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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 345, in which he interviewed Atavist editor Seyward Darby and freelance writer Sarah Souli about her work on the latest issue of The Atavist.
Writing long pieces is overwhelming, which also leads to overthinking. Where to start? Where to end? Too slow? Too fast? In media res or no?
Sarah Souli — whose recent Atavist feature, “A Matter of Honor,” saw her try and solve a triple murder of an Afghan mother and her two daughters at the Greek border — shares advice she received from her father.
“When I was in middle school and high school and studying for tests, he would always say, ‘Just do the easiest thing first,’” Souli says. “’When you read all the questions on the test, point out the ones that are the easiest and start with those because then you’ll feel a bit confident. And then you can move on to the hard ones, as opposed to doing it from page one.’”
Some writers can’t proceed until they have a lede, which can be akin to putting roadblocks at the base of your driveway. Instead, take that great scene you know is in the middle of the story and consider being more modular. Start writing there. Pause. Regroup. Even if the story is linear, the writing of it can be nonlinear. Like Souli says, it builds confidence — something most of us can attest is always in short supply.
Please enjoy this excerpt below, and listen to the full episode for more.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and concision.
What struck you about this story when it came across your desk?
Seyward Darby, Atavist editor-in-chief: We’ve read, heard, seen so many stories about migrants in the Mediterranean struggling to get to Europe and being treated really terribly at borders. What was striking about this is that it defied some of the stereotypes. It was a murder investigation: three women who struggled to make it where they wanted to make it, and then someone literally slit their throats. They were barely over the border into Europe, and they had come from Turkey; Turkey and Greece do not get along on any number of fronts. So it was a true crime story tied up with all of these international forces, which were made even more complex because Afghanistan — where these women were from — fell to the Taliban again, in 2021. Trying to solve a crime under any circumstances is going to be a challenge. But then add where it happened, who it happened to, and when it happened, and it becomes like nothing I had ever read.
When you’re receiving pitches for stories, how much legwork and pre-reporting do you like to see before you commit to pursuing it?
If I recall correctly, Sarah had a good contact at the Greek police: the woman who had spearheaded the investigation for a time. She also had grant support. The combination of who she had access to, and the resources that she had mustered, along with what we found interesting about the story itself, made sense to us.
One thing we talked about extensively over the years, because she’s been working on this for so long, was that it was highly unlikely she was ever going to solve this triple murder. So what can the narrative be here? It wasn’t like other true crime stories in which crimes have been solved. This was something very different. And Sarah’s first-person work was one of the things that we knew was going to set this apart from the beginning.
When you’re editing a piece, any piece, what are some common potholes that you hit and you realize “we need to figure out a way to patch that up”?
Every piece has different potholes. In this case, there was any number of challenges. Sarah started reporting this in 2019, maybe even a little earlier; she started following the story soon after the women were killed in 2018. Think about all of the events that have happened in the world since then. She wanted to go to Afghanistan and couldn’t because of the pandemic. Then, the Taliban came back in power. It wasn’t as though Sarah hadn’t done her job. It wasn’t as though there was some loose end that we just hadn’t tugged. It was like, “The world is burning. How are we going to figure out how to keep telling this story?”
And in this case, Sarah did a really nice job of using first person to express frustration and anxiety about some of the obstacles she encountered along the way. Yes, part of the job as an editor is to patch holes. But I’m a big fan of saying, “Let’s acknowledge in the story that it’s a problem.” It’s more honest. Having a really polished story that conveniently ignores some of the obstacles or pitfalls that a writer dealt with? Awesome, I’m so glad it reads nice. But I don’t necessarily trust stories like that.
Sarah, the reporting in this piece is really something.
Sarah Souli: This was one of the rare instances where the writing felt like the easiest part of the whole process. I was out of my depth at so many moments in the reporting, and really felt like I was taking on roles and responsibilities that I’d never had to before, even when doing other vaguely investigative work.
This was deep infiltration — not just into people’s personal lives, but also following a trail that the police had covered up to a certain point, and realizing that there was a lot to explore beyond what the police had done and venturing out on my own in a lot of ways. I’m not a trained investigator or a police officer, and I often found myself in situations where I was just like, “What am I doing? I should be behind a desk.”
How did you process that and try to find some degree of comfort in it?
Journalism, especially when you take a piece of this size or reportage of this depth and breadth, is never an individual thing. It’s so much more collaborative. I would not have been able to do what I did without the support from my Afghan colleagues. This was a project that I did over three and a half years. And at various points, I worked with a couple of different people, most of whom have asked to remain anonymous, just given the nature of the reporting that we did, and the precariousness of the political situation in Afghanistan right now. But there’s no way that I could have done what I did without the people that I worked with — in particular, Khwaga Ghani, who is credited on the piece. She’s an amazing Afghan journalist from Kabul, who’s now actually studying in California.
