The writer’s week: Malled’s Chinese release and C’s NYT byline!

By Caitlin Kelly

Monday

I want to get my book proposal done and to my agent! I send it to two more “first readers” for their thoughts and insights. It’s been read by one friend already. All three raise the same concern, easily enough addressed, and all are wildly enthusiastic about the idea and its timing. I sure hope my agent feels that way as well — and a publisher!

malled china cover

My book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” is being published this week in China, in soft-cover, with an initial press run of 5,500. The way American books get sold to foreign markets is quite odd; a sub-rights department of my publisher, Portfolio, (the business imprint of Penguin), sold it on my behalf and made an arms-length deal with people I don’t know and will never meet.

I had to email my publisher in Manhattan several times to get any details at all — and the only reason we have the Chinese cover image is thanks to my husband’s global network of freelance photographers, one of whom, Beijing-based Gilles Sabrie, was kind enough to shoot this image and send it to me.

I’ll have a few hard copies in my hands soon! I got $3,000 for the sale of those rights, but never saw a penny; it was applied against, (i.e. subtracted from), my initial advance.

Seeking sources worldwide for my next New York Times business story, I emailed friends in places like Beirut, Paris, Dublin, Hong Kong and rural Austria. I also used Help A Reporter Out. If you’ve never tried it to find sources, it can be extremely useful.

Tuesday

I spend the afternoon reading “playbacks” from my editor and the copy editor for this story, which ran on Wednesday in the Times. I called a few sources to fact-check and found several things were different than what I’d had in my notes.

Working on several pitches — ideas for stories I want to submit/sell — and trying to flesh them out enough to make them compelling. I pitched a great idea to Cosmopolitan two weeks ago, got a quick email reply — then crickets. So annoying.

Wednesday

Shriek!

Cadence Woodland — whose blog I read and found behind it a smart, wittty, worldly young woman — has been working with me for about six months on research and other projects. Her terrific work on this story about Salt Lake City won her a by-line in The New York Times.

So proud of her! I bet many ambitious young journalists would kill for that; if only it occurred to them to apprentice with a busy and productive freelancer.

What she did is called — in delicious 1940s parlance — “legs”, as in being my legs on the ground to report and add essential firsthand details I couldn’t because she was there and knows the local culture.

I email a New York City spokesman for a city agency on a story I think is really interesting and off-beat — they refuse until I have an assignment. Duh. I can’t get an assignment without more data!

I call back and, forcefully/politely (how is that possible?), explain why I need this, and now — the answers appear in my email a few hours later.

I call a source in Arizona I did a big story about in 2006, who keeps me in the loop about his cause with regular emails. His story is an “evergreen”, i.e. of ongoing interest. I just need a news hook.

Unpaid, speculative groundwork is typical — I spend about 30 percent of my time seeking and developing story ideas for specific markets, for which I need people to give me a bit of time, (10 minutes, maybe), to make sure I can offer editors something of value.

Thursday

Into Manhattan for a hair appointment, and out to New Jersey to attend a friend’s book party. Her husband runs an award-winning journalism website focused on investigative work.

I’m finishing up a friend’s finished non-fiction manuscript, offering my comments as his first reader. His first book, “The Gardner Heist”, (for which I also did this), sold very well and is a terrific read, about the largest art theft in history — still unsolved.

I’m enjoying his ms. but have sent along specific sentence and page edits, which he really appreciates. We all need smart, excellent colleagues, especially working alone, freelance.

I “met” Ulrich online in a writer’s community but only met him years later in D.C. face to face; C. and I still haven’t met!

Friday

To people who say — frequently! — “Oh, writers can live anywhere”, meaning we can work from any location, here’s the real story. At the party Thursday night, studded with authors, agents and editors, I met an editor with an open position at his publication — meeting over hummus in someone’s garden beats getting a resume from someone he’s never heard of.

It’s all about connections, not just talent or hard work, so I send in my stuff.

An editor I was initially excited to start working regularly with sends me the second revision of a $1,200 story, with even more questions. It already includes eight interviews from across the globe and now, in addition to more changes, she’s rewriting it. Enough.

At the party, the husband of a woman with a Very Nice staff writing job, when I told him I pitch many of my stories, said: “Oh, you don’t just wait for the phone to ring?”

Seriously?

When your BFF goes AWOL

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you have a best friend?

I wish I did!

