The first interview on this blog is with Esquire contributing editor Luke Dittrich. Luke and I made our acquaintance recently after I wrote about his Esquire profile of Usain Bolt. The next day, an email from Luke appeared in my inbox, thanking me.
If you read Esquire, you've probably read Luke's profiles of Todd Palin and Matt Damon. He received considerable attention after his piece "Tonight on Dateline This Man Will Die," an inside look at NBC's To Catch a Predator series. He also wrote "Four Days on the Border," about an American boy hired as an assassin for a Mexican drug cartel. And for you runners, in 2008 he wrote a piece in Runner's World about his decision to resume running after an extended layoff. He picked a tough place to resume it: Luke lives in Whitehorse, Yukon, which is 160 miles north of Juneau. The temperature where he lives can get down to -40F.
In this interview Luke talks about both his writing and his running. Regardless of the type of writing you do, you'll find something of value in what Luke says. In particular, I find the backstory to his Bolt interview fascinating. For those readers less accomplished than Luke, it's instructive to see that he has some of the same anxieties about writing (like writing on a deadline) that most everyone has. I also like his editing advice (the same thing I tell everyone: read your drafts aloud) and his choice of recommended writers (Hemingway).
Luke has run a marathon in Antarctica and lives in the Great White North. So he knows what it's like to run in the cold and write in the dark, and vice versa. As a runner and a writer, and a writer who has profiled a runner, Luke is the perfect choice to kick off this series.
What did you do before coming to Esquire?
I began working as a journalist about a dozen years ago, in Cairo, Egypt. I’d been teaching English as a foreign language, had lots of spare time, wrote long letters home. One particular letter was about an encounter I had with a dead body while single-sculling on the Nile. I decided to try repurposing the letter as an article, then submitted it to a local English-language publication, The Middle East Times. An editor at the paper liked it. That’s how I got my start in journalism. Within a few months I had hired on as a staff writer at Egypt Today, a glossy English-language general interest magazine. When I left Egypt I moved to Savannah, Georgia, and began working as a writer at a start-up alternative newsweekly there. From Savannah I moved to Atlanta, where I worked for Atlanta magazine. Five years ago, an editor at Esquire contacted me, asked if I had any story ideas. I’ve been writing for Esquire ever since, for the last three years as a contributing editor.
Take me through your writing process, from the time you get an idea to the time you submit something.
I don’t have a consistent process. And the initial idea for a story often doesn’t come from me. The idea to profile Usain Bolt for Esquire, for example, came from my editor. But there are some basic steps, post-idea, that are important.
First, research. Read everything you can, from books to blogs. Watch a heap of the relevant YouTube clips, documentaries, whatever. Steep your brain in the subject. The idea is to make yourself, temporarily at least, an expert. It’s kind of like cramming for an exam, with similarly fleeting results. You learn a lot, for a little while, and then what you’ve learned is replaced by whatever you need to learn for your next story.
Second, access. Get close to whatever it is you’re writing about. If it’s a person, spend as much time hanging around that person as you can. You want the person you’re writing about to let down his or her guard, to act like him or herself, and that requires time, not interrogation. For example, I spent about ten days in Jamaica for the Usain Bolt story. During the first week or so, I interviewed him once, watched him train once, and other than that just sort of stayed vaguely in his orbit, talking with friends and coaches and family members. I wasn’t getting the material I needed. His publicist didn’t really understand why I wanted more access: “When Bryant Gumbel came down all he asked for was an hour-and-a-half interview,” she told me.
Finally I decided to bypass the publicist, and just approached Usain himself, at the track. I pled my case, told him I needed to spend at least an entire day with him. He said okay. The next morning I headed over to his place, and spent the next dozen or so hours just following him around. The material I gathered that day ended up constituting the bulk of my reporting for the profile.
The next part of the process, the actual writing, is always different. Sometimes it comes easy, sometimes it doesn’t. For the Bolt story, I remember struggling with how to open it. My first stab opened in his bedroom, where he and his brother were engaged in an epic game of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. That scene, my thinking went, was an intimate slice of life that would instantly bring readers into Bolt’s world. But then I realized that, before I did that, I had to first show readers why they should care about Bolt’s world in the first place. I had to show them what makes him so special. Which is why I eventually decided to open the story with a description of his mind-blowing performance during the 100m final in Beijing.
No, I don’t. But I admire those who do. I read somewhere that Graham Greene wrote exactly 500 words a day, and would stop, mid-sentence if need be, as soon he’d completed his daily quota. That strikes me as hugely disciplined and maybe a little crazy.
