Chords in Chorus, with Max Marshall

Max Marshall photo

By Will Zimmerman

For Max Marshall, the first dream was to be a songwriter, a musician. Growing up under the tutelage of Steve Miller—“Mr. Steve,” as the teenaged Marshall called him—and one could form such ambitions.

In pursuit of that dream, Marshall traveled across the country to New York City and Columbia University, where he would graduate with Phi Beta Kappa Honors in 2016. The Texas native was drawn to the city’s cultural richness—a place abound with aspiring musicians, venues large and small accommodating dreams of every genre. And of course, in New York, the dreams aren’t constrained to musicianship. Inspiration looms large on every city block. 

Columbia University, in its own way, reflected the potentiality that drew Marshall to the Empire City. Through the college’s core curriculum program, he delved into topics spanning literature, science, and art, embracing an approach to learning that was at once independent and highly interdependent. Many of his studies followed a similar arc, with students reading through assignments on their own time, then coming together during class periods to discuss their interpretations and conclusions in small group settings. 

Marshall found the discourses illuminative, none more so than in a Contemporary Civilization course. The class, one among Columbia’s core curriculum program, introduces students to texts and perspectives from across the globe—from Plato to Rousseau, the Bible to the Qur’an. These readings prompted Marshall to enroll in his first philosophy class. Then another soon after. “I loved it so much that I continued on and became a philosophy major,” Marshall said. 

As the course numbers ascended, the readings grew denser. The teenager was already something of a reading buff—mom, a lawyer, and dad, a consultant, had impressed upon him the value of being well-read from an early age—though reading Nietzsche was something different than what he had grown accustomed to reading for pleasure. 

For some philosophical respite, Marshall found himself being pulled back towards his home state. “I remember sitting in my science lectures, secretly reading Texas Monthly pieces by Skip Hollandsworth or Mimi Swartz,” he said. 

During the fall semester of his junior year at Columbia, Marshall discovered a longform nonfiction writing class, “open only to Creative Writing majors,” he remembered. He shot an email to the professor on a whim, noting first his appreciation for Big Star—Marshall had uncovered a magazine-story the professor had written about the band nearly a decade earlier. He concluded his email with “and I’m trying really hard not to go to law school . . . so please let me take this class.”

Whether the Columbia machinery glossed over the designation he lacked, or a roster slot opened up and the instructor felt a soft spot, really, is beside the point. Most everything that came thereafter, Marshall likened to “a ball rolling downhill,” he said. 

It began with the story his professor, Mark Rozzo, assigned to the class—Marshall’s first-ever piece of longform nonfiction. Law school was abated, at least temporarily, when he landed an internship with Texas Monthly. Esquire Magazine followed. Then a feature for Sports Illustrated. Another thereafter. A year-long fellowship in Asia, and the story for GQ Magazine—a continent-spanning investigation, pursued after an attempted murder by Vietnamese gang members on a famed Hollywood director. Now nearly 10 years later, his first book is out, Among the Bros: A Fraternity Crime Story. Five years and 180 interviews in the making, HarperCollins Publishers released the story in November, 2023.

“I’m not entirely surprised,” Rozzo said of his former student. “[When Marshall set out], he didn’t have much experience as a writer, fiction or nonfiction. But as a creative person, as a very thoughtful and analytical person, he proved to be like a great musician—naturally in the pocket.”

Not unlike the 2,000-word piece he wrote for Rozzo’s class (part-profile story, part-personal narrative about a childhood friend with whom he’d formed a band, said friend’s departure from that band, and then, an astronomical ascension to EDM-DJ-stardom), Marshall’s 80,000-word book is both an investigation and an intimate reckoning with his own experiences.

For the conviction to write about others with the same courage and humility with which he writes about himself, Marshall credited Rozzo, saying, “[he taught us how to] to access someone’s real experience, to capture their full humanity.”

There’s depths of value to portrayals that have this capacity, Marshall said. “It’s a powerful thing when you see that in someone else—your insecurities and confusion, your own complicated feelings about the world—you feel less alone. I want to write about other people that way. I want to write about myself that way.”

Emulating the literature he studied at Columbia and the Texas Monthly essays he pored over in his closet of a dorm room, Marshall’s longform nonfiction stories transcend the notion that journalism is a rigid fact-finding mission. Robust reporting, Marshall likened to the “clay” that forms the basis of his writing. It’s the journalist’s job to shape that clay into the story—and that’s not a responsibility he takes lightly.

“It’s easy to go into journalism and tell yourself you’re doing something ethically good on a broad level because you’re getting people’s stories out there and you’re empathizing,” Marshall said. “On a moral level, we journalists have to take seriously the amount of power we have in [affecting how those we write about] come across.”

Crafting a truthful and compelling narrative, while also recognizing that the stories we tell about ourselves and others are inherently subjective, Marshall said is a constant balancing act. It’s also his philosophy degree at work. “Everything from ethics to ontology to the epistemology of what’s true—it’s all going on in the back of the head.”

Marshall has leaned into the art of the oral history, embracing the messy and sometimes contradictory nature of subjective truths. Weaving distinctive voices, rhythms, and syntaxes together into chorus isn’t so different from the Southern storytelling tradition he was raised on.

Hearkening back to the holiday dinners from his childhood, “with grandparents and aunts and uncles . . . there was so much sitting around and telling really long stories,” Marshall said. “When you hear the same story ten times, you start to think about how the story is being told, and how it’s being told differently each time. That’s a really beautiful human thing.”

That those stories have been told and re-told, doesn’t mean they’re finished. There are still chapters left to write. 

“My grandmother earned Phi Beta Kappa honors at UT Austin,” Marshall said. “I never got to meet her, she died when my dad was in college, and she didn’t leave a lot of souvenirs behind. But her Phi Beta Kappa key was something my dad always held close—in a glass case, on a shelf in his office.”

“He was proud,” Marshall said. “There weren’t very many women studying chemistry in her era . . . I’m proud to continue her legacy.”

Will Zimmerman graduated from Wake Forest University in May 2023 with an interdisciplinary degree in journalism, film, and creative writing. He was inducted into the Delta of North Carolina chapter several weeks before his graduation.