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Interview with Seyward Darby: “As a writer I tend to work like a quilter.”

Seyward Darby is the editor in chief of The Atavist Magazine. She previously worked at Foreign Policy and The New Republic

She is the author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, which was shortlisted for the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. She has written for The New York Times, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and other publications. Her peculiar name comes from this book.

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Hi Seyward, great to have you on Famous Writing Routines! For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Thanks for inviting me! I’m the editor in chief of The Atavist Magazine, where I’ve been working for five years. The Atavist publishes one incredible true story every month—we just published issue no. 128, which details how, as a KGB spy, Vladimir Putin helped fuel the modern neo-Nazi movement in Germany. The magazine, which has won a bunch of awards, specializes in narrative journalism, so we love a plotline. And I love my job because I get to work with amazing freelance writers on longform passion projects. 

Prior to joining The Atavist, I was an editor at Foreign Policy and The New Republic. As a writer, I’ve contributed to The New York Times, The Guardian, Harper’s, and other outlets. I live in Brooklyn, I’m married to a novelist, and I ask to pet almost every dog I encounter. Oh, and I wrote a book! It’s called Sisters in Hate, and it was a finalist for the J. Anthony Lukas Prize in 2021.

Can you take us through the creative process of your book, Sisters in Hate

I didn’t set out to write a book. In fact, I never thought I would write one—it wasn’t a dream or goal I had. But after Trump was elected, I wanted to respond in some way as a journalist, and I was struck by the lack of media coverage of women on the increasingly influential far-right flank of U.S. politics. Who were they? What motivated them? How did they come to support wholly regressive ideas and candidates, including Trump? 

I pitched Harper’s, which was kind enough to give me an assignment, and I wrote a cover story essentially diving into the intersection of gender and white nationalism (which was rapidly becoming mainstream conservatism). The article generated book interest, and I felt like I wasn’t done with the topic—there was more I wanted to learn, more I wanted to say. So I decided to go for it and sold a proposal to Little, Brown. 

I had 18 months to deliver the manuscript, which meant doing all the necessary research, including on-the-ground reporting, and then writing the whole damn thing. I wasn’t able to take book leave, so I did this while working my full-time job. On a reporting trip, I’d spend the morning doing interviews, then go back to my hotel room and edit an Atavist story. At a certain point I started waking up early several days a week to get three or so hours of book work in before logging into Slack and email. I won’t lie—it was very hard. 

But I also think working at The Atavist through my process helped me in a couple of ways. First, it was a welcome distraction from the subject matter of my book, which could take a toll on my mental health. Working with smart, hard-working, compassionate journalists on material that had nothing to do with white nationalism was a balm. Second, those same journalists offered lessons and inspiration all the time. 

One of them, Lauren Markham, provided a pearl of wisdom I think every nonfiction book writer should hear. When I told her I was strongly considering changing the book’s structure from the one I’d outlined in my proposal, but was anxious how my publisher might react, Lauren said this: A proposal is like a map on which you’ve drawn a suggested route from point A to point B. Once you start the journey, you may realize you have to make detours or, in some cases, chart an entirely new course to get where you need to go. That’s the nature of any discovery process, which writing is: You figure out what works best—what’s most efficient, or elegant, or ideally both—along the way. (My publisher, of course, agreed.) 

As it happened, structure was by far the trickiest part of writing this book, and I definitely tried several paths before finding the one that worked. I spent a lot of time outlining, sketching, charting, Venn-diagramming, storyboarding—everything I could think of. I eventually found the route I thought suited the project best, which involved dividing the book into three main sections, each of which centers a particular woman as a lens into different facets of the wider subject matter. 

I then wrote the sections one by one, and finished by bookending the material with a prologue and epilogue. Once I finished, I had a few people read the manuscript, in addition to my agent and editor: My husband and my friend Michelle Legro, who is a fantastic magazine editor. All of my readers were helpful in different ways, but I would say most of their feedback could be distilled down to the fact that I was getting in my own way at times, unnecessarily justifying to the reader why I was writing the book at all or explaining what I was going to be doing instead of just, well, doing it. (I think the latter was a hangover from writing long research papers in graduate school.) 

In retrospect I’m glad I wrote the material that my readers rightly suggested cutting outright. Clearly I was working through some of my own feelings about the topic and my capacity to cover it. I needed to explain the why and the how—but only to myself. 

I could probably produce a tome about the writing challenges that are specific to covering white nationalism, but I’ll be brief here: I worked hard to humanize the subjects of my book, because I think it’s vital to understand the stories and worldviews of people you disagree with if you want to combat them effectively. Reducing them to stereotypes and assumptions gets you nowhere. Humanizing someone, however, is not the same thing as sympathizing with them. I tried to be very clear both with my sources and in my writing about where I stood and what I stood for, and to produce a work of longform journalism that was at once intimate and infuriating. 

What does a typical writing day look like for you? 

