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From Blog to Book


Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Hyperallergic Podcast. Those of us at Hyperallergic have a pretty unique job: composing written works about topics that are often completely visual. 

It’s difficult to tell just how many art writers there are out there, but it’s safe to say we make up a fairly small slice of the larger art community pie. I mean, just think, how many full time art writers there are in New York City alone. A dozen? Two dozen, maybe? Well, definitely not a lot considering there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of artists in this town. But, if we do say so ourselves, we’re indispensable, as there would be no art world without us.

Today, we’re going to listen in on a panel I moderated back in April 2022 at the Pink Frog Cafe down the street here in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The event was called From Blog to Book. In this podcast, you’re going to hear from three brilliant writers who have contributed to Hyperallergic, and today, are publishing full length books on some pretty amazing topics—some of which they wrote about first here. Those include the secrets of New York, the heroes that saved art from Nazi hordes, the battle over American monuments, and the politics of meme culture. We’ll ask them about what makes them tick, where their obsessions are driving them, and why, of all things, do they continue to write about art?

I’m Hrag Vartanian, host of the Hyperallergic podcast, and the Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Hyperallergic. Let’s take a listen to what these amazing writers have to say.

***

Hrag Vartanian: Thank you everyone for coming! This is the first event Hyperallergic has done with writers talking about writing, so this is kind of a new departure for us. So thank you, everyone, for coming.

You know, I’m really proud of this panel, because these are three writers I really believe in, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with them in different ways. I think that’s the pleasure of running a publication and being an editor, where I’ve watched people flower in different ways. I think all three of these writers have flowered in different ways, creating books and other material that are engaging in really important topics. 

I wanted this evening to be a little bit about thinking about how people turn online material into books, and about how they think about online writing. And hopefully everyone can chime in a little bit about how they do this, because I think everyone has very different experiences.

I’m just going to introduce everyone briefly, and then, we’ll start the conversation. Sounds good? Awesome. 

AX Mina was one of the original contributors to Hyperallergic and they’re still here.

[Audience laughs]

AX Mina: I’m still here.

Hrag Vratanian: So, they’re a creative consultant, coach, and author of Memes to Movements. Do you have your book there? Great. Memes to Movements, which talks about the use of memes in social movements around the world. We’ll talk a little bit about that because Hyperallergic was the first place you wrote about memes.

AX Mina: It was indeed.

Hrag Vratanian: Yep, and they’re not only a regular contributor to Hyperallergic, but also a producer of Five and Nine, a podcast about contemporary magic and work. And most recently, they were the COO at Meedan, and served on the board of the News Product Alliance in China Residencies. So, Meedan, for those of you who may not know, is an organization that deals with fact checking in elections and that kind of thing. So maybe we can talk about that a little bit, too.

Next, we have Professor Erin Thompson, who is, believe it or not now—this is my favorite thing I’ve ever heard in someone’s bio—“America’s only professor of art crime.” So don’t steal anything! She’s right here and she’ll call you out. One of her specialties is studying the black market for looted antiquities, art forgery, museum theft, the ethics of digital reproductions of cultural heritage, art made by detainees at Guantanamo Bay, which, many of you may have heard years ago, I guess it became infamous when the right wing went after it, but it was an exhibition of artists from Guantanamo Bay that she had curated, and it was some very powerful work. You know, I think it’s just incredible how much she was able to give a voice to people who had felt very voiceless, and share that much broader audience. So I just want to say that that’s just incredible. There are a variety of other overlaps between art and crime, and I’m going to ask you at some point why you’re so obsessed with crime. But, I love all of that. And her book that came out recently, Smashing Statues: the Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments, which traces the turbulent history and abundant ironies of our monuments. She’s written extensively about monuments in general, and a lot of controversies that have been coming up around that. 

And then, now, Michelle. Michelle is somebody that first time we’ve met, actually—

Michelle Young: We’re Twitter friends.

Hrag Vartanian: Twitter friends! And we’ve been Twitter friends for like, a decade?

Michelle Young: I don’t know, a long time.

Hrag Vartanian: And this is the first time we’re actually meeting face to face. Michelle’s also the founder of Untapped New York, which is an amazing website about guides to the city and urban discovery and—am I characterizing it correctly?

Michelle Young: Yeah, there’s some of New York city’s secrets.

Hrag Vartanian: New York City secrets. I highly recommend it. She does a really great job of making the urban landscape accessible and exciting, which is really amazing.

She’s the author of Secret Brooklyn: An Unusual Guide, New York Hidden Bars and Restaurants, and Broadway. That one I don’t know. Is it about the history of Broadway? 

Michelle Young: It’s like a little Flip Book about Broadway with old pictures and such. 

Hrag Vartanian: Great. And she’s a graduate at Harvard College in the History of Art and Architecture and holds a master’s degree in urban planning from Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, so she really knows what she’s talking about. Her book that just got picked up, which is freakin’ amazing, is The Art Spy: The Untold Story of World War II Resistance Spy Rose Valland. She wrote about that first for Hyperallergic last year, and today she has a book deal. She’s like some hot writer on the scene, and she’s putting this all together, which is amazing. So, it was sold to HarperOne? Is that what it is? 

Michelle Young: Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: And so, the nonfiction work examines the role of a French resistance member and art historian in tracking down looted artworks throughout Europe during World War II. So, she’s this art historian credited with providing the information that stopped the last train of stolen art from leaving France. So, I’m very excited to read that, I cannot wait. That’s gonna be a movie, come on, you know it. 

Michelle Young: Yeah, they’re working on it.

Hrag Vartanian: See? There we are, I knew it, I knew it. Okay, so let’s get started. For those of you who may not know me, I’m Hrag Vartanian, I’m the Editor-in-Chief and Co-founder of Hyperallergic. Hyperallergic next month is celebrating its 13th year.

[Audience cheers]

Hrag Vartanian: Very, very exciting. I can’t believe it’s happening. Okay, lucky 13. I’m not superstitious. I really am not.

So let’s start. AX, since you were the one of the first contributors to Hyperallergic, I’d love for you to talk a little bit about what online writing has been for you, how it’s been different from a book, and why you chose to make a book. What was that process like?

AX Mina: Yeah, it’s funny, I was updating my LinkedIn, and I put in Hyperallergic, and it said I’d been there for 13 years. It’s like wow, that’s amazing. The way I think about online writing in relation to books is like, this is where I found my voice, right? It was Hyperallergic, right? It wasn’t just that I’ve been writing for Hyper for so long, it’s that I was writing for Hyper at a critical time in my development as a writer. And it was a place for me to explore my voice, to explore different topics. I was writing about all kinds of things, like internet art and performance art, and I was discovering what I’m interested in. 

Then, secondly, in terms of the role of online writing, I think it was also that it was actually very hard for me to get placement in other publications, to go for print, to get to know editors, to try to meet people. You know, at that time, 13 years ago, you had to know an editor. You still have to know an editor, but we met on Twitter, right? 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, that’s right, we met on Twitter too. 

