Benoit Denizet-Lewis stood in our purple and white shoes 13 years ago. Since graduation, he has worked everywhere from XY Magazine to the San Francisco Chronicle to The New York Times Magazine. He has also authored a book, American Anonymous (See our review in the spring 2010 issue of North By Northwestern Magazine.), witnessed the release of American Voyeur, a collection of his writing, and is currently at work on another book. That schedule doesn’t leave much room for free time, but NBN was lucky enough to speak with the Medill alum.
How did you go from writing for magazines and newspapers to a book?
I had been writing for magazines for a few years, and I thought I was ready to try a book. A book is an incredibly long, difficult, crazy process. That takes getting used to. It takes a lot of patience to really immerse yourself in one subject or one idea for a few years. Though often times, writers will take a little break and write a magazine article about something else because it’s hard to focus a few years on one idea, one topic. But I did a lot of that for American Anonymous. I mean, I was really immersed in the subject for, gosh, almost four years.
Do you think that you would want to do it again?
My next book is totally different; it’s about dogs and humans. It’s really about dog people. After that, I’d like to write sort of a memoir about my French family. The great thing about being a writer is I get to learn about all these different things. I did spend a lot of my twenties writing about sexuality and culture, and that is one of my interests. But I’m also interested in sports and in politics and in dogs [laughs], just a million things.
So how did you come to the idea for America Anonymous?
There’s been a lot of memoirs written about [addiction]. There have been a lot of scientific books. There have been a lot of books looking at one particular kind of addiction. There hadn’t been a book like mine, which looked at a lot of different kinds of addiction but was also a narrative, which also follows a handful of people for a few years. I thought that there was a need for that. I obviously had a tremendous interest in the topic just because that was pretty early in my own recovery [from sex addiction], so I was really fascinated with the idea of, how does one become an addict? How did some of us get addicted to some things and not to others? What is it about our culture, if anything, that promotes or encourages addiction? Would we ever be able to treat addiction with a pill like we’ve done for depression? I hoped that writing this book would help people to understand that addictions like food or gambling or sex can be just as painful and just as destructive and just as painful to recover from as alcohol and drugs.
You talk about having a personal connection to the book, but did any of the people who you interviewed have a story that was particular compelling or you feel like you learned a lot from them?
Well, I certainly got attached to certain characters. It was inspiring to, and really enjoyable, to spend as much time with these people as I did and to sort of follow their journey. And it wasn’t just about their journey; it was about my journey too. That It was a very emotionally exhausting thing to do because I was following these eight people and writing about addiction, and at the same time, trying to deal with my own addiction. So it was a very intense period of my life. I certainly learned a lot about the people that I wrote about. And I found a lot of the same sort of rationalizations and denials in their stories, and I could recognize those because I certainly experienced them as well.
What advice would you give to people who want to delve into book writing or even magazine writing on the level that you have?
Well, it’s a changing industry, obviously. My guess is that there will always be a place. Maybe some newspapers will disappear and some magazines will disappear, but I hope and I expect that there will always be a place for really good, interesting, compelling, nuanced writing. […] I have a few [suggestions]: One is that you have to be curious about the world, I think, to do this kind of work. You have to realize that stories are all around you. You have to have an open mind — you know, I’ve written a lot about people that I don’t necessarily agree with politically, but they’ve turned out to be some of my favorite people because I’ve talked to them and not judged them, and I think gotten to know them. Then I think you really have to not give up if you want to do this. There’s a lot of rejection that comes with trying to write for magazines and trying to write books.
You also have to have a certain level of talent. I think working on your writing, you can certainly become a much better writer. I think I’m learning. I think I become a better writer every year, and I’ve been learning my whole life.
And the joke I always write is if you want to be a writer, make sure to marry a lawyer. I mean, it’s hard to make a living in this business. It’s a challenge. So not something to get into if you’re looking to get rich. There’s certainly people who do very well, but […] that’s not the reason to go into it.