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Interview: Anya Kamenetz, Author

(alternate text) At a time when young authors earn lavish advances for books about drinking or their wealthy parents, Anya Kamenetz stands apart. Her first work, Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to Be Young is a serious book, seriously argued, about a serious subject. One of the youngest columnists for The Village Voice, Kamenetz rejects the notion that young people are spoiled, directionless, whiners who return home for no other reason than to play video games and torment Mom and Dad. Instead, she argues that many young people face economic forces that make success almost impossible. And Kamenetz also points out that the self-congratulatory Baby Boomers who sneer at younger generations are actually part of the problem.

“Instead of saving enough for their own retirement, let alone for our future, the Boomers are going deeper into debt than any generation before them,” Kamenetz writes. “Because of their projected retirement expenses, the nation is essentially bankrupt, with a total accumulated funding gap in the federal budget that’s greater than our national net worth. Who’s going to be around when that bill comes due? Young people.” Although her criticisms of Baby Boomers elicit howls of laughter, Kamenetz doesn’t rely on simply pointing fingers at the old geezers. She is even-handed in also criticizing young people when appropriate.

Generation Debt is not just a lament of tough times. Instead, it’s a ringing of the bell, not the famous one on Wall Street, but an alarm clanging that all young people should heed. Without serious political involvement, economic reform, and financial responsibility, our generation faces dire consequences. Anya Kamenetz is determined to change that and this is a book written with a mature confidence, a fevered dedication, and a factually-supported point of view.

Kamenetz talked to us about breaking into newspaper work, financial improvement techniques for writers, and ways to fuel political change.

Slushpile:  You decided on a journalism career in the tenth grade. What made you so certain, at such a young age, of your future career path?

Kamenetz:  It wasn’t a matter of being certain, but being drawn to the field. I loved to write poetry, stories, anything, and thought of being a book editor when I was very young, but I had a strong social and political interest as well, and journalism seemed to satisfy both of those bents at once.

Slushpile:  Your parents are both writers. How did this influence your own choice of careers?

Kamenetz:  I grew up with alphabet soup in my veins and a book in my hands at all times. The most important gift my parents gave me though was complete love and encouragement–even to argue, spar and prove them wrong!

Slushpile:  I just moved away from Baltimore last fall. So I was intrigued to read that your grandparents lived in Charm City. Where did they live? Where was your grandfather’s store?

Kamenetz:  My dad and his four siblings grew up in Lochearn, and my grandfather’s pharmacy was in Overlea in north eastern Baltimore in a working class white Catholic neighborhood near a black neighborhood.  Later when my parents first got together, they lived in Charles Village in the seventies and hung out in Fells Point.

Slushpile:  Who were your earliest literary or journalistic influences?

Kamenetz:  I was more of a fiction reader up until I got to college–Kundera, Marquez, Nabokov–and then in college and after I delved into the writers of  New Journalism in the ’60s and ’70s like Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Norman Mailer (Armies of the Night)–all of them showing different ways stories could be told.

Slushpile:  What was the first story you wrote, where you felt like you really achieved something? What was that first byline that really meant something to you?

Kamenetz:  Well, the first story I wrote that was published professionally was when I was a junior in college, in the Forward newspaper. It talked about the sale of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s archives to the rare book library at Yale. This was a painful issue because essentially Israel couldn’t afford to match the library’s offer and keep the archives in the country. It was an issue of intellectual heritage and personally meaningful to me because Amichai was a favorite poet of mine and I had the honor of meeting him on a high school trip to Israel.

Then a few years later I wrote a story for The Voice about a young man who committed suicide not long after being released from jail. There was all sorts of evidence that Rikers Island had not followed proper procedures with him to safeguard his mental health. Just getting up the courage to talk to his family was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a reporter.

Slushpile:  After a series of unproductive interviews for fulltime jobs, you began to contribute to The Village Voice. How did you break into The Voice and get the assignment that became “Generation Debt: The New Economics of Being Young.”

Kamenetz:  I started at The Voice as an intern in the book department. During that time I published a couple of 50-word previews of readings and such. I stayed on as a freelance copy editor there, just to stick around the office a few hours a week, and started pitching longer features. In the summer of ’03 I went to Israel for a month on my own dime and finally published my first pieces in the news section, reported from over there. I happened to be one of the younger freelancers in news when Laura Conaway, my editor at The Voice, got the idea to run a yearlong feature series on “Generation Debt: The New Economics of Being Young” (her phrases).

Slushpile:  Had you always been interested in finance, or did you develop the expertise and interest because of this assignment at The Village Voice?

