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 326, in which he interviewed Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby and writer Jana Meisenholder about her work on the latest issue of The Atavist.
In Jana Meisenholder’s piece for The Atavist Magazine, “King of the Hill,” she recounts how her central figure, Andres Beckett, prepared for the Suicide Race — a horse race that starts with a violent descent down a steep hill and into a river — as his “organizing principle.”
Be it a piece of writing or a career, having an organizing principle and singular drive crystallizes the vision and makes goals attainable. How serious are we? What will we cut out in order to realize our dream?
And so it was when speaking with Meisenholder and Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby about an organizing principle around crafting “King of the Hill” that applies to any piece of writing: an essay, an article, a book. It’s something Darby calls “the skeleton, the meat, and the bones.”
“The skeleton of the piece needs to be sturdy,” Darby told me, “and that skeleton is the narrative, the actual story of what happens. You start there for the thing to hold together.”
She continues, “When I’m working with writers we always start with those fundamentals — the bones — and figuring out how they fit together so that the story stands. Then you create muscle and flesh through character, scene, and dialogue. You start to make something whole and presentable. But at the end of the day, if you were to strip all of that away, the bones would still be there, and the story itself would still be strong.”
In this conversation, we also talked about when it’s appropriate for a writer to figure in a story and not — as well as what it takes to develop a single character over a long piece of narrative journalism. Please enjoy this excerpt below, and listen to the full episode for more.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and concision.
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Brendan O’Meara: I’d never heard you mention — or if you did, I forgot — about this idea of the skeleton, the meat, and the bones. Walk me through what that means as an organizing principle.
Seyward Darby, The Atavist: There are obviously a lot of metaphors you can use for narrative nonfiction, and this is one that I use in talking to writers. The skeleton of the piece needs to be sturdy, and that skeleton is the narrative, the actual story of what happens. You have to start there for the thing to hold together. And then you start to create muscle and flesh through character and scene and dialogue, and you really start to make something whole and presentable. But if you were to strip all of that away, the bones would still be there, and the story itself would still be strong. When I’m talking to folks, sometimes they’re lost in thinking about the muscle — some detail here or there — and it’s about putting that stuff aside to figure out what the bones are underneath that part of the story.
I find that that can be really helpful from an editing standpoint as well. Certainly when I’m editing, I try to identify what I think the skeleton of the piece is, because then it makes my job a lot easier. It’s an outline of sorts, right? You need to go from this bone to that bone for the thing to hold together. And once the skeleton is there, the other stuff starts to feel so much more organic.
When you have the skeleton in place, then all of the details that you layer in feel less gratuitous, like they’re in service of something greater — not merely because you collected the information and it’s cool.
Right, exactly. To be clear, it’s always fun when you can kind of wander off for a little while. I don’t know, what the appropriate metaphor would be in this wider body metaphor; maybe fat, padding, something that gives a story even more of a curve in the best possible way. But as a whole it’s: What are these details in service of? Are they in service of the story that we’re trying to tell, as opposed to something I just happened to learn?
There’s an anecdote in this story, actually, that I think is a good example of this. There’s a section where we’re talking about Andres’ character, who he is as a person and how he thinks about choices he makes. And at one point, in a car, Jana witnessed him pull over to the side of the road and chastise this guy for letting a stray dog wander so close to the road. On one hand, it doesn’t have anything to do with the journey of him getting to the starting line of this race — but it beautifully encapsulates the kind of person that he is, and that’s the thing we’re focused on at that point. That is the bone. So this moment really helps fill that out. This story is character-driven, it’s a narrative profile, and details like that just help it pop.
But you can also imagine another version of this story. It’s a sporting event, and an intense one, to put it lightly.
The Suicide Race.
Yup. And there’s a more straightforward version of this feature that would take place at the race. The race would bookend the piece. But one of the nice things in working on this story was that this one man, Andres, his story becomes the skeleton of the piece. It’s a quieter, more unusual way in, and one that I was very, very into. That’s how it was really pitched: his story, as opposed to the story of this race. I really loved Jana’s choice to focus on Andres.
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Andres doesn’t win the race, so it doesn’t have that classic sports-story arc — but it’s still satisfying. How do you deliver that, knowing that there’s not that payoff of a win at the end?
