Interviews / Journalists

Interview with Ariel Ramchandani: “I try to always see when I am stuck and get a lifeline.”

Ariel Ramchandani is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn whose stories have been featured in a variety of prominent publications, including The Atlantic, The Guardian, Pacific Standard, The Atavist Magazine, The Economist’s 1843, WIRED, AFAR, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal Magazine, among others.

She is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism, where she was recognized as a McCormick scholar and a Harrington Prize winner for magazine writing and editing. Before embarking on her freelance career, Ariel served as an editor and writer for More Intelligent Life and the culture channel of The Economist Online.

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Hi Ariel! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. How has your experience as a journalist and editor at publications like The Economist and More Intelligent Life influenced your creative process as a freelance writer?

It has been a while since I’ve been an editor, but I still feel like I have a touch of editor brain: a sense of whether something works for a specific audience. This is very helpful when pitching, I think. I feel I should have a sense of what will get someone’s attention and what editors like, though honestly I’m just as liable to pitch things I like and not follow my own almost defunct spidey senses. 

I think it has given me a good understanding of what it is like on the other side in terms of working on a story and shepherding it through the flow of production, and how stories have to work for whatever the publication is doing. I have more sympathy for the editor’s experience and why they can’t always answer emails even though you want or need them to. At More Intelligent Life, now 1843, I sat catty corner and worked closely with a great take-no-prisoners editor and I learned a lot about writing by watching her edit, or go over something I had edited, or edit my work. 

The biggest influences on my creative process have been ones that have really shaken my understanding of storytelling, or how to approach stories. This is so often something that happens while reading or watching or listening to something so great that you just have to understand how it was done. 

I took a wonderful class in journalism school many years ago on structure, where we outlined a longform article, a podcast script, and a documentary script, and I think it really opened my eyes to how taking something apart, anything, can be helpful. And then in 2021 I worked on a podcast with Cadence13 and Seyward Darby of The Atavist. Writing in this way, in blocks, literally building scripts really helped me find something new in all my other work. Now I’ve been thinking about new mediums as well. 

Can you talk about a particularly challenging piece you’ve written and how you overcame any obstacles during the writing process?

So many. Writing is hard! And can be so hard in different ways. The piece I’m working on now is hard because even though it’s a long feature it is slightly newsy, and I’m struggling with that. In another piece I wrote last year about the complicated issue of neonaticide, that was very hard because I felt like getting the balance right to tell the story honestly. 

As a journalist, this is a huge part of storytelling, mucking through all these gray areas and arranging evidence and doing it as accurately and respectfully as you can. Sometimes the frustration results from what you can’t change about the story–lack of access, the order of events, who is still alive. 

Okay that’s a lot about what’s hard. I remember telling a non writer this once, that it was only getting harder and she was like maybe you should think about doing something else. But I like how each piece is its own puzzle and challenge and has its own total world of problems and successes. 

As for how I’ve overcome obstacles, I am, like most people who get into longform stuff, a total structure nut. I’m not very good at it but I’m obsessed with it. I outline and then outline again. I try to find the way through structure, or convince myself I can. I write, then open up a blank page and write it again, over and over until the shape is working or I understand how the story is supposed to go.

Honestly, the biggest writing obstacles for me are the grind in a difficult industry, rejection and self doubt. I’m not sure how you overcome those except the same thing, you just sit and open up a new page. 

In November 2016, Atavist published an article by you – When the Devil Enters – which was an incredibly riveting read. Can you walk us through the process of pitching and getting a piece published in a publication like The Atavist? 

Thank you! And yes, that was a time in which I was specifically looking for a story for a certain publication. The editor of the Atavist at the time, Katia Bachko, was so nice to me responding to a pitch I sent in via the form on their website, and met me for a coffee. They were doing such cool work. So I was determined to find something that could work for them and she was very patient and responded to my pitches. I came across the mysterious fires and first thought it might not even be true. Then I kept reading news clippings and went down the rabbit hole. I’m fascinated by place and collective belief, how circumstances influence what you think. Katia said she liked it, and asked if it would be reportable. Some good early responses from sources and a brushing off of my very rusty college Italian made me think it could be. 

In addition to a good editor, I was just lucky with reporting. I got to go to Italy! There was really rich sourcing, the kind you get when you tap into something people are obsessed with and don’t have an answer to and they just open up. But beyond that, the story was unexpectedly document rich. When I was there, people kept going into other rooms and hauling out tons of letters and news clippings. And then while writing it I was a fellow in the Shoichi Noma Reading room at the NYPL. The research librarian there was incredibly helpful in tracking down more news clippings and I wrote there most days. If you have a research project that makes sense and need a place to work you should apply. When I look back at sitting there in the NYPL reading about Italy, those were some serious golden days.

