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Wearing All the Hats: A Chat with the Writer and Editor Behind The Atavist’s New Issue

Silhouette of two young woman in profile, alongside a sign for Grover Cleveland High School
Illustration: Hellovon for The Atavist

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 [2022] 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!

Read “Fault Lines” at The Atavist now

 

The Skeleton, the Meat, and the Bones: A Chat With the Writer and Editor Behind The Atavist’s New Issue

A horse training in a lake, with a man holding onto his neck.
Tailyr Irvine for The Atavist

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.

* * *

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.

Hilarious.

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.

Read “Follow the Leader” at The Atavist now

The Fact-Check and the Fury: A Chat With the Writers and Editor Behind The Atavist‘s New Issue

An black, white and red illustration of a pair of high black leather boots standing amid rubble, which includes Nazi iconography
Illustration: Sam Green

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 323, in which he interviewed Atavist editor Jonah Ogles and writers Leigh Baldwin and Sean Williams about their work on the latest issue of The Atavist.

Leigh Baldwin lives in London. Sean Williams lives in Berlin. Together, they co-wrote the latest issue of The Atavist with “Follow the Leader,” a piece about Rainer Sonntag, who helped fuel a neo-Nazi movement that still plagues Germany to this day. Sonntag also was a Communist spy, and you may be familiar with the young KGB upstart he reported to: a man named Vladimir Putin.

It would be a challenging story to tackle for a single reporter, but two reporters come with their own challenges. Did there ever come a point when there were too many cooks in the kitchen? How did they keep it all straight?

“Did we keep things straight and easy, Leigh?” asked Sean. “I’m not sure we managed to do it so well. But we tried.”

“You’re moving pieces of information around, trying to contract them into a coherent narrative — and then it’s really hard to keep track of footnotes, references, cross-references,” Leigh replied. “However well you try to keep track of it as you go along, there’s always a fairly horrible process at the end, where you’re racking your brains thinking, I know I read this somewhere. But where did I get this from? Or which interview did this fact come from? 

Jonah Ogles, the lead editor for this piece, spoke about fact-checking — that “fairly horrible process at the end” — and how writers can make that process far more seamless for the editor and researcher who are ensuring the piece is airtight and ready for publication. The key, he said in no uncertain terms, is annotation. Not only does it make the writer’s work more organized during the writing process, but it gives the fact-checker the best possible resources to work from.

For those looking to do ambitious reporting and collaborative journalism, Jonah, Leigh, and Sean give you tremendous insights into what it takes — and how they pulled off this heavyweight of a feature. 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: There’s a lot going on in this story, Jonah.

Jonah Ogles: This was one of those pitches that checked every box: It had twists and turns, and a sadly timely hook to it, which is rare for us. Leigh and Sean had the goods when it came to source material — this unbelievable story that almost no one has heard of.

 There were two timely elements to it. There’s the craven ambition of Putin, but also this idea of how far-right extremism, as much as you want to believe that it’s gone, is very much prevalent. Even though this takes place in Germany, we’re seeing it here in the United States, and I felt that pulse throughout this whole piece.

You could set this in various places in history, various points in time, where, yeah, all of these factors sort of come together to create the right conditions for, you know, for people with this really hateful ideology to basically exploit the conditions for their own personal gratification and, you know, glory — it’s a dark piece.

What becomes the challenge on your end when you’re working with two reporters?

It’s a different thing. This isn’t the first dual byline piece that I’ve worked on. It’s a little bit harder, I think, because they’re each bringing a different thing to the story; one person may be better versed in the documents and the other person might have a little more experience writing deep scenery of the type that we like. It requires more patience, and more back-and-forth between all parties to make sure everything is coming together. It also means that there’s another person with their own schedule, their own timing. So, in my experience, these pieces tend to move along a little bit more slowly than other pieces. But the benefit is that you have three sets of eyes looking at it — finding weaknesses, trying to push it forward.

What’s the process by which you really started to hammer it home? “Okay, this is how we’re gonna start tying these threads together in a better way so we can stick the landing.”

When I was at Outside, I was a fact-checker on a handful of stories that had two writers. And, we would reach a point where the easy thing to slip into as a writer can be like, “Oh, well, that’s Jonah’s thing to deal with over there, and so what do I care if he’s not doing it on time?” But somebody has to care that it’s getting done on time. I would guess that stories with two bylines end up being stories where the editor has to take a larger role in getting things done, and making sure that the writers aren’t just waiting for the other one to do something. To Sean and Leigh’s credit, they were always really responsive, and communication was about as seamless as it can be with two writers working on something. I assumed they were buddies, but it turns out they were in different countries — and I never would have known because they were really on top of answering emails and hitting deadlines.

What can reporters do on a story of this nature to make the fact-checking easier if they’re not well-versed in helping that side of the table?

This is a great question, and the answer is actually really easy: It’s just annotation. As thorough an annotation as you can give them. If you have a transcript, and there’s a quote, just go ahead and put the minute and second timestamp in there. If you’re quoting from a book, put the page number in there. You’re less likely to make mistakes as a writer when you do that. I’ve had stories that have just fallen apart in fact-check, but then I’ve had stories that just sailed through — and the ones that sailed through was because it’s annotated. As the writer was annotating, they just kept double-checking themselves: Oops, I got this quote a little bit wrong; or oh, hey, that’s not what this says. It just makes a fact-checker’s life so much easier. [Sean and Leigh] did a pretty good job of that, because they had a lot of source material — hundreds of pages of historical documents.

If you don’t have an annotated draft, a fact-checker is sitting there reading hundreds of pages of documents. When I was a fact-checker, I would have to read through everything just to get familiar with it, and then read it all again in order to find the actual material that I was looking for. So when you annotate, you remove that from the equation — you give that checker the ability to make sure that you got the right facts from the source material. But it also gives them time to step back and look into other stuff, look into sources that maybe the writer didn’t refer to in their reporting, and say, “Hey, are we characterizing the rise of neo-Nazism in West Germany properly?” When you have a fact-checker who has the time and energy to do that extra legwork for a piece, that will only make a piece better.


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And at the very end, when you’re ready to send it to the press, as it were, that’s when you can remove all the annotation, so it becomes reader-friendly. 

Exactly. From a reader standpoint, this isn’t an academic journal, though it’s sort of sourced like one. This is a true story, but we want it to be immersive and to suck readers in, and 200 footnotes probably get in the way of that.

Years ago, I used to admire the footnotes of David Foster Wallace or Chuck Klosterman. Over the years, though, if I see a footnote, I’m like, “Oh, God, if it’s not good enough to be in the main body of text, I don’t care what funny aside you think is happening, it takes me totally out of the piece.” I hate them now.

Chris Keyes at Outside once gave me a note on a story I was editing. He was like, “Parentheses are a signal to me that the writer and editor haven’t figured out where to put this piece of information yet.” I don’t think it’s a hard and fast truth; sometimes it’s impossible to avoid. But it’s a really good practice for me as an editor to identify a footnote or a parenthetical and say, “Okay, here’s the thing that isn’t contained within the flow of the story. How do I get it in the flow of the story?”

 


 

Why don’t we start off by you both giving me a sense of how you arrived at this story?

Leigh Baldwin: I run a small nonprofit newsroom in London called Source Material. And well, just rooting around looking at things, I came across an old story from 2015 by a German outlet about Putin’s early years when he was a KGB officer in Dresden in East Germany. There were a couple of lines in the piece buried a long way down, about the fact that one of the agents he recruited — or was recruited on his behalf — was a neo-Nazi called Rainer Sonntag. No one else seemed to have really noticed because it was a long piece, focusing mostly on other aspects of Putin’s life, which were also very interesting. 

When I mentioned it to people, no one seemed to know. So I became slightly obsessed, [but] didn’t have the opportunity to do anything until I got to go to Dresden and spend a few days in the city archives, digging through all the court records from the case surrounding Sonntag’s eventual shooting in 1991. And what I stumbled upon was a mine of massive forensic detail. So we could reconstruct, second by second almost, the moments of his death. There were forensic photos of his body, there were witness statements from all angles of the scene. And there was a wealth of background material. So the next step was to get the Stasi archives; that whole process took six months. By that time, we were deep into the pandemic and other things were getting in the way, and I put the story on the back burner. And then Source Material did a story for a news organization called Tortoise in London, and it happened that Sean did a story for them about East German neo-Nazis. I thought, wow, this could be the perfect person to help this story finally make it.

Sean Williams: I’d also done a story for GQ the summer before about [Germany’s COVID] protests, and it was kind of a crazy situation. I was thinking, “Maybe I could do something a little nicer about Germany for once.” But then Leigh called me in and I thought, “Why not? Let’s just jump into neo-Nazism again, that can be a beat for a while.” 

For journalists like you who have covered extremism and hate groups, how is it that you don’t get pulled into the mud?

