Interview: A.J. Jacobs, Author
So A.J. Jacobs likes to do things. Strange, challenging things. And then he writes about them.
Seems simple enough. But in this world of people slipping into easy gimmicks to masquerade as entertainment, the sincerity (and the extent) with which Jacobs immerses himself in the experience is refreshing. First, he read the encyclopedia from start to finish and documented the experience in The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. And in his most recent bestseller, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, he focused on living a modern life while observing more than 700 rules dictated in the Bible. Some of those rules were easy to obey, others not so much. The results, and the impressive beard he grows, are hilarious and thought-provoking.
Jacobs was kind enough to take time out of a busy book tour schedule to talk to me about writing nonfiction proposals, having high expectations for your readers, and the possibility of a project involving a year’s worth of foot massages.
Slushpile: What was your earliest literary love?
Jacobs: I was, and continue to be, a huge fan of Goodnight, Moon. It’s the most Zen children’s book ever written. The blank page that says “Goodnight nobody” — that is profoundly brilliant. I don’t know if it officially qualifies as a koan, but it’s pretty close.
Slushpile: As a young writer, what influenced you to go into journalism/non-fiction as opposed to fiction or creative writing?
Jacobs: A big influence was Tom Wolfe. I remember being blown away by The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and the Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flaked, etc. etc. etc. I thought to myself, why go into fiction when you can be just as creative when writing about reality? Then Tom Wolfe went into fiction. So I still don’t know what to make of that.
Slushpile: You’re known for “immersion journalism” or putting yourself into a strange situation for your stories. What influenced you to pursue this type of writing instead of more “objective” journalism?
Jacobs: I do like both types of journalism, and hope I can keep practicing both. As for immersion journalism (thanks for using the fancy term), I love to write it as well as read it. I think there’s something compelling about first-hand experience. If you’re writing about Italy, you can look at maps, read census reports, and interview people who’ve been to Italy. Or you can go to Rome and taste the pesto pasta yourself. Both approaches have their value.
Slushpile: When you’re writing so much about yourself, how do you build the type of objectivity necessary to adequately critique your own work? I’m working on a narrative nonfiction account myself and I just keep feeling like it’s not interesting enough to talk so much about me. How do you judge that in your own work?
Jacobs: I know what you mean. It’s a delicate balance. I could never write a pure memoir – my regular life hasn’t been extraordinary enough. I’m not an orphan, alcoholic, sex addict, owner of a deaf dog, etc. At least not yet. I suppose there’s still time.
That’s why I like to immerse myself in these extraordinary experiences and write about them. I want the topic (i.e. the encyclopedia or the Bible) to be as big a character as I am. Maybe bigger. That way it limits the navel-gazing.
Slushpile: You’re an editor-at-large for Esquire. Sometimes mastheads and their titles can be confusing to aspiring writers. So as editor-at-large, do you actually decide on which article pitches to purchase for the magazine? Should freelancers query you? Or, are you more of a staff writer executing ideas for the magazine?
Jacobs: It’s a mysterious title. I’m still trying to figure out what it means. Personally, I don’t greenlight any articles. I’m basically a staff writer who works from home. Hence the at large part. And I used to be an editor. Hence the editor part.
Slushpile: What’s the best way for freelancers to cut through all the other submissions in the slushpile and make an impression on an acquiring editor for a magazine?
Jacobs: First, I’d recommend email over fax or letters. And the first three sentences are key. Either make them funny or shocking or dramatic – something to show that this article deserves attention. And also, flatter the editor (see below).
Slushpile: I’m assuming you did a book proposal for both The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically. One of the things that’s challenging about a proposal for a nonfiction narrative book is to predict what you’ll cover over the course of the next year. I mean, how do you write the proposal, with an outline of all the chapters, when you don’t really know what’s going to happen in the tenth month of your time living biblically? How much “I’ll write about whatever happens” will prospective editors let a writer get away with?
Jacobs: It’s true, I did a proposal for both. I’d suggest two things. First, put in as many details as you can about the world you’ll be entering. You want to make the publisher confident that it’ll be an interesting world. With The Know-It-All, I actually read part of the A section of the encyclopedia, and wrote up essays about Abbot and Costello, aardvarks, Aachen (German town), etc.
Second, you can try to spin the upredictability as a positive. You can say in your proposal, “Who knows what will happen?” Make it exciting. With the Bible, all sorts of things could have happened. I could have decided to become a monk, or an evangelical Christian, or ended up living at the Western Wall wrapping tefillin on tourists.
