Mary and Jerry Vaughan knew their son, Carson, was going to lean toward a creative career path from a young age.
“He was always doing kind of creative things,” Mary said. “When he was like a preschooler, he would make little creatures out of paper clips and screws that were loose in the junk drawer.”
With Carson being the youngest of Vaughan’s three sons, he was always cooking up something with his older brothers such as creating comic books and clubs at their Broken Bow home, Mary said.
Vaughan acknowledged that writing came easy to him.
“One thing I did feel like I had sort of a knack for was writing,” he said. “I remember doing like the free write exercises in first and second grade and just loving the hour they gave us to create stories and use our imagination that way.”
Vaughan, 35, has used his knack for writing to shape a career as a successful author and freelance journalist who often highlights Nebraska’s culture and history. He is published in several national publications and is working on a second non-fiction book about Nebraska – this one about the Sandhills.
When he attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Vaughan continued to write as an English and journalism double major. He interned with The Onion and founded a satirical magazine, The DailyER. Vaughan said the magazine helped him “flex his creative writing muscles” while still learning about journalism.
Once he graduated from UNL in 2010, Vaughan continued to hone his craft by pursuing a master’s in fine arts in non-fiction writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he spent three years. He said he was one of the only students who chose to pursue non-fiction rather than fiction.
As part of the writing program, Vaughan started his first book, “Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of the American Dream,” which was published in 2019.
“It was my first book,” he said. “I was very nervous about something going wrong. In retrospect, I wish I had taken a minute to slow down and like, you know, acknowledge that, ‘Hey, this is a goal I’ve been working on most of my life.’”
The story of the “Tiger King”-like roadside zoo caught Vaughan’s eye in college, after he and his now-wife, Melissa Dohmen, drove by on the way to visit family. The zoo, in the small town of Royal, was having an auction as it was closing.
The zoo, home to four chimpanzees, was a popular attraction in the town of 100 residents until Vaughan said it grew “wildly out of control” around in the early 2000s. After a volunteer forgot to lock a cage one night, the chimpanzees escaped into the town. Due to the destruction the chimpanzees caused, they were killed by the townspeople.
Vaughan said seeing the zoo for the first time was very strange and vowed to return to the auction the following week to see if he still had questions. To him, it was strange enough that he wanted to dig deeper into the story.
Vaughan wrote the first chapter for his honor’s thesis as a UNL undergrad but wanted to dig deeper into the story once he got to UNCW.
The book focuses on the creator of the zoo and his experience of watching a dream be fulfilled only to be shattered later, as well as what the aftermath of closing the town’s famed zoo looked like to residents.
“It’s certainly not a flattering portrait of Royal, so I was afraid that it was not going to be entirely well received there,” he said. “But to be honest, I can’t think of a single instance of pushback from the town. A lot of them asked for copies or multiple copies to give their friends and family.”
Aside from writing the book, Vaughan has made a name for himself as a freelance journalist. He’s published in well-known publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic and VICE, but said writing for large organizations wasn’t quite what he was expecting.
“It’s a really mixed bag,” he said. “After I got into The New Yorker, so many other doors opened up for me, but it was not worth it in any sort of financial sense.”
Vaughan said freelancing for large publications didn’t pay as much as he thought. He compared it to being on a roller coaster, where he wasn’t always sure when, and where, his next paycheck would come from. Instead, Vaughan’s found a niche in freelance work highlighting rural Nebraska from unique viewpoints.
“I don’t think I would be a writer at all had I not come from a place like Nebraska,” he said. “It just feels like if anywhere needs a writer to tell it stories or retell its stories in a better, more refreshing or intriguing light, it’s Nebraska.”
Vaughan said another reason he writes about Nebraska is because the Cornhusker state often receives the wrong kind of attention in the media, with people thinking the state offers nothing of interest. That is particularly true of the sparsely populated Sandhills in western Nebraska, but he describes it as an area with a “rich natural history.”
Most recently, Vaughan wrote about the Bovee Fire, which burned almost 20,000 acres of the Sandhills and killed one firefighter.
Vaughan’s specialty in long-form journalism, however, isn’t published as often as it used to be.
“There’s just not a lot of publications out there willing to invest the time and effort into holding somebody’s hand along the way to write a story like that,” he said.
Vaughan said he learned how to dive deep into a story in Professor Joe Starita’s depth reporting class at UNL. The class is the reason he continued with journalism, instead of satire or creative writing.
“He changed everything for me,” Vaughan said. “It was watching Joe tackle his stories with real passion and respect for the subjects that made me think that journalism was indeed a very legitimate career.”
Starita, who has written several books and taught the depth reporting class at UNL for 20 years before retiring last year, said he remembers Carson and his writing fondly.
“It’s a beautiful marriage. Top notch reporting that takes a deep dive into the subject,” Starita said. “All of those informational nuggets are embedded in a very graceful fluid prose that has a very strong narrative flow to it.”
Starita said seeing Vaughan’s success makes him feel like a proud father.
“I feel like passing out cigars every time I see a Carson story,” Starita said. “I’m so damn proud of him.”
Now based in Chicago, Vaughan has one more freelance article that’s in the works. Immediately after, he said he’ll switch into “full book mode” as he begins his second book, a travelog of the Nebraska Sandhills.
Vaughan plans to tell the story of the Sandhills in three parts: past, present and future.
The region has a rich indigenous history that he plans to research despite the lack of records.
“At some point, white ranchers and farmers displaced the indigenous peoples and so that’s kind of the second phase of history out there,” Vaughan said. “I’m hoping to spend plenty of time with ranchers who have been out there for generations and learning about how they’ve made a go of it in the Sandhills.”
The second part will be about the current issues the Sandhills face and the final section will focus on the future.
“The Sandhills are the largest intact temperate grassland on Earth, what are the threats? Is that overgrazing? Is that climate change?” Vaughan asked.
In the meantime, he said he’s looking forward to a guaranteed paycheck.
“It’ll be nice to settle into a very sustained project for a year or so.”