My favorite kind of sports writing or adventure storytelling is less about the excitement of victory than it is about the obsessiveness required to pursue something. There are two great examples of this — one written, one filmed. Barbarian Days by William Finnegan is so many different things, but it really is about a singular obsession, with surfing as a continuous lifelong quest. You’re not seeking one thing; you’re seeking a wave over and over and over and over, punishing your body, going to the ends of the earth to find a wave. There’s a circularity to it that you get the sense will never end. The other one I would mention is Free Solo, about Alex Honnold’s quest to free-climb — oh, what is it called? The big scary wall.
El Cap in Yosemite.
Thank you. Obviously, that’s an incredibly shot documentary. The harrowing visual of this guy climbing up a sheer face of rock without any ropes attached to him. But what’s really compelling about that movie — to me, anyway — is exploring what kind of mentality is required. What feeds into an obsession with something that’s one false move and you die?
Similarly, in this story, we knew that Andres does not win the race. But what I was interested in, and what Jana was interested in, was the fact that he was so obsessed even with what was required to run the race that it was less about winning and more about being able to do it. I kind of love the fact that he didn’t win, because then we get to see him preparing to do it again. This race down a very steep track is a very harrowing thing to do, on a horse that weighs a thousand pounds. What makes a person want to do that, and what makes a person want to do it again? What led him to be like this?
That’s so much a question we answer as much as we start to excavate the pieces of his personality and his experience. The people who he’s trying to convince to mentor him are same way: They run the race again, and again, and again. And it’s so much less about winning than it is about doing it. Those were really the boxes we were trying to tick: How can we tell the story of the race, tell the story of Andres’ life, and show how these things came to intersect? So we start on the hill, with him galloping toward the edge, and then we jump back to his origin story and how he came to be something of an outsider in this small Native community near the Canadian border.
But it’s really the story of how he came to be so fixated on the hill — how it became the organizing principle for his life.
That phrase was one of the things I highlighted from this piece. It’s the wireframe on which he hangs his entire year. Obsession is something I deeply enjoy reading about; I tend to have a pretty splintered attention span, and I just love people who are so singularly driven, and for no glory other than the sheer love of the thing.
Like you, I’m a pretty splintered person. I’m kind of always doing a lot of things at once. My husband is actually the exact opposite: He can write for 10 or 12 hours straight. It fascinates me that somebody who can be so focused and fixated — and not in a negative way at all — and everything in life sort of starts to distill around this particular experience or task or training.
But also, the development of relationships. Andres could have tried to run the race by himself. But first of all, that would have been exceptionally dangerous. Second of all, that’s just not the way it’s done. There’s a lot of courtship in this story, of him trying to convince the people who are basically race royalty, whose families have been running it for the longest time, that he was worthy of their teaching.
I’m really glad you brought up the dog anecdote. What struck me about it was that originally Jana cut it out of a draft. We’ve talked about killing your darlings, but in this case it was a resuscitation of a darling: You advocated to put it back in the piece, or such was her recollection.
After she turned in the original draft, I sent a pretty extensive memo about structure. There was a lot of “notebook dumping,” which is totally reasonable when you’ve had this thrilling experience, getting to know your main character and the cast of characters around him. One of the things we talked about was making sure that details were in service to the skeleton, to circle back to the beginning of this conversation.
I loved the dog anecdote, and when I saw it was not in the revision — and the revision was great — I just kept telling myself, I gotta find a way. When I read that first draft, that was the moment where I saw who Andres is: incredibly compassionate, and at the same time a bit rash. I knew that I wanted to work it back in, and in the course of editing, we ultimately came to this quieter character-building section that allowed us to put that back in.
Things wind up on the cutting room floor all the time, and you pick it back up, and you think about it, and you’re like, “well, maybe,” and you toss it back down. But in this case, it was just such an illuminating piece of information. If I recall correctly, it was initially told as more of a first-person anecdote because it was something that she experienced with him while she was there reporting in person. One of the things we talked about is dialing back a bit on some of the first-person stuff, letting scenes speak for themselves. So part of it was also figuring out how to put that scene back in such a way that felt natural to the story.
On your website, you write that you “mostly [cover] character-driven stories about family, culture, true crime, and also … deep-dive longform features.” How did you arrive at that as the core of your work?
Jana Meisenholder: Oh, man, I have to think about my answer. I think true stories can come in different forms. Some people like to write about murder mysteries, where you have this central incident that tethers readers to the story. That can be thrilling, but I found that sometimes they can also be predictable. If you focus on the characters and motivations that aren’t necessarily black and white — two truths can often exist at the same time — it often makes for a more compelling story. My story on the Han twins is probably the biggest example of that. And I genuinely enjoy it. I like things where I’m learning something in the process, and when I’m focusing on characters, I learn a little bit about myself too. I start questioning my own motives and decisions I’ve made in my life because I’m focusing on the people at the heart of the story.