Williams: You have to kind of see the progress that’s been made, in some ways. The story that we did for The Atavist shows that this was something that was being manipulated by different forces all through the Cold War. But now it’s a different matter. There is a far right [in Germany], of course — we’ve spoken to many members of its scene — but it’s small. And I think we’re making progress. That’s why I’d like to believe we’re on an upward trajectory. I mean, we can’t get any worse than back in those days. Some very general sense of things getting better; that’ll keep me going.

Baldwin: For me, there was a sense that the characters were so fascinating. You have Rainer Sonntag; when you see footage or photos of him, he’s always got this slight smirk on his face. Even when he’s trying to give a really serious Nazi propaganda speech, he can’t stop breaking out into laughter. And so all these characters are a massive contradiction. The main Nazi leader in West Germany to whom Sonntag attached himself, Michael Kühnen, came out as gay in 1986. That split the neo-Nazi movement in West Germany down the middle, and suddenly it was divided into — well, almost the gay Nazis and the straight Nazis, the ones who supported Kühnen and still and the ones who didn’t. All these microcosms of strange politics were really, really fascinating. And I think those storylines keep you focused rather than being dragged down into a swamp of misery and pessimism.

Leigh, you said something earlier about stumbling on a few lines buried in a piece; so often, these longform stories come from people who notice a cast-off line in something else and realize there’s more there. Where do you go about panning for gold and finding ideas?

Williams: A lot of buried ledes. There’s loads of stories like the one that kicked this one off, with mad little details buried in the middle. You’re gonna pick up tons and tons of information just by reading random snippets on any kind of topic. There’s another story that I’m doing for Outside right now, and it came from just watching a 10-minute YouTube video of a guy [being interviewed], and noticing that this was an interesting character.

Baldwin: When you stumble across one of these little nuggets, you sort of go through an informal testing process of bouncing it off people and seeing what they think. For me, the key test was telling colleagues in London, saying, “Did you know Putin recruited a neo-Nazi agent?” and they say, “Wow.” But the real test that we passed, I think, was when I told German journalists — people who are really steeped in German history and politics — and it still was jaw-dropping to them. Most people in Germany had no idea about this. And the fact that it had shock value and was so fascinating not just to people outside Germany, but to Germans, too, really gave me the idea that this was something worth pursuing.

When your reporting hits dead ends and there’s a lot to comb through, how do you keep persevering to find more of those things that are going to nourish the piece?

Williams: It’s keeping things clear at all times. Not just in the sense that you have a clear direction of what you want a story to be, but literally physically keeping all of your notes as clear and as well-ordered as possible. We were counting up the number of Stasi files that we went through in this piece, and it’s in the high hundreds, including all the court docs — and they’re all in very officious German. We spent a whole week together in Berlin sitting in an Airbnb and going over them. 

When you have that much information, and there are all these dozens and dozens of potential witnesses and contacts, if you’ve got a bunch of garbled notes, or don’t have everything streamlined as much as you can, you’re dead in the water. It was tough enough as it was, because there were a few people that led nowhere. I went down to Langen, which is one of the main places that the Nazis tried to establish themselves in the ’80s, and knocked on a bunch of doors before I found someone who was a former leader of the movement there — and got told in no uncertain terms to go away.

That was just one of a few trips that led nowhere, but it all builds a clearer picture of where you want to focus your attention. In the end, we realized that there are a few protagonists that we really wanted to zero in on — Klaus [Zuchold, who worked with Putin to recruit agents] being the main example. Obviously, the story was always going to be about Sonntag and Putin and Kühnen, the other leader of the Nazi movement at the time. But there are a few other guys that sort of cropped up that I didn’t expect to speak to. And they turned out to be pretty amazing sources.

In the piece, you mentioned how, even in the ’80s, Putin was working to add upheaval in the West — and then even today in France and elsewhere, including the cybertactics that certainly affected elections in the United States. Where did he develop this playbook of disruption?

Baldwin: I think it’s extreme pragmatism. If you go back to the ’60s, the Communist spy agencies — the KGB and the Stasi in East Germany — had a history of stoking far-right movements and Nazism. Spraying graffiti on Jewish gravestones, for example. By the time it gets to the ’80s, the East Germans are more worried about Western neo-Nazism spreading east because it was a protest movement against the Communist regime. So they were probably less trying to stir up trouble in the East with Sonntag than using him to keep an eye on that. But the interesting thing is that they have no moral compunction about dealing with and instrumentalizing neo-Nazis. It has to be said, too, that West German intelligence services also had a lot of agents that were Nazis, and right up to the modern day had a very complicated and controversial history. So there’s pragmatism on both sides, but I think you can see that that’s the common thread that really links the Putin policy of then to the Putin policy today. 

Williams: I was speaking to Anton Shekhovtsov today, an academic who’s written about Russia on the far right. He said that Putin wasn’t really an ideological Communist at all, but he was a statist. Everything was done in service to the Soviet empire, later the Russian state. And now he runs the country like a king. His sowing of chaos all over the West is to destabilize them, because Russia is not a very strong force economically, in many respects. You have to use this asymmetrical warfare to get over on your enemies — and if that means employing neo-Nazis and fascists to cause trouble wherever you want them to do so, then that’s what you’re going to do.

Given the state of journalism, and reporters often being often maligned — in the States, we hear people calling them “enemy of the people” — where is the juice for the two of you in keeping that flame alive with hard investigative work?

Baldwin: To go back to the earlier question about how to write about Nazis without being sucked in and getting miserable: One of the things about Putin’s policy now is that he very much enjoys playing the extremes in the democratic West against each other. Writing about Nazis and understanding them as an actor — not taking a side in the culture war, which has Putin laughing all the way to the Kremlin, but as journalism — is part of the democratic role. We don’t try and condemn people who voted for Trump or neo-Nazis or Brexiteers, but we try to understand them and see what makes them tick.

Williams: There’s so much disinformation pouring into people’s ears and eyes at the moment with regards to Ukraine. And I think that Russia has done a pretty decent job of muddying the waters. In Germany right now, the conversation is not about Russia pounding shopping malls and killing civilians, but about whether [Ukrainian nationalist] Stepan Bendera is a historical far-right fascist figure, and if that should make us think twice about supporting Ukrainians today. I hope that good journalism can sift through. If we can add to the conversation, and you can see straight-up that Putin has been funding the far right as far back as when he was a KGB officer, then that’s really all we can do.

How can consumers of news be more literate when it comes to credible information versus what isn’t?

Williams: Good question. Maybe switching off the TV and reading stuff will be a good start. If you read a few good sources of newspapers and magazines, if not just for the fact that you have to interact with it. Whereas with TV, you can sit back with your mouth open and take in the information. And you can certainly just scroll until you’re half-dead on Twitter.

Baldwin: Journalism is a loser’s game; we’re never going to win the battle. It’s almost like catching drug cheats in sport — the cheats are always a couple of years ahead of the enforcement authorities. All we can do is keep banging away. I don’t think the traditional model of journalism is broken. I think we need to just stick to that plodding, sometimes prosaic pursuit of the facts.

Williams: Stories have always engaged people more than anything else. And that’s why so much fake news has been effective at bypassing people’s credulity. I hope that stories like this, something longer, something a bit narrative with a protagonist that people can identify with or understand a little better, can help people connect.

When I was talking with Jonah yesterday, we got to talking about the nature of fact-checking and how to just keep track of everything and make sure that everything’s well annotated — for yourselves and for the fact-checker as well. When you’re collaborating on a piece of this nature, how are you keeping things straight and making sure that everything is attributable?

Williams: Did we keep things straight and easy, Leigh? I’m not sure we managed to do it so well. But we tried.

Baldwin: The honest answer is I’ve been doing investigations for a very long time now. You’re moving pieces of information around, trying to contract them into a coherent narrative — and then it’s really hard to keep track of footnotes, references, cross-references. However well you try to keep track of it as you go along, there’s always a fairly horrible process at the end, where you’re racking your brains thinking, I know I read this somewhere. But where did I get this from? Or which interview did this fact come from? For example, we have the Stasi files. They’re all scans; you can’t find the words in them with Ctrl-F, because they’re not easily machine-readable. So you just have to hunt through these hundreds of pages until you find the obscure fact that you’re looking for. And the fact process was extremely time-consuming. But I found over the years that there aren’t really any shortcuts for that type of thing.

Williams: It’s sort of a double-edged sword when you’re working as a pair, right? Because in one way you can divvy up the work; you can take your own turf, and trust the other guy that they’re going to know what they’re doing. But when it comes to the fact-check, and you’re cross-referencing things that one of you or the other might have found, it can tie you in knots. In some cases, certainly, there were certainly parts of the story that I sort of took over. And there were parts of the story that Leigh had complete control over. And when it came to putting everything together, it worked really well in pretty much every way. But when it comes to that back end, and putting all the notes into the coherent spots, and making sure everything’s clear, that can become an extra challenge.

