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 331, in which he interviews Atavist editor Jonah Ogles and writer/editor-in-chief Seyward Darby about her work on the latest issue of The Atavist.
Many of you know Seyward Darby as the editor-in-chief of The Atavist Magazine, but like many editors she’s an incredibly skilled writer and reporter. If you need proof of that, look no further than “Fault Lines,” her investigative masterpiece about Grover Cleveland Charter High School and the alleged grooming and sexual abuse that took place over decades.
In a piece this sensitive, is there latitude to be artful? Is lyricism in poor taste? Or is it something that helps the reader better sink into the piece, so that the gravity of the alleged events hits even harder? Darby elected to deploy a brilliant metaphorical lede about the 1994 Northridge earthquake — a pivotal external event that embodies the subterranean forces capable of bringing structures to the ground.
“This is not one person’s story,” Darby says. “This is a lot of people’s stories. There are all these accusations; how is it going to shake? Who is it going to shake? To me, that was so important to the story. And I wanted to make it clear from go.”
We also talk about Darby’s experience hanging the editor hat on the hook so she could sidestep her “editor brain” while reporting and writing — the other hats. The divide doesn’t have to be impermeable, but it’s easy to imagine how editor brain blocks forward progress.
“When I sit down to write, I’m immediately also editing,” she says. “I sit down and I’m like, ‘Well, this sentence I just wrote could already be better’ as opposed to ‘just get out what you need to say.’ It’s almost like my brain is in constant editing mode.”
Please enjoy this excerpt below, and listen to the full episode for more.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and concision.
Brendan O’Meara: Wouldn’t you know that the featured writer this month is none other than Seyward Darby.
Jonah Ogles, Atavist senior editor: I know, it’s a special treat for all of us.
This time around, you and Peter Rubin from Longreads helmed up the editing; what was it like having to edit Seyward, who so often does much of the editing?
I mean, she’s a tremendously talented writer. She just turned in a great draft; if I compared documents, I’m sure it would be 95% the same. There was very little actual futzing with text. And it really gave us an opportunity, I think, to just refine something that was already working. When you get a story like that, it’s sometimes even worse, because then the pressure is “Can we make this a really great story?” Writers are often the ones saying, “I can’t crack this thing,” and so we spend all of our time dragging it forward. And that wasn’t the case with this piece. It was great already. And we were just trying to make it as good as we possibly could, by the time we had to push it out the door.
I think what made it so good as well was how hard Seyward felt like she had to be on herself. If you’re a dad coaching your kid’s baseball team, and you put him at shortstop, you’re going to be like, “I gotta be twice as hard on my kid, because I don’t want anyone to think I’m playing favorites.”
Well, certainly Seyward feels a great deal of responsibility on her shoulders at all times. I know that she felt a great responsibility to these women, which any writer writing any story can relate to. But when writers are working on pieces where sources are sharing stories of trauma, they feel a great responsibility — as they should — to do right by the sources and do right by the story.
I don’t think I ever said this to Seyward, but if you have the chance to do that type of story for a publication where you inherently trust the crew — our copy editor Sean, our designer Ed, the fact-checker, Kyla, who we’ve worked with — it’s much easier to bring such a sensitive piece to people that you already work with. It’s not that you’re not getting good advice at other publications, but it might be the first time working with an editor, and there’s a lot of faith and trust you have to build on the fly. In this case, she didn’t have to, because we’re all here, we all want this story to be great. And so I hope that resulted in a process that she felt really confident in as she was working through revisions.
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What ultimately tipped the scale to making you confident in saying “this is an Atavist story”?
For me, it’s the openness of the Jane Does that we talked to. Every story has probably a limitless number of ways it could be written and edited. There are versions of this story that are a Los Angeles Times investigative piece, a multi-part series that’s that classic newspaper feature with a narrative lead, and then you just hit people with details in the complaint. And you can imagine an investigative outlet doing a story like this that has a little bit more narrative detail in it. But for me, what makes it an Atavist story is the depth of the narrative and the scenery.
In this particular story, that’s really heavy stuff. When you start off reporting a story like this, you don’t know if your sources are going to want to talk deeply about these things, or if the way they remember it will fall apart as you start fact-checking it. But as she got deeper and deeper into the story, it became clear that there were not only opportunities to add that depth of scenery and character that I think of as trademarks of an Atavist story — but that the Jane Does were really incredible sources with great memories, and a willingness to be vulnerable and open with Seyward and trust her. That’s when the needle tips into an Atavist story. This isn’t just an investigative piece, this is a piece in which we are going to get to know characters and feel deep sympathy for the experience that they went through because of the detail with which we will describe that.
A couple of months ago. Greg Donahue’s piece ended with this metaphorical scene that really encapsulated everything that had come before it, and it was a beautiful ending. Seyward’s piece has a very metaphorical lede involving the 1994 Northridge earthquake. When you’re starting to generate a piece of this nature, what is the calculus of deploying that metaphorical lede?