AX Mina: “Also,” right. 

Hrag Vartanian: I’m on Twitter a lot. 

[Audience laughs]

AX Mina: And so there are just different avenues. There are new avenues in which I could connect with people who might be, you know, able to help me and help me develop my voice.

And so I think there are a lot of ways that online writing—I’ll just share those two—but I think that online writing helped me both develop my voice, develop my interests, but also frankly, just get my name out there, and in a way that was actually quite difficult especially for a young female, queer, writer of color, all those, you know, checked boxes, right, to have a voice before internet writing and blogging was actually quite difficult.

And so I owe a great deal of my writing career to blogging, to online writing, and especially to Hyperallergic specifically.

Hrag Vartanian: I also want to mention that when AX and I met on Twitter, we were arguing. 

AX Mina: We were.

[Audience laughs]

Hrag Vartanian: So, you know, thankfully, neither of us are really conflict averse, and that turned out great. It was an argument over how you were the first artist that Brooklyn Museum hired to do their first fans Twitter feed.

AX Mina: That is correct, yes.

Hrag Vartanian: Right, and that became a whole argument because I thought that was “gatekeeping,” and anyway, whatever, as you can imagine, it led to a lot of funny times.

So, okay, Erin, how about you? You come as an academic, and I know that when we first met, I think you were a little shy about putting your work out there in a way that maybe wasn’t traditional, or at least what you thought was traditional. I’m wondering how you approached online writing and what it meant for you?

Erin Thompson: Well, not to be left out, but we also met on Twitter.

[Audience laughs]

Hrag Vartanian: Honestly, I don’t meet anyone in real life anymore. 

Erin Thompson: Which is important! Because the first piece I wrote for Hyperallergic was me tweeting a thread and you slid into my DMs to be like, “stop tweeting and turn that into an article.”

Hrag Vartanian: True. True. 

Erin Thompson: And I was like, “Oh! You can do that?” Because I had been for a long time abstractly wanting to write for the public, but not really understanding what that meant, and I had achieved that by writing opinion pieces. Then when I was trying to do other pieces, I would get feedback from editors who were like, “Well, this is too much like an op-ed.”

And I’m like, “Yeah, because I think something should happen when I write this piece.” So I had sort of given up, and then you were like, “Oh, no, no, no, this is what we do here.” And I realized that Hyperallergic, and now some other publications that I have found, are places where you can report on something. You can put new information out there, but you can also do it in a way that expresses your own voice. So now, I think even when my pieces are more reporting, they’re more personal and I’m not afraid to say, “This is the weirdo that I am, that is behind this, and you should take this with a grain of weirdo-shaped salt,” and that has made my other writing more powerful too, I think. 

Hrag Vartanian: How receptive have your colleagues been to that kind of writing? 

Erin Thompson: Sort of disturbingly, my college’s Office for Advancement of Faculty Research publishes metrics every year, so I now know that I have the second highest Twitter following of any faculty member or institute at my whole college.

Hrag Vartanian: Wow! That’s power! 

Erin Thompson: The one whose higher tweets about Turkish politics. I’m like, I’m never gonna catch him. 

[All laugh]

Hrag Vartanian: Too much material. That’s funny. That’s hilarious. 

Erin Thompson: I had been a little nervous, like “Oh, it’s not, you know, published by Harvard, it’s not peer reviewed,” or whatever. But it does make a difference. Things change. The piece that I wrote about, that you got in my DMs for, was about an object looted from Nepal that had surfaced in a museum in Texas. And now it’s back in Nepal because of that article.

Hrag Vartanian: And then you followed it back during the repatriation.

Erin Thompson: Yes, and then I wrote another piece about getting to go to the party. Actually, I wore this dress to the reinstallation ceremony. 

Hrag Vartanian: Amazing.

Erin Thompson: My friend is like, “you’re wearing that to the redeification?” I liked it. 

Hrag Vartanian: What a great term. “Redeification.” What was the experience like having this deity returned to the community? I’d just love for you to talk about that little, because we often report about these stories at Hyperallergic, but we don’t really see the return, right? What was the actual event like?

Erin Thompson: That’s another nice part of online reading, or publishing, is that your stories can find their audiences. So there might not be that many people who are following the news of repatriation, but there will be enough, and then you will attract other people who are interested. So I just invited myself along because I was like, “The party’s gonna be pretty great.”

Hrag Vartanian: But they knew who you were.

Erin Thompson: Yeah, it was really weird, actually, I was on the front page of the newspaper. People were recognizing me at the ceremony, even though I had my mask. It was a great party, by the way. The god provided snacks afterwards, so we got handed like a to-go plate of sweets.

Hrag Vartanian: So you’re on the cover of the Katmandu Times?

Erin Thompson: Now I’m forgetting what it’s called, but it was several of the local newspapers. And then I was standing next to the American ambassador who’s like “Oh, you’re the one who tweeted.”

[Audience laughs]

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.] “Guilty.” That’s you. I love it. So, Michelle. 

Michelle Young: Yes.

Hrag Vartanian: I want to talk a little bit about your experience, because you’ve been an online writer for quite a while now, right?

Michelle Young: 2009. Around the same time Hyperallergic was created, right? 

Hrag Vartanian: 2009, that’s when we started, yeah. So, talk a little bit about that experience. First of all, what pushed you to be an online writer? What was it about? Because, in 2009, people were still kind of pooh-poohing it a little bit, right? Yeah, it was unserious. 

Michelle Young: It’s true. And I didn’t know anything about journalism, really, or online journalism. I was actually in an indie rock band here in Williamsburg playing cello standing up. And you can find those clips online. 

Hrag Vartanian: What was the name of the band?

Michelle Young: It was called Kittens Ablaze, which I did not know was a euphemism for hot pussy, but uh…

[Audience laughs]

Michelle Young: I didn’t come up with the band name, a bunch of boys in my band did, so…[laughs]. Anyway! Different era. [Laughs].

[Audience laughs]

Hrag Vartanian: But, great details. 

Michelle Young: I was like, cute cats! [Laughs]. On fire! 

[Audience laughs]

Michelle Young: I went from there. We played several years at South by Southwest showcases. I mean, we did it for a while. Anyway—

Hrag Vartanian: Amazing.

Michelle Young: So, no, at the time, I didn’t know anything. But I had quit my job in fashion, was in this band for a few years, and I started just wandering around New York in a way that I hadn’t before. Because I had gone from my apartment to my office and, you know, back and forth. And once I did not have a job, I was like, “Oh, what’s this street? Let me go down this one.” 

And I just discovered all these interesting things, and wondered about them, and then started digging into it. And then my friends in the band were like, “You can just create a website really fast.” It was the time that you could create a website in seconds. The cameras were really cheap. Like, SLR cameras. And so the idea was to create a website that talked about New York in an informative way that was not a personal blog, not lamenting how New York is changing and it’s terrible, but instead, “Let’s celebrate and learn about the area that we’re in and hopefully get people involved in the city.”

