Oliver Broudy on modern saints, magazine writing and crossing the border to Kindle Singles
Seeing the gaggle of outlets now dedicated to digital long-form (The Atavist, Kindle Singles and Byliner Originals, just for starters), I wanted to talk to a narrative journalist who had written for print outlets and tested the digital waters. Last week Oliver Broudy gave up an hour of his time to chat by phone about his experiences. A former managing editor of The Paris Review and current writer for Men’s Health, Broudy released “The Saint” on Amazon’s Kindle Singles in March. In pursuit of the tale, Broudy followed an eccentric American heir on a humanitarian trip halfway around the world, becoming ever more a part of his own narrative. In these excerpts from our conversation, Broudy talks about being a character in his story, the benefits and drawbacks of e-books, and what he says Amazon won’t let him tell us.
Tall, gaunt, extremely generous and compassionate – perhaps compassionate to a fault. Sort of headlong in his compassion toward the world. I was deeply attracted to these qualities. What got the story rolling was my attraction to him – and the reason for my attraction. Namely, my disgust with the narcissism of New York City.
When you left on this trip, did you just think “I’ll make a story out of this later”? Or did you know what you would do with it before you went?
No, I had to match James’ headlongness with a portion of my own. I had been writing for magazines; I still write for magazines. There’s just a limit to what you can accomplish in the magazine format, and then you have to do something else. I’m a nonfiction writer. You can sit around and plot and scheme and come up with ideas in the abstract, but ultimately you have to have to pitch yourself forth and make something happen.
By that time I had already written a short piece about James for the online magazine The Morning News – a 2,000-word thing I had originally pitched to the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” about an auction of Gandhi’s personal items that he was having in New York City. James is a collector of Gandhi memorabilia, and he had somehow collected over the years Gandhi’s wristwatch, his shoes and the spectacles, it was said, through which Gandhi visualized the independence of India.
The idea that a nice big white boy would be auctioning these things for his own personal benefit churned the Indian subcontinent into an uproar and huge outrage. That was originally what got me involved. I wrote this piece about the day of the auction, just kind of following James around and describing the shenanigans going on behind the scenes. It was later that I learned he was actually going to go to India to try to sort the whole thing out in person – and also to engage in some political actions there, because he’s sort of a political nut. That’s when I decided to tag along.
So you had this extraordinary experience, which I don’t want to ruin for others, but there are pretty dramatic moments. But it’s obviously a strange fit for a magazine. Did you ever think it was going to be a book?
I didn’t know what the hell the thing was. I wrote it in a couple of months when I came back. I fell behind on my magazine contract and just wrote this thing. When it was done, it was around 30,000 words. It just sort of came to an end on me. I was like, “Now what?”
For at least a year, I kicked this thing around and tried to shape it up into something more book length. At times, this was going to be the first part of a four-part book about contemporary notions of sainthood. The idea for the book was something like, “Let’s see if we can resuscitate this ancient Catholic concept of sainthood on the grounds that there are a lot of people who don’t believe in a higher power out there, but they’re in just as much in need of someone to look up to, to model themselves on, and to aspire to be like.”
The options that we have out there now tend to be assholes: politicians, celebrities and so on. So I thought, what if we can bootleg our own version of these people and come up with a canon of modern day saints? This book was going to be about my pursuit of three or four different possible contestants for that category.
Publishers got one whiff of this thing, and they smelled anthology, and they ran for the hills. So after they had all left the scene, I thought, “Well, what am I going to do with this thing?” I had just given up on it. But at this point I had been sitting on the manuscript for two years. So I sent it out to some junky online journal, the kind of place that you have to pay to read your manuscript. I made that decision, and I thought, “You want 25 bucks to read this? Fine. Here’s your $25. Read it, and take it, and let’s be done with this.”
