For Esquire magazine writer Chris Jones, the chance to interview legendary film critic Roger Ebert was, frankly, terrifying.
Sure, he'd wanted the assignment. Jones, 36, had grown up watching Ebert on TV, and as his own journalism career developed - first at the National Post newspaper in Toronto, then on to Esquire - he'd come to relish Ebert's reviews and articles, the way many writers have. So when Jones' editors asked whom he'd most like to profile, Ebert topped the list.
"You're writing about a great writer, and I was terribly self-conscious about that," Jones says in a phone interview. And then the Canadian comes up with the analogy he's looking for: "The idea of him reading my stuff - it's like having Wayne Gretzky watch you skate."
The result of Jones' work is a deeply moving portrait of Ebert, the once-voluble critic whose battle with cancer has left him unable to speak.
Jones said he and Ebert corresponded by e-mail for awhile before he visited the critic last November in his hometown of Chicago. Jones, Ebert and his wife, Chaz, spent the better part of two days together, going to dinner, walking in a park and sitting in Ebert's home.
The interview itself took some adjustments. Ebert has a voice synthesizer, but in the end it was most efficient for him to simply scribble answers to Jones' questions on notebook pages and Post-it notes. (Jones still has those notes. "I had to send them to Esquire so they could take pictures of them, and I said if you lose those I'll go nuts.")
The highlight of the visit? A trip to the movies with Ebert, where he reviewed Pedro Almodóvar's "Broken Embraces," about, appropriately enough, a director who has lost his sight. Jones sat in front of Ebert so he could put his foot up on the seat.
When it was time for Jones to go, Ebert gave him one of his books and the two hugged. "As I was leaving he was standing in his doorway, it was late it and he was silhouetted in the light. It was one of those rare moments. I felt incredibly lucky to have had that experience, that he had trusted me enough to let me in."
That feeling, Jones says, lasted for about three minutes.
"Then I started feeling incredibly nervous about having to write the story. I thought, if I screw this up he's going to let me know about it. I mean, he's a critic after all...I really didn't want him to be disappointed with the story."
The profile was supposed to run as 3,000 words in Esquire's February issue. But after banging out his first draft in three or four days Jones knew he needed more space. He pleaded with his editor and got nearly 7,000 words for March.
When it appeared online this week the piece was an instant sensation, posted and relayed again and again across Facebook and Twitter, picked up by the AP. Jones says he's received hundreds of e-mails and media inquiries; an interview on NPR's "All Things Considered" comes next.
"The story really struck a chord, and it's all because of Roger," Jones says. "I'm sure some group would have shown up outside my home with pitchforks if I had wronged Roger Ebert."
Despite Ebert's physical ailments, Jones says he hopes readers find his story uplifting. "It's awful what he's gone through but for me the bigger thing has been his response to it, and his response has been truly remarkable," he says.
Jones' advice for aspiring journalists? Come up with a great story idea. Do the reporting. Lots of it. Then, when it's time to write, get out of the way and let the story tell itself.
"Students tend to think of just the writing part of things, but because of my newspaper background I take reporting more seriously. If you have solid reporting then everything else is simple."
So it was perhaps the ultimate compliment when Ebert, writing about Jones on his blog, said simply: "He arrived at the appointed hour, and he did an excellent job of describing everything that happened subsequently."
"For a really great writer like Roger to say that about me is probably as good as it gets," Jones says. "That's what a journalist is supposed to do."