Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Interview: A.J. Jacobs

Interviewed by Lisa Guidarini of Bluestalking Reader

In the beginning was the encyclopedia. Yea, verily. I looketh upon it with mine own eyes. And I saw that it was good. There was evening and morning whilst I readeth it. Then again, there's evening and morning pretty much every day (unless you live really, really far north). But I digresseth.

A score of months later (give or take, who can count), came the Bible. It was fruitful. It multiplied. It cracketh me up. It restoreth my sense of humor. I laugheth, as it led me to the path of righteousness. Or not.

Yea, verily, I did then contact A.J., and he doth reply. I asketh, and he answereth. And here it is, now, for thine own eyes. Enjoyeth.

BSR: It's a little trite to ask you where on earth you come up with your book ideas, but where on earth do you come up with your book ideas? What inspires (or possesses) you to embark on these incredibly ambitious projects?

AJJ: Well, I love the idea of quests. But I'm not much of an outdoor person, so I don't see myself climbing K2 or doing the Iditarod race. So my quests tend to be intellectual or spiritual. Things I can do without getting frostbite. I also like taking things to the extreme. So I figure, if I'm interested in religion, why not go all the way - live the entire Bible - and see what works? And I love first-person writing. I love to read it and I love to write it. If it's done well, it can be like you're right there with the author on the journey.

BSR: Out of all the trials and tribulations from your biblical year, what was the toughest thing you endured? And, by the way, did you get to keep the slave?

AJJ: I'd say there were two parts that were the toughest. There was the attempt to avoid the little sins we all commit every day - the lying, the coveting, the gossiping. I live in New York and work for the media. So that was pretty much 75 percent of my day. The second tough part was trying to obey laws that will get you into a little trouble if you follow them in 21st century America. Like stoning adulterers. Or owning a slave. (For slavery, the closest thing I could find was a summer intern. He was great. But he had to go back to college.

BSR: With three little ones at home and what I presume is a full-time writing job, how do you find time to write your books, much less do the extensive research?

AJJ: I am having a tough time.

My sons haven't embraced the distinction between work hours and play hours. Right now, I'm working about 16 hours a day, and getting about two hours of actual work done, because my kids come into my office every three minutes to have an important discussion about bananas or Dora the Explorer. So I don't think I've mastered the balance yet.

My only trick is that I try not to waste a single second. I don't let my mind wander too often. If I'm going around the corner to get a bunch of grapes (as I had to do today), I try to have something specific to think about while I'm walking. A little project. Like, what headline an article should have. Or a list of people I'd like to profile for Esquire.

BSR: Have you ever given thought to writing fiction, or actually, have you ever written fiction?

AJJ: I've dabbled a couple of times. But I just don't think I'm built for it. Even in my reading choices I tend toward nonfiction. When I was young, I remember reading Tom Wolfe talking about how nonfiction - when it's written in a vibrant way - is more compelling than fiction. So that really influenced me. Then he decides to write nothing but fiction. So I don't know where that leaves me.

BSR: What are you reading lately? Anything you'd recommend?

AJJ: I wish my friends would stop writing good books. I keep feeling compelled to read them. My friend Jennifer Traig wrote a book about hypochondria called Well Enough Alone, which will be out later this year. Also, though he's not a friend, I'm in the middle of Alan Weisman's The World Without Us. I loved the description of Manhattan before people came in, plowed the hills down, and put up a Duane Read drugstore on every block.

BSR: What on earth (or heaven) is next for you after a year spent following the Bible?

AJJ: Well, my wife says I owe her after all I put her through with the encyclopedia and Bible projects. She's pressuring me to to The Year of Giving My Wife Foot Massages. But I'm not sure how mass the appeal would be. But I do want to do one more of the immersion projects.

BSR: Finally, for someone whose writing ambition is to follow the same sort of path you have, what advice would you give?

AJJ: I'm worried my advice will be stuff they've heard before. I don't have any huge original secrets like "use more umlauts." To me, the most important thing, I think, is just to generate ideas nonstop. Be an idea machine. Because rarely - especially when you're starting out - will someone assign you a book or a freelance article. You have to pitch relentlessly. And second, over-report. Especially if you're describing a scene. Write down every detail, even the ones that seem trivial - the sound of American Gladiators playing in the background, for instance. You never know what you'll end up using .

Blesseth thee, A.J. Jacobs. I hath enjoyed this very much. Verily, verily much, I say unto thee.

P.S.: This before/after will never stop crackething (?) me up.


Heather said...

Oh my goodness, what a great interview. I recently read The Know-It-All and just loved it. Jacobs is absolutely crazy. I can't wait to read The Year of Reading Biblically!

Andi said...

What a great interview, as Heather said. Another book for the list and more advice for my overworked, writerly brain. Thanks.

Dewey said...

I have this book on TBR Mountain, and I see it's time to scale it and start reading the book. So I can cracketh up, too!

April said...

Great interview! I started reading this book last month so it is very apropos for me.

What a clever guy, that Jacobs.