It was a week later that I saw a news item about Evan Ratfliff, and this new imprint that he was starting called The Atavist. The Atavist is all about producing enhanced e-books that they then distribute to online e-book sellers. They work strictly, I believe, with long-form nonfiction. They were there, starting up and in the market for long-form nonfiction exactly at that time. So I shot off an email in the dark, it went off to email@example.com or something [actually firstname.lastname@example.org].
He wrote back fairly quickly and said, “Let’s have coffee.” I met with him and got a sense of what he was up to. And he said, “So long as you’re interested in this kind of thing, you should probably talk to Amazon. They just started up the Kindle Singles.” That led to a discussion with Amazon, and I ended up publishing with them.
Did you have anyone else edit your manuscript, or did you wear the writer and editor hats this time out?
I ended up wearing a number of hats. I did a great deal of editing, and my wife is my most long-suffering editor. We both crawled over this thing many times. So it was fairly clean. I also, in the end, was the guy who hired the book jacket designer and the guy who wrote the copy, and ultimately the guy who did a lot of the promotion.
What has the reception been like?
I guess it’s been good. The other thing about e-books – and especially Kindle Singles and this long-form stuff – is that it evolves slowly in some respects. Even though you have this new form that seems to be gaining ground, and you do have new venues for this work to appear, people haven’t figured out how to respond to it yet, or how to think about it yet. For instance, I was sending out emails to people who write book blogs: “Here’s this book, if you want to take a look at it. People seem to like it.” I got an email back from one of the major book blogs saying, “Sorry, we only review real books.”
They said “real books”?
I forget how she said it. Her intent was “full-length books,” whereas mine is 85 pages. I guess she meant something like 200 pages plus. Others said, “We only review printed books; we don’t do e-books.” I take this as a sign that, first of all, publishing is extremely conservative, and second of all that people haven’t adapted to this new material and how they should make sense of it. In some instances I’ve been treated like a book, and in other instances kind of like an article. It’s a little bit confusing. Depending on which way it goes, it can work for you or against you.
I was voted among the best books of April for Amazon and got a huge sales hit from that. But when I looked later, the book wasn’t there, so I wonder if they thought “Maybe it’s not a book after all.” I don’t know.
One of the reasons that I’m excited about long-form journalism and about the Kindle Singles thing is that I think for too long we’ve had these two paradigms for applying thoughtfulness to the world. One is the magazine-length feature, and one is the book. Whatever it is we want to address, we generally have to try to fit into one of those formats. There’s a lot of tension and strain that results because of it. The things that are too heavy end up getting underserved by the magazine piece, and things that aren’t quite heavy enough get wordy, redundant treatments in books that turn boring after 100 pages.
In a way, the existence of these two paradigms of applying thoughtfulness to content has limited our ability to be thoughtful about the world we live in. So it’s as if someone has handed us a new tool. What really should be guiding us here is not the format or the paradigm but the amount of attention or thoughtfulness any given subject requires. Now you have this intermediate format that allows you to bring that requisite attention and thoughtfulness to bear.
Do you see yourself doing more of this kind of thing?
Yes, I do. I should say that the other exciting thing to me about this form, along these lines, is the way that it can serve as a tidal water between the two forms that surround it. You have shorter form on the one hand, 4,000-word feature pieces, and you have books on the other. So long as you have long-form in the middle, you can take the ideas and the techniques of one and combine them with the other. That can make for some pretty interesting hybrids. I come from the magazine world, and so what this means to me is taking a lot of magazine tricks into a relatively longer format and seeing how they hold up.
What makes “The Saint” special in this respect is the combination of the suspense and the pacing of a magazine piece, with hopefully with the intellectual heft of a longer work. I don’t know if I managed to combine those two, but that was my aspiration. I think thanks to this format, I’m taking an opportunity to become this hybrid writer. It’s an interesting and exciting transformation.
Can you talk about structure? As you said, it goes between these two realms. The chapters do feel like chapters; they don’t just feel like magazine scenes or sections. So they’re more chaptery, but the opening of the story felt very, very magazine-like. You’re there with Spike Jonze and this kooky guy in the opening scene. You get the piece off and running. Can you talk about combining the two forms?