Best Friend Forgotten
Best Friend Forgotten (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new movie by Noah Baumbach, (whose “Squid and the Whale” I really disliked), addresses the push-pull of female friendship in your mid-20s, “Frances Ha.” It’s about Frances and Sophie, who meet at Vassar and are still BFFS at 27, but being pulled apart by work, life and boys.

Fans of the series “Girls” on HBO might find some of the themes similar, and Adam Driver, who stars in the series, is also in this movie.

Frances is a modern dancer, tall and gangly, financially struggling and a bit of a mess. She never brushes her hair and is repeatedly pronounced “undateable”, with which (ouch) she is quick to agree.

Sophie snags the banker boyfriend, Patch, and moves with him to Tokyo.

It really hit a chord for me and I left the theater, alone, an hour before sunset, feeling melancholy and wishing I still had a best friend like that, someone with whom I still shared a ton of history, in-jokes and the sort of sexual secrets that make for excellent blackmail material.

I lost my BFF, or she dumped me, or maybe or we just got fed up with one another — it was never clear or resolved or even discussed or addressed — about a decade ago.

We looked alike and were often mistaken for sisters. Hyper-competitive, in life and with one another, she’d say, “I’m the smart one.” I’d say: “I’m the pretty one.” Or vice versa.

I knew her mom and Dad and sister. I knew she’d always have a huge hunk of Brie in the fridge. She had three cats, one so enormous he could have doubled as a doorstop. I still remember their names.

Both bubbly, chatty Geminis, we were also both ex-pats who had moved to the U.S. and then to New York. She had a tiny studio in the West Village and we’d go dancing at Polly Esther’s and flirt with boys a decade younger, sometimes more. We both dated wholly inappropriate men. One of hers was a musician in a famous band who had very few teeth. Another was a friend of mine, but they argued constantly and eventually broke up.

Like Frances and Sophie in the movie, we sometimes platonically shared a bed and woke up giggling on a sunny Saturday with nothing to do and no one to report to. Bliss!

She held my hand while I wept really hard during my first divorced Christmas and climbed a hill in a snowstorm after the cab couldn’t go any further to accompany me to my first knee surgery — and caught me as I fell, tree-like, into the bathroom door afterward.

We traveled together to Venezuela where we both got trapped, terrifyingly, by the 1999 landslide that devastated the countryside. I got the last scheduled flight out, at 8:00 a.m., but she was stuck there for a week or more and returned home traumatized by the smell of dead bodies.

We went to visit her home country, where her father scared me by getting really drunk. We hired a small airplane and a pilot to fly us to where we wanted to go, meeting him at dawn. It felt exactly like the final scene in Casablanca.

But she met a man I didn’t like much, who boasted about his money and looked at me like I smelled funny and replaced all her charming furniture with his ugly, chunky, dark choices. She married him and moved to a huge lakeside house.

I saw little hope for our friendship continuing. And I was right.

It’s been a long time since we stopped being friends.

I’m lucky, though, to still have two dear girlfriends of very early vintage — one from high school and one from my first year of university. They knew me thinner, pre-marriage(s), before I left our native Canada for the United States in 1988. I see each of them once a year or so and keep up with them by phone mostly.

One of them, even though she was then living so far away she was practically in Alaska, came all the way to New Y0rk for my first wedding and again, in 2011, to Toronto for my second. We met when we eye-rolled at one another in our freshman English class. We added a few vowels to our first names and became The Pasta Twins. I still use the tattered, stained cookbook she gave me in the ’80s.

I pray that both of these women remain in my life for decades yet to come. It’s very comforting to be deeply known yet still well-loved, to share so much of one another’s long life histories.  We need to explain nothing — why we ditched that man or how our mother drives us nuts or the reasons we’re still chasing a few unlikely dreams.

We know.

Here’s a perfect list of 22 ways you know you’ve found your BFF, from Buzzfeed; 2,3, 13, 15, 16 and 20 really rang true for me.

Do you have a BFF?

Have you ever lost yours?

Is working at home your Holy Grail?

By Caitlin Kelly

For millions of weary workers, the notion of being able to work from home — in comfy clothes, saving the time, money and energy of a long commute to the office — remains a fever dream.

