Dec 12, 2016
The business and culture journalist and bestselling author of the recent book The Revenge of Analog, David Sax, dropped by the show to talk about the writing life, the importance of real things in a digital world, and the revenge of paper.
David is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, and other publications.
The author’s first book, Save the Deli, was an Los Angeles Times bestseller and won the James Beard Award for Writing and Literature.
His latest, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter,”…looks at the resurgence of analog goods and ideas, during a time when we assumed digital would conquer all.” It was longlisted for the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence.
Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine and author of The Inevitable, said of the book, “The better digital gets, the more important analog becomes….Sax s reporting is eye-opening and mind-changing.”
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In Part One of this file David Sax and I discuss:
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Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I am your host Kelton Reid, here to take you on yet another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers to learn their secrets. The business and culture journalist and bestselling author of the recent book, The Revenge of Analog, David Sax, dropped by the show this week to talk to me about the writing life, the importance of real things in a digital world, and the revenge of paper.
David’s a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, the New York Times, the New Yorker Online, and other publications. The author’s first book, Save the Deli, was an L.A. Times bestseller and won the James Beard award for writing and literature.
His latest, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, looks at the resurgence of analog goods and ideas during a time when we assumed digital would conquer all. It was long-listed for the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. Kevin Kelley, founder of Wired Magazine, said of the book “The better digital gets, the more important analog becomes. Sax’s reporting is eye-opening and mind-changing.”
In part one of this file, David and I discuss writing at the intersections of business and culture, why your best ideas come to you in the shower, the importance of impeccable research for great non-fiction, a roadmap for cranking out 3 to 4,000 words a day, and how printing and editing your work on paper can improve your writing. If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.
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We are rolling once again on The Writer Files with a special guest who dropped by today, Mr. David Sax, author, writer, reporter. Thanks so much for popping on the show to talk about your writing process.
David Sax: Yeah. My pleasure, Kelton.
Kelton Reid: We should be recording this really on an 8-track recorder, or some kind of analog device, but unfortunately, we are recording this over the interwebs. The new book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. Thanks so much for coming on to talk to me a little bit about that. Maybe, for listeners who aren’t familiar with your journey as a writer, maybe you could just give us a little bit of your origins.
David Sax: Yeah. I was a kid whose parents sent him copies of Newsweek to summer camp, and National Geographic. I was raised in a magazine-loving house and I think pretty much always wanted to be a journalist and writer, and so began writing when I was at that same summer camp for the camp newspaper. I think that was the first and probably best work I ever did.
In university, wrote for the campus newspaper, and then afterward wanted to be a foreign correspondent. When I graduated, I ended up moving to South America as a freelancer and got my start in Argentina and Brazil for a couple of years, basically freelancing for whoever would take whatever I was writing. That was Canadian newspapers, and news magazines, and radio stations when I first got down there, because I’m from Canada, and then increasingly American newspapers and magazines and everything from travel and wine to politics and business stuff.
When I moved back, I continued that. I’ve always been a freelancer. I’ve never had an actual job since teaching skiing, I think was the last job, real job I had. In the years since, I’ve written for all sorts of publications, largely in magazines and increasingly focused around business and culture. I wrote two books previously before this one on food. One was called Save the Deli, about the Jewish delicatessen business. The other one was called The Tastemakers, about the world of food trends and how they’re shaped.
Wrote about food for a number of years and then that segued into writing about business, largely for Bloomberg Businessweek. Now, I guess, it’s that mix of writing about where business and culture meet. I find that business is often one of the best ways to get at culture. With this book, even though it’s about … Many of it are about cultural things: vinyl records, music, paper, and pens, and drawing, and writing. Even things like board games. There are cultural objects, and the interactions with them are very much cultural things. The way into that is through the business. How does this grow? How does this actually make money? Behind all those things, there’s always a market. That’s tends to be where I find my focus, at least these days.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. It’s a pretty fascinating path to where you are now. I understand, the Save the Deli book actually won a James Beard award, a literary award, which I thought was pretty cool, because that is the storied institution. Really cool to see. I’m a huge fan of your New Yorker columns, especially one that you wrote recently, I think, about bookstores. I think the title of that was What Barnes & Noble Doesn’t Get About Bookstores, which we’ve talked about actually on the show with some other writers.
David Sax: Interesting.
Kelton Reid: But, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter is a look at this resurgence of analog goods and ideas during this kind of the height of the digital age. We’re all seeing it, we’re all experiencing it. Maybe if we didn’t notice the creep before this, you’re certainly … The more you look around, the more you see exactly that, the revenge of analog, the rise of analogs. The opposite of the terminator, right?
