Nicola Twilley is co-host of the award-winning Gastropod podcast and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Her first book, “Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine,” was co-authored with Geoff Manaugh and published by MCD, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, in July 2021. She is currently writing a book on the topic of refrigeration for Penguin Press.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?
I’ll give you the lesson I have learned and learned again, but still fail to apply far too frequently: write your notes and thoughts down as soon as possible. Sometimes when I’m reporting, especially when my schedule is packed and I’m tired, I get lazy and let my smartphone do the work, figuring I’ll just take some photos, record the conversation, and go through it all later. Then, at the end of the day, I collapse instead of jotting notes and mentally reviewing what I experienced. But, while I believe in photographing and transcribing everything (no better way to relive the interview and capture the nuances of voice, as well as details I might have missed in the moment), looking at photographs and transcripts later just doesn’t yield all the same richness that bubbles up when you sit down at the end of a long day of interviews and let your mind tell you what was important.
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
That I can write! I grew up thinking that, if I was good enough to be a real writer, I would already know — the way athletes know whether they’re good enough to be professional by university or before. I thought it was a matter of innate talent, and that, if I had that kind of talent, someone would definitely have mentioned it at some point. I didn’t know any writers, so I had no real-world point of comparison, either. It wasn’t until my husband started a successful writing career that I realized that, if he could do it, maybe I could too. (He also believed I could, which helped!)
if you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?
I’m a combination detectorist and carpenter. The reporting part is all about finding nuggets — you can develop a sense of where they might be and how to extract them, the way detectorists find buried treasure. The writing is carpentry — I can’t start writing till I have my first sentence, but then it’s a relatively straightforward matter of joining everything together so it forms a pleasing structure, and planing it down to try to get rid of anything extraneous. A slow, careful, craft-ful assembly process.
What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
To write my notes and thoughts down as soon as possible! (See answer 1; this came from Michael Pollan, and, whenever I have the discipline to follow it, I am grateful.) My favorite piece of writing advice to give to others is to read good writing. I firmly believe that beautiful language is contagious. That, and use the right dictionary.