Even if you don’t recognize Alissa Quart’s byline, you know her work. She wrote that article for the New York Times Sunday Review – you know, the one about how middle-class working parents are getting priced out of day care. The one you posted on Facebook only to have two dozen of your friends repost it. The one you emailed to your spouse. The one you wish you could’ve emailed to your boss.
A poet turned journalist and nonfiction author, Quart has a knack for uncovering stories that are just under the radar and writing about them in a way that gets everyone talking. Whether she turns her focus to the politics of breast milk or how awesome TV writing is these days, Quart’s readers take notice. So do her students at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Her recent book, Republic of Outsiders, highlights people and movements a bit further under the radar – “amateurs, dreamers and rebels” who have crafted their lives on the fringes of society. She explores the lives of mentally ill men and women who resist traditional treatment, turning to peers rather than psychiatrists for support; transsexual feminists; members of the Occupy movement; pioneers of the new handmade economy. In the chapter on extreme animal rights activists, she dips into the topic of artificial meat.
It is at once an ode to the underrepresented and a reporting tour de force. In this edited version of our conversation, Quart shares inspiration and insights that can help nonfiction and fiction writers alike.
To say that Republic of Outsiders is deeply reported is an understatement. It is so huge in scope and in time. How did this book come together?
I started thinking about this in 2007 and really got down to work in 2007-2008. I reported some of it for the Times magazine, Columbia Journalism Review and Marie Claire, but it wasn’t like, “OK, now I’ve finished the book or I’ve connected the tissue.”
That was how it started, but I think the real answer is that it was just a philosophical or intellectual endeavor that involved defining what was an outsider or insider, which involved a ton of other kinds of reporting. Some of it was thinking and reading a lot – transcendentalism, cultural theory, philosophy – of how these movements go from the edges of society inward.
I spoke to 10 major figures of contemporary culture who were at one point on the outside and ultimately became quite inside and over the course of five years were no longer usable for that reason. A lot of the reporting you don’t even see, so yeah, that was a crazy endeavor.
Your books, particularly Branded and Republic of Outsiders, shine a light on life outside the mainstream. As a writer, what draws you to these outsiders?
The answer is double-pronged. One is that I was the child of the counterculture in the sense that my parents were, I wouldn’t say radicals, but they were appreciators of radicals. This was New York in the ’70s. That experience was very formative. I saw it as kind of an Atlantis, as the city started to gentrify in the ’90s. I had this longing, and it was deep, it was like, where are these people? Some of them are still in New York and are MacArthur Genius Grant recipients – this is the nature of the outside moving inside. Some of them had to leave the city, they were priced out, they moved all around the country. I was interested in what happened to that counterculture.
Also, as a writer and reporter who’s an insider on that level, I started to really resent the incursion of bloggers, and I started to feel like I was being besieged, like many writers, like I was losing my expert status. I wanted to understand that process better. How are these kids who are 24-years-old, who hadn’t gone to J-school like I had, who hadn’t paid their dues, all making such inroads?
How do you come to terms with that? And what do you tell your students about getting into journalism or nonfiction writing today?
As a writer, you sometimes feel like you’re worshipping a dead god. But I guess the proof is in the pudding. I persisted with this quixotic book. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t believe in it.
This is something I’m always teaching students: Everybody has a sentence that motivates the work, and everybody has to figure out what the sentence is. It’s a fun game to begin with, like a party game, but it also helps you figure out whether, say, this book or this career that you’re going to sacrifice a lot for is worth doing.
What’s your sentence?
My sentence is, I want to understand people who are motivated by ideas first and foremost. So every group in this book, that’s their unifying principle. Many of them found these ideas because they each had some basic difference such as a sense of their own gender, or a different sense of their own sanity or mind, or they really wanted to produce really offbeat art that wasn’t going to function in an ordinary cultural marketplace. I was fascinated by them. Maybe I’m a little like them myself.
What is the biggest challenge you see for writers today?
I think it’s money – to have this kind of work financed and supported. I’ve been working on a project about day care, and I’ve been getting nonprofits to help fund it, and that’s the model now for a lot of people who want to do the kind of stuff that I do. There just isn’t the functional magazine economy that there was 10 years ago.
Conversely, what are the opportunities?
People can publish if they figure out another way to fund their work, through a nonprofit or a day job or – something I tell my students to do if they’re interested in international reporting – work for an NGO or do mission work or work for a nonprofit overseas and use that as a way into another world.
In one class I taught, everybody got their work published and that wouldn’t have been true when I attended J-school in ’97. I don’t think any of my school projects were published, but now there are all these great outlets.
