Dec 19, 2016
The business and culture journalist and bestselling author of the recent book The Revenge of Analog, David Sax, returned to 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.”
NOTE: This is the last episode of the year for us, due to the impending holiday break, but we will return with more great interviews for you in 2017. Thanks for listening!
If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.
If you missed the first half you can find it right here.
In Part Two of this file David Sax and I discuss:
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Kelton Reid: Welcome back to the Writer Files. I am still 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. In part two of this file the business and culture journalist and bestselling author of the recent book, The Revenge of Analog, David Sax, returned to talk 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 LA 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 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.” In part two of this file David and I discuss why you should work regular hours and the author’s Cinderella clause, the significance of unplugging for writers, how to record your audiobook in the same studio as Drake, and why the reward is the work for sustaining good writing. I should mention that this is the last episode of the year for us due to the impending holiday break, but I will return with more great interviews for you in 2017. Thanks for listening.
If you’re a fan of the Writer Files please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published. If you missed the first half of this show, you can find it in the archives on iTunes, on WriterFiles.FM, and in the show notes.
Just a quick reminder that The Writer Files is brought to you by StudioPress, the industry standard for premium WordPress themes and plugins. Built on the Genesis Framework, StudioPress delivers state of the art SEO tools, beautiful and fully responsive designs, airtight security, instant updates, and much more. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why over 194,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress now. That’s Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress.
Kelton Reid: It sounds like you’re a writer who leans into procrastination, you like to take breaks and let your brain do some of that work in the background. Do you have any other best practices for beating the dreaded procrastination?
David Sax: Oh God, I’m the last person to ask about that. You know, have children and pay for daycare is one. I think the other thing is, for me, what’s worked is keeping let’s say regular business hours. I think that’s always been something, for me in university I instituted my Cinderella clause, I would never work on something past midnight. I try to work as close to a sort of nine to five, writer version being 10 to four with a two hour lunch, day.
That’s because that’s what my wife works at her job and I don’t want to have to be up late at night doing stuff unless I have to. I don’t want to build my life around that, but I have friends who are wonderful writers and also have families, and they have to work at night, middle of the night, or they have to work … Everybody has their own thing. But I do find if something isn’t working, then try to find what that routine is, try to find what’s comfortable for you, and then adapt that and change it. Don’t be afraid that if you’re traveling somewhere, you can’t do it, you can’t adapt it.
I’ve written things in coffee shops even though that’s not my preference. I’ve written great stuff on airplanes, there’s nothing else to do, and I’m too cheap to pay for the WiFi. There’s something great about sitting on an airplane, you literally can’t even move once you’ve opened that laptop in that economy seat, and it s just, like, Tic-a-tic-a-tic-a-tic-a-tic-a. This is it, it’ll occupy me for the next hour.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. All right, so how does David Sax unwind at the end of a long writing day?
David Sax: Yes, with my snifter of port. You know what, one thing that’s been wonderful about this book is, due to research and the ability to claim certain items for research under Canadian tax codes, I’ve vastly increased my record collection. And I do think there’s something so great about stepping away from that screen and putting on a record and sitting on the couch or the easychair and listening to that music and not having to do anything with my eyes or my fingers, reading a book, reading a novel or magazine or something like that.
I think it’s very … Yeah, it’s those things and then of course getting outside, doing something with my kids, skiing when the snow falls, we were talking about before. I was lucky that as I was writing this book over the course of the summer, we’re fortunate that my family has a house on a lake outside Toronto. The paddle board breaks were amazing, or going and jumping in the lake. That’s the ultimate, that’s the best.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah.
David Sax: Yeah I think the fallback, all too often, which doesn’t actually help me relax and only increases my anxiety is like, “Click, what’s happening on Facebook? Click, what’s happening on Twitter?” Then just the depths of despair. We’re talking pre-election depths of despair.
Kelton Reid: Oh, man.
David Sax: What’s this person doing? Oh they got a bestseller. God damn them. I’ll never be as good as them. Oh, look at that, Oprah picked their book. Aw. I think it’s not healthy. It’s not healthy at all.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, no it can’t be. We all are probably guilty of it in this era. Yeah, like you said, maybe it makes us more human to have everything, you know that prosthetic brain that we all share now is there, and then to be able to just turn it off and go outside.
David Sax: Yeah. I think that’s the healthiest thing because again, in those spaces, in those times when you’re outdoors, even if you’re walking to the store to go get milk and whatever, that’s that mental space you need in order for the idea to come to you, whether that’s the thing that’s going to help your paragraph go the place you want it, or reshape the book or even the crumb of the idea that can lead to the next project, that takes you to the next book.
