As host of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, Brendan O’Meara is no stranger to talking about the art and craft of storytelling. Moving forward we’ll be featuring craft-focused excerpts of some of his episodes — starting with last week’s Episode 304, in which he interviewed Atavist editor Jonah Ogles and writer Bill Donahue about their work on the latest issue of The Atavist.
One of the many great pleasures of interviewing badass people about the art and craft of telling true stories is the opportunity to hop in the gondola of someone’s brain. And sometimes, as in the latest episode of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, I get two rides for the price of one.
Bill Donahue is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Outside, Washington Post Magazine, and several other places. His February Atavist piece, “The Voyagers,” chronicles the harrowing journey of a Ukrainian father and son, Valeri and Oleg Minakov, defecting to Alaska in a homemade kayak in 1945. As Bill says, “It’s a voyage across the Bering Strait, but also a voyage across the landscape of the Cold War and what the Cold War did to these two people.”
In this conversation, Bill talks about navigating the tension of writing about someone honestly while also becoming friendly with them — something many longform journalists and profile writers can relate to. He also talks about making sure stories don’t get too bogged down with backstory and how, ultimately, we as people, “are made of stories, and each one of us has a story that wants to be told.”
In the first part of the episode, I spoke with Jonah Ogles, the lead editor of this piece, who discussed how an editor navigates how to get a piece to “that good place,” which is the goal for any writer/editor relationship. Writers and editors can each glean much insight from their counterparts in the editorial dynamic, and so I hope you enjoy reading these excerpts — and listening to the episode in full below.
These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
CNF: When you were reading this piece, and editing it, what did it remind you of structurally and thematically — whether that be other magazine pieces or books or even movies?
Jonah Ogles: Nothing in pop culture immediately stands out to me. Bill is one of the all-time great profile writers. He’s just so good at it. I mean, the guy has made me cry before when reading pieces of his — not necessarily that I’ve worked on. And so as I was working on the piece, I was just trying to push it toward that good place that he can get to as a writer. It feels a little bit silly to even say that I’m trying to help him do that, because I think he basically just does that; he could probably be edited by, like, an AI computer: “That’s pretty good. Try to make it better this time.” And then in three drafts, he’d have something amazing.
But that’s what was in my mind: Okay, I’ve got this great writer, I’ve got this great story. What questions do I need to ask in order to get this to be the best piece it can be?
How long does it take you to feel out each writer and realize one might need more nudging, or another just needs a simple “keep going,” versus other ones who might need more hands-on/hands-off [approaches]? How long does it take you to gauge that with each writer?
It comes pretty quickly after the first revision. I can be a fairly clumsy editor, and a lot of times my first memo is just a throw-it-all-at-the-wall type of memo. You know, like, here’s virtually every thought I had while reading this piece. And sometimes that prompts a conversation. Sometimes the writer just says, “thanks.” When I get the next revision back, that’s when I know, okay, this writer is either able to take even slightly confusing comments that I’ve made and distill them and apply them to the work to make it better. Sometimes it reveals that something I had flagged as not working is still not working, but a bunch of other things are working or have improved. Then I think, okay, maybe this is just the section that’s going to give us a lot of trouble.
But then there are writers who seem to have missed it. That sounds dismissive or condescending, and I don’t mean it to. I think sometimes writers are just too close to a story, and even when you say, “Hey, here’s a bunch of thoughts that I had,” that doesn’t give them the distance they need to really engage with a piece. That’s when I sort of kick in and say, “Okay, maybe I’ll give them a structure,” or “maybe I’ll rewrite the 500 words that I think are most problematic,” or maybe I’ll just go to Seyward [Darby, editor-in-chief of The Atavist] and be like, “I don’t know how to help here, what tricks do you have?” And then we start trying other more pointed ways of editing to help provide that distance for them.
Maybe a writer keeps missing the mark. What do you do in the event where they’re saying, “No, you’re missing the mark”? You all want to get to the same spot, but maybe there’s some friction there that is hard to overcome.
I’ve had that happen a fair bit. If Bill had said, “hey, I don’t want to write anything about the Bering Strait, because I’m not interested in the adventure stuff,” maybe there would have been some conflict there. But more often, when a writer comes to me and says that they’re thinking about the piece in a different way than I am, it allows me to see the story in a different light. I’m just a reader. A story shows up, I start reading the first sentence with all my own preconceived notions, and every other piece of writing that I’ve ever read in my head, and my brain starts doing its own thing to each piece it reads. I hope that it’s fairly open-minded, but still, I would guess that very quickly, my brain starts, “okay, this is my adventure narrative. Let’s start shaping it into that.”
Leah Sottile also hosted and reported Bundyville, a podcast from Longreads in partnership with Oregon Public Broadcasting.
As an example, Leah Sottile wrote a piece for me, and I sent her some notes. And she came back to me and said, “That all makes sense, but here’s what I’m trying to do. And it seems like that’s not really coming across.” And that allowed us to really sit back and go, “oh, there’s this whole other thing we can try here.” I know writers worry about this a lot when they feel like an editor is not on the same page. But it’s almost like couples therapy: If you could sit down and talk about it nonjudgmentally, those conversations inevitably make a piece much, much better.
You mentioned earlier how great of a profile writer Bill is. Given your experience editing — and of course reading — what is it about a character-driven profile that really hums?
