Q & A with Elizabeth Mitchell
Elizabeth Mitchell is an award-winning journalist and the author of LIBERTY’S TORCH: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty, published by Grove Atlantic. She also wrote THREE STRIDES BEFORE THE WIRE: The Dark and Beautiful World of Horse Racing (Hyperion), which The Washington Post selected as one of the best nonfiction books of the year, W.: Revenge of the Bush Dynasty (Hyperion), and the bestselling e-single, THE FEARLESS MRS. GOODWIN (Byliner). Elizabeth was the executive editor for “George” magazine and the features editor of “Spin.” She is also the co-founder of ReadThis, a volunteer group that delivers books where needed, including to troops abroad, children living in poverty, and public schools with no library. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she is a digital long-form writer for the New York Daily News.
Thank you, Biz, for joining us here at WomenWritersWomen[‘s]Books. We’re thrilled to have you!
Let’s start from the beginning, your beginning.
Where did you grow up? What brought you to New York City?
I grew up in Connecticut, in a fairly small town in the middle of the state. As I was finishing college, like many of my friends, I migrated to New York City because it seemed the place where you could do work that you really cared about. I knew I wanted a life in the world of books and writing, so before graduation I started sending out resumes—publishers, publications, and writers’ organizations, but also to writers who might need assistance. I received a few job offers, but chose PEN American Center because I believed in their mission and they could pay enough for me to afford rent.
What were you like as a kid? A teen?
I was always a pretty good student. As a child, I was probably quieter than I am now. I lived almost like a 19th century child, reading, writing stories, doing needlcrafts (which I can’t imagine having time for now). I can recall a few examples of being a ringleader in middle school but it wasn’t until high school that I started to feel truly comfortable. I loved high school and I took advantage of everything offered: sports, theater, art, music, the literary magazine, the compelling friend life, adventuring into New York City to see rock shows.
I can occasionally write decent melodies.
Book on your nightstand right now?
There are three big stacks of books underneath my nightstand, all of which are priorities. I just finished writing a piece on Elena Ferrante so her books are still there but I have everything from the short story collection, Life Embitters by Josep Pla to the collected interviews of David Bowie to books that my children read recently that they want me to appreciate too.
They say truth is stranger than fiction. Is that one of the things that draws you to nonfiction? What else? Has it always been so?
Three main things draw me to nonfiction: The exoticism of the setting, which is a pleasure to write; the dedication to resuscitating a fascinating person from obscurity; and the excitement of telling a story that has already been resolved as history, but which in the retelling you can infuse with the sense of anxiety, insecurity, doubt, hope—in other words, the real experience of events unfolding as opposed to the pat statement that something has already occurred.
I originally was most interested in fiction, but there are signs that nonfiction intrigued me early on. In fifth grade, I wrote a novel based on the Westward migration.
In college, I actually went the other way: I pleaded with my dean to be exempted from fulfilling a journalism requirement for my major because I told him I would never go that route professionally, and, in fact, I did get excused. Instead, I wrote a thesis based on postmodern theory and a long work of fiction.
My path into nonfiction happened just after college because I decided I needed more discipline as a writer to try to get as quickly and lucidly to what I was trying to communicate. So I started writing small reported pieces for free newspapers in New York. My journalism and nonfiction career built from there.
How does the experience and expectations differ for a nonfiction author from those of a novelist?
The biggest difference for me in the writing process is: How do I surprise myself when writing fiction? I want and work toward that feeling with all of my writing, but with fiction, since it all comes out of my own head, it’s hard to shock myself. I know other writers get to that point more easily. It’s something I want to work toward.
From the point of view of reader expectation, one issue that is a bit troubling nowadays is that readers seem to expect a fiction experience when reading nonfiction.
I strive to write narrative history not academic history, but if you are a dedicated reporter of that past, you don’t feel comfortable inventing the level of detail that fully immerses readers. You try every trick to get as close as possible to smooth narrative, but no matter what you do, old newspapers and original documents are never going to offer up the level of detail that can be invented in fiction; the archives will rarely report to you the humidity in the air as a person went to solve the crime of the century, or every murmur of a thought in the head of the creator of the Statue of Liberty. If you, as a writer, do come across those details in the historical record, it’s a moment of celebration. But you can’t just lie to a reader, simply so they feel like they are watching a movie. I think a few writers out there pushed the line of creating scenes that could never be known just from the historical record, and that standard has essentially made it harder for writers who cleave to the facts to please their readers.
How do you find your subjects? What does your sniff test look like?
Generally I stumble across a story idea while researching the previous project; I sense a mystery behind a fact or mention of a person, and I write it down, thinking I will look into it later. Many months or even years later, if the story idea is still buzzing in my brain, I pursue it and invariably those subjects offer up intrigue that lasts for years of research and writing.
