How does Susan Orlean find her profile subjects? How does Malcolm Gladwell get his sources to speak with him? How does Sarah Stillman bring the characters in her stories to life? Thanks to the Longform podcast, we listened in on conversations with writers for The New Yorker as they spilled their secrets for outstanding reporting and storytelling.
ON WRITING AS A CALLING
“It’s really hard to be a writer. You have to be born with incredible amounts of talent. Then you have to work hard. Then you have to be able to handle tons of rejection and not mind it and just keep pushing away at it. You have to show up at people’s doors. You can’t just email and text message people. You have to bang their doors down. You have to be interesting. You have to be fucking phenomenal to get a book published and then sell the book. When people think their writing career is not working out, it’s not working out because it’s so damn hard. It’s not harder now than it was 20 years ago. It’s just as hard. It was always hard.”
2. Evan Ratliff
“I don’t think it’s feasible to work a full-time job and be able to do this type of reporting. You set aside two hours on Monday and make a bunch of calls. You get one person, and they start calling you back over the next couple of days, and you’re doing other things. So it really requires dedicated time. To me, that’s one of the dilemmas of longform magazine writing. It’s really done best by staff writers and freelancers who dedicate all of their time to it. It’s a job that you have to be doing all the time. Then the question of getting paid enough to compensate for that time is the one that everyone deals with in some way or another.”
“I find it really stimulating to have to interrogate the assumptions that you have as an editor about what’s interesting, what’s not interesting, what’s a good story, what’s a bad story, what’s the story that’s been done a million times already. I feel like when you get out of a place that is your place — which, for me and you, is America or New York — you have to kind of think through some things in a fresh way. And I think that can be really productive.”
ON WORKING WITH EDITORS
4. Ann Friedman
“When you become a freelancer after being an editor for a long time, you talk to [editors] the way you wanted to be talked to when you were an editor. You get on the phone, and I have a long list of things I’m interested in that are pretty broad. And I just start talking about what I’m interested in. I can hear when they perk up about something. And then I’m like, ‘Oh, and here’s the way I could do that for you!’ And sometimes it results in an assignment that’s short, sometimes it results in an assignment that’s long.”
5. Susan Orlean
“A lot of the stories that I get most excited about come to me through serendipity. I think to find good stories, one [tip] is to keep an incredibly open mind and open eyes. Every day, everywhere you are. As a matter of a kind of mental practice, I am looking and listening. And I feel like I’m always primed for something to present itself and for my response to be, ‘Wow, that’s a great story!’”
“Here’s the tricky thing, is that [writers] are all reading the same publications. They’re all on Twitter with each other. So you get this kind of strange echo chamber thing. … I get the American Bar Association Journal because I’m a member of the bar. And The American Lawyer. Sometimes it will be a thing where I read about something in another context, and I find out the one definitive, big piece is written in The American Lawyer. Any kind of local papers or specialists’ periodicals, anything you can do to break out of that somewhat insular information universe we’re all in — that seems limitless but is actually pretty cloistered — I think is probably a good idea. Finding that thing that’s just totally off the radar would probably be a huge advantage.”
“I started pitching this story and found that no one was interested. I spent months just sending out emails. The thing that stayed with me most is that I went to an editor at a magazine that basically told me verbatim, ‘If you can repitch this and tell me, in the Hollywood version of this story, who would Julia Roberts play, then I would consider it.’ That was definitely the low moment of my journalistic career. I realized that people need a character to care about. And without that, you’re just not going to get very far in a longform piece. You had to have actual human beings that people can invest in. People don’t really care about issues so much as they care about the stories and the characters that bring those issues to life.”
8. Gay Talese
“My aspiration was to be a good short story writer. That means a scene setter. That means a dialogue writer. That means sometimes an interior monologue writer where you get to know what the person’s thinking — because you ask them, ‘What are you thinking?’ You’re not corrupting the short story because you’re not making it up. You’re a journalist. The story form, that’s the art.”
9. Jonah Weiner
“In the piece that I filed now at the Times Magazine, there’s just a little scene where I’ve got my subject interacting with someone else. That’s another thing that I just know I love, when you have your subject talking to someone who isn’t you. I know that’s a good thing because, as a reader, there’s just something texturally that happens there where even if the exchange is very tiny, something changes in the course of your experience as a reader where the subject isn’t talking to the writer, they’re talking to someone else. The air in the room changes.”
10. David Samuels
“I like to do two things when I write. I like to solve problems for myself: Why do I feel this way? Why am I drawn to this story? I like to give readers a sense of process. How did I get from place to place, and why am I making the connections that I am? To give them a sense of what scenes and incidents mean. To have a sense of them being necessary parts of a journey that I want the reader to share. The other thing is that I try to structure those journeys in a way that gets into the reader’s head. You want to rewire their brain so that by the end, they feel like they’ve discovered something. It’s not a heroic story in which I find the hidden diamond of the prison or something like that. It’s a process that educates the reader in a way of seeing and makes them feel smart and gives them tools and shows them how to ask questions.”
