August 10, 2016

Jon Mooallem on freelancing, the benefits of journalism school and writing about wildlife

Jon Mooallem is the author of Wild Ones, named the best book of 2013 by the New York Times Book Review, and a writer-at-large for The New York Times.

Jon Mooallem didn’t always publish articles in Wired, New York Times or Harper’s like he is now relentlessly doing. He graduated from college in 2000 with a liberal arts degree and no idea what he wanted to do next.

So he moved to New York and ended up working for The Hudson Review, a literary magazine where he started reading a lot of magazines. “We had subscriptions to Harper’s, The New Yorker. I remember reading a few pieces in Harper’s and being completely blown away. And really feeling like I wanted to do that,” remembers Jon.

He got interested in longform writing and shortly he started working with a Canadian magazine where he was writing stories, “about the most peculiar subjects,” he says. When his then girlfriend, now wife, moved to San Francisco Bay Area, he applied for Berkeley Journalism School. “I didn’t go around looking for journalism schools, but when I got accepted, and visited the place, it seemed like a too good opportunity to pass up. And it was really a luxury to get to go there at that time.”

The real benefit of journalism school, he says, is getting to talk to other writers, especially to established writers. “You collect these monologues of these people that you meet who are talking you through their experience; how they did a particular story. And you just collect all these things, and you can draw on them when you need to”.

Since graduating, in 2006, Mooallem has been actively freelancing. He contributes to Pop-Up Magazine, This American Life, The New Yorker and Radiolab, and writes about all sorts of things, including, recently: a $42 million pigeon-breeding Ponzi scheme, the assassination of endangered monk seals in Hawaii, a pastor who ministers exclusively to major league baseball umpires, and a Silicon Valley design firm that’s “redesigning death.”

But his most dominant theme is the contradictory relationship between humans and nature, which became the subject of two books: “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America and American Hippopotamus, an e-book published on The Atavist about two rival spies who joined forces to bring hippopotamus-ranching to America in 1910, currently being adapted into a film by Brett Ratner and Edward Norton.

Mooallem grew interested in humans’ perceptions of wild things while watching his daughter, Isla, move from infancy to toddlerhood and become immersed in a world of cartooned animals. He found a contradiction between the way we talk about animals with kids – the happy little animals in the woods – and the dangers in which most of them are. Mooallem believes that the way humans think about, refer to and address certain species is closely connected to our efforts of saving them. “The level of compassion and persistence and passion that we dedicate to these species is going to do more for them than any ecological force. Our imaginations are an ecological force now.”

Here’s some advice on writing and reporting from Jon Mooallem:

• “I think people are much more inherently interesting than they will come across in one phone call. I don’t always think that the people I’m talking to are these fantastically larger-than-life people or that they’ll say really introspective philosophical things. But when you spend a certain amount of time with someone you start to see those other sides.”

•”The more you’re going to do it, the more comfortable, hopefully, you’ll feel doing it. I still feel like every time that I go to do a story, I approach it as if I don’t really know much about what I’m doing. And I have to figure it out. And that’s what makes it really thrilling. I never presume to think that the way I do reporting and writing is the best way. In fact, I do the opposite.”

•”Sometimes you have all this information and it just sort of feels like information, you’re not sure what to make of it. And it’s the same process for the reader who’s trying to absorb it, so you have to try to put a frame around this stuff.”

•”I don’t have the most optimistic outlook on the future. Part of the reason I wrote this book is because I had just brought a kid into the world and it got me thinking about these things in a different way. That doesn’t mean I think things are going to turn out great. I can still be pessimistic but at least I can feel better about being pessimistic sometimes. That strikes me as the secret to a lot of things in life, being able to sit with your fear.”

Register for the conference, where you’ll get the chance to meet Jon. Find our more about all our speakers here.