That segues beautifully into one of the last things I want to talk about with you: the nature of collaboration on a story of this nature, which is so, so big. It’s undoubtedly a challenge when you’re composing because everyone has their own writing style, but in the end, you need something cohesive. How did you riff off of each other, and how did you create a common vision?

Baldwin: What was apparent from the outset is that Sean and I had a very similar vision of what we wanted to do. We saw a story that was full of wonderful narratives, wonderful drama, and incredible forensic detail of Sonntag’s death. We also had years and years of Stasi documents where the secret police were invading every aspect of his life: sending agents to hang around in the corridor outside his house, spying on him when he’s drinking in the pub, getting his school reports and his teachers, talking to his colleagues.

Incidentally, I found that harder than writing about the Nazis. When you first get your hands on these Stasi documents, you sort of feel like Howard Carter blowing the dust off the sarcophagus and you dive in. But very quickly, you become aware of how banal it is and how invasive it is. I found it quite uncomfortable having this voyeuristic position, into all the private, most private banal details of someone’s life. But what we had from those documents was this very compelling narrative. And I think we both very quickly had the same vision of how we wanted it to go.

Williams: Another thing about working as a pair: It made interviews with some of these ex-officials and spies a human experience. Double-team interviewing a former Stasi agent in a Greek restaurant outside of a German city while drinking beer and Schnapps? That’s a good, fun journalistic experience. I guess we were lucky because we hadn’t worked on a piece before, and it came together really nicely. I think that we were able to really find our own individual place within this pairing that we had.

I always like to ask for a recommendation of some kind, and the bonus of this one is that we get to get two from each of you guys. Sean, we can start with you — what might you recommend out there for the listeners, professional or personal or whatever?

 Williams: Through doing this reporting on Cold War Germany, I got obsessed for quite a while with Len Deighton novels, and was pressing to stick these really cheesy Len Deighton-ish lines into the story as if we were writing Berlin Game or one of his other novels. So I would say anyone wanting to have fun with an incredibly witty spy novel, you should read Len Deighton.

And secondly, with this and other recent projects that I’ve done, I’ve found that I’m increasingly relying on listening to my stories — getting a friend or my long-suffering partner to record herself reading the story, so I can take the dog for a walk and listen to that. I find that that’s a lot easier for picking apart structure. I don’t know how good those text-to-speech programs are, but they certainly aren’t as good as a friend of yours. So, yeah, that’s my recommendation.  

Baldwin: A lot of my research was punctuated by the soundtrack of Germany in the 1980s. There was also a wonderful book that I read quite late in the reporting process, but we quoted in the piece: Stasiland by Anna Funder, an Australian journalist who spent a lot of time in the former East Germany after the fall of the [Berlin] Wall. It’s a book about the Stasi, but through the eyes of ordinary people, and about their experience of living under the most oppressive surveillance regime that ever existed.

Williams: If we can get people listening to German New Wave stuff from the ’80s after this project, then that’s a win, because that stuff is awesome.

Read “Follow the Leader” at The Atavist now

The Thrill of the Perfect Ending: A Chat With the Writer and Editor Behind The Atavist‘s New Issue

A mugshot of an older man, superimposed behind a black-and-white photograph of a suburban house
Photoillustration: Ed Johnson

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.

* * *

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.

Whoa.

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.

Read “The Fugitive Next Door” at The Atavist now

Plotting Out Structure and Writing Out Heroes: A Chat With the Writer and Editor Behind The Atavist‘s New Issue

Illustration: Juan Bernabeu for The Atavist

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 313, in which he interviewed Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby and writer Katia Savchuk about their work on the latest issue of The Atavist.

Why don’t we copy the work of writers we admire more? Don’t plagiarize (duh), but when it comes to practicing our scales, why aren’t we retyping more work of the masters? After all, the masters did this. Hunter S. Thompson famously typed up the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. Joan Didion did the same. Now, add to that list Katia Savchuk, the freelance journalist who wrote The Atavist’s latest feature, “A Crime Beyond Belief.”

Katia, who’s based in the Bay Area, routinely copies the work of the New Yorker writer David Grann, someone she greatly admires. “I found it to be an amazing practice,” she says. “First of all, it gets your hands flowing, the words flowing, instead of just sitting down with your own text, a blank page. It’s almost like running a few laps to give your fingers something to do.”

Before my conversation with Katia, Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby speaks of wrangling in Katia’s piece, a 19,000-word story that demanded a tricky structure. The key wasn’t merely organization, but pace: “trying to think about how we can order … the story such that the reader never feels like, ‘I have everything I came for — why are there still 10,000 words left?’ Figuring out that structure where things didn’t really feel front-loaded was maybe the most important decision we had to make.”

And later, Katia digs into how she kept it all straight — the transcripts, the photos, her notes, everything — to tackle this ambitious, riveting account of a series of bizarre home invasions, and the Harvard-trained lawyer convicted of committing them.

“A Crime Beyond Belief” was more than four years in the making, so please enjoy this excerpt from Episode 313 of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and concision.

Brendan O’Meara: What really struck you about Katia’s story when it came across your desk? 

Seyward Darby: The story’s about a kidnapping that police in Vallejo, California, initially said was a hoax. It was sensational at the time: It was in the national news, wound up on Dateline and Nancy Grace, all that kind of stuff. And so we’re not the first to tell the story.

But what Katia has done here is gone deep into what happened, who was involved, and how so many things went wrong — but then, ultimately, were also made right. We wanted to take the readers on a revelatory journey, to go along with some of the characters as they encountered information and had to decide what was true and what wasn’t. So there’s a little bit of puzzle-piecing that the piece itself shows happening.

It’s a really complicated, twisty piece, and definitely one where structure was not a given. When she turned in the first draft, I spent a lot of time kind of staring at it and writing notes on Post-its and trying to think about how we can order them in the story such that the reader never feels like, “I have everything I came for — why are there still 10,000 words left?” Figuring out that structure where things didn’t really feel front-loaded was maybe the most important decision we had to make. Trying to figure out, you know, how to not just organize things, but pace things. Pace was just really, really crucial here.

Anytime that a reporter is brought into a story as a character, I always love reading that dynamic, and how a reporter is writing about a reporter in a story like this.

Henry Lee, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter, is such an interesting subject. A lot of the events in the story, for the most part, went down in 2015. And he says, you know, we were kind of just at the beginning of a reckoning about law enforcement, and how to approach them as reporters. The other thing that’s really important to remember here is: How often do you hear cops publicly say something like “we think this kidnapping was a hoax”? Lee points out that that’s just an insane thing to claim and have it not be true.

That’s definitely a tension in the piece — once you know everything, you’re like how could they ever say that it was a hoax? But if you’re on the receiving end of that information? I don’t know if we would call it a biased assumption or a human assumption, but you think, well, that has to be true. Like, why else would they claim something so outlandish? That’s obviously a flaw, but it’s an interesting one, because I do think that there are moments in the story where you know, as journalists, you can take a step back and say, Well, yeah, I guess I get why that might happen.

Several years ago, I pitched a story to you for The Atavist, and I remember you coming at me like, “this feels like there should be a Big Fish element to it.” You brought that movie sensibility to it, which I thought was really intriguing. I bring that up only to say that in this piece, there was this Gone Girl element that was dropped into this piece — and it made me wonder if you’d put that on Katia’s radar. Maybe you could speak to how sometimes you use those movies as a way to crack the code of a piece that’s coming across your desk.

That’s a great question. In this case, I didn’t have to bring up Gone Girl because the police were the ones who brought up Gone Girl. They were the ones who were telling this woman’s family, before she had been returned by the kidnapper, “we think this is being faked. You should go watch Gone Girl” — which had just come out a couple of months prior, the David Fincher adaptation of the Gillian Flynn book. Nancy Grace called her the real-life Gone Girl or something along those lines. In that case, the cinematic story was almost part of the problem, right? People looked at the situation and for whatever reason, decided, “okay, we actually think the thing that’s happening in real life sounds a whole lot like this thing in a book. And so we’re gonna start calling it that.” And that obviously did a tremendous disservice to the couple at the heart of this entire story.

But you’re absolutely right: Oftentimes I’m thinking through stories and thinking, “how can we make this more cinematic?” As you were asking the question, I was like, “What movie would I compare the story to as Katia put it together?” I’m gonna have to think about that for a second. Maybe by the end of us talking, I’ll have a good comparison.

I know it doesn’t run backwards, but in a sense, because it’s a slow exposure, like a Polaroid coming into focus, it kind of makes me think of Memento

I think describing it as like a Polaroid coming into focus is absolutely right. That’s definitely the vibe we were going for in working on the story from a structural standpoint: building tension, doing some jump cuts. We wanted it to feel like the reader would start to see things clearly at the same time some of the subjects in the story are starting to see things clearly. And then some of them never did — Matthew Muller, who is now convicted of this crime, doesn’t necessarily see it yet. Maybe he never will, because of the mental illness that he’s afflicted with. But then there are some other really interesting questions that she gets into at the end about how there are other people affected by the events who still have questions about what did or didn’t happen. Even when things might seem settled to some parties involved in a situation, to others reality can still feel somewhat out of reach. I don’t know if the Polaroid is quite in focus for everyone involved.

