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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 340, in which he interviewed Atavist editor Jonah Ogles and freelance writer J.B. MacKinnon about his work on the latest issue of The Atavist.
The seduction of “beautiful language,” however you define it, is real. It’s what we feel we must do to make writing “artful.” Yet, that act of imitation can often ring hollow in execution. Often, it’s best to surrender to the story and let some of the more invisible elements — paradoxically — shine brightest.
Enter J.B. MacKinnon, whose recent Atavist feature “True Grit” chronicles the harrowing journey of three cows swept to sea by a hurricane surge. It’s what lead editor Jonah Ogles affectionately dubbed a shaggy-dog story: “It meanders quite a bit from the narrative itself to explore other things, but it’s really a fun read — and worth reading and talking about.”
The conversation with MacKinnon includes too many highlights to mention, but I particularly loved his love of stripping back florid language so that a piece’s bones shine through, rather simply a particular sentence.“The entire culture of writing appears to put weight on beautiful language instead of beautiful structure,” he says. “We can really get bound up in trying to produce beautifully written sentences with well-chosen words. You want the beautiful architecture to catch their eye, not just the blackberry vines it’s buried in.”
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: Oh, this one was wild.
Jonah Ogles: Yeah, it’s a good one for us to do. This is a classic shaggy-dog story, not your traditional magazine story. It’s a little odd, it meanders quite a bit from the narrative itself to explore other things, but it’s really a fun read — and worth reading and talking about.
What did the pitch look like when it came across your desk?
He hooked us with the cows: a hurricane sweeps some cows out to sea, and some of them survive. So right there you’ve checked the tension box. But he said that he wanted to use that to discuss cows: how little we know about them, what we think we’re learning about them, and what the story might exemplify. We’d had a lot of straightforward, classic, good magazine stories recently, and this one felt different. And I think we were in the mood to do something a little different.
A lot of people think of cows as these dopey dull-witted meat factories unto themselves. But as JB’s reporting shows, their sentience is more on the level of animals that we historically would never consume, and would be horrified if they were treated as poorly as cows.
It’s sort of a sideways way into that. We’ve gotten pitches for exposés of industrial animal agriculture — and don’t get me wrong, I’m sympathetic to that. This approach asks some of the same thorny questions, with a narrative that’s really compelling and keeps you moving through. I had cows when I was growing up; my dad works for the USDA and has literally spent his career working with farmers to raise cows in more holistic ways. So I was like already a believer. And I was still surprised by what the reporting turned up.
I always love getting your insights on the editorial puzzle-solving of each particular piece. When you were reading early drafts and working with James, how did that puzzle manifest itself?
This was one of the easy ones on the editing front; it came in mostly in the form you see it now. We moved a few things around, but most of what I did was trimming. It was really just refining particular arguments and ideas. The big question for me as an editor was, how do we balance this narrative and these interesting philosophical questions with more current-feeling issues like climate change? All I had to do in this one was tighten things up and say, I think we can make our point in this many words. James has been an absolute pleasure to work with and is always really receptive to that.
Take me through how you came to this one.
J.B. MacKinnon: There was this weird, brief media circus around the idea that these cows had somehow swum from one island to another in a hurricane off the coast of North Carolina. It was presented as this quirky feel-good news story. But I thought, “There’s got to be more to this.” It seemed like it had to be more extraordinary than met the eye — and it certainly turned out to be that way.
Oftentimes a great well of story ideas is these things that are momentarily sensational. They’re quirky on the surface, but then the hit-and-run reporters move on, and the narratively driven reporters’ instincts kick in like yours did.
The story also intersected with a story that has been on my mind for some years, which I wrote years ago for an outdoors magazine in Canada. It was about this polar bear that had been radio-tagged, and jumped into the ocean and set off to swim out to the sea ice, which I guess is something polar bears do in Alaska. They’re used to having to swim 100 kilometers or something out to the sea ice. But because of ice retreat, this one swam for 700 kilometers across nine days, continuously swimming. It had a cub with it when it entered the ocean and it didn’t have one by the time it came out. So somewhere along the line, the cub drowned. And it was just this incredible feat of perseverance and sheer physical power, and kind of blew my mind — and my eye has been opened to animal survival stories since then.