I couldn’t travel to Afghanistan, because it was COVID. This was March 2020; at some point, I realized that this situation is not going to get better. There’s no way I can travel. I really need to rethink how I’m going to report this from Afghanistan. Khwaga was recommended to me, by a couple of different colleagues. She traveled to Mazar-e-Sharif, which is where Fahima and her daughters are from, and we were basically on a WhatsApp video call for like 12 hours a day for 10 days. I could never have done that without her.
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There are moments when you inject yourself into the piece. One that I found particularly brave and even harrowing was when you confront Saïd with the pictures of the three slain family members — the mother and the two daughters. Where did that come from?
The confrontation with Saïd was actually the most difficult part to write. We edited it several times. It’s really hard to write action in a way that doesn’t feel cheesy. It was such an intense and cinematic moment, because at that point, I had been reporting for two years or more. I was just pissed, honestly. I had all of this information, all of these leads, and it was all pointing towards this one person. And so when I finally had a chance to meet him, I was just filled with anger.
Over the years, a lot of people — family members, close friends — were like, “You should be more scared. This is dangerous.” Again, because of the people that I worked with, I was never in situations that were extremely dangerous. One thing I realized in Turkey that really broke my heart: Even if I’m talking to someone who’s a human trafficker, or potentially a murderer, they’re much more scared of you than you are of them.
There are a couple of layers to that. One of them is that Turkey doesn’t recognize Afghans as legal refugees. So everyone’s situation is quite precarious. And there’s just a lot of mistrust when it comes to journalists in general. So I never personally felt like I was in danger. But again, I was with [translator and reporter] Tabsheer, who’s one of the best journalists I’ve ever worked with. I felt quite safe being with him. If I was alone, as a woman, I probably wouldn’t have done that.
And it must have been all the more uncomfortable that the piece starts with a first-person vignette of you hitting a roadblock — and then you find someone who has seen these women and could give you information. It was really effective to set the stage of being a little bit dejected, and then getting that lead, and it’s off to the races.
After I came back from Istanbul last September, I gave myself a three-week period to just sit at home in Greece and write it all out. I was like, “Okay, beginnings and ends are the hardest, so we’re just going to forget about that right now, and we’re just going to write the middle.”
I have to give Seyward credit for that opener. Eventually, we were talking, and I was like, “I have no idea where to start this story.” She said, “Well, you should start it in the ice cream shop.” This is a murder investigation; isn’t starting in an ice cream shop too superficial? Or is the fact that I’m gonna have to talk about myself somehow disrespectful to Fahima, Rabiya, and Farzana, the main characters of the story? But at some point, I understood that this was going to be what was most helpful for the piece.
How did you originally arrive at the story?
The region of Evros between Greece and Turkey has historically been a very common point of migration — actually, so much so that until 2009, there were still landmines on the border. But it’s never really gotten the same amount of press as the Mediterranean Sea, especially with what goes on in Greece on the islands and Lesbos. When I first moved to Greece in 2017, I thought it was fascinating that it was such a historically important point, but there weren’t a lot of people reporting. So I started going up there pretty regularly from Athens a few times a year reporting.
In late October or early November 2018, I’m talking with some of my sources in villages, and they’re like, “Didn’t you hear about this murder?” There are a lot of people who die on this crossing, but they generally die either from drowning in the river or from hypothermia. Car accidents, maybe, or people who walk along the train tracks and get crushed by a train. But murder is not something that happens. It hadn’t happened in that region in, I think, about 20 years. In Greece in general, there aren’t necessarily a lot of homicides; there are an increasing amount of femicides, but it’s still a pretty small number compared to other countries. So usually every time there’s a murder, it makes the news. And this hadn’t.
So I went to go see Pavlos Pavlidis, a forensic scientist who I’ve interviewed many times and who had done the autopsy. And he was like, “Well, we have these three women. But we don’t really know much about them, or really anything about them.” They didn’t even know where they were from — one of the big problems with dead bodies that turn up in Evros is that people don’t have their papers or any documentation, so it becomes impossible to ID them. And so I wanted to start digging into that.
For people who might not be familiar with fixers, what does the fixer do? There might be translating, obviously, but what else?