Kamenetz:  No, not remotely. It was a crash course for me and led to my improving my own finances (for example, starting an IRA and getting better at my taxes).

Slushpile: Generation Debt is heavily supported by facts and statistics. While you were writing, how did you decide on how much information was needed to make your point, without going too far and burying the reader in statistics and studies?

Kamenetz:  This was definitely something I struggled with and I streamlined the numbers a lot between the first and second draft. Having no research background, I had the impulsion to shore up everything I was saying and I needed my editor to tell me when to give it a rest.

Slushpile:  How did you find the interview subjects for Generation Debt?

Kamenetz:  Everywhere. Some are friends of friends. Others I sent a message to on their
blogs or found on craigslist postings or ran into at my local cafe. Community college professors in New Orleans and San Francisco hooked me up with their students, as did a job training program in Oakland.

Slushpile:  What are your personal writing habits? Do you have any particular writing schedules?

Kamenetz:  In general, I make phone calls and do research in the morning, write in the afternoon and evening (and sometimes late at night). When working on the book, I would set myself a daily word quota, and sometimes it took 7 hours, sometimes 15.

Slushpile:  Do you have any superstitions or habits (like always listening to music, or only writing in a window, or whatever) about your work?

Kamenetz:  No, not really. I do tend to go to a cafe in the afternoons to break up the day and I will give myself a certain task to accomplish while I’m there (like finishing a page).

Slushpile:  The majority of the book is devoted to describing the economic difficulties that face young people. At the end of the text, you then provide some key suggestions for taking charge. How did you balance the good and the bad? Did you ever worry that the first seven chapters might have been too ominous for readers to get through?

Kamenetz:  This was really a lesson for me in terms of the difference between a newspaper or magazine article and a book. In a journalistic piece, 800 or 3000 words, it’s enough just to diagnose, to say, here’s why this is a problem. In the book, I really needed to leave people on a positive note, but I didn’t want to be Pollyannaish either. I think the paperback version is going to include even more suggestions for action and change based on what I’ve heard from people around the country.

Slushpile:  Writers often have difficulty finishing their first book. Was there a time when you worried about completing Generation Debt? What did you do when you faced the usual writing obstacles?

Kamenetz:  I signed the contract in July 2004, and the first draft was due in April 2005, and I hadn’t written a word of it, so I didn’t really have time to get blocked! The hardest part was about 6 months in when I realized the original chapter structure I had decided on needed a major change. But throughout the writing time I set deadlines with friends to show them chapters, and that really helped.

Slushpile:  There are moments when you insert yourself into the book and share experiences from your own life. But most of the time, the book reads like a newspaper article without any “me” or “my experience” present. How did you decide when to include your own life in Generation Debt and when to play it straight and detached?

Kamenetz:  This was something of a conflict between me and my editor. On the one hand, I was signed to write the book not because I had any particular expertise, but basically because I was young and speaking with the passion of personal experience. On the other hand, as I learned more about the obstacles facing us as a generation, I started to feel more and more UNrepresentative–my experience has been highly, unusually good. So I tried to leave myself out of it, but when I got back the first draft my editor wanted me to put my voice back in. The irony is that most of the negative reactions to the book have been to me as a person, when critics conflate my talking about my own experience as though I think my problems are worse than anyone else’s.  Which I don’t. That’s the perils of being a spokesperson though.

Slushpile:  How much of a finished book did you have when you started shopping around the proposal? You had the columns in The Voice, but had you written any of the book itself?

Kamenetz:  Nope. The proposal consisted of a personal introduction (which I wove into the preface); a chapter outline, and three or four articles from The Voice and elsewhere. It was 20 pages in all.

Slushpile:  Your agent is Katinka Matson of Brockman, Inc. How did you contact her and get representation?

Kamenetz:  Embarrassingly, she is a family friend. Although, during the course of writing the book I was cold-called by two other agents who saw my work in The Voice and wanted to represent me, so it could have happened another way.

Slushpile:  Many aspiring authors don’t know what happens between getting an agent and ultimately getting an offer from a publisher. Tell us about the way you interacted with your agent while she was trying to sell your book.

Kamenetz:  After publishing two stories in the “Generation Debt” series, I got an email from an assistant editor at Random House who said it sounded like a good idea for a book. I got in touch with Katinka and talked it over and she agreed. She gave me a few sample book proposals to use as a guide. I put the proposal together in about two weeks and then Katinka shopped it around to about a dozen editors.

Slushpile:  From the time the agent first submitted the book to signing the deal, how long did that take?

Kamenetz:  The whole thing was over in just three weeks. I had three meetings with editors and then somebody made an offer–Brockman Inc. handled all the negotiations. I started the process in June and it was over by the fourth of July.

