Backpacking Through the Literary World: An Interview With Journalist Nathan Deuel

nathandeuel2 By Desiree Ross


Did you know that Nathan Deuel walked nearly 2,000 miles from New York to New Orleans? His shoes are made for walkin’! Nathan has also had an impressive walk through the literary world. From essays and reviews to fiction, editorial positions with top magazines and newspapers and now his first book, “Friday Was the Bomb” (Dzanc), Nathan has just about done it all.


Nathan has been an editor for Rolling Stone and The Village Voice. He has published essays, interviews, reviews, and articles in GQ, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and Salon, among many others and has served as a freelance foreign correspondence in South East Asia and the Middle East. When Nathan is not traveling the world, writing award winning essays and reviews, he’s teaching creative writing at Deep Springs College, his alma matter.


There’s good news! You don’t have to be a student at Deep Springs College to learn Nathan’s secret to journalism success. Nathan will be teaching three classes at Writing Pad. In his Query Letter class, he’ll help you make your pitch letter for an essay or article so stunning that editors won’t be able to resist it. He’s also teaching a 5 week Writing Interviews and Reviews For Magazines or Newspapers class, he’ll help you finish and publish 1-2 reviews or profiles, and in his 6 week live online Personal Essay class, he’ll help you write and polish an essay and sent it out for publication! We have helped 50 students publish articles and essays so far. Let Nathan help you be published student #51!


Until then, Nathan was generous enough to share his insights on crafting compelling articles and essays.


1. You were an editor at The Village Voice and Rolling Stone and you have an impressive list of publishing credits. How did you break into writing?


I had the fortune or curse of an early writing teacher telling me about a piece, “Oh, this is great — basically finished, just send it to McSweeney’s.” I wrote the thing when I was 21, about growing up in Miami. So I sent it off and, of course, it was never published. That taste of the big time haunted me for many years, until 2005, when I was 25 and an editor in New York. I had this idea to go to Staten Island, to visit it’s eponymous mall. It was a weird, hung-over day, and the material was just jumping into my notebook. I wrote it up, passed it by another editor, and with that piece, a voice was born that I’m still — in a way — using today.

2. You’ve published a lot of personal essays in places like The Paris Review and GQ. How do you come up with your ideas for essays? What do you think the elements of a good personal essay are? Is there a difference between personal essays that would be published in a literary journal like The Paris Review vs. a magazine like Salon?


I write about my life. Mine happens to have been quite strange, given my last five years in the Middle East, living and working in places as diverse as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey, Yemen, and Lebanon. But I think the essential posture is the same, even now that I’m in Los Angeles. Keep your eyes open and your heart alive to any scenario. The fodder for a great essay is anywhere you happen to be; it’s all about developing the ability to believe in your perspective, and to distill your unique take on an event to the page. Of course, different venues are looking for different things. I love my editors at both Paris Review and Salon and think they both are looking for stories with beauty, meaning, originality, and power.


3. Your book, Friday Was the Bomb, a collection of essays that reflect five years experiences in the Middle East, is being published by Dzanc on May 13. What inspired you to write this book and can you share a couple of your most memorable experiences from the Middle East?


These essays started coming almost within a few weeks of arriving in Saudi Arabia, one of our world’s strangest and most intense countries. As I moved around the region, from Sanaa to Baghdad, Istanbul to Beirut, it was hard not to want to share what I was seeing with friends back home, family, and the world at large. One of my favorite-ever pieces was about the time our landlord invited us to his “farm” outside Riyadh. FridayWasTheBombWe had a newborn, and when we got there, it was this kind of echoing, empty castle. After several strained hours, during which he was getting quite drunk on homemade wine, he told me he wanted to show me something. I followed him through the gloom, and when he stopped, it turns out what he wanted to show me was a fine Spanish pistol, which he pointed at me. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens next, and what my wife did.


4. What was your process for writing Friday Was the Bomb? Was it different than your approach to finishing a journalistic assignment?


