After an early flirtation with fiction and poetry, Bainbridge Island Author Jon Mooallem quickly found his calling writing nonfiction. He's built a career as a journalist and essayist as a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, and contributing to radio shows and podcasts such as This American Life, Radiolab, and The Daily. He's also the author of two books — soon to be three.
Mooallem is appearing at 6:30 p.m., May 17, at Eagle Harbor Book Co. for the release of his new book, Serious Face. We spoke with Mooallem ahead of his appearance to discuss the ugly matador that inspired the book's title, why he prefers writing nonfiction over fiction, and how he came to head the premier pandemic walking club for kids.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
You're appearing at Eagle Harbor Book Co. for the release of your new book, Serious Face. Can you talk a little bit about the book and what it's about?
The book is a collection of essays and narrative journalism from the last 12 to 15 years, plus a new piece as well. It's 13 stories.
I'm a writer with The New York Times Magazine. So a lot of what's in the book was published in original form in the magazine. The stories are pretty diverse in terms of the subject matter and the places I'm going and the people I'm writing about, but they're kind of all united, I think, by an almost subconscious interest on my part in people's vulnerability and this idea that no matter how it looks on the surface, we're all just scrambling to do our best and get through either situations that are quite extreme and traumatic situations, or just the general extreme absurdity of life.
I saw that you had a piece published in the New York Times Magazine that was adapted from the book about a matador who I guess is famously ugly, who looks like you. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it ties into the theme you're talking about of vulnerability?
That's sort of where the title of the book comes from. The story is about a bullfighter. Some friends who were in Spain for a while — this is many, many years ago — were leaving a restaurant and just spotted this picture on the wall of the restaurant and stopped in their tracks because this guy in this old historical photo looked exactly like me.
So they sent me this picture and it took me a couple years to find out who the guy was, but he was this bull fighter named Manolete in the '30s and '40s. He was known to be, like, the best bull fighter. And what I didn't know until I did a little digging and learned about him was that he was also known to be famously ugly — like, just hideously ugly; people could not stop talking about how ugly he was.
I don't want to go through the whole piece, but basically the piece is in some sense about his career, which was a very conflicted career — there was a big part of him that didn't actually seem very interested in fighting bulls and was just kind of being pulled along into this life.
And then it also kind of delves into my own face. Basically my face is not a very functional piece of architecture, because my jaw's so crooked and all the things that basically make me look like him also give me some great discomfort and pain and annoyance. And so it's just sort of talking about these situations we find ourselves in where we feel like we're not exactly doing what our deepest most essential self would want us to do. But we don't know whether the goal is to make peace with that and practice acceptance, or to actually fight against what seems to be your destiny or your nature and make yourself into something new. That was very much his conflict. And I think in some ways it was mine as well.
Your biography says that you are originally from New Jersey, but you reside on Bainbridge Island now. How did you get here? What brought you from the east coast out here to the Pacific Northwest?
Yeah, well, I'd actually left the east coast a long time ago when I was 18 and was living in California for a long time, but my wife grew up on Bainbridge, spent her whole childhood in Kitsap County. And her family's still all around in the county, although not on the island anymore. So we moved up here in 2015. She had always just kind of imagined coming back up to the Pacific Northwest and raising kids up here and stuff. So as the Bay Area became a little more insane of a place to live, we decided this was a good move. We've been here ever since.
Being a little bit of an outsider to the Pacific Northwest, what's your impression of it? I know the thing everybody talks about first is the rain and the weather, but what are your impressions? What has it been like for you just getting acclimated to it?
I don't exactly feel like I belong here in some way. It's not a love or a hate thing that I'm describing, but it definitely feels like another kind of a world to me; it always has. I've been visiting the northwest with my wife since 2002. All the magical parts of it never get old to me. Even seeing a bald eagle still feels really freaking awesome, because I'm from New Jersey. I will say I've not made my peace with the weather, either. So I think all the good things, there's still a special electricity that comes from them. And then all of the downsides of living in the Pacific Northwest, I feel like I'm still trying to acclimate myself.
I'm born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and I still get excited when I see an eagle, but when I was in my teens my dad and I gave a ride to a guy who was from out of state. I can't remember where he was from, but he was just blown away by all the trees and all the greenery. And I was like, that's definitely something that I do take for granted; it kind of blends into the background, but for somebody who's not from here, it's kind of a cool landscape.
