Editors / Interviews

Interview with Salma Abdelnour: “I write a little bit every day, for myself.”

Salma Abdelnour is a writer, editor, and journalism professor with two decades of experience in the industry. She has worked with leading media brands, universities, and non-profit organizations, and is a recipient of the American Society of Travel Writers Award and a Digital Health award for her pandemic-related stories.

Salma is also a ghostwriter, and produces editorial projects for multiple outlets. She currently serves as Head of Alumni Affairs at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. Salma’s career includes roles as Travel Editor at Food & Wine, Food Editor at and O, the Oprah Magazine, and author of the memoir, Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut, published by Penguin Random House.

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Hi Salma! 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?

Thanks for asking! I’m a writer, editor, and book author and I live in Brooklyn, NY. In my mind I’m also half-based in Beirut, but that’s only occasionally true. I’m the author of Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut, which is technically a memoir, although I think of it as a live-stream of a life experiment. It’s an exploration into what happens if you drop everything and move back to your childhood city to try to put yourself back together again.

I left New York in my 30s to write the book and to try to answer the question that’s been burning in my mind since I left Lebanon to move to Texas at age nine: What is home, and what does it mean to belong somewhere? These days I try to get back to Beirut as often as I can, because there’s a big piece of myself that always stays behind when I leave.

Brief intros are always tough –should I go on? In my day job, I head the alumni department at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. In that role I try to steer graduates into journalism and writing careers that are meaningful to them. Before all this, I was a food and travel editor for years, mostly at Food & Wine, O the Oprah Magazine, and NBC’s lifestyle websites.

I’ve written for those places and many others including Tin House, The New York Times, Time Magazine, Mondoweiss, Travel and Leisure, Parents, and various other publications. Recently I wrote an essay that was published in an anthology called Tick Tock, about what it’s like to have kids in your 40s, which I did with both of my children (who are now 7 and 9).

Can you tell us about your experience as a ghostwriter and your process for working with clients on editorial projects?

The idea of ghostwriting never appealed to me until a few years ago, when a few people started approaching me to do it. I’d never thought about ghostwriting before, and if it ever crossed my mind, it struck me as too much energy spent writing under someone else’s name – why? Like so many things I’d never tried before, it turns out I didn’t know what I was talking about.

It can be immensely fun to inhabit someone else’s voice for a while, and it’s different from writing fiction. Then again I’m a non-fiction writer mainly, so I may not know what I’m talking about there either. I do know that ghostwriting may be the closest I ever get to entering into other characters’ minds and channeling their thoughts, giving them a voice. It’s rewarding in a different way from the other writing I do. 

l now get asked to ghostwrite anything from essays to entire memoirs to other pieces of writing. For example I’ve ghostwritten op-eds and think pieces for CEOs of nonprofits whose work I believe in. I also love to work with retired people who’ve led adventure-packed lives and who want to get their stories down for their grandkids or for wider audiences.

Usually I’ll have a series of meetings with the person, long interviews or lunches or video chats where we sit and talk and I listen. I ask lots of questions, and I try to get people to talk about things that they didn’t remember about themselves, or that it didn’t occur to them to bring up. I listen for the rhythms of their voice, for nuances of their syntax, for pet phrases and for words or expressions they like to use.

Writing in someone else’s voice is a refreshing break from the stuff I’m writing for myself. I also do lots of editing for publications and non-profits when I have time and that dreaded word, bandwidth. I love to sit with a piece of text and think of ways to tighten and improve it. It’s like playing word games. It scratches a similar itch.

In general I always like to be working on a combination of writing that comes out of my own impulses –whether that’s essays or articles or doodling around – along with writing and editing projects I take on for other people. My goal is to keep a healthy balance, by which I mean an enjoyable and nourishing mix that keeps me on externally imposed and unignorable deadlines, alongside my own self-generated pseudo-deadlines. 

How do you balance your role as Head of Alumni Affairs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism with your own writing and editorial projects?

That’s a big question I’m trying to figure out right now. My day job takes up a lot of my time, and I enjoy it tremendously. I like helping the talented alumni of the journalism school to discover work that’s going to motivate them and feel meaningful to them. It’s rewarding to talk to journalists who are just starting out, and to connect them with each other and with people in the industry who can inspire and guide them.