In a recent front-page New York Times story, one mid-western mother describes how terrified she was to ask to work from home — one day a week — which she was granted:

Ms. Uttech, like many working mothers, is a married college graduate, and her job running member communications for an agricultural association helps put her family near the middle of the nation’s income curve. And like dozens of other middle-class working mothers interviewed about their work and family lives, she finds climbing a career ladder less of a concern than finding a position that offers paid sick leave, flexible scheduling or even the opportunity to work fewer hours. The ultimate luxury for some of them, in fact (though not for Ms. Uttech), would be the option to be a stay-at-home mother.

“I never miss a baseball game,” said Ms. Uttech, uttering a statement that is a fantasy for millions of working mothers (and fathers) nationwide. (This attendance record is even more impressive when you realize that her children play in upward of six a week.)

Ms. Uttech wants a rewarding career, but more than that she wants a flexible one. That ranking of priorities is not necessarily the one underlying best-selling books like Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” which advises women to seek out leadership positions, throw themselves at their careers, find a partner who helps with child care and supports their ambition, and negotiate for raises and promotions.

It’s a sad fact that many educated American workers are incredibly cowed. Few get more than two weeks’ vacation a year, if that. Many do not get paid sick days.

Image representing Sheryl Sandberg as depicted...
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Image via CrunchBase

Because the country is ruled by a corporate mindset, because most employers hire you, legally, “at will” and can fire you the next day with no warning or severance or even a reason, because unions are at their lowest membership — 11 percent — since the Depression, few workers dare ask their boss for much of anything.

I’ve been working alone at home, as a freelance writer, since 2006, when I lost my last job, at 3pm on  Wednesday, at the New York Daily News, the country’s sixth-largest newspaper.

I’d had the “wood” — the entire front page of the newspaper — only two weeks earlier with a national exclusive. No matter. I was out the door and into a recession — in 2008, 24,000 journalists lost their jobs, too.

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...
English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I decided, having worked freelance for many years at several points in my career, to just stay home and once more make my living that way. I would probably earn 30 to 50 percent more, possibly double, my income if I went to work for someone else. But we do not have children or other huge costs to manage, so this arrangement suits me and my husband.

I’d rather set my own hours and schedule, find my own work and do it without a manager or several breathing down my neck. I’ve had many full-time office jobs, some of which I enjoyed and several of which paid me close to six figures, which was indeed pleasant!

Working alone at home all day is, for many people, a dream come true. While it can get lonely and isolating, it is, in many ways. I play music if or when I wish. I wear shorts and a T-shirt when I’m not meeting someone. I set my own hours — not much different from those in an office — typically 9 or 10:00 a.m. to 4 or 5:00 p.m.

The two+ hours I save every day by not traveling to someone else’s office to do the same quality work at the same speed I produce alone at home? I can go to a movie or take a long walk or make soup at noon.

The Times piece — catnip for comments — quickly gathered 470 answers from readers, many of whom found the story’s focus on a woman and a mother misguided.

A few key issues are rarely addressed in these stories about the unabated lust for working at home:

1) We all — parents or not — juggle other people’s needs against those of our employer(s). Including our own needs, for rest, study, exercise. Endlessly focusing on parents’ needs wilfully ignores the industrial mindset that still rules many workplaces,

2) Others people’s needs are rarely neatly scheduled. The dog/baby/husband is projectile vomiting just as you’re expected to make a meeting or attend a conference. Your father/brother/son has a heart attack or stroke just when you’re gearing up for a new client meeting. So even if you get every Friday to work at home, shit will probably happen on every other day instead.

3) Given the insane amount of time we all waste spend every day on social media or communicating on-line, why can’t more employers allow more work to be done remotely, i.e. from home? Yes, some people are total slackers, but you know who they are already. Conference calls and Skype make meetings easy.

4) The Times story also gathered 439 comments within hours of publication, (many of them scathing), like:

a) mothers are not solely or exclusively responsible for their children’s care and house-chores; b) men are equally hungry for flex-time; c) children will not wither and die if their parents fail to attend and cheer every possible sports match or event.

In my case, I wondered why this woman is unable or unwilling to delegate at least some of the housework? She has sons 8 and 10 and a 15-year-old step-daughter. Teaching them to share responsibility seems a lot more essential to me than watching them play six baseball games a week.

5) If the United States (insert long loud bitter laugh) actually make it a legal requirement to offer subsidize/affordable daycare, flex-time, paid sick days or paid maternity leave, some of these concerns would abate.

Do you work from home right now?

Have you?

