An interview with award winning New York Times Magazine writer, Sam Anderson.
Craig: You’re listening to On Margins.
Craig: I’m Craig Mod, and this is season two, episode one. Yes, that is right. After an 18 month hiatus, we have a new episode of On Margins. I know, it’s been a long time. And it’s with one of my very favorite humans and writers in the whole world, Sam Anderson, author of the book Boom Town and staff writer for New York Times magazine.
Craig: Man, Sam is just one of those dudes who has such an inviting voice. He’s kind and funny and empathetic and brilliant. And when you read his stuff, you just feel the care. It oozes with care. It cares too much. In fact, we talk about how much this care is a problem in his work because it can crush you. You could be crushed by care. And Sam is sometimes crushed by care.
Craig: This episode is actually recorded in March, 2020, right at the start of the pandemic. I think we have been in lockdown for like 10 days at this point. So we talk about that and we discuss how to be radically present in the face of horrific and terrifying news that is always at your fingertips. We talk about how cliches are the bedrock of humanity. We try to give a little bit of writing advice, but it’s all cliches in the end. And we talk about how a single paragraph of Annie Dillard can set your mind ablaze.
Craig: So come join us. It’s been a long time and I hope you enjoy this episode.
Craig: Good morning, Sam Anderson.
Sam: Hi, Craig. How are you doing?
Sam: Good evening.
Craig: Good evening. It’s good to see you.
Sam: Yeah, it’s nice to see you.
Craig: Where are you right now?
Sam: Well, I feel like people say this a lot in podcasts. They say they’re sitting in a closet or their basement or something, but it’s kind of like telling someone your dream, nobody really cares, but I actually am sitting in a teeny, tiny closet that the family refers to as the Harry Potter closet in our house. And I’ve set up a synthetic like wolf fur blanket that’s hanging down to muffle the sound, and I’m talking to a microphone.
Craig: I love it. Well, you look amazing. It looks-
Sam: Thanks. I’m wearing a bathroom and a sweatshirt and my pajama pants, which I think I’ve been wearing for about six days now.
Craig: So not to, man, it’s so hard not to talk about this thing, but just to give some context to what’s happening in the universe right now-
Sam: I know. We have to, right?
Craig: So why haven’t you changed for six days? What’s going on?
Sam: Because we’re just, we’re all tumbling through the great formlessness, the complete absence of structure of self-quarantine, right?
Craig: It’s true. There’s no-
Sam: Of the coronavirus.
Craig: There’s no rules. I’m laughing just because it’s like you have to be so diligent about taking off your pajamas.
Sam: You do, if that’s the rule, and there’s argument on Twitter about whether changing does that much for you, about which are the key triggers and routines that creates structure as you’re tumbling through the void. But yeah, it comes down to a lot of willpower and discipline, and it turns out that I have that I’m in elite quantities under very, very specific circumstances, and this is not one of them so far.
Craig: When do those qualities rise?
Sam: I don’t know. This is something I really struggle with is, I don’t know, things that fit under… I just think of the term executive function and the little homunculus who lives in your brain who’s in charge of stuff, and how to make that person stronger.
Sam: I’ve been reading a lot about ADHD lately. I don’t know if I have it, but I’ve always struggled with the things kind of related to ADHD and I feel like our whole society right now is melting down in a kind of ADHD way. But this is a particularly hard moment to try to focus and get things done and it happens to be coinciding with the moment in our cultural history in which we’re all going crazy with lack of focus because of these phones and screens and the tiny loops that are built into them, the kind of crazy-making little loops. So it’s a particularly fraught kind of freaky moment in terms of getting stuff done and paying attention, right? How are you finding it?
Craig: Man, I wake up in the morning and I literally run away from the internet. I have to just bolt into a space where I don’t touch my office sort of space or don’t even look in the direction of the phone.
Sam: What do you do? You get out of bed…
Craig: I get out of bed and then I just-
Sam: You don’t grab your phone from under your pillow and check Instagram?
Craig: Yeah, you have those helmets with like beer cans on them?
Craig: I have a helmet where it just, it holds two phones in front of my eyes, and that’s how I sleep.
Sam: I mean, that’s not far from the truth for a lot of people I think.
Craig: Man, well, I would love… I mean, there’s a part of me that’s just like, [inaudible 00:05:45], man, let’s just keep going forever. But no, I wake up and I just, I literally, I’m running out of the room to the kitchen to just do anything that makes me feel like I’ve won the first three minutes of the day. I’m like, “I just got to win these first three minutes.”
Sam: Right. Right.
Craig: It’s tough. It’s really, really tough, but it’s heartening to know that we’re all sort of struggling with this together.
Sam: Yeah, I think that is actually a great like unifying cheering thing. That always happens when I talk to people about writing and I talk to them about how hard it is for me to write, and sometimes people are surprised. And I remember, “Oh yeah, not everybody knows that.” And people have these fantasies about other people and their productivity and their mastery of the tiny details of life, and they generally are not true.
Craig: So Sam Anderson doesn’t just sit down and two weeks later a book is done? That’s not how Sam Anderson works?
Sam: Oh man, the worst. It’s the worst. It’s the opposite of that. I struggle so much with it, and I always have, with finishing things, with deadlines. I’m getting anxious in my closet right now saying these words. Yeah, it’s just been, it’s been a constant struggle, and one consolation is that every writer I’ve ever talked to, that’s pretty much true for them.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
Sam: No, I’m sitting right now on like treasure troves of reporting and experiences that I’ve had for many months that are so precious to me and they need to be turned into the greatest pieces I’ve ever written, and I haven’t been able to do it yet. So I’m very behind on many projects that are like the greatest projects of my life.
Craig: Well, how do you start to break that down? How do you start to go from this place of paralysis and the perfection of the thing to be made that isn’t yet made, to starting to crack at it and make the ugly disgusting first baby that pops out when you start to work on this stuff? What’s your strategy for that?
Sam: I mean, part of what’s demoralizing here is that there are no fresh, cool insights. It’s all cliches all the way down. And I think as someone who grew up wanting to be sort of an intellectual and have interesting thoughts, that’s offensive on a daily and moment to moment basis that the thoughts are all the most boring thing you could ever say about any of this. So it’s like, you just got to sit down and just keep starting. Don’t worry about finishing, just start. Just sit down for 15 minutes, set your timer and focus for 15 minutes. And then, more likely that not, you’ll get carried away and it’ll be like an hour and you’ll look up and you’ll be… And you just do that again and again. It’s all about putting your butt in that chair-
Craig: That’ true.
Sam: And banging out that shitty first draft. And it’s all the dumbest stuff you could ever say, but it’s the most true.
Craig: It is. That’s true. Well, I ran into your work through New York Times Magazine and through Boom Town. And then I was going back through the New York period of Sam Anderson, and you got that Bloom piece. I mean, that guy did not have any problems writing.
Sam: Harold Bloom?
Sam: Did I write something about Harold Bloom?
Craig: Maybe that was for The New York Times Magazine.
Sam: Oh yeah, that was recent. That was because he died, for The Lives They Lived. And I’ve always had an incredible suspicion and animosity towards people who don’t have trouble writing. I’m very suspicious of Harold Bloom and the-
Craig: How did… I mean, what’s going on?
Sam: Well, there’s a certain… Also someone like Christopher Hitchens.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Sam: These people set off alarm bells for me. I think there’s some large percentage of them that is doing a shtick, that is doing, in the case of Hitchens, this sort of humanist, omnipotent, Edwardian, confident British scholar voice that’s largely just sort of a puppet show, a stylistic puppet show rather than an actual human intelligence that’s sort of searching itself and searching the world for really interesting new, true things to say. There’s a sort of dance or performance that happens, and that gets a lot of writing done.
Sam: I don’t know. I have no right to be judgemental of anybody. They’re getting their writing done.
Craig: Judge away. They’re dead. They’re dead.
Sam: Some people are just smart and fecund. What’d you say? We’re dead?
Craig: I said they’re dead, who cares? Judge them.
Sam: Oh, they’re dead. We’re dead. We’re dead. It’s over. Civilization is over. I’m huddled in my closet. No, I have this… The last thing I bought before the pandemic hit was this large black journal from a local office supply shop, and I actually have been writing in it every day by hand. Writing by hand is one thing that works for me.
