Tracie McMillan is the author of “The American Way of Eating,” an undercover investigation of the food industry, but this semester, she’s also a professor at Wesleyan. As the Koeppel Journalism Fellow and Visiting Professor in the writing program, McMillan is teaching the upper-level seminar WRCT286: Topics in Journalism: Writing and Arguing About Inequality: How to Make Your Case. The Argus spoke with McMillan about becoming a journalist and writing a book.
The Argus: How did you become a reporter?
Tracie McMillan: I became a reporter after interning at the Village Voice under Wayne Barrett. Wayne was the City Politics investigative reporter at the Voice for around 40 years; he left the Voice a couple of years ago. Every semester, he had a cadre of interns who would come in and help him do his work, and that was one of the internships I had as an undergraduate. I did well there, and got on well with Wayne, and that led me into doing reporting work.
When I took that internship, I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to be a journalist. I knew that I wanted to do something with writing, and I had a vague idea that I would work at a magazine, but I hadn’t really thought through the specifics of that. And certainly at the time, I think I was more interested in national politics, and Wayne’s work was very local. But I lucked into getting paired with him at the Voice, and that put me on that path.
A: And this was when you were a student at which school?
TM: At NYU [New York University]. I was a scholarship kid at NYU in the ’90s, and actually for a very long time, I resisted getting an internship for credit because it essentially meant that I was paying out of pocket to go work somewhere for free. And the economics of that were difficult for me to swallow, so for a long time, I just thought, “Oh, I’m only going to do an internship if I’m getting paid.” …It just ended up that I got to a point where I wanted to do the internship and see what that was like, and it made more sense for me to suck it up and say, “Okay, I’m going to have to go pay to go work for free, but it means my courseload is lighter, so I can actually do it.” And I was able to justify it that way.
A: What brought you to Wesleyan as a professor? And how has teaching here been different from being a student at NYU in the ’90s?
TM: Well, [being a professor here] is very different because I didn’t actually take any writing classes as an undergraduate; I took my “freshman comp” [class], and that was it. And I took one reporting class… I have not formally studied writing at all, really, and certainly not at the level I currently work at. So it’s very different to have to sit down and deconstruct what works and what doesn’t, and [to be] able to communicate that. And certainly, trying to really hone in on what the practical writing skills and tools and tips were that made a difference for me in learning to write, and identifying [those]. That’s challenging, and I also find it really fun. I think my training and skills are as a reporter and journalist are very useful for that, because I’m used to having to take sometimes abstract ideas and make them concrete… That’s part of my job as a journalist, so it’s just an interesting process to have to turn around and do that to my own craft.
[Director of Writing Programs] Anne Greene [brought me to Wesleyan]. I have a little bit of a relationship with Wesleyan. In 2006, I got a Davidoff scholarship to attend the Wesleyan Writers Conference… That was when I had just gone freelance. I had taken some time off, and I had taken basically half my life savings and gone traveling for six months. Because I had been working since I was 14, and I had this epiphany—I was about 29 at the time—that I had always been working, and I [had] never stopped to figure out where I wanted to go; I just went where it seemed like I could go… I didn’t really know if the work I was doing as a journalist was what I really wanted to dedicate myself to, or if maybe there was something else I wanted to be doing. And I didn’t really know myself well enough to make that call, and I realized that I was at a point in my life where I didn’t have anything tying me to any one place. I mean, the only thing that tied me to New York at that point, really, was the chance at professional networking and a rent-stabilized apartment. But at the time I didn’t have a boyfriend, I didn’t have a dog, I didn’t have children, I was leaving my job… So I went traveling, and the irony is, I blocked off six months for this and I got, like, two months in, and I just remember I was sitting in a friend of a friend’s apartment in Melbourne, Australia, and I was like, “Gosh, I actually just want to be back in New York writing about poverty. I actually really want to be doing that.”