It’s all about managing attention. That’s what magazine writing teaches you. The reader’s mind is ever going to wander. This is my initial complaint with e-books – I have two complaints with e-books. I don’t have an electronic reader myself, though I am excited about the various opportunities they offer. One of my complaints about them, though, is that I think they misunderstand the nature of attention. I think we like to think our attention is kind of like our gaze; the gaze is the metaphor we use for attention. Just as we can direct our gaze, we think we can direct our attention. But really, our attention is more like a vagrant. It kind of wanders around and looks for a home. As a reader what you want to do is find a home for your attention. This is why books are so great. They constitute the ideal homes.
A friend recently sent me a copy of George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” just this lovely edition with cloth covers. This book has served as a sort of a home for my attention. If it had been in electronic format, it would have been like living in a house with fifty different doors. My attention could easily have wandered out at any moment and slid over to some other text on my reader. But no, it was there in this totemic book, and it kept my attention for me. It was performing a service for me.
This is a service that e-books can’t really provide as well. On a more moral note, I suppose the second, kind of related, thing is that we have an obligation to honor those things that we care about and we think are valuable. I think that nice books are a way of honoring the content of those books. I’m not sure that e-books do that, though they do have other advantages, of course.
And so what can you do on an e-reader in terms of our vagrant attention?
As a magazine writer, you don’t take someone’s attention for granted. I think that book writers do, because books in their traditional forms are such fantastic homes for attention. The reader willingly places their attention in them, and that frees the writer to do other stuff: to be discursive and pursue ideas and so on. Certainly as a magazine writer you don’t have that privilege. A magazine doesn’t ask for any of your attention and doesn’t pretend to offer any kind of accommodation for your attention. In fact, what it offers is freedom: “Don’t worry about me. You can look away at any time, and I’m not going to complain.”
The writer needs to make up the difference. For me that means I need to have you from the first moment. For every paragraph I have a gauge in my head that tells me where your attention is and whether you’re going to read the next paragraph or not. So for me, this book was the first prolonged experiment with holding someone’s attention. As you said, I tried to make a grab for it in the beginning by dangling this highly unusual little artifact in front of the reader’s eyes, this souvenir shark’s tooth that my guy James is carrying with him in this little plastic vial, which also happens to contain the blood and the ashes of one of the greatest men of the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi. He’s carrying it around in his pocket. From there it’s always a battle to keep the reader wanting to know more, keeping them wondering, keeping them asking questions. The questions lead the narrative, and the narrative leads the reader.
How many people have bought it so far?
I can’t give you numbers, as much as I’d like to. I was amazed recently in going through my Amazon contract to see that they have a pretty intense confidentiality clause that pretty much forbids me from discussing anything.
Really? You’re not allowed to say?
No, I’m not. I will say this – this is the other side of the opportunity that e-books are creating – Amazon is really moving on this opportunity, and they’re doing a fantastic job. I’ve loved working with them, and they’ve been extremely supportive and extremely responsive. On the other hand, my agent was not involved in this deal.
Everyone has seen the little software agreements, you know, when you’re installing new software, there’s the little pane that slides down: “You forgot to click the little button. Click ‘agree’ and we can go on.” No one ever reads these things; you just kind of click it and on you go. Just as books are getting digital, the agreements are getting digital, too. And the contracts appear just the same way – just like these software contracts. They kind of slide down, and it’s all this fricking text, and no way in hell are you going to read it, and you click “OK” at the bottom, and God knows what you just signed.
So you didn’t realize that?
No, I didn’t. But then again, because everything is so standardized, and there is no agent in this deal, I’m pretty sure for most people – it’s just a guess, but I would be mighty surprised if I was the only one who didn’t involve his agent in this deal. So basically, the interface is you and this computer.