Craig: Well, and also-
Sam: And I’ve been drawing pictures.
Craig: Yeah. I was going to say you gave me your book and you made a little drawing in the book. I feel like drawing is a key part of your very existence, Sam.
Sam: Do the pages sound good flipping on this microphone?
Craig: It’s a very meaty page.
Sam: I do love paper. Yeah. Actually, that’s a way… Oh, shit.
Craig: Uh-oh. Oh no.
Sam: [crosstalk 00:11:23] the door opened.
Craig: Don’t let [crosstalk 00:11:25]
Sam: Actually getting down on paper, not to sound like too old a guy, but interacting physically with a sheet of paper and doing free writing is actually where a lot of the anxiety starts to ease up for me and a lot of writing comes out. So if I can get away from screens and typey things and just put a pencil or pen to an actual piece of paper, then good things happen.
Craig: Yeah. Well, I find, I don’t know if this is true for you, but for me, the whole kind of seduction of the paper is just, there’s nothing behind it, right? It’s like whenever I sit down at the computer to work on something that requires focus, and this could be photo editing, it could be working on an essay, it could be laying out a book or whatever, I just feel the conflict of all the crap, the other crap that the machine can do. It’s like, you can just do so much other stuff on this thing. Why am I doing this one-
Sam: Right. Exactly.
Craig: And you’re kind of pulled in that way. So I have my own weird ways to put boundaries around stuff, using the Freedom app to kind of block basically anything fun on the internet. And I find that that really helps. But like you, I mean, man, it’s so weird to sit down with a good notebook, especially a big one. I like that your notebook there was so big.
Sam: Yeah. Another thing, another old-timey tool that works great is a typewriter, I’ve found. Because I have a couple of them and I do use them for writing sometimes. And it just, it like cuts the cord of insanity that connects you to the digital world. And it creates… Well, it’s a writing machine that only moves forward, and it creates this thing that is a piece of writing and only a piece of writing. And there’s something powerful to me about how there’s no copies of it. Like you can’t send it off, you can’t email it off, you can’t print out new versions of it. It’s just like it is coterminous with itself. It is a perfect little shred of being, this piece of writing that you created.
Craig: Right. Right.
Sam: So I think it’s cool, but maybe that’s annoying and and hipstery.
Craig: I think it’s annoying in a hipstery way if you don’t actually write a book with it. But I think if you actually, if you knock something out, then it’s great. The thing I like about a typewriter, I’ve got one sitting over there, an Olivetti, and-
Sam: Ooh, what kind.
Craig: Man, I don’t know. I bought it on-
Sam: I’ve got the Lettera 22.
Craig: That may be the one I have too. I got it on Yahoo Auction like seven years ago, which was-
Sam: How much did you pay?
Craig: Oh, not a lot. It was like 70, 80 bucks.
Craig: I don’t know. It felt like it was a good deal. And you know what I like? I like slamming the period into paper. Boom. I love that.
Craig: And I got really very soft paper. So it’s almost like the back of it ends up feeling like Morse code after typing on it.
Sam: Oh yeah, for sure.
Craig: I love that. And then what’s great-
Sam: Yeah, I mean, you’re using your body to do your writing, which of course we always are and should be.
Sam: But we get, so I find on my worst days, I get so abstracted and so detached from my body and my surroundings. And that’s a way to get yourself back in is slamming that period.
Craig: There’s just something satisfying about it. And then at the end of the day, you’ve got a little stack of stuff, which I find reassuring. I mean, it’s a lot like you said, it’s only one copy of it, which is kind of unique, but there’s a physical-
Sam: It’s literally unique. Yeah.
Craig: There’s just a thing that you can point at and go, “Okay, that was done today,” in a way that I just don’t find word count on a computer to be as satisfying.
Sam: Yeah, I agree.
Craig: It’s not very satisfying.
Sam: It’s hard to send to your editor. I mean, there comes a point where you have to convert this beautiful physical handwriting or typewriting that you do into a digital version. I haven’t fully committed to the bit where I type everything out and revise it and type it again and then paperclip it and mail it to my editor. It always becomes a computer file, and then that’s kind of where the trouble starts.
Craig: Right, right, right. Well, let’s talk about Boom Town. That’s your book.
Sam: That’s my book, yeah. And that went through all these processes that we’re talking about. A lot of handwriting. And then actually, what does keep me grounded in the revision, and I could show you a four foot tall stack of papers that I have that are just hand-revised pages from drafts of Boom Town sections. I always print out and then just sit with a pencil or pen and hand-revise the printouts. And then that’s where a lot of the creativity and the best phrases sort of bloom in the margins and between lines. And then I go type all that back in and then I print it out again. And I do that again like a hundred times until I can read a page-
Craig: Like literally [inaudible 00:17:00]
Sam: Maybe more literally between 10 and 20, but really whatever it takes until I can read a page and not want to change anything. And that was always the standard. Back before I had hard deadlines when I was just trying to make a writing career, that was the standard, was I would work on a piece of writing until I could read it infinite times and not see a thing to change.
Craig: And you find you get to that place?
Sam: Not anymore because I have these deadlines. But I do, yeah. Left to my own devices, yeah, I do get to that place.
Craig: Well, you say you have deadlines now, but I feel like you kind of have this, what from the outside seems like a fairly fluid relationship with The New York Times Magazine where you’re not… You don’t have like a monthly thing that you’re trying to hit, but-
Sam: No, I just… Yeah.
Craig: But you do have deadlines.
Sam: You’re burning me pretty hard right now. This is symptomatic of my failure. I’m a staff writer. Man. I do have deadlines, they just, they get passed, and then it seems like I’m very casually dropping pieces whenever I feel like it.
Craig: From the outside, it feels very improv jazz, but that’s not the-
Sam: I think I get a certain amount of leeway because I care so much and I agonize so hard about everything and my editors feel bad for me. So I have a longer rope than a lot of writers. I’m very, very, very lucky to have this job and to be working with this team of people who are so empathetic and understanding.
Sam: But yeah, I do have deadlines, but no, not like a monthly thing. I mean, for a while, I was doing-
Craig: You had New Sentences.
Sam: Yeah, I had this little mini column called New Sentences where I was-
Craig: Which is great. So much fun.
Sam: Thank you. Yeah, I was really happy with it. So the premise was, and this was an idea from Jake Silverstein, the editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine, who essentially wanted to solve this problem of not allowing me to spiral off into the formless void and to have, in this case, a weekly deadline for this mini piece. And they’re like 300 words, which is nothing. And it was brilliant because it didn’t allow me to procrastinate and float away. And it was short enough that I didn’t have to really freak out. I can do 300 words. And I had a whole routine.
Sam: So the premise of the column was I would just take one sentence from some newish book that had been published in the last six months or so and write a mini essay about whatever. And I could go in any direction I wanted. I could do stylistic analysis of the sentence. I could do free associative prose poetry. And it was super fun. And that was one where I really got a rhythm going. I’d read a book and then I’d make a long list of potential sentences from it. I would type into my computer and I’d print those out. And then I’d pick the sentence and start free writing. And then I’d just produced this little 300 word essay.
Sam: And that was great fun. And the amazing thing about it was it had a very strong and very small following, but it just died online. It did nothing online, and that’s not allowed anymore.
Craig: Why do you think it didn’t have legs online?
Sam: I have no idea. I’ve stopped trying to pretend that I know what is popular or interesting to people. Really. I have no idea. I would think this thing would explode across the internet. I mean, I wrote a whole book about, you keep trying to talk about it, I wrote a whole book about Oklahoma City, which nobody cares about. This is a larger thought, but I think I steeped myself in a tradition of reading and writing, and what really got me excited when I was growing up and wanting to be a writer was writing about really trivial things that nobody cares about.
Sam: There’s this great tradition of English essays from like the 18th century and 19th century of people writing about the most trivial possible things. You’re G.K. Chesterton who wrote this book, All Things Considered, where he writes essays that are like on running after one’s hat or on a piece of chalk. And he’s just drawing with a piece of chalk and describing what that’s like. I love that stuff and I always wanted to do that. Or Nicholson Baker, I don’t know if you know him, but-
Craig: Oh yeah.
