Lauren Sandler on Setting Up Ground Rules with Her Book Subjects
In Conversation with Jordan Kisner on the Thresholds Podcast
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
Jordan talks to journalist Lauren Sandler, author most recently of This Is All I Got, about how close you can or should get to your subjects, who gets to write what and why, and the driving forces behind the stories that intrigue her.
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From the episode:
Lauren Sandler: So, I show up at a shelter. I’m there every week for a few weeks before I even take out my notebook. There are a number of women who are interested in participating. Some of them continue to be interested. Some of them drop out. Some of them ask at a certain point if I don’t write about aspects of things. One of them said that she wanted to write her own book and therefore didn’t want me to write too much about her. And I endeavored to help her with that.
That can be what is tricky about these processes, is it’s not—at least for me—a simple audition. It doesn’t feel like there’s something that is a neatly contractual process. I remember walking down Fourth Avenue and saying, OK, I know you’re excited about this, but we need to lay some ground rules here if it’s me with you as a journalist and not just a friend. So, you know, I’m not going to give you any money for this. We will hopefully sell your life rights at some point, and that will be money for you. And I will set up a donation fund for you when the book is published and there will be money for you there. But part of watching your process about how you’re managing poverty, even beyond basic journalistic ethics, means I can’t interrupt that poverty, which also means you can’t come stay at my house because I need to see what’s going to happen depending on how things happen.
I also felt like I wanted to draw a line on social media. She’s a big Instagram user, as is every person in their early twenties who eats a meal or tries on a pair of sunglasses. And so I felt like it was important that there was a division there. Those were the ground rules, and they weren’t ground rules that she ever questioned. I think that that made perfect sense.
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Lauren Sandler is an award-winning journalist. She is the bestselling author of One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One and Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement. Her essays and features have appeared in dozens of publications, including Time, The New York Times, Slate, The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, The Guardian, and New York. Sandler has led the OpEd Project’s Public Voices Fellowships at Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth and has taught in the graduate journalism program at New York University, where she has also been a visiting scholar. Recently, she has been a Poynter Fellow at Yale and a Calderwood Fellow at MacDowell. She lives in Brooklyn.