I also worked at an e-book publisher that did multimedia so it was thrilling to see those books come together. I wrote one piece about an abortion clinic in Mississippi and then commissioned the film version called The Last Clinic. It was a 50-minute documentary with text around it and a photo gallery and just really imaginative. This is a new horizon and everybody should be focusing on that if they can because that is the plus side to the end of traditional newspapers.
As somebody who teaches aspiring writers, what can be taught and what has to be ingrained?
I think work ethic and obsessiveness and curiosity and resilience can be reinforced but those are the most important qualities. I could tolerate a lot of other kinds of problems in student writing, but the key was you had to keep going back to the sources, keep going back to the places. You had to make the reporting rich. You just have to have a real relationship with the people you’re reporting on. I guess you can learn those things, but those are bedrock, and when people don’t have that work ethic, that’s a problem. Without that kind of willingness to give everything up, it’s not going to work. I think you can teach people how to write better and cleaner and certainly more genre-abiding. I was originally a poet, and I still write poetry. I had to learn how to write conventional nonfiction form, and I did.
Over the course of reporting for Republic of Outsiders, what have you learned that could help other writers?
Test your ideas in public. If you get your work out in a well-trafficked website, not only are you going to get your trolls saying nasty things – and you’ll have to ignore them – but you’ll also get people chiming in or saying why didn’t you mention X or Y? And sometimes those are useful questions. It’s almost like a crowd-sourced effort.
Be ready to do a lot of things besides your big projects. That means your big projects may take longer. So pick projects that aren’t just of the moment because the reporting might be a winding road.
Also, see your work in a broader context – not just a memoir that people are going to want to buy. My reading diet is novels from the ’50s and ’60s and novels from the 19th century. It’s not often contemporary nonfiction or even contemporary fiction. Get language in your head that is rhythmic, the poetic voice or the novelistic voice that is not just typical of journalism. I’ve found that very useful.
What do you look for in nonfiction writing – both from yourself and others?
My favorite nonfiction is lyric nonfiction, which often doesn’t tend to be heavily reported, so that was one of my struggles – to combine my obsession with reporting with this voice that I like. And I think that’s part of why the book took a long time.
Republic of Outsiders has been excerpted by a wide range of publications such as O and The Atlantic. What is it about the book that appeals to such a range of readers?
I hope it’s because it’s fascinating, but I think it’s just because I was uncovering communities that a lot of people don’t report on commonly. I tend to be drawn to things that are a little under the radar. Obviously this book is all about people who are supposedly under the radar. The Mad Pride chapter, which was excerpted in O, seems very esoteric, but when you have 5 million Americans who don’t have adequate mental health care, it’s not esoteric. So I think that’s part of it. Trying to find stories that are hiding in plain sight.
As someone whose work focuses on marginalized populations, do you ever see yourself as an advocate?
I have my questions about whether you can have unbiased reporting. I wouldn’t say I’m an advocate, but I think I’m somebody who can like the people she reports on and wants to shine a light on their ideas, and in that process, maybe those ideas are being promoted.
Kristen Andresen was a feature writer, reporter and award-winning columnist before becoming the director of marketing at Providence College. She is also the assistant editor of Inside Arts magazine.
An excerpt from Republic of Outsiders
Most of the people in this book share what I think of as post-identity politics – they are part of marginal groups united by chosen politics and tastes. Even the groups in this book who are initially outsiders by dint of more traditional identity markers – their mental illness, their gender nonconformity – now occupy specialized chosen niches such as Mad Pride or trans feminism.
More than forty years after “coolness” became a product heavily sold to American teenagers and then adults via blue jeans and rock’n’roll, the people in this book represent a range of responses to the commercialization of, well, everything. Today, many acts of rebellion have become extremely elaborate negotiations with commercial culture. In a market-driven country where capitalism is all-consuming, most of the outsiders in this book respond to American entrepreneurialism with their own kind of cultural entrepreneurship. During a financial crisis, facing the inevitability of high unemployment and a contraction of the national economy, they often must piece together their own economic exchanges, as they have no other choice.
By innovating in this way, they are taking their lives into their own hands. We have long received our information, therapy, films, and even vegetables from authoritative sources: from insiders, trained or ordained to dispense this knowledge or cultural products. Most of the rebels in this book are changing that equation. They are proud amateurs who are doing for themselves and for others what only experts and professionals once did. They refuse simply to be a passive audience or designated consumers.
Excerpt reprinted here with permission by New Press from Republic of Outsiders. Copyright © 2013 by Alissa Quart.