Kelton Reid: For sure. Yeah, yeah. That’s that creative process, it’s like you’re putting all that information in there, your brain is doing a lot of that work for you in the background and I think being able to unplug allows your brain to work more efficiently for you, to give you those …
David Sax: It needs the space to think. You can’t just click your way to it, to the next idea. I do find that there are moments when I am in desperation doing that. And it never gives me what I want, because again, you’re just looking at what other people have done. There’s no space, it’s occupying all that space in your brain … the screen. I’m talking about the Internet.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah.
David Sax: For those listeners who just tuned in, which I think is impossible in a podcast, we’re talking about the Internet.
Kelton Reid: If you’re just tuning in, I’m here with David Sax.
David Sax: If you’re just tuning in you have some sort of technical problem with your phone and you need take it back to the store.
Kelton Reid: You can easily rewind with your finger, this is not an analog broadcast, you’re in luck. I’d love to keep talking to you. I don’t know what your time looks like or if you have a time constraint, but I’ve got a few more questions. You tell me if you want to keep going.
David Sax: Sure, go ahead. No, I have nothing but leftover Indian food waiting.
Kelton Reid: As soon as I hear your stomach grumble over there we’ll shut it down.
David Sax: This is not talking about writing but I had the fortune both with this book and the last book to do the audiobook and actually be the one to be able to record it.
Kelton Reid: That’s great.
David Sax: You’re in a sealed soundproof studio, different than a radio station. This was actually the same recording booth that Drake recorded the vocals of his previous album on.
Kelton Reid: Of course.
David Sax: Obviously my entourage was attending, but what’s amazing is as it gets towards 11:00, 11:30, you hear every grumble of your stomach being picked up in that soundproof booth. You have to constantly go back and do lines because there’s a stomach grumbling and then it’s like, “All right, let’s just break for lunch.” Then afterward your stomach’s digesting what that was, so by the last day I was like, “Okay, I’m going to eat this, I’m going to have snack at this time, I’m going to have this food, nothing … ” It was this … Every medium has its strange constraints. It was such a funny process.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, that’s cool.
David Sax: It s so dictated by hunger and what I ate and how much.
Kelton Reid: I’ll have to listen for that more carefully.
David Sax: It was all edited out, that’s why it takes 20-something hours to record a 10 hour audio book.
Kelton Reid: That’s wild.
David Sax:It’s just stomach grumbling.
Kelton Reid: Was it over a few days then or just …
David Sax: Yeah, it was over the course of a week.
Kelton Reid: A week, okay.
David Sax: It was four and a half days of recording. It’s intense, first of all, to read your book out loud.
Kelton Reid: To just one guy in a booth, kind of nodding.
David Sax: This time there was a producer over Skype from New York, and then the audio engineer. Actually, it was the same guy who did my last book, who was in the booth, who was manning the mixing board.
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
David Sax: They’re in the headphones and they’re like, “Go that one again, go back from And last week I did. Read that again because you mispronounced did or whatever.” It’s such a strange process, and yet one that I love. If I could do something else I would happily be an audiobook narrator. So listen up, Audible.
You know I think it’s a question of the advantages, I think people want to own … I was talking about this with a friend who is actually the same friend who gave me my turntable. He’s a musician and a UN and human rights lawyer, so put that together. He says he listened to my book on Audible, on his phone in New York City and then he bought a copy of it. He’s like, “Cause I it s like I never But he used to listen to books on tape all the time. He said, “But I never wanted to own them, because you’ll never listen again to a book, but you might read it again. You might pick it up again, you might flip through it gain, you might read a certain thing in there.” You also want to display on your shelf. So there’s a value to the book as an object, but there’s no real value to the audio tape as an object. It’s just purely the conduit to the information.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. Cassette tapes for sure, I remember. Also when you get an audio book, like from back in the days on cassette, it was like eight cassettes in a big … They’re kind of clunky.
David Sax: They sent me the audio, it was like a DVD, audio DVD for the last one I did, it was kind of a box of them and I was like, “Okay, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing with these but … ”
Kelton Reid: That’s cool.
David Sax: That seems to be the physical format of choice, and you know, listen, like libraries I know tons of people who get them from libraries. We’ve gotten them from libraries when we’ve gone on road trips, these days mostly kids books and stuff. There is something good about that, especially for kids books. We had the collected adventures of Curious George in our car going for like seven months straight.
Kelton Reid: My God, that’s awesome.
David Sax: It was awesomely awful. Every word … It would play in my head around the clock.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yes. Yeah, you get those jingles in those kids songs and shows stuck in your head, don t you?
David Sax: God. Yeah.
Kelton Reid: I’m trying not to conjure one now.
David Sax: Oh no.
Kelton Reid: Let’s talk about creativity a little bit. It does seem intrinsic to what you do, but do you have a definition of creativity you could share with writers?
