Ask a Mentor Editor: Alissa Quart on literary nonfiction, her new book, and her conversion from a writer who reports to a reporter who writes.

Alissa Quart is the author of two non-fiction books, Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers (Basic Books, 2003) and Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child (Penguin Press, 2006). She is currently working on her third book about the effect of subcultures on the mainstream, for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She is a contributing writer to Mother Jones as well as Columbia Journalism Review, where she writes a media column, and has written for the New York Times Magazine as well as many other publications. She has taught at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism as well as Columbia University’s Teachers College, where she is a fellow. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Brown University and is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. OpEd Project intern Ravenna Koenig interviewed her on her professional and personal experiences in the realm of literary nonfiction.

Ravenna Koenig: What would you identify as the most formative experience in terms of your association with journalism?

Alissa Quart: I was an intern at the “Voice Literary Supplement” when I was twenty-one. I hadn’t wanted to be a journalist—I had gone there for reviewing; I was only really interested in criticism. But because I was interested in criticism I was in this great environment where people were doing these long-form stories. Also, I think a lot of it was reading—I’d say my biggest experiences came when I’d read amazing non-fiction books and think “I want to do that, I want to make that, I want to experience those things.”

RK: So you saw journalism as sort of a gateway into the area of publishing non-fiction?

AQ: Yeah, I was not interested in traditional journalism, I was interested in the work of Mary McCarthy, Frances Fitzgerald, William Finnegan, Michael Herr. I just felt that I wanted to be in the world in a highly receptive way—making sense of it through language. And also, it seemed sort of glamorous to me. There was an intellectual glamour to certain kind of journalist that seemed great to me. For me it was always “will I have an academic career or be a journalist?” I decided that I’d like to be whatever was in between.

RK: I know that you have two books out “Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers,” and “Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child,” and you’re working on your third. Do you see an underlying theme in the books and articles you write?

AQ: It might seem like: “what’s the link between a piece on Iceland and a story about people who define themselves as insane, or a piece I’m writing now on Asperger’s [disorder];” the link is creativity and coercion, the things that keep people from connecting and from living in a heterogeneous way. There’s a set of values behind it all. And then there’s a certain relationship to language; I’m committed to writing in a way that has a real sense of sound—it’s kind of a poet’s value.

RK: I know that when you were young you were really interested in writing poetry, and you come to non-fiction writing with that background. Do you think poetry has influenced the way you report? Do you report differently because of it?

AQ: I mean—I guess I report differently than some people… I want to get into people’s psyches—I think of it as emotional reporting. I think poetry has changed things for me just because it has led me to non-mainstream culture; it made me very interested in non-mainstream culture.

RK: How have your interests in media evolved over the course of your career?

AQ: I think I’ve become a much better reporter. I actually became more into reporting than writing… I prefer talking to people, I prefer going places, I prefer reading… more than writing. Initially I was like, “oh I have to report, this is the kind of writing you have to do to support yourself, if I could I would just write criticism but that’s not what people are buying.” Reporting seemed like work, and then the more I’ve done it, the more it seems like fun and the work is the writing! Now all I want to do is report. It’s really great: you get to see the world in a really different way.

RK: You’re working on your new book currently, correct?

AQ: Yeah, it’s about alternative cultures in America. It’s been really challenging because the kind of books I write could extend forever. If you’re writing a narrative about a battle like Black Hawk Down, or a legal case, there’s a beginning, middle, and end, but these ideas sort of sprawl infinitely, so the challenge is finding where to end. If you’re also really obsessed with reporting you could just keep going forever, basically holding a mirror back at life and not writing a very good book.

RK: What personal experiences, if any, have you had with explicit or implicit sexism in your line of work?

AQ: It’s been a more insidious kind of thing. It’s not said, but in some ways is worse, like, you won’t be taken seriously or you’ll be seen as “too young.” I was seen as “too young” for a long time, and I think that’s because I was a young woman—I wonder if I had been young man if I would have been seen as a protégé in the making. Older men see themselves in younger men sometimes—and that’s more the level where I see sexism, where young women aren’t chosen as the “successor” they just aren’t seen that way. I also talk to my female students who don’t want to embarrass themselves by being aggressive about jobs, or even reporting. The conventional thinking is “oh, women are afraid to be pushy,” but there’s just less encouragement for young women out there to be “push” or to be writing opinion pieces and the rest at all.


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