Do you wish you could?

Which habit(s) are you trying to break?

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the best things about a vacation is — for me anyway — coming back to my home and daily life with refreshed eyes and new ideas. I almost always make some changes in how our apartment looks, and some changes in how I conduct my work and life.

Everyday life
Everyday life…Time to get out my guitar again! (Photo credit: loginesta)

Being self-employed as a writer for seven years means I have a lot of freedom in how, when and where I work. But it also means I fall into ruts and routines, like everyone else. If it’s easy and “normal”, I tend to keep doing it. I sit at the dining room table writing on my laptop, (why not at the library? a coffee shop? a shared space? the park?), because that’s what I did the day/week/month before.

A best-selling book, The Power of Habit, addresses this. Once we become habituated to a behavior, it’s comfortable and routine, and demands little thought or creativity. It might be what we drink each morning, (or night), or the clothes we wear or the friends we hang out with.

Here’s a great post by Seth Godin on why being angry is a habit one can choose to break.

One of the things I enjoy most about vacation is the chance to flee habitual behavior and try new things, some of which are simply easier, more affordable or more accessible in places other than where I live, whether horseback riding or finding a store full of used CDs.

I do do a few things, habitually, that I am enjoying and are good for me, like a Monday morning jazz dance class that leaves me drenched in sweat and ready to start my week. At 4:00 p.m. or so, many days, I brew a full pot of tea — no crappy bag-in-a-cup! — and sit down to hydrate and relax for a while.

And every year — no matter how much I would really prefer to blow that cash on a fantastic trip somewhere — I put away 15 percent or more of my income. It has finally begun to add up to something that seems real and worth managing, so the years of self-denial are worth it.

But I have a few habits I need to change:

— checking email too often, out of loneliness and boredom

— dicking around on social media (ditto)

— procrastinating on major projects that require a lot of intermediate steps to get to completion

— wasting time on magazines instead of reading books

— losing two to four hours listening to, (albeit loving!), talk shows on National Public Radio

— sitting for too long at the computer without a break, like…hours!

— not exercising consistently every single week, at least four (ugh) times

Here’s a beautiful, smart post about the power of habit — and how essential it is to wake up our lives while we still have them to enjoy:

One way is to make a conscious effort to break the habit patterns which blunt our perceptions. After all, it was sheer habit which caused the man to throw the magic pebble into the sea. ‘Habit,’ says Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot, ‘is a great deadener’. A contemporary Buddhist says that we should try to do some of the following:

 
When in company act as if alone
When alone act as if in company
Spend one day without speaking
Spend one hour with eyes closed
With eyes closed, have someone you are close to take you on a walk
Think of something to say to someone particular. Next time you see them, don’t say it.
Go somewhere particular to do something. When you get there, don’t do it.
Walk backwards
Upon awakening, immediately get up
Get dressed to go somewhere, then don’t go
Just go out immediately, as you are, anywhere
Do what comes next
Walk on!            
What habit(s) are you struggling to shed or change?
How’s it going?

How creative are you?

By Caitlin Kelly

creativity
creativity (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

I’ve been told for decades that I’m creative, which I consider one of the highest compliments anyone can ever pay me. (Of course, compared to people like famous musicians/artists/choreographers/thinkers, I know I’m not.)

So, for the hell of it, (and as research for a story for the BBC’s website), I recently paid $173 to take the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, which measures creativity — using a variety of criteria, from emotional expressiveness to openness to ambiguity to humor.

The assessment takes about 45 minutes, with a variety of visual and verbal tests, like a page containing a large black tilted oval with instructions to turn it into something — anything you want! — within a few minutes, then write a caption to describe your choice.

Other elements gave me a drawing to describe and interpret, a product to improve and a number of unfinished lines to turn into drawings or designs of my choosing, all with my own added explanatory captions.

I mailed my booklets back to a distant midwestern address and waited, with bated breath.

What if I wasn’t creative after all? 

Luckily — whew! — I turned out to be in the 98th percentile, which felt good.

Now my much larger life challenge is to actually use this skill much more often, for work and for play.

There are days — and while I’m grateful to be this busy! — I feel like a one-woman industrial production line, moving as fast as I possibly can, gulping down lunch, to get the work out the door.

As a writer, this seems very much at odds with the notion that what I do is creative.

Ford assembly line, 1913.
Ford assembly line, 1913. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I simply have no time to stare into space, waiting for some Muse to show up and tap me on the shoulder.