David Sax: That’s interesting. I would think creativity … I never really thought of it, but I would say it’s a new approach or perspective to an idea. I don’t think it necessarily involves coming with up with an entirely new idea. As someone who writes non-fiction, as a journalist, all I’m doing is rehashing various other ideas and reframing them. I think, again, it’s providing a new context and a new view on the world. Whether that’s writing a book or an article or something that, again, tells a story or gives insight or a thought in a way that’s different from some other person, then there’s creativity in that.
Kelton Reid: Yeah. When do you think you personally feel the most creative?
David Sax: I think it is when writing. People ask me what do I like about what I do. I say, “The money is amazing. Tens of hundreds of dollars.” Usually the part of it that I really love is actually the interview, and being able to have conversations with people, especially in person, especially getting to travel places where you normally wouldn’t get to go, like going and touring an abandoned film factory in some random corner of Italy with two guys who are resurrecting it. That’s the part that I’m going to take with me.
The sitting down and writing, I know people who are writers and they need to write and it’s their craft or whatever. I’ve never seen it that way. I always thought of it as a means to an end, but that creative reward that comes when I am writing something and it’s flowing and the words are coming out and the ideas are … I feel like I have it down. I don’t even know what I’m writing, but it’s sort of there and I feel like it brings a smile to my face. Those are the moments I guess, when again, the creative process is at its most direct and its most rewarding. It’s a daunting part too, because to get there you have to do the research and prepare yourself and know what you’re going to say and plan it out and then have the gumption to start typing and keep typing and go back and do it.
That’s, after lunch, that’s what I have to do, I have to write an op-ed story for someone about something that’s loosely tied into the book. I’ve been procrastinating all morning on social media like an idiot, paying my credit card bills, willingly, and updating travel insurance, anything to get away from that. Then it’ll get to the point where I’ll finally dive into it and then there will hopefully be some point where I will have that feeling of that creative accomplishment in it, or I’ll fake until I get the damn thing done and send it off to the editor.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. All good stuff. In your estimation what do you think makes a writer great?
David Sax: Man, I don’t know.
Kelton Reid: Words?
David Sax: Words. I would say it’s sparking that same feeling that I just talked about in the person’s who’s reading it, right? The great ones are the ones who are able to do it over and over again. I think that’s a rare talent that even the great writers struggle to continually do because it’s hard. When you think about Robert Caro and the four books he’s written. It’s all there. The amount of work and research and decades that go into crafting each of those things, that is someone who is a great writer.
You read that and it sticks with you forever. Yet there are some other writer who can write a great hot take on some website or wherever and it’s hits of the moment, and it might be forgotten in a day, but in that moment it’s also … They capture it. They capture what your thought is. You get it at that moment. I think that’s great too.
Kelton Reid: Do you have a couple favorites sittin on your nightstand right now, a couple favorite authors?
David Sax: A book?
Kelton Reid: Yeah, online or offline, are you following anyone else?
David Sax: There’s a couple of great things that I’ve read recently. Virginia Heffernan wrote a really interesting book earlier this year called Magic and Loss, which approaches from a cultural critical perspective the Internet and the feeling we get from it and the sort of reward that it gets from it. It comes out of her writing in New York Times magazine and other places. That’s, again, someone who’s a beautiful writer, writing on a subject that’s very similar to the one that I was writing on, but with a different perspective.
Another person that I think … From a more journalist and research perspective, but also really excellent, that I came across, that I read for this book, is Nicholas Carr, who’s another writer on technology. This is an area that I was never really reading on prior to this, and again, really knows how to build an argument and put it through in a very journalistic way, not as cerebral and emotional as Heffernan.
Then, after the election, when I was looking for something to take me out of my mind and take me away from current things, I went back to my bookshelf and I pulled a novel by my favorite writer consistently, Mordecai Richler who is one of Canada’s best known novelists. It’s the Canadian Jewish equivalent of Philip Roth, let’s say. Very funny and satirical and politically astute. I’ve been reading that over the past couple weeks, I think one of his better known novels, Solomon Gursky Was Here. Again, that love of a familiar voice, even if I haven’t read it in probably close to 20 years.
Kelton Reid: As many writers do, do you have a best loved quote hanging over your desk somewhere or in your peripheral?
David Sax: There were a few. Everything that was hanging over my desk actually had to be pulled down due to the office move. There was a great one that I had which came from … There’s an annual city wide art night here in Toronto called Nuit Blanche where there’s art installations around the city. There was this amazing one at the big art gallery museum here, where they had this assembly line of workers making art in this really cool interesting way. What they were churning out were these, I guess, lithographed or screen-printed signs that said, “I’d rather be working.” I picked one up and I have it framed above my desk.
Kelton Reid: That’s awesome.
David Sax: It’s not true, I’d rather not be working.
Kelton Reid: It’s the irony of the …
David Sax: Yeah.
Kelton Reid: That’s cool, that’s cool. I’d like to see that.
David Sax: I think that s as inspirational as it gets.
Kelton Reid: That’s awesome.
