It’s a bit strange to introduce a conversation between ourselves, but this is the position we’re in! Our first book, Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close will be released this summer. And while we have done many interviews together about this memoir about our friendship, we took this opportunity to interview each other, as individuals, about our experience as coauthors. We discussed the complexities of self-identifying as writers and artists, the parts of creative collaboration that rarely get talked about, and where we both hope to go from here.
-Aminatou & Ann
It’s a strange time to be releasing a book into the world. Well, it’s a strange time to be doing just about anything. But as we prepare to publish our first book, one thing we had been looking forward to was connecting with other authors in person.
Earlier this year, Mailchimp asked us to curate a group of writers for a track at the Decatur Book Festival over Labor Day weekend. The plan was to pair the authors for conversations at events throughout the festival, and then have a great time together over the weekend.
Then, of course, Covid-19 hit. We don’t get to be in the same room as a group of writers we admire. But we still get the pleasure of pairing them up for deep conversations about each other’s work. On this site, you’ll be able to read edited transcripts of those conversations.
We relished the opportunity to choose writers we admire and couple them up to discuss their work. We can’t wait to read these authors’ conversations. And we are excited to promote all of their books—most of which have been released, like ours, during these strange days of the pandemic.
If you’ve read some of these books already, we hope the conversations will take you deeper into them and provide some fresh context. If any of these titles or authors are new to you, all the better. We hope their conversations spark your interest, and that you decide you want to read these books. Enjoy reading this summer.
-Aminatou & Ann
June 17, 2020
Good Morning, Ann Friedman. Thanks for waking up early to do this. That means a lot to me. You are really putting in the AM hours.
I'm excited to be here with one of my favorite writers.
I'm excited to be here with my writing champion.
I have so many questions for you.
I read your writing before I knew you. It's been so long now, but I think so much about how, in the time before we were friends and collaborators, your writing shaped a lot of my thinking. And to me, it's such a gift to be able to then work really closely with you.
I have to tell you that when I was looking for something in my inbox—I can't remember what, who knows—I found an old screenshot of a contract that I sent you to write something for GOOD in 2012 and I was like, I really knew then...
But earlier than that, in 2009, you were the first editor that ever asked me to write anything. You asked me to do this short thing for The American Prospect, where you worked. And I remember feeling so nervous about it, like “ I'm going to be in a magazine? What's happening here?” And at the time I didn't think of it as “Oh, I'm writing,” I just thought, “Oh, my friend thinks I have something interesting to say.” And that's why I did it. But I am proud to say that my first byline was commissioned by Ann Friedman in The American Prospect.
I am also proud to say that. Truly, I will be on my deathbed being like “…and the first person to publish Aminatou Sow”—fully claiming that 'til the end of time. I really do—old editor vibes—like to think of myself as someone with an eye for good writing. Even if it doesn't appear in a traditional format, and you have always been one of my favorite writers. I think that is because I can see voice and perspective and opinion in everything you do, even if it is not 5,000 words.
Because you said you probably wouldn't have done it if the request hadn't come from a friend in 2009, I want to ask about your evolution from 10 years ago to where you are now, which is very publicly known writer Aminatou Sow.
It's so funny to hear you say that, Ann, because “writer” is not an identity that I inhabit comfortably. I am friends with so many writers and the common denominator there is that they're all people who, for their whole lives, have dreamed of writing. The book was always the baby and the wedding. And I know so many of those people—
[clears throat intentionally]
—including you. And that's a thing that I know for me was not true. I grew up a voracious reader. I also journaled a lot and I wrote a lot and I loved writing. It just never occurred to me that it was either a profession or an occupation that I would have. So I think that disconnect is there for me. And don't laugh, but I think that some of the discomfort for me is that even though I know that I am a fabulous English speaker, English is not my first language. And I think I have a lot of unresolved feelings about my precision and how I express myself. And that's something that I struggle with a lot. So I think that I'm constantly an ESL student in my mind when it comes to writing and a lot of the frustration is really just that.
Do you feel like it would be different if you were writing in French at this point?
I think it would probably be different. But that's the path not taken for many reasons. It's this very weird psychological block that I have about it—that other people have dreamed of doing this their whole lives—and also unresolved feelings about how I express myself and the disconnect between the way my brain works and how the words come out of my mouth. I love it all—it's very kooky and quirky and weird but that's my journey with writing.
