Rebecca Traister is the author of the recent New York Times Best Seller All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. She is a writer at large for New York magazine and a contributing editor at Elle. Traister has been a National Magazine Award Finalist, writing about women in politics, media, and entertainment for The New Republic, Salon, The Nation, The New York Observer, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Big Girls Don’t Cry, Traister’s first book, about Hillary Clinton and the 2008 presidential election, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2010 and the winner of Ernesta Drinker Ballard Book prize. Anne Lamott, another non-man writer of nonfiction, describes Traister as “the most brilliant voice on feminism in the country.”
EB: What first drew you to nonfiction? Has it always been your genre?
RT: I’ve never written fiction. I was trained as a journalist—though I didn’t go to journalism school. In the late 90s, when I got out of college, I worked as an assistant to the actor Harvey Keitel. I got my second job, which was the assistant at a magazine, which I found because I had a Hollywood connection—Talk magazine was published by a movie producer, and I heard about the job through my work for Keitel. Talk was edited by Tina Brown, and while I was there, I met journalists and editors who recommended me for a job at the New York Observer. That’s where I learned to be a journalist and trained to be a reporter. First I was encouraged to learn just the mechanics of journalism: on the record, off the record, meeting deadlines, picking up the phone, gathering information, fact-checking. As I grew as a reporter, and once I had learned to get the facts down, I was encouraged to develop more of an opinionated voice.
When I moved to Salon, where I worked for a decade, I began writing about women. I developed more of a voice, and more of a feminist voice and a feminist perspective, that was my own. It did well, and I was encouraged by my editors to write about that more, and I developed a beat as a feminist journalist.
EB: I love hearing everyone’s How I Got Into Writing stories—no two are ever the same. Who knew Harvey Keitel could be part of the process? You mentioned your voice and your beat, but what else do you think defines your writing as Rebecca Traister nonfiction, as opposed to Ann Friedman nonfiction or Meghan Daum nonfiction?
RT: What has made me distinctly me over the years has changed as my interests have shifted. Now, I come at almost everything from a feminist perspective. I also look for patterns that tell us something: patterns that tell us about power and history. In my earlier work, I would look at things that were happening in pop culture, on television, in literature, and in politics, all at the same time, that offer a window into a larger set of ideas. Increasingly, as I get older, I find myself writing a lot more about history. Certainly in All The Single Ladies, the book that I just published, I was looking for patterns for how unmarried women live in the world and helped reshape the country. I was looking across genres—I was looking at literature and pop culture and the media and politics—but I was also extending back into the past. I’m also interested more now in the ways that gender issues have intersected with issues of race and class, thinking and learning more about issues of identity and bias. I tend not to write just about a single event, but rather I try to take an event or set of events and look for what they in concert are telling us about what is going on.
EB: I loved All the Single Ladies, especially how the book moved seamlessly between historical research, political and cultural commentary, book and film critique, and personal narrative—all on the same page, even sometimes in the same paragraph. Do you see those as separate types of nonfiction or is it all the same? Do you approach writing, say, memoir differently than you approach cultural analysis?
RT: I don’t think there is any one firm rule. When I am writing journalism I often find myself looking up forty things simultaneously—I have fifteen windows open on my computer. When I was writing the book, I would spend days or weeks reading secondary sources, academic books, scholarship about history, but in the midst of that I might be reading some book about single women in the 19th century and it might remind me of something Mitt Romney said, and I’ll make a note in my notes about that connection, and some day far in the future when I am writing through that section, I will connect the two ideas. I see the patterns as I go along and make note of them, but the actual fleshing them out comes much later.
EB: What about when you’re writing the more personal elements of your book? Do you find that more challenging since you were trained as a journalist?
RT: I do approach the personal differently. If it’s coming from my own head and my own experience, while I want to be careful that I get the timelines and details correct, there’s a little bit of a more casual approach. On the other hand, while presenting a compelling narrative about my own life, I want to scrupulously honest and transparent and make the writing good and not cheesy.