So, the idea, also at the time, was, “If we bring this back to online writing and feature writing, what is that topic, or that thing, that you overlook, that other people have overlooked?” In that sense, in terms of journalism, it’s always about, “What’s your angle for that?” Or, “What story has not been told?” And so the piece that I wrote for you guys is about a Van Gogh painting that was on auction in Christie’s last year.

I came across it in the New York Times. There was a little blurb, and it said “This painting was looted by the Nazis.” So of course my ear was on the floor. And then it mentioned the provenance, which said it went from the museum in Paris, Jeu de Paume, where it was stolen by the Nazis, and then it went to a castle in Germany. And then it appears in 1978, or 1975. And the New York Times just glossed over that. They took the provenance that Christie’s had written—or was it Sotheby’s? I can’t remember which one now. Anyway, they just took that and went with it. And I looked at it and I was like, “What happened in those 35 years?” So then I messaged you, and I was like, “The press event is happening, I was invited, and I want to go dig into this.”

And so I raised that question there, to the head of restitution, and got some interesting answers. Mostly, actually, if you want to know the answer, it’s “We don’t care about those 30 years in the art world.” 

[Audience laughs]

Michelle Young: But I was curious about it because they went from a known Nazi storehouse for looted art to someone who owned it in ‘78 or ‘75.

Hrag Vartanian: And they didn’t care?

Michelle Young: Nobody cared. The law in most European countries is, “If you have it for 30 years, it’s yours.” And Switzerland was five at the time, so basically by the time the war ended, if you had stolen or bought a piece of stolen art, it was now yours. And so, for the art world, legally, it’s clear.

But of course for all of us, it’s a different story. And I dug into that and started asking some probing questions, and that became the story. So again, that’s like that untold piece that if you don’t look into it too deeply, you will miss it. 

Hrag Vartanian: And you know, when you sort of pitched that story to me, my first reaction was like, “Is that interesting?” But I was like, “Michelle is really into it. This is going to be a really good story.” 

Michelle Young: I got really into it. They were like, “You have 1500 words.” And I came back, I was like, “Sorry, it’s 6000. Can you run it?” And your editor was like, “I think you need to cut it down to at least 2000.” So I had to cut out my whole long historical analysis about Van Gogh, you know? 

[Audience laughs]

Michelle Young: Tears! [Laughs].

Hrag Vartanian: But it was a really good piece. So how did that become a book? How was that process? Did somebody just read it and was like, “Oh my god, you need to do this?”

Michelle Young: No, not exactly. Well, okay, so I’ve been writing about New York for over ten years. And I could not read about New York in my spare time at all. It made me really stressed, since everything was like, “Could that be an article? Could that be like a tour?” You know? And so, in my spare time, I read World War II books. I have a family history.

Hrag Vartanian: That sounds relaxing.

Michelle Young: [Laughs]. I got really into it. So I have a family history in World War II. My grandfather survived the atomic bomb. He was a student in Japan at the time, from Taiwan. And so I’ve always been interested. But then I married someone French. And I was like, “I should probably know more about French.” 

I’m obsessed with World War II. So I went into this dark hole that led me down into a very obscure world, a small niche of female French World War II spies. Apparently, there are actually a lot of books about this.

Hrag Vartanian: And it’s France, there’s probably a union.

Michelle Young: [Laughs]. Yeah, probably. So, then last January I read a book called Goering’s Man in Paris. It is about Goering’s art dealer in Paris, and Rose Valland, the character in my book, worked in the museum that this art dealer was the head of. Well, he was the head of the Nazi looting force in France. And she just literally popped off the page. And I started kind of digging into her. I put it aside for a while because I was pregnant with my second kid, and then in October, I was up in the middle of the night feeding and pumping and whatever. And then suddenly I was like, “I’m gonna write some stuff,” you know, in the dark.

And so that’s what happened. I started writing some chapters and seeing if I could do this and whether it would lead to something interesting. And then I was like, “I should probably write something in the public that’s not about New York, but about looted art.” And then I saw this exhibition come through, and I messaged you. So, thanks for trusting me on that.

Hrag Vartanian: Are you kidding? I was dying for you to write it. At some points, I was like, “This sounds great.” But honestly—and this speaks, I think, to all of you—it’s not just the topic, it’s really when you see someone’s passion for a topic that really sells it, right?

I mean, Erin, when you write about stolen art, I mean, I see it. It’s like this laser focus. You know, that emergence. And in the way you pitched it, I knew there was something. I was like, “The pitch is good. I mean, I don’t know about the topic, but like, this is good.” 

And then, you know, for AX, I feel like it was similar. You were noticing things other people weren’t noticing. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? Because memes, when you started writing about them, no one was really taking them seriously beyond, you know, Tumblr. Things were getting in the media, but no one was talking about it.

AX Mina: Right, yeah. That was my first article for Hyperallergic. And that was 2011, when I first started writing about memes and politics. And at that time, the idea that memes could be political was very strange. This was long before the 2016 election, long before what we see today.

I think one thing about online writing that I really appreciate is audience validation, right? Because that process allowed for experimentation, I was like, “Cool, let’s go for it.” And so, I wrote about the role of memes in this train crash in China, and how the memes were used to evade censorship around the train crash. I was in China. I was like, “Oh, this is interesting.” And so I just started writing about it.

But then people started tweeting about it, and started picking it up and saying, “Oh, this is also interesting.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” And, so again, speaking of finding my voice, I was like, “Oh, maybe I should look at this further.” And so I just started doing that. I just started poking around, writing some more for Hyper, more for other publications And what’s concurrent with this was also a growing interest in the role of the Internet and politics, right? Again, this was 2011. It was a time of hope for the Internet. Arab Spring. The Occupy Wall Street movement. A lot of optimism about technology, that I think is looking back can feel very different, right?

But the idea of even thinking of technology as maybe political, as having a political impact, was also growing. And so there’s a growing field called “civic tech,” and also “critical tech,” that was looking at this. And so it’s within that growing interest that I was also able to start writing.

And in so many ways, the topic I was exploring was also kind of just growing in popular interest, certainly also the people who grew up with memes, as they started moving into editorial roles, into decision making roles, and into campaigns, right? It’s not an accident that we started to see things really crescendo in 2016, because a lot of the people who grew up with memes were kids who were in roles of influence, who could shape campaigns, who could work in movements, who could write about them. So in a lot of ways that’s how it evolved into a book. It was also the greater consciousness and the greater interest. But it really started with an article, and someone saying, “Yeah, write about it, that’s interesting.” And it goes from there.

Hrag Vartanian: I think when you did that first, didn’t we call it “online street art” or something? 

AX Mina: Yes. Yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: That’s what we called it because we didn’t really know how to talk about it in terms that other people would understand. Because meme was not a popular word.

