As host of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, Brendan O’Meara is no stranger to talking about the art and craft of storytelling. In this craft-focused excerpt, we’re digging into Episode 318, in which he interviewed Atavist editor Jonah Ogles and writer Greg Donahue about their work on the latest issue of The Atavist.
If you think about any great piece of writing — one you repeatedly turn to — I’ll wager that part of the appeal is the ending. Be it in a book, an essay, or a magazine feature, a great ending sinks into our senses, even prompting us to start reading the piece all over again.
Greg Donahue, the freelance journalist who wrote The Atavist’s latest issue, “The Fugitive Next Door,” pulled off an absolutely brilliant finale in his piece — something so lovely, so evocative of everything that came before it, that it only made sense to talk about endings in a recent episode of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast.
“I got some writing advice earlier on,” Donahue says, “and it was ‘always focus on the ending.’ Not just the ending of the story, though; it was the ending of paragraphs, the ending of sentences. Put the best stuff at the end of the sentence. And then, if you can, put the best stuff at the end of a section. End a section, end a paragraph with the goods. Then the end of the piece as well. Give it to them.”
Donahue’s story chronicles the life of Howard Farley, a man who hid in plain sight for more than 30 years before his past ultimately catches up to him. Not only does Donahue detail the twisting path that led to Farley’s discovery, he delves into the psychology of what it takes to disappear for that long. “There are certain writers who recognize good stories that have depth,” Ogles said — and this conversation gave us both.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and concision.
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Brendan O’Meara: What have you noticed about Greg and his work that lends itself to the kind of storytelling The Atavist is so good at?
Jonah Ogles: A lot of writers are capable of recognizing, “oh, that’s a good story,” but they don’t always go through the process of finding out if there’s a lot of material to work with. Greg knows how to do that. I’d actually be curious if he spends a lot of time sort of spinning his wheels on a lot of different ideas, or if all of his ideas come to fruition. But when he showed up with his pitch, it was clear that he had the goods: He had the story, he had the reporting. And he’s also just a really easy guy to work with.
As an editor, do you have any blind spots, things that you tend to miss?
That’s a really great question. I guess if I were able to list a bunch of them, they probably wouldn’t be blind spots. In this story in particular, Greg really pushed on [main character] Howard Farley’s background. Right up to the last round, he wasn’t satisfied — he wanted readers to have this very specific idea, what he would probably describe it as a truthful sense, of who this guy was. And I had done some cutting; I’d taken some things out, I’d moved some things around, Seyward did the same thing when she read it. So it changed in really subtle ways, [reinstating] the guy’s biographical details, and the texture of his character changed in some good and interesting ways.
The beginning set up what I thought was going to be a more sinister figure. When the police finally catch up to him, it was like that episode of Seinfeld, where Newman is smoking a cigarette out his door: “What took you guys so long?” But over the course of the piece, he softens and becomes more likeable, and as you learn more about him, you’re like, Oh, this guy’s actually kind of a decent guy just trying to live a normal life after he had his soiree with the drug world.
We get a lot of a lot of pitches about fugitives, and in this case, that’s not the narrative. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t read the story, but if you read it, you’ll realize like this guy did something sort of remarkable.
Farley kind of goes in the opposite direction. Instead of trying to have a lavish lifestyle, he just wants to be the guy cutting his grass in a Florida suburb.
Right. It was almost like he’d been sort of a victim of opportunity in his drug dealing days: “Oh crap, I’d better shape up if I don’t want this to be my future.”
There’s a time for style and a time for just sheer story. And maybe there’s a time where they can overlap. As an editor, do you find yourself at times telling your writer to go for a little more, or dial it back a bit more so the story rises above?
When I was a young writer, I wanted my voice in every sentence — pure style, send the hot one downrange every single time. And it just doesn’t work if the story isn’t there. Even the people that we think of as having incredible voices, all that really means is that they use it judiciously, and they know when to do it. I was rereading Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy through the pandemic, and I’d forgotten just how clean so many of his paragraphs were. There’s one sentence that does all the stylistic work, but he’s still just concerned with like, presentation of information.
With some writers — and they tend to be younger — we’ll have to say, “don’t worry about the voice thing right now, we’ll get the story in order, and then we’ll find half a dozen places to drop in a great line, and we’ll just bowl people over.”
Then there are writers who you can tell are just trying to not mess it up. And sometimes they need to be told, like, “Hey, the story is there, let it rip — just go for it.” Those people still don’t overdo it, you know, but they’ll get just a little more oomph into the story, to really make it come alive.
Once you were done with this piece, putting the final polish on it, what were you most proud of in bringing this story to light with Greg?
