PWC Board Member Greg Frost was given the task to pick the brilliant mind of our keynote speaker Stephen Fried. What he gathered was enough information for two posts. Find out what else Stephen had to say after the break.
Your wife (“Other Girls” author, Diane Ayres) writes fiction, and you write non-fiction. What common ground do you two find in your different worlds?
None. Which is why we’re still extremely happily married. She edits me—she edits every word I write, sometimes a couple graphs at a time—and I only am allowed to help copy edit and format her when she’s done. Fiction and non-fiction processes, at least in our house, are real different.
The biggest thing I’ve learned from her is how a fiction writer knows when a non-fiction writer might be bending the rules of reported work. I get a lot of “how could you know that” which either means cut it out or, more often, let’s figure out how you would really report something like that—because it really shows in the writing if you actually reported it. Also, Diane wrote books long before I ever did, and she knew before I did that I could write them—even though she finds our lives more fun when I’m primarily working for magazines, because in that situation you’re home writing maybe a week a month rather than weeks and months at a time. Ultimately, what she taught me is what it’s like to have someone who really knows what they are doing, and also really supports you, on your side. I have no idea how I would finish anything if I wasn’t married to her.
How important are conferences and conventions to a writer?
Every writer is different: I’m pretty social and especially now that I’m not on a staff, I like conferences even more because I see people and can talk about work in a way I used to do in an office. My wife tends not to need that kind of interaction—she loves teaching at conferences, but she would never go as a participant. When I was starting I went to every conference Phillymag would send me to—I recall having really life-changing experiences at an early IRE conference and a National SDX conference–and now I basically go where I’m invited. In the past year I really enjoyed the Mayborne Literary Nonfiction Conference in Dallas and I’m very much looking forward to PWC.
How do you balance your writing time with the rest of your life’s responsibilities?
Badly. Except for my three times weekly half-court basketball game, I have a hard time getting away from the computer.
When did you first realize you were a writer?
I was fortunate to be encouraged by my parents, and very tolerant and easily amused English teachers in public school in Harrisburg from the time I was in junior high—because I never really liked standard academic writing and generally refused to do it, hoping teachers would appreciate when I wrote in a way that interested me. And most did, thank goodness.
I never really thought about it for a job until I was at Penn and my mentor, Nora Magid, spirited me away from my parents life dream of me being a lawyer by telling me I could make a living as a nonfiction writer, and guiding me to the campus magazine, 34th street, where my friend from Harrisburg, Eliot Kaplan, also mentored by Nora, was co-editor. I succeeded him as co-editor, and just really liked the world of magazines and mag writing and editing.
By the time I left Penn, I promised that if anyone would pay me for what I did at 34th street, I would do that as my job until I couldn’t afford it. And luckily, I still get paid for doing that same combination of serious narrative journalism and more frivolous writing.
What are you most looking forward to at the 2015 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference?
Just seeing a lot of my local writer friends, and making some new ones. I just finished a book on a tight deadline, so I haven’t been out of the house very much in 2015.
Has the new emphasis on digital media had an impact upon your writing?
It hasn’t very much at all, yet. Digital media is just one more delivery system, which has a few of its own quirks but, for longer nonfiction it has so far mostly been a secondary delivery system to traditional print in magazines and books. The vast majority of people who get paid to do what I do—longer narrative nonfiction—are being paid in a bricks and mortar world that is adjusting to a secondary digital delivery system. And that will only really change when the newer digital longform formats—e-book singles, online-only ambitious longform—develop a lot more and become more of a normal publishing industry, where most of the things they publish are commissioned for market rates. This could happen in my lifetime. But I will say I have been through many progressive waves of opinion that it has already happened, or it is just about to happen, and every time these predictions have turned out to be premature or completely incorrect (and have often led companies to waste millions of dollars that could have been used for quality nonfiction work.)
I think, in my area, there have probably been more changes at bricks and mortar publishers trying to guess how to handle digital media than there actually have been changes created by digital media. When those create opportunities for more ambitious work, that’s great—we are always in favor of opportunities for more ambitious work, and they have always appeared out of every economic cycle and technological advancement, not just the digital revolution. When they create panic and editorial pullback, that’s bad. (When I was researching my last book, an American historical narrative, I especially enjoyed all the articles in the early 1900s about how radio was going to replace newspapers, and how desperately companies like the LA Times were trying to figure out how to exist in the world of “new media.”)
I will admit to one thing I’m watching carefully: several of my best J-school students from Columbia have been hired over the past two years (one just the other day) to well-paid jobs at online-only publishers that have previously produced only shorter pieces, very dependent on the news cycle and SEO. They are being given freedom—in terms of time, space, travel budgets—that a lot of staff writers at alt-weeklies and regional mags (and some national mags) don’t get. I’m hoping they figure out a new form of longform that takes advantages of those freedoms, but still creates pieces that have lasting value, because part of the problem with online only publishing so far is that a lot of the longer pieces aren’t longer so they will be worth reading in the future, but often using the space for somewhat unedited copy with a lot of data dumping. And I hope they will figure out how to make their stories the special, unique, loss leaders for the rest of the content their companies publish.
Because we can’t forget that just because the occasional long story or book becomes a big international sensation, and maybe a movie or TV show, those are, and always will be, the exceptions. We have to enjoy when those situations hit, but they rarely do. Day to day, you have to love this kind of work and the people who publish it and appreciate it. I am still waiting to see how many of the people who have gone into digital media because it’s the next play actually love publishing nonfiction writing. I look forward to working with the ones who do.
Ready to hear what Stephen is going to say during his keynote speech? Register for the conference here.