These graduates also remind me of myself when I was just finishing school and going out to get internships and entry level editorial jobs, panicking about my future and sending applications into a black hole, sleeping on falling-apart sofas in tiny Manhattan apartments and drinking burnt coffee from the deli at weird hours –memories I still associate with freedom and possibility, even if everything seemed terrifyingly uncertain at the time. 

I try to make time on a regular basis to do my own writing too, by which I mean writing that’s not for any particular assignment or project –or not yet. Back to your question about balancing: I don’t have the answer to that yet. Finding a sustainable balance between work-related assignments and self-generated writing is the thing I’m after right now.

Doing my own writing late at night or early in the morning often feels like the only option, but I try to do late-night writing less often now. Before I had kids, I’d work late into the night all the time, and I’d often start around 11pm and go for hours. I’d sit in a 24 hour diner, usually Veselka in the East Village back in the day, and eat blintzes doused in raspberry sauce and say yes to endless coffee refills in the middle of the night while I scribbled in a notebook. It was brutal and exhilarating, and in my early 20s it made me feel like I was living the New York life, insinuating myself into the life of a writer. 

These days I like my sleep too much, and I get too little of it as it is. If I start writing at 11pm it feels like I’m hallucinating – which probably isn’t a bad thing, but I quickly pass out. Sleeping in on weekdays is no longer an option. So I now only accept editorial projects from clients at certain times during the year, when the workload at my day job is slower. 

Lately time always slips away too quickly no matter what I’m doing. To deal with that, I’ve banned myself from working on weekends. I try to stretch out my Saturdays and Sundays, to feel the minutes going by, let time pass aimlessly. That can mean sitting alone on a rock in Ft. Greene Park and staring at the sky, or taking my kids roller-skating or to an ’80s-style arcade, or wandering around various neighborhoods with my husband and looking for a place to sit, have a drink and eavesdrop. 

Can you talk about your experience winning an American Society of Travel Writers Award and a Digital Health award for two pandemic-related stories?

In the early weeks of the pandemic, a friend who was one of my former editors at a food magazine asked if I wanted to write some pieces about Covid-related issues and other health topics for the online publication where she now works.

Most of my journalistic career so far had been writing about food and travel, and at a certain point I’d felt pigeon-holed, and I had my eye out for chances to tackle other kinds of reporting. I started taking on assignments to write pandemic-related stories, and to report on how health issues impact specific communities in deeply inequitable ways.

For instance I did a story on how doctors typically misdiagnose disease in patients of color, because medical students generally aren’t trained on how to spot symptoms on anything other than white skin, thanks to textbooks that feature mainly white people. That story won a first-place feature writing award last year from the Society for Features Journalism. 

In the case of the travel award, it was for one of my stories about how to travel safely during the pandemic. I spent hours on the phone and on Zooms talking to infectious diseases doctors and epidemiologists, and did a deep-dive on how to travel by plane, car, train, bus, or you name it in spring and summer 2020 –the dark early weeks of the pandemic –and how to not get COVID on the road. That was before the vaccines, so getting COVID was particularly scary at the time –and many people, albeit far fewer than usual, still needed or wanted to travel.

That article won an American Society of Travel Writers award. As for the Digital Health awards, those were for other articles I wrote about Covid and about inequities in the health system and they were submitted on my behalf by my editor. I haven’t always been good about submitting my own work for awards. It usually doesn’t occur to me, and in some cases when I’ve written something I thought could be worth a shot, I couldn’t find any awards or categories that would fit the topic. It’s easy to overestimate how important awards are, but it’s also nice to get that nod from time to time.

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How has your experience as a journalist and editor informed your approach to writing your memoir, Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut?

Memoirs tend to be deeply internal, for better or worse, and in my case the book was about my struggle with the question of where is home, and what does it mean to belong. It was about my year of moving back to this incredibly complex city, Beirut, and trying to find my way back home there. 

Beirut can create a sense of displacement even in the best of circumstances, even in people who have lived there for their entire lives. Every day, every week, every month, it’s constantly embattled or doing internal battle with itself. 