How would you describe the market right now for non-fiction? Are there subjects that are more marketable than others? Should a writer consider that in any way?
Non-fiction is so broad –it encompasses memoir and academic historical works. Memoir definitely seems more saleable right now, but it’s best not to write for the market. Firstly, no one can predict the market well. Who would have known that a 1700-page novel by a reclusive writer would become a global bestseller, and yet Elena Ferrante found that audience without manipulation or advertising.
Secondly, writers are unlikely to make much money from their work so it’s better to tell the story you want to tell—whether it’s a personal story or a historical account. The saddest situation is a writer who wasted years of time and talent on a project they were forced to write and that still won’t pay a dime in royalties.
And finally, no one will spend as much of their lifetime on the topic as the writer. It takes years to produce a book, so it’s best to use your life the way you want to use it, and not how someone else tells you to use it, including the market, your agent, or your publisher.
In your hands, the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi feels like a real living whole person. You describe him as crazy, driven, peevish and obnoxious. You say that he rarely missed an opportunity to advance his own career, but that he had an incredible ability to soldier on through a 15-year struggle. How are you able in all of your books to glean the very human aspects of these men and women from historical data?
With Bartholdi, it was his specific humanity that inspired me to want to write that adventure in the first place. In the New York Public Library manuscript division, I had come across his diary and letters from when he first came to the US to pursue his dream of building a colossus. I was struck by his insecurity, his humor, his sense of visual detail, his unpleasant turns of personality, his earnestness. Because he came through in those letters and diaries as very much a specific person, I wanted to tell his story.
I also have been working on historical novels, both of them in the editing phase. Basically, with those too—one set in the third century of the Roman empire and the other at the turn of the century in Italy--I notice a glint of deep humanity in the historical record of the subjects and then I hunted madly through hundreds of documents until I dug up every shard of unique expression I could find.
I love discovering those molecules and so I consider it an honor to be charged with reviving them. I work pretty hard on the research.
What interesting story or tidbit in Lady Liberty’s history didn’t make the cut for LIBERTY’S TORCH?
There were some pages devoted to the story of Lafayette that didn’t make it in. To me, that adventure story was important because it explained why the French cared so much about America. They didn’t just honor the alignment of democratic principles and the war history, they circulated on a regular basis the legend of 19-year-old, wealthy, dashing Lafayette defying his own government, racing ahead of government ships out to arrest him, to go help old stalwart George Washington endure what seemed a losing battle. That friendship was so odd and dynamic, I wanted to tell it the way the average French person at the time would have told it and known it. Eyewitnesses wrote about how when grumpy George Washington would reunite with Lafayette, he would turn as goofy as a teenager. To the French, it was as riveting as the best HBO series is to us now.
That section ultimately got cut in in the interest of streamlining, and I had a number of passages like that, that showed the wild passions of the time. I loved discovering them, but I might have taken readers off track if they had been included.
Are there subjects that fascinate you but feel too big or scary to write?
The history of the universe. A story set in my hometown neighborhood.
What things do you do to ensure that you are providing the experience for the reader that you intend (i.e., read aloud, workshop, critique partners, etc.)?
I have good friends who are writers and good friends who are not writers, and I always ask them to review the work and give me feedback.
What have you found most helpful and least productive in book promotion?
Most helpful seems to be putting out word of publication on my personal Facebook page, which leads to people pushing word out further. Word of mouth ultimately is the way most books are sold so that is the first step. Least productive is probably writing pieces for publication that are tied to the subject matter in the book; it’s not clear to me that those inspire people to go buy the book, but I don’t really know. Sometimes you just welcome being able to add another nuance to the subject matter, so writing an editorial or essay fulfills that interest.
You’re a journalist, author, and editor. Have you ever done an interview that took an outrageous direction you didn’t expect? What happened?
I’m almost always surprised by interviews I conduct. I love when it happens after the two-hour mark of an interview; you think you are wrapping up, and suddenly the interview subject says something that completely upends everything you have thought before.
With my horse book, one interview subject who I had kept in contact with through the whole writing of the book over almost two years, said something stunning and key about his personal life in a conversation as I wrote the last chapter. Another person who I interviewed at the end, who I thought would provide straightforward descriptions of a known event, revealed a deep, human complexity to the entire subject of the book.
On the more giddy side, when I interviewed Al Green, he experienced the Holy Spirit descending on us as we were talking. That was kind of interesting.
What did you learn from your time as features editor at Spin? As executive editor of GEORGE?
From SPIN, I learned that to be a good editor and shepherd of talent is as important as to be the talent yourself. I thought I wanted to write, but it was of greater service to the world of readers to hire great writers, such as William Vollmann, Elizabeth Gilbert, Darcey Steinke, Rory Nugent, and set them off on assignments.
