Evan Ratliff on Finding the Right Story
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. I’ve done some of my very best reading on trains. All kinds of trains. I love to read on the subway, if I get a seat, and on commuter trains, when I can read a chapter to and a chapter from work, something to look forward to at the beginning and end of every day. But neither compares to the joy that comes from settling into a book on a long-distance train, when I know that I have tens of hours and hundreds of miles to lose myself in a book.
A favorite book and train combination was one I experienced when I was sixteen, and a friend and I managed to con our parents into 21 days of unlimited travel on Amtrak. We decided to read the same books and started with Jack Kerouac, even though we were on the rails and not on the road. But the book that really rocked our world was Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which we breathlessly swapped as we left New Orleans bound for Nevada. This was long before the slogan “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” was coined, though I have to say: I can’t for the life of me remember what happened in Vegas. But, as you might expect, that’s another story. And recently, I got to talking about another first experience with Hunter S. Thompson with today’s guest.
Evan Ratliff: I’m Evan Ratliff, the author of The Mastermind.
WS: Evan Ratliff is the cofounder of The Atavist Magazine, a digital longform journalism publication. He’s also a magazine writer himself, and has written for Wired, The New Yorker, National Geographic, and just published his first book, The Mastermind. Evan also cohosts the Longform podcast, so safe to say that he spends most of his time, writing, reading, and thinking about writing and reading. It’s a far cry from how he spent his time as a kid, when he was growing up in Atlanta, Georgia.
ER: I played every sport, football, baseball, basketball, soccer was my big thing. I played serious year round soccer for a long time. Both my parents are from Alabama and my dad’s family in particular is really from rural Alabama. So I grew up with like, I can say “redneck,” because I feel like I am still a redneck at heart. I loved bass fishing, I loved camping and being in the woods, and it was interesting because we lived a pretty urban suburban life. And my dad was a professor at a school in a city and so we were very much part of city life, but I really kind of grew up feeling that pull of that other side. We went camping, we went anywhere, we drove, even if it was like 15 hours. I still feel that sort of southern rural—there’s good and bad elements to that. I still certainly feel that even now, like living in New York City, I kind of would style myself or feel a little bit more like an outsider just because of what I grew up with.
WS: Although sports and outdoor pursuits were the dominant interest in Evan’s life, books had a place too.
ER: I wasn’t a big reader in that you would find me so far ahead of my age and just kind of finding my life in books. But when I was a little kid, I would love Hardy Boys and then, fantasy novels and sci fi. I loved that stuff. I would vacuum up the Dragonlance Chronicles, like I couldn’t wait to get the next one.
I’m sure it’s very goofball if I were to look at it now, but it’s just like that sort of potted mystery, it’s like watching an episode of Scooby-Doo or something. You know they’re going to solve it, but you’re kind of pulled along by the cardboard villains, and they’re never really in danger. It’s not like scary in any way. But there was something about that where you could just read 50 of them. You could just, put one down and pick up another one and be like, I want another one of these.
I feel like the stories that I’m really drawn to, that I feel like I must do the story, are the ones where there’s some tension and it’s usually a mystery that’s being solved or it might just be what happens to this person, but that you can kind of use those tools that you might find in a fictional setting to kind of keep people involved yourself.
WS: As Evan grew up, he didn’t find himself drawn immediately to writing. He studied political and environmental science in college, but also learned computer programming. He took a job working in software installation but found himself bristling at the corporate world.
ER: I started thinking—I had worked on the college newspaper—I was a photographer. And there had been a point where I said, I’m going to be a photographer. I’m going to go work for a newspaper. And I couldn’t get a job. I couldn’t get an internship. If you were to look at my portfolio now, you would laugh. Because I laugh. I really was not a good photographer. That’s the reason why I couldn’t get a job.I really owe any career that I have in writing or magazines or journalism to him picking up the phone and then saying, okay, fine, let’s get a drink.
WS: Evan gave up on becoming a photographer for a newspaper, but quickly came up with another idea: working at a magazine.
ER: It was really this abstract concept. Like I bet magazines are full of smart people who just talk about ideas all the time and all they do is come up with stories and it just sounds like such a fun job to have. And that’s all I knew. So I applied to every magazine internship I could find. I remember Mother Jones sent me a postcard rejection, which I kept for a really, really long time. I might still have it. And then no one else responded. I didn’t know a single person in media. There was no one I could ask and be like, what’s a good job for me? And so I was basically going to give up.
WS: But a well timed work trip changed all that.
ER: I had a consulting gig to go to San Francisco. So I thought, I might as well call. And I called Wired magazine, where I had applied for an internship and I had never heard back. And the person at the front desk put me through to a guy named Bill Goggins, who was at the time the articles editor of the magazine, who maybe the front desk person assumed would be in charge of such things. Or maybe they just thought, well, Bill’s a guy who will talk to someone.