Something I’ve noticed over the course of several Atavist stories is that the first two-thirds or three-quarters is often, if not exclusively, third-person — and then in that final chapter or the final quarter or maybe even just an epilogue, we see the reporter come in. What is it about that particular structuring that appeals to you?

I’d never thought of it as a pattern, but I guess it is to a certain extent, and on maybe a certain type of story. When you’re talking about the types of stories we do that introduce a lot of these gigantic questions, and when you get to the end there’s a bit of a what does it all mean? — and I think sometimes the reporter can be a helpful prism for starting to tie some of those things together. I’d like to think that by the time you get to the last passage of a piece, our writers have really earned the trust of readers. So when they do become the prism for thinking about the story in its totality, the reader almost feels like, “Oh, good, okay, now they’re here.”

It definitely doesn’t work in every story. And I wouldn’t ever want to put it in every story. But I do feel like there are stories where I want to know what the reporter thinks. I want to see the reporter, in this case, talk to Mathew Muller over the course of four years. I don’t think it’s a conscious decision where we sit down and say, “Is this the kind of piece where at the end we’re gonna go in the first person?” And certainly there are stories where there’s some first person throughout and there are other stories where some first person comes in, you know, much earlier. But some of these pieces that feel like they have lingering loose threads, sometimes having the writer there to navigate that can be a good way to wrap things up.

I liken it to a whodunit: And at the very end, Hercule Poirot is going to come in, he’s going to sum everything up, he’s going to answer some questions. It’s relieving some of the pressure, it’s bringing some new light, it almost grounds it. Like, I feel like my feet are back on the ground when the reporter comes in to show the work and show some interaction and raise some questions that sometimes we don’t even know the answers to.

Obviously, there are still people who say don’t bring yourself as a journalist into magazine reporting unless it’s a first-person story of some kind. I just feel like when you’re talking about these really rangy pieces, you want it to feel grounded in the end.

It’s something that you get more of in podcasting, because obviously you’re hearing the host, you much more feel like you’re in some kind of relationship. You’re letting them into your head, and the reporter becomes a way for listeners to have access to certain questions, or certain issues or whatever it may be. And as far as I’m concerned, it can work in writing as well — at least it doesn’t just have to be audio-driven.

I hate the first-person stuff where it’ll start off like, “Matthew McConaughey was eating steak tartare, and I walked up to him.” But we don’t have to worry about that with the Atavist stuff because you guys handle it so well.

Although now I feel like I’m just gonna do that at some point just to make you angry.


So I’m working on an essay about the pros and cons of voice recorders and tape recorders. John McPhee never uses them at all; he thinks that even though they capture everything, they’re not selective. And he trusts that when he’s taking notes, he’s getting the best stuff. But at the same time, sometimes your penmanship can fail you. And by not capturing everything, you’re not getting the exact thing down. It’s a conundrum. But I’m very romantically tied to the idea of like, just pencil and notebook. How do you feel about it?

Katia Savchuk: Yeah, I don’t think I could operate like that because I’d be too focused on, “what am I missing? Get that down. Remember that!” I’d like to know that there’s a machine going in the background. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going to be important until later. Also, when you interview other people, you learn other things and you connect dots that you wouldn’t have otherwise. So I always record and take notes. I’m taking notes on the ambient details: what someone’s expression looks like, what’s on the wall, those kinds of things. I trust the machine to be getting down the exact quotes.

A long time ago, I was using a recorder and talking to a horse trainer. In the background, you could hear blue jays chirping — and that ended up being a little detail I was able to fold in to the particular chapter I was writing. It just added that extra layer of flavor that I wouldn’t have been able to get if I was just scribbling like crazy trying to keep up with what he was saying.

I mean, there’s obviously so much to be said for interviewing in person. The trust that’s built, the things you notice. But there’s also something I enjoy about doing interviews over the phone, because I usually try to type in real time. First of all, it kind of saves you time. I have an in-ear Olympus ear bud recorder, and I’m also typing at the same time in this tool called Pear Note. Then once I’m done recording, I can import the audio, and I link them. So then you can press play in Pear Note and you hear that part of the tape. So that really helped with fact-checking the story.

I know Top Chef has been on for like 19 seasons, but my wife and I just discovered it. On the latest episode, one of the judges said, “your plate has to have like authorship” — and another said, “you have to edit your plate.” And I was like, oh, cooking and writing are coming together: You have to have that voice, and how you have to think about what to leave in and what to leave out. Maybe it’s not cooking, but are there any other artistic media that really help you become a better writer?

I do love dancing — as a hobby, and not in any way professionally. But it’s something I’ve been doing for a long time, just for fun. And there are lots of elements, especially for people who take it seriously; it’s practicing, it’s getting better over time. Like the Ira Glass quote: If you have good taste, you won’t be meeting your own standards early on. You really just have to plow through that and get a little bit closer and a little bit closer.

But what I’ve been thinking about lately is the sense of play that I get from dancing. Like, I approach it from a total place of this is just for fun, to unwind. I don’t have anything wrapped up in it around “I want to be the best, I want this dance to be perfect.” There’s nothing like that. So I’ve been trying to see ways that I can bring some more of that sense of play into work. A lot of the work is really serious and important, and depending on the story, you’re writing about real people and their lives. But whether it’s at the sentence level, or free writing, or feeling a sense of play when you’re coming up with ideas, that’s something I’m working on.

When we were kids, even in middle or high school, when you were told to write a story you just wanted to have fun with it and write the thing, and you didn’t care if it sucked or won an award, or all these things that we attach our prestige and status to, and you just did it because it was a fun creative outlet. We often get so earnest with our writing and our work. We just attach too much doom and gloom to it — you know, the tortured writer — so it’s great to hear you talk about play. I love that.

And I was one of those people who started on the middle school newspaper and all through high school. So I definitely try to tap in as much as I can to that spirit.

On your website, you write that you’re a “proud generalist,” “often drawn to stories about inequality, psychology, wrongdoing, and mysteries of all kinds.” How did you arrive at that in your journalism?

I added that line not too long ago, actually. I hear so much about “you need a niche.” And it certainly can be helpful, but it’s just something that doesn’t work for me. One thing I love about being a journalist, and especially a freelancer, is getting to follow your curiosity and learn about so many different things. I used to work at Forbes magazine, for the wealth team. There’s a lot that falls under that, as it’s probably the broadest team, but as you move up, it tends to get more and more specialized, and that just wasn’t what I wanted to do. But I did sort of try to think about, what are the themes in my work? What am I generally drawn to? I love investigative stories and have a bit of background in investigative reporting, and always drawn to public interest issues. But I also have this love of mystery.

You worked as a private investigator too. In what way has that helped you as a reporter?

It was probably a lot less exciting than it sounds. I wasn’t tailing people on the street, looking for cheating husbands or anything. It was a private investigative firm, and a lot of what they did was background checks and investigations that are part of lawsuits. They did do exciting work, but a lot of it had to do with databases and knowing how to use those to find information.

I loved working there. It was some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with, and I loved doing investigative work. It was just that the end product would be this memo that would go to whoever commissioned it at the law firm, or the partners at some hedge fund or something, and then it’d be like this great story [that] nobody would really see. So I just really wanted someone to read it, and that creative aspect was equally important to me. I do wish I still had all those databases, but they’re expensive. And you know, you have to be licensed.

In the Venn diagram of all those things that you’re interested in, this Atavist piece kind of encapsulates a whole lot: wrongdoing, psychology, inequality, mystery, it’s right there. How did you arrive at this story? It was pretty mainstream at the time, but then stuck with it and told something that is wholly and uniquely you.

I found out about it in the news, like everybody else. It was in the news in 2015, obviously, because the police initially called the main crime I write about a hoax. The word that everybody uses is “bizarre,” which it certainly was, so it caught my eye, but I was working at Forbes at the time, and it wasn’t something that would fall into their coverage area. Not too long after I went freelance in 2017, the victims sued the city of Vallejo, California, and ended up winning a settlement, and so it was back in the headlines. I was like, “oh, yeah, that story is just fascinating — somebody must have already written the magazine version of it.” And I looked, and they hadn’t. I thought somebody must be currently writing a magazine version of it, but why don’t I just give it a shot? So I reached out to a lot of the people involved, and then went from there.

It’s funny hearing you say that because sometimes I come up with ideas and think, “This is great — but if I came up with it, someone else must have by now and it’s not even worth pursuing.”

And so much of the time, it turns out to be true. There are things that are in the zeitgeist, and people who are magazine writers see all the elements. But sometimes it’s the ones that are in plain sight [that work out]. I’m sure a lot of people did reach out to them, but they probably couldn’t get access right away. Nobody wanted to talk in the early days. A few years after the main events, since the initial media circus, they were maybe a little bit more receptive.