The first couple times I visited, I just could not stop eating blackberries. It just seemed like it was a crime that there were all of these blackberries that were there just rotting on their bushes, you know? I felt like it's sort of a sick pressure to make sure that I was eating it. That, thankfully, has slackened; I no longer make myself sick eating blackberries, but it's things like that you can kind of measure over time as you adjust it.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background as a writer? You've penned a few books, and you do a lot of writing for magazines. Can you talk about your trajectory as a writer and the growth of your career?
I started freelancing for magazines in about 2003. So I would've been 24, 25. Initially I was really interested in fiction and poetry and once I started reading magazines really seriously, I just fell in love with it. And it seemed like a much more natural fit for me to do journalism. And it was also, in my eyes, a way more exciting life to actually get to go places and talk to other people rather than sit in a room and try to make things up. So I started writing for the New York Times magazine in 2006. And I've been a contributing writer there ever since. Most of my magazine work, almost all of it, is for the Times. And I've done a lot of radio and podcasting for places like This American Life and Radiolab and The Daily and places like that.
And this will be my third book. The last book came out right as the pandemic was starting in March 2020. I had a huge book tour lined up and all sorts of stuff was all scrapped at the last minute. So that makes this one a little bit extra exciting, because I'm not taking it for granted at all. But my whole magazine career, the thing that I enjoy about it most is just being a generalist. I've written a lot about a lot of different things.
I've written a lot of environmental stuff. I've written a lot of stuff about disaster. There's a piece in the book that's about the campfire in Paradise, Calif., in 2018. I've written much more whimsical things, like there's a piece about an 85-year-old Frenchman who has built his own town in the middle of the desert in California and claims that it's the exact center of the world.
There's a piece about a Ponzi scheme in which a Canadian farmer sold people pigeons — that was his Ponzi scheme, was based on pigeons. And it was a multimillion-dollar scheme! To me, the pleasure of doing this kind of work is just having an excuse to see how surprising the world is everywhere you look, if you paid enough attention. I guess it's for selfish reasons. I think that's why I love doing it. It forces me to remember that, because I think too often you can forget if your life gets too small or too narrow.
Did you study journalism in school or anything, or are you self-taught? If you are self-taught, did it just come innately to you to be able to weave a narrative out of these stories or is it something you developed as you went along?
Every story is like its own challenge, right? And so you inevitably get better at it each time, but also you're sort of starting from scratch each time. So there's certain lessons you can carry over project to project, but basically each one is its own kind of puzzle. I started doing journalism and then I was freelancing and writing some interesting things, but then that was when we moved — I was living in New York for a short time and then moved to San Francisco, and my wife was going to graduate school there. And I wound up going to the Berkeley journalism school when I got there.
That was a pretty amazing experience. I don't know that I have a lot of thoughts about journalism school in general, but for me it was great because I just kind of kept freelancing while I was there. But now I have people to turn to for advice. I guess I didn't have to feel like I was going to humiliate myself if I got stuck with something. But I think a lot of it just really comes from doing and then having both people that you look up to who you can see how they solve problems. And in my case, I've been really fortunate that I've known some of those people and I've been able to talk things out with them, too. But yeah, just a lot of learning on the job, a lot of learning from reading and then a lot of learning from just begging people for advice and help.
Could you talk a little bit about your two previous books? I know you're probably most excited about the new book coming out, but if people wanted to check out your earlier work can you summarize what those are about?
The first book was called Wild Ones. It's about wildlife in America, but from kind of a cultural point of view that looks at a lot of endangered species conservation, and all the science and all that. But the thing I was most interested in is, what do these animals mean to us? Most of us are never going to see a mountain lion, but a lot of people who will never see a mountain lion feel passionately that mountain lions should exist. So it involved taking my young daughter to see some of these endangered species and, here we were giving her all these, like, pajamas with giraffes on them, and surrounding her with all these animals, but the animals themselves were in kind of tough positions in the actual ecology.
And then the last book, which was the one that came out in 2020, is called This is Chance! And it's a story about the 1964 earthquake in Alaska. It sort of reconstructs the story in Anchorage of the first three days of the earthquake through the story of a woman named Genie Chance, who was a radio reporter in Anchorage at a time when there weren't a lot of women working in that industry in Anchorage. And she ended up sort of both by accident — and sort of through her own ambition and skill — staying on the air for days and being a really important part of the recovery effort in the town by getting information around town and reuniting people with their family members and all that.