I wish there was an equation, right? I think it becomes apparent pretty quickly whether that sort of thing is working or not. In the case of this story, Seyward had that in the story before I even read it. I read two sentences, and my brain — knowing that this is a story about alleged sexual abuse in a public school district — goes, “Hey, this isn’t the story I expected to read.” So then it’s on the writer to basically deliver the goods.
Seyward does that partly because the writing is strong and good. Readers are more likely to trust strong, good writing, and give those writers more leeway, which may sound stupid and oversimplified, but I think it’s true. So you keep reading, and then it becomes clear how she ties it into the story, and you realize, “Oh, I see what she’s doing.” And then you’re checking your gut for “Do I feel duped? Do I feel like this was a trick? Was the writer just trying to be flashy? Or does it feel sort of, like, appropriate, and in line with, like, the subject and tone of the story?” And with this one, the first time I read it, I think the note I even made for myself in the margins was like, “Wow, if I were writing this, I would not have thought to do this in 100 drafts.” But it just worked.
“Scientists believe there was a dense thicket of invisible faults underneath Los Angeles, threatening to convulse the city.”
These stories are tough. Obviously, it’s much tougher for Seyward to work on, and no one’s comparing her and my experience to these women’s experiences. You don’t undertake a story like this so you can say you wrote a good story — you do it because you want it to have an impact. Because these cases often occur in clusters. There are probably more stories out there to tell. That’s a part of journalism that I struggle with; you do these types of stories because you want to make a difference, but in doing so you know that it means individuals will have to relive trauma and pain.
And then you’re pulling back those scars and putting your story in the hands of a stranger who becomes a little more than a stranger over time. You have to trust that they handle it responsibly. That’s got to be really, really hard.
It requires, I guess, a faith in each other. I feel it, and I’m sure Seyward feels it even more, and I know the fact-checker did and the copy editor did. I mean, we all talked about this. But I hope we did right by these women, and I hope they feel that in the story.
A lot of times writers are working with editors and maybe they feel like, “What do editors know? They’re not writers.” But often editors do some of the best goddamn feature work you’ve ever read. And Seyward, who ushers in so much great work along with you, is a great reminder that people who primarily edit are some of the best, if not underappreciated, reporters and writers that we have out there.
It’s a tough thing to do — and I say this as someone who stopped writing a long time ago, other than very short things here and there. I admire someone like Seyward who’s capable of doing both things because it’s like a different brain that you use. She would Slack me and say, like, “I can’t figure out which part of my brain I’m using. Am I using the editor part of the brain? Or am I using the writer part of the brain?” Because you just look at it a little differently.
When I was young, I thought I didn’t want to be an editor. I wanted to write. But holy cow, is it an education. Even a really good writer writes what, four big features a year? And then maybe a lot of smaller stuff? At Outside I was editing two to four features in a month. It’s just more experience dealing with problems and finding solutions, so you end up with more tools in your toolbox, where you can say, “I know what to do with this type of situation, we had to fix that a year ago.” You walk away with structure and reporting tricks and how to deal with sources, or whatever it is. I would highly encourage any young writers out there to spend a little time in the trenches as an editor if they can find that.
Seyward, what’s your sense of the story’s pace, given that it doesn’t have some of the classic narrative propulsion we see with pieces about suicide races or kayaking across the Bering Strait?
Seyward Darby, Atavist editor in chief: This is the first time I’ve written for The Atavist. I’ve always been kind of hesitant to do it. Because we only publish 12 stories a year, I want to leave those slots open for freelancers, and I’ve just never felt super comfortable with publishing my own work in the magazine. But when I started working on this story, I felt immediately very protective of it — because of the women at the heart of it, and how deeply traumatized they were, but also how brave and generous they were being with their time. And ultimately, I realized that there is a narrative here; it’s told chronologically over the course of about 25 years, and I felt confident that there would be that arc of a beginning, middle, and end. That doesn’t say that everything is resolved, but it’s not an inverted pyramid of an investigation. It’s a story that builds as it goes.
If I had published it somewhere else, I might have told it a bit differently. You know, certainly there was a version of this story that was more tightly focused on one of the cases of alleged abuse as opposed to all of them, that wasn’t quite so sweeping in its approach. Because it was in The Atavist, I definitely felt the imperative of making it as Atavist-y as possible. And I certainly looked to other Atavist stories that I’ve either had the pleasure of working on as an editor, or that I read before I came on board as an editor.
Thankfully, I had Jonah to bounce ideas off of. It’s always very weird to go from being the editor to the writer, but Jonah is such a great editor and collaborator. We also worked with Peter Rubin, who is the head of publishing at Automattic, our parent company; he oversees both The Atavist and Longreads from a strategic standpoint, and he stepped in to be the second editor. I’m nervous about the story in a couple of different ways. But I’m also really proud — not just of myself, but of The Atavist for putting out this kind of investigative work.
