Podcast: Ruth Reichl on the Creative Process


Let’s start with perhaps the biggest question here that I think writers will sort of be able to hone in on. That is the question of mistakes. Are there mistakes, big mistakes, that reviewers or writers make that you’ve seen?

Ruth Reichl: There are a lot of mistakes. The biggest mistake that any critic, and this would be true of any kind of review, is many people tend to review the restaurant, the book, the movie, or whatever, that they wanted that person to make. You go to a new Jean-Georges Restaurant and you have an idea of what it’s going to be or what it should be. You review not what he wanted to do, but what you wanted him to do. That’s a really big mistake.


What is your scale for reviewing? How do you measure a restaurant?

RR: I think you try and figure out what it is that the restaurant is trying to be and then you judge it on its own pretensions. How successful is it in doing what it sets out to do? If you use that as your criteria, you can judge a hot dog stand and a three-star restaurant.


I want to jump to your time at Gourmet and transitioning into that editor-in-chief role. How would you say your leadership style was there?

RR: This is a hard thing to ask me to judge. But I’ll tell you what I hoped to do. I’m not sure I was totally successful in that. I was fortunate enough to go to Condé Nast. They pretty much let you run your shop the way you wanted to do it, rather than giving you marching orders and telling you it must be done a certain way. The way I saw my job was to try and hire people who were smarter than I was and to run interference for them. My managing editor was a much better editor than I am. I leaned on him and never wrote a memo that I didn’t ask him to vet before I sent it out. He was a better hirer than I was. I got him to help me do all the hiring. I hired people I think are better line editors than I am to actually do the line editing. My art director, I would not have told him how to do things. He’s much better at that than I am. In many ways I tried to have it be run by a group rather than by me. I think in contrast to the way many editors work, I thought it was very important for my staff to feel invested in the magazine. This meant I sometimes ran articles that I didn’t like. If it meant a lot to an editor, it felt more important to me for them to have a stake in the magazine than for me to think everything in the magazine was actually to my taste. I really tried to run it from the bottom up and to have people go out and find their own writers, and to try and make everyone feel as if they were doing this together rather than me telling them what to do.


Are there particular moments during your time there that stick out for you as the most memorable?

RR: I would say it was really way in the beginning. I got there and I had no idea what I was going to find. I was kind of afraid that I was going to come in and say we had a mandate to change, but nobody would have any ideas. But when I got there I found that they had never had meetings, ever. In fact, there wasn’t even a room big enough in the old building for us to have a meeting with everyone in it. In the first meeting, we were sitting on the floor and desks, crowded into this little room. But I said we had this mandate to change and I was prepared to do all the talking myself, and I didn’t say another word for a few hours. The pent-up energy was so fantastic and we all had the same goal. People say I changed the magazine. But we changed the magazine. This is a group of really smart and passionate food people and everyone wanted to talk about what was going on in the farms and happening in the food system. It was really exciting. It sort of went from there but that, for me, was a really important moment and I realized this was going to work and we’d do it together and have a lot of fun doing it.


When that chapter closed, did you know Gourmet was going to stop printing? How did you find out that it would stop?

RR: I literally was called while I was on book tour with the second Gourmet cookbook. I was told I had to come back to New York. I thought I was going to get fired. It never crossed my mind that they would close the magazine. I found it out with everyone else. It was just a complete and utter shock. I’m still shocked by it. Sure, fire all of us and make changes. But close a magazine that had that kind of connection with readers? It still strikes me as completely insane.


Do you sympathize with seeing what happened with Food Arts last year?

RR: I do, but it seems to me to be a very different thing. It was a small, mostly industry-oriented magazine. Gourmet, over its almost seventy years, had a connection with its readers that people would kill for. Any publisher would die to have people just renew regularly, to think of themselves as Gourmet people. There is literally not a day of my life that someone doesn’t tell me how much they miss the magazine. This is seven years later.


It’s such an interesting time for food. We’re seeing a lot of big establishment writers leaving publications and newspapers. You see Russ Parsons who recently said he is retiring, Dana Cowan moving on from Food & Wine. What do you think is coming next?

