A conversation with Jodi Kantor

Hi, all.

I have a little something different for us today. I've mentioned before that I see this space as a kind of workshop or studio, a place where I come to write stuff and make stuff, and also to think about how that writing and making gets done. I've always loved talking to writers and artists about their creative process. Since starting in on my manuscript I've found these conversations to be particularly helpful and inspiring. So, I thought it might be fun to invite someone to join us right here for a chat. (And some soup.)

Our guest today is New York Times reporter and best-selling author Jodi Kantor, whose book, The Obamas, came out in January of this year. As I read it, I wondered, as I often do, about the author's writing life. I was thrilled when Jodi graciously agreed to discuss just that with us, here.

I hope you'll enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

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JF: Can you tell me a little about your daily writing routine? Do you have one?

JK: Not in the slightest. You know, I think of myself as a reporter before I think of myself as a writer. My friends who are novelists, they’re the ones locking themselves in a room with a cup of tea, a blank screen, and the characters in their brains. But my job for the past six years has been to answer questions like, "Who are Barack and Michelle Obama? What’s happening to them in the White House? How are they changing?" So the part of my job I spend the most time on, the part I ruminate on and stress about and frankly enjoy the most, is reporting. Watching the president and first lady. Speaking with the people close to them. A lot of breakfast and drink dates, a lot of trips to D.C. and Chicago. I love writing, but writing is not where the drama is in my job, book-wise or newspaper-wise. Some stories are a struggle to write, some practically write themselves. Some are fast, some are slow. But I don’t worry a lot about writing because I just revise my way into it. I’ll write a terrible draft and then figure out how to improve it. Also, I have the best editor in the history of... Actually, she hates superlatives, so I will merely state that she is rather good at her job.

JF: But still, your book is, what, about 400 pages long? And you've constructed a narrative that carries us all the way through it. At some point, at many points, you have to be sitting alone with your notes and a blank page and figuring out how you’re going to say what you want to say, no?

JK: Yes. My book takes place chronologically, as the presidency unfolds. But the presidency is a flood, a torrent of issues and problems and events and characters and incidents, and I wanted to follow one particular story in that flood: the Obamas’ arrival in this strange new world and their reaction to it. Some of the trick was figuring out which scenes were going to stand for which ideas.

JF: So, when you’re doing that figuring out, when and how do you do it? Do you set aside time after a period of reporting where you sit down with everything you've got and start mapping things out? Or is it more like you do all your reporting, then you’re in the shower one morning and suddenly it hits you exactly how to get a chapter down, so you run in a towel to your desk and drip all over your notebook trying to write out your idea before it leaves you? (Or, uh, is that just me?)

JK: More like the second. Then I sit down and I write the bad, sloppy, fast version, just to get it down on paper. I might polish it a little. But I’ll always discover the same thing next: I need more reporting. So it’s back to sources. More breakfasts, more phone calls, or sometimes even texts.

JF: Are you always right about that? That you need more reporting? Do you ever find that you think you need more reporting, but maybe it’s actually just that you haven’t figured out how to write it the way you want to? I guess what I’m asking is if you ever find yourself procrastinating on the writing by doing more reporting. I know I do that all the time when writing papers for graduate school. "If I just look at one more source..."

JK: Reporting is always the answer.

JF: Of course, "procrastinating" is putting too sharp a point on it. The trouble is, I find, that sometimes that instinct is exactly right, that more information is necessary. And sometimes it’s just some weird subconscious coping mechanism. And I find it really hard to distinguish the two.

JK: Yes, you have to cut the reporting short at some point. As my old editor David Plotz used to say, "the deadline is the muse." And you can get too deep into the weeds, for sure. One reportorial disease is a deep fascination with information no one else cares about.

JF: I think that’s a disease shared by academics. And lots of writers, too. I want to ask you now about your relationship with deadlines. I have always said that while I love writing, I could never ever be a reporter because I am such a painfully, painfully slow writer. But I’m doing this thing on my blog right now for National Blog Posting Month where I've committed to posting every day by midnight. The other day I found myself cutting it extremely close. Midnight was approaching and I was nowhere near done with the post I was writing. But then this adrenaline kicked in, and the piece just took on a life of its own, and instead of it being what I thought it was going to be, it became something else, and suddenly, bam, there was the last sentence. I posted at 11:58pm. I have to say, it was quite a rush! And I thought – just for a second – hey, maybe it would be fun to write in that state more often. Because of that (self-imposed) deadline, words showed up, and what those words turned out to be surprised me. Do you get that rush all the time when you’re writing shorter pieces for the New York Times? I imagine that you have to love it, or you wouldn't be able to do what you do.