What makes you nervous about it?
This is a very emotionally fraught piece. As you know, any piece that deals with abuse, sexual violence, you know, naturally is, I think, in this case, I have been lucky enough to have several women — including the four Jane Does in the lawsuits that are at the heart of the story — really trust me with their time and with their stories, and with their feelings. There’s always pressure in those situations to make sure you’re doing it justice, to live up to what they are offering. I feel good about the story, but with any writer, just as you’re about to publish something, you have that moment of, “Is this good?”
I talked to dozens and dozens of people for this story and the alumni community of the school that’s at the heart of this story is quite split. I talked to people who had either heard about the accusations or were not surprised when I told them about the accusations. And then I spoke to people who are not interested. I spoke to people who asked why I was bothering to write this story at all, because the magnet program at the heart of it is such a great program, and why would I want to destroy it? I’m telling a story of alleged abuse; the intent of the story is not to destroy anything, but to expose suspected wrongdoing.
How did you go about navigating the conversations that you had with several of your sources, as they’re giving you these raw, visceral details? It can be hard to know when to ask, when to sit back, when to let silence do its thing.
I really started almost all of my interviews — and this went for the Jane Does but also for pretty much everybody else in the story as well — by saying, “Let me tell you who I am. Let me tell you why I’m interested in reporting this, and let me open myself up to questions.” I felt bad for Kyla, my fact-checker, going through my transcripts because I feel like the first quarter of my transcripts is this refrain of me doing that: saying, “What questions do you have for me? What can I answer?”
With the Jane Does, I spoke to the attorneys first, because I didn’t know who these women were, and it was the same sort of thing. Who am I? Why am I interested in this? Why do I think it’s an important story? And I think that the attorneys were then able to go to the women and say, “We have a good feeling about this person.” And then with each of the women, I offered to just start by having a conversation completely off the record, where we just get to know each other a little bit.
We talked about what work I’ve done, what my values are, and we also talked a lot about boundaries. This is before we were even formally doing an interview: Tell me if you don’t want to talk about something, tell me you don’t want to answer a question. This is not about my feelings. I explained the fact-checking process up front, tried to communicate how hard the interviews would be. I’m trying to operate as a journalist from a principle of doing no harm, particularly to vulnerable subjects. There was a lot of precursor conversation.
As far as the interviews themselves, I think the first one I did lasted about nine hours in person. It progressed from one site to another, and then ultimately, you know, we were going through old high school materials that she had kept. Another one was about five hours in person; the other one was about seven hours in person. One woman really only wanted to be on the phone, another wanted to meet in a place on a beach where she felt very comfortable, and asked if she could bring a friend.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last nine months working on this story. Obviously, there are lines that must be kept in place between journalists and sources, but not every source is created equal — and in this case, it felt like I needed to bring more of myself to the table, and also be willing to be flexible in ways that I just wouldn’t normally think about. It’s been a real-time education in terms of evaluating what I believe in as a journalist, what I value as a journalist, and what it means to tell a fair and accurate story. I’ve said this to the women, you know, I’m grateful that I, personally and professionally, like, have had that opportunity to kind of, you know, go through, I don’t know, just a very, very different type of reporting experience than I’ve ever had before.
Was there any point, especially the reporting phase, that it felt like it was going to fall apart?
Early on, I was very lucky. When I started looking into it, the plaintiffs’ attorneys were willing to share some documentation and materials that really cracked the thing open for me. And that’s not always the case. So I felt quite confident from the beginning that I was going to be able to tell a story. It was more that I wasn’t quite sure what sort of story this was going to be, because I didn’t know if any of the four women were going to talk to me. How long can the story be? How deep can the story be?
I flew out to California in February  to meet with a key witness, and then also one of the Jane Does. At that point, I thought that might be the only Jane Doe who was going to talk to me. I got back to the East Coast, and one of the attorneys got in touch with me like, “Can you come back to California? Because one of the other Jane Does wants to talk to you, but would really like to do it in person.” And so I was like, “Yep, turning back around.”
And you love flying.
Oh, my God, Brendan, I hate flying. But, it was definitely the kind of reporting process where I just needed to be flexible and available. And you know, luckily at The Atavist, I could work from wherever. I got COVID right when I started writing from my poor sister-in-law, who didn’t even realize she had given it to me. So I was locked in a room, trying not to give it to my husband, attempting to put together hundreds of pages of legal documents, hundreds of hours of interviews.
So much of what The Atavist does is what we consider artful journalism — that elevated style that kind of reads like short stories, even fiction. This piece has elements of that too, but last month you were telling me about this piece and saying this one has a more service drive behind it. I’d love for you to talk a little bit about a piece that is as service-driven as this one intends to be.