You have to be careful. One needs to give a great deal of thought to how these relationships are going to be changing in the future and how one’s interests are going to be protected. You should not take for granted that you’ll always be protected. These are not issues that writers are very good at thinking about, because God love ’em, their heads are in the clouds.
The game is changing. And it’s changing in a variety of ways, and the relationship between writer and publisher is also changing. That needs to be given some serious thought. Agents may be moved somewhat out of the picture. As a consequence, writers may end up losing leverage.
Amazon is in a position to do very well for themselves, as are a number of other e-book sellers, such as Barnes & Noble and other places. We’ll just have to see. The point is that there are a lot of things that are changing here. It’s not just that suddenly more e-books are available.
I want to talk about tone and structure as well. I’ve read probably a half-dozen of your pieces. Was it strange to give yourself such a prominent role in the story? Have you done a lot of first person?
Only in really short pieces, little essay things. I’ve done some writing for Salon.com, and I toyed around with first person there, but I’ve never been more personally and honestly present in a piece before. I’ve done some simulacras for Men’s Health, but nothing approaching this level of honesty.
And yes, it was weird. I think that as a writer, I was always deeply leery of including too much of my own self in the work – and not just because I’m pretty convinced that most readers would be bored, but because I felt that I needed to protect myself or that I shouldn’t be putting myself out there like that. But eventually I just kind of shrugged. I think that if you’re going to be a nonfiction writer, you do end up using yourself as a tool. And if you do it right, it is sort of a way of expressing this whole other level of meaning you otherwise might not be able to get at.
It feels like the desire to transcend the mundane and to find a meaningful person, an honest person, comes up off and on in your work – even as that desire often remains unmet and you resist the impulse to believe it could be met. Do you see “The Saint” developing or expanding on any greater theme in your work?
I hadn’t really thought until you mentioned it that writing might offer me a way out of my own little bubble in a way that I can only hope for in real life. It’s so damn hard to talk to people and be present for them and to be open to them. I always struggle with that and always have, I think. I suppose writing gives me a way to correct those shortcomings, so that I can be present for other people in a way that I can’t be in person.
In one story you wrote, Nick Chisholm chooses a piranha as his higher power. Your Hunter S. Thompson piece is this surreal and disappointing experience of this guy who’s become a relic of what he’s accomplished, one that people are holding onto, but who can no longer deliver. “The Saint” seems like it’s continuing something that has gripped you before.
Working at Men’s Health has been a tremendous gift to me, because it’s been humbling in a variety of ways. The magazine gets beat on a lot, mostly because they’ve got the same half-nude dudes on the cover all the time, and that doesn’t seem to argue for much seriousness in terms of content.
Yet there are some fairly deep truths contained in the magazine, one of which is that most people aspire to be better than they are. There are different ideas of what betterment means. The most crass is to be more successful, but I deeply, deeply believe that it’s not just about better abs, that abs may be the easiest thing to conceive of, or they may have the most immediate appeal, but there’s a continuum of self-betterment that people see that appeals to them. It begins with these things, but it also goes very deep. People are deep creatures.
All these things are of a piece to me. It’s all on the same continuum. The story on Nick Chisholm, the story about Hunter Thompson, and where I hope to go in the future.
You seem to want to find these things yourself, or find people who are finding them. But you also seem be very suspicious of the con, not necessarily the deliberate con, just suspicious of enthusiasms or of being taken in by someone who doesn’t really have any more insight than you or I.
One of the next Kindle pieces I have planned is going to be the reverse of “The Saint.” It’s kind of hard to describe. The flip side of the Men’s Health benefit is that there are all these stories you aren’t able to tell, and in the end, you find the person you’re presenting is always going to not quite match the reality of the person. So as a writer of the story you do have grounds for some degree of skepticism, because you’re presenting the reader with elements of truth, but you end up sacrificing some detail to get the message across. So one of these Kindle pieces coming up will address my own skepticism as I approach someone who I believe is a fraud. And then it turns out that I – well, we’ll see how it turns out. But he has an unbelievable story.