JK: Yes, I love that rush. I recently wrote this story in a couple of hours, and it was so satisfying. Pitched the idea at 6:00am, boom. Reported and wrote in a few hours, boom. On the front page the following day, huge reaction, boom.

JF: I am in awe of the "boom." I experience it so infrequently.

JK: Even that story required revision, though. The first lede was, in the words of one editor, "actually going to repel New York Times readers away from this story."

JF: So, after writing in that tight-deadline mode for years, what was it like to switch gears for the book?

JK: The deadline for the book was far more intimidating than any newspaper deadline, because the action was unfolding in real time as I was writing about it. I wanted to answer questions I thought would be on many readers’ minds around now. How has the Barack Obama of 2008 changed? What does Michelle Obama really make of this whole thing? What happens to you – really happens to you – when you become president or first lady?

JF: Did you find the day-to-day energy of sitting down to write was different without the close deadlines looming? Did you detect a change in your voice, the way the words came together on the page? To get the writing out, did you set yourself mini-deadlines along the way?

JK: Yes to all. The biggest change for me was temporarily leaving the nest of the New York Times. The Times is a place of rules, of forms. Writing a story here means following a recipe, one refined over the years by the best writers and editors in the business. Ideally you’re not just following the recipe. You’re adding new thoughts, flourishes, and so on. But a New York Times story is a New York Times story. There are certain things you have to do with it, and certain things you can never do with it. A book is different. A book can be anything, which means limitless possibility and terrifying freedom.

JF: At the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned "not really worrying" about the writing, and "revising your way" into your work. I imagine that these two things are related, that the fact that you’re "not really worrying" allows you to let yourself go, write your heart out in a messy, messy way, and then deal with it later. Do you think that’s right?

JK: Exactly. The reason I don’t worry about writing is that I have a reliable process, a set of steps I follow. I outline, which is slow and hard. I write the first draft, which is slow and hard. But then it takes off from there. I get a lot of pleasure from making each draft better. That’s one reason I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I was always editing and polishing. Relatives’ toasts, friends’ grad school applications…

JF: When the writing is coming more slowly than you’d like, what do you do?

JK: One thing I find is that taking the right breaks helps. I recently wrote a big story about Obama’s personal approach to the role of first black president. The lede came to me after a yoga class. When I just can’t seem to write well, I stop and read the work of someone whose prose style I love, a non-fiction writer who is really expressive, who knows how to break the rules. Stacy Schiff, Marjorie Williams, and Frank Bruni all work well.

JF: Finally, let’s talk about food. I find that the things I like to cook and eat move in periods, so, for example, I associate the summer of 2009 with a certain lentil salad. Is there a certain food or meal that you ate a lot when you were working on The Obamas?

JK: Food memories from The Obamas… Good restaurants in Chicago and D.C. Glasses of red wine. You learn which sources like what. Warm bowls of CSA vegetables in Brooklyn, mixed with grains or cheese or whatever was in the house. Vegetarian stuff. My daughter, who is six, became a vegetarian while I was writing the book so that is our obsession. Do you have any vegetarian entrees a six-year-old kid might like?

JF: I do. [Coming right up!] Thank you so much for this, Jodi.

JK: My pleasure.

Tomato and Chickpea Soup
Adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

When I asked Jodi about her daughter's food preferences and aversions, she said, "A six-year-old's aversions? Do you have a year? And by the time I list them all, she'll have changed them." Jodi was, however, able to tell me that her daughter is reliably interested in soups - at least for now - and loves chickpeas and tomatoes. As it happens, our go-to soup from last winter, one that I made over, and over, and over again, but somehow never got down here, perfectly fits the bill. It's Yotam Ottolenghi's take on a Tuscan ribollita. His version is thickened with toasted sourdough bread, which is wonderful, but somewhere along the way I started substituting pearl barley, just enough to add some chew. (I got the idea here.) There's still plenty of bread involved when we eat this soup; it's just alongside rather than inside the bowl.