It’s a word I’m using a lot in this interview, but there’s an emotional resonance to my favorite profiles. This is why celebrity profiles so often fall flat; the subjects themselves are very guarded individuals and very practiced. And so I think for writers, what it takes is spending a lot of time with someone establishing a rapport and a connection, caring about their subject, and then being able to get that all onto the page in a way that allows readers to walk through that door and have an open connection that the writer has established with the subject.
CNF: You bring a wonderful storytelling touch to the nonfiction you do, especially with this piece that you did for The Atavist, which was a really gripping read. Often when I read things of this length, it takes me a few breaks, but I found myself reading this straight through beginning to end. It was a wonderful story. How did you arrive at the story of Valeri and Oleg?
Bill Donahue: I just happened to be reading a 1988 article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine called “Lifting The Ice Curtain,” and it made a one-paragraph mention to their expedition. And I was just like, “Oh, my God, this is an incredible story.”
Right away, I started doing the math. I’m like, okay, Oleg Minakov was six in 1945, how old would he be now? Maybe he’s still alive. I started Googling and found some guy with that name who in 1969 was living at this commune, and he was arrested on drug charges, and he lives in California. I made a bunch of calls, emails, whatever, to people who were related to him. And sure enough, his son got back to me and said, “Yeah, he’s still alive. And here’s a picture of the compass that they used to cross the Bering Strait.” He sent that to me as a text.
Wow. So you find that he’s alive; what is the process by which you go on the manhunt, if you will, to find him? And then once you do, how do you lobby the son, how do you ingratiate yourself into their trust?
Well, the search was fairly basic: just a lot of Googling and a little bit of fuzzy logic, but not too much. In this case, Oleg Minakov is a very uncommon name. It so happens that it’s also the name of some hockey player, but that guy was way, way younger. As far as getting access, winning people’s trust is definitely a part of journalism. In this case, these people were just overjoyed that I had come along; here’s a guy who his whole life had wanted the story to be told. So I was very sweetly ushered in in a way that I didn’t have to do a lot of conniving to get access.
The piece has a three-part structure. The first part, which has this really harrowing journey across the Bering Strait in a makeshift kayak, is incredible just to visualize, but that first part is his half of the entire [story], then there are two other parts afterwards. Maybe you can speak to the structure of the piece and how you weighted certain elements of the story.
I conceived of this all along as a voyage across the Bering Strait. But it’s also sort of a voyage across the landscape of the Cold War, and what the Cold War did to these two people. In that respect, the voyage is only the first part of it. And in fact, the first section doesn’t consist solely of the voyage. It consists of a lot of backstory, because they didn’t just casually dip their toes in the Bering Strait. I mean, they did that for a very explicit reason. Valeri Minakov was egregiously persecuted in the Soviet Union, going back to [the fact that] he was a native of Ukraine. Just as right now, Russia regarded that as their pawn specifically. Starting with Lenin, they tried to seize the grain from Ukraine and send it around throughout the Soviet Union. That came down very hard on Valeri’s parents because they were farmers, and were politically under siege for most of his life.
In your experience, how have you been able to navigate the amount of backstory that’s germane to the forward propulsion of the story and not weigh down too much, despite all the research and reporting you do?
Well, in my case, that usually comes down to me writing 10,000 words, and then the editor saying, “Well, this is kind of interesting, but let’s trim it back to like, 1,000.”
The ratio wasn’t that extreme in this case, but, you know, the impulse of writers is to go down the rabbit hole a little bit. There’s always a balance that you have to strike in telling a story. You can’t digress so deeply into the backstory that you lose sight of the front story. And that is where a deft editor comes in. And in this case, it was a matter more of restructuring things, putting things in a different order so that you wouldn’t feel drowned in the backstory.
How did you navigate reporting and interviewing about the relationship he had with his father?
The question of his father was just incredibly in the forefront of his mind, even though his father died in 1967. It was still an unresolved issue for him. He was staying at this hotel when I interviewed him. I interviewed him until late in the evening. And then I went to leave the room and he said, “Turn the TV on. If it’s not on, I think about my dad and why I never got him out of the mental institution.” So it was right there in the forefront, you know. I had supporting documents to sort of guide my questioning, but he was not reluctant to speak about it.
I understand it was a bit of a challenge to procure those documents to write.
The FBI extensively interviewed and tracked Valeri; I think it was about 400 pages of notes on the medicals, lodged at the National Archives. Especially with COVID, I got the runaround from them forever; you just felt like you’re communicating with a brick wall. Finally, they just said, “You can come and get these documents.” And then it was just smooth as silk from there. We also got Valeri’s psychiatric records. He was in a mental institution with paranoid schizophrenia from 1950 to 1967, and Oleg signed on; he was next of kin, and he was able to help me get access.
When you’re writing about someone like Oleg, people who let you into their lives, you’re essentially trusted to interview them with care and tell their story, and you come to care about these people. But you also, as a journalist, have to tell a fair and honest story. So I’m curious how you navigate that.
Well, yeah, that’s an interesting question. I mean, I found Oleg to be an infinitely, infinitely likable guy. People were quoted as saying he has no guile or malice for anybody. But he does have some dark stripes on his record. I mean, he went to prison for dealing acid in the ’90s, and that caused misery in the lives of the people around him — he had an 8-year-old son at the time. So I included that in the story.
He stole a car in the ’50s, when he was a teenager. I don’t think that’s a significant thing that he did, but I did try to present a comprehensive picture of him. That’s certainly an ethical challenge with journalism. But, you know, the things that Oleg did weren’t evil, they were stupid. There’s a big difference. So I didn’t see him as a morally complex character.