So that book is in some ways about how people react to disaster and how they come together in a disaster. So it was really interesting to have that come out literally the week after everything was shutting down because of the pandemic. But I'm really proud of that book. I was glad that I had all of these actual recordings from the radio that weekend, and diaries and all sorts of primary documents to work with. So it was a really fun project.
You mentioned that early on you were interested in fiction and poetry and then you were attracted to non-fiction writing. Now that you're further along in your career, do you ever get tempted to go back and write a novel or anything like that? I'm reminded a bit of Jess Walter out of Spokane who started out, I believe, doing a lot of non-fiction stuff and then pivoted to doing fiction. Do you have any interest in, maybe not pivoting to fiction, but exploring it a bit?
I'm not sure. I don't know that it's something that I'd be really good at. In some ways it's a different kind of a muscle. Maybe for kids — I might be interested in writing fiction for kids one day, just because I have two kids and I've read a lot of that stuff. That's obviously its own art form and I'm not trying to diminish it at all, but to me, for whatever reason, it's not as intimidating. But even that, I'm not sure. I like what I do and it does feel like there's no shortage of stories out there in the real world. But who knows? Maybe one day.
I saw on your Twitter bio, it says, "Head of The Daylighters Club, the world’s best weekly pandemic walking club for kids." Is that a real thing or is that a joke? I wasn't sure.
No, that's a real thing. So when the pandemic started, my younger daughter was 6. And everyone else was home from school and, I guess it was the fall of 2020, and no one really knew what was going to happen with schools. There was a time when no one knew: Were they going to go? Were they not going to go?
And so she had the idea to have a couple friends over to hang out outside once a week, just so she could stay connected to her friends. And I decided since I didn't really want to be responsible for a bunch of kids hanging out on my porch, and having to make sure they were productively entertained, that we would take a walk. So the Daylighters Club was born — my daughter named it. We have five members, and every Friday afternoon they come over and we've kept it up since school's back in session. We take a walk and we have some kind of tasty snack and they hang out. One of the other parents made t-shirts for us. And now we've got Daylighters Club t-shirts and they're building a fortress right now in my yard. So it's been really exciting. I'm very proud of my involvement in the Daylighters Club. One hundred percent.
I've been talking to everybody about the pandemic just because it's been such a huge part of our lives. One of the themes I've found is that, obviously it was a terrible thing, but people have found silver linings in it. And it seems like this is something that probably would've been good even before the pandemic — for your daughter, it's probably a really good way to stay in touch with her friends, escape the internet and social media and get out in the real world and out in nature. It sounds like it's something you're planning to continue into the future beyond COVID.
I hope so. They're all 8 and 9 — my daughter's actually turning 9 today — and I tell them that one day the thing that would make me happiest in the world is if, say, six, seven years from now, I'm just taking a walk by myself and I see them all out there on the trails just walking by themselves as teenagers. And I'll be like: Hey, the Daylighters Club.
It's been really cool. I think if you weren't suffering too badly through the pandemic and you could be at home, it definitely called for a little bit of creativity to try to make that time as good as it could be. I'm glad that it's happened. It's been really good for them. It's been really nice for me, to be honest; there's been some weeks when I needed it more than they did.
This question is kind of out of left field, but perusing your website, it really stuck out to me as being very colorful and vibrant, and yet it's really simple, kind of minimalist. I'm sure you or your publisher hired somebody to make it, but to some extent it's a reflection of who you are as a writer. So I'm just kind of curious what input or what thought you put into how to display your website?
Oh, well, I did. It took every ounce of technological savvy I had to make a one-page, very simple website. The publisher did the serious graphics based off the cover, which they designed and which I love. But the other stuff I did. I'm really glad you liked it.
I guess I'm just kind of a fan of minimalist website design.
Well, thank you. It always means a lot when someone gives you a compliment on something that you really don't have a great ability.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
The event at Eagle Harbor is going to be a Q&A with another author named Bruce Barcott. He's going to be interviewing me and Bruce is a phenomenal journalist and has done a lot of really great magazine work, too. And he's just a super cool guy who I really enjoy talking to. So I hope that is a bit of an extra draw for folks.
Jon Mooallem appears in conversation with Bruce Barcott, 6:30 p.m., May 17, at Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way East, Bainbridge Island.