Slushpile:  You write in the book that you live well within your means. But still, you must have celebrated in some way when your book was accepted. What did you do?

Kamenetz:  When I got the call that my book was accepted, I was in a parking lot in southern Oregon with my cell phone about to go out of range. I had driven down from Seattle with a dozen artists, healers, musicians and circus performers going to camp for the Fourth of July weekend in the Nevada desert. During the weekend I bathed in mineral hot springs, rode on the back of a pickup truck doing donuts on the alkali flats, witnessed the explosion of a giant Bush effigy with road flares and the use of a flame thrower as a percussion device, along with some unmentionable activities. It was an awesome celebration.

Slushpile:  Another book with the same title as yours was released just a month apart from Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to Be Young. This is an unfortunate coincidence that happens in publishing. But what is like on the inside? When, and how, did you learn about this other book? How did your publicists and editors react? Were there discussions about possibly changing your title or differentiating your book from the other one?

Kamenetz:  It was no coincidence. What happened was this: A week before I had thought about writing my book, an editor from Warner Business Books approached me and Laura Conaway with the idea of my being a co-author or contributor to Carmen Wong’s book. When we said no thanks they informed us that they were going ahead with the book and using the title, which neither of us had a legal claim over. Riverhead decided that Generation Debt was the perfect title for my book and they were in such different categories (self-help vs current affairs) that the coincidence would not be a problem.

Slushpile:  There is a note in the book about the nature of your research. You write, “there are no composite characters, and no details have been changed.” Did you always intend to include a note like this, or was this a later addition after the recent controversies about fabrications in nonfiction book publishing?

Kamenetz:  I wasn’t really thinking about the James Frey thing, but I wanted to make it clear that it was important to me to treat my subjects with respect and get the details right.

Slushpile:  Many authors are unprepared to really sell their book after publication. They don’t understand how much time and energy is required to promote their work. What has been your experience with the promotional aspects?

Kamenetz:  For the 7 weeks since the book came out, I have definitely spent over half my work time on promotional activities: blogging, fielding media requests, arranging events, and of course traveling. Right now, I expect this pace to continue through the end of May, and to pick back up next spring when the paperback comes out. I have been very, very lucky in terms of the amount of attention the book has received, and also because I am a freelancer and can afford (in the short term) to take the time to do all this stuff, and thirdly because I was prepared: my parents and other friends in the publishing biz warned me that promotion is very much the author’s job.  Finally, I am learning so much about public speaking (which I had not done much of before) and how to not be afraid of live TV and radio.  Although it is exhausting, and there is always that one blog comment from some dumb yahoo who ruins your day,  overall, it’s been amazing.

Slushpile:  One of the reoccurring problems in Generation Debt is that very few parents actually teach their children about money. My own parents were very frugal and set a good example for me. But the only real instruction I got was how to balance my first checkbook as a teenager. Why do you think so few parents talk their children about handling money?

Kamenetz:  Most parents—most people, really, in the US–aren’t much good at handling their money. We have a negative savings rate, a skyrocketing rate of bankruptcy until it was essentially banned last fall, the widespread use of home equity lines of credit to shore up shaky household finances. And we have a lot of shame and inadequacy around our lack of money skills. So this is not going to be a topic where many families feel comfortable shining a bright light on it in order to teach their kids–it would be a ‘do as I say, not as I do” situation. Also, surveys show parents simply don’t realize that their kids are turning to them for financial advice–they think the schools are doing it.

Slushpile:  You write that many college students “don’t persist to graduation but they stay long enough to cause overcrowding at state universities nationwide” and “in the United States, vocational education bears an enduring stigma.” I’ve always believed that we put too much emphasis on college in this country. The popular message of society would be that my English degree is more respected than someone who served an apprenticeship as an electrician. But I’ve always felt we need to show that electrician just as much, if not more, respect. What are your thoughts on ways for young people to learn a craft without attending college?

Kamenetz:  Yeah, do it! On-the-job training (in a kitchen, on a construction site), apprenticeships (organized through unions and trade associations), and vocational programs at community colleges and technical schools are the way to go. I have a college-educated friend who works as a stage electrician; he is employed through a union-hall system and it’s like he’s living in a time warp of job security, benefits and opportunity.  The only thing to be wary of in this category are the for-profit technical schools. You want to see very strong industry ties with the program; otherwise it may be a ripoff.

Slushpile:  In Generation Debt, you hold up the AARP as model way to effect change in this country. If you could create such an organization for young people, what would be the top three issues in your platform?