The book is largely a collection of previously published essays, but for the few never-before published pieces, which I wrote feverishly this summer and fall. I think the experience has a lot in common with journalism: you are on deadline, the quality must be high, and you must keep in mind your audience. But, without sounding like a dork, I am kind of writing for the ages in some of these pieces, such as “Without Chief or Tribe,” which concerns the birth of our daughter, in Saudi Arabia. That piece was written in a kind of fugue, thousands of words a day, just this intense and personal effort to reconnect with a very private and intense time. There’s so much gratification, just in getting back to the feeling of those early days. When it’s working, and working for your editor — and by implication the readers — there’s nothing quite like it.


5. You were an editor at Rolling Stone. Did you ever meet one of your musical heroes through the job? What do you think the elements of a good review are?


One of my favorite memories was the day Courtney Love stopped by. She brought an acoustic guitar, sat on the conference table, as I recall, and just talked and sang for us for like an hour and a half. Seeing such a powerful singer so disarmed and casual was pretty mind-blowing. Gosh, a good review? There are about a million ways to write a great review, and just as many to be lazy, unhelpfull, snide, or too esoteric. When I was in high school, I ran a small music magazine — we printed five-thousand copies and sold advertising — and I wrote about 200 reviews before I was 18. It’s weird: After all that, I think I’m pretty happy writing book reviews!


6. In your essay Once Upon a Time in the Middle East, you wrote: “On the eve of apparent strikes, as much as we all wanted Assad gone, I couldn’t help feeling like American missiles would simply layer more blood upon blood.” Can you elaborate on that scene and what emotions you encountered when remembering that moment?


By the time of President Obama’s apparent intention to bomb Syria, my wife and I were both out of the Middle East. So anything we felt about the strike was tinged with the other-worldly feeling of not being there anymore. I can’t really speak for Kelly, but I felt an enormous sense of guilt about being so far away. For half a decade, in various capacities, we’d been these witnesses to something incredibly important, and all of a sudden we weren’t there. Should the bombing have occurred? I’m not sure, but if it had, I think we both desperately wanted to be back in Beirut, among our tribe of writers and journalist and academics, bearing witness.


7. What is your favorite topic to write about?


Increasingly, I think my favorite inspiration is place — be it a foreign city, a lonely highway in the Nevada desert, or a room full of people — and there’s just so much delight in nailing every single facet of the three dimensions, without giving too much detail. As an old professor told me, if you want to describe a battleship, you can’t give us every nut and bolt. You need to pick what three things you’ll tell us to make that battleship become real.


8. How has teaching and traveling influenced your career as a writer and your perspective of life in America?


Teaching has been an enormously enriching endeavor. For five years, I was a full-time writer, which I loved. I mean, I came to know so much about how to write and how to be alone and how to get the work done. But in the classroom, I find I’m able to have these amazing conversations with people who truly and deeply care about writing and the power of it — conversations I’d otherwise be having with myself! So teaching is this ability to take the lonely life of the writer and make of it a community of people who care about nothing more than becoming the best with the word that they can be. I love it.


Nathan Deuel9. Can you give us a preview of what students will learn in your query letter, reviews and interviews, and personal essay classes?


In the query letter class, I’ll share the brutal and simple lessons I’ve learned after many years on both sides of the desk: What you present has to be a home run from the first word to the last. People are busy, so you’ve got to keep it simple, sexy, and short. Blow people away. In the reviews and interviews class, we’ll look at some of the more daring and creative ways a student can make her take on a cultural artifact grab the attention of not just an assignment editor but also the reader. In the personal essay class, I’ll bring the hard-earned experience of nearly a decade of publishing personal essays — nearly 100 of them, so far — to an intense conversation on how we can take the minutiae of a life lived in real time and make it have meaning and shape on the page. They’re all going to be great classes.


Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, Nathan! That was fascinating.


Don’t forget to sign up for one of Nathan’s classes: Pitching For the Press: A Query Letter Clinic, Writing Interviews and Reviews For Magazines or Newspapers , and Personal Essay (Online).