When other writers, (usually of fiction), complain about writer’s block, I laugh. I have no such luxury if the mortgage is going to be paid on time and there will be gas in the car and food in the fridge.

Here’s a post I wrote — chosen for Freshly Pressed — about the ongoing choice for those of us who make a living doing artistic work, between being creative (noodling, thinking, musing revising) and being productive (shipping.)

Serious question.

I’m not persuaded one can be both all the time.

We all need time to think, reflect, ponder, meander, take some detours, some of which — being immediately unproductive — lead into dead ends, some of which lead us off into totally new and hugely profitable (financially or creatively) directions.

Shutting down the production line for a while — silence! solitude! no immediate income! I’m wasting time! — can feel terrifying.

It’s absolutely necessary.

But we don’t talk about the downtime, the quiet moments of connection and insight that can, when allowed to blossom quietly unforced by another’s schedule, birth wonders.

Whenever I’ve taught or lectured on journalism, I crush a few young dreams when I make clear that traditional news journalism more resembles an industrial assembly line than an artist’s studio.

Editors aren’t terribly interested in whether you’re feeling creative — they want accurate
copy/content/visuals and they want it now!

Here’s an audio link to one of my favorite radio shows, Studio 360. The entire hour is devoted to a discussion of creativity, and ends with a seven-year-old girl talking about her paracosms — worlds she has created and populated.

Selfridges has a Krispy Kreme Doughnut shop wh...
Selfridges has a Krispy Kreme Doughnut shop which has its own doughnut production line thing. Tasty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are you a creative person?

How does that play out in your life, personal and/or professional?

Journalist or activist — who speaks (more) truth to power?

By Caitlin Kelly

The ongoing firestorm surrounding the leaks by NSA contractor Edward Snowden to activist/journalist Glen Greenwald prompted New York Times media columnist David Carr this week to ask the question — who should we (most) believe?:

In a refracted media world where information comes from everywhere, the line between two “isms” — journalism and activism — is becoming difficult to discern. As American news media have pulled back from international coverage, nongovernmental organizations have filled in the gaps with on-the-scene reports and Web sites. State houses have lost reporters who used to provide accountability, so citizens have turned to digital enterprises, some of which have partisan agendas.

The question of who is a journalist and who is an activist and whether they can be one and the same continues to roar along, most recently in the instance of Glenn Greenwald’s reporting for The Guardian on the secrets revealed by Edward J. Snowden.

Sometimes, a writer’s motives or leanings emerge between the lines over time, but you need only to read a few sentences of Mr. Greenwald’s blog to know exactly where he stands. Mr. Greenwald is an activist who is deeply suspicious of government and the national security apparatus, and he is a zealous defender of privacy and civil rights.

He is also a journalist.

In some countries, the question is less pressing, perhaps, but in the United States, “objectivity” is professionally expected, and demanded, of anyone who purports to be a news journalist.

English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait f...
English: Globe and Mail newspaper staff wait for news of the D-Day invasion. Toronto, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been writing freelance for The New York Times since 1990 — an organization ferociously guarding its reputation. Every freelancer who writes for the Times is sent a long and detailed ethics code we’re all expected to abide by; this includes not accepting free trips, writing about people we know personally or covering a firm or product in which we have a financial interest.

The word “journalist” is, though has many different variations, sort of like the word “antique” — someone who rewrites press releases and hits “publish” or who trills about mascara and shoes is, in some eyes, as much a journalist  as someone with the respect and stature of Pulitzer Prize winners, like Katherine Boo or the late David Halberstam.

One of the reasons this matters more now is that many younger readers don’t look to standard media outlets, like newspapers, radio or television, to find out what’s happening in the world.

They only want to know what’s happening in their world, or to their friends or political allies.

Now some bloggers are doing what journalists traditionally have done — bearing witness firsthand — like this one, whose powerful account of the violence against women in Tahrir Square in Cairo is deeply depressing, but essential to know.