So when I saw this story about the cows, one of my first thoughts was, “Can cows even swim? I don’t know how extraordinary this is, but it seems pretty incredible.” And I started thinking that this might be not only just kind of a cool take on the survival story genre, but it might have important things to say about how we relate to cattle.
That can be problematic for people who consume them as food‚ which is a central tenet of your story.
I was kind of pitching this story as The Perfect Storm meets “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace’s famous essay about lobsters and whether we should eat them. That story starts out as this delightful jaunty travelogue to a lobster festival in Maine, and then it turns into a harrowing, Peter Singer-like essay on animal welfare.
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I thought this one had similar potential, because the narrative is incredible. It’s hard to explain how so few cattle survived this swim, when a whole herd of them and horses was washed into the water; how do just three cattle survive this swim, if it didn’t come down in some way to their individual willpower, their conscious desire to stay alive? And if individual cattle have these kinds of capacities, then something more complicated is staring back at us in the meat aisle of the grocery store than I think many of us have considered.
With the three cattle who survived, two might have been driven by their own herd mentality to survive together. And then the central bovine character, if you will, turns out to be with calf, so that suggests an entirely new level of a drive to survive.
This pregnant cow is just a real battler — certainly the orneriest of the cattle, is very difficult to round up and take back home. This is one of the unanswerable questions of the piece. But we do raise it and I do think aloud about it. Was this cow motivated not only by a desire to save its own life, but a desire to save the life of its calf? As I reported deeper into the story, it kept going. First, it’s “some cows swam through a hurricane.” Then I hear that they may be descendants of Spanish colonial cattle who were thrown overboard 400 years ago. Then I hear that one of them was pregnant. Then I hear that the calf was born with one brown eye, and one blue eye. It just kept on giving, and was so fun to work on.
How did you go about the reporting and the research of this, given that the central figures don’t speak?
I thought, “Well, I’ll try to track down anyone who knows the inside of a cow’s head.” And that turns out to be a pretty limited group of people. There really wasn’t much research being done until recently on cows as individuals, or on the psychology of cows, or even how cows communicate with one another. These are not questions that society is hankering to investigate across a history in which we eat a lot of cows. So it’s really only recently that folks have started to investigate these kinds of questions. So I talked to those people, and they were good enough not only to share their research with me, but to actually sit through interviews in which I said things like, “At what point in the journey of these cows do you think they might have experienced loss, or grieved? How would they have communicated to one another as a storm surge set upon them?” They really helped me build scenes that hopefully bring this story to life in the absence of the ability to interview the protagonists.
Anyone doing this kind of work has to be okay asking questions that feel kind of silly. But ultimately, it gets toward, in this case, getting into the headspace of a cow. How have you developed comfort with asking these questions that seem kind of inane on the surface, but fundamentally help shape the story you’re looking to write?
Even just normally reporting scenes, people find that experience very unfamiliar. Most people’s impression of a reporter or a journalist is that they’re going to come and fire some questions at the interview subject about facts, they’re going to get responses, and that’ll be it. And as soon as you’re starting to ask “what color was your jacket?” it changes.
One time I was interviewing some biologists who had shot a wolf, and I asked what kind of guns they had — and it ended up becoming quite an operation to extract that information. They start to wonder why you need these details, and there’s something about probing for details that makes people just naturally suspicious.
I tend to approach it by saying, “Look, I need to paint a picture in words. And I need the reader to be able to see what you saw or experienced within their mind’s eye.” Most people can go along with that. But I also find that it usually requires going back to interviewees more than once, and trying to develop comfort through a bit of relationship building. In this case, the cow people turned out to be amazing people, and they didn’t blink an eye. They were just like, “Let’s walk through this. I want to help make this story come to life.”
In Robert Caro’s memoir, Working, he writes that one of his central questions when he’s interviewing somebody is just, “What did you see? If I were standing over your shoulder, What would I be witnessing?” It seems so banal to the person asked, but when you get to that degree of granularity, it paints a three-dimensional picture that really immerses the reader. And that’s ultimately what we’re after.