I also will say this: I think many writers—maybe not writers you are close friends with, but a lot of writers I know who see writing as their primary creative outlet and maybe professional vocation—are still insecure in that label, too. And hearing you say this reminds me of a friend of mine who once said something to me along the lines of “Does it annoy you when people who have never tried to write anything before suddenly say, ‘oh I'm a writer and now I'm doing this thing that you've been practicing your whole life?’ ” and I was like, “No, actually it truly doesn't.” I think that perspective comes from insecurity on the side of someone who's been claiming that title for a long time.
There's a feeling that writing is this big, vast thing to learn and do—but entering it at a different point or from a different motivation to me doesn't make you any less than or different from me. If anything, it makes me more one-note, that I've only wanted to do one thing. But again, I'm also someone who isn't like “I'm an artist and my outlet is writing.” That's where I have the label hang-up, when I read Beth Pickens's work about artists in this time, I was like, “This isn't about me—I'm not that kind of artist.”
Yeah, I struggle with the artist label also. You know, it's interesting hearing you say that you feel that you're one-note in your writing because you've been an editor, you write prolifically, and I think that so much of what has been so interesting about the collaboration of writing Big Friendship with you is that you wore a lot of different hats. There were days that you showed up to be writing alongside me, days when you were editing us, days when you were leading the revision. I'm curious how you think on all those different levels, because I think that it’s not a given that someone who is writing a book also has the ability to edit someone else's book.
I don't know, for me it is all mixed up together. As you know, I love words.
Your most Capricorn attribute, yes.
I really do feel that this relates to what I was saying earlier. I just doubled down on the one thing I do, and I do it from all angles. To me, they're so related, it's hard for me to imagine being someone who loves to write words but doesn't love to edit and rework and think about other people's words, too. I know that a lot of the media industry thinks these are separate skills. And maybe to some people they are, but in my mind, it really feels the same.
My process of writing is trying to take things out of my head and put them in an order that feels most exciting or makes the most sense. Editing feels like skipping that first step. It's like, ok, it's already out of my head or someone else's head and now I'm going to skip to the part where I am Velociraptor stress-testing. “What is confusing? What is out of order? What is boring?” It really does feel seamless to me. I think I said to you, probably dozens of times in this process, that I don't know how people write books if they don't have editing experience or don't enjoy that process, because for me, with something that is as long as a book, I just don't know how I would make sense of it if I didn't have that revision practice. And I do think that all writers are editors on some level. Every writer is reworking their own words before they send it off.
Some of those days were not pleasant for me, but it was a process that I enjoyed and thrived in when I started enjoying editing our words.
You're an editor, too!
I knew we were going to accomplish exactly what we set out to do once I felt comfortable ripping the book apart and cutting chunks of text.
I loved watching your transition from someone who was really worried about keeping all the words we had—because you were worried about hitting the word count—to someone who was essentially Kondo-ing our draft. “This whole section is going!” It was a truly wonderful thing to behold. I also think that this skill set of looking for weaknesses, deciding what is best or most valuable about a piece of writing and trying to expand on that, is a curatorial sensibility that you bring to literally everything you do. I have a big picture definition of what it means to edit that is connected to curating, how you make choices, and how you're a critical thinker—and all of those things have always applied to you.
You've collaborated with a lot of people over the years in a variety of different projects, whether it was Tomorrow Magazine or the writers' workshop that you run with Jade Chang. I have been a direct beneficiary of your generosity as a collaborator. I was wondering if you could talk a little about what it feels like to put your own vision aside for a project and embark on working with someone else, because the end product is never what you would have wanted for yourself. And so, in some ways, it's never the perfection that each of us is running toward in our own work. It becomes this weird hybrid of different people's creative input and also a decision-making process that I think—if we are all honest with each other—means that the thing never belongs to you.
That's true and I think that this is an interesting question because you are also a master collaborator. Many areas of your professional life involve an intense collaboration. And I think that even when I’m alone in the byline, an editor has worked with me, and I have probably had lots of conversations with friends—you among them—about the ideas I'm working through. Yeah, my name appears on it and maybe I wrote most of the words, but it is a collaboration. So I really see it as more of a continuum—like our book being the most extreme example, where we truly collaborated on every word and sentence. As an editor I collaborated with every writer I ever edited—even though my name doesn't appear on the byline, the piece is the result of our joint attention to this chunk of words. Did you ask me about ego? Was that part of this question?