AX Mina: Not a popular word. Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: So we called it “online street art.”

AX Mina: That’s right.

Hrag Vartanian: Because street art was such a thing with Obama, during the first term and stuff. So we were like, “Oh, okay, maybe people will understand it.” Because it was the first fully political turn of street art with the Obama campaign. 

AX Mina: That’s also right. Yes, it really grew out of us writing about street art and looking at these things.

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

AX Mina: And again, that’s where the value of online writing is. Because you can explore a lot of different topics and then combine them in interesting ways.

Hrag Vartanian: That’s right. And it was also the era of smartphones, so people were posting photos. So essentially it was like an early form of memeing, right? We were just posting photos of things we saw on the street. And then people were like, why put them on the street? We can just make a meme! We can just circulate them that way. And it became a whole different thing. I remember that. And in China it was so interesting to me, because there it was a way to evade censorship, because it was harder to scan a photograph and figure out whether you should censor it rather than text. And soon as you told me that, I was like, “Oh, this is the future.” Like, this is going to be something we’re going to have to figure out. You know?

AX Mina: Yeah. And technology has evolved since then, right? So those techniques no longer work. But at the time it was very interesting. It’s always interesting to look longitudinally at these technologies, right? It’s been 13 years. What has evolved? What has changed? Certainly it is a bit of a cat and mouse game. 

Hrag Vartanian: Totally. So, how about you, Erin? What does your research look like? What is writing like in your practice? Because if anybody follows you—and obviously I’m going to say follow everyone on Twitter, although, AX, you’re not on Twitter anymore.

AX Mina: I’m not on Twitter anymore. 

Hrag Vartanian: But, Erin, your research is surfacing on Twitter in such fascinating ways. You’re calling out auction houses that sell really ugly objects that are clearly fake, for example. Tell us a little bit about your practice around that. What does that represent for you? Or, what does that mean?

Erin Thompson: My girlfriend just looked at a couple of days worth of my tweets, and she was like, “You’re entering a manic phase in your research, aren’t you?”

[Audience laughs]

This is true! But Twitter to me is invaluable, because I’m the stereotypical nerdy absent-minded professor. I think that everything is fascinating, and I will back you into a corner and talk about astrolabes for a half an hour before you admit you don’t know what an astrolabe is. I can’t tell what will be interesting unless I throw it at the wall of Twitter, and either nobody will like it or 300,000 people will like it, and then I’ll have to write a book about it. Or, somebody will DM me and say, “You should write an article about this.” 

And this is besides all of the research help I get from when I ask random questions and someone will be like, “Well, I’m an expert on that thing.” So yeah, the research and the publicity are intertwined, to the extent that my editor for this book that came out in February had to sit me down and be like. “Stop reviewing everything. You have to save something for the book.”

I’m like “Okay, fine.” So I’m definitely not paying attention to that advice currently for the book I’m researching, which is about forgeries of antiquities. So if you want any forgery hints and tips, follow me on Twitter. 

Hrag Vartanian: Not, not to make them, but.

Erin Thompson: I am making them.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh yeah, you are making forgeries.

Erin Thompson: The conceit of the book is that I will make my own forgeries to see if I can defeat scientific testing. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, that’s so bad. 

Erin Thompson: The answer is, “Yes.” 

Hrag Vartanian: So, one of my favorite interviews I did, this year or last year, was with Audrey Flack, where she admits that she forged Picassos. And it turns out a lot of older generation artists have done stuff like that. And I’m like, “Ooh, we gotta find these paintings!” Because I kind of want the forgery.

Erin Thompson: Oh, forget the paintings, it’s all about the drawings. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, okay. [Laughs].

Erin Thompson: It’s like, zhoo, zhoo, zhoo, Picasso! 

[Audience laughs]

Erin Thompson: And he was known to do this, with his friends, just at a restaurant, right? It’s actually something to do with my book. There’s some Picasso drawings. I’m not going to write about it, but it’s just a story that came up this summer. 

Hrag Vartanian: Ohhh. So I’m curious, and you’ve mentioned this, but, there’s such a big obsession in the publishing world about not having any of the writing online, right? It feels like you can’t publish a book of a collection of things you’ve done online. Do you feel like that’s an obstacle at all for your own work? 

Erin Thompson: The one hiccup I came across was a couple months ago. I wrote a story for the Wilson Quarterly, which is for the Woodrow Wilson Institute, about looted art in Ukraine. I wanted to mention Rose Valland in the story because I compared preparations for war between France in World War II and Ukraine currently, or just before the war started. My editor did not want me to mention her in the story, and the reason is that someone might scoop it. I mean, once the book is announced, it’s definitely harder to do. But I guess the possibility is out there. So I cut that stuff out.

Hrag Vartanian: Interesting. How about you, AX? Did you have any of those issues?

AX Mina: I think it’s unique to my topic, because it changes so much, literally within weeks, that I didn’t feel those same pressures. So there’s a little bit of, “Okay, don’t write about this thing because it’s in the book.” But honestly, because of the topic of the internet, it’s different month by month. I didn’t feel the same pressures. I was actually encouraged to keep writing online. You know, especially for an author writing a book, my editor said, “You want to build your platform, right?” And so in terms of getting your name out there, writing about it can help. That might be unique, again, to this topic, because of the nature of it, but certainly I’ve heard that from other writers. Especially if it’s a really niche topic, something that requires a lot of research, the common thought is to wait until the book is out before you really push it.

Hrag Vartanian: Erin, do you feel that pressure? Are you told that? 

Erin Thompson: During the final review of my book, the lawyer assigned to Norton to do a legal check asked me if I had published any of the writing in the book before, and I said no. 

Hrag Vartanian: And that’s it. 

Erin Thompson: But I think it’s a copyright issue, and I knew you weren’t going to sue Norton for something that I had written for you, so I was like, “Let’s not even deal with this issue.”

Hrag Vartanian: Gotcha. So now, in terms of writing a book, what was the biggest challenge for each of you? I’d love for you to chime in. I mean, everyone has their own battle. I know there are sleepless nights. I’m kind of curious, if you have any tips for writers in the audience? What would you do differently today?

AX Mina: There’s two things that come to mind as difficulties. One is avoiding getting sucked into the rabbit holes, when literally my job was to research rabbit holes, right? So I literally had to go up into a mountain in China with no internet to finish the book. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, come on.

AX Mina: Literally, I did.

Hrag Vartanian: Did you do that?

[Audience laughs]

AX Mina: I literally did that. I literally went up into a mountain to finish the book because I had to get away from the internet, even though my book was about the internet. So, that’s very practical, right? Like, how do you concentrate in order to write a book? Because it’s very different from arts writing. In arts writing, or online writing, you want to enter a conversation. And so you’ve got to know what people are talking about. But for a book, you have to step away from that, because by the time you finish the manuscript, it’s a few years until the book actually comes out, right? And so it’s a different type of conversation.

