Current NER summer intern Simone Edgar Holmes ’20.5 talks to Maddie Oatman ’08, former NER intern and current Senior Editor at Mother Jones, about writing, podcasting, and book recommendations.
Maddie Oatman, pictured now (left) and during her time at Middlebury (right).
Simone Edgar Holmes: When were you an intern at NER and what was a highlight of your experience?
Maddie Oatman: I interned at NER in 2007. The highlight of working as an intern at NER was realizing that spending lots of time reading and thinking about stories—pretty much my favorite pastime—is actually something people get hired to do. I remember sitting in a small room with a couch in the NER office and going through a stack of submissions and feeling amazed that someone cared what I thought about them.
SEH: That’s certainly a great feeling I’m also experiencing this summer. If I’m not mistaken, you now work as a Senior Editor and Executive Producer at Mother Jones in San Francisco. What were some steps you took to get to where you are now?
MO: Being an avid reader and paying close attention to detail and the use of language has always benefited me in my path. When I first moved to San Francisco, I volunteered at literary events and wrote for the magazine the Rumpus, which gave me my first clips after college. This opened my eyes to what an editorial job was like day-to-day, and it also gave me the confidence boost I needed to apply to work at a national magazine like Mother Jones. I’ve been there for a decade now, through a couple of presidential administrations. One thing that’s helped keep me inspired and always learning is to seek out fellowships, conferences, and workshops that have allowed me to learn from writers and editors with a range of experiences across the country, in both nonfiction and fiction. The Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, for instance, led by Chris Shaw and Bill McKibben, helped kickstart my narrative feature writing; while the fellowship no longer exists, there are other journalism grants that give this type of funding and mentorship that can make a huge difference for writers, even if they also work at a publication or have clips under their belt. A few years later, I attended a Transom Audio Storytelling workshop in Big Sky, Montana, and that helped me get to where I could create and manage a podcast at Mother Jones. I also think some of the jobs I’ve had outside of journalism helped me as a writer: working in restaurants, for instance, opened my eyes to the class and race dynamics that fuel our society. I don’t think there’s a single job in existence that could not inform writing somehow; that said, most jobs in the world will take up the time you might rather be writing.
SEH: It’s great to hear how jobs that seem unrelated to writing can still come to bear on publishing work. I especially liked your restaurant example, an experience which I assume also supports your work as the co-host and manager of Bite, a Mother Jones food podcast. Do you have any podcasting advice for me, as this summer’s producer and host of NER Out Loud?
MO: I love how tactile audio is—though right now during the pandemic, it’s less so because we all have to stay away from each other. And I’m sure many an audio producer is being kept up at night by the thought of microphones as a potential source of viral contamination. But when we are back to doing on-the-ground interviews, I have benefited from the advice I got at the Transom workshop I mentioned above: before you go to record an interview or a scene, write out a list of sounds you might capture there. (It’s so hard to think about that on the spot, when you are trying to talk to someone and record audio at the same time.) After your interview is over, you can review your list and then take some extra time to record ambient sounds you may have missed—machines at work, highways, rushing creeks, kids playing, etc.—that will help bring your story to life.
SEH: Wonderful advice, I’ll keep it in mind! What was one skill you developed as an undergraduate, either in school or any internships, that most benefits you today in your professional work?
MO: I’m not sure this is one skill so much as the definition of writing, but: leaning on structure and language and details to support your point. Choosing the details that relate to the larger themes you are hoping to get at, rather than relaying everything you’ve seen or experienced and using the words that sound big or impressive. I think this applies to both narrative journalism and fiction.
SEH: What is your favorite genre to read for pleasure? Have you read anything good lately?
MO: Fiction. I love novels and short stories. Most recently, I devoured Megha Majumdar’s new novel A Burning and had the pleasure of interviewing her earlier this summer. Milkman by Anna Burns has the most entrancing narrator, and is one of the more unique novels I’ve read as of late. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo manages to convey character at lightning speed. I’m in complete awe of the story collection Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken. I’m currently reading and loving Lot, Bryan Washington’s collection of spare and intimate short stories set in Houston.
SEH: What a wonderful and varied list! Thank you so much for your time, advice, and recommendations.