Lately I have been contemplating a lot the ratio of how much I do with other people versus how much I can have more control of my own work. But, as you truly know, no one is in control of all of their work.
Right, that’s what I’m saying. So are you feeling a calling to make something that is exclusively yours, where you get the final say?
Well, no—because, as you know, your editor always gets the final say.
This is what I mean! [Laughter] It’s all a collaboration.
And your publisher gets the final say. But I think that the experience of writing a book is so intense that it immediately bubbles up to the surface that we have two very different styles. We have different styles of working. We have different hours in the day where we are productive. When I think about our collaboration, it’s not just on the level of what we are each bringing to the words that are on the page, but it’s also how we both sacrifice our ideal way of working alone, to do this together. So I guess it is about ego and it’s also about these larger questions of what does it mean to make something really big with someone over time?
Yeah, that’s interesting. I know it’s impossible to ‘alternate universe’ this, but have you thought about how this process would have been different for you if you and I were not collaborating in this way—if you were just collaborating with an editor?
I have to confess I didn’t think about it a lot because I don’t do well with an alternate universe that is not a reality for me. But I do think that was a really good framework on really hard or frustrating days. I would think, ok, what would I do differently? I’m a person who always reverse engineers every problem and frustration. When we were working, for example, on passages where we were not exactly in agreement on the structure or the voice or the anecdote, one easy way for me to deal with it was: in a world in which Ann Friedman is not here, here is how this could get resolved. But that world doesn’t exist, and I think that the gift I really got in working on this book with you was I got to spend so much time with you. Hours you’re never going to get back, but I have relished. [Laughter]
Hours I don’t want to get back!
But I think that I also learned a new way of problem-solving, because this book is not my voice; it’s our voice. And this book is not my story; it’s our story. It’s truly not a book that I could have ever written alone. We would be mere cameos in each other’s memoirs. Significant cameos, but you know what I mean.
Like a recurring guest star, kind of?
A recurring guest star! I think so much of the problem-solving that we did in this creative way will serve me well in other areas of work. There’s not a direct parallel to “Well, here’s how I would do it alone.” You’re not alone. Deal with it.
It’s funny, because for me, it often allowed me to let go of things. Instead of having my own probably unattainable standard for what I wanted a section, or chapter, or this whole book to be—it’s not about my standard or solo vision—it was about finding the space with you in between what we might individually write about this topic, then writing that the best we could. I think that was key for me. Whereas if I had been writing alone, some parts of this process would have been easier but other parts would have been way, way harder. I can see the alternate universe in which I spin out and don’t let things go or don’t move on because I don’t have that standard of trying to find this space with you; it’s really all about whatever unattainable standard I’ve set for myself. It feels attainable to find a middle ground with you in this story.
I think in our joint process, the place where it was the easiest to understand that is the outline process. I do not outline in the same way when I write alone, obviously. Thank you for teaching me the importance of outlining!
And reverse outlining also.
I know! Outlining and reverse outlining, the Ann Friedman special.
But I think the outlining process we had was so good to do together, because it meant that before sitting down to write any words, we had already hashed out what we were going to do. I think that gave us a lot of direction and we had a joint vision of the story we were trying to tell. I think that we did a very hard thing in a really constructive way. And I am really proud of that.
It’s so funny, the book is new to the world and very old to us, and I’m wondering when you go back through it now, what parts of it you are surprised by liking? And also the opposite, do you have less favorite parts now?
We’re currently in the process of recording our audiobook, which means that through many takes I have to read this book out loud and let me tell you, the audiobook is not my favorite part of this process. Which is funny to say, because we do a podcast.
It’s a special struggle to read your own work out loud.
By the time your book is published, you are already a different person from the person who wrote that book. So it is a process of constantly reconciling different versions of where you’re at in your own writing and also in your own life. It’s interesting to look back at the book as a time capsule. The experience of reading it out loud makes me feel that if someone gave me a year I could still revise it. But the truth is I will always have that feeling about every single thing I make. I have that feeling about websites I built 10 years ago. I have never made anything that I didn’t look at critically and say, “If I had x more weeks or x more months or x more years, it would look different,” because that is truly what the process of revision is. It’s constantly changing. You can always change something.