And then more vulnerably, I think that the second thing is that there’s a lot of vicarious trauma to writing books. Especially when it’s about politics or about social movements. I think that that conversation is more present and upfront these days. People have more framework to talk about it. But I know so many authors, not just me, who have mental health challenges because of the depth in which you have to go into a topic. Sometimes someone writes a book because they’re so passionate about it. They have that passion you talked about. But then if you really dive into it, you’re just swirled in all kinds of negativity, in terms of the difficulties of humanity. And so the mental health effects, that not just I experience, but also so many authors in my life have experienced, is very real.

And so, especially when I’m talking to authors, I really encourage people to take care of themselves. Do your meditation, do your yoga, drink your water, because it’s very real, and it’s something that so many writers and authors I know struggle with. 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. A few years ago there was a really moving piece, I think it was The New Republic, about the Holocaust, or actually, I think it was just genocide, generally. This historian was talking about actually having vicarious trauma, having nightmares. And that’s one thing that I think people don’t realize sometimes when you’re writing about something. You really do, in order to get into the head of the topic, in a way, you have to kind of feel through it.

AX Mina: You have to enter it, that’s right. Yeah. So yeah, so the book I did after that was a kid’s book about Hanmoji as a kind of palette cleanser. 

Hrag Vartanian: Hanmoji! So, do you want to show people so they can see it? It’s a book that just came out last week, is it?

AX Mina: Yeah, it just came out a couple weeks ago. 

Hrag Vartanian: It’s about using Emoji to teach children Chinese writing. And really helping, sort of, help children to understand the different characters.

AX Mina: And in so many ways it was also a way to deal with the kind of vicarious trauma and struggles that I had writing the first book. It’s like, “Here’s a fun one. Here’s something that I’m just enjoying.” We worked on it in the midst of the pandemic, so it’s also a very healing space, as well, in the middle of high lockdown. 

Hrag Vartanian: So Erin, you’re writing about monuments and their troubling histories. Is that something relatable what AX said? 

Erin Thompson: Well, sort of yes, sort of no. I think my advice would be that you can’t force yourself to write a book. You can force yourself to do the sprint of a shorter piece, but you can’t force yourself to do the marathon of a book, so you have to find a topic that really gets you going and keeps you going.

I just read Elizabeth Hardwick saying that there are two types of writers: those who write out of desperation and those who write out of revenge. And I am 1,000 percent revenge.

Hrag Vartanian: Tell me more. 

Erin Thompson: Once I found the, “I’ll show them” topic approach to monuments, I had it. And then Twitter was also very helpful because I’m like, “I’m already getting criticism from all of these people who think that I’m too woke, or think that it’s erasing history or whatever,” and that was just like wind under my sails.

Hrag Vartanian: Wait, didn’t Fox News go after you? 

Erin Thompson: Tucker Carlson personally denounced me. 

Hrag Vartanian: Congratulations! And how was that?

Erin Thompson: Where does that go on my CV? “Awards and honors.”

Hrag Vartanian: Right? How was that experience being denounced by Tucker Carlson? 

Erin Thompson: He’s got like a whole crew who then find you on various social media and write emails, and letters to your chair, blah, blah, blah. My favorite was the unintentional compliments though. Somebody on Twitter was like, I don’t know, oh my God…now I’m forgetting the name, who’s the CNBC commentator?

Hrag Vartanian: Rachel Maddow?

Erin Thompson: He’s like, “I didn’t know Rachel Maddow had a twin.” And I was like, “Oh, thank you.” Or somebody put a photo next to me next to some portrait of a Habsburg, and was like, “She’s got the chin.” And I was like, “This is a really erudite reference for a hate tweet!”

So yeah, that just kept me going. And I almost have the opposite approach. I didn’t feel the trauma, but I felt that from my position of privilege, I could research more deeply and speak more out about it, because I wasn’t as likely to actually be physically targeted. So I thought that was what I could contribute to this debate.

Hrag Vartanian: So now Michelle, I mean, World War II, there’s something there, no?

Michelle Young: I am waiting for the people to come out of the woodwork when it does publish, you know, like here’s a woman, non-French, writing about World War II. So it’s coming. But right now people are blissfully unaware, right? I mean if you read the trade papers, you’ve seen the announcements, but like the world does not know yet this book is coming.

Hrag Vartanian: But this is a really heavy topic. I mean, sadly almost relatable nowadays in terms of the world in turmoil.

Michelle Young: Oh, yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: This person is rushing to save these artifacts. Well, you know at a time where you know people’s lives are at stake and it’s very difficult because you know there’s all these decisions being made right.

Michelle Young: Right. Do you send people to the front, or get more weapons, or do you allocate money to save some artwork, right? It’s a real life decision.

Hrag Vartanian: So, how has that process been? Because, I mean, there’s a lot of complicated moral issues in this as well.

Michelle Young: Yeah, I mean, the topic is so large, as you’re saying, and if I don’t actually focus on her story and the narrative, I get kind of lost. I spent a month in the French National Archives, just opening boxes and taking pictures. I felt like I needed to take pictures of everything, because everything could be potentially relevant. That part has in the initial part of writing this book been the most challenging, and I’ve been feeling that stress. “What if I don’t take a picture of this? Is it going to be detrimental? Or if I take all this, am I going to be able to go through all these hundreds and thousands of pages of research?” And then, I’ve been writing now that I’m back, although I’m leaving tomorrow again to do more archival stuff. But I think the most challenging thing is actually something I didn’t expect, which goes back to your first question, in that I just assumed people would be really happy to tell me their stories, right?

Hrag Vartanian: Well, it’s difficult.

Michelle Young: Yeah.

Hrag Vartanian: And that’s the thing. So often, the most interesting stories are the ones that people don’t want to tell you. 

Michelle Young: You have to figure out how to talk to people to get them to trust you, and then to open up or give you materials. So it’s part of the process that I didn’t kind of expect, that as a journalist looking for facts, it would take so much political maneuvering.

Hrag Vartanian: I mean, obviously you’ve been treating the story with such care. It really is kind of amazing how your whole research can sort of change with just one or two people. I’m wondering, do either of you have any experience where there’s that one pivotal person that took so long to cultivate or reveal or anything? Though I imagine, Erin, museums aren’t delighted to see you show up. They’re probably like, “Oh no Erin’s here, quick, check the labels!”

[Audience laughs]

Erin Thompson: [Laughs]

Hrag Vartanian: “Check the provenance of everything in the room! Hide those two things!”

Erin Thompson: It’s great. They respond to my emails so quickly. 

Hrag Vartanian: “Please don’t go on Twitter!” So, do you ever have these kinds of experiences, where you have a really tough time finding a source, or it’s just frustrating? I mean, I’m sure provenance is a frustration in and of itself.

Erin Thompson: Well, my style of writing is I think much more free form, especially for a long project. I start off with all of these potential ideas and then I end up writing about the ones that I could follow through to the end. So there are definitely little half dug rabbit holes off to the side that I mourn, which just weren’t as easy to follow. So if you’re writing about one person, that’s so scary to me.