David Sax: It is John Connor in that existence coming back.
Kelton Reid: That’s right.
David Sax: “Come with me if you want to live.”
Kelton Reid: Yeah. Amazon is kind of Skynet, or whatever. Yeah. Kevin Kelly had some great things to say about it. He’s also a guest on this show. You guys, it sounds like had the same background, lovers of print magazines and globetrotters and doing stuff around the world. Finding the focus and connecting these other disparate ideas. It’s fascinating stuff. Kelly said, “The better digital gets, the more important analog becomes. Sax’s reporting is eye-opening and mind-changing, and I believe it’s a great book. Listeners should seek it out. Very cool.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. Let’s talk about your process a little bit. Just get into your … What are you working on now? Are you working on another book? Are you doing …
David Sax: No. This one just came out and I’m guilty of this that … I’ll have this laser-like focus on working on a book, and I love it. I love that ability to lose myself in it and dive deep, but I foolishly probably put too much mental energy into that for such a concentrated period of time. It’s like, “Okay. This is the pub date. This is the pub date. You just got to get the pub date and then life will just be easy,” or something. I can’t mentally put myself beyond it.
I’ve had a few ideas that I flirted with over the past couple of months, but nothing that’s taken any concrete shape now. Now, I’m just to the point where I’m still working to promote the book, writing things around it. I guess in the New Year, I’ll start figuring out what next, whether that’s another book, or something else. I’m not 100% sure. I got nothing, basically.
Kelton Reid: It will come to you.
David Sax: That’s my process.
Kelton Reid: It will come to you in the shower.
David Sax: I know. It always … What is it? Maybe that’s the book. Maybe it’s just a 100-page business management memoir like, “How to Think in the Shower?” And then all of these offices will just install shower cabinets. Everyone will just be constantly, “Just got to take a shower to think about this idea.” It’s true. A lot of the best ideas come to me, and I don’t know why. Why is that? Why do you think that is?
Kelton Reid: It’s a good question. I guess, maybe, it’s like a private place to incubate your ideas. There’s something about … You can relax there and suddenly your mind is on something.
David Sax: There’s no other distraction. There’s no e-mail. There’s no call. There’s nothing else that’s coming at you. It’s a thoroughly analog space. I just moved my office to a different part of my house, because we had a baby. Now he gets his own room. Good for him. I’m now five feet from where the shower is.
So, in theory There have been times over the past month and a half since I’ve moved the office up here where I’m writing something, frustrated, “Oh gosh! It’s time to go take a shower. I got to go out, meet someone.” That is the solo-writers thing. It’s like, “Oh! It’s 5:00, I gotta take a shower.” I step in there and it’s like, you know, the water s on, “Oh my God! That’s it. That’s it.” Often, there’s times when it comes too late, when it’s like I’ve sent the story off. The editor already has it. I’ve sent off the pitch. After I send this, “Wait! No. I have an even better way of thinking about it. Which is often not, actually, better.
Kelton Reid: You talked about that a little bit in the book. You talked about … It’s a little bit of aside, but you talked about office design becoming intentionally analog. Maybe there is something to be said for that intentionally analog moment, while we’re all so obviously plugged in and distracted Anyway, it’s all coming back to the book.
Kelton Reid: When you dig into a big piece, like The Revenge of Analog, it seems just deeply impeccably researched. How much time per day when, you’re working on a piece like that, are you actually reading, and calling, and digging around for those nuggets?
David Sax: Yeah. This book took a longer process to get going than the previous ones. This book really began when I was actually in the midst of writing my first book. I had come back from doing the research on Save the Deli, it’s back in 2007, and had a variety of different ideas about analog at the time that I started doing some research on. I wrote up a new book proposal. The publisher wasn’t interested. Then I put it away. Then a couple months later, I came back to it from a totally different approach, and then they weren’t interested in that and put that that away. Then, you know, like an agent, trying to sell it to different publishers. Every couple of years, I’d come back to it and I would do a little more research into what was going on, more into what Moleskine was doing, or some of the film companies, or vinyl records, or whatever.
When it finally came time to actually … I was talking with an old publisher that I had, we’d had lunch before my last book was coming in. He’s like, “What about that analog thing?” I was like, “Yeah. There’s something to that.” Then I got back on the horse. Again, I went back in, I read a few more books that had come out. I tried to … Like Kevin Kelly’s book, for example. I tried to … Which was fascinating and fantastic. It really steered my thinking in a new direction. Then wrote up the proposal. Once it got to the point where the publisher was like, “Okay. We will buy this. Here is your contract. Here is the due date.” Essentially, it was a year from that point until the first draft of the main script is delivered.
