Interviews / Journalists

Interview with Matthew Shaer: “On bad days… don’t ask.”

Matthew Shaer is a journalist and podcast host, known for his long-form reporting in publications like The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and Harper’s.

He is also the co-founder of Campside Media, a podcast studio specializing in episodic nonfiction. In 2021, his podcast Suspect was named one of the best of the year by The New Yorker, New York, and The Boston Globe, and went on to win multiple awards including a Signal Award for Best Writing and an American Journalism Award from NYU.

The show was also featured on Spotify’s “Best of the Year” collection. Matthew is a graduate of New York University’s MFA program in creative writing and has taught at The New School, Drew University, and NYU. He lives in Atlanta.

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Hi Matthew! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself?

Sure. I’m a print reporter by training – I worked primarily in newspapers and magazines for most of my career. But a few years back, I got the chance to work on my first podcast, and really loved the “team sport” part of the process. And the impact and reach. I’m now one of the co-founders and EPs of a podcast company called Campside; I’m also a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. I toggle back and forth, in other words, between print and audio. 

You have worked as a fry cook, a bike messenger, and a staff writer for Cash Cab. How have these various jobs and experiences influenced your writing?

Well, being a bike messenger definitely changed my relationship with…. death. Namely that I almost got killed a lot. I’m kidding. Mostly. Deadlines is probably the serious answer. The Cash Cab gig was a lesson in writing punchily and quickly; the fry cook and bike messenger jobs were lessons in making sure I never leave anyone waiting for too long. 

Can you talk about your writing process and how you approach research and reporting for your long-form pieces?

I tend to split each assignment into halves. There’s the information gathering and reporting half and then there’s the writing half. The former bit can take as long as four or five months (during which time I juggle other projects or tasks). The latter tends to be faster: When I’m really dialed in, I can hit 500 to 1,000 “good” (subjective term) words a day. On good days. On bad days… don’t ask. 

You’ve reported from many different countries around the world, including Egypt, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Brazil, Thailand, Vietnam, Turkey, Mexico, Myanmar, Lithuania, Greece, Eastern Russia, Western Africa and the Syrian borderlands. How do you decide on the location and subjects for your stories?

In every single one of these instances, the story came first – I found or was assigned a story that happened to be in X location. Although now that I think about it, I should really be reverse engineering assignments based on where I want to go. Tokyo, here I come. 

The Sinking of the Bounty, which was published in Atavist Magazine, was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in Reporting. Can you tell us about the story and how it came about?

Yeah, this was an interesting one, because it was a pretty big story when it went down, and I was initially spooked about wading into a topic that I knew a lot of other journalists were going to be covering. And guess what? I was right to be spooked: A lot of journalists did cover it. But I managed to lock down a bunch of good access, and to figure out a way into the story that hadn’t yet been done. I’m proud of it. It’s got all the elements I find compelling in any piece of longform journalism: an unusual setting, characters that grow and evolve – and also, helicopters. 

What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

Six hours of frustration and 20 minutes of inspiration. Kidding. Mostly. But if we’re talking about just the writing portion of the process, it looks a lot like this: A stack of books from authors I admire, a stack of old New Yorkers, an obscene amount of coffee, and finally, if I’m lucky, a solid few paragraphs. At which point I will reward myself with a beer.  

If you could have a conversation with an author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be and why? 

Very interesting question. Also interesting that a lot of the folks that come to mind are alive! I could just ask them! If they’d answer my emails. John McPhee, Bill Buford, Richard Price, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Susan Orlean, Pam Colloff. On the RIP front: Bruce Chatwin, Isaac Babel, Mavis Gallant, Janet Malcolm, Janet Malcolm, Janet Malcolm. 

What have been some of your favorite reads recently? 

I read a lot of detective novels. Maybe too many. I recently did an Anthony Horowitz binge, and then a Karin Slaughter binge, and then an Ian Rankin binge. I love Horowitz for his sense of humor and fun; Slaughter for her skill at the police procedural; and Rankin for his characters. On the nonfiction front, I recently re-read Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford, and was reminded anew of Buford’s insane narrative talent. Next up is Crossroads, which I’m late in getting to. 

What does your current writing workspace look like?

I try to keep it neat. Mostly, it’s books, pictures of my family, and candles. I can’t write without a good candle. Not sure why. It’s my vice. 

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