Russell: You spent years as a journalist. Now you’ve moved into fiction. What is the transition like? Does it require a completely different skill set and approach, or do you find that your non-fiction chops have helped you in your novels?
Adam: I’ve always been attracted to narrative in my work, as well as hardcore research, which I’ve also tried to incorporate into my fiction. But the truth is that I started out as a novelist before pursuing journalism; in a sense, journalism was a fall back career. And before that I was a jazz trumpet player and composer.
Long story short I started playing trumpet professionally when I was 16, wrote the music to my first off-off Broadway show at 17, and when I was 18 I began performing and playing on records with Galt MacDermot, the composer of “Hair.” By the time I was 21 I realized I didn’t want to be a professional musician any more, and enrolled at Reed College in Portland, OR, where I got a BA in Economics. When I graduated I received a Watson Fellowship, and because I had been a fairly listless student, my topic revolved around music. This sent me off to India, where I studied raga forms to combine with Jazz, and Japan, because I had the opportunity to play in jazz and salsa clubs in Tokyo. I basically worked and traveled around Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Central America for four years, bicycling more than 10,000 miles, hitch hiking through Eastern and Southern Africa, overlanding India, Nepal to Tibet, trekking in Thailand… you get the picture.
By the time I returned to NYC I was 28 years old, flat broke, and didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my life. So I started writing a novel based on my experiences in Japan. Meanwhile I also started freelancing to The New York Times, Mother Jones, Wired, and any other publication that would pay me. For the next six years I wrote fiction half the day and fact the other half. In that time period I wrote three novels. It became clear, though, that I could earn a good living as a journalist where I was practically starving as a novelist, so I took a staff job at forbes.com in 1997, after working at Wired.com for a four months before that.
Now I’m back writing fiction. The skill sets are somewhat different but there is a lot of overlap. Good writing is, after all, good writing. I love the freedom that fiction gives you, the opportunity to create a world of your own imagination. You don’t need to adhere to pesky facts. It’s liberating, a joy.
Russell: What’s the easiest thing for you about writing fiction? And the hardest?
Adam:I don’t think anything is easy, but what I enjoy most is crafting dialogue and creating a whole world peopled with interesting characters living interesting stories. The hardest part is simply focusing–but that’s true for non-fiction books, as well. It’s so easy to become distracted by the million things we all have to do every day.
Russell: Describe your process. Are you a plotter or seat of your panster? Do you write an outline before beginning, or just dive in?
Adam: I’m definitely a pre-planner. I believe in structure, and I try to visualize the entire story before I sit down to sketch out the structure. Then, as I write, the story and characters take off in other directions, but because I have a plot in mind it’s possible to bring them back just in time.
Russell: Do you have daily word goals, or is your approach more project-based? Or is it unstructured?
Adam: I use time as my meter. I once read that Hemingway would get up early and write for three hours and no more. This allowed him to write every day without burning out. I think this is a good model for me, because I’m prone to burn out, too. I write for three hours, then spend the last 15 minutes sketching out the story line for the next day’s writing session.
Russell: Where do you draw your ideas from for your fiction? Do you have any sort of a group you bounce them off of, or do you get an idea, flesh it out and write it?
Adam: Stories are everywhere you look. Every experience you have can be the foundation for part of a novel. All the traveling I did–some 55 countries–helped me paint the world that Virtually True takes place in. All the tech reporting I’ve done over the years informed my futuristic view of the world. The teaching I do at NYU, the deconstruction of great long-form narrative works, assists me in my writing. It all influences what I do, what I write, how I think.
Russell: If you had to mention one name whose work you would say is much like yours, who would it be?
Adam: I’ve always loved Martin Cruz Smith, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Raymond Chandler, and am a sucker for mysteries like Jacqueline Winspear’s Masie Dobbs series. I go through periods when I’ll completely gorge myself on one author. I read the Dragon Tattoo trilogy practically in one sitting on vacation one year and will do the same with classics. If I really like a book I’ll read it then immediately start over and either read sections again or plow through the entire story.
Russell: How long does it take you to finish a novel, from rough idea to finished first draft?
Adam: Virtually True took about a year, and so did Trial & Terror. Most non-fction books take a little longer–a year and a half minimum, and up to three years for Tragic Indifference, because of the amount f research that goes into them. I end up interviewing between 60 and 100 people for a non-fiction book. for fiction, I just sit with a yellow legal pad and pen and sketch out ideas and characters.
Russell: What’s your work environment like? Music? Window? Organized or chaotic?
Adam: I’m a jazz freak and to me there is no greater joy than putting on Coltrane, Miles, Art Blakey, Booker Little, or some other music as a soundtrack while I work.
Russell: Do you find yourself calibrating your writing to accommodate a desired audience, or do you write pretty much as you like and let the writing find its following? In other words, do you self-censor or simplify language, or just write and let the voice sort itself out?
Adam: I try to write about things and ideas that I care deeply about and hope readers feel the same way. I’m not very good at writing for someone else. For fiction I have complete freedom. For non-fiction, however, there are boundaries I can’t cross. If I write for a magazine editors influence what is published. If you write non-fiction books that end up being ghettoized into the tech and business categories, where mine usually are, then with that come responsibilities and expectations.
Russell: What’s next for you? Anything in the pipeline?
Adam: I have to hand in a non-fiction book on game mechanics in September/October, which will be published in the spring by Portfolio/Penguin. That’s another fun book to do, and challenging. And I’ve been redirecting my energies toward becoming an entrepreneur, and founded a company called Estorystudio (http://www.estorystudio.com) that is launching a DIY self-publishing platform for multimedia books. If an author creates a book on our platform we’ll help them with marketing, sales, and putting them in touch with graphic designers and videographers and publicly available material that is not covered by copyright. We’re very excited about the possibilities.
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Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University who has written for Fast Company, Forbes, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Wired, Slate, Playboy, and the Economist. A former senior editor at Forbes and a reporter for Forbes.com, Penenberg garnered national attention in 1998 for unmasking serial fabricator Stephen Glass of the New Republic. Penenberg’s story was a watershed for online investigative journalism and portrayed in the film Shattered Glass. Penenberg has published several books that have been optioned for film and serialized in the New York Times Magazine, Wired UK, and the Financial Times, and won a Deadline Club Award for feature reporting for his Fast Company story “Revenge of the Nerds,” which looked at the future of movie-making. He has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show as well as on CNN and all the major news networks, and has been quoted about media and technology in the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, Wired News, Ad Age, Marketwatch, Politico, and many others.