Sam: Yeah, Nicholson Baker, who’s one of my-
Craig: Amazing. The Mezzanine, The Anthologist.
Sam: Yeah, right. The Mezzanine, his first novel, which is an entire short novel that takes place in like a 15 minute stretch when a guy is riding the escalator back to work from his lunch break and all the things he thinks about.
Craig: And I love his analysis of straws in that book. He’s got a whole section on straws. He just goes into it.
Sam: Yeah, and he’s got like a 10 page footnote about how stapler design has always tracked 10 years behind locomotive design or something. He’s just an insane genius of like the triviality of life.
Craig: He’s got a great-
Sam: And I’ve always been so inspired by that tradition. And so I pick things that are deliberately not universally appealing because it seems like a cheat and kind of boring to me to write about like Beyonce, who everybody’s already thinking about. I want to make people interested in things they’re not already thinking about, but it turns out that’s a liability when you want your mini column to blow up online.
Craig: Well, I mean, Nicholson Baker, by the way, also has a great Twitter account. I don’t know if you’re following him, but-
Sam: Oh yeah. Yes.
Craig: Really good. Really weird, super weird in a good way, in the best way. But when I found New Sentences, I just ate them all up. I just spent an evening-
Craig: You just eat them all up. I just spent an evening reading them all because you can do that.
Craig: Yeah, man. I was like, “This is great.” I mean, I loved the weirdness, the zaniness of it, because like you said, you’d just go off, every single essay is a little bit different. It maybe has nothing to do with … In some way, I mean, it goes so far away from the sentence or from the book that for me, it was just like, “Oh wow, you can go to that distance from the starting point in 300 words.” Because that was the other impressive thing about it is it’s a short column, but the ground you cover is, in some of those little essays is really expansive. Actually that New Sentences column inspired me to start my Ridgeline newsletter.
Sam: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Craig: That was the direct spark of inspiration. I was reading that, and I was like, “This is great. I love this. The strictness of the form, the kind of weirdness of it, the playfulness of it, the fact that you weren’t bound by any specific structure and or topic.” I just thought, “Yeah, man, I can do that with walking.” I was like, “I’m just going to every week, and I love the rhythm of it, weekly.” I was like, “All right, this is my task. I have to write a weekly walking newsletter.” It ended up focusing on Japan just because that’s where I’m doing a lot of my walking, but it totally drew inspiration from New Sentences. I was just like, “That’s an architect. I love it.”
Sam: Very cool. Thank you. Well, you have much success online in a way New Sentences did not.
Craig: Well, if you’re writing New Sentences about Japan, I bet you’d have new picks.
Sam: Oh, really?
Craig: It’s kind of a cheat to rail about Japan.
Sam: Just like a jet fuel of attention for people?
Craig: Yeah, man.
Craig: People just like Japan. They’re just kind of …
Sam: When you say people, do you mean American people? Do you mean people, people?
Craig: I don’t know. It just seems like everyone’s kind of pretty willing to click on it. Anything that has Japan in it, that’d be a little bit fun. I think that’s kind of a built-in cheat. I think. It is funny, though, the deadline thing. Because up until I started doing Original Line basically 15 months ago is when I was like, “All right, I’m going to make everything, I’m going to give everything deadlines.” I found that to be critical. I published 150,000 words last year on my newsletters.
Sam: That’s a lot.
Craig: I know. Well, and absolutely the most I’ve ever written and put out there in a year and entirely because of just the deadlines. Just get it done, get it done, get it done. Anyway, I found that to be really, really critical. Now, I’m trying to go back through all this stuff and figure out, how do I rearrange it into kind of a book form, bits and pieces of this, which is I’m already feeling like I’m collapsing under the weight of even the thought of looking through it.
Sam: Yeah, that’s a lot of words.
Craig: It is. It’s a lot of stuff. But I’m interested in how you made the jump because you’ve written about a bunch of interesting people and places, and how you made this jump to commit whole-hog to Oklahoma City. Because you don’t have a family connection there, you didn’t grow up in the South.
Craig: Zero. Literally until I got your book, I don’t think I had ever read anything about Oklahoma City in my life. The only thing I remembered was the bombing in the nineties, but I was almost too young to recognize even what was happening. I just remember, I had this vague memory of being in a motel, probably in Florida. When did the bombing happen in the summer?
Sam: It was April of ‘95.
Craig: I was in some weird vacation in a motel and I met with my mom and my grandparents. I remember it being on the TV. That’s about it. That’s the only …
Sam: When were you born?
Sam: Okay, I was ‘77. I was in high school. I remember it just as this giant tragedy. Things that happen all over all the time, but it was a bigger deal to us because it was in the United States and it was on the news for many days. That was kind of it. Yeah, I had no connection Oklahoma City. People often assume I’m from there or something, but no. Again, it was one of these deliberately perverse choices to write about something that people have not read about before or cared about before and to explore then what this huge untapped reservoir of material. More than that, there’s nothing that excites me about like the untapped reservoir of caring.
Craig: Right, right, right.
Sam: You know what I mean?
Sam: I don’t think I’ve framed it like that to myself before, but there’s something experimental and thrilling to me about caring as hard as a human can care about something that is completely disrespected and ignored by the machinery of cultural attention.
Craig: Yes. I mean, okay, a lot of your work is not explicitly political, but when you frame it like that, to me that feels like a, that feels like almost like a deliberate political or philosophical sort of stake in the ground you’re putting.
Sam: I think that’s true. I think a lot about when I watch the current American president. He has this particular obsession with … I mean, one of the ways he’s like trapped in amber back in the 1980s is he uses the word ratings all the time to describe everything like, “Oh, very low ratings, very bad ratings.” It’s such an old fashioned metric, it doesn’t even make sense anymore. But to me, I think about that word a lot: ratings. I think about this obsession with numbers and with numbers culture, and today it would be clicks or hits or downloads or whatever. I think there’s just a certain insanity inherent in numbers culture. There’s like an adolescent kind of insanity and paralysis inside of this fetishization of numbers and of other people’s attention in a quantifiable way.
Sam: I think of literature and I think of the act of reading and of writing as these kind of magic spaces that are both private and public at the same time, but in a way that’s very, very, very, very different from this whole notion of ratings or numbers culture as I’ve come to think of it. I mean, this is not a new thought at all, but it’s like this holy space. It’s like the literary space is like this holy sacred space where some kind of magic transfer happens. That probably is political. I mean, there is something essentially human about it, to use a word that’s hard to define, and it’s been kind of debased. But I think if I do have an agenda, it’s something about humans realizing their full humanness and connecting with one another on some deep human level that certainly the economy of attention, if you want to put it like that, does not encourage these days.
Sam: Literature to me has always been kind of a little cheat code to get there. That’s what I was trying to do. So to choose Oklahoma City was, again, this deliberate act of rebellion, I think, against obviousness. Then I thought, “Well, what you do is, as Nicholson Baker does, or a lot of my literary heroes do, is you pick this thing that seems unpromising to a casual reader and then you pour so much devotion and attention into it and energy and creativity that you make it irresistibly fascinating to everybody.” That was the aim with the book. And that’s always the aim with my writing in general.
Sam: I think writing has to be really special to justify the time that you’re asking people to spend with it, especially today. It has to be really special on a word by word, sentence by sentence level. So I tried to make the book really special. I think what I underestimated is how big a hurdle it would be to the general reader to say “Here, read this book about Oklahoma City. Trust me, it’ll be really special and amazing. You don’t think you care right now, but you’re going to care.” I didn’t realize that that was just a switch that gets flipped, that turns off 99.9, 9% of humanity.
Craig: Well, I mean, honestly, I don’t know. I definitely would not pick up a book on Oklahoma City randomly. I wouldn’t just go, “Oh yeah, let me go for that one.” I mean, I think I was receptive to it because I knew your work and I kind of felt that sense of care. I think for a lot of folks that they’re reading someone, the voice resonates with them, you just want more of it. It’s like you just go through these fit. You’re like, “Okay, how do I get more? How do I get more Sam in my head?” Because, like you’re saying, you do feel this care. When you write about Rick Steves, like you really are interested in Rick Steves and his ethos and his philosophy and why he’s traveling through Europe and how he’s thinking about his entire life built around activating people’s traveling pulse or whatever. Actually, he may be the reason for the Corona problem.