Michelle Young: Yeah, there’s the fear that you won’t find what you need, right?

Erin Thompson: Right. 

Michelle Young: But for me, it’s been more about serendipity and being comfortable answering the phone call of someone who says, “I have something to tell you.” I’m like, “Okay, let’s see.” And sometimes it’s not nothing. Oftentimes it’s someone who has read something I’ve already written, but sometimes they want to tell me something that ends up like changing the course of the book. 

Hrag Vartanian: Amazing. How about you, AX?

AX Mina: I think one other thing about a book is, don’t write a book unless you can’t imagine not writing the book because it’s so hard. That research, the patience, the persistence…and there’s so many moments of serendipity for me. For me, it was important that when I was writing about internet culture, that I actually meet people who are doing it. So I wasn’t just looking abstractly, and so I would just stumble into someone.

You know, I was in Mexico and just met someone who had been involved directly in some of the Ayotzinapa 43 activism and was in Hong Kong, and met people who were literally like putting up the umbrellas for the umbrella movement. Those are things that you need a lot of patience for, you need a lot of persistence, and regardless of the type of research, it’s tough. And so, yeah, like what you Said, Erin, if you don’t have that passion, or, what is it? Revenge and desperation, right? If you don’t have that, if you’re not ready to write the book. Because you need a lot in you to hold on to when the going gets tough. 

Erin Thompson: It makes me want to summarize that we all have a lot of passion. But you might think, “Oh, you’re writing a book because you’re an expert about something.” But I think it’s more that we’ve written books because we’re open and curious. And anybody can get to the point of expertise if you’re open and curious.

AX Mina: Yeah, that’s right. Absolutely. 

Hrag Vartanian: I think that’s why all your writing is interesting, the three of you. I think that’s part of it. When it comes to expert credentialism, it can sometimes be like, “Okay, you’re the expert. That doesn’t mean you’re a good writer.” Do you know what I mean? And I think all the three of you are good writers, and I think that’s where the difference is here, right? 

So now, when do you know your book is done? You know, I mean, I know you’ve written other books, Michelle, but I mean, like, I’d love to get a sense of when do you know it’s done?

AX Mina: When your editor is banging down the door. “Hey, where’s the book? Where’s the manuscript?”

Hrag Vartanian: Was that really the case with you, AX?

AX Mina: Yes. Yep. You know, it’s hard because it’s like when it’s done, right? When you’re exploring, you just need deadlines. You need some kind of structure. And in some ways, it just had to be finished. Because with any topic, especially given the passion that we have, you can just keep going, and so at some point you have to say, “Okay, this is ready.” 

But is it ready? It’s hard to say, right? And that’s actually the collaborative part, being a little facetious, but when an editor helps you determine, “Okay, you know, this is good. And you can continue this, there are other ways you can write, but this package is ready to go.” I think it’s very hard actually for an individual, and for me it was important that it was collaborative in my decision when it was time to ship.

Hrag Vartanian: Erin?

Erin Thompson: Yeah, it’s hard to know when to stop. Because you can’t put in everything. But now I remind myself along the way that I can’t put in everything, so I don’t have to worry about collecting every single possible thing everyone has ever said, which is what academia would do, so it’s sort of artificial, but that can be reassuring. 

Hrag Vartanian: Michelle?

Michelle Young: I guess my whole life I’ve never really liked writing without lines or anything like that. And my architecture background makes me…my training is like, “Everything should be iterative and you’re always testing.” So I don’t know how it’s going to end for me on this project specifically, but I’ve never missed a deadline, so I’m kind of latching onto that. But I do think that the way I work is that I feel very embodied in that project, and so I do think it will come to a point where I will feel that it is complete. So we’ll see. 

Erin Thompson: I mean, when we were talking beforehand, you told me you were writing to the Sorbonne to verify her graduation dates to one of the four schools she attended, so I feel like there might be some editor knocking at your door.

Michelle Young: No, but yeah, a lot of it is fact checking. Because you can’t really trust anything that you see anywhere, whether it’s in a book or online. And so this is one of the things I’ve been trying to verify, because this woman went to like five schools and had like three graduate degrees and she was born in 1898. So this was a big deal, and there’s no real clarity on exactly what degrees she got. And the only way I’m going to verify that is if the school tells me. I don’t trust what anyone else says, but yes, I am going down a lot of rabbit holes right now.

Hrag Vartanian: And so what role does social media play as a writer? Do your editors look at that? Does that contribute to getting a book deal? Do they expect you to be tweeting, Instagramming out things? What has that been like? I’m gonna ask you because you, AX, because obviously with memes, I’m guessing that might have been part of the deal.  

AX Mina: Yeah, these days I can’t speak to specific pressures, but just in general, most authors are expected to have their own platform now. And, yeah, the days of the publisher going out and marketing the book for you and putting you on all the stages, unless you’re like a bestseller, it’s rare. Most authors I know have to build their own platform. They have their Instagram. They have their Twitter. They’re the ones pushing for the book talks and they’re the ones scheduling the things, right? And so even if not specifically social media, it’s the reach and access of what an author has, and most agents will tell me, is part of the package and is part of the kind of pressures now with the publishing industry.

Hrag Vartanian: I just want to mention Veken, who’s over there, the publisher, and my husband. He actually is the reason I started writing a blog. It was actually because he asked me, like, “Hey, do you ever want to write a book?” And I said, “Sure.” And he’s like, “Who do you think is going to read the book?” I go, “People interested in the topic?” And, I mean, this was so sweet. He was like, “Oh, that’s not the way it works.”

[Audience laughs]

And then he’s like, “Maybe you should start a blog, because even if you get a hundred readers, you’ll have a hundred people that want to buy your book.” And I was like, “Oh my God, that’s so brilliant! That’s so brilliant!” So I literally started that because of Veken and his marketing genius.

So, thank you for being so nice, Veken, that you convinced me to do online writing. And then he sort of snatched me, and now it’s what I do all day. Thirteen years later. Erin, how about you? What’s the role of social media? Or what are the expectations, I should say, too? Are there? 

Erin Thompson: I had my first meeting with my publisher’s marketing and publicity people who are going to be in charge of the book marketing and publicity. And I was like, great, they’ll finally tell me how to use Twitter and social media. And they sign onto the Zoom and they’re like, “You’re a master of Twitter,” and I’m like, “No, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m just guessing.”

Hrag Vartanian: Well, they’re probably used to dealing with people that are much worse at it. Like one word tweets, or something. You know like, “I’m eating my food.”

Erin Thompson: I think what I like doing about Twitter, besides just posting my weird research, it’s that it’s like a giant electronic lovefest of other authors.  So if I read something and I like it, then I retweet it and I tag the author, and I say, “That’s cool.” And then, you know, maybe three years down the line, we’re reviewing each other’s books or something. But that’s not what it’s about, it’s about building community, and then you support the people in your community.

