.’”

So Peele set off to Braddock, Pennsylvania, to profile the very busy Gisele Fetterman. Her initial draft contained more quotes from secondary interviews, but it was pared down to a more pure portrait of their time together by the time it was published. “My editor felt like we wanted to spend the words hearing from Gisele and not other people,” she said. “It’s good to work with an editor you trust and who when they tell you something you’re like, ‘Yep, that’s probably right.’”

Peele found the experience of following Fetterman around — to the free store she founded, to the firehouse, to a Burger King with her kids — heartening. A friend had wondered if the senator’s wife would ever take a more central political role in response to his health challenges. “When we were talking about Senator Fetterman before he had completed his treatment at Walter Reed, my friend was just wondering what’s gonna happen with the Senate? What if he’s unable to serve his term? And he was like, ‘Oh, well, his wife could step in,’” Peele recalled. In their time together, it became very clear that Gisele Fetterman wasn’t angling for power. “I knew she spent a lot of time doing good for other people. My feeling is, it doesn’t matter why you’re doing good things. As long as you’re doing good things, you don’t need to be doing good things for the right reason,” Peele said. “But my sense is that she’s a good person who’s doing good things for the right reasons.”

In the context of the piece, Peele had no doubts that Gisele would be the primary Fetterman. Her husband is referred to simply as John. “She’s the subject of the piece so she gets to be the Fetterman. I did think about doing it ‘Barreto Fetterman’ for her and ‘Fetterman’ for him, but it was still too confusing. And I’m not calling her Gisele and him Fetterman. Why does he get Fetterman?” she said. “One thing I was very conscious of was this isn’t a profile of John, this is a profile of Gisele.”

“The Rough with the Smooth in Kyrgyzstan,” EurasiaChat
‘A biweekly conversation about events in Central Asia.’

There had been a gap in the market for a good anglophone Central Asia news podcast for too long. The old standby is Majlis, the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty podcast, but that, unsurprisingly, has a slant, and, worse, it tends to have oversized panels where the guests often sound like they’ve been waiting to speak. So, the advent of EurasiaChat last fall came as a great relief. Their more relaxed conversational format draws on the reporting of Eurasianet, the best-reported and best-written of the sites covering the region. This episode is an excellent showcase for how the perspectives of its hosts, shaped by that rigorous on-the-ground reporting, leave little room for the tedious opining of their predecessors.

It starts with Eurasianet Central Asia editor Peter Leonard recounting his experience in a two-week bicycle race across Kyrgyzstan. “It really takes you through the most amazingly remote, high mountain passes in Kyrgyzstan — places you would never see otherwise because many of the places are inaccessible even by car or by motorbike,” he says. “I’ve been coming to Kyrgyzstan so many years. Sometimes, you get a bit jaded, and some things you fail to appreciate as much as you should. But this has really recharged my love for this country, and it’s given me a new appreciation for the kindness of the people and the beauty of the landscape. Beauty is such an overused word, but there are no superlatives to describe the things you see out there.”

Leonard wasn’t completely detached from news developments while racing. At one point, he noticed “this big line of trucks right by the Kazakh border.” “Hundreds” may be an exaggeration, he says, but there were a lot of trucks. That turned out to be the result of a water dispute between the two countries that temporarily led Kazakhstan to close the border.

His co-host, Alisher Khamidov, throws some light on a controversy in Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan that experienced ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in 2010. A 59-year-old Uzbek man who lives in an Osh suburb called Amir-Timur was recently arrested on charges of inciting inter-ethnic hostilities after going viral with a video in which he called on Uzbekistan’s president to do something to stop discrimination against ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan. “I’ve actually talked to two men from Amir-Timur who are friends with the man who became so controversially famous,” Khamidov reports. “They told me that he has a reputation as a village idiot.”

Go to a fashion show
‘Rachel Comey is pleased to present their Spring Summer ’24 collection made in celebration of legendary American artist Joan Jonas.’

It was 90 degrees out when Rachel Comey showed her forthcoming collection in Shinbone Alley in NoHo on Wednesday. Frustrations seemed to be boiling in the line to get into the alley. Somebody wondered how Vanity Fair got a detail in a story while a couple of teenagers griped that they deserved to have gotten into an Advanced Placement class. The mother of one of the teens soon came to fetch them out of line. Worryingly black-clad docents guided guests to their spots on the audience benches lining the alley, and soon, the music began playing, and models started parading. Cool water dripped on the bench perchers from the humming window units above, contrasting nicely with the warm fizz of the mini San Pellegrino bottles.

The Fine Print assiduously avoided Fashion Week last year, but Comey’s recent series of dresses adapting New York Review of Books covers lured us out with the hope of gawking at literary magazine types venturing into the unfamiliar fashion world. Unfortunately, apart from someone who looked an awful lot like New York Review editor Emily Greenhouse, most of the journalists we spotted were firmly on their beats. Among them were New Yorker staff writers Naomi Fry and Rachel Syme; New York Times Styles editor Stella Bugbee, fashion director Vanessa Friedman, and reporter Jessica Testa; former Cut senior fashion writer Emilia Petrarca; Artnet Wet Paint columnist Annie Armstrong; and Washington Post fashion writer Rachel Tashjian. (Incidentally, last weekend, Tashjian published an epochally good edition of her invite-only newsletter Opulent Tips, which included this delightful aside: “My dad has this silk robe covered in clowns, which he bought in Switzerland. He was there for the World Economic Forum – and if that’s not a circus, I don’t know what is! Sometimes, he sits us down for very serious discussions (morning is his favorite time for serious discussions) wearing this clown robe, and it adds levity to the whole ‘when I croak…’ dialogue.”) Apparently, Molly Ringwald and Starlee Kine, the erstwhile host of Mystery Show — the second-best podcast ever, right behind Imaginary Advice — were there too, but this reporter didn’t recognize them.

One doesn’t envy the pros who stood up promptly at the show’s end to march off to the next thing. Better to be a dilettante and go to one or two shows and a couple of parties in the course of the week. That way, at the end, you can luxuriate in the odd ambiance and wander off in a daze.