Access is such a tricky thing, of course, to tell these kinds of stories, and in getting that kind of trust. And sometimes just getting that first cold email, the first cold call, to land — because that’s the one that can start the momentum. What becomes that first lead domino, as you’re trying to build sources for a story this ambitious?

The first thing I did was to reach out to the victims in the main case that I’m writing about, Denise Huskins and Aaron Quinn. This story is in the Bay Area, which is where I live, so I figured out that a friend of mine who is a criminal defense attorney has come across their criminal defense attorney, so maybe we can talk about why they had one — which is obviously because they weren’t initially believed.

So I wrote to her and she was willing to pass on my email to their attorney, who was willing to pass on my email to them. So we ended up corresponding a little bit and then meeting in person just to kind of feel each other out. Sometimes I like to say, “let’s meet with no commitments,” so they don’t feel like they’re signing on to anything. But this was obviously a very traumatic and personal story for them. And a lot of people had reached out to them. So they wanted to see, you know, do they feel comfortable and trust me, and so I drove to where they live. And we had a great conversation. But then the next day, they said, actually, we’re signing a book deal with an NDA, so we won’t be talking to you. The book ended up coming out, which was essentially an extended interview, it was really their story in their voice. And then later, I ended up interviewing them as well. They also gave extended testimony in court about what happened to them.

In terms of the man who was convicted of the crime, there was one family friend who was quoted in all the news stories, and I found him on Facebook, I think, and I reached out to him because he was kind of acting as a spokesperson for the family. I just said something along the lines of, “a lot of people are probably reaching out to you,” and I gave my impression of what the coverage had been so far. And in this case, it really did seem one-dimensional in terms of the man involved, who is the ex-Marine, Harvard-trained lawyer who did pro bono work for most of his life, and then ended up being convicted of these pretty bizarre crimes. Some of the news articles had mentioned almost in passing that he has bipolar disorder, he struggles with mental illness, but it was just kind of a throwaway thing, and it didn’t really come up in his court case, either. And it’s a federal court case. That’s not to excuse anything that he did, but everyone is  three-dimensional; how does somebody go from A to B? What role did mental illness play? How was that for his family to watch and be part of? So I reached out to them and told them that my intention was really to go deeper than any of the headlines had done — not to do anything sensational, but really try to understand his life as a whole, and write a more nuanced, thorough piece, and that I was willing to put in the time to do it and find a publication that would edit it with that perspective as well.

How did you develop that degree of empathy to bring that to your reporting, so you can get to that nuance and beyond the headlines?

I don’t know if you develop empathy. I mean, I think to be a magazine writer, you have to have empathy. You spend a lot of time trying to get inside a person’s mind in a way. If it’s a case of wrongdoing, then you have empathy for the people that are the victims of whatever it is. But usually, there’s no 100% clear victims and villains. In this case — and again, not to excuse what he did — but Mathew Muller himself said, “if I’m dangerous, I should be behind bars.” But in many ways, he was also a victim of psychosis, and certain systems that told him that it wasn’t okay to reveal that. Like the military, like the legal profession, or a father who was kind of a coach-type figure with a tough-it-out mentality. These were all reasons he didn’t want to speak out when he started running into troubles with delusion.

That’s why I love magazine writing: It lets you give all the context, and the nuance that really is there, whenever humans are involved.

Do you find a way to integrate some sort of a pressure valve into your reporting, given how deep you can go with people talking about sometimes very disturbing, dramatic things? So you don’t take on too much of what you’re reporting on?

I think there are so many other people out there doing work that is so much more dramatic; the people on the frontline in Ukraine right now, certainly. In this particular case, a lot of the interviews were pretty spread out. Some of the interviews were pretty intensive, like five hours long at a time, but they were spread out over time. And with Matt Muller, we did a lot of our interviews over video conference in the jail; they don’t allow in-person visitors in the jail even for family, which is kind of crazy that somebody wouldn’t see another living person. But they were limited to half an hour at a time in those in those interviews. So it was pretty broken up.

I don’t think I have any revolutionary coping mechanisms. Dance helps, taking a walk. I have an accountability buddy, Jaeah Lee, another freelancer here in the Bay Area who is an amazing reporter and writer, and we check in weekly, and we’ve done that pretty much for the last four years. I think that really helps; it’s like having a colleague, a sort of home base that you can run things by — wins, challenges, just bounce anything off of.

The story is practically 20,000 words. As a writer, it’s a lot to get your head around. How did you go about organizing your reporting material so that you had access to the things that you wanted to draw from?

I definitely don’t think I could write a long piece without Scrivener at this point. What I usually do, and did in this case, is just tried to put everything in there. I tried to map out what the sections were going to be, and I created a folder there for each section, and tried to put everything I had in that folder: photos, interview transcripts, court records. In Scrivener, you can do a split screen. So I would then have that folder open and whatever document I was looking at, in the bottom, and I would have the writing window at the top. That’s usually how I organize things.

I’m naturally a disorganized person. And I like to think I’m not alone in that. I’ve got things for a big project, and I’ve got it by year in folders. So at least it’s organized like that. But I’m sure that within that year, it’s going to have to be further subdivided. So I’m always curious how people do that, because it can get unwieldy and out of hand — and then, like, this Google Drive has some things saved here, but then this one over here has some other things.

I mean, it’s still a perennial challenge. I think to an extent I was organized, but at the same time, I always think that I’m gonna write down, as I’m writing, which page of which court record I got this fact — so that when fact-checking comes along I just know exactly where it is. But I just have still never managed to do that, you know, because when you’re writing, you don’t want to note down the exact page number always.

“Oh, I’ll remember to do it. I’ll make a little note.” And then you never do.

Yeah. But I will say another thing that was really helpful, especially in this story, was having a timeline in a spreadsheet format. You have the years and the months, and then I had different columns for the different characters or threads that I was following. So there’s one for Matt Muller’s world, the world of Denise and Aaron, or the world of the crime and the investigation, and putting the key events there really helps. Sometimes you draw connections that way — “oh, this actually just happened the same month as this happened” — so it helps with structuring things and seeing the patterns that might not be apparent.

Speaking of structure, given how big the piece is, it’s always a challenge to have the requisite tension to keep people reading. What was the challenge in getting your head around the structure and making sure that requisite tension and pacing was there and satisfying?

I give a lot of credit to Seyward for that and working on the structure with me. Initially, it seemed like the structure I started with was going to work: It seemed to make sense to start with the main crime, which is this bizarre kidnapping that happened on Mare Island in Vallejo in 2015. There were wetsuits, lasers, pre-recorded messages, NyQuil, blood pressure cuffs — I mean, there’s a lot of bizarre details, which you could read about in the story, but it just seemed to make sense to start there, because it’s so gripping. But once you looked at the story as a whole, starting there ended up taking some of the air out of it. If you build to that crime, you know in advance what’s going to happen, you know that Matt’s responsible, and this was never going to be a whodunit. A lot of the story is also about Matt: How did he go from this sort of model citizen, for lack of a better word, to this convicted criminal, and why did he do what he did?

So what we ended up doing was starting with this raid on a cabin in South Lake Tahoe, where he’s arrested. And we describe a crime there — but it’s actually not that crime. It’s a different crime. We see the cabin and we see all these bizarre things in the cabin. It’s super-cluttered like a hoarder’s home: hair dye, and stun gun, and a bunch of gloves and electronics, spray paints, youcrime scene tape, a penis pump. You’re like, what happened here? And that drives the mystery a little bit.

We learn that he’s arrested. And then we’re like, Well, who is this guy? And how did he get there? But also near the end of the first section, a detective discovers this long, blonde hair. And none of the victims in the crime that we just learned about was blonde, and the suspect isn’t blonde. So then, we hope that what drives a good portion of this story is: Whose hair is that? And then the tension that drives another good portion of the story is: Was this crime a hoax or not?

What were some challenges that you experienced as you were synthesizing the piece?

There were quite a few challenges along the way. One of them was Matt’s mental state. As I mentioned, delusion played a big part in his life, and in the course of interviewing him — when we first got in touch in 2018, he was in a federal prison, and then he got moved to a jail here in Solano County — his mental health kind of fluctuated. So trying to figure out, is he or is he not in a state of mind where I can trust what he’s saying? Does he trust me? He kept pulling out because paranoia got the better of him. He told me just last month, which I didn’t know before, that he thought I was a CIA agent.

Then at one point, he ended up being deemed incompetent to stand trial, and the judge ordered that he should get anti-psychotic medication against his will. But he was in a psychiatric hospital, and it wasn’t clear when or if he would be restored to legal competency, and I really wasn’t sure how we were going to fact-check with him. If he’s deemed incompetent to stand trial, it really doesn’t feel ethical to reach out to him, because he might say something that he wouldn’t say if he was mentally stable, and it might be incriminating. So if he’s not legally competent, it doesn’t feel like he would be competent to you know participate in an interview. He did end up being restored to legal competency, and we did fact-check with him. But that was a situation I had never encountered before.