But as a time capsule, I’m really happy with how this turned out and it gave me a lot of compassion for myself. It affirmed for me that my friendship with you is worth it and that the work that I do with you is worth it and lasting. And so for that alone, I would not take back a single word.
I feel the same way. I also feel compelled to share this cheesy quote with you that maybe you also read somewhere, about how a book is like the light from a distant star: It left the star light-years ago and it’s only now reaching earth. That is totally how I feel. That’s still a pretty star, it’s just far away. I feel removed from it in that way.
You are definitely someone that I’m sure at age 8 wrote somewhere in a journal that you were going to be an author one day.
At age 8, I was already writing short stories. There was no, “I’m gonna be an author.”
“I am an author.” My bad.
My 8-year-old self was way more confident than I am now.
Well, you wrote a book with another person. Do you have feelings about that?
I was talking to my grandma last weekend about this book coming out. She asked me a similar question, “How do you feel? I think I read the first story you wrote when you were 10. How many years has it been?” And I was like, wow, Grandma. Harsh. It has been 28 years since I started writing. And yes, this is in fact my first book. And yes, I did write it with someone else. And don't think I could have created it any other way. So it was a loving way of pointing out what you just said.
I feel very proud of the work we did. It also feels different than how I had pictured this moment to feel. Obviously if you’ve been saying your only goal is to write a book when you’re a one-note person like me, it is something that I have thought about. There are a million reasons why it is different from that vision. Among them, a pandemic. Among them, us having written it together. I never thought I would write a memoir, which is what our book is at its core. But I’m really ok with all of that. And I think that I feel really grateful to you that this process felt like doing something very, very difficult together. I can now see the contours of what it is to write a book—I now understand from the inside what is required to do this. It was just really, really—I’m going to get emotional—it was just such a gift to be able to do that alongside someone who I love and respect so deeply. It makes me feel excited for things I’m going to write and do in the future, both with you and alone. I really could talk for hours and hours about all the things I learned about you, about me, about us, about the writing process, through doing this really big thing.
How do you feel on the eve of publication?
I think I’m still not understanding that we have written a book and it’s coming out.
It doesn’t feel real.
It doesn’t feel real. Coronavirus makes everything not feel real but also, I think that even in a world in which we were not in a pandemic, because of my previously-mentioned struggle with seeing myself as an author, it was never a dream that I had. I’m very proud of the work that we did but it’s also true that I never have a huge sense of excitement about any of my work. I do a lot of different things; some of them are smaller things that appear immediately online. There are other things I work on that will never have a public lifespan. And then there is something like a book, which at its core—I love to annoy you and say that it’s just un objet.
You and I are both people for whom process is important. From the time that you have the idea all the way to it getting on a bookshelf, we need to understand the mechanics of every single part of that process.
Wow, the heart of our current struggle, illuminated.
I think that this is why I successfully work with you. I have found someone who has both the same neuroses and expectations, and is asking kind of the same questions I am. If the desire is, “I want to write a book,” the hundred questions that are already firing off in the brain are, “What is a book agent? How do I get one? How do I write a book proposal? What is the best way of doing that? How do you pick a publisher? When you pick a publisher, what is the expectation of what they do? How is the book bound together? What warehouse does that happen in? How do the warehouse people get it to the…”
That curiosity is a source of a lot of our success—and internally, a source of also a lot of frustration because we need to really understand how things are made before we attempt to make them. And so I am wondering what really stood out to you in your first bout with publishing?
It’s funny because we talk about the kind of fun or creatively generative parts of our collaboration, like outlining and writing and conceptualizing the book, far more than we talk about what is now the primary part of our collaboration, which is being a united front in all of these process-oriented meetings, which I think is far harder in many ways than the creative collaboration we did. The actual work of writing the book is, for the most part, you and me in a room being like, “How do we want things to go?” We get to, within this bigger process of publishing a book, set our own working style. And you’re right, we have very different styles and times of the day we’re at our best. But ultimately we get to decide what works for the two of us. That is also true of collaborating on the podcast. We collaborate with our producer Gina, but we three get to set what’s the best way of working for all three of us.
