Q&A With WriteByNight Consultant Andrew Tilin
Andrew Tilin (Austin, Texas) has published work in The New York Times, Wired, and Men’s Journal, among others, and he’s a contributing editor for Outside magazine. His most recent book, The Doper Next Door: My Strange and Scandalous Year on Performance Enhancing Drugs (Counterpoint), is now out in paperback.
Where are you from?
Born and bred San Franciscan.
Where did you study?
California, otherwise known as UC Berkeley. Am I sounding sufficiently provincial? Still, I should’ve studied more.
How did you get your start as a writer?
At 16, I told the yearbook editor at my Sunday school that I wanted to be a sportswriter. I thought that sounded noble. The next thing you know, I’m interning at a left-leaning, high-concept magazine about Judaism. That wasn’t for me (and neither was Sunday school). I interned at a regional, tabloid-style fitness magazine in San Francisco, and ultimately landed a job. Lucky for me, the magazine had a real editorial staff and literary aspirations. That little tabloid taught me about writing and appreciating straight sentences.
Who are some of your influences?
I read Catch-22 (Joseph Heller) during my freshman year in high school and was blown away. I realized that literature could do so much—entertain, inform, challenge, editorialize. I was so impressed and tickled by the name Major Major Major Major.
I wanted voice and attitude, and gravitated toward writers/authors with swagger: P.J. O’Rourke, Tim Cahill, and one Tom Wolfe. My mom read People magazine. I stuck with Car and Driver, Sports Illustrated, Outside, and “poor little rich boy” Richie Rich comic books. I liked that Richie was hemmed in by his wealth. Made me feel better about family trips spent in mediocre motels.
I liked TV, too, and watched The Brady Bunch despite knowing that ain’t my tribe. Who saw Soap, the late ‘70s show that parodied daytime soap operas? At the time, we’re talking cutting-edge parody.
What is the hardest part of writing for you?
Transitioning from research (I’m a trained journalist) to writing (I write literary nonfiction). You have to take all those facts and make them not just sing but shout and scream and howl at the solar system. Daunting work before it’s fun.
What is your strangest writing experience?
A source in one of my stories claiming, “I didn’t say that.” Has happened a handful of times, and one time that cowardly response undermined a great piece I’d written for The New York Times. That stunk. I think that I’m careful to interpret the facts, but not break them into so many pieces and then reassemble simply for the benefit of a story. Then I wrote an autobiographical book, and wow did it sometimes suck to have me interpret my own life. Don’t do that. At least don’t do that without having a think first, and a lot of talks w/your sig oth.
What is your favorite word and why?
Chutzpah. I’m sounding more religious than I am.
I like Yiddish because it’s all at once obscure and cultural and faraway, and consists of words with unconventional spellings and sounds. Chutzpah rolls off the tongue as funny, exotic, and weird, and (believe it or not) is unfamiliar to some people. Good, look it up, broaden your horizons. Plus chutzpah doesn’t always mean one thing—it can imply good or bad. That’s a lot of power from eight letters.
What’s the last book you read and what did you think of it?
Almost done with Bill Bryson’s In A Sunburned Country, which is a travelogue and then some about his extensive time spent Australia. Bryson is funny, observant, and self-deprecating. Australia is Britain meets an innocent California meets West Texas. I mean, that country isn’t just distant—away from the coastline, about 99 percent of it is scorched earth. Bryson is also something of a cornball, which makes me feel better about myself.
What’s the last movie you saw that was based on a book and how was it?
Aren’t they all based on books? Shit they’d better be, otherwise how will I ever make coin at this game? I’ll tell you one that stuck with me: Into the Wild, which came from a book by Jon Krakauer of the same name. Have you ever wanted to say fuck it all? First Krakauer (a journalist) profiled a subject who did walk away from society, then he wrote a great book, then Sean Penn directed a great movie, and then Eddie Vedder produced a movie soundtrack that’s more artful than the movie or the book.
Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
Oh man, don’t overthink it. I used to tie myself in knots by rewriting lede paragraphs and opening scenes before continuing to write more of the story. No no no. Slip on a hard hat, grab a thermos, and put words on the page. Overthink the writing when you have pages written and can react instead of act. A cliché worth spewing: writing is rewriting. Go on, get sweaty!