Sam: Because he’s circulating humanity?
Craig: Yeah, men. We should all be staying home.
Sam: And he’s based in the northern suburbs of Seattle where the first hotspot was in the United States.
Craig: It’s all coming together.
Sam: It’s funny. I was supposed to fly out next week, I think, to do a whole Pacific Northwest trip, one big portion of which was staying with Rick Steves, at his house, hanging out. I had to cancel it.
Craig: Smoking some Rick Steves doobies.
Sam: I would hope so. That was the joke in my family, but you know, follow his lead.
Craig: Like Boom Town, when I started reading it and, I mean, Jesus man, you just really, you obviously care. If someone really gives a shit and they have a strong voice and they’ve clearly put in the work to, whatever, sand away the bullshit, I’m going to hang out wherever you want to take me. It’s just that sort of the entry energy of Oklahoma City. Do I really want to read 400 pages on Oklahoma City? But then once you start going with it …
Craig: What’s amazing about BoomTown is it contains all of the things I care least about in the world like basketball. I literally, I’ve never watched a basketball game ever in my life. Ever. I’ve never, ever, ever, ever. The only basketball people I can name are Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. That’s all I know. Maybe Shaq. That’s it. I’m done. I have no more basketball people. Yet, I was with you the whole time. I was in. I was totally-
Sam: That’s great. That’s my favorite thing that people say to me about the book is like-
Craig: Totally with it.
Sam: … I had no interest in Oklahoma city basketball, urban planning, et cetera, et cetera, but I love the book. I mean, because that’s the trick, right? Is you want to be able to make everything interesting. Literally everything interesting.
Craig: I was rereading big chunks of it over the last couple of days. I think one of the things you do so well that keeps pulling you forward is it’s just funny. It’s a hilarious book. You do this walk, obviously I have this kind of walk up session, and you do this walk from the putt line, P-U-T-T line, back into town, you’re walking the land rush, which in and of itself is just insane and hilarious and something I didn’t know had happened and I feel like everyone in America should know about land rushes.
Sam: For sure, yeah.
Craig: It’s so weird and American. But you’re walking whatever highway, it was 42 or 64 or something-
Sam: 62, I think it was.
Craig: … and you see the sign Thief Beware Traps Have Been Set, Enter at Your Own Risk. It’s the greatest.
Sam: Yeah, on Eadie’s Chicken House, wasn’t that?
Craig: That’s the greatest detail of anything. That’s it. I’ll read the entire book, just knowing Thief Beware Traps Have Been Set, Enter at Your Own Risk. I love it. So good.
Sam: Thanks. I mean that was one of my favorite parts of the experience was I’ve been writing about all this history and urban planning and this kind of vast collective experience over many decades, and there came the significant day, which was the anniversary of the Land Run, April 22nd and I was like, “I got to do something to commemorate this, to experience this.” I decided a little impulsively to do this walk. It turned out to be about a 20 mile walk, which is nothing by your standards. But for me, it was a long one, just lasts a day.
Craig: 20 miles is long. That’s a marathon.
Sam: The great thing about it, as you know, from doing your epic walks is like, this goes right back to what we were talking about before. You’re putting your body through a space that is not designed for a body to move through it. Like you’re moving it. Like this road was not designed for walking and nobody, I’d be surprised if anyone else had walked it. Maybe not, but it’s not something you do. There’s no sidewalks. People are just driving. People are yelling out the windows of their cars because they’re like, “What the hell are you doing?” You’re resisting the bullying of this culture that says to be a human is to do this set of things in these various. And you’re like, “No, actually to be a human is to have this radical freedom to do all kinds of things that we’re not supposed to do, and one of those is just moving my stupid little legs over and over again to move me through this space that has no … it’s a historically very important track, but it has no remnant here. I’m just going to do it and see what I see.”
Sam: And there’s this wonderful, as I’m sure you know, to me the best part of writing is this kind of information gathering where you’re just so radically present and noticing everything that’s there to be noticed from that sign about Thief Beware, that at one point I start listing the trash on the side of the road because I’m just so hyper aware. Everything is interesting to me when I’m in that kind of space. So that’s the ecstasy of, of writing to me is getting yourself into those kinds of spaces. The hard part is converting that into text that people can then read, but obviously it’s worth it because people often single out that section. What they love about it is what I loved about doing it. Something survives that painful conversion, which is great. I get that stupid walk.
Craig: I love the description, though. You give it a radical freedom. That’s a nice a way to frame it because it’s true. I mean, when I’m out on my walks, I think that’s a big part of like, I’m almost high when I’m, when I’m doing these walks. Because it just feels insane. And a lot of where I’m walking to, depending on the walk, no one else is walking. No one else is doing these walks. I’m doing the equivalent of these land rushes or whatever in Japan because these are old highways that have been asphalted over and they’ve been turned into actual highways and so there’s trucks and it’s just chain stores and stuff. But there is something about just being alone. I find the aloneness is critical. Being alone and just having that autonomy to just, I’m just going to walk. I’m going to go in this shop. I’m not going to go in this shop. There’s something there, that heightened awareness of the ability to design free will, I guess, out in the middle of nowhere, it’s intoxicating.
Sam: That partly explains the choice of Oklahoma City. Like you said, it’s not something people have read a book about before. So in that sense, it’s like fresh territory. It’s a place I’m not expected to be. I’m not told to be by anyone and so it is an exercise of that freedom. I’m going to write about Oklahoma City.
Sam: For people who don’t know the basic background there, is I was sent by the editor of the New York Times magazine, Hugo Lindgren at the time. I was standing in his office and we were just casually chatting and he was like, “We need a big colorful cover story from you. What’s it going to be about?” I was like, “I don’t know.” He said, " Well, you’re a basketball fan, right?” I said, “Yeah, I grew up playing basketball. I love thinking about basketball and watching basketball.” He said, “What about this team in Oklahoma City? It’s a brand new basketball team. They stole a basketball franchise from Seattle, which is an actual city that deserves to have a major sports franchise. Oklahoma city by almost every standard does not deserve to have a major sports franchise. How did they get it? Why did they have it? And this team, on top of that, it’s just a fascinating collection of human beings and personalities. Why don’t you go out to Oklahoma City and write about this team and just see what’s there to be seen.” I was like, “Yeah, I can do that. That sounds great.”
Sam: It was just a magazine story. Then, I started reading the history of Oklahoma before I went out and encountered things like the Land Run and mechanics of how tornadoes happen and why they happen over Oklahoma so relentlessly every year. Something about that combination of material just clicked in me right away and I was like, “Oh, this is way more interesting than I expected.” Then, I had some time on the ground and I was like, “Okay, this is the place. This is my first book.” I’d been waiting. I mean, I’m 42 years old. I was 30. I was in my mid thirties when I got sent out there. All my life I’ve wanted to be hot shot writer guy who writes a cool book, whose magazine pieces turned into books like Tom Wolf or something.
Sam: But I’ve been waiting. I don’t want to just write any shitty old book. I want the book to be really, really, really special. So I’ve been waiting, all my magazine career, and I’d get these emails from publishers sometimes like I did a cover story and they’d be like, “That could be a book.” I’m like, “It could be a book, but it’s not my book.” So the first time I ever had this feeling of knowing for sure was Oklahoma City. I was like, “This is my book. This is the one.” It felt like this sort of destiny, this certainty and this destiny. I remember after the original article came out, I just wrote this passionate 2,000 word description of how this would actually be my first book and what I saw there and that’s what got circulated to publishers and got people interested in the project.
Craig: Well, because in the opening of the book you write, “I felt a mysterious inner needle beginning to vibrate. A needle that in all of my journalistic wanderings, I had never noticed before. I wasn’t sure what it measured or if it measured anything at all, but it was there moving.” I guess that this is what that needle was.
Sam: Yes. I said it much better and shorter in writing because I revised it many times. But yeah, it felt like something on the dashboard moving that I hadn’t seen moved before.