This recipe is forgiving. If you're down one or two of the herbs, you can still confidently make do with what you have. It freezes well, so I usually make a double batch and store the leftovers. Speaking of the freezer, if you happen to have some basil pesto stashed in there, this soup is an excellent occasion to trot it out. Plop a spoonful in the center of each bowl before serving.

1 large yellow onion, sliced
1 medium fennel bulb, sliced
1 large carrot, peeled, cut lengthways in half, and sliced
3 celery stalks, cut and sliced the same way
Olive oil for sautéing and finishing
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup white wine
1 14-oz. can Italian plum tomatoes
1 tablespoon chopped oregano
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon thyme
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons sugar
4½ cups vegetable stock (In a pinch, I once used water and adjusted the seasoning accordingly. I think I also added a small onion. Still good.)
1/3 cup pearl barley
2½ cups cooked chickpeas (Canned are fine here.)
Salt and black pepper

Put the onion and fennel into a large saucepan (I use a 3½ quart enameled cast-iron pot), add 3 tablespoons of olive oil, and sauté on medium heat for about 4 minutes. Add the carrot and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 4 minutes, just until the vegetables have slightly softened. Stir in the tomato paste, and keep on stirring for one minute while it cooks. Add the wine and let it bubble away for a couple of minutes, then add the canned tomatoes with their juices, the herbs, sugar, and vegetable stock. Taste, and add some salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the chickpeas in a bowl and lightly mash them with a fork. You want a varied texture, a little mush, some whole chickpeas, and a lot that are in between. When the soup has simmered for 10 minutes, add the chickpeas and the pearl barley, return to a simmer, and cook for another 20-25 minutes. Taste again and adjust the seasoning. Drizzle each bowlful with olive oil and serve with plenty of warm, crusty bread. I've served it a handful of times, at least, with this.

Serves 4-6.


In the Farm Kitchen said...

It's always fascinating to hear about someone's process...thanks for posting this interview! And great job with NaBlPoMo, that's a huge challenge. I love the daily reads.

shari said...

Such a great interview. Thanks for sharing it here. And that soup! Yum. I have to tell you that I'm going to be sad when November is over. It's been such a treat to have daily posts here. Love your writing. xo

Steph said...

Loved this, Jess. And this soup. This soup! While it will always be last winter's soup, I see no reason we can't repeat it.

I have to agree with the others. Have so enjoyed your daily posts this month.

Ashley said...

LOVED this interview. Thank you. I too am fascinated by other's process. I always hope there is some sort of magic equation I can follow and then produce buckets of great words. But it always comes down to just doing it. Bleh. Work. :)

Hannah said...

I'm echoing everyone - we love this soup too, and now have reason to make it again. This interview is fantastic, and such a good reminder that writing is really more about revising :) And I am going to be BUMMED when we don't get so many posts from you anymore - maybe you could start a new tradition of carrying the daily posts through the end of the year! Woot! I will gladly carry on the tradition of reading them :)

racheleats said...

Just what I needed. I am in need of a boom, even a tiny one. Soup is what I will be needing if this Roman rain continues like this.

Jess said...

Hi, friends. So happy to hear that you've enjoyed this month here. I've loved it from my end, too. And feeling bummed that it's almost over!

In the Farm Kitchen - Yes, I love getting a glimpse of other people's brains in this way. So interesting.

shari - This soup! With a hunk of T's bread... Perfect, I bet.

Steph - No reason at all. xo.

Ashley - Yep. Butt in the chair!

Hannah - Ahhhh, if only there weren't the matter of that manuscript... Oh, and that Mia. But in all seriousness, I am thinking about how I might be able to be here more. Hitting that publish button every day here has been so good for me.

racheleats - It was so, SO hot the only time I was ever in Rome. Hard to imagine it in the rain. Fingers crossed for a tiny boom. Or if all else fails, soup.

Amanda @ Easy Peasy Organic said...

Jess, this is such an inspiring interview! I could hear your voices coming through every word. Your *real* voices, I mean.

I hope the book-writing is going well. We come from similar places, you and me, and your story has inspired me to get going on some of my own longer-nonacademic-writing-projects. It'll happen, it's happening. :)

If you ever want to start a writer's circle - albeit an internet one (I live in Australia now) - let me know! xx

Jess said...

Thanks, Amanda! Very happy to hear that you have a project in the works. Your writing is beautiful, and I know I'm not the only one who'll be happy to have more of it in the world. xo.