And once I had enough time to really clear my head, I kept coming back to writing. I didn’t just want to write about me, myself, and I; I wanted to write about the world. Writing about myself wasn’t something I was super comfortable with as my main way forward. I had figured out that I wanted to do journalism, and I was coming back to New York—and this was a trip where I [had been] around the world. I went to seven or eight different countries, and so I came back to New York, and I was looking for a way to ground my footing a little bit. I saw an announcement about the [Wesleyan Writers Conference] on one of the journalism websites, and I thought, “Oh, well, maybe if I go to that, it’ll help me get grounded.” I went, and it was very interesting, because I had never really engaged with writing as an art or a craft before. I’d always been a journalist and was trained first as a reporter. And part of me really felt like, “Oh, writing’s just this fancy thing that fancy people do, and I don’t really care about writing as this beautiful thing.” And the Writers Conference, it’s really a celebration in many ways of beautiful, good, and effective writing. So there was a bit of a culture clash for me, where I was just sort of like, “Why are people taking this so seriously?” in this very grumpy, naïve way.
But it was interesting, because I met a few journalists that I really admired. I got acquainted with—like I’m not friends with, but I got acquainted with—William Finnegan from The New Yorker, whose work in the ’90s was really influential for me. He wrote a book called “Cold New World” about the prospects for, at the time, young people in America. A older friend of mine had given it to me when I turned 21 [and] had said, “Oh, I think you would like this book.” I’d never read long-form nonfiction reporting before, and it was beautiful and amazing and made me really care, and I can still remember those characters, even like 15, 16 years later.
Because at the time, I was trying to figure out, “Where am I going to get a job? How am I going to go get work writing about poverty, because that’s what I want to do?” And [Bill Finnegan] actually was kind enough to take a look at some of my clips eventually and try to talk me through it. But neither he nor anyone else I approached during that period had the heart to tell me the truth, which was that “that’s not how it works. You don’t just get a job writing about poverty. Like, there isn’t a job like that anywhere.”
So I went to the Writers Conference, met a few folks, met Anne Greene… My career evolved, and I ended up doing this book project, [The American Way of Eating], and as that was coming to the point where I needed to work on my acknowledgements, I was trying to think about places where I had gotten support, [where] people had helped me, and Wesleyan was one of them… Because even though I was angsty at the time, I was meeting professional journalists [at the Writers Conference] I otherwise wouldn’t have met. I was introduced to the idea of taking my writing seriously, along with my reporting; that was really important.
I think the flip side of that is that I’ve been fortunate enough that my book was a New York Times bestseller and is being taught in universities all over the country. It’s been a pretty big success, so I think that gives me a lot more credibility to teach journalism than if I had just done a book that disappeared. Which happens with a lot of books.
A: And what was the process of reporting for and writing your book, “The American Way of Eating,” like?
TM: I had come up with one idea for a book, and I met with an agent. I had proposed an investigative history of supermarkets, which I still think would be an interesting book. And [the agent] said, “Let’s say we’re not going to do the history of supermarkets. Why are you passionate about that? Why would do you do something like that?” I ended up having some very grumpy, angsty, and probably fairly incoherent rants about how I thought foodies were screwing everything up because they made it seem like food was only for rich people, and actually, I knew a lot of poor people who cared about their diets. They didn’t need to be told to eat healthy food; what they needed was better jobs and better access to food.
And [my agent] came up with this idea. She said, “You should do Nickel and Dimed, but with food.” So I got a very small advance from my publisher, Scribner, and then I went to Guatemala and learned Spanish for five weeks so that I could converse. And then I went to Los Angeles, and I spent a few weeks talking to people and then psyching myself up to be like, “Okay, well, I’ve got to just go and get a job on a farm somewhere, in a field.” I did some calling up people and talking to them, and [they] were like, ‘Most farm work is really informal, and you just sort of show up at a work site or transit hub for farm work buses. And you get on, and you get someone to pick you.’
I went south of Bakersfield and spent two weeks looking for work, found a little bit of work, and used that as a way into some fields in the Central Valley. I worked for two weeks there, and then I got heat sick and spent an afternoon projectile vomiting. All the advocates I had spoken with were really clear with me. They were like, “You could get really hurt. You could get sick. People die because of the heat.” So I was working for a week in 105-degree temperatures, and by the fourth day, my body wasn’t doing so well. Part of me wanted to stick it out, because I was like, “Migrant farmworkers don’t get to choose not to do this!” But the other part of me was like, “But if they could choose to do this, they would leave, because it’s not worth dying.”…So I went to Salinas Valley, which is much more temperate. And there I got work in the garlic fields and lasted about six weeks, until I got tendonitis so bad that I couldn’t use my arm. At each place I was living with migrant farm workers; I did not tell them that I was a reporter. I told them basically that I was a poor white girl that had a lot of problems, and I didn’t want to talk about it.