Whenever the great writer Tracy Kidder would start a book, it was always character first, and then worry about everything else. Some people are the other way around; they need to find something cool to cover and then search out the character.
I think with the Rolling Stone article that I did on Black cowboys — specifically on a cowboy from Texas named Justin Richard, who unfortunately got killed by a drunk driver in early 2020 — how I came across it was a combination of him being a charismatic character, and the news peg of Lil Nas X’s huge hit “Old Town Road” launching his career. Before I’d even reached out to Justin, I saw that he wrote on his Facebook: I AM AMAZING!!!!! And I’m like, “I like this energy. This is a good character.”
When Walter Thomas-Hernández’s book Compton Cowboys came out, he came on the show, and he strikes me as a reportorial or journalistic kindred spirit to you.
Definitely. I’m really drawn to the cowboy world — obviously, as you can tell given the latest Atavist story — from my own experiences of growing up in Australia, and going to the Outback, and being the only kid of color at the rodeos.
Give me a sense of how you arrived at this Atavist story about this incredible race and the beating heart at the center of it.
Actually, from that Rolling Stone article, I’ve built friendships and connections with sources in the cowboy world. And one of them, a cowboy named Brian White, was my first interview for my own publication, which is on Medium; it’s called Unearthed. He’s been a bullfighter. He’s a cowboy. He was a football star. And now he works in production for rodeo, as the camera guy. So he has an eye for visual aesthetics and seeking out things to capture, and he’s also a very, very friendly person and can talk to anyone. He got asked to do a gig in Omak Washington, which is where the story takes place — a reservation in rural Washington, about four hours east of Seattle. He knows that I’m interested in cowboys and cowgirls of color.
He told me, “I was at the top of this hill that they go down — it’s called the Suicide Race — and I met this guy, and you’ve got to talk to him. You’re just gonna love him. This guy has some kind of energy about him.” Brian thought Andres was Native, which he’s not, but he knew that I would be interested in connecting with Andres, based purely on the fact that this was Andres’ first time going down the hill.
Hearing Brian tell me that made me think like, okay, there’s something. There’s a reason why this kid is up there doing this race. I just booked a flight the next day and flew up to Seattle. This is the biggest event for this tiny rural rodeo town, so it was a struggle to get a rental car, and all the hotels were booked. I had to stay in three different motels on different nights. It was smoky as hell. I wore the same clothes for three days. So Brian introduced me to Andres; we hung out on Friday night at the rodeo after it had wrapped up, just sitting by the bullpen. I just started peppering questions at him. That’s when I found that he’s not Native, he’s Mexican American, and he had this background of being what his family calls a “Greyhound baby” — his mom and dad met on the back of a Greyhound bus. We talked for hours, and I realized that there was a bigger story here.
When you’re reporting out the story, and you’ve got a great central figure, how do you go about getting to the core of a character and what really motivates them?
You have to spend as much fucking time as possible. They’re not going to lay it out and say “this is exactly what you need, these are the answers you’re looking for.” So there’s 100-plus hours of audio that I recorded. Every time he spoke, I just chucked on my recorder. And sometimes like he would speak and I didn’t have my recorder with me, so I’d furiously be typing into my phone. He was kind of caught off guard by that, but I’d had to explain, “no, just keep talking.” After that, I went home and highlighted the key plots and started framing it in my mind.
When you started getting all that information, how did you go about organizing it, given that you had so much tape? It can be hard to get your head around it.
I tried to transcribe it initially, then I was like “this is just getting out of control, there’s too much.” I did it through a transcription service called rev.com, and was able to download that in PDF form. And because it’s dialogue, it’s a little easier to speed read. I literally would just read it and then write it. After Seyward told me about the skeleton, the meat, and the bones, that became the title of the Google Doc where I’d highlighted all the key points and key milestones in Andres’ life, and the quotes attached to those things.
So when you’re going through and you know you have to cut things that are objectively probably very good scenes, how do you make those decisions?
Honestly, a great editor helps, and that’s where Seyward came in. When you do a certain amount of reporting, you’re like, “I did this work,” and you feel like you’ve got to throw it in there. But then you ultimately have to show restraint.