Not that every story has to be about something, but I felt like this was a story about redemption. I think we’re in a bit of a reductive moment, culturally, and this story challenged me as a reader. This guy committed some things that we’re all going to agree are criminal acts. And then — and this story is about the “and then” — the question is, does he change? Does he deserve to be punished for those? What is justice in this situation? What is redemption in this situation? What does the guy deserve in the end? We run plenty of stories that are just pure explosions and gunfights and fun, but this is one that had that flavor and also challenged me in interesting ways.
Just to jump right in, Greg: How did you arrive at this story of Howard Farley, stolen identity, and drug trafficking?
Greg Donahue: One of the things I do when I’m poking around the internet looking for a new story is go to the DOJ website — they’ve got news briefs of all the indictments, PR releases about cases that are going on — and I happened to see it. He had been indicted as John Doe, they still didn’t know his name. So I thought that was sort of intriguing. I put it in my back pocket, then came back sometime later; they had figured out his name by then, and it started unraveling.
I had just finished another big story for Audible that had a fugitive as well — one who had faked his own death and gone abroad. I had fugitives on the mind, I guess. So I started pursuing it. Initially, the interesting thing about Farley’s story was that he had lived for so long without being caught; 35 years is a really long time to be a fugitive. There are examples, but it’s rare, [especially because] he had done so not in some foreign country, but was living a largely unremarkable life right under the noses of the people hunting him down. It seemed simple, almost, and human. Very approachable.
I was thinking about characters in fiction, whether it’s Don Draper assuming the identity of the fallen soldier so he could reinvent himself, or Jay Gatsby, who forged a new identity. Here, we have Howard Farley moonlighting as Tim Brown, who had died as a baby. As you said, he hid in plain sight, and just was just an everyday person. I found it almost kind of charming that that’s the life he chose, given where he came from.
And then the other aspect was the question of did he belong in prison at all. It’d be a lot easier if he had moved abroad and continued his alleged crimes — but in this case, I found myself thinking, well, this is an older guy who’s lived a very easygoing, non-criminal life for decades now. He was technically no longer a fugitive. Who does it serve to put him in prison or to pursue him as a criminal?
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So you stumble across the idea on the DOJ website. What happens next as you’re looking to put some meat on the bone to make this story attractive to an editor?
Well, I had to figure out if I could have access to Farley. At that point, he was obviously involved in a court case, which often means the answer’s no. I reached out to to his lawyers, who demurred, but through conversations with them and poking around a little bit reaching out to other people who had covered the story, I was told that yes, he would tell me his story, and that his wife was open to talking as well. So immediately, I started kind of looking up other parts of the history: Nebraska, the drug trafficking stuff, seeing what I could find, what was archived, what wasn’t. It’s in the middle of the pandemic that I’m doing this, so FOIA requests are taking forever, I can’t get documents fast enough, but piecing together what I could.
But the real difficulty with reporting the story was that much of the access disappeared at a certain point.
Yeah. He and his wife decided that they didn’t want to actually tell me their story. I think it was more than simply not wanting their story to be out there — it was more about a very particular personal element that they weren’t interested in sharing. But by that point, I had done a lot of research and a lot of work. And the question was: Can I still tell a compelling story as a ride-around?
The case that Farley was involved in 30 years ago was the largest drug case in Nebraska at the time. And so I reached out to a lot of those people who were involved in knew him: friends, neighbors. Despite him living a simple kind of life, the worlds that he had moved in meant that there were a lot of people there to talk to — and I ended up communicating with Farley via letters, so I did get some of that access back.
So how do you lean into the fact that you need to get more creative with how you source your information?
I had already done quite a bit of that reaching out to other people in Farley’s orbit, so I had made a lot of inroads in terms of contacts and sources around him — and certainly in Nebraska, in his life growing up. I guess I didn’t see it so much as a creative constraint, it just forced me from the outset to play outside the story and give it the arc.
At what point did you realize the story had a structure that felt logical?
It was very chronological, which I think is usually the best way. People disagree with that, and it might not be the most wildly creative way, but for me, it’s the cleanest way of telling a story. When I’m sketching out how I might structure a piece, the first thing I do is create that timeline.
In this case, we had this great moment of the arrest, which I knew I wanted to open with, and stepping back from there and telling it chronologically was the most natural.
In some longform features, you effectively become friendly with central figures, and it’s a tough road to navigate.
I’ve been lucky that most of the sources who I have spent the most time with for stories are not particularly unsavory. You have to be careful — there’s a professionalism that is necessary to do the work objectively — but developing relationships hasn’t been too much of an issue with me. I think it’s very different if you’re talking about reporting breaking news, or stories that involve violent crimes; it can get very confusing and complicated quickly. I did a story recently in the fall in New York Magazine that involved murders and very violent crimes, and there was a little bit of that thing where I had to step back and say, “You know, I’m not here to advocate for your cause. I’m here to tell this story.”