It’s a great question. We have to use the word “alleged” a lot, we have to use the word “suspected” a lot, things that don’t immediately lend themselves to the most beautiful of writing but are important from an ethical and legal standpoint. So, from a structural standpoint, I tried to make sure that there would be pockets where I was able to not worry about that language quite so much. As long as I can execute the narrative and find these pockets where I could be a little more artful — where I could bring in scenes and character detail — I knew in my bones that it was a good story.
I don’t even consider myself a writer first. I consider myself more an editor-reporter than a writer. I just wanted the material that I found to speak for itself, as opposed to getting lost in my turns of phrase. Also, because so many people at the heart of the story are Jane Does, there were classic ways of developing a character that I could not use. I couldn’t talk about them physically. I couldn’t talk about their background, their ethnicity, any identifying details. So I had to find other ways to get their characters to feel specific. And to get the characters to feel like you had a sense of who they are as people.
The lede is essentially describing an earthquake that happened in 1994. It’s a very metaphorical thing to what’s happening throughout the story, but also in a geologic sense that anything below the ground can lead to something big down the road. And so you kind of get the sense that maybe something big is going to happen — maybe, maybe not.
It’s very important to say that my husband deserves some credit for this lead, because while I was working on the story, my husband also was reading a lot of Mike Davis, the great urban theorist and environmental activist. I had said to him several times that the Northridge earthquake kept coming up in my interviews, because it had a tremendous impact on the school, both physically and the way that students interacted with their space. And he said, “You should really read this chapter in Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis. It’s about the earthquake; maybe you’ll find some inspiration.” And lo and behold, he was very correct.
But this also kind of ties back into what we were talking about what makes this an Atavist story. I don’t know that every magazine would have loved this lede. I wanted to set this scene — literally, because the epicenter was just a few blocks away from the high school, but then also kind of this metaphorical landscape in which the story is framed. This is not one person’s story, this is a lot of people’s stories. And also, there are all these accusations; how is it going to shake? Who is it going to shake? To me, that was so important to the story. And I wanted to make it clear from go.
I think it’d be really illuminating for you to talk about what it was like to take your editor hat off and set that aside for a bit — to surrender to other people giving you the same sort of treatment.
I mean, I love being edited. I love being fact-checked. I love being legal-reviewed. All journalism is collaborative, but this kind of like deep reporting and more elegant writing is a collaborative project.
And I think I’ve said this before on the podcast, but I think that it makes me a better editor, ultimately, to experience all the things that a writer experiences working on an Atavist story, because it builds empathy. It also helps me think about “can we be doing things better? Can we be doing things differently? What are we not thinking about?” That’s really crucial, honestly, to the whole enterprise. The hardest thing for me on the reporting and writing front is that when I sit down to write, I’m immediately also editing. I’m like, “Well, this sentence that I just wrote could already be better” as opposed to just “get out what you need to say.” My brain is just in constant editing mode.
Yeah, it’s hard when you have such editor tendencies that you can be paralyzed by your own editor brain.
That’s the biggest struggle for me in these moments — but I just so enjoy it. I’ve been at this for five years at The Atavist, and this is the first time I’ve been on the other side of things. I’ve now received a memo from Jonah; I’ve gotten notes on my work. I don’t want to do it all the time, but there’s something to be said for really understanding every facet of what we do.
It’s like an actor going behind the camera to be a director, and becoming a little more empathetic to the experience.
If anything, I think I’m harder on myself as a reporter and writer because I have editor brain. I’ve worn a lot of hats, and in this case, I’ve got all of them on. Figuring out how to actually produce something under all that pressure I’m putting on myself is tricky. But I also felt very safe the whole time; knowing whose hands this was in, sharing a collective vision for it. And that was just such a nice experience.
What do you recommend to people out there, as we bring this down for a landing?
Longreads previously published an excerpt from Ecology of Fear, which you can read by following this link.
First of all, definitely, Mike Davis. Any Mike Davis. Ecology of Fear is fantastic. Also the Q&A in the LA Times. He’s just really a brilliant person. I’m not by any means the first person to say that.
And then my other recommendation would be this. I had the pleasure last weekend of spending time with my dear friend from college, her husband, and their 2-year-old, and: Sesame Street still slaps. Everybody needs some Sesame Street in their lives. I watched so much Sesame Street over the course of three or four days, and I just came away feeling good about things. There was a whole segment about what it means to vote and like why voting is important. I loved Sesame Street when I was a kid, I’ve always loved the Muppets, but this was my first time watching Sesame Street as an adult. It’s just so good.
Fantastic. Well, this was great to talk to you at greater length than we normally do about this incredible piece — first one for The Atavist in five years. So I’ll look forward to the next one in 2027, Seyward!
It will be no sooner!