A.J. Jacobs: ‘Empathy is such an important skill for writers…’

By Maryann Yin 

AJ Jacobs (GalleyCat)A.J. Jacobs has lived an incredibly interesting life. To the delight of his readers, he chronicles his experiments in articles for Esquire magazine and in his funny books which include The Know-it-All, The Year of Living Biblically, My Life as an Experiment, and Drop Dead Healthy.

Recently, we spoke Jacobs to discuss the intricacies of writing, the Global Family Reunion event, and all the experiments he has intends to tackle in the near future. Check out the highlights from our interview below…

Q: How did you land your first book deal?
A: I wrote an article for a (now-defunct) magazine called The Nose. It wasn’t even an article. It was a silly little chart about the alleged similarities between Elvis Presley and Jesus Christ (Jesus walked on water in The Sea of Galilee; Elvis surfed in the movie Blue Hawaii — that kind of thing). For some reason, I was deluded enough to think I could stretch it into a short book. So I sent it to a bunch of editors and one ― a wonderful man named Rob Weisbach ― liked it enough to publish it. We became friends and he prodded me to write an actual book with lots of words and ideas and emotions, which is how I came to write The Know-It- All.

Q: With your journalism background, you seem to write nonfiction exclusively. Can you describe your approach and research process for writing about each project?
A: Oh man, do I love the research. I like it better than the writing itself. I try to research the usual ways (reading, interviewing), but I also like to experience the topic whenever I can. When I wrote about outsourcing, I outsourced my life – I hired a team of people in Bangalore, India to do everything for me – answer my phone, respond to my emails, argue with my wife, you name it. My current book is about genealogy, and I’m helping to build the biggest family tree ever.

Q: In your opinion, how does one express creativity when writing nonfiction?
A: Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, you have to tell a story. (I have issues with the tyranny of this idea of “narrative,” but that’s a different topic and my own weird obsession) In any case, you need to use age-old techniques like surprises, emotional growth, vivid metaphors and nuanced characters.

Q: For you, is there any difference between writing short-form pieces and full books?
A: In some ways, they’re similar. For instance, I think you have to grab the reader right at the beginning of a book or article. You no longer have the luxury of a leisurely start where you ramble on for a couple of pages about scenery and rolling meadows or whatever. But there are also big differences. You need a lot more emotional and intellectual growth from the characters of a book.

Q: In your opinion, what’s the best way to self-edit?
A: I find it helpful to go through my manuscript and look for vague or general words. Then make them more specific and accurate. “He ate a meal” becomes “He ate a ham sandwich.” “My grandma liked to play games” becomes “My grandma brought a travel Scrabble board with her wherever she went.” Also, I make sure I’m engaged by the text. If I find my mind wandering off, I know that other people’s minds will wander too.

Q: How do you tackle writer’s block?
A: I once wrote an article on writer’s block. I discovered that Ben Franklin liked to write in the bath. Nabokov wrote standing up. And the philosopher Friedrich Schiller had a drawer-full of rotting apples, because he found the smell inspiring. So I probably should try standing up naked in a tub of moldy apples and see if I produce something brilliant.

But actually, my strategy is just to start typing. It doesn’t matter what. It could be about the coffee I’m drinking, or the pigeon on the windowsill. Just the action of the fingers on the keyboard gives me momentum. It’s like warm-up exercises. Then after about 15 minutes, I might start typing something semi-coherent, and just toss the previous pages.

Q: What advice can you share for aspiring writers?
A: I’m a huge believer in the importance of coming up with tons of ideas. Most of them will be terrible (speaking for myself, at least), but there will be some gems in there. So every day, I try to carve out 15 minutes from my schedule and devote it to brainstorming ideas. Book ideas, article ideas, product ideas, opinions on the news. It could be anything. Then you can go back a couple of days later and see which ones sound semi-workable.

Q: You have delivered three presentations on the TED stage; what TED talks do you recommend for writers to watch?
A: One of my favorites is called “The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives” by an NYU professor named Jonathan Haidt. It’s about how liberals and conservatives see the world differently, and how we need to understand the other side’s worldview before we start arguing. Empathy is such an important skill for writers – both fiction and non-fiction. If you can see life from someone eyes, you can write much more convincing characters.

Q: How did you come up with your idea for the Global Family Reunion?
A: A couple of years ago, I got an email from a man in Israel who had read one of my books. He said, “You don’t know me but I’m your twelfth cousin.” I figured he was going to ask me to wire $10,000 to his bank in Nigeria. But it turns out he’s part of a group of people who are helping to build massive family trees. Like crazy big forests. The biggest one right now links over 100 million relatives on the same tree. You know how we were always told as kids that the human race is ‘one big family?’ Well, it’s true, and now we can actually chart it. I loved this idea, and I figured why not throw a party for my 7 billion relatives? So I did. Last summer, I had an event in New York with dozens of speakers and games – and Sister Sledge singing “We are Family.”

Q: What can readers expect from the book that has come out of your genealogy project?
A: It will be a look at the idea of family from every angle. What is family? How has it changed? Is it even a good thing? Are we all related? Who are my most interesting ancestors? I write about meeting distant cousins, from George H.W. Bush to Daniel Radcliffe. And I also confess to how I married my cousin – she’s my 7th cousin, but still, cousins. (Edgar Allan Poe married his first cousins, so I’m fine in comparison).

Q: What’s next for you?
A: After I write the genealogy book, I’m doing a project for TED books about gratitude. And I’m hosting a podcast with Gimlet Media that comes out in November, because the world needs another podcast. There is a severe podcast shortage – it’s a humanitarian crisis. Mine is called Twice Removed, and it’s about family history of interesting people.