I am loathe to publish an interview by someone who tells readers of this blog not to read Hemingway. But Eve Fairbanks is my friend and she is a great writer, so I’ll let it slide.
Fairbanks is currently living and writing in South Africa as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. She would have sent me this interview sooner, but she said something about a soccer game happening there. She’s been at the ICWA since last year; before that, she was associate editor at The New Republic, where she wrote many articles and covered the 2008 election. Besides TNR, she has been published in many other news outlets, including the New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Atlantic. While Fairbanks is no longer an editor at TNR, she is a regular contributor.
Some links to her most recent pieces from this month:
- In The Atlantic: “At the World Cup, Searching for the ‘Real’ South Africa.”
- In Newsweek: “Soccer is not a National Metaphor.”
So read my interview with Eve Fairbanks. She dispenses some fantastic practical advice to writers, including how John Donne and peanut butter make her a better writer. You can watch Eve here:
Tell me about what you did before your fellowship at the ICWA.
I was a staff writer at The New Republic magazine, an old, irreverent journal of politics and the arts with a center-left heart. Started there as an intern, then got thrown a gig that nobody else really wanted writing columns about Congress. It was a ton of fun, actually -- while a presidential campaign ends up being about two or three titanic personalities, there's every kind of person in Congress, with nearly every kind of motive and quirk and weakness and trajectory. Capitol Hill is its own bizarre planet.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Not until after I was one, I guess, although in retrospect it makes sense. When I was a little kid, I used to narrate my own moves in the third person in my head! In college I thought I wanted to be a diplomat, so to work at an embassy I moved one summer to Brussels, where I fell in love. My job wasn't terribly time-consuming, so I spent my afternoons writing that paramour these involved e-mails that were often intricate plays on poems or the Bible (he was a pastor!). He told me I should be “a writer,” a concept that hadn't totally occurred to me. I had thought of that profession as having only three poles: novelist, poet, or “reporter,” which I envisioned as sitting in front of a cubicle chain-smoking and re-typing press releases.
What writers (of any genre) have influenced you? Who would you say are your literary inspirations?
I love reading poetry and the Bible. The Bible continues to resonate with a huge audience like no other source material (except maybe Greek mythology), and you can use images and ideas from it all the time to enrich your communication, even if you're not religious yourself. I always go back to the Psalms and the story of Abraham in Genesis. John Donne really inspires me to make my metaphors more effective, which is a combination of inventive and precise. I love book writers who've stuck with an unusual idea for a really long time -- like Anne Fadiman, an essayist who mostly writes about books who took ten years to write the story of an epileptic child of Laotian immigrants in California. But I think it's incredibly important to a) read a ton and b) read a lot outside your genre. If you're Bob Woodward, read Dante.
Talk about your writing process. Do you have a regular routine?
Not really -- I don't write just 500 words a day and stop in the middle of a sentence, as Flaubert supposedly did. But if you like to write long, organizing your material can be a huge challenge. I recently did a story for which I'd done about forty different interviews, gone to many events, etc, and it didn't have an obvious narrative arc. In those kinds of situations, I write all my quotes and facts and ideas -- literally everything, including bits out of books or little lines of language I already wrote that I know I want to include somewhere -- onto index cards. Sometimes I have hundreds of cards! Then you can lay them out on the floor, organize them into different themes, plan segues, etc. It can be important to break your mind's habitual patterns of thinking about material, and looking at your material in a different format is one way to do that.
As a professional writer, do you set goals each day for how much you are going to write?
No. But maybe I should!
Are there any quirky parts of your writing process that help you write?
Great quantities of peanut butter, delivery mechanism carrots. And taking a walk on a mountain in the middle of the day -- a weird, craggy peak called Lion's Head here in Cape Town. It looks different every day, and the different sides of it often have remarkably different weather -- it'll be blasting wind on one side and around the other, utterly still. You can run down the rocks, and if you get the rhythm just right, it feels like you're dancing with them, not running on them.
What do you do when you get writer's block? What advice would you give people who have it?
When I feel stuck or frustrated on a particular project, I go running (sometimes it almost feels like the pounding up-and-down is physically dislodging new ideas from the crevasses in my head!), go watch a movie (which I otherwise rarely do), or go out to eat alone at a restaurant I've never been to before. I think it's important to get away from the computer, and to break your routine (hence the unfamiliar restaurant). You have ideas, you're just not seeing them, and you have to look away and then look back. For people who have large-scale writer's block, who look at the environment around them and find it offers little inspiration, my only advice is to move -- honestly.
How does your environment affect your writing process?
I write nonfiction, about things and stories around me, so in one sense the answer is obvious. But somebody once said that if you know only one country, you know no country. If you write about American politics, for instance, I think it's important to spend extended time in another place so you have a comparison point. One of my favorite writers is George Packer, who brings a number of months in Togo with the Peace Corps and extended travels in Iraq to his coverage of Washington D.C. As far as micro-environment, it doesn't affect me a ton -- I can write in a noisy cafe if I need internet or half-reclining in the Least Comfortable Bed in the World, when I was renting a tiny room in the center of South Africa and had no desk.
If you could construct your perfect writing environment, what would it be?
1) There's a mountain five minutes away. 2) There's internet, but the Powers that Be only turn it on for three hours a day, at a specific and appointed time, like a water sluice in a drought town. That way I couldn't linger and would have to scheme out my online research ahead of time, like people used to do when they visited the library. 3) Most important: There's a vibrant intellectual community, a group of people considering the same questions -- but from different angles -- that likes to get together and drink and argue in the evenings. So maybe a ski town run by a dictator and populated by well-educated divorcees?
What are the two or three most valuable practical editing/revising tips you would give writers?
1) Do as much planning as possible so you won't have to revise: before you report, think about how you'll want to construct the narrative of the story and do your reporting in a way that will yield that. In other words, if you want to have three major scenes, try to report them in order, so you can more easily write them in order. 2) Don't over-revise a long piece, because your editors will likely chew through it anyway. 3) Print your writing to copy-edit it.
For people who want to write clear, direct prose, what authors would you recommend they read?
David Brooks for politics, Kwame Anthony Appiah for ideas or philosophy, Taylor Branch for history, Atul Gawande for science or health, Robert Frost for poetry. A good magazine would be Mother Jones. Not Hemingway!