For example, I stayed at the tribal casino during the duration of my reporting trip, and I overheard Mandarin — and I speak Mandarin — and I turned around to see Chinese guys that at the blackjack tables. Why are they in rural Washington? Why are they on a reservation? So I spoke to them. After Washington legalized marijuana, a lot of laborers from China actually came out to Washington to start pot farms; that’s how they were making a living, and what they were doing out here. I included that in my draft to paint a landscape of how Omak is this weird place where people go and hustle, and you had different types of people. But it was just too distracting, and I ultimately left it out. It’s interesting to me, but it doesn’t serve the story at all.
You can’t have an ego about it. Like yeah, I spent an hour talking to them, and it was time that I could have spent talking continuing to talk to Andres. But you just can’t get attached to these things. Because ultimately, it’s not about you. Your loyalty is and should be to people who are reading this for the first time.
You speak of Andre feeling like he needs his life to have purpose. In the work that you do, be it documentary or written journalism, what’s the purpose that you’re seeking?
I think I was in ESL until high school. I think I had to prove to myself that I could string sentences together. And Seyward makes this piece really shine — she really polished it up for me — but I was able to sort of put together the main pieces, and that means something to me. I grew up in an agricultural part of Brisbane, which is on the east side of Australia. It’s farmlands, and mostly white, so I was one of the very few Asian kids in my school. With ESL, I got plucked out of my classroom, and I would have to go with the ESL teacher — who was actually very lovely, and I want to track her down, and her this story.
Oh, yeah, you’ve got to do that.
Yeah, that’d be cool, right? But yeah, it was like a very singling-out sort of moment. And I’ve always wanted to do better with the English language and prove that I can tell a good story. I can tell good stories in my head, but putting it on paper and making it eloquent and easy to read, keeping people engaged, is a whole different thing. It’s more impactful when you can do that instead of keeping it all in your head and telling it over drinks with your friends or something. This format that The Atavist has is just a beautiful way of storytelling. So that’s that’s where I get a lot of my meaning. Being able to tell good stories, and particularly stories that haven’t been told before.
You’re kind of alluding to your stuff in the piece about Andres making the suicide race his organizing principle, but I just want to dig in just a little deeper: What would you identify in your work as your organizing principle?
Damn, you ask really good questions.
It’s my COVID fever dream, I don’t know.
I like it, you should always be sick.
My god, this is such a trip, but I want my mom’s sacrifice — all that she sacrificed to bring us to Australia — to mean something. But I ultimately also want my life to have meaning. And sometimes when you’re an immigrant kid, and you don’t speak the language, sometimes your voice isn’t totally heard. I spent a lot of my childhood feeling unheard. And now I finally get to feel heard through journalism.
It’s for being invisible, in a sense. And now, not only do you have some platform, but you’re able to broadcast from it and say, “I am here. I have value. I have something to say, be it my story or other people’s stories.” But it’s still your voice that you’re finding.
And I don’t want to make it me, me, me. The people that I’m fighting for with these stories — Andres, the Han twins, Justin — they are the vehicles for this storytelling. But in order for me to do a good job of it, I am having to mine certain things from my personal life. And so inherently I am becoming more heard through these people.
The people we’re drawn to actually reflect something inside of us. And that’s why we’re drawn to them.
Journalism isn’t always super academic; it’s psychological and personal and intimate. You’re having to dig into your own situation to try and better understand the sources and try to understand what questions you should be asking.
Do you find yourself writing in your head as you’re reporting? Like imagining where a scene or quote could go?
I absorb, absorb, absorb. And then I go back to my hotel room, or whatever, and do the skeleton/bones thing. I did that before with my other stories, but now I have a name for it. And then I start structuring in my head, even though it’s necessarily the structure we end up with, but it does help paint a picture. I think it helps that I do things chronologically: Andres’ milestones, what led him to this point, then to the next point, et cetera.
Well, Jana, I love ending these conversations by asking the guests for a recommendation of some kind for listeners — that can be anything from a brand of coffee to a fanny pack or pair of socks you’re really tickled by.
Blundstone shoes. They’re an Australian brand and are apparently really popular in Israel for whatever reason. I’m not sponsored. They’re expensive. But mine have lasted me 10 years. I actually wore them to the rodeo for this story, and they didn’t break down — I climbed rocks, went hiking, was in the river, was on top of the hill, at the bottom of the hill, and not one scratch. So go get your Blunnies.