English: Tahrir Square, with the Egyptian Muse...
English: Tahrir Square, with the Egyptian Museum on left, circa 1940s Cairo (over 70 years ago). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She’s both a journalist, (by reporting this) and an activist; Opantish is a group fighting sexual assault on women:

Yesterday, June 30th, some friends and I joined a march
from Saray el Kobba to the presidential palace calling for Morsy’s
departure and also rejecting military rule. The atmosphere was largely
festive, with singing, chanting, banners and flags. After we joined
other marches congregating at the palace we stood around drinking iced
coffee in the shade, disoriented by the safe, upbeat atmosphere after
days of anxiety and with the knowledge that things would surely be
violent elsewhere in the country. I left to go to Tahrir and work with
Opantish, which was operating that evening.

Like many, I was stunned by how Tahrir and the surrounding streets
were carpeted by people protesting, mostly chanting against Morsy. I had
not seen so many people out around Tahrir before, not in the 18 days
that unseated Mubarak in 2011 or at any other time. Military helicopters
frequently circled the square, at one point bizarrely dropping Egyptian
flags onto the crowd in a blatant gesture of political partiality.

The atmosphere felt more threatening to me immediately after getting
out of the taxi near Tahrir, at which point it was still daylight. I
don’t understand what kind of subliminal group psychology contributes to
this, but it seems like there is some consensus that Tahrir and
downtown are areas where it is particularly ok to harass women. I don’t
know if geographic locations develop  certain reputations, and therefore
bring this behavior out in people.

I started my shift with Opantish at around 7 30 last night. We did
not wrap up until after 3 in the morning. We received 46 reports of
cases of mob sexual assault in and around Tahrir.

I’ve been making my living as a journalist since university, and have been a reporter for three major dailies, The Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette, in Canada and the New York Daily News, the U.S.’s sixth-largest daily. In those jobs, I was expected to be fair to both sides, giving, whenever possible, both versions of whatever story I was covering. Although some stories — like this one about mobs of men attacking and raping women — really don’t have a defensible or rational “other side” to seek and share.

A Dutch female journalist was raped by five men, in return for trying to do her job. Should she, as some comments suggest here at Jezebel, an American feminist website, not have gone to Tahrir Square at all?

New York Daily News front page on August 9
New York Daily News front page on August 9 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The one place I can take the gloves off, intellectually speaking, is in my books — and I have. In them, I’m able to ferociously and unapologetically state my personal opinion, and advocate for or against anything I want.

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” includes interviews with 104 men, women and teens, some who love guns and others traumatized by their use. A few critics cringed at my graphic descriptions of what a bullet does when it hits flesh.

My second book — published this month in China — describes my experience, and that of many others nationwide, working for low wages in a store, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.” I took my employer to the woodshed in its final chapter, fed up with terrible pay and escalating demands, rude customers and an ongoing lack of corporate support for front-line workers everywhere, not just our suburban New York mall.

I later received dozens of private emails, from retail workers past and present, thanking me for speaking out, telling the ugly truths behind the bright lights and costly ad campaigns. I was glad to be able to tell their stories.

Someone has to.

Where are you getting your information about the world?

Are you out there actively fighting for or against a cause — and writing about it?

Who — if anyone — do you believe?

“Her Best-Kept Secret”: American women and alcohol: Q & A with author Gabrielle Glaser

By Caitlin Kelly

One of the pleasures of being a non-fiction writer is knowing others who write well-written, well-reviewed serious non-fiction.

Glaser jacket

I met Gabrielle a few months ago at a social event and immediately loved her energy and sense of humor.

Her new book, her third, examines a key change in how American women are relating to alcohol use. Says Kirkus Reviews, famously stingy with praise: “an important addition to feminist literature.”

It is — but it’s also a lively read as well. As someone with female alcoholism in my own family, I read this one with specific interest.

Here’s an excerpt that ran in The Wall Street Journal and a WSJ video interview with her.

download

Here’s my Q and A with Gabrielle:

Tell us a bit about you: where you live, how you got into writing/journalism and what sorts of things you typically cover.

 I’ve been a journalist for 26 years, ever since graduating from college. I had hoped to get a Ph.D. in Brazilian history, but a friend who worked as the assistant to the late, great New York Times writer Johnny Apple invited me to a dinner party at Apple’s house. My friend was going to law school, and Apple needed a new assistant. I didn’t  even know who he was — I’m from the West Coast and just happened to be in Washington for a brief stay. But we started talking, and he offered me the job. He told me my nice Oregon parents would be happier if I took a “real job” instead of worrying about me living on ramen for the next four years. (He definitely had a point!)

I loved the newsroom, the energy there, and just didn’t look back.

