Interview with Mitch Moxley: “Balancing writing and editing is tricky.”

Mitch Mosley is a writer and editor based in New York. He has contributed to several well-known publications, including GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic.

With a passion for travel and exploration, Mosley has reported from various countries, including North Korea, Cuba, India, Mongolia, and Haiti. He spent six years living in China, which inspired his book, Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China, published by Harper Perennial in 2013. 

Mitch currently serves as senior editor at Penta magazine, a lifestyle publication with the Dow Jones Media Group. He has also held executive editor positions at Maxim and was a features editor at Roads & Kingdoms, where he edited Anthony Bourdain’s feature series and hosted the speaker series Journalism & Drinks. In addition, he worked as a story producer on two documentaries about Russian espionage for A&E Networks.

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Hi Mitch! 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?

Thank you for having me! I’m a writer and editor based in New York. I’m senior editor at Penta magazine, a lifestyle publication distributed with Barron’s, and my freelance writing has appeared in Esquire, The New York Times, GQ, The Atlantic, and many other publications.

I lived in Beijing for six years and have filed stories from China, North Korea, India, Mongolia, Haiti, Cuba, and elsewhere. I’ve written features about the North Korean Film Festival, basketball in Haiti, kidnapping survival schools, the aftermath of a tragic bus crash in Canada, and other diverse topics. I also wrote a book about my time in China called Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China, which was published by Harper Perennial in 2013.  

Can you tell us about your writing routine and how you make time for your craft amidst all of your other responsibilities and commitments?

My writing routine varies depending on what I’m working on. I tend to work best creatively in the late afternoon, which seems different to other creative writers I know who do most of their productive work in the morning or late at night.

For me, mornings are better for tasks and administrative work, and once all that is done, I can settle in to do some creative work. Because of my day job, these days I can often only get an hour or so of creative time during the day.

Right now, I’m trying to work on a novel, so my goal is to write 500 new words per day. When I’m working on a reported story, I use the Pomodoro method and try to get two or three 25 minute blocks of work done. Of course, I have a lot of other things I’m working on during the day, but those are the tools I use to make sure I’m getting at least some creative work done every day. 

You’ve lived in China for six years and have filed stories from North Korea, Cuba, Haiti, India, Mongolia, and elsewhere. How do you decide on the location and subjects for your stories?

When I moved to China it was really booming. This was back in 2007 and you would read about all the changes that were happening there all the time, and I wanted to check it out. I got a job with China Daily, a state owned newspaper, and thought I would stay through the Olympics but ended up staying for six years.

It was a really exciting place to be then. I also had the opportunity to travel to all kinds of interesting places in Asia. I would normally get an idea of where I wanted to go—Mongolia, for example—and then find a couple stories I could report before I went.

I don’t travel for work nearly as much anymore. But that’s how I approached it even when I moved to New York. I really wanted to go to Cuba, for example, so I found stories to report there, then I went. 

As a senior editor at Penta, a lifestyle magazine with Dow Jones Media Group, can you speak about the role of lifestyle magazines in today’s media landscape?

The magazine industry has experienced a lot of turbulence in recent years, with many titles closing or shrinking—even the biggest, most prominent magazines. Luxury lifestyle magazines, however, seem to be able to survive because they still have an audience coveted by advertisers.

That’s the case with Penta, which is distributed by Barron’s. We’re also a really small, nimble team, so costs are low. But it’s certainly a tough time throughout the industry. I’m grateful to work for a company that is doing well and has managed to navigate this changing landscape admirably. 

You were previously executive editor at Maxim and features editor at Roads & Kingdoms, where you edited Anthony Bourdain’s Dispatched feature series and hosted the speaker series Journalism & Drinks. Can you tell us about your experience working with Anthony Bourdain and how it influenced your writing and editing?

Anthony Bourdain has been a huge influence on me. I was already working with Roads & Kingdoms when Tony came on as an investor and then I helped launch his feature series and was the lead editor on them. I actually wasn’t super familiar with Bourdain at the time.

I knew of him, of course, but I had only watched a handful of episodes of his show and hadn’t read his writing. I lived abroad and traveled a lot so was never into travel television. But after he came onboard, I read Kitchen Confidential and learned a lot more about him. He was really supportive of the work we were doing at R&K and I admired how much he cared about doing good work.

After I left R&K, I profiled him for Maxim when he was getting the last tattoo of his life. When he died, I was really consumed with understanding how it could have ended like that. Here was a man who millions of people lived vicariously through, whose own life was actually a prison from which he felt he couldn’t escape. I ended up writing a play inspired by him that explores those themes. It’s called Last Room and I’m working with a team to put on a short run of it in the spring. 

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Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China was published by Harper Perennial in 2013. Can you talk about the creative process behind the book and what you learned from the experience?

Publishing a book was a major career goal and achievement for me. However, the experience demystified parts of the publishing industry that many people might not know about. I was approached by an agent to write a proposal about the expat experience in China based on an article I had written for the Atlantic.

It took about a year to finish and submit the proposal. The book was purchased by an editor in New York right away, but only as a trade paperback (which meant it wouldn’t come out in hardcover and would be a limited print), and for a fairly small amount of money.

At the time, I didn’t mind—I was just thrilled to have the opportunity. The writing experience was a lot of fun; I basically got to relive the highlights of my time in China over again. But I would say the whole publishing experience was mixed. Both my editor and agent switched jobs in the process, so I lost the two people who were most passionate about the book.

I also learned that publishing companies put out a lot of books, and they don’t put much money behind most of them. In other words, unless they expect your book to be a bestseller, you’re sort of on your own. I had to handle a lot of the promotion and publicity myself.

The book had a pretty small publication run, and it sold modestly. So on the one hand it was a dream come true to write it, but on the other, it was disappointing that it didn’t take off in the way I’d hoped. I learned this is the case for about 90% of authors, so I was in good company. I don’t regret it. The experience definitely made me a better writer. 

As a writer and editor, how do you balance writing your own work with editing and managing the work of others?

Balancing writing and editing is tricky, and I try to silo the two. My writing today is mostly longform, narrative-driven nonfiction, or creative writing. Neither of those are the focus of my day job at Penta. My editing job is focused on finding story ideas, coordinating with freelancers, editing the stories that come in, shepherding the print edition to publication, and other administrative tasks. So when I switch gears to my own personal writing, it really is like putting on a different hat. That makes it easier to find a balance. 

What have been some of your favorite reads recently?

I read The Wolf Hall trilogy by Hillary Mantel over the last year. So good. I loved living in that world. I also read a more obscure book recently called A Waiter in Paris, a non-fiction book about an English guy who moves to Paris to work as a waiter. It’s deliberately similar to Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell, one of my favorite books. I’m currently reading two books by George Saunders, Liberation Day and A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. He’s one of my all-time favorites. 

What does your current workspace look like?

I do most of my creative writing in a workspace in Soho called The Malin. It’s a really beautiful loft space, with high ceilings, big windows, and gorgeous furniture and design work. I try to grab a table near one of the windows so I can peek outside at the street life below. I also do a lot of writing at coffee shops. I’ve always found the bustle inspiring. 

Photo courtesy of the author

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