WS: Once Bill Goggins got on the phone, Evan’s streak of lucky coincidences continued.
ER: The truth of what happened was, as I later understood it, Wired magazine had just been bought by Condé Nast, and so they hadn’t filled the internships. They probably weren’t even supposed to put me through to anyone. And he just said, well, if you’re going to be here, let’s get together.
He took me on kind of a tour of North Beach, I had never been to San Francisco before. At every stop, we got a Manhattan, and five or six stops in, I was five or six Manhattans in, and he said, what do you think you can contribute to Wired magazine? And I have no idea what I said, but at the end of it, he said, if you can show up in two weeks, you can have the internship.
I really owe any career that I have in writing or magazines or journalism or anything to that, to him picking up the phone and then saying, okay, fine, let’s get a drink. Which is a crazy—like, when I worked at a magazine later, the idea that an intern would call and you’d be like, let’s get drinks, like that’s so generous at a level that no one I know would do that. So, in fact, my book is dedicated to Bill.
WS: When we come back from the break, we talk about how that book came about—but first, how another book found its way to Evan.
WS: Evan Ratliff had made his way to an internship at Wired. When that ended, he became a fact checker at the magazine. As a fact checker, Evan would call up people who had already been interviewed and double check—a process that began to teach him about reporting.
ER: I didn’t really know anything about reporting, except what I could intuit from reading stories. So first of all, you get to see how people’s initial work comes in and you realize, oh, it doesn’t come in the way I read it in a magazine. And that’s helpful to see. Some of them were really very rough, as some of them were brilliant. Some things came in and those were the people who were stars. But I could see, oh, this is how the reporter got to this and not even just catching their mistakes, but seeing how the reporting process had worked before you got there, and seeing where people got lazy and just didn’t want to ask that last question or didn’t want to make that last call. So, seeing all that gave me really a sense of how this would work if I went out to do it. And when I started doing stories, I felt like I had some handle on the process.
WS: As Evan found himself picking stories apart, he began reflecting on other works of nonfiction he had come across—and the works he hadn’t.
ER: The reality was I had not read any narrative nonfiction in my life. In fact, I think the only book that I can think of that I had read was There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz, which I did read in college. But that book is so good and his reporting is so good. It almost seemed like of another universe. That book is just like, how could someone possibly do this? So I didn’t know the history of longer form journalism, feature writing. I read magazines, but I didn’t grow up reading the New Yorker. So it was all catch up for me.I wanted to talk to everyone about it. And then I was the person who was like, you don’t know Hunter Thompson? And only later did I realize—to other journalists—how sort of silly that is.
WS: And Evan’s adventures in narrative nonfiction were about to rev up. John Heilemann recommended the book that would set him off: Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels.
ER: John Heilemann is like a star. He’s in politics, he’s written bestselling books about political campaigns, knows all the power players and gets you inside of national politics. When I met him, he had been a writer for wired.com and he had been a writer for the New Yorker. He had covered a presidential campaign, but then he’d gotten very into covering the Microsoft trial. So he wrote this huge long story for Wired on which I was a fact checker. So that’s where I first interacted with him. And he had an incredible command of his facts. I had hardly checked a story that was cleaner than John Heilemann’s like 40,000 word story. I’m pretty sure it was John who maybe referenced Hunter Thompson in some way. And I was sort of like, who’s that? And he said, you haven’t read this stuff? You have to educate yourself, you have to read this stuff.
WS: First published in 1966, Hell’s Angels was a behind the scenes look at the titular motorcycle gang. In what was his first published book, Thompson embedded with the bikers in Oakland for a year.
ER: I remember when I bought it, I bought it either at Aardvark Books or at Dog Eared books in San Francisco, to use bookstores. And I remember not only just vacuuming it up, but then it’s one of those things where I wanted to talk to everyone about it. And then I was the person who was like, you don’t know Hunter Thompson? And only later did I realize—to other journalists—how sort of silly that is. It’s almost like a cliche of like white male journalist who sort of starts reading this new journalism and is like, oh my God has no one seen this before. But still, the approach of it was something that even today I’ll read, it sits by my desk.
That was sort of a jumping off point for like all the new journalism stuff, Joan Didion. Like that’s when I started sort of getting into reading all that type of work.
I was at the same time trying to figure myself out as someone who was getting my first opportunities to do feature writing. So I was pitching little stories in the magazine and I was getting sort of more enamored with the idea of not being the person who checked someone’s facts, but the person who was sent out into the world to gather them. That seemed like a lot more fun to me. So I was already kind of trying to figure out how I could be that person instead of the person that I was.