Kamenetz:  1) Equal access to higher education; restore LBJ’s promise that “a high school senior anywhere in this great land of ours can apply to any college or any university in these great 50 states and not be turned away because his family is poor.” 2) A system of portable health care and retirement benefits not linked to employment status. 3) Bring Social Security and Medicare back into balance (and pay for the other two) with benefit cuts and tax increases on the wealthy. Tax wealth, not work.

Slushpile:  Other political observers point to the National Rifle Association as the most effective type of political organization. Whether or not you agree with their opinions, the NRA’s single-issue, laser-like focus is effective. Some observers argue that you can only really affect change by focusing energies on one single issue. If you could only have one issue on your youth organization’s agenda, what would it be?

Kamenetz:  Probably #1. Higher education (not necessarily 4-year college, but education
that leads to good jobs) is so crucial to the American Dream.

Slushpile:  Many aspiring authors expect a big paycheck, or a big change in their lives, when they get published. This is partly because of our dreams, but also because those rare instances where an author gets a million dollar advance are the ones that make the news. However, you write “even selling this book didn’t change the reality that I am living check to check.” How would you suggest that aspiring authors alter their visions of post-publication life to be more realistic?

Kamenetz:  The best way to be realistic is to know the numbers. I already ‘fessed up on my blog that my advance was $51,000 after commission. That was split up into 4 checks for $12,750, each issued in a different calendar year  (The 4th and last comes with the paperback). So each check represents somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of my annual income in 2004, 2005, and 2006. It’s a nice paycheck, it allowed me to open an IRA and fund it, and removed the day-to-day anxiety of freelancing, but for a limited time only.

Slushpile:  Freelancing can be a difficult way to earn a living. You write about some of the challenges and one that really resonated with me was, “I sometimes have to submit multiple invoices and wait months to get paid.” I’ve struggled with this myself. Why do you think that writers, who provide the very content publications depend on, are sometimes treated so poorly by the system?

Kamenetz:  Because we’re suckers! We love to see our own bylines and there are millions of us out there (cough, bloggers, cough) willing to do this for free, so it’s definitely a buyer’s market. And because we’re freelance, we have trouble organizing to demand anything better.

Slushpile:  Many writers, even somewhat successful ones, sometimes struggle obtaining a mortgage because they can’t prove future earnings. Even if I cash a big advance and I’m sitting on a sizable bank account today, I can’t prove that I’ll sell any more stories in the future. In today’s economy, no one has any guarantee of future employment, but still the banks think an insurance adjustor with a steady paycheck is a better risk than a writer with sporadic income. How can writers make themselves more attractive to lenders?

Kamenetz:  I wish I knew. The only consolation is that there are more and more nontraditional workers out there so maybe lenders will have to alter their guidelines.

Slushpile:  In the April 2006 issue of Men’s Health, you provide nine simple ways to build seven figure bank accounts. What kind of financial advice do you have specifically for aspiring authors?

Kamenetz:  You know, you have to pay yourself first–pay that health insurance and the retirement fund. For me, getting paid sporadically has made it easier to save–when I am flush, I just put a chunk away somewhere where I can’t touch it.

Slushpile:  Your work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, and Slate. How do you get these assignments? Do you query editors just like everyone else or do they come to you?

Kamenetz:  I query editors nonstop. I got turned down three times yesterday, and those were just the people who responded. I got one ‘yes’ in the past week which is enough to keep me out of the pit of despair.  However, with all four of the assignments you mention, I was recommended or introduced to the editors by mutual friends. (Three out of four of those editors, incidentally, have left their jobs since I published those pieces, making a second pitch that much harder to land.)

Slushpile:  Has the publication of Generation Debt made it any easier to break into new magazines and newspapers?

Kamenetz:  Yes, probably; I have gotten to know many more editors and reporters through coverage of the book.

Slushpile:  Do you intend to continue covering finance in the future or would you like to examine other topics?

Kamenetz:  Finance is certainly a fruitful service-y specialty and I’m interested in developing some multimedia materials to go along with the book. I also will keep writing about policy, opportunity, and youth.

Slushpile:  What projects are you working on now?

Kamenetz:  An article about couples and money for Men’s Health, a story on the FBI’s spying against NYC activists for The Voice, a column about the French youth protests for TomPaine.com, and secretly a next book idea.

Slushpile:  What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?

Kamenetz:  Never stop getting feedback on your work and really listening to it.

Slushpile:  What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to writers struggling to break into print?

Kamenetz:  Publishing is a people business just like everything else. The more people you know in the business, the easier it will be to get published.

For more information, visit the Generation Debt website or Kamenetz’s blog.

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