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Interview with Journalist & Memoirist, Alexis Grant

From time to time, I interview writers at various stages in their careers.
We talk about their writing processes, what they’ve learned, what they did before they ever picked up a pen or put their fingers on a keyboard.
I usually learn more about my own writing process by doing these interviews, and this email exchange with Alexis Grant, a journalist and travel memoirist, is no exception.
Be sure to check out her blog.

Your academic background is in journalism and you covered city and national politics, as well as health issues. Can you talk with us a bit about your formation as a journalist? How has journalism informed the way you travel and vice-versa?


I went to j-school after college not knowing whether I wanted to be a journalist. I thought I did; I’d interned with a newspaper, t.v. news station, and public relations department. But I didn’t have any formal journalism training at that point, and I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with my liberal arts degree. I figured even if I didn’t go into journalism, a j-degree would serve me well. Turned out I loved reporting, interviewing, learning. Getting to write was a side perk.

After j-school I worked for the Houston Chronicle for three years. I loved that job, but I knew if I didn’t take this backpacking trip I’d been dreaming about, eventually the desire would wear off; there are only so many years of your life when riding in a crowded bush taxi sounds like fun.

Journalism hasn’t only changed the way I travel, it has changed the way I live. I look at everything with a keen eye because of my reporting background. I see stories on the street, I hear them in conversations. They leap out at me like the bolded words in this interview. I’m never afraid of asking questions; I figure if I’m wondering about something, someone else probably is, too.

At my writer’s residency in Georgia in September, one of the artists made an observation during dinner. He had noticed that most of our conversations had a similar pattern: one artist would talk about his encounter with a bear, then another would chime in with her bear encounter, and so on.

But I never did that, he said. Instead of adding my own stories to the mix, I always asked a question about someone else’s story, dug deeper into their tale. Why did the bear do that? How did you feel? Did that ever happen again? Until he brought this up, it had never occurred to me; I didn’t do it consciously. But I’m sure it’s a function of being a journalist.


Have you “left” journalism formally? If so, why, and do you think you’d ever return to reporting?


Not at all! I’m interviewing for full-time journalism jobs right now.

When I left my job at the Houston Chronicle in May 2008 to travel and freelance in Africa, I thought I was taking a temporary hiatus. I didn’t expect to take a year away from full-time work after my trip to write a book (although I’d always wanted to write a travel memoir) and I certainly didn’t expect a recession, which hit the fan while I was traveling. I didn’t know it would be this hard to get a job when I was ready for one — but I still don’t regret leaving to experience Africa.

Of course, the job outlook around the country combined with the woes of journalism might make it impossible for me to find a reporting job I want — which means I may eventually need to look outside of that box. But for now, my preference is certainly journalism.

Are there any lessons you learned in j-school that can be transferable to other genres, like travel and memoir writing?


Have a good lede that hooks readers right off the bat. If you fail at this, you fail at the entire story. Make the reader want to continue past the first sentence or first paragraph. This applies to blog posts, articles, books, everything.

Also check out this post on my blog: Writerly lessons I learned from journalism.

What’s your book about? What compelled you to write a memoir?


My book is about backpacking solo through French-speaking Africa — what that was like as a woman and how it ended up being more difficult than I expected. I wasn’t the traveler who started out timid and realized through my journey how much I was capable of. I was the over-confident, independent-to-a-fault woman who thought she could do everything on her own and recognized, through travel, that it was okay — and sometimes necessary — to lean on others.

I like to read travel memoirs, so I thought it would be fun to write one. What I didn’t realize was how much of the book would have to be about ME and not just what I observed, that what makes a good travel memoir isn’t just good journalism but the personal journey. Coming from a reporting background, writing in the first person and revealing details about myself was not easy. But I do think it improved my writing, and I’ll carry what I’ve learned about story-telling into my next journalism job.
Could you talk about your writing process?


Rather than writing an entire first draft and then revising — which is generally what authors seem to advise — I revised as I wrote. A big part of writing a book is figuring out what works for you, and that’s what worked for me.

I wrote the book entirely out of order, starting with my favorite parts of the journey, then circling back around to the beginning and filling in holes. Along the way I shared chapters with my critique group, but they were reading them out of order, so they weren’t really critiquing the book as much as they were individual stand-alone stories.

A big part of my revision was tying all the chapters together, taking pieces out and adding parts in to create one narrative with themes. When I thought the manuscript was decent, I handed it over to five editor-type friends, who offered ideas for how I could improve it. I incorporated those ideas in a final revision.

I’m not sure I would write my next book in the same way, but this was what worked for me on my first round. It was the only way I knew, to follow what felt right.

Your memoir is done. Now what?
I just started querying agents, looking for one who’s interested in representing me as I seek to publish. All of this is new to me. Yes, I’ve been published for years in newspapers and magazines, but the book route is entirely different. So my first priority is signing with an agent. And finding a job. I’m looking forward to having a steady income again.
What have you learned through the process of writing a memoir?