I don’t have a typical writing day, because I don’t write every day. I love editing, and that’s how I spend the vast majority of my work time. But I try to write one or two longform stories each year. Recently, I tackled a new reporting project—an investigative one—and wrote a 16,000-word draft based on dozens of hours of interviews and hundreds of pages of legal documents. 

The piece will be published later this summer. An example of a writing day during this project involved me first reading what I’d written the day before. I’m not a writer who can just forge ahead without looking back until a first draft is done—I have to tinker with every sentence and feel good (or as good as I can feel) about it before moving on. After tinkering or, as is often the case, rewriting some portion of the draft, I would work on new material. And that could be just about anything. 

For better or worse, I wasn’t basing the draft on an outline. At least, not one I was referring to either on my desk or computer screen. As a writer I tend to work like a quilter: I compose scenes, exchanges, and expository passages—i.e. cloth squares—then figuring out how to arrange and stitch them together. I always have what I call a scrap file in addition to my main draft, where I put squares I haven’t yet figured out how to place, or that I’ve decided to leave on the cutting room floor. In the case of this story, the square I initially thought I would lead off with wound up in the last section. I wrote it very early on, but it hung out in the scrap file for several weeks before I knew where to put it. 

I don’t organize my writing days around, say, a certain number of words written. If ever I put a number to something, it’s hours worked (e.g. “I will write for three hours today”). And writing, for me, doesn’t just mean getting words down. My thesis advisor in undergrad told me once that thinking is a huge part of the writing process, and I took that to heart. I try not to beat myself up if I spend most of my allotted writing time thinking about what I want to write. 

As far as I’m concerned, not producing words doesn’t mean you’re not writing. This is a long way of saying: A typical writing day for me might only result in a couple of new paragraphs—or sometimes none at all—along with a bunch of ideas for what I will do the next day, and the next.

Do you have a target word count that you like to hit each day? 

Nope! 

Can you talk about some of your must-have writing tools?

I am very unexciting in this regard. I write on my laptop, and I use Word. I think Google Docs is the absolute worst; I downloaded Scrivener when I sold my book proposal but never used it. Aside from my computer, I use Post-Its and/or index cards for storyboarding purposes—this goes for Atavist editing too. 

I never use pencils during storyboarding, because nothing drives me crazier than a dull pencil, and as soon as you use them, they’re dull! The pens in our house tend to come from restaurants, doctors’ offices, and other nearby establishments. Cheap but reliable instruments. The one I’m using lately comes from Seamen’s Bank. I don’t even know how we got it. We don’t use that bank! 

Whenever you hit a roadblock during a writing session, what are some of the methods you use to get back into the flow of things? 

I take my dog for a walk. I do yoga. Or I take a nap. Crucially, when I get back to my computer, if the particular passage I’ve been trying to write just isn’t flowing, I move on. I ask myself: What do you want to write, right now? Almost always, there’s something. Maybe it’s small, but it’s something: a short scene, context I know a story is going to need, a physical description of a subject—it can be anything. I find that this helps me get back into a rhythm, even if it’s a different one than what I was trying to find before I took a break. And that, in turn, can help build momentum for eventually getting over the roadblock. 

I recently read The Fugitive Next Door and it was one of the best articles I’d ever read (I’m actually interviewing Greg Donahue as well!). Can you give us a glimpse behind the selection process for the stories? I’d imagine it to be quite rigorous since you only publish one a month. 

We evaluate pitches every 2-3 weeks. Successful pitches share a few key attributes: First, they provide a clear sense of the narrative arc of the project the writer is proposing. Second, they make clear that the writer is well-positioned to report the story; they demonstrate what level of access a writer has—or is certain they can get—to human sources, archival documents, and/or on-the-ground events. Third, the pitch should convey passion for and dedication to a story. 

Atavist projects take a long time—our typical lead-time is several months, and we recently published a story that was three years in the making. We’re looking for projects that writers feel like they have to do, ones they can’t stop thinking about, like an itch they need to scratch. 

Additionally, in selecting projects, we also consider the balance of our entire catalog: We run a combination of crime, adventure, history, and personal narratives, and we try to make sure we have enough of each kind in the hopper at a given time. We’re also always thinking about the profiles of our writers. We have hit gender parity for the last several years, and we are seeking to be more successful, too, at publishing BIPOC and LGBTQ+ writers. 

What does your writing workspace look like?

I bought my desk for $20 or so at a Housing Works thrift shop back in 2017, right when I got my job at The Atavist. It’s changed locations a couple of times since, but has for the last 2 years been positioned next to windows facing a street. I don’t like absolute silence—ambient street noise helps me focus, weirdly! My pets are often camped out near the desk. That’s Magnolia (Mags) in her kennel—she’s recovering from a back injury—and Trouble on the back of my chair. 

Photo of Seyward’s writing workspace (courtesy of the author).

Before you go…

Each week, we spend hours upon hours researching and writing about famous authors and their daily writing routines. It’s a lot of work, but we do it out of our love for books and learning about these authors’ creative process, and we certainly don’t expect anything in return. However, if you’re enjoying these profiles each week, and would like to send something our way, feel free to buy us a coffee!

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