The piece is intense.

Yeah. There are a lot of twists there. If you were writing it as a novel, you’d be like, “well, that’s a that’s a little bit too convenient.” For example, the lead investigator having had a relationship with the intended target of the kidnapping, who is also the ex-fiancée of the victim. I mean, it’s very odd.

If you were writing a novel, you’d be like, “this is lazy.”

There’s just a lot of things that feel like a movie, which is the theme that kept coming up over and over and over in the story: people thinking that life is like the movies, and then realizing that it’s not.

At the end of these conversations I typically like to ask guests for a recommendation of some kind — that can be anything from something professional to a comfy pair of socks you’re really excited about. Fanny packs. Who knows? So what would you recommend for the listeners out there?

I would recommend a practice that I started doing this year that I always meant to do, but never did before, which is to copy the work of your idols. It’s something you always hear about, like Joan Didion did that, artists in training go to the museum and copy the works of the greats. So it’s something that I always thought was intriguing. But I actually tried it this year. And I started with David Grann’s work, who is one of my heroes.

He has written a lot of things in the true crime genre, so I thought it was a good one. I ended up copying his stories, just retyping them for 10 minutes before I started writing for the day. And I found it to be an amazing practice. I mean, first of all, it like gets your hands just flowing, like the words flowing, instead of just sitting down with your own text, like a blank page. It’s almost like running a few laps to give your fingers something to do. Also, I feel like you pick up things that you don’t from reading alone — the sort of decisions on a sentence level that a writer makes. I found it to be really inspiring and educational, and also kind of fun.

Read “The Caregivers” at The Atavist now

Balancing Story and Sentiment: A Chat With the Writer and Editor Behind The Atavist‘s New Issue

Photograph: Jarod Lew for The Atavist

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 309, in which he interviewed Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby and writer Kelly Loudenberg about their work on the latest issue of The Atavist.

Why do we become writers? What is the impulse?

For many, it’s being drawn to writers whose prose is pyrotechnic. The aspiring writer thinks, “Man, I want to try and do that.” We know how this story ends, though: It never ends up like that. So then what?

Being a stylist isn’t the only thing that makes a writer great, or even good. Sometimes a piece calls for holding back — which is what Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby sought from the documentary filmmaker and journalist Kelly Loudenberg for her piece “The Caregivers.”

Kelly’s piece chronicles the story of Danny Valentine, a brilliant artist whose path crossed with Janie and Buzz, a Michigan couple who worked with incarcerated artists. Once Danny was released from prison, and Buzz’s health was in decline, Janie called on Danny for some much-needed help. Emotion is everywhere in this story, and Darby and I discussed how that can sometimes spill into sentimentality. “This is a piece where restraint is everything,” she says. “Figuring out with Kelly how tightly to hold the reins and when to slacken it a little bit.”

Kelly, who created Netflix true-crime series Exhibit A and The Confession Tapes, applied her documentary film background to this, her first foray into longform written journalism. As she was sitting down to write, she says, her old storytelling instincts kicked in: “Do I want to storyboard this? Do I want to outline? How am I going to get all this information down?” As she found out, though, sometimes the best practice is to surrender to the story.

Lots of stuff to unpack. Please enjoy this excerpt from Episode 309 of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast.

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

Brendan O’Meara: Every piece that comes to your desk, or [contributing editor] Jonah [Ogles’] desk up there, there’s often an inherent puzzle. As the editor of Kelly’s piece, what was the puzzle for you to figure out?

Seyward Darby: This definitely hits some different, softer notes, I think, than some of the stuff we’ve been publishing recently. It’s a romance, but it’s also about friendship, and it’s also about justice. There’s a lot of beauty in it. There are no cliffhangers, per se, but there are surprises. So it turns into figuring out where to locate those — but then also to keep the line between good storytelling and getting a little too saccharin.

As a writer, Kelly was already very much in this mindset, but still, as you’re editing, it’s making sure you’re letting people’s actions and decisions speak for themselves, as opposed to commenting on them. That’s where you can get into the danger zone of over-sentimentalizing things. Figuring out how to strike the right balance between tugging at people’s heartstrings and yanking at them.

Writing the thing in such a way where you don’t comment on it is such a hard place to write from, because you have to show so much restraint — this is especially true with memoir, because sometimes you want to defend or justify a decision or at least acknowledge that, for example, something was kind of unsavory. But you’ve got to find a way to let the scene speak for itself, or to be the bad guy, or let someone else be the bad guy. It’s a really hard thing to navigate as a writer.

It is, and this is a piece where restraint is everything. So [it involved] figuring out with Kelly how tightly to hold the reins, when to slacken a little bit. But really, trying to keep things in check so the story is speaking for itself, and we’re not getting lost in purple language or unnecessary sentimentality. She did a really nice job with that. It’s also on the shorter side for us — 8600 words. And I think that’s because of the intimacy of the story and also because of the restraint that was really a priority in the writing and editing process.

Kelly comes from a documentary film background. And at least from the conversation I had with her, I gleaned that this was her first real foray into longform written journalism. When you’re approached by a writer who doesn’t necessarily have the body of work in this vein, how do you make sure that they can pull off the piece they pitched if they don’t have that body of work?

I remember getting this pitch very clearly because these three characters — Janie, Buzz, and Danny — jumped off the page immediately. And I found their story to be an interesting confluence of a couple of stories we’ve heard before. One is stories about people who support [those] in the U.S. carceral system, and [the other is] stories about the people who become surprising caregivers for the aging in America. I don’t mean that to say that either of these was overdone or trite; the point was that this story had various components of these little genres of other popular stories, and I was immediately excited by the way that I saw those layers in her pitch.

As a filmmaker, Kelly saw the story. No question. For me, it was a matter of talking to her and getting a sense of how close she could get to these folks, and it was pretty abundantly clear that she really had their trust and support. In the editing process, when the first draft had a bit too much restraint, we said “okay, let’s give it a little bit more love,” like, let’s put a little bit more flesh on the bones here. And she was really excited by that. She said something then — I’m trying to remember exactly — something along the lines of “editing is better than taking a writing class.” I love being edited for that reason, too; I feel like I’m learning in process, as opposed to a more sort of instructional format.

Kelly was definitely game to try something she’d never tried before. But she also just instinctively got what the story was supposed to be from the get-go. And to me, that’s always the most important thing. It’s not “can you write the best sentences? Are your powers of description off the charts?” It’s “do you feel the story?” And it was just so clear that Kelly did. It was one of those pitches I got and immediately replied to because I was just really interested. And I think it was because even in her pitch she was already conveying that she understood the power of the story.

Sometimes for writers, we may be very seduced by stylists, whether they be David Foster Wallace, or Didion, or John Jeremiah Sullivan, you know, these people that really just kind of leap off the page. And I think a lot of us get into writing because we’re excited by that. And we want to find some sort of way to contribute to that. It’s such a delicate balance to really surrender to the story, but also to inject some style into it without going over the top.

To be clear, I love a great prose stylist. But when in doubt, let the story do the work. That isn’t to say that the writer is not doing the work because the writer had to get the story. The writer had to understand the story. The writer had to put all of those bones together.

I think there’s sometimes a misapprehension that the more words you put on the page, the more description you’re able to include about a particular scene or something, [the better]. People think that good writing is ultimately all about style, right? But I always tell people, focus on the story and be more restrained. Because if you have a good story, and you’re able to tell it in such a way that a reader really wants to keep turning the page or scrolling down, then you’re succeeding as a writer, even if there’s not some flair or panache to every sentence.

What comes to mind when hearing you talk about this is that being the writer is effectively the drummer. There are tendencies where a band could be overstylized: too many fills, too much tempo. It feels like the good writer who knows the story is just putting the right accent in the right place and keeping you moving along. And then when there’s really a good opportunity, they can be there to hit the cymbal, maybe do a little bit of a flourish, but it’s all in service of accenting the other elements of the band.

I’m one of the bajillion people who loved Get Back, the Beatles documentary. And one of the things I was so struck by in watching it was that nobody ever had notes for Ringo. Like, they were all arguing about this or that, and Ringo was just there doing his job keeping the beat in an absolutely crucial way. I know people say Ringo is the best Beatle, and after seeing that documentary, it’s really hard to argue with that — not only because he is a great drummer, but because he’s hilarious and gives no shits about a lot of the drama. I understand exactly what you’re saying. Which isn’t to say that the drummer can’t have a fantastic solo, but it’s really about “are we keeping the song on track?” It’s the backbone, it’s the anchor.


Given that you have a lot of experience in filmmaking, in what way does filmmaking help your writing?

Kelly Loudenberg: Well, this is my first longform piece. I mean, I’ve written smaller things. But this was kind of more like making a documentary. I actually enjoyed the process a little bit more, because it was more intimate; I like collaboration, but sometimes, like when you’re working on a story, it’s kind of nice to be just you and the people who you’re writing about.

