The 5-Question Interview: Caitlin Kelly

The journalist gets specific about excellence, relationships + platforms and how fame without serious substance is a joke.

A veteran nonfiction writer, Caitlin Kelly is an award-winning journalist and former reporter at The Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette. She has also written for The New York Times, Toronto Star, New York Post, Wall Street Journal, Penthouse, Business Week, Chatelaine, and Family Circle, among many (many) others. She has been a Poynter Institute fellow, a fellow with Journalists in Europe, and at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism, and has taught at NYU and Pace University. Caitlin is the author of Blown Away: American Women and Guns [of which Publisher’s Weekly said: her “interviews with improbable women gun owners truly fascinate”] and she blogs about firearms at The Open Case.

Meredith: As an author with many projects in motion, many platforms at work and many works in the public eye, how do you balance the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation?
CAITLIN: I don’t see them as in conflict, which I think some writers do. With all due respect, I don’t even think about which side of my brain is working—as long as the whole thing is! I grew up in a freelance family; my father was an award-winning documentary film maker and my stepmother wrote for television and my mom was a journalist—so the notion of simply creating versus making sure someone pays you to create the project was never an issue for me. Excellence is the starting point; making sure the right people know you’re excellent ensures you’ll get to keep doing it. I seem to have a knack for finding ways to promote my work—when my book came out I presented the head of publicity at Pocket Books with my own pre-planned list of 21 events—so that’s not as much of an issue.

I think the key, and again this may go against the grain of writers who are very introverted or prefer to just write, is to create and sustain relationships. For example, my book came out in 2004, but I recently got it mentioned and promoted to a key conference in that field by reaching out to the organizer, who remembered me and respects my expertise. Every time you write a piece or a book, you need to think of every possible potential reader, listener and viewer. But you need to stay true to yourself and how you see the world. There are things I would never do and things I’m very comfortable with. They’re personal choices. The choice you simply can’t make any more is to hole up in a garret, create and wait to be discovered.

Meredith: Does the creative+platform process of expansion feel like you are moving forward on parallel tracks or is the process more unified and seamless?
CAITLIN: It’s sometimes really exhausting to promote your work when you need to be creating work. And you need to create great work, I believe, to promote it selectively and well. Not everything you produce (sorry!) is that fantastic. Some of it is done to pay the bills, reduce debt, get a new clip or contact—while the piece or even the book itself is so-so. If you rush out to promote it wildly, you might shoot yourself in the foot. So there’s a stop-pause quality to this: after you’ve created something you’re especially proud of, figure out who needs to see it and why they would find it especially interesting. If they are parallel tracks, and there are two trains, I’d say the production/creation side of it, for me, tends to take precedence to simply maintain cashflow.

Meredith: Is platform building an organic process, or is it something that has to be created—literally—from the ground up?
CAITLIN: Interesting question. I feel, and I’m an old-school, old-media, shoe-leather reporter who has written for pay since I was 19, it’s organic. It is an accretion of excellence over time. It takes time to get good, to be good, to be—most importantly—consistently good. How many promising, well-reviewed (if they are lucky enough to get reviewed at all) first novelists later stall out? So people who want to be famous right away, frankly, need to earn that right. Fame without serious substance is a joke. So, the ground is excellence. Not being good. Excellent. The measure of that? Peer respect, editorial praise, being asked to contribute to things—I was recently invited to join trueslant.com, a new, paid blogging community, because I bring a name and millions of readers who know and like my work from The New York Times, since 1990. In advertising, it’s said you have to repeat your message something like 27 times for people to even remember it. As a writer, remember that.

Meredith: What does beginning feel like? Look like? Does it scare or excite you?
CAITLIN:Beginning is terrifying, energizing, exciting—and necessary. It’s so easy and so seductive to think and ponder and worry and fantasize—or just keep doing the same old, same old. But you have to put out, baby! I’m joking in tone but deadly serious in content.

I recently started blogging and was absolutely terrified the first time. Why on earth would anyone want to listen to me? It takes real guts to decide to try something new because, of course, it’s new and unfamiliar and you could fail—and fail publicly. Well, what else are you going to do? I’m working on a book proposal with a new agent and that’s a process I have been through many times with four previous agents. But I have to come into this relationship with an open mind and a sense of optimism, or not do it.

Beginnings, if you’re lucky, come to you when people invite you to work with them. When you have to cold-call and jump-start, it’s quite wearying and scary. But be strategic about them. I’ll give you one example. I wanted to meet a very senior network television news executive. She spoke recently at a NYC networking breakfast. That meant walking into a room full of people I did not know, hoping there might be an opening to say hello to the speaker and, perhaps, find some work as a result. It worked out and I’m now waiting to hear, what, if anything, will come through. If nothing else, and it’s a lot, she now has my book on her desk and knows its value when the next news story about guns comes up. It will. I just took a chance and followed through.

Meredith: Where does the process of creativity start for you?
CAITLIN: Great question. Most of the time, it’s doing everything but writing. It’s walking by the reservoir (where the name for my blog, Broadside, came to me), or playing softball or going to a museum or listening to BBC World News, which I do for an hour every morning. My goal as a writer is to connect the dots; I work in nonfiction and news journalism and I want to head away from the pack, off the big story and sniff around where no one else is right now. I liken it to an astronomer who’s looking at the night sky. A writer who is not creative sees a bunch of stars. A creative writer sees constellations—patterns and shapes and linkages between interesting ideas. But you have to imagine they are there and you can only start to see them, I think, by paying attention—as with any galaxy—across a very wide spectrum, or a very narrow one. You have to be really thoughtful in your choices of how you spend your time and attention: junk TV or a PBS DVD, 18th-century novel or a manga, Redbook or the National Review—or both?

I’m not sure what “creative” means. If it means I am constantly creating, that’s probably true. I hold that word to a very high standard; what haven’t I read before? What are you telling me I don’t know? In a new way? So I look far and wide to others I find creative—in art, design, architecture, fashion, dance­—to see what choices they’re making and why. I tend to stay away from other writers in this respect. I think true creativity involves risk. And risk is frightening. So that’s a powerful emotion you have to be aware of and manage. Failure isn’t terminal! If it’s chronic, though, you have a problem.

Born and educated in Canada, Caitlin lives in the New York City area where she’s currently at work on a book proposal. Read more about that at her website and about her by checking out her blog at True/Slant.