That I’m better at journalistic writing! This type of first-person writing did not come easy to me. I enjoyed it and I’m glad I did it — and I’m psyched to revise once the right agent offers to take me on. It also inspired me to write more short-form personal essays. But I’m looking forward to getting back to writing about other people.

Once your book is published, what role do you envision having in terms of promoting/marketing it?

A huge role. Publishers now leave most of promotion up to the author, and I think I have a leg up in that realm compared with other new authors who aren’t famous. I’ve got a solid online presence between my blog and Twitter, and I’ve cultivated a lot of relationships both online and in person with people who I’m hoping will help me.

I also have an advantage being a journalist; not only do I have contacts in the media world, I know how to approach reporters because I am one. I’ve tossed enough PR pitches into the trash that I know what works and what doesn’t. A big part of my book proposal is dedicated to how I will use these skills and contacts to promote the book.

But none of that matters unless my book is awesome — which I think is the lesson here for writers. The bottom line: you’ve got to tell a good story, and tell it well.


15 responses »

  1. Loved this interview! It’s so helpful to hear about other writers and how they’ve moved forward in their careers.

    I really liked Alexis’ anecdote about how she was always the one asking questions and try to dig deeper. I often catch myself feeling like I need to jump into a conversation to share about myself, and it’s a good reminder from Alexis that we can gain more by probing and focusing on the other person.

    • Heather-

      I thought that anecdote was the most important part of the interview.

      As a former psychotherapist, I should remember how important it is to just be quiet and listen, to use my own speech as a way to invite others to talk more about themselves, because that’s where the real stories are. Sadly, I forget this most of the time. 🙂

  2. Thought provoking interview. I like how Alex talked about how important it was to write about herself.

    It’s hard to put yourself out there–especially for a journalist who’s used to recording other people’s thoughts etc. But it makes for compelling reading when writers manage to do this.

    One of my favorite memoirs/autobiographies is Margaret Graham’s “Personal History.” She is painfully honest about some of the most intimate details of her life.

    • Steve- Thanks for that book recommendation- I hadn’t heard of Margaret Graham or that book. I’m a big fan of memoir, so I’ll have to see if the NYPL has it.

  3. Thanks for having me, Julie! If any readers have follow-up questions, I’m all game.

  4. I agree with Heather that Alexis makes an excellent point about probing into other people’s stories instead of being so quick to jump in with your own. Taking an “investigative” approach helps stir up ideas and bring out the stories that live all around us.

    I also loved Alexis’s last point–“The bottom line: you’ve got to tell a good story, and tell it well.” No matter what we do, who we know or how well we network, getting published depends on our ability to write a story in a way that reaches readers. The other stuff matters, but it’s the writing that has to come first.

    Thanks for this great interview!

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  6. Always great to delve deeper behind a name.
    Solid interview and looking forward to your book, Alexis!

    Stepping back, listening, and observing is the way to go in terms of understanding dynamics and really studying people.

    Your last line is also on point: “You’ve got to tell a good story, and tell it well.”

    A person can be the most thought-provoking, passionate writer but if they can’t share those stories in a way people can easily relate to, then their writing only acts like an entry in a diary only they can decipher.

  7. I recently helped a journalist from the LA Times with talking to people in Kolkata and Murshidabad in Hindi and Bengali. He was so successful, yet amazingly down-to-earth. Just observing him taught me so much about how to delve deeper into other peoples’ stories. It doesn’t matter if you’re completely different: you can even use those differences to open people up to you.

    What Alexis says about listening and observing being a key part of journalism reminded me of this gentleman and struck a chord with me. Thank you for this.

    • Shreya-

      That’s wonderful- and I’d love to know more about what you observed in the journalist’s approach that you found so successful.

  8. What I found so incredible about him was his ability to connect to people in a place where he was so markedly “foreign”: he was white and did not know a scrap of Hindi or Bengali except “namaste”: but he still managed to take advantage of the resources he did have to establish a real connection with the people that we were talking to. He was never ticking items off a list.

    After a really long interview, he’d tell me, “Please tell him he’s been really insightful, and very helpful” and then smile as the interviewee puffed up with pride. He didn’t mind sitting on the pavement to talk to homeless people, and could handle without any irritation or discomfort the crowds that would often surround us as we were talking to people.

    All this seemed to me to be a mark of true professionalism, and true compassion at the same time, and he truly had much that he could teach an aspiring journalist. He told me about stories where he’d told the truth despite pissing off higher authorities, or even put himself in dangerous situations.

    All this with absolutely no ego hassles at all. I think it also had something to do with the fact that he was a traveler (had first backpacked to India alone at age 17 when very few people were doing that).

    • Shreya-

      Thanks for this- I suspect you’re right- that travel helped formulate not only his professional aspirations, but his manner, too. What a wonderful experience to have had.

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