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Interview: Ian MacAllen

Updated: Feb 12

Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American. He is a writer, critic, and graphic designer living in Brooklyn. He previously worked as the Senior Food Correspondent at America Domani and is a regular contributor at Chicago Review of Books.

What advice would you give to a young writer trying to survive Capitalism?

"The best way to survive capitalism is to be born rich. Obviously you can't change that, but what you can do is remember some people were. The reality is often that wealth creates the perception of talent because wealth creates access and time, and many semi-famous 23-year-old writers simply had wealthy parents. But that advantage begins to shrink as you get older, if you put in the time; read, write, edit, get rejected, repeat.

A lot of young writers feel pressure to work as writers as an occupation, as a day job. Don't do that. Get a dumb job that pays you the most amount of money per hour and work the least amount of time so that you can write.

There are certainly opportunities for writers to write for money. Have you ever seen an email from a CEO? Business executives are functional illiterates. Ghostwriting, corporate communications, technical writing–these are writing jobs that pay well, and journalism is a writing job that doesn't pay well.

Yet corporate writing doesn't help in developing your own voice. It's literally the opposite of that. Either you are writing in the brand's voice or you are writing a corporate monotone devoid of any personality.

Your voice is the most important thing to your writing. It's why people will buy your books. It is what will take a lifetime to cultivate.

Journalism can allow you to develop a unique writing style, and it can mean becoming an expert in a particular field. That expertise can help write a book and help position you to sell a book–but journalism doesn't pay well. And that brings us to a key point.

Books don't make you rich.

Most book advances won't even cover the labor a writer puts into writing the book. Then you're still a year or two or five away from the next book, the next advance, and the next cycle of losing money to sell two copies at a library in suburban New Jersey.

But dumb jobs? Jobs that don't take much effort? Those are great jobs to have when you want to write. Come home at the end of a long, boring day at the dumb job and write. Write on the subway. Write at lunch. Write while you're sitting on a conference call listening to the fourth person repeat the same talking points so everyone feels like they contributed. Cash the checks, and make time to write.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past six months?

I loved Amy Brady's Ice, which traces the history of ice consumption in the United States from harvesting New England frozen lakes through artificial manufacturing to the bespoke boutique ice used for upscale cocktails today. I interviewed Amy about Ice for the Chicago Review of Books, and learned a lot of interesting facts – how horses were integral to ice harvesting, and that horses did what horses do on the ice – how ice was instrumental in the mixed cocktail culture of America, starting in New Orleans where ice was sold to hotels.

What’s your greatest fear?

Every day I worry some aggrieved, middle-aged white guy is going to show up at my kid's school with an assault rifle.

In Uvalde, they used DNA swabs to identify bodies because the kids didn't have enough face left to use dental records. Texas started sending DNA kits to families so they would have the swabs on file for the next time it happens. How is anyone accepting this? New York's stricter gun laws offer some reassurance, but literal insane people in Congress keep trying to undo those protections too.

What’s one aspect of your creative process that you wouldn't recommend to an aspiring writer?

The worst thing I do in my process is taking on multiple projects simultaneously: research, writing, editing. Right now I have two nonfiction book projects I am making incremental progress on while also trying to maintain two distinctive blogs. I write a food blog, All The Things I Eat, where I tell stories about things I've cooked, restaurants, and food experiences. And I also have been working on the Red Sauce Blog, a website that began life as a way of promoting my book, and now has grown into a place for longer form articles, interviews, and news about Italian American cuisine and culture. I'm also working on a couple internet projects, and I'm regularly writing reviews and book reviews for literary magazines. It's a lot. All of these things exist in a kind of common ecosystem where each thing supports the other. But also it takes a lot longer to get a point with anything where it's finished and ready for publication.

I would probably suggest younger writers focus on finishing one project. Write your manuscript. Edit, let it rest, come back and edit – but focus on finishing that one project. The book process has a lot of downtime between submissions and waiting on rejections and new submissions. It's tempting to use that time for something totally new and different, but it might actually be better spent editing your manuscript."

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