Why did you choose to come to Amherst?
I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life in Chicago, so I wanted to go to a smaller place outside of the Midwest. So much for that, as I've been in Brooklyn for the last 20 years...
Most memorable or most influential class at Amherst:
David Reck music comp (for the excuse to be creative), Sarat Authority and Sexuality (because it was great being put on the spot), Dan Barbezat Econ 11 (I've never worked so hard at something and struggled so much), and Ann Jones's non-fiction writing class at Mount Holyoke. Oh, and Judy Frank in English 11. (Everyone should read her novel from last year!!)
Most memorable or most influential professor:
Sarat probably made me think the hardest. Barbezat gave me the gift of (near) failure.
My AmStuds thesis was about a high school in Bethlehem, PA that had made community service a graduation requirement - and the philosophical and legal debates that followed. It was a work of journalism as much as anything, which is probably why it only merited a cum laude.
Awards and Prizes
None. Steve Burwell '93 and I submitted our cookbook collection for the Frost book collecting contest and won... nothing.
Favorite Book and Author
Tons of great stuff in my NYTimes By the Book feature here.
Tips for aspiring writers?
Do it early and often. I wrote for the Student, the alumni magazine, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, whatever I could do. But it's the ideas that have made me successful, not the wordsmithing or the reporting. What is nobody else doing or saying? What stunts could I pull? What is both counterintuitive and useful?
Tell us a bit about your path to becoming an author.
I saw what a lovely writer Chris Miller '90 was in the alumni mag and thought, huh, I wonder if I could do that. So I walked into the public affairs office and asked if they would let me. And they did! All the fancy New York internships turned me down or wanted me to work for free (which I couldn't afford), so I went to work for the Gazette in Northampton after junior year and wrote like 100 stories in 3 months -- it was an amazing experience and is an incredible paper with dedicated editors who pushed me around plenty. I had the nerve (with Colin Hall '95) to think I could write a book about gap years (inspired mostly by Matt Siegel '95 who wanted to take one), and we just did it and pushed and pitched and pushed and pitched until we found an agent and then a publisher. The idea was good enough; our writing was nothing special. But our nerve to think we could do it at all - that is what mattered in the end.