I was talking not just to Janie and Danny, but also all the people in their orbit: Janie’s former students, Buzz’s former students, Buzz’s work colleagues, old friends from before he knew Janie, Janie’s friends. I kind of made friends with one of Janie’s friends who’s in the piece, and who lives in LA now, which is really nice. But it’s kind of just getting to know their whole world and talking to everybody around it, and not just directly to both of them.

For both of my documentary shows, I would talk to a lot of people who I never even planned on interviewing, but who gave me the right kind of context and helped me embed myself in their story. So I think it was really similar to that. And then the process of writing is like the process of thinking about the structure of a documentary — how am I going to unfold this story? With documentary, you’re more limited, because you have to tell it with interviews and footage and archival. If you don’t have those things, you can’t really do it. But with writing, if you have the scenes and they exist, you can write them. So it was really more creative in that way.

Making a film, you’ve got a crew, you’ve got microphones, and then here reporting is just you and your recorder and your notebook. Did it feel more streamlined? Liberating?

It felt simpler. I’m not saying it was easier, just that I felt like I could focus more. I could create things in my head, too, and it just didn’t have to be the distraction of all the crew and all the money. You know, when you’re doing shows, there’s just a lot of money weighing on each time you go out with a crew. This kind of reporting, you don’t have to put so much pressure on every interaction, you don’t have to get something out of every conversation, you can just kind of flow through it a bit easier.

You alluded to structure earlier — can you talk about the structure of this piece in particular, but also maybe give us an insight into how the structure of a documentary is similar or different than a longform written piece?

You can open a documentary the same way I open that story. Structure is one of my favorite parts, just figuring out [that] it’s not just beginning, middle, and end. It’s not like I need to go through a chronology. How am I going to create something interesting that somebody wants to read? And it’s the same thing with a documentary. Within a documentary setting, the editor is also writing it with you, and they’re helping you think through what the structure should be. And you’re kind of talking back and forth about it. And it’s really a huge part of the shape and the form that it takes. But I think with documentary, you are limited to having the right assets visually. And if you don’t have them visually, you can’t do it.

The opening element of this piece is a really nice scene. I wrote in my notes “ask Kelly how she goes about reconstructing something like this.” So maybe you can unpack the opening vignette of this piece that introduced Daniel, and how you went about reporting that.

The scene in my head was of Danny getting this call from Janie on Christmas Eve that she needed some help — she was emotionally exhausted and needed a backup. And he left the next day. Packed up his car and came down from the Upper Peninsula.

I just imagined Danny on his drive, smoking a joint, driving through this wicked snowstorm and getting into Ann Arbor to this beautiful neighborhood and this beautiful house, and what that scene must have been like. I mean, it was also probably very stressful for people involved — it wasn’t a perfectly normal Christmas. But you also have to stick to the facts. You can make the scene cinematic, but it also has to be completely true. I’m glad that we were able to bring it out.

I think sometimes in documentaries, there is a tendency to get further from the truth. That’s what’s happening now. That’s not how we made our shows, and we were very committed to representing what actually happened. But things are getting more blurry in the genre, and it’s not something I totally like.

Is it getting overstylized? Dramatized?

Very much. I think some things don’t need to be documentaries; some things are better as a written piece, or a podcast, or a fictional take on that story. [When you force it into a documentary,] sometimes it just stretches a little bit. There’s not such a strenuous fact-checking process. They don’t have an outsider coming in and checking these things, so it’s up to the filmmaking team.

Your piece isn’t all cinematic scenes; there are more expositional informational sections as well. How did you go about balancing the more kinetic scenework versus information the reader needs to be fully immersed with these primary characters?

It was a lot longer at one point, and then Seyward really helped cut it back by working to find that balance of details versus scenework. What I began with was something like, Okay, I’m going to take as many pieces of this and make them into scenes, and not get too bogged down in mundane details. That’s just how I started thinking about it, and then the editor helped me expand on that and make that even stronger.

A lot of writers have their own idiosyncrasies to get into the flow of things. Like, Susan Orlean is all about the lede —  she’s said she can’t proceed until the lede is in place. And some people may put that off until later and work on something else. What are the things that you like to have in place when you’re generating the thing?

I think it was a little bit scattered for me, and I’d be more organized next time about how I’m looking through the information before I start writing. At first I was like, “This is my first time doing something so long — maybe I should just outline it.” That’s what I would do for a documentary: I would outline it in a very detailed way, even put it up on the wall, like some people storyboard a film. So I thought about “okay, do I want to storyboard this? How am I going to get all this information down?” But what I actually did was I just started writing it. And I just kept going through all the interviews and transcripts, and talking to Danny and Janie along the way.

So it wasn’t like I went out and did all the interviews, and then came to my desk and started writing. I was actively interviewing them the whole time, realizing that I needed more here or there, and they were just so wonderful about answering all these questions, and also their memories are very detailed. And so they helped, where I needed to fill in all of these pieces that I didn’t have. So for this time, at least, it was very piecemeal, just working through it until I got through to the end.

Because you were kind of writing it as you went along, did you find that you were spackling in holes with interviews here and there? Did you ever run into an instance where you felt like you might have been painting yourself into a structural corner that might have been hard to get out of?

I knew the general arc of the story, so I didn’t worry that the structure wouldn’t work. But it’s hard when you don’t have a ton of distance to know, “Is this interesting? Does this build, does this work?” So I also had to ask Seyward if the basic structure was working, and thankfully, it was.

But there were times, too, that I was like “How much do I want to go into the prison art world culture” — because that’s a world unto itself that I got to know through Danny and other artists that I’ve interviewed and talked to who were still incarcerated, and a couple who are out. It was a whole other world that I just loved, and I think I did at one point go pretty far down that rabbit hole, but then we scaled it back. That’s probably a whole other piece right there, but not the same thing.

The story is so tender and delicate. With Buzz’s mind starting to deteriorate over the years, it can be really hard to tease out information and interview people about such delicate subject matter. So I wonder how you went about interviewing Janie and Danny about things that are so delicate, and doing it in a way that honored their story, but also getting the information you needed to tell the story you wanted to tell.

I just felt a deep connection with both of them. When I met Janie, I had had a baby born very early. She was born three months early, and was in the NICU for four-and-a-half months, and was very sick. And then when she came home, it was a process of caregiving that was beyond normal parenting. I think I was still very, very raw from that experience — almost still in shock. I can’t say how they were, but I did feel a deep empathy and connection to them through going through this myself, and I felt like talking to them helped me too in a lot of ways, like we were just having a conversation about these things that were really hard.

Read “The Caregivers” at The Atavist now

Talking Craft With the Writer and Editor Behind The Atavist‘s New Issue

Illustration of a man and boy in a rowboat, while a larger ship fires at them
Illustration by R. Fresson and courtesy of The Atavist Magazine

As host of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, Brendan O’Meara is no stranger to talking about the art and craft of storytelling. Moving forward we’ll be featuring craft-focused excerpts of some of his episodes — starting with last week’s Episode 304, in which he interviewed Atavist editor Jonah Ogles and writer Bill Donahue about their work on the latest issue of The Atavist.

One of the many great pleasures of interviewing badass people about the art and craft of telling true stories is the opportunity to hop in the gondola of someone’s brain. And sometimes, as in the latest episode of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, I get two rides for the price of one.

Bill Donahue is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Outside, Washington Post Magazine, and several other places. His February Atavist piece, “The Voyagers,” chronicles the harrowing journey of a Ukrainian father and son, Valeri and Oleg Minakov, defecting to Alaska in a homemade kayak in 1945. As Bill says, “It’s a voyage across the Bering Strait, but also a voyage across the landscape of the Cold War and what the Cold War did to these two people.”

In this conversation, Bill talks about navigating the tension of writing about someone honestly while also becoming friendly with them — something many longform journalists and profile writers can relate to. He also talks about making sure stories don’t get too bogged down with backstory and how, ultimately, we as people, “are made of stories, and each one of us has a story that wants to be told.”

In the first part of the episode, I spoke with Jonah Ogles, the lead editor of this piece, who discussed how an editor navigates how to get a piece to “that good place,” which is the goal for any writer/editor relationship. Writers and editors can each glean much insight from their counterparts in the editorial dynamic, and so I hope you enjoy reading these excerpts — and listening to the episode in full below.

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

CNF: When you were reading this piece, and editing it, what did it remind you of structurally and thematically — whether that be other magazine pieces or books or even movies?

Jonah Ogles: Nothing in pop culture immediately stands out to me. Bill is one of the all-time great profile writers. He’s just so good at it. I mean, the guy has made me cry before when reading pieces of his — not necessarily that I’ve worked on. And so as I was working on the piece, I was just trying to push it toward that good place that he can get to as a writer. It feels a little bit silly to even say that I’m trying to help him do that, because I think he basically just does that; he could probably be edited by, like, an AI computer: “That’s pretty good. Try to make it better this time.” And then in three drafts, he’d have something amazing.