Are there any quirky parts of your writing process that help you write?
Nothing really quirky. Music is important. Certain albums are linked with certain stories in my mind.
You listen to music while writing? Writing while listening to music goes against everything researchers have said about multitasking, so how does it help you? And what do you listen to?
Well, thinking about it now, I probably usually listen to music during breaks in between bouts of writing, rather than during the actual keyboard work. But still, I’m pretty good at tuning out distractions when I need to. I probably do most of my writing in coffee shops, where there’s always music in the background, like it or not. I do think good music can help lubricate thought. A few albums that have helped me write in the past would be Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, Kanye West’s Graduation, and The Weakerthan’s Left and Leaving. Last spring I was down in Laredo, Texas, working on a story about teenaged drug cartel hitmen, when Bob Dylan released Together Through Life, an album of accordion-infused border music that was the perfect soundtrack to the material I was working with.
Is there anything regular about your writing process, like the time of day you write? Do you write longhand or on the screen?
I probably work best in the morning, after coffee. I write on the screen.
I lived for four years in upstate New York, near Syracuse, and found the winters difficult. However, the isolation allowed me to finish my dissertation pretty quickly. Do you find that living in the Yukon Territory makes you a more disciplined writer?
That’s a hard one to answer. Whitehorse is definitely more isolated than Atlanta, but my life here, for various reasons, is a lot more complicated than my life was in Atlanta. I am not nearly as disciplined as I would like to be.
One of the biggest mistakes novice writers make is that they never consider their audience. How do you consider audience when you write for Esquire?
I don’t really consider a specific Esquire audience when I’m writing an Esquire feature. Sometimes I do when I’m writing a short, front-of-the-book piece, but for the features I think it could be lethal to overthink the wants of a particular audience. So I don’t really approach my Esquire features any differently than I approached my Atlanta Magazine or Egypt Today features. I just try to figure out what the story is, and how best to tell it. But maybe I wouldn’t be able to get away with that approach if I were working for a different mag. One of the great things about Esquire is how open the magazine is to experimentation: Its features don’t follow any particular formula.
Writing on deadline can be stressful. The more you think about the looming deadline, the less you are able to write. When you have to write for a deadline, how do you do it?
I’ve been doing this for a while, and haven’t gotten any better at managing my stress levels when deadlines roll around. The bigger problem for me is writing when I don’t have a strict deadline. Deadlines, for me, are painful, stressful, and essential.
How many miles a week do you run?
These days, only about a dozen miles a week. It’s the shoulder season in the Yukon, and the trails are all mud, slush and muck. A winter’s worth of dogshit emerges with the thaw. Excuses, excuses. I hope to be running more soon.
You ran a marathon in Antarctica. What was that like?
It was awesome. I’d just moved up to Whitehorse a few months before the marathon, and Whitehorse, it turned out, was the ideal place to train for the event. Running on snow and ice was old hat by the time I got down there. In fact, due to the summer/winter flip that happens south of the equator, on the day of the marathon it was considerably colder in Whitehorse than it was in Antarctica. My time wasn’t fast at all, but I’d never participated in even a 10 k race before, so I was happy just to finish. There weren’t many human spectators egging us on, but all the penguins and seals made up for that.
What was the biggest challenge, besides the snow and ice?
Gnawing through frozen energy bars was an unexpected challenge. And, post-race, completely depleted, very cold, it was tough to find the strength to balance myself on the side of the Zodiac raft that ferried me through the chop back to the ship.
How is running a part of your writing process? Do you find that it makes you more creative or helps in your invention stage?
For sure. Anything that gets the blood pumping—running, music, movement—helps. That said, artificial stimulants—caffeine and, back when I smoked, nicotine—can help, too. The really good thing about running, though, is that it combines blood-pumping stimulation with a sort of enforced meditative isolation, so your charged-up thoughts are free to wander, sometimes productively.
What are the two or three most valuable practical editing/revising tips you would give writers?
Reading my drafts aloud is almost always a part of my revising and editing process. Find someone who can tolerate listening to you, and take advantage of him or her. If the listener has good advice, great. But regardless, you yourself will notice things reading aloud that you wouldn’t notice just reading on the page.
For people who want to write clear, direct prose, what authors would you recommend?
For clear and direct there’s probably no substitute for Hemingway. But not all great writing is clear and direct. I know you advise people to read Shakespearean sonnets, which is the sort of writing you need to work to understand. There’s nothing wrong with that.