EB: Have you always written about your own life or is that a more recent development?
RT: Throughout my journalistic years, I occasionally wrote first-person essays, and my first book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, also includes my own personal narrative. In part, that is market-driven. For years, during which I was a journalist, even when I was writing reported material on the financing of the film industry, for example, people asked me to write first-person stories. It’s one of the only things that women are taken seriously about, as authorities on their own lives. (Specifically on their own sex lives!) I do like it—writing first-person stories isn’t the only thing I want to do with my life, but I always like getting a chance to reflect in writing and to put things in context of history, politics, and what was happening at the time.
EB: Having authority on a topic is something a lot of writers struggle with, but I think it’s something women writers struggle with this especially so. Have you often had people doubt your authority?
RT: I have just insisted I am an authority. I have had the experience of being a person in a professional context who goes unheard, for reasons that may or may not have to do with gender, but I have also over the years been afforded a lot of respect by my colleagues and by my editors. I think I’ve had both experiences, and, often, at least, having my authority eventually acknowledged. But, also, I didn’t come to politics writing as an authority, I came to it through feminism, because there was a woman running for president in 2008, which led to me writing about presidential politics. So it was actually okay with me for a long time that I wasn’t an authority. There was a learning curve for me before I accepted my own authority. Sure, sometimes you feel tokenized, patted on the head, you say something five times and then a male colleague says the same thing and gets congratulated, but I’ve also had many good experiences in the professional realm. I’ve been heard and respected.
EB: How else has writing nonfiction affected your life, besides increasing your authority on certain subjects?
RT: That is very hard for me to determine, because my profession and professional engagement has been so wound around the development of who I am as an adult. I don’t know if it has changed me, because my professional life and my life have developed in tandem and in relationship to each other.
EB: You said you’ve found you’re writing more about history as you’ve gotten older. Do you find there are certain subjects or styles of writing you’re more drawn to now than you were before?
RT: I’ve become much more curious about different things. I think a lot more about history, race, class, socioeconomic status, and poverty than I used to, all of which, I hope, are signs of growth and having learned from criticism. And also just shifting appetites and curiosities.
EB: So what are you curious about next? Now that you’ve published All The Single Ladies, do you have a new project that you’re working on?
RT: Well, my day job is writing about women in politics, and Hillary Clinton is currently running for president, a lot of my work is very much in process right now. This is happening all around me. I can’t really say what’s next, because I need to see what’s going to happen in the election, and covering the election is really my full-time job for the next seven or eight months. Besides that, things are very much up in the air. It’s hard to know.
EB: I look forward to reading all of your commentary on the election. I’m a die-hard Hillary supporter, and I really hope it works out well.
RT: So do I.
EB: Covering the presidential election must be especially challenging. What has been rewarding and challenging for you when it comes to writing nonfiction?
RT: It’s rewarding when an argument comes together, and it’s rewarding when you have a gut feeling something is true, and then as a reporter you gather the evidence and it supports that gut feeling. The challenge is starting with a blank page all the time, just generating content. It’s like you’ve signed up for a life of writing term papers. It’s also a job, it’s how I earn my living, so in addition to the super highs and super lows of it, it’s a job, and I am really lucky that I get to do it.
EB: Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
RT: I would certainly not ever dare to cite a “favorite” passage, because there’s such wonderful writing out there. One passage I love, because it’s beautifully written and because it makes clear what good journalism and history writing and nonfiction writing can entail—the reframing of questions that have perhaps been asked before—is from the very end of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. It’s a tremendous paragraph that works as a conclusion, a restating of the preceding volume’s central investigation, and a stunningly expressed larger idea about identity, history, and America:
Over the decades, perhaps the wrong questions have been asked about the Great Migration. Perhaps it is not a question of whether the migrants brought good or ill to the cities they fled to or were pushed or pulled to their destinations, but a question of how they summoned the courage to leave in the first place or how they found the will to press beyond the forces against them and the faith in a country that had rejected them for so long. By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing. They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts.
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.