Craig: The 2000 words, you report on the stolen NBA team, and then you come back and you’re like, “Okay, I’m sort of sold.” Then, you write this impassioned 2,000 word, is it like an outline? Is it a summary? Are you going back and forth with your agent about this and you’re saying, “Hey, I think this might be the one”?
Sam: I told my agent. I said, “I think this is the one and here’s what I see,” and I just wrote this long email and that became the book proposal. I think based on the excitement in that note and based on my track record as a magazine journalist, publishers were interested. Publishers were surprisingly interested. I had never had a conversation where I was convincing someone to publish this book, which is great.
Craig: So did it go, was there an auction for it? I mean, what was the process like of finding the final home?
Sam: It was like a montage from a film, from an unrealistic film about a young writer, I wasn’t young, but of a writer having a great day of success. It was like, I got picked up by this black town car with my agent in it and then he’s like, “We’ve got eight meetings at all the leading publishing houses in New York.” It was just a full day of going from meeting to meeting and talking to people about this book. It felt like everybody was excited. Then, before the day was over it, before our last meeting, we had a very nice preemptive offer so that it wouldn’t go to auction from one of the publishers for Crown.
Craig: Then, that was it. You were like, “All right.”
Sam: Hmm-mmm (affirmative).
Craig: What’s what’s the thinking there of keeping it out of auction?
Sam: I think Crown just had this team who really got it and who really got what I do as a writer. I think they just wanted to leap in there first and make sure they got-
Sam: They just wanted to leap in there first and make sure they got the book so that I would have my book writing career with them. I think that was the plan.
Craig: Wow. Was your editor-to-be in the meeting there with you?
Sam: He wasn’t. There was a different editor that I started working with at first. Then, because I take so long to write everything, about halfway through the process he got a new job with a different publisher. So he left and I got handed to a different editor, this guy Kevin Doughten, who is totally brilliant and had a huge hand in shaping the book into what it turned out to be. Yeah. But it took me five, five-ish years to write the book, and my original deadline was one year.
Craig: Oh my God. Oh. I think in the-
Sam: Well, yeah, there was a vision in the beginning of, I think it was going to be… The original vision was a little bit more like behind the scenes of this NBA team with some interesting local history woven through. And of course, my vision exploded into something much more galactic and weird than that.
Sam: And so, yeah, it took five years instead of one. But there was definitely pressure at certain points of like, “Well, we’re kind of drifting away from this season, this historic season in the NBA that you’re writing about. I don’t know if readers are going to be that into it anymore,” like sports readers. And I was like, “Well, it’s not really that book. It’s kind of this big mythology of all of humankind.”
Craig: Right. You go in and you tell Crown that and Crown’s going, “Oh Jesus, what have we signed up for here? Oh, no, we got one of those writers.”
Sam: Yeah. It’s a 1,200 page multi-volume book called Human Consciousness.
Craig: But I’m glad you went galactic on it. What’s the name of the weather reporter?
Sam: Gary England.
Craig: England. I love England’s origin story of, “Born in a wooden shack by the light of a kerosene lamp into the hands of a doctor who, according to family lore, was paid in chickens.”
Sam: Yeah, yeah.
Craig: That’s like a line-
Sam: Classic stuff.
Craig: … out of a Denis Johnson novel.
Sam: Yeah. So you get on the ground in Oklahoma City and you start talking to people about basketball and suddenly within two minutes, you’re hearing about Gary England, who is this God-like figure in the Great Plains, the most famous meteorologist in the most weather intensive place on Earth, who’s rescued generations of Oklahomans from death by tornado and has played himself in the movie Twister, and he’s just like this larger than life figure. There’s so many moments like that where I’m like, “What is this place?” And just the richness of the local lore, which you would never know, and every place has that kind of thing.
Sam: And so that’s part of what appeals to me about doing a book like this is it is hyper-local, but in that hyper-localness, it becomes universal. Because every place has figures, outlandishly famous figures in their local space who nobody else has ever heard of like Gary England. Then you just go find Gary England and hang out with him at the weather studio and like. It just so happened that while I was with Gary England, one of the most epic storms in recorded history came through and aimed a tornado. It turned out to be the widest tornado in recorded history, over two miles wide, directly at Oklahoma City and at the weather studio that I was in with him. That turned out to be his last tornado of his career. He retired after 40 years.
Craig: Oh my God.
Sam: I was with him at the moment when he staggered out after this 12 hour day of saving people’s lives, staggered out of all the monitors and everything, and was just like, “Basically, I’m done.”
Sam: “It’s over.” Yeah. So there were all these moments of what felt like fate in the writing of this book.
Craig: Yeah. Well, and you feel that reading it too. I mean, who would have thought meteorology? You just don’t think about meteorology. It feels like this thing that’s just kind of always been there. There’s always been a guy predicting what’s going to happen tomorrow. Is it going to be hot? Is it going to be cold or stormy or whatever? But listening to England’s process of creating Doppler, I guess, and then-
Sam: Yeah, he was right there at the cutting edge of all these sort of what we think of as staples of meteorology, of TV weather. He was right on the cutting edge of Doppler radar and the little map in the corner of the screen where you can see weather moving over it. But, yeah, his earliest memory of a tornado is this killer tornado that came through rural Oklahoma and killed, I can’t remember how many people, but so many people. He was just a little kid and remembers sheltering in a chicken coop with his dad from tornadoes, and when you just had to kind of guess. There’d be a policemen’s station on the edge of town watching the sky to warn people that the tornado was coming.
Craig: Oh my God.
Craig: That’s insane. But I mean, the whole history of the town is insane and I mean, every page in this book, it’s like another thing that’s just beyond ridiculous. Like the fact that they were doing sonic boom testing in Oklahoma City. I feel like that would have been a scene from Watchmen or something.
Sam: Yeah, right. Totally.
Craig: It’s you put it in a movie, you do not actually test sonic booms on a town.
Sam: And it’s just this again, it’s like a thing that’s just sitting there. I’d never heard that story before about the US government, the FAA testing sonic booms systematically over Oklahoma City for six months, eight times a day.
Craig: That’s so insane.
Sam: It’s just like all those things are sitting out there waiting to be discovered if you just look at the things that you don’t already know about. But this book really probably dangerously enhanced my belief that everything is interesting. My next book will be about the third floorboard from the left in my dining room. I have a rich history of it.
Craig: I’m sure it has, man.
Sam: Yeah. That would work. I mean, that would take you immediately back into late 19th Century America and the lumber industry and all kinds of crap.
Craig: Yeah. Oh, man. You’re already going. It’s fated.
Sam: I’ll write my next book about that picture frame over your left shoulder on my computer screen.
Craig: But now that we’re kind of talking through this and bringing up almost this responsibility to just be looking, just open your eyes and look at the weirdness and the historical strangeness of things. I took a workshop with Alex Chee and he was talking about this thing he did with… He was in Annie Dillard’s class at Wesleyan. I think-
Sam: The layers of name-dropping going on right now.
Craig: I know, well, I have to because I want to make sure that the attribution is clean. I don’t want any credit for this at all. I’m trying-
Sam: Annie Dillard, who I haven’t mentioned, but is one of my absolute heroes and who I read all the time for inspiration and how to find ecstasy in small things.
Craig: So good. So unbelievably fucking good. I do the same thing. Anytime I’m trying to get into even a mildly creative place, Annie is one of my go-tos just because she’s doing what you’re saying. I mean, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, it’s just, look, and just go to your freaking pond and be open. Be open to the stuff that’s happening at the pond. Anyway, but in her class, apparently, one of the assignments was write about your hometown, but you have to research it like you’ve never been to that town before. Because Alex’s whole thing, the reason why I brought that up is because he’s like, “Look, a lot of autobiographical fiction, that’s fine. Write about bits of your life. But the trap that people fall into is that they think they know their life when they don’t.”
Craig: And so you assume, “Oh, I know, I know exactly what’s going on here.” But start to poke at that veneer and it’s like there’s this whole rich, insane universe beneath it. So anyway, invariably, Annie’s students would come back and be totally mesmerized by what they had found about their hometowns.