I think what is harder is trying to figure out how to be supportive of each other’s needs, concerns, and desires as we interact with annoying things that are part of this process of getting the book out. That has been far more challenging in a lot of ways, and in part because the timeline feels sped up.
The thing about the book is we can work on something and then both reflect and come back and be like, “Do we both feel good about how this came out?” Whereas often when you’re talking about things like how is the book being packaged and sold and making its way into the world, those conversations are happening really quickly in an inbox or over the phone and it’s a lot harder for the two of us to figure out how we’re both feeling about it and present a reaction. That is something that really gets lost in a lot of our conversations about process related to this book. And rightfully so. It’s boring. I would much rather talk about our creative process. That is something that I’m constantly thinking about—how am I being true to myself and what I want in this process and also a really good collaborator with you as we jointly negotiate these million little details.
Do you see that as being a divide or do they feel more like the same thing to you?
I don’t see them as being a divide; I think I raise it because, in most conversations about collaboration, people are very interested in the creative side. The creative side of collaboration is so important and, honestly, is usually the thing that will bring two or more collaborators together. You have a joint creative vision that you’re trying to accomplish. The thing that I see people talk less about—and I think that this is the hesitance that we have with labeling ourselves as artists—is that there are a lot of non-creative things that you need to do together in order to be good collaborators. That place, the non-creative space, is actually, in my experience, where a breakdown happens that then manifests itself creatively.
The thing I wished we talked more about is that writers are expected to do more than just writing. The reason that we are able to do this is that we already own a business together. We understand social media and publicity and marketing a little more. We understand that we need to negotiate as a united front and we understand a lot of the admin of promoting work that you have done together. This is the part that obviously is not creative and like you say, it is really boring, but the devil is in those details. And this is true of people who are also solo authors. Great, you wrote a book. Now you have to sell a book. And that is a skill set that is very hard. And also, very taxing. It’s a different part of the brain, ultimately, than the part of the brain that wrote the book. Thank goodness you and I are people who stepped out of office work and institutions to work for ourselves.
Right! Goodbye forever to the office. We’ve been entrepreneurs in the media space in our own way, and I’m so heartened that there are so many more people who are doing that. It gets talked about a lot in a glamorous way, but actually it is not glamorous work. I appreciate that these are things I’m able to talk to you about and that there are also places in our process that we know we have to tend to as much as the creative part of our collaboration.
Yeah, and I know my grandma was semi-roasting me by saying it took 28 years for me to write a book, but I do feel the fact that we’re both doing this at this stage in our careers is also something I’m very grateful for. There are many reasons I could not have written this book at 25. This whole conversation about process and detail is one of them.
We’re almost out of time but I have to ask you, are you adding “writer” to your bio now?
You know, Ann, I’m going to add “writer” to my bio today, because just like it took you 28 years to get there, it has taken me about the same time to call myself a writer. And I did the work so I will claim the label.
You did the work. I can attest firsthand that you did the work. That makes me really happy.
Before we go, I just want to know from you… in all of the experience that you have in writing—your magazine work, the essays that you write, the many, many things—what’s next for Ann Friedman? The readers want to know. Creatively, what’s stirring in your brain right now?
I have no idea. I am overwhelmed and just trying to get through the week. I really set a goal for myself to have an answer to that question by this stage in the book process, and I don’t have an answer. There’s a lot happening, and I truly don’t know.
I will say that I feel very secure in the fact that all the skills I gained through writing this book with you are not going to be lost. I feel really good about the investment of time and energy that we have collectively put into this project. I don’t know where I’m going to use that knowledge and energy in the future, but I feel good about it.
What about you? Are you going to Disneyland?
Ann, you know how I feel about Disneyland. It’s not relevant to my Venn diagram of interests.
It’s a thing!
Just like you, I really thought that at this part of the process and the year I would have a clear idea about it, but I will say this. Something that has been made really clear to me is that I would really like, moving forward, to have one big project that I work on every couple years. It felt really fulfilling, it’s a pace of work that I enjoyed, and it’s a way of working that I hope to replicate again.
I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that you want to work with me for a long time and that we get to make all sorts of other things together.
Other industries are currently shaking. We’re coming for all of you.
I love you very much. I am your #1 reader and I look forward to just inhaling anything that you make. I am proud of you, and I am really, really lucky to get to do this with you.
I feel the same way. Your #1 fan since 2009. I’ll always have that.