I love the final paragraph about Farley fishing, and how it’s a symbol of what his life was. At what point in your work did that hit you that this anecdote is so symbolic of his life?
I was so happy when that happened. I had a different ending in mind, which was a few paragraphs earlier; I was just going to cut it there. And it wasn’t perfect. I knew I needed to add something. Maybe three-quarters of the way through the reporting, I spoke to one of Farley’s friends, Pat, who told me that anecdote. As he was telling it — and this has never happened before — I just was like, “Oh, well, great. Perfect. I’ve got the ending. This is it.” I haven’t ended a longer story on an anecdote before, so I had to work a little bit to craft the transition. But as he was telling me that story on the phone, it was like the light bulbs going off. Pat was an editor and newspaper reporter, and I told him, “you know, you just handed me gift wrapping in the ending.” And he said, “I can see what you mean.” He understood how it encapsulated the bigger story.
It really underscores how important endings are. That hammer comes down and you just sit back in your chair, like, “damn, that was good.”
It’s huge. I grew up playing music and went to school for music, and that old line — about how if you nail the last note of a song, you can kind of fake your way through a little bit — always struck me. The problem in asking someone to read a 9,000-word or 20,000-word piece, though, is you have to keep their attention the whole time. So you can’t gloss over things in the middle. But regardless of how you structure it, if you can plant that seed earlier on in the story, then when you get to that ending, people are already careening down the railroad track with you.
Also, though, I don’t like heavy-handed endings where everything is wrapped up in a little bow. Sometimes it’s nice and it can give you a little bit of that gut punch, but it has to be subtle. I got lucky with this one. Previous stories have not come as a flash of realization.
As a writer, what insecurities do you have?
Wow. Well, like many writers I know, I suffer from a very chronic case of imposter syndrome. I really like stories that are concise and direct and move quickly, and I’m always trying to do that — at, I think, the expense of style. I wish I had more style is the answer to your question.
I read some people who tell really tight stories, and sometimes very complicated stuff, but there’s also these flourishes where you can just tell they kind of let it go a little bit right there. I’m always jealous of that, I don’t do it very often — and when I do, I often edit it right out. I wish I had a little more confidence to leave it in and let an editor cut it out. But, see, maybe it would stay in? I don’t have the faith in myself to risk it.
It’s almost like you need to cast that reel 100 yards out, then when you pull it back in 25 yards it’s like “oh, that’s good. It’s got style and substance.”
I don’t do a lot of editing as I’m writing. I try not to. When I put on the editor hat, I find myself cutting a lot of stuff that ends up back in the story. What will happen is I’ll try and cut it down to get that concision and that tightness that I always want. And then I send something off and they go, “Well, there’s a little hole here, you didn’t quite flesh this part out.” And I realized, well, I had all that written and I cut all that stuff out because I didn’t think it was adding to it.
At this point in your career, you’ve got all these great stories that you’ve written for lots of other publications, Atavist included. What’s your relationship to ambition? Where do you see yourself going, what things do you still want to accomplish?
Well, it’s a tough racket. Being any kind of journalist, certainly a freelance journalist, the numbers can be grim. I don’t mean to be a naysayer, but that’s the reality of the situation. So for me, I’m happy to say that I am ambitious about what might be possible. Creative people in all fields should be happy to say that we’re ambitious. I have my eyes on writing a book. I’m having a kid any day now. I’ve had a couple of things optioned at this point for film and TV, and that’s a really interesting world. I haven’t written dialogue — I’ve done a little bit of toying around with things but never in a professional capacity — but it’s an intriguing possibility.
I always like to end these conversations by asking for a recommendation for the listeners. It can be brand new coffee, a pair of socks, or a kind of notebook or a pencil you really like, but what might you recommend?
You may have heard of Steve Padilla as an editor at the LA Times. I don’t know him, I have no connection to him, except that he did these writing workshops a couple decades ago, and he’s recreated them over the years. If you just Google “Steve Padilla” and “writing workshop” it comes up in the form of tweets, or you can find the podcast of this talk he gave, but it’s his rules for writing nonfiction — and these rules have totally changed my life in terms of writing.
The number one for me, the singular advice that really hit home for me, was — and I’m paraphrasing — if you’re having trouble writing a sentence, if you keep getting jammed up on a particular sentence, it’s not that sentence that’s the problem. It’s the one that came before it.
It’s like expecting a string of dominoes to fall without a domino before it. Why aren’t you falling? Oh, it’s that guy — gotta knock it over with another one.
It’s taped to the wall next to my computer. I find myself looking at it all the time. When I’m rewriting a sentence for like the 20th time and wasting 30 minutes on some line that’s probably gonna get cut from the story anyway, I go, “Oh, shit, it’s not this line. It’s the one that came before it.” And immediately, it unlocks it.