We could also spend a long time interrogating the word fixer, because within the hierarchy of journalism, they’re often the lowest paid, and don’t really get a lot of credit — especially when you’re working in countries like Turkey or Afghanistan. Of the people that I worked with, two of them are already very established journalists. I mean, you can hire and work with a fixer who helps you on the ground, someone who just does translation, but for me, I really felt like I was working with a colleague. In the case of both Tabsheer and Khwaga, I was lucky to be working with people who were really invested in the piece and the story and figuring out what happened to Fahima and her daughters — and getting some justice for them.
I was reading an essay on writing by Francine Prose in a Tin House anthology, and she writes that writers are creatures who function best when we recall the writing process and tranquility. What is the writing process like when you’re alone, by yourself in the dark? In that moment of tranquility as you’re trying to crack the code of a piece — and especially one of this nature?
Honestly, I think it’s one of severe disassociation. I was trying to recall those three weeks that I first wrote the piece, but I don’t really remember the process or the feelings that I had about it. It’s a bit difficult for me to consider myself a writer. I have friends who are what I would call “writers” in quotes — writers who write novels that you get written up in the New York Times, and craft these whole worlds and write these beautiful sentences and come up with these extravagant characters, and just have a real depth of imagination. And I’ve always felt like what I’m most interested in is really just talking to people: hearing the story and pulling the threads and putting together this puzzle. I write because that is the medium through which it’s easiest to tell these sorts of stories and because I don’t have a very nice voice for radio. I have a complicated relationship with this identity.
What has to be in place for you at your workstation, so you can grease the wheels and get some momentum going?
Really, it’s that I wake up. I’ll maybe put on pants with, like, a zipper and a button. But usually I’ll stay in pajamas or be in workout clothes, because I’ll like try and trick myself that I’m going to work out later. Because that’s good for writing. I have my glass of tap water, a huge cup of coffee, and I will just drink coffee until like noon and not eat. As I’m saying it, I’m like, “God, that’s so unhealthy.” But that’s how it goes.
I have to start in the morning. Like, writing has to be the first thing that I start doing. I’m not one of those people who goes to the beach in the morning and swims first and then comes back and writes. No, it’s very utilitarian, very unromantic. I just get myself up, put myself on an extremely uncomfortable chair — because after all these years of working from home, I still haven’t gotten a desk chair — and just start writing. And that’s it.
At what point in the reporting process do you feel like you have enough to start writing?
I was so anxious about the writing process for this one. The reporting itself was so overwhelming, and I felt like there were so many moments where things could just go terribly wrong and the whole thing would fall out from under me. I know this is imposter syndrome, but I felt like someone at some point was going to call my bluff and be like, “You have no business doing any of this.” So I was hesitant about starting to write until I had enough of the reporting done. And at one point, it was just like, well, I mean, it’s never going to end up in a perfect conclusion. The person that I think should be on trial, or at least questioned by the police, it looks like it’s not going to be happening. So you just have to sit down and start writing.
How did you keep everything organized and straight so when it was game time you were you were ready to hit the ground running with all the information you gathered?
I was terrified of the fact-checking process from the beginning, so I tried to be as fastidious as possible. When I wrote the piece, basically every sentence was footnoted for the fact-checking.
Does finishing a piece like this leave you more energized or drained in the end?
When I got the layout for the piece with all the illustrations, it was the first time in reporting it that I cried. To see this mother and her two girls, to see their faces in front of me — and the illustrator did such an amazing job — it was like I was looking into their eyes. I’m so happy that they’re finally getting their story told and that there is some sort of modicum of justice that comes at the end of the piece. I don’t think I’ve really processed it yet.
Like most freelancers, I’m just constantly working, so I have a slate of assignments for the next few months. But this has made me rethink what kinds of stories I want to tell in the future and how I want to tell those stories as well. In what format? What medium? Where do I see my place? That was a very roundabout answer to a very specific question, but I think I kind of feel everything at once.
I always bring these conversations down for a landing by asking the guests for a recommendation for the listeners. What are you excited about?
I’ll give two, if that’s okay. The first is whenever I read a very intense piece, I’m like “Well, what do I do now?” Afghanistan is in extreme political and humanitarian crisis at the moment, so I got some recommendations from some Afghan friends, who told me that the best charity to donate to that’s doing good work with Afghans both in Afghanistan and Afghan refugees outside of the country is the International Rescue Committee, the IRC. So I’d like to encourage your listeners, if they feel so moved by Fahima’s story, to give a donation.
And then the other thing, because the piece starts with an epigraph from an amazing Bulgarian author who was an inspiration for me to start visiting Evros in the first place, I would recommend Kapka Kassabova’s book Border. It’s really fantastic, and a very illuminating look into this small corner of the world.