From, let s say, September of 2014, or the summer of 2014 … Yeah, the summer of 2014 until Labor Day of last year, 2015, I was researching and writing pretty much full-time. The freelance stuff, I kind of trickled down to just a bare minimum and was just heads down on this. I would make a … There was this initial phase of general exploration and going to the library and pulling tons of books out on these different subjects and doing that initial research and figuring out what the different components would be and who I would talk to.
Then, probably around the beginning of that period, let’s say, the fall, September, Labor Day, I was like, “Okay. I really got to get to work.” I basically will go into my calendar and I would just block out like, “Okay. These three weeks are going to vinyl. These three weeks are going to be this chapter. These three weeks is going to be that.” Then it would just be hitting it … Just intensely as many interviews as I could do, whether it’s a trip, or going to Nashville for four or five days and interviewing as many people as I could in that time. Or going to Italy, or wherever.
Another thing is like … Okay, then this week, as many interviews as I can schedule with people. To the point where it was literally interviews from, let’s say, 10 in the morning until four in the afternoon. Most of that is determined by daycare pickup and drop off times. Then, “This time to read this book, and this time to It’s just like full-on five days a week during those key times. Of course, in person, which is the part that I actually really enjoyed. Traveling somewhere and meeting people, talking with them. That’s the good stuff.
That was, I would say, eight months. Then at the beginning of spring, “Okay. Let’s go through all the notes of every single interview, and every single chapter, and then let’s go chapter by chapter. Four days to write this chapter. Four days to write that chapter. Four days every week. One chapter every week for these weeks, plus three weeks of reviewing, and send it off.”
Kelton Reid: Amazing.
David Sax: Yeah. It’s very … I find that methodology is grounding. I need that strict deadline timeframe. Stick to it. Go, go, go. Keep plowing your head. Then it just makes it so much more manageable and less daunting.
Kelton Reid: Nice. You talk about Moleskine journals and the revival of that, which I thought was also very fascinating. When you’re interviewing or you’re on the road, or whatever, are you getting notes into an audio format first and then transcribing? Are you writing notes by hand? How are you capturing?
David Sax: When I’m the road, I am interviewing people with handwritten notes. When I am at home, I will type on the computer, because I could type faster than I could write. The reason why I wouldn’t type, take a laptop on the road and type up my notes as I’m talking to people is because, one, it’s very impractical. Because a lot of the time, I’m walking around the factory, walking around the city, having lunch with someone in a restaurant, or wherever. Also, if you put a laptop screen between yourself and someone else, it totally changes the nature of the conversation. I think, also, if you put a recorder in front of someone, it does that too. They become much more guarded.
I sacrifice a certain amount of accuracy, and I realize I’m not a national security reporter. So I have some leeway in that. I find it that it allows a much more fluid conversation to happen and this is much more disarming. Whereas, when I’m talking to someone on the phone, I’m clickety-clacking away. It s less … The conversation is more formal, and so on.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. For sure. That’s very interesting. When you’re sitting down and get really to it and get to work on those chapters, are you sitting in the office? Do you like to go out to a coffee shop, or you’re just head down?
David Sax: No. I work at home in my little space, which has now been moved. You could tell the bitterness of losing my office. It s a slightly Yeah. Now, I share room with the living room-ish TV, but it’s okay. Yeah, I’m very … Just kind of rooted, and sitting down. When I’m actually doing the writing, I’ll turn on the Freedom app, which is the one the blocks off the Internet for an hour or an hour and a half spurt and just go. Once I’m going, I could crank out 3,000 words, 4,000 words in a day at top pace, and really just crank.
The way that I do it is I’ll first … Let’s say I’m working on a chapter or an article. The first thing I do is basically do just bullet point, how it’s all going to go, and then fill in the quotes of what quote I’m going to do here and then go back to the notes that I’m making sure I have all the different perspectives. It’s all sketched out in this Word document and then I’d just go in and start filling that in and actually building it into narrative and paragraphs. Sometimes it takes its own direction, but I have that roadmap of where I’m going.
I remember doing that in the first book. The first chapter was brutal. Then finally, I found that method, and then it just … Again, it s like, “This is very clear. I know where I’m going,” and then it’s just a matter of cranking out. It’s interesting, by the end, I could time it down to the hour of when I’m going to be finished. It’s like, “Okay. Friday …” It’s a Friday afternoon. I want to be done by three. I know I can do it. I can probably write these things even quicker if I didn’t want to futz around. I think the futzing around is good for your mental health and sanity.