Sam: Reading Annie Dillard is another great example of the kind of freedom I’m looking for in life because our culture, our popular culture, is never going to steer you to a paragraph of Annie Dillard. A paragraph of Annie Dillard could change your entire life and could change the fabric of your mind, and you’re just never going to find it. I remember that all the time when I just sit down with a book or I sit down even writing in my own journal. It’s like, there’s no outside force that’s pushing me toward that thing. And so it does become this little act of rebellion that I find very exciting.
Sam: What the culture wants you to do right now is to refresh feeds on your phone because that’s where a lot of money is flowing. It’s not flowing through the Annie Dillard paragraph.
Craig: You got to break the loops.
Sam: Pick up An American Childhood and read one of the short little chapters about the time she was throwing snowballs with her friends and hit a windshield of a car driving by and the guy got out and chased them all through the neighborhood. It was like the most exhilarating and clarifying thing that has ever happened to her.
Sam: It’s just like, she does these things in the space of two pages that will stick with you for the rest of your life. And no one’s ever going to point you toward it, which is kind of a great crime of our culture, I think.
Craig: Yeah. Well, I’m trying to point. I’ve definitely quoted Annie a few times in stuff that I’ve put out there. I think I have a weird audience. I have a very strange cross-section of folks reading my stuff, and I kind of see it as an opportunity to kind of cross-pollinate these very disparate worlds. And so I definitely reach for Annie. But like in her Eclipse essay that The Atlantic-
Sam: Oh my God.
Craig: … republished a couple of years ago-
Sam: The greatest.
Craig: … it’s so incredible. The way she describes this clown painting in her room.
Sam: The clown painting made of vegetables, yes.
Craig: Made of vegetables. You can never forget it. She talks about never unseeing it. She describes it as like something that you’d never desire to look at, but once you’ve seen it, you can never unsee it. It’s just-
Sam: Yeah. That’s the beginning of this deep, spiritual epic about witnessing a full eclipse, and she begins it with this stupid painting in her motel room that she can’t stop unseeing and, again, that’s another kind of perfect act of freedom because that would get cut by 99 editors out of 100.
Craig: Well, that-
Sam: Just put that essay in a magazine, they’d be like, “Nah, we got to get to the eclipse. Like this clown stuff, it’s beautifully written, but I think we just need to get the reader right into…”
Craig: So who else do you go to for that feeling, that sense of freedom or whatever, that kind of inspiration?
Sam: It was really essays that did it for me. Like, when I was a teenager, I knew I wanted to be… Kind of like that feverish moment of middle adolescence, like age 15, where you sort of try to reinvent yourself, I decided I wanted to be literary guy and I wanted to be like great writer guy. I think that came from growing up surrounded by stories of various kinds. My mom was a great storyteller and my dad was a big sci-fi fantasy reader. I was always just good with words, and I always was good at reading, like academically. And so I think that’s how I decided, like, “This’ll be my identity. I’ll be reader guy.” I got really into Dostoevsky and I would walk around town reading The Brothers Karamazov, like literally on the sidewalk of suburban Lodi, California, on the way to school reading The Brothers Karamazov. I’d sit in class sullenly in the back reading my Brothers Karamazov. And so I thought that’s what it meant to be a writer, and you wrote big novels. I tried to write fiction and I was really bad at it. It felt very forced and dutiful.
Sam: Then in college, just browsing through libraries, I started to discover this whole other tradition of essay writing. It was like a lot of the old New Yorker writers, E.B. White, Thurber, Dorothy Parker, a lot of whom were really funny. There was like this little subgenre of humor writing that I completely fell in love with. I used to write a humor column in the college newspaper and it felt literary but also very close to the voice that was in my head and very close to the kind of jokey gamesmanship we would stand around and do in high school as a group of friends, where you just tell dumb jokes, like lines of jokes that were related with dumb puns and all that stuff.
Sam: It was like, there was just this obsession with holding people’s attention and with being interesting and funny and clever, and I found that in this old humor writing and I got really into that. Then that led into the personal essay, which, as we were just talking about with the Eclipse, has this radical freedom inside of it. You can write about anything in any way you want to, as long as you’re holding the reader’s interest somehow, as long as you’re being kind of authentic and interesting. So I loved that challenge and it felt very natural to me, and that’s where everything kind of took off for me. So I love the old-timey essayists. I still love a lot of those New Yorker writers. I love John McPhee. I think John McPhee became for me this model of the totally curious mind out in the world. McPhee, again, a legend of writing about subjects that should not be interesting. Like, he famously wrote this book called Oranges. The title is Oranges and it’s about oranges and the history of humans eating oranges and the orange industry in Florida.
Craig: Or the geological formations out West, just kind of-
Sam: Yeah, Annals of the Former World, which he won the Pulitzer Prize for, which is a collection of his four books, I think, on the geology of the formation of North America.
Craig: Yeah, yeah.
Sam: It’s amazing. There’s one of them, early on in that, he has a dream. Do you know this passage, where he has a dream that explains geology?
Sam: I’ll send it to you.
Craig: All right.
Sam: He has a dream about an ice cream shop. There’s a fire at an ice cream shop and the wall collapses. There’s a rug store next door and the rugs come tumbling in and all of these layers are sort of… Oh, I’ll send it to you. It’s just such a fresh, bizarre, creative way to explain what many people think of as a boring subject.
Sam: You read that paragraph and you’re like, “Oh, shit. Yeah, that’s how geology works. That’s how North America was formed,” this stupid dream about an ice cream shop lighting on fire and being buried under a carpet shop.
Craig: I have this beautiful old Pine Barrens edition.
Sam: Oh, I love that book.
Craig: It’s so good. And it’s like, that’s another thing. I mean, but McPhee is funny. It’s so funny hanging out with him as he does these ostensibly really boring adventures, right? I mean, he’s [crosstalk 01:03:07]-
Sam: He’s really funny in a slight way. I have this whole thing. I want to write an essay. I wrote a profile of McPhee which was one of my sort of crowning life achievements was to get to hang out with John McPhee and now exchange letters with John McPhee. My whole jag about McPhee, John McPhee should win the Nobel Prize in Literature. John McPhee should be the leading American contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. If you go back and read through his books… And actually, when I got the book contract to do Boom Town, I thought, “All right, it’s time to get serious. It’s time to marinate my brain in the possibilities of great literary nonfiction,” and I started reading John McPhee from the beginning of his career. I think I read through 13 of his books-
Sam: … before I had to give up because it was too demoralizing. He’s too good. His style was sort of like infecting my brain and I’m such a different writer than he is. So I had to let it go. But I read a ton of John McPhee. And part of what I realized is like, he’s one of the great American experimental writers. People think of him, because they associate him with journalism, with boring subjects, they think of him as kind of stodgy and staid. He’s as experimental as Tom Wolfe and the “new journalists.” He’s just not tap dancing about it constantly and self-promoting. But you read anything by him, and the structures… Have you read his book on writing?
Sam: Draft No. 4.
Craig: Draft No. 4, and, yeah, well, the one essay was just called Structure, right, for The New Yorker that he did a couple of years ago?
Sam: Yeah. His Paris Review interview is legendary and something I return to all the time for inspiration. Just the amount of creativity that goes into choosing a subject and choosing a structure. Yeah, I got to write that manifesto, " John McPhee should win the Nobel Prize.”
Craig: You should.
Sam: I don’t know why, I think there’s kind of a prejudice against journalistic nonfiction or things that start in magazines. But he’s as good as any literary writer out there.
Craig: Yeah. Well, I mean, and your David Ankles piece, it’s just so much fun.
Craig: David’s Ankles. Who would have thought that-
Sam: Yeah, David’s Ankles.
Craig: … writing about this statue… I mean, admittedly, it’s an important statue, but just keeping it up, just keeping the thing from falling over. Then the fake one being out in the square and the real one being in the back and yada, yada, yada. And just, it’s just such a joy to go on that weird adventure into the world of, why do we even care that the original has to be saved, right? Everyone’s going to the square thinking that the replica is the original anyway.
Sam: I know.
Craig: Why? Why? But it’s like, all these things start to burble up when you start to look and drill down on a single ankle or two.