Slushpile: When writing a proposal, do you hedge your bets against promising too much or do you promise the moon? The best example is interview subjects. In a book proposal, would you say “I’m going to interview the Pope for my book on living biblically” even though it’s a longshot? Or would you only include interview subjects that you were pretty certain you could reach?
Jacobs: In the book proposal, I use the word “try” a lot. Or endeavor, or what have you. I will try to interview the Pope, the head rabbi of the Lubovitch movement. etc. Just include your wish list. And maybe if you have a connection to some of them, you can mention that.
Slushpile: There are a few bookish type jokes in The Year of Living Biblically. Almost inside jokes to the literary community. For example, the “my lies aren’t of the… ‘I spent time in jail with my friend Leonard’ variety.” Who do you think are your readers? How much inside knowledge do you think a writer can assume his readers will possess?
Jacobs: I think it’s better to overestimate the reader instead of underestimate. Plus, not everyone has to get every joke. I once interviewed a TV writer who talked about 10 percenters. Jokes that only 10 percent of the audience would get. And he thought it was important to have those, to keep the high end of the bell curve interested.
Slushpile: At one point, you proudly proclaim that you “out Bible-talked a Jehovah’s Witness.” What was your proudest accomplishment during your year of living biblically?
Jacobs: Pride isn’t so biblical. But I suppose I was proud of the fact that, for the most part, I didn’t condescend to or pre-judge the religious people I wrote about. Even when I disagreed strongly with their point of view, as with the creationists.
I was also proud that when I visited the Amish in Lancaster county, I didn’t bring up Witness, the Randy Quaid movie about a one-armed bowler, or make a double entendre about Intercourse, Pennsylvania.
Slushpile: In the book, you’re pretty open about having obsessive-compulsive disorder. How do you think having OCD might help you as a writer? How might it hurt?
Jacobs: It helps in that I’m obsessive about my topics. I’m not sure I would have read the encyclopedia or lived all the Bible if I didn’t have a bit of OCD.
But it really hurts in another way: It makes me into a perfectionist. And that can be crippling. I’m always going back and tweaking this word or that. You have to be willing to let it go.
Slushpile: How do you personally know when you’re done with a book and you don’t have to refine anymore? Even though everything could be polished and tweaked into infinity…
Jacobs: That’s a good question. And I’m not sure I know the answer. I was tweaking right up till the day it went off to the printer. I guess it’s all a matter of figuring out where you want to spend your time. And I think there are better ways to spend time than obsessive tweaking. You could start working on the marketing of the book, say.
Slushpile: You reveal a secret about the radical wing of the Christian right in your book. What other secrets about religious faiths and groups did you learn?
Jacobs: That the Amish are quite funny. Though you have to really pay attention. You haven’t seen deadpan till you’ve seen an Amish guy tell a joke.
Slushpile: Not really a question, just an observation… but man, how did you like The Frying Pan at Chelsea Piers? I went to an engagement party there. We were all dressed up, spiffy and polished, and crawled below decks on that thing and tried to avoid getting tetanus. I said, “This is where you bring people to kill them.” It was like something out of a Rammstein video.
Jacobs: Yeah, it was a weird place. Made even weirder by the event I was attending: A fashion show by an Orthodox designer. The crowd was a mix of Hasidic Jews and hot women in midriff-revealing shirts and navel rings.
Slushpile: For writers who aspire to do the type of journalism that you do, what do you recommend they do in order to get better? Any particular journalists they should read? Any particular skills they should focus on?
Jacobs: I’m a fan of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. Also, I love Rodney Rothman’s Early Bird, where he decided to retire to Florida at age 30 and lived in one of those condo complexes. As for tips – I’d say I have three.
First, you have to have a real passion and deep curiosity about the topic you’re writing about, otherwise it really is just a stunt.
And second, I’d say that you can’t take too many notes about what you see, hear, feel. My notes take up huge megabytes in my laptop.
And third, I’d try to write as much as you can while the experience is going on. It gives it more of an immediacy, so you can take the reader along with you on this journey.
Slushpile: So you’ve spent a year reading the encyclopedia and a year living biblically. What’s your next challenge?
Jacobs: My wife says I owe her big time. She keeps suggesting The Year of Giving Her Foot Massages. I don’t know if the publisher will go for that one.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Jacobs: I suppose it would be the importance of reporting. I know it’s not news to most writers. But it can be the difference between a decent book or article and a great one. Write down every little detail, no matter how inane or irrelevant you think it is. And include the color, the smell, the sound, what it looks like, the more sensory the better.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?
Jacobs: Flattery won’t get you everywhere. But it help. If an editor gets a pitch that starts by telling him how brilliant his work is – with specific details on why – then he’s more likely to keep reading.
To learn more about Jacobs’s work, check out his website.