11. David Grann
“I’m not writing about myself. I’m writing about characters making discoveries in time and making realizations. … When the ground shifts, the ground shifts because that’s the way it happened. Watching people witness history and make sense of history as they live it is so much more interesting than coming in and playing omniscient god. … It’s actually trying to get closer to reality, which is damn murky and filled with blind spots and wrong turns and people doing their best at the moment with limited information.”
12. Rachel Aviv
“The first assignment I was given was by my editor [at The Believer], and it was to write about books with fat heroes. I had nothing really invested in that subject. So that was my first long piece. And I think I did become aware that that’s not necessarily what I wanted to do, where you’re juggling 20 novels; that was a little bit more academic. I think I just kept realizing that I had control over what I was writing about. It seemed like such a miracle to even come up with something that constituted a story that, whether it was about electronics or traffic or whatever, I would just go for it. But I started to realize that it made more sense to write things that I would actually want to read about.”
13. Malcolm Gladwell
“If I write about you, I do not want you ever to regret having talked to me. In cases where I think the person will regret having talked to me, I usually don’t do the story or don’t use the person’s interview or don’t use the parts that they’ll regret having said. Part of that is just my personality. Partly because there’s a very limited amount of negative stuff you can put in a book or an article before you turn most of your audience away. I think negative stuff is interesting the first time; you’ll never reread a negative article. You’ll reread a positive one. And I think a lot of the reason my books have a long shelf life is because they are optimistic. And optimism permits that kind of longevity.”
“I developed [that tenacity] at The New Yorker, knowing that the expectation from editors is that you haven’t quit until you’ve exhausted every option and the story is out and in print. So I think that, with that sort of pinging around in the back of my head and having not been at the magazine very long, I just figured that I would knock on every possible door.”
15. David Kushner
“I am a big narrative nonfiction geek. I’ve always been so fascinated by that and read everything by Hunter Thompson and everything by Tom Wolfe. I would see patterns in what they did. With Hunter, he wrote a lot about politics, he wrote a lot about sports. Most writers have a couple of areas. I didn’t really think about it so much at the time, but what I began to realize is it just makes sense: You get more immersed in a world, you get to know people, you get to know the language of that world. You do all that heavy lifting, which is rough. It’s rough to land on a different planet and learn the language and have people talk to you. So once you do it, when there’s more in that world to explore, it just makes total sense to go back to it when there’s another story.”
16. George Saunders
“As you get older, you get more confident that if something’s true to you, there is a way to represent it entertainingly. If it happens to a person, it can’t possibly be non-art. So in the story ‘The Tenth of December,’ there’s a moment where, because of the structure, the character’s thoughts turn towards his wife. And I just turned my thoughts towards my wife, you know? What came out was probably the truest thing I’ve ever written about our relationship, for sure. And it wasn’t sappy; it was actually pretty good prose. I wasn’t trying to make it anything other than what it was; I was trying to make it true as quickly as I could. So that was a big moment for me. Even the really positive things that you feel, that you’ve always roped off as being too sappy, if you say them urgently enough — of course, why not?”
ON ESSAYS AND CRITICISM
17. Emily Nussbaum
“When you write criticism, you have to be able to say things are bad as well as that things are good. To establish your values, and to actually be in the conversation. It’s a way of taking the art form seriously. … TV is condescended to. TV has been put down and treated as junk. That’s not true of TV anymore. And so TV deserves to have the kind of criticism that expects it to be great. It’s, to me, a really engaging and satisfying cause no matter whether I’m praising or criticizing.”
18. Keith Gessen
I came from a disputatious, Russian tradition. We [at n+1] all came from these traditions where arguments were a good thing. And especially arguments about literature. What are you going to argue about if not the most important thing in the world — which is literature?
19. Ariel Levy
“‘Thanksgiving in Mongolia’ is an essay I wrote about the biggest experience of my life, I would say. A year ago, last Thanksgiving, when I was five months pregnant, I went to Mongolia to report a story. There’s no correlation with flying and miscarriage or birth. However, when I got to Mongolia, I went into labor in my hotel, and I had this baby who died. And it was the most intense experience of my life. And I wrote about it because that is what I do. That’s what I’ve done since I was a little kid. So that’s it. And then I published it. If you’re not going to write about that, what the hell are you doing? Are you a writer? Birth is a lot of women’s reality. And I don’t understand why you wouldn’t write about that if you’re a writer and you’re a feminist and that was your reality.”
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