The landscape of the city is also constantly shifting: war-crumbled buildings, dusty old shops, gorgeous old houses in perfectly decent shape are always getting torn down, and tall condo towers or shiny shops or awkwardly shaped malls are going up. Streets are getting rearranged, so that alleyways which used to exist and which are seared in your memory from decades ago are now obliterated. Most of my time in Beirut has been spent grappling with the idea of home and belonging in the context of this ever-shifting city. But I didn’t want the book to be a headlong plunge into one person’s psyche, i.e. mine, as I try to navigate all this. 

My hope instead is that the book speaks to people all over the world who find themselves displaced, whether they’re immigrants or expats or refugees, or have been so at some point. I want the book to be relatable to others who have felt a sense of disconnection from home or from the idea of home. I’m grateful that people have written to me from many points around the globe, not just the U.S. or Lebanon, to tell me how much the quest in my book resonated with them. They found it cathartic, or healing, or enjoyable to read in a voyeuristic way.

To make sure the book would connect with others meant I needed, and wanted, to do lots of reporting and research to broaden the context for the questions I was asking about home. I spoke to artists, writers, activists, people who’d left the city during the war and returned, people in refugee camps. 

I spoke to historians and social scientists, to people who are themselves grappling with a damaged or unattainable sense of home, or who are trying to create homes for others who are displaced in much more immediate and life-threatening ways. And to people who don’t necessarily have a threatened sense of home but who are trying to make things better for others who do, whether that’s through activism or art or writing or other endeavors. 

The book ended up being heavily reported and researched, in ways that are often invisible but that form the backdrop for this interior chronicle of loss and of a search for belonging. I tried to bring a journalistic eye and approach to the book. I also read every book I could find on related subjects, and all kinds of historical volumes about modern and ancient Lebanon, and I read a lot of novels around themes of home, and of war and displacement and loss.

As for my experience as an editor: I’m pretty sure I’m my own most ruthless editor. I try to go back and look at everything I write through an external eye, which is of course an impossible and doomed task, but I do try to mull over and edit my work obsessively before I send it to an editor. In this case I was working with an extremely talented editor and team at Random House, and so my already heavily edited-by-me manuscript was also worked on in a very skillful way by my editor and her colleagues, and I’m grateful for all their edits and input. It made the book stronger and more broadly relatable. 

What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

I write a little bit every day, for myself and not for any specific project. That’s the goal, anyway. That’s the only thing I’d call a typical routine. Because of the varied nature of my projects, sometimes I’m writing all day and sometimes I’m fighting for barely a half-hour of doing my own writing. 

Often my own writing, the writing I do for myself, happens in the morning if I’ve managed to get a decent night of sleep, or sometimes it’s tucked into a corner of the afternoon when I can switch into writing mode with a cup of hot tea and a timer set to however many minutes I can spare.

When I was writing my book, and when I’m working on essays that take more than a few days or a couple of weeks to germinate, I’ve forced myself to do a bit of work towards that project every single day, whether it’s 300 words or five minutes, two pages or a marathon all-day session. I remind myself that every little bit counts, and I try to touch the project every day to keep it warm, to keep the engines running – insert whatever automotive metaphor you want here. (Why? I hardly ever drive anymore.)

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? 

This is tough, because on the one hand there are so many authors I’d like to talk to about this subject, and also because I’ve looked into the writing routines of many writers I admire, including Virginia Woolf and Joan Didion and the list goes on.

For some writers, the question seems less applicable because their lifestyles for one reason or another made it easier –presumably – to find plenty of hours throughout the day to write, even if they didn’t always use their time that way.

I’d love to talk to authors like Nella Larsen and Alice Walker and Louisa May Alcott about how they cleared the space to start and finish their novels –how they managed to take time away from their livelihoods or other life pressures to sit and write, at least before their talent got recognized and they finally, in some cases, had the space and time to do it .

What have been some of your favorite reads recently? 

What does your current writing workspace look like?

A pile of books and notebooks and stray pieces of paper, on a desk wedged next to shelves holding records and books about music. The desk is by a window overlooking the sidewalk, so I can watch people go by when I’m zoning out.

A few times a week the stack on the desk tips over and collapses, an avalanche onto the floor. Right now there’s a new-ish laptop sitting precariously on top of a couple of older ones, on top of a black desk with a pink chair pulled up to it. I usually end up retreating to the dining table near the desk, or to a spot on the floor or sofa, to get away from the toppling stack on my desk. 

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