From George, I learned many things from John Kennedy, including that it’s more important to tell the story of why a person believes what they believe, where their goodness lies, where they are frail, how they make decisions, than it is to hammer on in an ideological bent. Most humans believe they are doing the right thing. Few people set out to be a villain. If you think what a politician is doing is the wrong thing, for example, you will never help change that path until you get to the reason for their belief.
At both places, I learned that fiction writers generally make great reporters.
And I learned that legends like Norman Mailer are legendary because they are seriously precise in their craft. He was a great example of a big name writer who took editing easily, who handed in factually perfect copy, and who actually spent weeks in a cubicle in our office refining his work. The young whippersnapper reporters, on the other hand, thought their work was perfect as written, got sloppy with facts, and were hard to reach when you needed to revise their material, and ultimately produced material that added little to education or enlightenment.
How did you find your way to these boldfaced establishments?
At SPIN, I was a copy editor who pitched stories and managed to write a feature. My topic was the violence escalating at abortion clinics, and as I began the piece one of the doctors I was planning to focus on was the first person gunned down at a clinic. Eventually that piece and other pitches put me in line to be asked to become the features editor. From there I was headhunted for George.
What positive influences have impacted you and/or your success?
My parents, who both loved books and were originally reporters. My brother, who is also a writer and editor. My writer friends.
What negative influences have you had, things perhaps aspiring writers should turn a deaf ear to on their own journeys?
Writing is always ecstasy and heartbreak.
You will endure edits where all the soul and humanity of your piece gets stripped to satisfy a storyline of commercialization. If you are a woman, you will likely be second-guessed more than your male counterparts. You will fight to be paid on time, and if you are a freelancer, the economics of covering the higher Social Security tax and purchasing health insurance will likely give you sleepless nights. You will be told there is no market for an idea that later turns out, when you persist, to have a market.
The bottomline is, when you write something that rings true to you, and that connects to strangers out in the world, you have received a gift and none of that other nonsense takes it away.
Carnegie Hall or CBGB?
A friend who came up when CBGB was at its prime—who mixed with Patti Smith and Deborah Harry and Lou Reed and on—was saying, sure it was great, but I wasted months of my life watching crappy bands there too. That’s my recollection, even in the less fabulous late eighties and nineties: Incredible shows followed by night after night of watching lousy bands while straining for a view over people’s shoulders in a room with no air. I have great admiration for all the music played at Carnegie Hall.
Still, it would be CBs.
Mets or Yankees?
Mets. I am still bitter about the Yankees from when I was a childhood Red Socks fan.
USMNT or USWNT? J
Oh, USWNT definitely.
NY Bagel or NY Pizza?
Tough choice. Since I grew up close to New Haven, pizza capital, I will say bagel. Or better, bialy.
Hot Hot Chocolate or Frozen Hot Chocolate?
Hot. I’m not sure I’ve ever had the Frozen.
Thank you, Biz, so much dropping in. Welcome to the WWWB family! We will be supporting and rooting for you forever more.
An Amazon Best Book of the Year
An O Magazine 15 Titles to Pick Up Now Selection, Summer 2014
“Journalist Elizabeth Mitchell recounts the captivating story behind the familiar monument that readers may have assumed they knew everything about.”—New York Times
“Liberty’s Torch reveals a statue with a storied past…”—Los Angeles Times
“Streamlined and well constructed. . . . In Bartholdi, Mitchell has found a fascinating character through which to view late-19th-century America, and she does readers a service by sifting fact from fiction in the creation of one our most beloved monuments.”—Boston Globe
“A myth-busting story starring the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.”—USA Today
“Turns out that what you thought you knew about Lady Liberty is dead wrong. Learn the truth in this fascinating account of how a French sculptor armed with only an idea and a serious inability to take no for an answer built one of the most iconic monuments in history.”—O, the Oprah Magazine
Interviewed by –
MM Finck is a writer, essayist, and book reviewer. Her women’s fiction is represented by Katie Shea Boutillier of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. She is a regular contributor WWWB as well as overseeing the Author, Agent, & Editor Interview segment. She is also the contest chair for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association 2016 Rising Star writing contest for unpublished authors.
Her work has appeared in national and regional publications. When she isn’t working on her novel-in-progress, #LOVEIN140, she can be found belting out Broadway tunes (offkey and with the wrong words), cheering herself hoarse over a soccer match (USWNT! – 2015 WORLD CUP CHAMPIONS!!!!), learning to play piano (truly pitifully), repairing or building something around her house, and trying to squeeze more than twenty-four hours out of every day.
She is active on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. All findable with a search for “mmfinck.” [Grammar rules are forcing her to put the period within the quotes, but don’t in your search field. :)) Say hi! http://www.mmfinck.com