Kelton Reid: For sure. Do you sit down with a cup of coffee? Do you put on headphones? Do you have any rituals that get you in the mode?
David Sax: No. I’m pretty … I might have tea or something like that. I try to keep coffees to one a day or I go crazy. I make sure to get up every hour and stretch. I like to get out for lunch or walk. I was fortunate to have done the writing for this book over the course of the summer. It was a much better environment of getting after it and actually being able to go walk. I was looking forward to, every day, to go and pick up my daughter from daycare, because that was 15 minutes there, 15 minutes back, outside, going to the playground. Just mentally giving myself a bit of a break from staring at the screen all day.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. All right, here’s the million dollar question. Do you believe in writer’s block?
David Sax: I don’t believe in writer’s block, but I’m not a novelist. I think, if you had to create things from scratch and conjure up worlds of fiction, I imagine that it’s something that would be very, very real. For me, I’m translating what I’ve known into some sort of coherent or semi-coherent format, right? It’s like, “Here s the places I went. Here’s the thing I thought,” yada yada yada yada yada. On and on and on for 300 and so pages. It’s there. It happened. Those thoughts are … The thoughts have already happened. Sometimes, there’s a sentence or a paragraph or some section that stops me up for a little bit, then I guess I go take a shower, or go outside and walk, or something.
I found that plowing through it is the key. You can kind of be frozen up by that page and you just have to press on, keep clacking the fingers. You can always go back and change it. That’s the beauty of the digital, or even a typewriter. None of it s permanent. It’s all going to be changed and edited. You can’t be wedded to it. You ve just got to keep moving. I think that goes for a line, or a paragraph, or a book, or a career, even, in this.
I recently saw Emma Donoghue, the novelist, talk at the Toronto Public Library, and there’s 500 people there. She just had her new book came out. She was talking about Room and the success of the movie. This was her 12th novel that she’s done. Yeah, Room was a huge international bestseller, and this one’s done well too.
She said, “I’ve talked to rooms of five people, it s just like that constantly, you ve just got to keep that forward momentum going.” I think, unless you get so successful like Harper Lee and Steinbeck … Not Steinbeck, but … Oh gosh, I’m totally blanking … Salinger. That you can afford to, like, “I have writer’s block! Leave me to my millions.”
Kelton Reid: Yeah. You mentioned typewriters. I think it’s always fascinating to look at typed pages of manuscripts of your famous authors, like Hemingway, or whatever, and see all the marginalia and the editing scratch-outs. It’s so cool to see something like that and to … Having never actually worked on a typewriter like that. I think when we had typewriters, when I was a kid, they still had the autocorrect, auto-erase features where you could actually erase a …
David Sax: The electric typewriter.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. The electric typewriter.
David Sax: For my first book, I remember sending it in, whatever, Microsoft Word file, and my editor sending back a thing in the mail of red marked-up pages. I was like, “This is crazy. We live in the 21st century.” This is like … “What if this got lost in the mail? You shouldn t even send this by courier. You sent this just by mail.” And then as I actually sat down and started getting into it, I realized the benefit of that.
With this book, obviously, everything I did … I didn’t write the book out on typewriters. Many people have asked. I did it in Microsoft Word, but I made sure every time I finished a draft of the book, I would send it to a printers, and go to the printers, pick up 400, whatever, pages, and go through it with pen and pencil and do it by hand. I think you perceive the work differently on paper.
When it’s on the page, you see it in its intended format and things jump out at you. Whether it’s something you might catch, or just a way something looks on a page, is very different from how it looks and reads on a screen. There’s also something gratifying about the first time you print it off and you’re actually holding that. Even the early version, the manuscript version of your book in your hand. There’s that tactile pleasure and some sense of reward to it, like, “All right, I’m going to go out to lunch today.”
Kelton Reid: Yeah. For sure. I think every mentor I’ve ever had has said to print your stuff out on paper and edit it that way. It’s a great trick, but it works. It’s effective. There’s something to be said for that tactile, kinesthetic editing mode.
David Sax: Yeah. Like I find that I’ll be less … On the computer, I’ll be reluctant to delete a page, or a paragraph, or a section of something. Whereas, when I see it on the page, on a printed page, I have no problem just drawing a line through it, kicking it to the curb, because you instantly see that. Whereas on the computer, there’s this reluctance, for some reason, that I did not find in my research, definitively.
Kelton Reid: For sure.
Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes, or to just leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM, and you can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.