But that’s what was in my mind: Okay, I’ve got this great writer, I’ve got this great story. What questions do I need to ask in order to get this to be the best piece it can be?

How long does it take you to feel out each writer and realize one might need more nudging, or another just needs a simple “keep going,” versus other ones who might need more hands-on/hands-off [approaches]? How long does it take you to gauge that with each writer?

It comes pretty quickly after the first revision. I can be a fairly clumsy editor, and a lot of times my first memo is just a throw-it-all-at-the-wall type of memo. You know, like, here’s virtually every thought I had while reading this piece. And sometimes that prompts a conversation. Sometimes the writer just says, “thanks.” When I get the next revision back, that’s when I know, okay, this writer is either able to take even slightly confusing comments that I’ve made and distill them and apply them to the work to make it better. Sometimes it reveals that something I had flagged as not working is still not working, but a bunch of other things are working or have improved. Then I think, okay, maybe this is just the section that’s going to give us a lot of trouble.

But then there are writers who seem to have missed it. That sounds dismissive or condescending, and I don’t mean it to. I think sometimes writers are just too close to a story, and even when you say, “Hey, here’s a bunch of thoughts that I had,” that doesn’t give them the distance they need to really engage with a piece. That’s when I sort of kick in and say, “Okay, maybe I’ll give them a structure,” or “maybe I’ll rewrite the 500 words that I think are most problematic,” or maybe I’ll just go to Seyward [Darby, editor-in-chief of The Atavist] and be like, “I don’t know how to help here, what tricks do you have?” And then we start trying other more pointed ways of editing to help provide that distance for them.

Maybe a writer keeps missing the mark. What do you do in the event where they’re saying, “No, you’re missing the mark”? You all want to get to the same spot, but maybe there’s some friction there that is hard to overcome.

I’ve had that happen a fair bit. If Bill had said, “hey, I don’t want to write anything about the Bering Strait, because I’m not interested in the adventure stuff,” maybe there would have been some conflict there. But more often, when a writer comes to me and says that they’re thinking about the piece in a different way than I am, it allows me to see the story in a different light. I’m just a reader. A story shows up, I start reading the first sentence with all my own preconceived notions, and every other piece of writing that I’ve ever read in my head, and my brain starts doing its own thing to each piece it reads. I hope that it’s fairly open-minded, but still, I would guess that very quickly, my brain starts, “okay, this is my adventure narrative. Let’s start shaping it into that.”

Leah Sottile also hosted and reported Bundyville, a podcast from Longreads in partnership with Oregon Public Broadcasting.

As an example, Leah Sottile wrote a piece for me, and I sent her some notes. And she came back to me and said, “That all makes sense, but here’s what I’m trying to do. And it seems like that’s not really coming across.” And that allowed us to really sit back and go, “oh, there’s this whole other thing we can try here.” I know writers worry about this a lot when they feel like an editor is not on the same page. But it’s almost like couples therapy: If you could sit down and talk about it nonjudgmentally, those conversations inevitably make a piece much, much better.

You mentioned earlier how great of a profile writer Bill is. Given your experience editing — and of course reading — what is it about a character-driven profile that really hums?

It’s a word I’m using a lot in this interview, but there’s an emotional resonance to my favorite profiles. This is why celebrity profiles so often fall flat; the subjects themselves are very guarded individuals and very practiced. And so I think for writers, what it takes is spending a lot of time with someone establishing a rapport and a connection, caring about their subject, and then being able to get that all onto the page in a way that allows readers to walk through that door and have an open connection that the writer has established with the subject.


CNF: You bring a wonderful storytelling touch to the nonfiction you do, especially with this piece that you did for The Atavist, which was a really gripping read. Often when I read things of this length, it takes me a few breaks, but I found myself reading this straight through beginning to end. It was a wonderful story. How did you arrive at the story of Valeri and Oleg?

Bill Donahue: I just happened to be reading a 1988 article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine called “Lifting The Ice Curtain,” and it made a one-paragraph mention to their expedition. And I was just like, “Oh, my God, this is an incredible story.”

Right away, I started doing the math. I’m like, okay, Oleg Minakov was six in 1945, how old would he be now? Maybe he’s still alive. I started Googling and found some guy with that name who in 1969 was living at this commune, and he was arrested on drug charges, and he lives in California. I made a bunch of calls, emails, whatever, to people who were related to him. And sure enough, his son got back to me and said, “Yeah, he’s still alive. And here’s a picture of the compass that they used to cross the Bering Strait.” He sent that to me as a text.

Wow. So you find that he’s alive; what is the process by which you go on the manhunt, if you will, to find him? And then once you do, how do you lobby the son, how do you ingratiate yourself into their trust?

Well, the search was fairly basic: just a lot of Googling and a little bit of fuzzy logic, but not too much. In this case, Oleg Minakov is a very uncommon name. It so happens that it’s also the name of some hockey player, but that guy was way, way younger. As far as getting access, winning people’s trust is definitely a part of journalism. In this case, these people were just overjoyed that I had come along; here’s a guy who his whole life had wanted the story to be told. So I was very sweetly ushered in in a way that I didn’t have to do a lot of conniving to get access.

The piece has a three-part structure. The first part, which has this really harrowing journey across the Bering Strait in a makeshift kayak, is incredible just to visualize, but that first part is his half of the entire [story], then there are two other parts afterwards. Maybe you can speak to the structure of the piece and how you weighted certain elements of the story.

I conceived of this all along as a voyage across the Bering Strait. But it’s also sort of a voyage across the landscape of the Cold War, and what the Cold War did to these two people. In that respect, the voyage is only the first part of it. And in fact, the first section doesn’t consist solely of the voyage. It consists of a lot of backstory, because they didn’t just casually dip their toes in the Bering Strait. I mean, they did that for a very explicit reason. Valeri Minakov was egregiously persecuted in the Soviet Union, going back to [the fact that] he was a native of Ukraine. Just as right now, Russia regarded that as their pawn specifically. Starting with Lenin, they tried to seize the grain from Ukraine and send it around throughout the Soviet Union. That came down very hard on Valeri’s parents because they were farmers, and were politically under siege for most of his life.

In your experience, how have you been able to navigate the amount of backstory that’s germane to the forward propulsion of the story and not weigh down too much, despite all the research and reporting you do?

Well, in my case, that usually comes down to me writing 10,000 words, and then the editor saying, “Well, this is kind of interesting, but let’s trim it back to like, 1,000.”

Oh, no! 

The ratio wasn’t that extreme in this case, but, you know, the impulse of writers is to go down the rabbit hole a little bit. There’s always a balance that you have to strike in telling a story. You can’t digress so deeply into the backstory that you lose sight of the front story. And that is where a deft editor comes in. And in this case, it was a matter more of restructuring things, putting things in a different order so that you wouldn’t feel drowned in the backstory.

How did you navigate reporting and interviewing about the relationship he had with his father?

The question of his father was just incredibly in the forefront of his mind, even though his father died in 1967. It was still an unresolved issue for him. He was staying at this hotel when I interviewed him. I interviewed him until late in the evening. And then I went to leave the room and he said, “Turn the TV on. If it’s not on, I think about my dad and why I never got him out of the mental institution.” So it was right there in the forefront, you know. I had supporting documents to sort of guide my questioning, but he was not reluctant to speak about it.

I understand it was a bit of a challenge to procure those documents to write.

The FBI extensively interviewed and tracked Valeri; I think it was about 400 pages of notes on the medicals, lodged at the National Archives. Especially with COVID, I got the runaround from them forever; you just felt like you’re communicating with a brick wall. Finally, they just said, “You can come and get these documents.” And then it was just smooth as silk from there. We also got Valeri’s psychiatric records. He was in a mental institution with paranoid schizophrenia from 1950 to 1967, and Oleg signed on; he was next of kin, and he was able to help me get access.

When you’re writing about someone like Oleg, people who let you into their lives, you’re essentially trusted to interview them with care and tell their story, and you come to care about these people. But you also, as a journalist, have to tell a fair and honest story. So I’m curious how you navigate that.

Well, yeah, that’s an interesting question. I mean, I found Oleg to be an infinitely, infinitely likable guy. People were quoted as saying he has no guile or malice for anybody. But he does have some dark stripes on his record. I mean, he went to prison for dealing acid in the ’90s, and that caused misery in the lives of the people around him — he had an 8-year-old son at the time. So I included that in the story.

He stole a car in the ’50s, when he was a teenager. I don’t think that’s a significant thing that he did, but I did try to present a comprehensive picture of him. That’s certainly an ethical challenge with journalism. But, you know, the things that Oleg did weren’t evil, they were stupid. There’s a big difference. So I didn’t see him as a morally complex character.

Read “The Voyagers” at The Atavist now