 Since then I’ve covered a lot of things – crime in Baltimore in the late 1980s; the shift from communism to capitalism in Poland in the early 1990s; and basically since then, how health and health trends intersect with our particular culture. I’ve written two other books, including one that examines how our noses and scent affect our lives.

 Where did you get the idea for this book and when?

 I moved back to the East Coast from a six-year stay in Oregon in late 2008, just as the economy was tanking. Newspapers and magazines were laying people off, and it was really hard to find work. I had lunch with an acquaintance who is an editor at Simon & Schuster and all around us, women were drinking.

 I drink, too, but drinking at lunch puts me out for the day. We started talking about women’s drinking habits, (and our own), and the cultural shift we’d seen around us.  She suggested I look into it. The proposal hit her desk the same day as the news of a terrible accident in which a suburban mom killed herself and seven others when she had the equivalent of 10 shots of vodka in her system.

Was it a difficult book to sell to an agent or publisher?

 No, because I was lucky to have already had her interest. I had written other books so already had an agent.

 What were the most challenging aspects of reporting or researching the book?

 At first I thought the book would be a straightforward trend book, about women drinking more than in previous generations, and why. But then I started researching how they got better if they got into trouble, and I found some really interesting new options. I hadn’t had exposure to harmful drinking in my life, and I assumed that the traditional 12-step methods we rely on in this country were effective. I was stunned to learn that they had a very low success rate and were designed by men, for men at a time when the knowledge of brain chemistry was at its infancy – and that it was used by the courts, employee assistance programs, and the medical establishment as a gold standard.

 So digging into that was challenging – but fun. It’s always exciting to shift your thinking about something you’ve accepted, or taken for granted -– sort of like you did with “Malled.”

 How did you research the book? Tell us where you went, who you spoke to, how you found sources.

 At first I started looking into statistics, which as a reporter is the easiest starting place. Drunk driving among women was up; hospitalizations for alcohol overdosing were up among women; the number of older women who checked into rehab had spiked. The number of women who said they were regular drinkers was up.

 Once I had those figures, I could sort of move backwards – contacting the researchers and interviewing them. Researchers typically know the others in their areas of expertise, and a lot of them are really generous. One man told me, “Oh, I’m nothing in this field – you should talk to so-and-so and so-and-so.”  Those so-and-sos turned out to be amazing sources who were patient and funny and helpful, and pointed out where I had holes.

I also did a lot of searching online for women who would be willing to talk to me about their issues. It is a dicey thing to ask people to discuss a topic that is shameful or embarrassing to them, but I’m a good listener and sometimes that’s what people need. Talking helps a lot of us process our “stuff.”

 How long did it take you, from signed contract to delivered manuscript?

 Three years.

 Was this faster or slower than you anticipated?

 Much slower. I thought it would take me a year! That’s crazy.

 What did you enjoy most about working on the book?

I loved learning about our history with alcohol, and how our habits have shifted so dramatically over the years. I loved meeting people, and making new friends, but I also loved diving into the history of why we treat alcohol so oddly in this country. We went from Martha Washington, whose collection of 500 recipes included 50 for boozy drinks, (plus some hangover cures), to wild-eyed prohibitionists to Girls Gone Wild.

 What was the least fun part?

Some chapters were torture. Reducing the history was particularly hard for me, because I found it so fascinating. At one point, I had about six pages on how the women who crossed the Oregon Trail drank whiskey and wrote about how it helped calm their nerves and sadness in their diaries. My editor, God love her, wrote, “I know this is fascinating, but I think we could carve this down to a sentence or two.” What? All those diaries I read to a sentence? Sometimes you need cold water on your face to knock you to your senses.

Who do you see as readers for this book?

 I think any woman who has ever thought twice about their drinking would be interested in this book, and anyone who has ever thought twice about the drinking of a woman they love would be interested in this book. I tried to bust a lot of myths. I also think it would be a good read for anyone interested in women’s history and women’s studies. It traces the arc of female power through our relationship to alcohol in ways that are quite surprising.

 If you have written other books, how is this one different – in tone, content, approach?

This was much better conceived and executed than my other books, because it had a tighter focus. I used history as a guide, and medical research as a foundation, whereas my nose book was a sort of kooky history – cool stuff you didn’t know about your sense of smell, the history of Kleenex, nose jobs. My first book was a starter book, on interfaith marriage. It was too long and not focused enough.