David Sax: Then there’s another great one which is a New Yorker cartoon that I cut out recently. It’s a guy standing in a surfboard shop and he’s like, “What’s the best board for someone who talks about surfing incessantly but only does it once a year?”
Kelton Reid: Right, I remember that one.
David Sax: That’s pretty much my life.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. I think we can start to wrap up here. The book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, has a lot to say about … I think things that are important to writers. I think, in part the revenge of print, the revenge of paper, and especially the revenge of retail, where you talk about the resurgence of these independent book stores.
I’ll link to that article you did for the New Yorker which was so great, but I do think that writers and listeners of the show should seek out the book for those tidbits and all the other great stuff that’s in there. You’re talking about how print really could be represented as the truly disruptive tech. There are so many great thoughts in there that I think are valuable, probably to everybody, but especially to some of the people who actually write those words.
David Sax: There’s two thoughts I want to add to that. One is, I think, to continue to be a writer and to continue to do it; it’s tough, especially in this day and age. The returns, financially, are decreasing as things go online more and more and print slows in most mass market areas, there’s just less money. The web, writing for online, writing for digital things will pay consistently less, that’s the economics of it. So why do this? Why keep writing books? The exploration of the idea and whatever, but I think there is, when you get that first printed book in your hand, that box arrives at your house and you open it up and it’s there.
There is something foolishly wonderful and worth it about that. When you see it, when you finally see it in a bookstore for sale somewhere it’s the same thing. But, I will say the opposite, which is I have this horrible stupid habit and terrible luck of going to bookstores and looking for the book, and it not being there, or being buried on a bottom shelf. My low point was last week I was in Brooklyn and I was with my family, we were visiting friends. I went to BookCourt, which is one of the better known independent bookstores in Brooklyn. I was buying a gift for a friend and my daughter was there with her friend playing in the kids area. I was like, “Look for the book, I couldn’t find it.”
I was like, “I hate to ask this but I had a book come out recently, The Revenge of Analog came out like two weeks ago. Do you have any copies that you’d want me to sign?” They’re like, click, click, click, “It’s here in the catalog but we don’t have any copies. I don’t think there’s any on order.” Then, of course, I turn around and my daughter is crushing up rice cakes and throwing them on the ground, on the floor. I literally have to go from this point to asking for a broom and sweeping up the bookstore like some horrible Dickens-like moment. It was just … Yeah, those creamy eyes and the awful woes come fast and furious in this business. Take the joy and pleasure where it comes because it’s so fleeting.
Kelton Reid: Man, that’s amazing. That’s a good one you can probably take to future readings and future writers and readers alike. Do you have any advice for your fellow scribes to keep going?
David Sax: Don’t go to a bookstore and ask if they have copies of your book.
Kelton Reid: That’s it, that’s the last one.
David Sax: Don’t give your child rice cakes in a book store.
Kelton Reid: Absolutely not.
David Sax: I think anyone who goes into this with dreams of fame and fortune are in it for the wrong reason. The reward is the work, it’s the ability to express your ideas, in whatever format that is, whether you write kids books or technical manuals or coffee table books or whatever. The ability to do it is the reward that comes from that. As long as you’re able to sustain yourself while doing that, then that’s where you have to find the joy, right? It’s the ability to say, “I have an idea and I’m going to express it and that is out there in the world.” That has to be enough, because even the best selling authors, there’s no guarantee of how it does the next time around. It’s that pursuit of the idea that has to be the driver.
Kelton Reid: Love it. Lock, stock, and barrel with author David Sax. Thanks so much for coming on the show. Where can your fellows connect with you out there, find your writing, find your books, et cetera?
David Sax: The books are sold wherever I would say books are sold. You can ask your local independent bookstore because those places are important to support for maintaining a community of writers. Without them we’re all sort of wandering in the digital desert. Yes, if you can buy it, if you can ask them if they have it, to special order it while your child crushes up rice cakes in the corner.
Kelton Reid: Awesome.
David Sax: Almost like, “My child will crush up that rice cake if you don’t order my book.”
Kelton Reid: As a threat.
David Sax: Yeah, or something even messier, like, “Here’s a bunch of apple sauce.”
Kelton Reid: Yeah.
David Sax: Then of course Amazon and Barnes & Noble and all other places, you can get it at Audible and various other audiobook forums, libraries, which are extremely important and I support more than wholeheartedly.
Kelton Reid: Yes sir.
David Sax: Then I am on the Twitter, as the kids like to say, @SaxDavid, S-A-X-D-A-V-I-D. I happily respond to all non-racist grievances.
Kelton Reid: Wonderful, wonderful. We really appreciate your time. Best of luck with the next project. You’re always welcome back to drop some writerly wisdom on us. Thanks again.
David Sax: My pleasure Kelton, thank you.
Kelton Reid: Cheers.
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.