I’ve used exactly that line: If I was standing there beside you, what would I be seeing? All of this really came to a head during COVID, when you couldn’t travel, you couldn’t go to locations and paint scenes. A lot of the detailed description that appears in the piece doesn’t come from my actual visit to the location — it comes from sitting right where I’m sitting now, at the desk that I work at, and talking to people on Zoom or on the telephone.
And when you get all your information together from your reporting and your research, at what point do you feel confident to start writing?
There’s that old phrase, “When you meet yourself coming the other direction.” I think that really has been my experience: At some point, I’m talking to people who are saying, “You should talk to so and so,” and it’s somebody I’ve already spoken to. Or I’m reading research that’s saying something that’s already in my notes. Once I’ve kind of started hitting enough indicators like that, then I feel like, okay, I’ve pushed it far enough along. It’s time to put something on the screen.
Are you much of an outliner?
I spent a lot of time earlier in my career thinking about structure, probably because it was a weakness initially. And so I used to do a lot of outlining, a lot of doodling around structure. At this point, I’ve ingested structure to the point where I generally have a pretty plain sense of how a piece is going to start, where I think it’s going to end, what the basic blocks are within it, what the arc is, all of those kinds of things. The great thing about having gone through the agony of focusing on structure for a while is that it’s become intuitive.
I suspect through all your reading, and all the stories you’ve written, and all the research you’ve done, that — to use a golf term — you can kind of see the line.
You start to develop an eye for themes and threads rising up through the research as you do it. In this case, the idea of names and naming started to rise up for me. We generally don’t name livestock, because we’re going to eat them. In this case, though, there was this strange circumstance where you have these two herds of feral animals, one of horses and one of cows, and they all get swept off this island by a storm surge. But when I started to look into it, all of the horses have names — and of course, none of the cows have names. But yet, it’s the cows that survive. And at the very end, one of the cows is awarded a name by the human community. So I was picking up those kinds of resonances, and pretty quickly that turned into knowing how I’m going to start my story: not with the cows, but with the horses, because they have names. “Oh yeah, and there were also some cows. They didn’t have names, but hang around and see what they do.”
What was it like being edited on a piece of this nature? Because it’s an ambitious piece of writing — but, of course, it’s also an ambitious piece to edit.
I think, oddly enough, this was my first real effort to start trying stories that had strong narratives at their core. Prior to this, I’d really written more essayistic styles, particularly reported essays. Those would have storytelling elements, but they weren’t really powerfully narrative-driven.
I’m more or less self-taught as a writer. I didn’t study it in university. So I probably was a bit shy about approaching narrative-driven stories. But after this last book, I was really craving the opportunity to write something with a powerful narrative. It powers itself, right? You don’t have to crunch it as much as you do an essay. It’s difficult in new ways, but narratives are a lot clearer in terms of “what’s the start, middle, and end?”
That’s where the editing from Jonah has been really helpful. He basically said, “The diversions in this piece are fun, but there’s a lot of them. And we really need to let the narrative rise up and breathe.” That was really a pleasure for me, because I could recognize right away that this was something I needed to learn about pieces that are powered by narrative. It was beautiful to watch how stripping things away allowed it to become so much more visible.
If you’re decluttering your wardrobe and get rid of a T-shirt, it stings at first, but in a week, a month, a year, you don’t even remember that you had the thing. It’s the same thing when you’re line editing and killing darlings. Some things seem so precious, but when you strip it away in service of the whole, you’re like, “I don’t even remember why line seemed so important to me.”
The entire culture of writing appears to put weight on beautiful language instead of beautiful structure. We can really get bound up in trying to produce beautifully written sentences with well-chosen words. You want the beautiful architecture to catch their eye, not just the blackberry vines it’s buried in.
In bringing these conversations down for a landing, I always love asking the guests for a recommendation of some kind for the listeners — it can be anything, be it a brand of coffee or a fanny pack.
I’m actually going to give a little shoutout for what may be an underappreciated nonfiction outlet, Hakai Magazine. They’re a great literary science magazine up here in British Columbia, and doing all kinds of really interesting stuff. It feels like a place where, as a writer, the reins are kept pretty loose, and you get to breathe a little when you’re doing a piece. I think it’s a place that deserves more readers — and more writers as well.