The Thin Reads Interview with Evan Ratliff, Author of “The Oilman’s Daughter”
Evan Ratliff is something of a double threat. He’s an accomplished businessman who is the cofounder, CEO and editor of The Atavist, a media and software company that is one of the leading forces in digital publishing and long-form journalism. But Ratliff is also a talented journalist who has written for some of the top magazines in the world.
He’s just authored an e-book single, “The Oilman’s Daughter,” a true and twisting story that hooks the reader from the first swipe of a page. It’s the unputdownable tale of Judith Patterson, the illegitimate daughter of M.A. Wright, former president of Exxon (now ExxonMobil). She only learned the truth about him and her biological mother when she was 33 and living a hardscrabble life in the Midwest.
After his death there were questions about her inheritance. Patterson wanted to learn more about her biological mother’s relationship with him and her puzzling biological family. Ratliff came across the story in 2008 and his 52-page book is the end result of his often frustrating and dedicated quest the buried truths in the life of Judith Patterson. We caught up with Ratliff shortly after the publication of “The Oilman’s Daughter” and conducted this email interview.
Thin Reads: You run a prominent media and software company and that surely commands a lot of your attention as a demanding day job. Where did you find the time to write such a well-researched piece of long-form journalism?
Well, it did take me five years to write it! But a lot of that wasn’t actually writing, just sitting on the story and waiting for it to develop a bit, doing periodic reporting to try and understand what was going on. When it came to really knuckling down and finishing it this spring, it was mostly a matter of devoting nights and weekends to it. I took a week and did some reporting in March, then tried to pick off a few calls every week to tie up the loose ends, and then just used my off hours—and towards the end, almost every waking hour outside the office—to actually sit down and do the writing. It’s not an approach I’d necessarily recommend.
Thin Reads: What drew you to write about Judith? Was there anything in her background or story that you personally identified with?
Over the last five plus years I’ve been writing a lot about identity, and people who undergo radical changes in their identity. Over the years that I was working on the story about Judith, I wrote for Wired magazine about an attempt that I made to disappear under a new identity for a month. I wrote about a man who was living a triple life as a con man, an FBI informant, and a bon vivant in New York City. Judith’s story appealed to me because here you had a third kind of radical identity change: Someone who finds out in mid-life that they may in fact have this secret background that is radically different from their current life. It raises all sorts of interesting questions, the main one of which is: What would you do if that happened to you?
There were other reasons I kept on the story too: I’d been wanting to write a nonfiction piece with a strong female character at its center. And after meeting Judith—regardless of what I ultimately concluded about the truth of her story—she showed an incredible persistence in trying to prove her story that was itself fascinating. It made me feel, in some sense, like it deserved to be told just because she’d worked so hard to try and piece it together.
Thin Reads: Do you think Judith would have led a better life if she never knew about her biological father? That knowledge only led to her pain and suffering.
It’s tough for me to say; I couldn’t necessarily get a complete sense from her of how happy she was before this all happened. She’d been divorced twice, for example; that’s in the story. So I don’t want to overplay the extent to which her finding out information about her biological father, and her choice to pursue the evidence for it, made her life worse. But I will say that it raised this kind of hope and promise of a different life, and in the end it was very difficult to deliver on that hope. And I think that’s a very hard thing for anyone to deal with. It was a Pandora’s box, there is no question.
Thin Reads: Why do you think Judith wanted her story told? A cloud of sadness and pain seems to have shadowed her entire life. You’d think she’d want to keep the details of her personal life more private.
I believe more than anything she wants the validation of people listening to her and then saying, yes, I believe you, you are M.A. Wright’s daughter. At some point along the way I think she did think that there was money she deserved. But now I think she just feels wronged—she feels like the people around her lied to her and stole from her—and she believes that injustice should be shared with the world.
In a larger sense, there’s a question in here about why anyone tells details of their personal life to reporters. Janet Malcolm has interrogated this question at length, and I read a lot of her work as I was working on this story. I had a lot of questions and doubts about how much of these people’s personal lives—including some very awful details that had been told in publicly available court documents—I should myself be sharing with the world. In the end there were some things I left out because I felt that they were just too private.
Thin Reads: As a journalist, it’s important to establish impartiality and you certainly referenced that in your story. But wasn’t there a teeny, tiny part of you that wanted to put the pieces together in Judith’s life and help her inherit some of her father’s money?
In my own writing I actually value factual accuracy and fairness much more than impartiality. It’s not possible to spend as much time on something like this as I did and not form opinions: about Judith as a person, about the people around her, about her family. I mean, one of her relatives almost assaulted me when I went to interview him! So of course, I’ve at times I’ve felt really bad for Judith, and wanted her to find, if not money, some answers. At other times I’ve been really frustrated with her, and come to doubt some parts of her story. I tried to be extremely transparent and up front about that in the story. Fortunately by the time I really sat down to write it, her chance of inheriting money had long past. She’d already lost that battle in court.
Thin Reads: In the “The Oilman’s Daughter,” you presented Judith’s decision to have a court void her adoption in a very measured matter-of-fact tone. In fact, that’s usually a huge decision. Why did you downplay that part of the story?
Maybe I downplayed it more than I realized! It closes out one chapter, which I feel is a way to lend it some significance. In any case, I do think that the most significant turning point in the story came before that, when she decided she wanted to pursue M.A. Wright’s fortune again (through his widow’s estate) in 2006. Once she made that choice, she was really all-in on becoming M. A. Wright’s daughter. Even a major life decision like voiding her adoption flowed from that, and to some extent she had started a train that she just couldn’t stop.
Thin Reads: Were you concerned that the story you were writing had an ending that was sad and inconclusive? Surely, as a storyteller, you might have wished for a better finale.
Certainly part of me hoped that it would all wrap up nicely, that some piece of evidence would emerge—or even better, I would dig it up!—that would provide a conclusive ending. But one of the reasons I love nonfiction narratives is that they are forced to confront life’s ambiguities. Most stories don’t wrap up neatly. In the end I wanted to try and grapple with that ambiguity rather than find a more pat ending. As far as the sadness, I think that was inherent in my story from the moment that Judith’s mother showed up to tell her this crazy history in the first place.
Thin Reads: It’s obvious from reading your book that Judith Patterson’s story is extremely complicated and presents difficulties about truth and deceit. During the five years you worked on the story, were you ever tempted to pull the plug on the project because the truth was so hard to pin down?
Absolutely. Even earlier this year I considered dropping it. I wasn’t sure that I could really wrangle it all into something that made sense, and would be satisfying for a reader. But then there was part of me that knew it would feel like a tremendous waste, because it IS a fascinating story, even though it’s complicated. I’d told it to many people over the years, and everyone always wanted to know more. So I finally sat down and started writing, and with the help of our amazing editor Charlie Homans, managed to turn out something that I hope at least does the strange tale some justice.