The Sunday Long Read (with Deborah Sontag), 5/23/21

Hello again! We’ve got another stuffed issue today, including cartoonist Jake Goldwasser’s debut as part of our team. You can check out more of his great work here.

FYI, there won’t be a newsletter next week; we’ll give our hardworking team a well-deserved break. We’ll return in full force on Sunday, June 6.

However, our supporting members will receive a special Memorial Day edition next weekend. You can join them in helping us spread great journalism every week, with plans starting at $4. Part of that support (along with the generosity of our publishing partner, Ruth Ann Harnisch) funds our SLR Original program. As luck would have it, we’ve got our newest piece of exclusive writing to share this week!

Before we get to that, we have the honor of introducing our guest editor, Deborah Sontag.

Deborah is a veteran longread writer, with decades of experience as an investigative reporter, foreign correspondent, magazine staffer, critic and editor at The New York Times, The Miami Herald and elsewhere. Now a Brooklyn-based freelancer and teacher (of journalism and yoga), she is knee-deep in the novel she long intended to write.

Six months into the pandemic, I crawled inside my head and curled up.

I was coming off a short-term editing stint at a newspaper, a temporary job I had started just days before we all went into lockdown. During that period, when news was breaking by the minute even as newsrooms went virtual, I let myself be bombarded by, as we used to say, current events. The first thing I did every morning, while still in bed, was to look at The New York Times’s daily coronavirus numbers. Were the arrows going up or down, and by what percentage? Hell of a way to start the day.

When my editing contract ended and I returned to civilian life, I realized that I could let go. I didn’t need to be immersed 24/7 in COVID and Trump and police brutality. I could keep abreast of developments, like a good citizen, while fundamentally changing my information diet. No more binging. @realDonalTrump: Unfollow! (He still had an account then.)

For the first time ever, I let newspapers, magazines and quarterlies pile up. Suddenly, the only longreads in my life were novels. The novel-reading was not new. I’ve been reading a novel a week (more or less) since I was eight years old. But all those books were always jockeying for space in my brain, and I consumed them like an addict, not a connoisseur. Now I was savoring language, studying structure and thinking. Thinking!

This period of self-imposed journalism abstinence coincided with my first sustained effort to write my own novel. Much of what I’ve done as a journalist, of course, enriches what I’m doing now. I have, after all, been telling—writing—stories for a living. I’ve spent decades roaming the country and the world, meeting people who live and think differently than I do. I’ve absorbed dialect and dialogue, studied character and characters, observed landscapes and interior spaces. I am, needless to say, fact-checking every detail in my work of fiction because that is what I’m trained to do. (Did you know that a tongue-and-egg omelet with a glass of prune juice could set you back $1.50 at Wolfie’s in Miami Beach in the mid-1950s?)

Yet there were ingrained habits I needed to unlearn, too, among them: condensing, getting right to the point, spelling things out super-explicitly for the reader and withholding my point of view. More than anything, I needed to re-activate a long-dormant part of myself: my imagination.

Fiction helped. Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who wrote the very funny novel “Fleishman is in Trouble,” tweeted this week that she had just read a book so good she couldn’t get out of bed. “Did great books make me feel this terrible before I started writing novels?” she asked. Maybe because I haven’t set the bar for myself all that high, I have had the exact opposite reaction. I have been inspired, instructed and motivated by what I’m reading. I used to feel the same way when I’d read a kick-ass piece of journalism, especially narrative writing. Good writing motivates me to raise my game.

Flashing forward. This past week, for the purpose of this newsletter, I’ve returned to the land of the plugged-in. It has felt delightfully gluttonous to eat my way through mounds of newspaper and magazine journalism. There’s so much out there. I could not pick a favorite. I hate favorites. I don’t have a favorite book, movie, song or child. Each piece linked here was special in its own way.

Fintan O’Toole’s profile of Boris Johnson is a rip-roaring piece of virtuosic writing, for instance. Catherine Rentz’s detail-rich story on rape investigations in Baltimore is a classic slow-burn crime narrative, with a detective on a mission not only to solve cold rape cases but also to redress the system’s past wrongs. Constanze Stelzenmüller’s analytic portrait of Angela Merkel helps us assess her long tenure in office, and understand where she might end up sitting in history.

I hope you are informed, provoked and entertained as you read your way through these. I know that my own non-fiction fast is now over. Even as I keep plowing forward on the novel front, it’s time to reconnect with the world.

Click here to open this week’s edition of the Sunday Long Read.