Then I went and worked at a Walmart in Michigan… I left there for New York and worked in the kitchen of a New York City Applebee’s for nine weeks. When that finished, I went back to Michigan, and this time, lived in Detroit and worked in a Walmart about half an hour outside of the city in the produce section, as a way to talk about food deserts and food access.
All of that reporting there, that took about just over a year. I went to Guatemala in April of 2009, and I was done with the reporting in late May, early June of 2010. And from there, I went to New Mexico and wrote for four months.
When I finished [writing the narrative]—by then, I was really running out of money—I was juggling between coming back to New York and doing copy-editing, where I could earn some money, and going and writing and doing things like that. I ended up getting, through very random connections… a free house to stay in in Detroit in the downtown area, and a free office space. So I moved to Detroit for most of 2011 and did all of the heavy reporting. First I had the narrative, then I had a list of all the facts I wanted to figure out, and then I went and made a little money. I went and spent eight or nine months reporting out all those questions; that was the period where I was working usually seven days a week. I had three unpaid research assistants whom I was directing, who served as my interns… Just as I finished up [the writing], we were six months out from publication, so I had to start doing networking, and marketing, and developing contacts to promote the book.
A: Besides William Finnegan, who along the way inspired you to become a journalist or helped you to figure out what you were going to write about?
TM: Katherine Boo’s work around poverty and welfare reform [has been] really instrumental for me. So is the work of Jason DeParle. Jason was The New York Times reporter covering welfare reform during the Clinton administration, and he did a beautiful book called American Dream that’s really amazing. The narrative he does with the families is really impressive, [and] what’s equally amazing is that he really tells the political story of that reform. It’s like a thriller; it’s really well done. So that was important to me.
A good friend of mine, Annia Ciezadlo, writes really beautifully about poverty and food in the Middle East, or politics and war and food… She’s been something of a mentor for me, too.
[Also] Joan Didion, whom we’ve read in [my seminar, Topics in Journalism: Writing and Arguing About Inequality]. She’s been really important to me.
Jennifer Gonnerman and Barbara Ehrenreich, definitely. Right now, I’m finishing The Meat Racket, which is by Christopher Leonard. I read most of it and blurbed it, and now I want to finish reading the whole thing.
I’m reading a book called Scarcity, which is like one of those ‘big idea’ type of books. It’s using the framework of scarcity to talk about how people make decisions; it’s a behavioral economics book, in a way. I want to do an essay that’s going to draw on that, so I’m reading that.
I really need to get some good fiction. I haven’t read fiction [in a while]; I’m so busy, work-wise, that my readings are all skewed towards work right now. But I really want to read Jessamyn Ward’s work; I’m excited about that, it’s on my list.
A: What are you working on at the moment?
TM: I’m doing a feature right now for National Geographic on hunger in America. That’s been interesting mostly because they’re a well-funded magazine; they sent me on a trip and they paid for it… I got to go to rural Iowa and suburban Houston and spend some time talking to working poor families, which meant that it was a different context from where I usually report. Most of my training has been as an urban reporter.
I’ve also just been doing a lot of speaking; almost every month, I have a public event I’m doing somewhere, so that keeps me pretty busy. I’m doing a piece on food infrastructure for Next City, which is an online magazine, about urban planning issues. I have a contract with The New York Times Magazine right now to do a piece on food and inequality.
Oh, and I’m working on another book proposal. At this point, I just don’t get to read very much because I’m so busy with everything else. I’m really looking forward to getting to a point where I can say, “Okay! I’m just doing the book now.” The nice thing about doing book work is that part of my job is to sit down and read books that cover the topic that I’m going to write about. One of the secrets of good writing is reading a lot; a lot of good writing starts with mimicry. Everyone needs their own voice, and things like that, but you’ve really got to learn to master the form and figure out how things work, and engage with text. “Oh, I really liked that passage? But why does that passage work? Why was it powerful? What did they structure that narrative?”, really picking things apart. And I love getting to do that, and it’s just not something I have time for right now.