Hrag Vartanian: I want to be as calm as you when it comes to being online, because I feel like we all get harassed in different ways. But you’re just so, like, cool about it. You’re like, “Oh well. Tucker Carlson.” 

Erin Thompson: Cool or extremely conflict averse? I’m like, “I’ll just put that in a box and ignore that. Lock, lock, lock!”

Hrag Vartanian: Lock it away. Michelle, what do you think?

Michelle Young: Well I would say that I have heard from my agent and editor that having some platform or audience is helpful and useful. So I don’t know if everyone here knows that narrative nonfiction, I think that most nonfiction is sold on proposals. So you put together what’s basically a marketing document with a sample chapter. And then one of the sections is about audience reach or basically, “How will you help us sell this book?” And that’s what you put together, which includes your social media following. In my case I also had the page views of our website and other things like that. So yes, it is important.

Hrag Vartanian: So did their eyes open up when they saw those statistics?

Michelle Young: I think so.

Hrag Vartanian: So it helped. It helped, I’m sure.

Michelle Young: It helped, but it’s not necessary. 

Hrag Vartanian: No, it’s not. 

Michelle Young: Often I will see people who are like, “I just sold a book,” and I’ll, I’ll click through. And there’s like a thousand followers.

Hrag Vartanian: But I’ve also seen the opposite, where I’m like, “…I don’t know if they should be writing a book.” And then they have like 400,000 followers or something. And you’re just like, “Okay, good luck with that,” right?

Okay, do we have any questions in the audience? We’ve been going on for about an hour and I know that Erin has to leave fairly soon, but questions from the audience, anything that you’d like to know from these lovely people.

Michelle Young: I just want to make sure that someone has documented this for Twitter with a photo. Just want to make sure there is something.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, yeah, people are taking photos, right? Yeah, we have photos. We’re good. Okay, so I’ll keep going if no one has any questions. 

Erin Thompson: That wasn’t a long enough pause. You gotta do the “teacher eyes.”

Hrag Vartanian: I know. That’s right. Anybody? I sense a question over here. Nothing? No, okay. Over there. There we are.

[Indecipherable question]

Hrag Vartanian: So the question is about self doubt and how you grapple with that. Imposter syndrome, maybe?

Audience member: Yes, that.

AX Mina: There’s a meme I saw circulating around. It’s like, what, what makes a writer more anxious? And it said, “That everyone will see your work, and that no one will see your work.” Both are true. 

Hrag Vartanian: That’s true.

AX Mina: Yeah and in so many ways just being an author, being a writer, is such an act of vulnerability. It’s such an act of giving, that if you don’t feel self doubt, you’re not doing it right. You know, if you aren’t feeling that imposter syndrome, you’re not vulnerable enough yet. And in so many ways, if you’re feeling that, it means you’re human. And if you can tap into that depth and allow for that vulnerability to sit in your heart, you’re going to be an amazing writer. Because you have understood what it means to bare your soul, to bare your emotions, to bare human vulnerability and human suffering and human life into your book.

Hrag Vartanian: The question is, do you have to let it go to function? 

AX Mina: Yeah. I practice mindfulness meditation and yoga. And so for me it’s not about letting it go, but just letting it be, like a lot of my practices. And that’s actually interesting. I haven’t talked about the role of meditation writing, but like, you just have to let it be and let it be there. Not suppress it and not inflame it. Because either way, that’s not healthy. But how do you just sit with it? Allow it to be. And allow that vulnerability, that turmoil to become the fuel that creates great writing. 

[Indecipherable question]

Hrag Vartanian: So, the question is about managing your social life, which I think any creative person could sort of deal with. Erin, do you want to answer that question? 

Erin Thompson: When I wrote the book that came out in February, it was all during pandemic. We retreated up to Vermont, and my kids were in school. And they got out at three, it was an hour away. So I had from wake up time until 2:01 pm to work. And then afterwards it was not work. So this artificial barrier made the work better, because there was no messing around. I was just in it and writing, and then I was stopped and gave my brain a chance to think about things. Believe it or not, my entire brain is not consumed by playing Go Fish, so it could kind of be percolating back there. So now I try and keep up with that, the thought that you have to have a well rounded life. You can’t just be in front of the computer telling yourself, “think, think, think,” all the time. 

Hrag Vartanian: How about you, Michelle?

Michelle Young: So for both questions: yes, self doubt. I think every few days I’m like, “Oh God. Is the little that I wrote so far any good?” And then I have to go back, and then I’m like, “Okay, okay, I think it’s okay.” So that’s constantly happening. But then analogous to that and about the social life question, I realized that I need in terms of book writing, (which is similar to long form feature writing, actually), I need a very specific setup which I didn’t have when I was churning out articles for Untapped New York. You could put me at a highway median and I could write that. But this stuff, I have to sit at my dining table. It probably needs to be usually morning. And I have to have a very clear mind and a clear space in front of me, and that’s when I’m actually writing.

And so in that way, I actually compartmentalize my day, because if I’m having to meet a friend in the morning, I kind of already know that that day is not going to be a very full day of writing. It might be doing some research, searching for documents that I need and that kind of thing, or sending emails to people where I need information, but it’s not going to be a creative writing day.

Hrag Vartanian: So you need the isolation a little bit?

Michelle Young: It has to be quiet, yeah. So it can either be in the middle of the night when my kids are not around or it’s morning, when they’ve gone to school. 

Hrag Vartanian: How about you, Erin? 

Erin Thompson: Oh, I just wanted to say on self-doubt, it changed my life a couple of years ago to hear this friend, when she was considering, “Should I apply for this thing? Should I do this thing?” That she would ask herself, “What would a mediocre white man do?” 

[Audience laughs]

Erin Thompson: And the answer is always go for it, right? So now I’m like, yeah. 

Michelle Young: I’m actually in the deep hole in the psyche of one of those men right now. I’ve been writing this character. He hated Rose and refused to pay her for nine years.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh wow.

Michelle Young: Before the war. 

Hrag Vartanian: Hence the revenge part. 

Michelle Young: She definitely had revenge in her, yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: When do you like writing, Erin? What’s your ideal environment? 

Erin Thompson: I make myself also write first thing, because I know my brain is clearer then. I always sit down at the computer and want to be the good girl answering all her emails and scheduling the kids…whatever, and instead, I actually changed the password on my computer to something involving, like, “Go write.” So I have to type that in and remind myself, “No, give your best self to what is most important to you.”

Hrag Vartanian: How about you AX, what’s your ideal environment? You have to fully, I mean, you talked about the top of the mountain, I’m guessing you don’t do that each time.

AX Mina: I try not to. Just mornings. Mornings are good. Mornings have fewer distractions. And also there’s a real effect of decision fatigue. Your brain literally just gets tired. At least mine does just throughout the day, because you’re making decisions all the time. And when you’re writing, you’re making decisions. And so I find that first thing in the morning, like 6 am, I just wake up and just start writing. And it’s not like a discipline, it’s more like literally I just woke up at 6 am and I grab my laptop and start writing, and that’s often a good place.

