An Interview with Tristan Ahtone

12 Aug
Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound busses across America and wrote about it in a series for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound busses across America and wrote about it in the series, America by Bus, for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone is an award-winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Born in Arizona, raised across the United States, and educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Columbia School of Journalism, he has worked as a door-to-door salesman, delivery driver, telemarketer, and busboy. Since 2008, Ahtone has reported for The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, National Native News, Frontline, Wyoming Public Radio, Vice, the Fronteras Desk, NPR, and Al Jazeera America. He serves as Treasurer for the Native American Journalists Association and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

To read an exercise about writing character descriptions based on Ahtone’s essay on riding Greyhound busses across America, click here.

In this interview, Ahtone discusses the role of human and technical limitations on writing and choosing what makes the cut in a piece of journalism.

Michael Noll

It seems like something you’re trying to convey in these pieces is the fleeting nature of encounters on a bus. So, for example, your description of Russell Hall focuses on only a few seconds of observation: Hall on the phone, a glance given to him by a woman sitting nearby, a look that he gives to something he set out the window, the condition of the Bible he’s holding. Was it tempting to try to make more of this encounter? Or was the opposite true: was the challenge instead trying to build a vignette out of only a few details?

Tristan Ahtone

Each encounter we had during this story could have been expanded to a feature-length story. The challenge was having so much detail and condensing it into a vignette. However, in Mr. Hall’s case, the simple nature of his story stemmed from a technical error, embarrassingly enough: the recorder we used to interview our subjects decided to become uncooperative, so there were no accurate quotes save for what I caught in my notes when first observing him. It would have been great to get his backstory in—he worked for the Los Angeles public school system as a truancy officer and had been involved in the church for years traveling the country by bus—but when I sat down to write about him, I found that the brief encounter offered more with less dialogue. So in short, Mr. Hall’s story functions as a fleeting encounter but its creation stems from a technical problem and having to make due with good note taking to replace missing quotes.

Michael Noll

I love the dialogue that you capture. In the piece about Hu Li, the dialogue isn’t really conversation so much as different people talking at the same time. You must have overheard or participated in so many conversations. How did you decide which ones to write up?

Tristan Ahtone

There are about half a dozen interviews we did that never made it to the final product and many never even made draft form. In each case my partner Tomo Muscionico and I would strike up conversations with people, feel out whether we wanted to continue the conversation for a story, and eventually asked to mic them up so we could record that interview. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. In the end, a lot of people we took photos of and interviewed didn’t make it in usually because their narrative wasn’t as strong when putting it in short form. For instance, there was a woman named Dianne Whitlock, who showed up briefly in Rosalinda’s vignette – she had a wonderful story and had a great conversation with another gentlemen that had his own vignette that was also eventually cut. The primary reason was because in short form, we couldn’t do them justice. Essentially, we gathered as much material as we could, and when we sat down to write and edit it, a lot of people washed out.

Michael Noll

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound buses around America and wrote about it for Al Jazeera America.

In his essay on riding Greyhound busses, Tristan Ahtone met a woman named Rosalinda who was traveling from Guatemala to Florida and who spoke neither English nor Spanish.

In the piece about Rosalinda, you write, “She and her baby had matching yellow wristbands, the kind one gets in a hospital or a prison.” This description has two parts: the detail (matching yellow wristbands) and the interpretation (the kind one gets…). How much of your task as a journalist, as a writer, is helping the readers understand the details you show them?

Tristan Ahtone

I’d say most of my job is helping readers understand details. Context is what makes people’s stories real and relevant. One of the nice thing about long-form journalism is that you have the opportunity to see and write about details like that and offer them to the audience. We spent a long time with Rosalinda and ran into her twice: once at the Phoenix bus station and again on a bus we boarded in El Paso. I think I can speak for my partner, Tomo, that we’re not the superstitious types, but we knew we had to write her story when we ran into her again. We had to do something. She was too special and too important to let drive off without trying. That meant we had to get really creative, though: we couldn’t talk to her, nobody could really, so we had to take a lot of pictures and extensive notes so that we could make her a real person to our audience, and that meant keeping an eye to detail and interpreting who she was, where she was going, and what her situation was based on physical information that was available.

Michael Noll

In that same passage about Rosalinda, you have the problem of not being able to communicate with her. So, you approach the description through the other passengers’ eyes and knowledge about her. As a result, the passage becomes not just about Rosalinda but also everyone else on the bus, the community they form. Was that approach a matter of simply using the information available, or had you sketched out a variety of approaches to these passages before the trip?

Tristan Ahtone

The only thing we had sketched out prior to going on the trip is where we would leave from and where we would end up and even that changed mid-way through. Originally, I wanted Rosalinda’s story to be weaved in throughout the entire piece with other passengers narratives. The original structure I sketched out more closely resembled a Robert Altman film with a number of different characters all overlapping at various places. I couldn’t get it to work though, one reason being that while we have rich detail on everyone we spoke with, there wasn’t enough information to support a story that long. It also felt confusing, so we scrapped it. One of the only variations of that idea that remains in the final piece is the interaction between Lonnie Head and Christopher Nyman in Nashville. Had we stuck with the original structure, you likely would have seen a lot more interactions like that between a lot of the people we met. As I mentioned before, Dianne Whitlock makes an appearance in Rosalinda’s vignette: originally she had her own story, which is part of the reason she’s even named at all in this one instead of just identified as another passenger. In the end I really liked how Rosalinda’s story came to embody a greater sense of community. I think that people deride and criticize people who ride busses, but I have to say, I’ve never seen people on a plane act so kindly to each other. In Rosalinda’s case, we observed how people behaved toward her and reported it. If she had been treated poorly, we would have written it that way instead.

Originally posted in January 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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One Response to “An Interview with Tristan Ahtone”

  1. soodk August 12, 2016 at 8:02 p08 #

    I want to write one story I just need your help that if you convince my story to others

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