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You’ve written for a variety of different publications, including The Guardian, WIRED and AFAR, how do you adapt your writing style to fit the different audiences and formats?

I’ve written for a good amount of places. I’ve also had the experience, more than once, of having pieces killed or abandoned when an editor leaves a publication or for some other reason, and then reborn at another publication. I don’t recommend the experience because it is very stressful, but it is incredibly instructive in terms of how a piece can be adapted from one publication to another, and what each publication’s core interest is. It isn’t always so much the style that changes, but the focus, the angle of approach, and then what writerly bits of framing get cut and what stays in. This also comes in a lot in the pitching/ideation stage–certain stories just feel like they really fit certain places. Occasionally something is surprisingly placed where I didn’t expect, and I wonder about the alternate version of the story elsewhere. I feel like one thing about most of the places I have written for is that even if I have to do a lot of work the quality of the editing is really high, and editors are really interested in how to make the story tick best for their publication line by line. 

During the pandemic I started working on some new things: the podcast I mentioned, and nonfiction book proposals that were very voice-y. The book proposal didn’t really work out, which was very upsetting, but something about these two experiences shifted something in my brain and I started writing a novel. So I’ve been thinking more about what my writing is like, outside of a house style. 

What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

I try to write in the morning after I drop my kids off at school, while I’m still kind of bleary, before I get to emails and whatever else. This is so hard because I just want to procrastinate and then if you are already doing that, much easier to ease back in with emails. And also I want to get everything done first thing in the morning, but you can’t go for a run and do research and write and try to make money and tidy your kitchen all at the same time. So the best I can do is have coffee and sit down somewhere. 

But I really like to write first, and then spend the afternoons doing thinking, research for new projects, and admin stuff to move other projects along, especially now that I’m trying to work some fiction writing into my days. I feel like fiction makes you much more intense about all of this–you are just looking to find the best flow in a way you don’t have to when you are on deadline and your fingers are just going. Sometimes I like to change locations, and sometimes I’ll go to a coffee shop for a few hours right after drop off and then come back home and finish the day. 

Can you speak to any daily habits or practices that you feel contribute to your success as a writer?

I try to always see when I am stuck and get a lifeline: read something, get a second opinion, put it down and take a long walk. I like to walk. And I’m pretty good about staying with a routine when it is working for me. I feel like I’m pretty gentle with myself about the way I like to work, filling in a picture rather than always writing in a linear way. Even sometimes keeping an idea in my head for a long time before I do anything with it. I sometimes wish there was another way, but it seems to work for me.

When you are a parent of young children, people always assume you must have become super efficient because you have so much less time. I don’t think I went through that amazing transformation when I became a parent. I still stare at the wall as much as I used to. But I’ve become better at focusing intensely and also multitasking (breastfeeding while interviewing sources on the phone, etc). And now that my kids are a bit older (3 and 5), I try to work as though everyone will be home sick tomorrow, because it is likely that they will be, anyway. 

As a Brooklyn-based freelancer, how does your environment influence your writing and where is your favorite place to write?

I love libraries, and have already talked about the NYPL. So now I’ll say another, I love love love The Center for Fiction. It is such a wonderful place and they have a great collection and you feel like other people are doing what you are doing. The membership is totally justifiable if you have a problem where you buy too many books, because their collection is great and so many new releases are available. I had joined in a serious way last spring, paying for some dedicated writing space there, and then we entered a never ending wave of covid quarantines in my family and I was going through some things and I had to stop, but I’ve just committed to starting again–I type this sick at home with COVID, listening to a coughing child upstairs so we will see. I love writing in coffee shops also, and like getting into a groove with one. If it meets my needs and the music is soft enough and the chairs comfortable enough I’ll overstay my welcome. Now that I’m going to them again, if I find one I like I’ll commute to it like it is an actual place of employment. 

What does your current writing workspace look like?

I currently write at home in my bedroom most days. It is sunny in the winter when the tree in front of my apartment loses its leaves and shady in the summer. In the afternoons when the kids are home from school they bust in while I am on the phone and they leave me notes and trinkets. I love working from my room. The worst part about WFH, well documented, is that you don’t have anywhere to go and your life is all there, so I’m always thinking of ways to get out of it, too. 

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