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Writing for a Living? Schedule It
A Conversation with Daily Beast senior columnist Matt K. Lewis about Writing (and Consuming) the News
“Man is by nature,” said Aristotle, “a political animal.” Sounds depressing, right? Not when Matt K. Lewis is talking. Lewis is a center-right opinion journalist and senior columnist for The Daily Beast. I’ve followed his work for over a decade and have always found his approach thoughtful and engaging—especially when I disagree.
A regular on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, he’s appeared on C-SPAN, CNN, HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, CBS’s Face the Nation, PBS NewsHour, and ABC’s Nightline. Beyond writing three columns a week for the Beast, Lewis has written for GQ, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Week, Roll Call, and Politico, among other outlets. Plus, he hosts an interview podcast, Matt Lewis and the News, and has authored a pair of books, Filthy Rich Politicians and Too Dumb to Fail.
That’s a lot! And, as Aristotle also said, “Work is accompanied by toil and strain.”
That got me wondering: How does he manage it all? We talk about that and more in the conversation below. Whatever your personal politics, there’s probably something here for you.
Miller: How did you start your writing career?
Lewis: I started out wanting to be a political operative. Over time, though, I discovered I was a bit too contrarian, romantic, and artsy for the gig. Luckily, around that time, the internet spawned the blogosphere. I started writing about politics as a hobby, and that allowed me to transition into being a writer. It’s really hard to imagine that I could have made that shift prior to the rise of blogging.
One of the things you cover in Filthy Rich Politicians are book deals and how politicians use them to get around various norms and restrictions. Can you describe that dynamic for us?
Elected officials ranging from Bernie Sanders to Ron DeSantis have become millionaires by virtue of book sales. But while parlaying your political perch into millions might be troubling, even more concerning is when political committees (or other entities) bulk purchase these books to boost sales numbers and possibly elevate them to a bestseller list. In some cases, this can essentially be a way to launder money into the personal pockets of politicians.
How should readers critically engage with political memoirs or campaign books?
The key is to be discerning. It’s entirely possible for an elected official to write a compelling or interesting book. However, most are pretty mediocre. So before you buy a book from a politician—or any celebrity, for that matter—make sure they have something interesting to say, as opposed to simply cashing in on a brand name.
Extend that over the news media more broadly. How can people more critically engage in the media they consume?
You have to be intentional. Rather than passively consuming media, seek out good sources. Also, be critical. Be skeptical.
You write three pieces a week for The Daily Beast. What is your single most important productivity hack?
Two things: First, I drink a boatload of coffee. Second, I subscribe to a theory attributed to the late Andy Rooney: “My advice is not to wait to be struck by an idea. If you’re a writer, you sit down and damn well decide to have an idea. That’s the way to get an idea.”
How do you manage writing a book, while simultaneously maintaining the rest of your output each week? You’ve done this a couple times now. What challenges come up in that process and how do you prepare for them?
I’m an opinion columnist, which means that I don’t travel as much as a straight reporter might, and I have a fairly consistent writing schedule. True, three columns a week is considered a pretty heavy workload, but it still means I have four days a week to do something else. So I just schedule book-writing time. To be honest, I haven’t hit any major bumps.
What I find much harder, though, is selling the book. This includes not just doing promotional interviews, but also begging people to review the book (even on Amazon), asking other prominent writers to provide blurbs for the back cover, trying to coordinate logistics for book parties, and so on. These are all things that, presumably, someone else might handle for truly famous authors.
What is one nonfiction book and one novel people should read if they want to understand American politics better?
Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West does a good job of explaining why American democracy is a miracle worth defending and conserving. This is an important message for modern readers, in my opinion. In terms of fiction, it’s hard to top real life these days, but I’d recommend Chris Buckley’s Has Anyone Seen My Toes? or Make Russia Great Again to anyone hoping to understand the surreal nature of modern American politics.
Name some of the authors who have been the biggest influence on you. Along with that, what is the role of authorial influence in the life of the writers you’ve known and worked with?
Most political columnists don’t go around talking much about Hemingway or Fitzgerald, partly because it sounds pretentious when you’re getting paid to write about Donald Trump’s tweets. Among my colleagues, Bob Novak’s autobiography, The Prince of Darkness, is frequently mentioned as an influential book. I recently read Pat Buchanan’s memoir, Right from the Beginning, which is also compelling and, in light of the Trump era, more relevant than you might think.
Final question: You can invite any three authors for a lengthy meal and conversation. Language is no obstacle. Who do you pick, why, and how does the conversation go?
I would invite Joan Didion, Don DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace. All three writers are obviously better than me, but all three operate(d) in a space that was close enough to what I do that I might be able to learn a thing or two from our dinner conversation.
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