RR: You know what’s happening that makes me both sad and thrilled is that you have mainstream publications paying attention to food in a way that nobody ever has before. You have a Ted Genoways doing brilliant stuff in the Atlantic. I would imagine that the New York Times will find somebody to replace Mark too to be the public intellectual on food. You have The New Yorker doing really fascinating stuff on food science. There is a lot going on in writing about important food issues that just wasn’t happening even eight years ago. But at the same time, I see that the food publications are retreating in a way that’s really sad. You don’t have food sections doing really important stories that are into cooks and the epicurious magazines are all sort of retreating back into recipes and gossipy kind of things. It seems to me that it’s really important for this important food information to go to cooks and that cooks increasingly need good advice on how to make their food choices. It’s really the consumers who are driving the changes in the food business. You have things like Purdue buying Niman Ranch. They’re doing that because they see the writing on the wall and they see that increasingly consumers are saying that they don’t want to buy tortured animals. They don’t want battery chickens and so forth. I think that movement is going to be increasingly important, which is why I think it’s increasingly important for the really big stories about what’s going on in the food system to be aimed specifically at cooks. It makes me sad that it’s not happening.


I have one more question for you. What is next for you do you think?

RR: It’s an interesting time. I still owe Random House three books. I’m working on the next novel and the Gourmet memoir. I’ve also been offered another really interesting book project with a charity hook on it, which really interests me. I’ve also been approached by a group who want to do a magazine. I don’t know!

A Q&A with Poet Caitlyn Siehl

By Emily Nguyen

As the world of publishing changes to accommodate social media, young writers suddenly have access to a wide audience typically blocked off by publishers. Self-publishing, online blogs, and other areas of publishing that lack traditional “gatekeepers” have garnered a negative reputation despite (or because of) the availability and quantity of online writing. If anyone can post their work, it makes sense that the quality of the work may be questionable.

These days, however, many young writers start building their fan bases online and over social media. Agents and publishers increasingly depend on authors with social media presence in order to connect with fans and establish a brand. Traditionally “successful” authors have admitted to writing fanfiction, like Rainbow Rowell and Cassandra Clare. The changes create an interesting atmosphere in the writing community, where online experience and popularity becomes invaluable but online creators can be delegitimized.

I reached out to three successful poets on Tumblr in hopes of exploring their thoughts. I asked a series of ten questions about their writing backgrounds, their experiences as online creators, and their perspectives on traditional publishing. The first poet I contacted was Caitlyn Siehl, who runs a popular poetry blog and has published two full-length poetry books and co-edited two poetry anthologies.


How and why did you first start posting your writing online?

Caitlyn Siehl: I started writing and sharing it online my freshman year of college. I lived in a horrible dorm and I was just having a terrible time adjusting to life away from home, so I made a Tumblr. After following a bunch of other writing blogs, I just kind of got this overwhelming urge to start sharing my work.


About how long did it take for your work to start gaining traction?

CS: A long time. I had been on Tumblr for about 2 years before my writing really started to take off. One of my poems, “Do Not Fall In Love With People Like Me” sort of went viral, and that’s when everything began. That was in 2014, I believe.


Are you planning to pursue writing as a career (a sole/main source of income)? If so, are you considering traditional publishing i.e. getting an agent/going through a publishing house?

CS: Writing is always going to be a part of my life, and I am definitely trying to make it a larger part, but I have many different passions that I plan on pursuing. Writing will always be important to me but I don’t see myself doing that and that alone.


A lot of people look down on self-publishing because there aren’t any “gatekeepers” (agents, publishing houses) to keep out lower quality work. Do you think this is a valid criticism?

CS: I don’t see it that way at all. I have a lot of friends who have had incredible success with self-publishing. Other well-known artists such as Lora Mathis and Trista Mateer have self-published work.


The publishing industry as a whole is often slow to embrace new technologies. Have you encountered anyone who judged you or made you feel less legitimate as an online writer?

CS: I definitely have. A lot of older people don’t really understand the significance of online communities. It’s something they’re quick to write off unless you come with 10,000 examples as to why it’s valid and useful. Some people ask, “Oh, so you write for free? It’s not a real job?” People hear “blog” and they already have an idea of what that means in their head.