And I think even at the time, I recognized that as much as I loved Hunter Thompson, the person who goes and tries to be Hunter Thompson is making a huge mistake for a lot of reasons. I wasn’t trying to inject a cultural voice that I had come up with into my writing, but the idea of lacing first person into what I did, even at a small level, or doing stories that were more participatory where my involvement in the story either changed it or brought to light something. Those were all kind of, I think ideas that developed out of being obsessed with this kind of book, which really did feel like serious reporting. I mean that it was the definitive look at that and it was done through immersive reporting. And I kind of felt like that’s what I want to do. That’s what I want to create.
WS: And Evan sought to create a similar immersive reporting in his own stories, first at Wired and then as a freelance reporter. Then, in 2009, he worked on a story that incorporated that embedded, story told first hand quality of Hell’s Angels.
ER: I did this story for Wired in 2009 called “Vanish” and that was the title of one of the two stories, where I tried to disappear for a month. And that was kind of the biggest thing that I’d done. And it was certainly the most immersive first person thing that I’d ever done and it ended up being a cover story and it got a lot of attention.
WS: The story and its success made Evan want to put more of that kind of writing into the world.
ER: I was thinking a lot about, is there a way that you could start a publication that would just do these kinds of stories? Not necessarily just immersive stories, but these kind of long narrative driven stories that I had found a little bit hard to place. I mean, the New Yorker magazine, will run a 10,000 word narrative story, but they also have David Grann on staff and Susan Orlean on staff. Like there are these sort of heavy hitters that you would always hear, well that’s the stuff that they do. That’s not what you do.
I got plenty of opportunities to do, amazing stories that I was very happy with, but I just felt like maybe in the digital world there’s no constraints.Maybe if you’re looking for tens of millions of readers, you’re always going to be in despair.
WS: A monthly publication featuring longform multimedia stories, The Atavist has been nominated for eight National Magazine Awards and was the first digital only publication to win one in 2015. It was also home to a series Evan started writing in 2016 called The Mastermind.
ER: There was a guy named Joseph Hunter whose nickname is Rambo. Ex-US military, army, special forces guy who was arrested in 2013, accused of plotting to murder a DEA agent for money. And it was in the press, it was in the New York Times. It was covered by the Times. And it’s the kind of story that when you see it as a magazine writer, you know that editors and magazine writers are picking up the phone right then and calling and saying, let’s do this.
And so I started doing a little reporting on it, but I kind of had this feeling like, I don’t know if I want to. Someone else is going to do this. But I kept reporting it over time and then really no one did do the big story on it. And there were some other developments that were sort of mysterious but I saw that were related which were arrests for people for drug trafficking. Trafficking meth out of North Korea. And they were somehow related to this Joseph Hunter thing.
And then someone from the DEA leaked this name, Paul Larue. And Paul Larue was the person who connected up the drug trafficking out of North Korea to the hitman, Joseph Rambo Hunter. And once I kind of, once all of that kind of came to the surface, then I was completely hooked. I mean it was like the perfect intersection of my interests and then I just kind of went after it from, from there.
And so we did a series in 2016 that was seven stories published week by week about this Paul Larue. But I was realizing even when I was in it that there was a lot that I didn’t understand about it. So then I decided to also try to do it as a book.
WS: Released at the end of January, The Mastermind is the culmination of five years of reporting on the story—a different type of reporting than Hunter S. Thompson did in Hell’s Angels, but no less immersive. And even as the digital landscape continues to shift and attention spans seem to shrink, Evan remains hopeful about the future of longform.
ER: I always felt just like, and still feel, you sort of do the work and then you put it out there and there’s an audience for it and sometimes you’re disappointed and so on those days you think, ah, maybe there is no audience for this.
But then the same is true, I think, when you scan the bestseller list, if you look at the bestseller list and you can look at some books and say, wow, this is trash. Everyone just wants trash. And then you see Educated or Killers of the Flower Moon or the Library, but like stuff that’s on the bestseller list now that I love. So I just feel like if you create a story that’s very compelling, whether it’s compelling because of the way it’s written and its narrative structure that pulls you in, or it’s compelling because it’s a classic magazine story, very buzzy, and very of the moment because it captures something that people are wondering about and thinking about, you can get a serious readership for that. Maybe if you’re looking for tens of millions of readers, you’re always going to be in despair. Something’s always not going to work. But if you want a smaller number of readers who really, really care and really love it and read it all the way to the end, I still have always felt like you can find that.
WS: But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino. Thanks to Evan Ratliff and Camila Salazar. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks. I’m Will Schwalbe, thanks so much for listening.