But everyone is different, right? And I think the more important point is, you have to understand when is your best time to write and make that precious. Protect that with your life. Because for me, that’s the morning. So if someone tries to take my morning, unless it’s super important, I will not give away that morning because that’s when I do my absolute best writing.

And for everyone that’s gonna differ. Maybe it’s late at night for you, right? It’s different, but that is the most precious time.

Michelle Young: When things get really bad, I actually go to my parents house and sit in my childhood bedroom, where I guess I learned about everything and I write there.

Hrag Vartanian: Aw, that’s sweet. That’s beautiful.

Michelle Young: So that kind of breaks the block. Plus they feed me.

Hrag Vartanian: That helps. Any teasers or tidbits from your research of your books that you’d like to share?

Michelle Young: I could start. 

Hrag Vartanian: Go ahead.

Michelle Young: So I’ll kind of recap for you. In the opening pages of the book, it’s Liberation Day. The final battle of World War II in France is happening all around this museum that Rose is in. It’s called the Jeu de Paume. It’s across from the Louvre in the Tuileries Gardens. The Germans have basically surrendered at this point, but bullets are still flying everywhere. A parade with General Leclerc is coming down, and a mob is forming around the museum, which breaks into the museum. And she’s still there, still in the museum. She’s been there protecting the art for the days of the last part of the war, because she’s been told to stay there at all costs. That was her directive. So they come into the museum and they start suspecting her. Because why is this woman in this museum that we know is a German stronghold and not letting us go into the basement?

The basement is where several hundred paintings and sculptures are stored. She doesn’t want people to go into the basement, but she has the keys. So she has a gun to her back, and they’re like, “Show us what’s down there.” These are French soldiers, and the mob is suspecting her, and everyone is yelling…and that’s the opening of the book. So, and then we’ll find out what happened to her. 

Hrag Vartanian: Powerful. Erin, anything? 

Erin Thompson: I have too many things. Remember, I’m in the manic phase. I guess if you need to make a fake label for your fake painting, you’ll need period appropriate paper. But good news, you can just go to a rare books or print store, and they will usually have a box full of stuff that’s kind of too tatty to sell. So you find one that’s dated, and then you’ll know that the paper is from that date.

I had read this and I was like, “No way.” But then I was walking past a rare book store, and I went in, and sure enough, there was the box full of stuff. Across from the V&A. So now I have a whole range for like £10 of potential forgery materials.

Hrag Vartanian: Wow. How about you, AX? 

AX Mina: I think my favorite little moment was towards the close of the book. I was kind of digging into like, why do memes exist? Why are we making all these weird animal gifs? And I kind of stumbled upon research on the cave paintings of Lascaux, from you know, like 40,000 years ago.

And there’s research that suggests it was designed to be “animated,” quote unquote, right? It’s a heavy word. But in the torchlight, these paintings, they would be moving. And I was like, “Oh, okay.” So there’s literally a saber tooth cat GIF from 40,000 years ago—

[Audience laughs]

—moving its head. And here’s this little auric, which is like a deer and like a bison thing, moving its tail. These show something really deep about the human experience and our relationship with animals. And it was just so interesting. Since then, I always try to go visit petroglyphs and caves and just look and imagine what life might have been like under those conditions. 

When you look at ancient life and ancient history, prehistoric life, what’s left are the weapons and the art. And there’s so much about art and visual culture that I think is just so critical to who we are as humanity. So I ended the book on that because I just found it such a touching image.

Hrag Vartanian: So I have one last question now, and this is something I think about a lot, which is: why do you write about visual things? Why do you write about art? Those of us who write about art, we’re kind of special beasts of our own. Because it’s hard to translate visual things into writing sometimes, right? I’m curious if any of you have any thoughts about that?

Like, why are you interested in writing about buildings? Or spaces? Or somebody who’s dealing with art? And, why are you writing about monuments? What is it about the visual part that excites you so much, that inspires writing?

Like, I often say, I’m a writer, but my imagination lives in art. It’s where my ideas are, it’s what I want to write about. I’d love to hear some other interpretations or thoughts. 

Erin Thompson: I actually don’t write or even teach about the artworks that I find most beautiful, which are Greek vase paintings. Because you can’t show those to people unless it’s in person. They’re not flat. You have to be sticking your face around them. So unless you’re with me in a museum, you’re not hearing my thoughts about that. 

So I write around art. I am especially interested in our relation to our past, which definitely is me working through childhood issues of respect for authority and asking, “Whose past do you choose to determine the future?” But yeah, it’s almost a side issue to the visual. 

Michelle Young: I think like what AX was saying, art, buildings, they just represent the beautiful things that civilization and humans have created. And I think no matter what’s going on in the world, every civilization has created art. And for me, that’s a very uplifting idea, to be to be involved in that for perpetuity, you know?

Hrag Vartanian: AX, how about you?

AX Mina: I think it’s just a way to tap into the ways that we express ourselves. Not just in visual art, but also music, performance. So much of what an artist does is about the bearing of one’s soul, and exploring the human condition, and I can’t help but write about it. I want to explore that. I want to ask those questions, because these are deep questions about who we are. Both the joys of life and the tragedies of life, right? So much of art is about that. And so how could you not write about it? That’s kind of my attitude about it. I have to.

Hrag Vartanian: What a beautiful place to end. So, thank you, AX. Thank you, Erin. Thank you, Michelle. Thank you, everybody, for coming. Thank you.

Hopefully, this will be part of a series where we can explore writers, which I think is something that we haven’t highlighted so much before in terms of events like this. So, thank you, all of you, and for lending your voice, and for making art really awesome. Art is such an important part of what it is that we do. I think we need the narrators, we need the people to really tell these stories so that we can share them and connect around them.

So thank you, all of you. And thank you everyone for coming, and thank you to the team Hyperallergic team that put this together. Where are you Shari, and Alex? Wadiah? Where’s Wadiah? Oh there you are. Great. And Veken, and Lakshmi, and everyone else, so thank you. And hopefully they’ll be around for a little bit to answer some questions. I know, Erin, you have to run.

Erin Thompson: I have my new snazzy business cards.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh yeah, new snazzy business cards, grab one. Okay. Thanks again, and thank you to Pink Frog for allowing us to do this event. Yes, supposedly that bar was originally in an Al Capone bar in Chicago, and it was moved here years and years ago. Some of you may remember this space used to be Sugar Land. Do people remember Sugar Land? Yep, this used to be Sugar Land. Yep, just so you know. So, thanks again! 

***

Hrag Vartanian: Thank you so much for joining us. Our membership is the main supporter of our podcast, so thank you to all the Hyperallergic members out there. I’m Hrag Vartanian, the Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Hyperallergic. We’ll see you next time.



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