Sam: Yeah. I think that’s like the principle of meditation or something. You sit quietly and observe something and there’s this incredible richness and complexity and calmness that comes over you. That’s how I feel when I get into paying attention to a place or a thing to write about it. I wish I could transfer that sense of excitement and richness and creativity into the writing itself. Sometimes I can, but it’s just surrounded by this horrible electric fence of anxiety. I think probably because I care too much. Like, if my superpower as a writer is caring, then it brings with it this downside of, I don’t know, wanting the finished thing to be so good. I guess that’s just perfectionism, like caring too much. That’s what perfectionism is. So I got to figure out that part of it.
Craig: I was watching a video interview with Daidō Moriyama or some old-school Japanese photographer, and he’s put out, I don’t know, 200 books, 300 books. He’s just put out an insane number of books. There was this interview with him and it was like a little documentary. It was showing him laying out a new book and the guy was just so fast. It wasn’t that he didn’t care, but there was no preciousness about it at all. And it’s like, “Okay, yeah. That’s how you get to do 100, 300 books, is you just got to…”
Sam: Yeah. I really struggle with that. I would love to be able to be that way, but then also not.
Craig: Right. I mean, the question-
Sam: People say this phrase, “Perfect is the enemy of the good,” which I think about a lot because undoubtedly my over-caring about the final product and needing every sentence to be special, undoubtedly, that has reduced my output into the world by like 80 plus percent, which is a problem. But I also have a really high confidence that what is out there is special, and I like that. I think, like I was saying, I don’t want to ask people to sit down and read stuff that’s just pretty good. If I’m asking someone to sit down to read something I’ve written, I want there to be this contract that it’s absolutely going to be worth it every time. I always think of this phrase that, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” I’m kind of like, “Well, yeah, because the perfect-”
Sam: … the good. I’m kind of like, “Well, yeah.” Because the perfect is better than the good”.
Craig: They should be, I think.
Sam: Maybe good is the enemy of the perfect. If I get a good draft, I can actually get it all the way to where I don’t want to change anything. And that’s kind of perfect to me.
Sam: And I can get there. So why wouldn’t I get there?
Craig: Well also, how many books do you need to do in a life? What-
Sam: I don’t know. That’s a great question. Let’s get my book editor on the line. He wants me to do more.
Craig: Yeah. Well, for me, the deadline just helps push stuff along a little bit.
Sam: Right. And once again, we’ve come back to the most boring cliche you could ever say. “Well, it helps to have a deadline.”
Craig: It does.
Sam: You just got to get that imperfect version out first and then you can work on making it better. David Foster Wallace wrote about this in… That was a big part of Infinite Jest. Was like, how humiliatingly cliches all these deep truths from AA are, from addiction recovery. It’s like that’s part of the problem. It’s like “One day at a time”.
Sam: It turns out these, these little truisms are the absolute bedrock truth of human experience. God dammit.
Craig: No great insights today. But for, whatever, like 150,000 words last year kind of pushed through these newsletters. But for me, that was helpful even though it’s not 150,000 like words that I’m super, super proud of. But-
Sam: Yeah. What’s your relationship to that?
Craig: I see that more as, essentially, exercising the muscle. I have a really hard time keeping everything behind the curtain, private, in terms of writing. I worked on a book for years and it’s not out in the world and I’ve written 500,000 words around it, in various different forms, and I found that that was not a super healthy place for me to exist all the time. And so I’ve found that this kind of schedule for me has been useful to get these kinds of okay-to-good, sometimes maybe really fun chunks out there in the universe.
Craig: And I suspect just a lot of people aren’t reading them. People just don’t read all the newsletters. So the way I’ve been able to kind of push down the anxiety around that is I go, “Okay, great. Just get these drafts done, get these things out there”. And then we’re going to go back and setting up another deadline. I want to do two consolidations a year, where I’m just consolidating, I’ve got this book format set up and I can just push out this physical object, that’s kind of from that reservoir of stuff. And that can be the thing that I pointed out and go, “Okay, look. This has come through your inbox probably in the last six to 18 months, but here I’ve given another coat of paint. And actually I’ve put it in a form where you can focus on it and you’re not distracted and pulled in a million different…”
Craig: So that, to me, knowing that system’s in place makes me okay with kind of putting more stuff out there than is absolutely perfect. That’s been my hack. I’m still in the middle of it, very early days of this hack.
Sam: But I like that though.
Craig: Yeah. It’s weird. It’s my own weird… I wouldn’t really recommend it, but it’s my own strange…
Sam: Part of what terrifies me about myself is I feel like I could go silent forever.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
Sam: I feel like I can absolutely keep all of that inside forever.
Craig: Inside as you mean like you’re writing at home and you’re just not showing it to people?
Sam: Forever. I could never finish a project again. Absolutely. 1000%. This phrase keeps recurring to me, over the last however many months, is like “I am a monster of detachment”. I’m able to detach to a degree. That’s kind of ridiculous. And so that scares me about myself. My sister and I do this thing we call turtling where we just go into the shell and sink down to the bottom, into the mud, at the bottom of the Lake. And you can just be fine forever. It doesn’t matter what anxiety is going on around you, we can completely detach. We don’t need to get too deep into my childhood here, but I think we learned some of that in childhood and I can still do that. And I want to not do that because, like I said, I believe in this, in humans being humans and interacting with each other as full humans.
Sam: And I think it’s a really positive, wonderful thing. And I think writing can do a lot of that work. So I don’t want to just detach and turtle, and sink into the mud. So I got to figure out ways to be better about getting it out. New Sentences was good. But then, like I said, that died because nobody cared about it. So they just canceled it. It’s redesigned the front of the magazine and Liz took it out.
Craig: But you would have you’d have kept going on it.
Craig: You would have stuck with it.
Sam: Well, yeah, but again, it took an external deadline to make me actually do it and produce it. So that’s the question is like how to… Writing for me…. Because when you’re truly radically open to paying attention to something, the input is just enormous. The level of detail that you gather… On that walk through Oklahoma city, I tallied so many pieces of garbage, I can’t even tell you. And, in the book, that comes out as six funny ones or something, like a nice little series. But in reality, that meant cutting 90% of what I had gathered from that walk, or more than 90%. and radically remaking what I chose to write down. And it takes an almost geological pressure and heat to do that transformation of material from the world into a polished piece of writing. And the question then is how to generate that geological pressure and heat without… It can only truly be generated by deadline pressure and the threat of humiliation and losing your job, if you don’t finally finish this thing? Or can you generate it internally, privately somehow, in a way that’s not traumatic to you? That’s the big question.
Craig: Right. The traumatic-
Sam: Email me the answer to that.
Craig: The traumatic. The very definition of pressure is something on the backend, a backstop to whatever’s going on. The geological pressure is the stuff bumping into each other. If there was no other rock to bump into, it just keeps moving.
Sam: And the crazy heat that is coming from the center of the earth that cannot be suppressed.
Craig: Right. Well, it’s bumping against the rock. It’s pushing up.
Sam: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Craig: You need those things. I don’t know. I find I need them. I’ve given up on self-generating these pressures or whatever.
Sam: Well, you haven’t, because you self generate the pressures. You create little systems that generate the pressures on yourself.
Craig: Well, I build up enough energy to create the system and then the system is there and it forces me to do the things. But I don’t know, again, like you said, nothing new here, nothing no one else has [crosstalk 01:17:10] with.
Sam: Which I, which again, is what makes it powerful is that we’re all, especially on self quarantine, surrounded by screens. Yeah. Surrounded by predatory attention loops. We’re all suffering through these obvious things that are hard to fix.
Craig: Well, I just, I found about three days ago, so I’m like 10 days into my, into the quarantine and you know, and the weird thing about Japan is that actually nothing is going on here right now. There’s there’s like none of my Japanese friends are quarantining or sheltering in place or worrying or staying out of bars and restaurants mean I have been kind of, I almost out of a sense of like solidarity with everyone else I know in the world. I’ve been taking myself out of the equation here, but I don’t think I need to.