In your experience, do you think online writers feel bitter or tension towards traditional publishing?

CS: I think, tying it into your previous questions, it’s hard for a lot of us to feel legitimate. I don’t want to speak for other writers, but I always thought of getting published as a distant dream. With people belittling my platform, it definitely can be challenging.


What do you think the benefits are of writing on social media/writing sites over traditional publishing?

CS: Well, for one, you can reach an incredibly huge audience and become a part of a supportive community of other writers. Some of the best friends I’ve made have been people I’ve met through Tumblr and my writing. There’s just a real sense of belonging and community when you share your writing on social media.


Do you think there’s anything that traditional writers might learn from online writers?

CS: Well, I think online writers have a very close relationship with their readers. If that’s something that traditional writers strive for, then having that online presence could be something very useful.


A lot of older authors have difficulty tapping into the young, online demographic – to the point of lacking social media/websites at all. Do you think it would be harder for someone older to begin their career online like you did, since they might be significantly older than their audience?

CS: Not at all. That’s the beauty of online communities. I don’t think age would matter so long as the content was there. There are plenty of older writers on Tumblr who have a pretty large presence.


What do you think are the main factors that might influence someone to choose one (traditional vs online) over the other? Do you think traditional writers and online writers are striving towards the same goal?

CS: We’re all just trying to find an audience while also staying true to ourselves. I don’t like thinking of writing as a performance, because that implies that our writing is for others and not ourselves. That being said, though, I believe that the art we make can be mutually beneficial, and I also believe that there is something so healing about seeing how our work touches others.

I don’t know if traditional vs. online is really a choice that we make so much as a stepping stone. For instance, I started sharing my work online without any hope of being published, but here I am! Sharing our work online can, sometimes, lead to getting published. One is not better than the other, just different!


Caitlyn Siehl can be found on Tumblr under the url alonesomes. Her newest book Crybaby is available on Amazon.


Great Writers and What They’re Reading: Jenny Belardi

By Alyssa Ennis


This interview series is meant to focus on the interactions between reading and writing through the lens of three Spring 2017 Windmill authors. The Windmill editorial staff hopes you enjoy this glimpse into the reading habits and writerly inspirations of our talented contributors.


Jenny Belardi is the Director of Development at Carnegie Mellon University’s top-ranked School of Computer Science. She earned her Masters in Literature in fiction writing from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland and is currently working on her first novel. Jenny’s piece, Diving, is a wonderful little fiction story about an unconventional trip— be sure to check it out when the issue arrives in May!

What book have you read recently that you would recommend to people who enjoyed your piece in Windmill?

Jenny Belardi: I’m always recommending books, so it’s hard to only pick one.  The last three truly great books I read are Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

Is there a book or other piece of writing that inspired you to become a writer yourself?

JB: It was more a feeling of the amazing community of writers and readers and their ongoing and varied conversation.  I wanted to be on the writing side, not just the reading side.

Since Windmill is a literary magazine, what short fiction/nonfiction/poetry would you recommend? Do you have a favorite short literary work?

JB: Everything by George Saunders.  I also recently read a story that totally blew me away and I know will stick with me for a very long time: By Degrees and Dilatory Time by S.L. Huang.

What are you currently reading?

JB: I’m usually reading two books at once, a hard copy book (no e-readers here) and an audiobook for my commute.  Right now it’s The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin and State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.

Is there an aspect of reading that you feel helps you improve as a writer?

JB: I still mostly read for enjoyment and try not to be too analytical about it.  That said, there are books I re-read to see how the author made me feel the way I felt, or how the structure works.  I’m working on a novel set in the near future and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel has really helped me with the structure.

Do you have a favorite book? What do you say to convince people to read it?

JB: Oryx and Crake.  Margaret Atwood tends to sell herself, so I tell them I’m jealous they get to read it for the first time.

What’s next on your to read list?

JB: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (admittedly re-reading in anticipation for the Netflix adaptation), and Get in Trouble by Kelly Link.