The Sweetest Debut: Sarah Jaffe on Social Justice Movements, David Bowie and Hating Hemingway


Welcome to the Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies.

Today’s respondent is “movement journalist” Sarah Jaffe. What are the threads linking the Tea Party, Occupy, Black Lives Matter and feeing the Bern? If your main familiarity with these movements is through arguments on social media, than you might think: they all feature lots of hashtags and angry tweets. But beyond this, they are all part of a national wave that began after Obama’s historic election showed the power of organizing — the economic crash demonstrated the limits of electoral and systemic solutions to major social ills. Jaffe’s Necessary Trouble: America In Revolt, arriving today from Nation books, tells the story of post-2008 social protest.

Disruption is one thread that unites these movements, whether it’s yelling out in a political town hall meeting, blocking traffic or camping out in an “occupation.” Horizontal structure and organic spreading is another — the idea that the internet enables a group in one state to start a new protest inspired by a YouTube video they saw of a similar protest across the country. Throughout her book, Jaffe talks about the successes and failures of various iterations of these protests, noting that “the more people feel that the movement belongs to them, the more they will believe that they can try something new.”

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

Necessary Trouble is the story of the social movements since the 2008 financial crisis: what they’re about, how they connect, and why now.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

I try to say the same thing — but I have to keep re-explaining what I mean by “social movements.”

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

Oh god, that question! I first came up with the idea for something like this book in May of 2012, and it has been through so many versions since then. Thanks to my agent and a couple of editors who saw early versions and talked to me about them but didn’t end up editing the book, it wound up as a proposal that Nation Books bought in the early fall of 2014, and now here it is.

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

My hatred of Ernest Hemingway is legendary.

What’s a book you’ve read more than two times?

Lots of them! But I have a tattoo from Les Miserables, so let’s go with that.

Is there a book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

There are so many excellent books but the first one that came to mind right now is Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart. I also make playlists for a lot of what I write, and the unused epigraph for this book is from David Bowie’s “Changes.” The playlist for this book features TV On The Radio’s “No Future Shock,” the aforementioned Bowie, the Indelicates, Kendrick Lamar, and so many more.

Your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

This book was aided by lots of Agent Carter and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Punching patriarchy in the face, with style.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

X-Men: Apocalypse. Yes, really.

Do you prefer writing in a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Coffee shop!

Do you write at a desk, in bed or on the couch?

Let’s just say I finally bought a desktop computer to force myself to write at my desk.

Are you more of a fan of morning writing or late-night writing?

Morning. My brain shuts off at about 6pm and anything after that is a total slog.

What’s your approach: writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

Something in between. Teaching myself to write something imperfect and edit it later has been hard, especially since most of my career has been writing for the web with minimal editing. But as I go along I have built relationships with a few great magazine editors and a wonderful book editor whom I trust to really read closely and help me make something better. So I’ve learned to get something on the page and then clean it up, but it still makes me twitch to write something that I don’t love.

How do you pay the bills, if not solely by your pen and your wit?

My pen, my wit, and the good graces of the folks at the Nation Institute: I’m a freelance reporter and a fellow at the Institute.

What is your trick to finding time to write your book while also doing the above?

I still did a bunch of freelancing while working on the book, but made an effort to really only do stories that overlapped with it while I was in process. That way I wasn’t taking myself out of the headspace I needed to be in, and the reporting overlapped.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

I not-so-secretly want to return to writing fiction at some point and have a draft of a thing I wrote years ago on a computer somewhere based on Bowie’s Diamond Dogs record, does that count? Someday I will polish it up and do something with it but for now it’s for my eyes only.