What advice would you offer a would-be non-fiction author?

 Develop a good working relationship with your editor. That is absolutely key. If you don’t see eye-to-eye from the beginning, you aren’t going to see eye-to-eye at the end. I’ve had a great experience this time with a patient, wise, and incredibly generous editor who helped reel me back in when I needed to be. I haven’t always had that experience. Chemistry matters. My best working relationships have always been with editors I really admire and love. In other words, don’t try to force something that isn’t there. And also: don’t be afraid to lose your good material in order to save your great material. Nobody wants to read six pages about something only you find amazing.

 

Happy Canada Day!

By Caitlin Kelly

This is the week I celebrate both my countries — July 1 is Canada Day. I was born and raised there, (Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal) and the U.S., where I’ve lived since 1988, celebrates July 4.

We have a big Canadian flag we’ll hang off the balcony. After my hip replacement, in February 2012, I walked the hospital hallway, thinking it might be fun — with ceramic and metal in me for good, now — to look like a super-hero.

caiti flag

It’s odd to have become a long-term expatriate, (a word often mis-spelled, with an interesting twist of meaning, as ex-patriot.) When do you become an immigrant? When you take the citizenship of your new land? I will probably do so here because of estate planning issues; I’ll be able to retain both passports.

Ironically, my ability to come to, and stay in, the U.S. was thanks to my mother’s American citizenship. She now lives near my birthplace, Vancouver, and I now live near hers, New York City.

I do miss my Canadian friends and a shared set of cultural references so Jose and I head north usually 2-4 times a year.

Will I ever move back? Hard to say. Living in the States is rougher professionally, but new opportunities come much more easily here, I’ve found.

Here are some fun Canadian facts:

— Insulin was first produced by Frederick Banting and Charles Best at my alma mater, the University of Toronto.

English: Frederick Banting ca. 1920–1925 in To...
English: Frederick Banting ca. 1920–1925 in Toronto, Ontario (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— The singer Neil Young had a very nice guy for a dad, Scott Young, who worked in the same Toronto newsroom as I did, The Globe & Mail, as a sportswriter.

— If you love the work of smart, tough-minded women writers like Margaret Atwood (who attended my Toronto high school), Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence and Miriam Toews, you’re reading Canadians.

— If you’re in Canada and need a painkiller, ask a pharmacist for a bottle of 222s, which have codeine in them (forbidden in the U.S. without a prescription). They work great.

— Canadian candy bars rock! My favorites include Big Turk, Crispy Crunch, Aero and Crunchie , all of them in milk chocolate. American mass-market chocolate, like Hershey’s, is a contradiction in terms.

— To truly understand how Canadians ran the 18th. and 19th-century fur trade, kneel in  a wooden canoe and paddle for a week or so. Then do some really long, twisty, slippery, muddy, rocky portages, swatting away black flies and mosquitoes as you hump the canoe and all your packs on your shoulders between lakes or rivers. Visit the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario to see a replica of a voyageur canoe, used by the earliest explorers. They are simply amazing. It’s one of my favorite museums in the world.

— There are some astounding fossils to be seen in the Badlands of Alberta. The Royal Tyrell Museum is well worth a stop!

— A great way to enjoy Vancouver’s Stanley Park is to rent a bike and ride the whole thing. As you circle the seawall, you’ll see huge freighters off-shore and dozens of float-planes zooming overhead.

Splurge on a helicopter ride from Vancouver to Victoria; the cheapest fare is $150. The views of the ocean and the Rockies are stupendous.

— Did you know the Vikings arrived in Newfoundland? I’m dying to visit L’Anse Aux Meadows, the curiously bilingually-named site from the 11th. century.

— If you enjoyed the movies Superbad and Juno, and the star Michael Cera, he’s Canadian, from Brampton, Ontario.

— If you’ve never tried poutine, tourtiere, a butter tart or a Nanaimo bar, go for it! They’re all caloric suicide, but well-loved: cheese curds with gravy; a meat pie; a sweet small tart and a chocolate, icing-covered brownie. Hey, those long cold Canadian winters require some metabolic stoking!

Nanaimo Bar at Butler's Pantry, Toronto, Canada.
Nanaimo Bar at Butler’s Pantry, Toronto, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And here is my favorite short video of all time, Canadian Please.

Enjoy, mes cher(es)! C’est un pays bilingue.

Have you been to Canada? What did you see?