Suki Kim is an investigative journalist, novelist, and the only writer ever to live undercover in North Korea. In 2011, Kim Jong Il’s final year, Kim spent six months posing as a Christian missionary and an English teacher in Pyongyang, documenting the psychology of the future leaders of North Korea, which resulted in her New York Times bestselling work of literary nonfiction, Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Kim has also written for the New York Times, New York Review of Books, Harper’s, and The New Republic, where she is a contributing editor. Her first novel, The Interpreter, was a finalist for a PEN Hemingway Prize. Born and raised in Seoul, Kim lives in New York.
EB: How did you begin writing nonfiction?
SK: My first book was a novel. But the very month The Interpreter was published was actually the same month that my first longform nonfiction was published. For me, it was always a natural transition. They are both prose I feel comfortable in so I can’t recall a point when it all began. Perhaps it’s about the subject. Some subjects require nonfiction, and in this case, the topic of my first nonfiction was North Korea. Continue reading
Virgie Tovar is a writer, speaker, and activist. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality, focusing on the intersections of body size, race, and gender, and is one of the nation’s leading lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love, and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the author of Destination DD: Adventures of a Breast Fetishist with 40DDs (Sexy Advisors Press, 2007) and the online book project Awake, Sleeping Heart. She also keeps a blog. Tovar is a former plus size style writer for Buzzfeed, and her work has been featured by the New York Times, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, Bust Magazine, MTV, and NPR, among others. Tovar founded the four-week online course, Babecamp, designed to help people end their relationship with diet culture. Tovar also began the hashtag campaign #LoseHateNotWeight. She offers workshops and lectures nationwide. Tovar lives in San Francisco.
EB: How did you begin writing in general, and writing nonfiction specifically?
VT: I don’t even entirely remember how it all started. I think I am a multi-disciplinary person. My art, my process, is so reflective of who I am as a person. So much of that has to do with growing up with immigrant parents and being encouraged to be really versatile and really diversified. My grandfather raised me, and he always had eighteen hustles going. I think that versatility and that value of resilience and diversification reflects how I work as an artist.
Nina MacLaughlin is the author of Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, a memoir about her transformation from journalist to carpenter. After spending her twenties as a staff writer at the award-winning alternative newsweekly the Boston Phoenix, in 2008 MacLaughlin quit her job to work as a carpenter’s assistant. Eight years later, MacLaughlin continues to pursue both building and writing. Her reviews and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, The Rumpus, The Millions, and Bookslut, among other places, and she has been a guest on All Things Considered. MacLaughlin also writes a blog called Carpentrix. She lives near the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
EB: Have you always been a nonfiction writer?
NM: I totally was not. I got a job at the Boston Phoenix out of college, and I had worked doing journalism in high school and college, so working at the Phoenix was a very sense-making job. At the Phoenix I was writing book reviews and profiles, which are, of course, nonfiction, but in my own brain I was always a fiction writer. I always thought, Oh, if I write a book, it’s going to be a novel. When I was twenty-three or twenty-four, I took a fiction-writing workshop at GrubStreet [a creative writing center in Boston], and I thought, All right, this is it. This is what I want to do. It was all short stories, novels, and I never read nonfiction. Ever. Truly never. And then I started my carpentry work… Continue reading
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.
Lily Brooks-Dalton is the author of Motorcycles I’ve Loved: A Memoir (Riverhead Books, 2015), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. In addition to her memoir, Brooks-Dalton has written for The Toast, The Huffington Post, and The New York Times. Her debut novel, Good Morning, Midnight, will be published by Random House on August 9, 2016.
E.B. Bartels: How did you begin writing nonfiction?
Lily Brooks-Dalton: I’m not sure it was a conscious choice for me. I’ve always thought of myself as a fiction writer, but when I started riding motorcycles and then thinking about my mother’s motorcycle stories, I felt suddenly inspired to write about those things. My experiences with riding motorcycles and studying physics and just generally dealing with my family started clicking into place for me as a writer. The ideas were sliding together in this way that demanded my attention. Continue reading
Ann Friedman is a freelance journalist who writes a weekly column for New York Magazine’s The Cut. She is also a regular contributor to The Los Angeles Times, The Gentlewoman, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, ELLE, and The Guardian. Friedman has worked as an editor at AlterNet, Feministing, The American Prospect, and GOOD magazine. She is the co-founder of Tomorrow magazine. She co-hosts Call Your Girlfriend, a podcast for long-distance besties everywhere, with her friend, Aminatou Sow. She also sends a weekly email newsletter and makes hand-draws pie charts, which you can find on her website. Friedman lives in Los Angeles.
EB: Let’s start at the beginning. What is your writing-nonfiction origin story?
AF: When I was a kid I would write fiction, but ever since I’ve been old enough to read newspapers and magazines, I’ve been primarily into writing nonfiction. I still love reading fiction and I have boundless respect for its writers. But for me, there is so much weird and wild and important stuff going on in the world—I take my inspiration from it, want to comment on it, want to explore it. Nonfiction is so direct in that way. I love it.
EB: Seriously, why bother making stuff up? The real world is nuts. What is the weirdest, wildest, most important thing you’ve written about lately?
AF: I recently finished a feature about a jetpack pilot. There’s this weird arms race (backs race??) happening right now to build a jetpack that will fly for more than 5 minutes. Of course they’re all semi-crazy dudes who are vying to be the first. It’s fascinating. And sure, you could make them up. But it’s much more fun to interview them IRL. I mean, I got to strap on a jetpack while reporting this article! Continue reading