Craig: Anyway, it’s creating this really weird dissonance of Europe and America being so extreme in one direction and then kind of Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong being the other direction, Singapore just not being, not being too crazy, but this, so anyway, it’s about 10 days into this thing and of like the real lockdown stuff starting in America. And about three days ago, I, I Crested the limit of reading about this. I just, I just hit some lid, some pot of, of, of addictive garbage inside of me got full. And I just, I’m not into it anymore. And I could, I started work. I started doing what I’d consider it like real work again just three days ago. I don’t know. Hmm. Have you felt, have you felt any ebb and flow of, of the loops or
Sam: Yeah, because the news, well only when the news gets less interesting and it feels like it’s not changing fast enough or no. No. I mean, I, again, I like you, I build in habits to get myself away from it. Like I, here’s a nice habit I have developed over the last couple of months is instead of when I’m making coffee in the morning, instead of listening to a podcast, which to me is like a half step away from reading Twitter. Yep. It’s still like a phone-based mind, occupier, mind pirate. I listened to jazz, which is something I know almost nothing about. And I have this little stupid little ritual now where directly next to my little speakers is a book I bought in Japan at Kinokuniya at a sort of hip Kino, Kenya, jazz, jazz, satellite, I think near a university.
Sam: And it’s a book by Haruki, Murakami of little essays in Japanese. I can’t read them, about his favorite jazz artists and jazz albums. And there are paintings in it of all the different jazz people he talks about. And so I flipped to a random page and I just put on Spotify, that album. And I play that while I make my coffee. Right. And that feels very like intentional and outside of the phone loop. Right.
Craig: Right. That’s pretty constant.
Sam: That’s a way, that’s the way I can start my day. It’s actually not complicated. It took me a long time to explain, but you just flip the book open, you put on a jazz album and you have music while you’re playing you’re while you’re making your coffee instead of the daily or reply all or whatever podcasts.
Craig: Yeah. No, I find podcasts activate the same thing in my head as like browsing the internet in a lot of cases. Not all, but like the news stuff, it just puts you in that, that mode on the same I put on, I wake up and music and making breakfast, making coffee and yeah, definitely not. I mean, what’s so dangerous now is you can, all, you can ask all the smart speakers to just play Hey, what’s the latest news and it gives you the little news snippet. And that, that I find also kind of pulls you away. But the view, the Murakamiami thing, you’ve, I mean, you have a whole history of you went and visited Murakami. Didn’t you go on a run with him down in, down in a, so that’s right. A little hometown or where he lives in Japan. Yeah. Yep. Yep. Okay.
Sam: You get to hang out with him for a day at his office in Tokyo. And then the following day I met him there and his assistant drove us to his home and we chatted on the drive and then, and then had this beautiful sushi lunch that he had prepared for us. And then we sat in his office upstairs where he does all of his writing and has his vast record collection, floor to ceiling shelves of vinyl and these huge speakers that I think he bought from eBay. And I said, can we listen to some music? And he said, of course he writes so much about music. And so we listened to like all these key albums from his life, like the first album he ever bought and is a favorite jazz album and the Janacek symphony that was in one QA for, and one of the great things about it actually was I was like, Oh, can we listen to this?
Sam: Sinfonietta the Yana check that sort of recurs constantly through one QA for he’s like, yes. So he puts it on and we sit down to listen and he turns the volume knob up almost as high as it goes. And the speakers are like as tall as a person. And we’re just completely drenched in this music. And I thought, I was like, Oh, I thought we were going to like, turn this on in the background and chat, but no, we sat and we listened to that music and it was amazing. And like whenever he turned something on, he turned it on and we sat and we bathed in the music.
Craig: Man. That’s a, it was cool. That was a great experience. I mean, that’s a guy who he, he produces, he gets stuff out.
Sam: I mean, and he’s, yeah. He’s one of those great models of willpower where, when he decided he would be a, he, boom, he’s going to bed at nine o’clock, he’s waking up at 4:00 AM. He’s eating only healthy food that he makes for himself from then on. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. And start started seriously running. So he writes for four hours or something and then takes a break and, and goes for a six mile slow jog through Oso, which I did with him, not the whole thing, but we did a portion of it. It was great.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I have friends who have stories about he’ll be at like a book event and there’ll be a line of people waiting to get signatures or something or he’ll finish signing. And then the publisher will be like, Hey, we’re going to, let’s take you out for dinner. And it’ll be like, it’s 9:00 PM. Sorry. I got to go home. I have to go to bed.
Sam: I really admire that. I would like to be that way endlessly and I have been in the past when I, when I actually wrote BoomTown, I took book leave from the times magazine for, I think like eight months. And it was like, well, I cannot waste this time. Yeah. And so I would get to my office by, I would do what I called the herky plan. I would get to my office by 5:00 AM every morning. And then, yeah. And then I would just write, yeah. My wife was like, yeah, go ahead. She’s like, if you’ll do me the favor of like making our kids lunches the night before, then I’ll take care of the kids in the morning, get them off to school and you just, you just go write.
Sam: And so I did, and I was very disciplined about it and, and I would end up some days I’d write for like 12 hours and I was going crazy and, but a lot of the, and that was eight months. And then it took me another four years on top of that. But a lot of the writing that I did early on, a lot of the land run stuff came out of that really intense, really focused session.
Craig: Wow. That’s so eight months were there, was it like five days a week? Or will you take, did you go on vacation at all?
Sam: Five days a week and yeah, they would, I’ve always been very available to my family. We have two kids. Our daughter is 15. Our son is 12. So, so I had kids, I don’t know, semi young and given the flexibility of my job, I’ve always been able to like be around for them. And I liked that a lot. That’s super important to me. So I probably, I probably wasn’t doing the full Haruki.
Craig: Right, right, right, right.
Sam: But a partial.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, cause you, you interviewed him and then I guess you started the BoomTown maybe like two, two or three years later.
Sam: Yeah. I started running for that too. For that story. I always hated jogging, but I thought, well, if I’m going to profile Haruki Murakami, then you got to get into his head space and jogging is so important to him. So I started jogging while listening to the music that he listens to while he jogs. And I lost like 20 pounds and it was great. Wow. But you didn’t keep it up. Ouch. It’s another burn because you’re looking at me on the camera and you’re like, no, not, not like, not like, not like I used to, when I got into it for that story again, for a story, I can like super commit to anything. And I was jogging like five days a week or something. I still jog. But not that often.
Craig: I mean, you look, you have a runner’s physique. I mean that’s obvious. Thanks man. That’s obvious. I just didn’t know if you’re still doing like marathons or not.
Sam: Oh, okay. Thanks.
Craig: Anyway. All right. Well, this is, I think this is pretty good. This is, we got like an hour and a half. We just talked about everything. Literally. I think we covered it all. And he dealt with John McPhee, BoomTown. David’s ankles. A little bit of a Rick Steves. Thanks Sam. For making time to chat today.
Sam: My pleasure. You actually got me out of bed. Nice and early. So I can go do some writing. Maybe this will kickstart me waking up early again.
Craig: There you go.
Sam: Because it’s hard to get out of bed early, especially when you’re feeling like defeated and depressed and like a big loser and you haven’t been productive then it’s just kind of like sleep til night.
Craig: Yeah. Well, and especially, I guess if your kids aren’t going to school and everything’s shut down and no one has any structure and yeah.
Sam: But maybe this will kickstart me into waking up.
Craig: There you go.
Sam: Earlier. Maybe your weird Japan time will kickstart me into a new loop of productivity.
Craig: Good luck to both of us. Yeah.
Sam: Good luck to everybody out there.
Craig: Here it is an episode, a new episode. Can you believe it? I can’t barely. I can barely believe it. And not only that, but we have a follow up boom, a one, two punch of pods. I know it’s almost too much to bear. So keep your pod player going and it should cue up the Sam and Craig follow up AKA season two, episode two avant marches recorded some 10 months after this episode, which brings me to our sponsor for the show. Actually procrastination that beautiful sadist invoked by all of us, creative masochist to come and crush our souls in the deep of the night to force our hand to do literally anything besides the creative work we should be doing.
Craig: Thanks procrastination for stepping up and giving us the opportunity to almost never release this episode and thanks to all the members of my special projects membership program. Yeah. I got a membership, man. I know, I know they’re everywhere, but special projects has been going since 2019 and it is truly the driving force behind being able to do work like this. So if you enjoyed this pod, consider joining, it sends a big signal to me that I should be procrastinating less around this stuff and putting together more of these pods. So join at Craigmod.com/membership. Thanks.