A Writer's Life
When Joe Tone was a young writer for The Santa Clara student newspaper back in 1999, one of his first stories was a profile of the setter on the women’s volleyball team, a talented but unheralded player, someone likely “to be shoveled onto the bottom of the sports page.”
Tone’s ability to find overlooked stories and tell them in a compelling way was evident early on at Santa Clara University, and it has been a key component of his journalism career. That skill is front and center in his recently published first book, Bones: Brothers, Horses, Cartels and the Borderland Dream. It’s the dramatic true story of two brothers living parallel lives on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border — and how their lives converged in a major criminal conspiracy.
“Tone has found a great yarn,” writes Ioan Grillo in his New York Times review of Bones. “His finely-painted cast of characters includes a rookie F.B.I. agent hungry to make his name, a Texas cowboy fighting to keep his family business afloat and a talented Mexican horseman picking winners for a very dangerous boss. Tone weaves the threads together with skillful pacing and sharp prose, marking him as an important new talent in narrative nonfiction.”
I was the faculty adviser for The Santa Clara when Tone joined the staff, and he was a hardworking — and opinionated — student in several journalism courses. He eventually became editor of the school paper before heading to the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University for a master’s degree. I recently caught up with him to ask a few questions about his book, journalism, and life at SCU.
It can be tough to come up with stories. How did you get the idea for Bones?
I read a story in the New York Times about a man, José Treviño, who after 30 years as a workaday mason had suddenly come to dominate the American Quarter Horse racing circuit, only to be accused of laundering money for his brother, an infamous Mexican drug criminal. It turned out that José lived not far from where I lived in Dallas, so I started looking into it. Before long I knew: This is going to be my first book.
What is it about?
It's about that man, José, and how he finally gave in to temptation and went into business with his brother — not the drug business, but the horse-racing business. And it's about how a rookie FBI agent and an industrious, all-American snitch teamed up to make sure José paid the price for that mistake. More broadly, it's about how our country's approach to drug enforcement lays traps for certain Americans (the black and brown ones) and casts safety nets for others (the white ones) — and not by accident.
What was the writing process like? Any surprises or challenges?
By the time I took this on, I had been working in daily or weekly newspapers since my senior year in college, when I edited The Santa Clara. For two decades, basically. Now, suddenly, I wasn't putting anything into the world, daily, weekly, or even annually. It was strange, and a little depressing, to be deprived of that interaction with the wider culture. I had to teach myself to focus on the process of constructing the story, rather than the story's life in the world. Once I found that mantra ("enjoy the process, enjoy the process"), I remembered: I love doing this work. After that, it was a ball.
The past decade has not been an easy one for journalists. What did your career path look like?
I started my career as a general assignment reporter for The Record in Stockton, California. I covered a murder on my first day and got a death threat on my second, so I suppose that prepared me for the eventual task of reporting on a murderous drug cartel. What helped me most, I think, was my time as an alt-weekly reporter and editor. In cities across the country, I learned how to find, report, write, and shape stories that blended important political and social issues with the more elemental aspects of storytelling — character, plot, setting, theme.
In my first alt-weekly job, I chased stories all over Cleveland, and found them in polluted rivers, bowling-alley bars, locker rooms, and courthouses; in my last alt-weekly job, as editor in chief of the Dallas Observer, I learned to elevate the ideas themselves, making sure they not only sung but sung with purpose. And I bore the responsibility of every deadline being met, which came in extremely handy when my book editor asked me to turn around edits in a matter of days.
You were a Communication major in the journalism sequence and editor of The Santa Clara. How did those experiences prepare you for your career?
Most of my best and brightest memories from college happened in that newsroom, banging Wu Tang Clan and Blink 182, eating Papa John's, and making what we thought was the world's best college newspaper. It was the perfect training ground: We had just enough freedom to take risks and cash in on the rewards, but with just enough safety net to know we would never injure ourselves irreparably. The journalism coursework prepared me to be successful in the newsroom, and the newsroom gave me the confidence to lead and succeed in the classroom.
Those experiences prepared me for my career in a lot of ways, but one stands out: Late junior year, you suggested I apply for the editorship. It had never occurred to me that I could lead the paper, but once I stepped into the role, I trusted your faith in me; I shouldered the responsibility, and I never looked back. That has happened at several times throughout my career, including when my editor at Random House agreed to buy my book. I didn't know if I could write a book. But my editor did, and that was good enough to get me going.
Bones has been optioned for film. What was it like for you to wade into the Hollywood scene?
Hilarious and thrilling. I rode around Hollywood in a screenwriter's Porsche, pitching it to producers, including one meeting in the living room of a Beverly Hills mansion. I arrived early and let myself in as the assistant had advised. The producer, who owned the mansion, walked into the meeting and asked, "How did you get in here?" He did not option my book.
But another company, Anonymous Content, did, and they're great: They make smart movies (Spotlight) and riveting TV (Mr. Robot), and they have an incredible vision for the film version of Bones, with a screenwriter, Mauricio Katz, committed to writing a script that honors the book's central arguments. I'm not supposed to be excited — the Hollywood way is to be cynical and detached — but I'm thrilled at the prospect of it coming together.
Any advice for young journalists?
Read widely and passionately, and write what you love. As a young journalist, I often found myself trying to read things, and write things, that I thought would advance my career, win favor with colleagues or editors, or otherwise weren't naturally in my wheelhouse. Don't do that. Trust your hunger; the stories you love to read are probably the ones you'll love to report and write, so consume them and tell them and don't look back.