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Emily Chang’s advice for writers: It’s good not to know all the answers
Our April pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club, “Now Read This” is Emily Chang’s “Brotopia.” Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.
In “Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley,” journalist Emily Chang weaves together data, interviews and history to expose a big story: the dark, misogynistic side of Silicon Valley. Released in February 2018, “Brotopia” became an instant bestseller. It also started difficult conversations in Silicon Valley about its toxic culture and how that seeps into the everyday tech we use.
Below, Chang, a Bloomberg TV correspondent who covers technology, shares the moment that lit the fire in her to write “Brotopia,” the best advice she received while writing the book, and the children’s books that inspire her. In her words:
1. What is your daily writing routine?
On a daily basis, I write for my television show, Bloomberg Technology on Bloomberg TV. We have an excellent team of producers who help bring the hour-long program to our viewers live every day at 5 p.m. ET. So, I’m generally programmed to write in short, conversational but dramatic snippets.
Writing a book is an entirely different process with the same goal: to tell a compelling story. Unlike a short news brief or monologue, I didn’t always know what was going to be the beginning and what was going to be the end as I put words on the page. I didn’t start with the introduction and then write each chapter in succession, I started in the middle – what ultimately became chapters 5 and 6 — and then jumped around depending on where I felt most compelled to focus on that particular day or where I’d had a break in my reporting and had to get it all down. You sort of have that luxury with nonfiction.
When I was writing “Brotopia,” I always felt like I was sharpest and fastest in the morning and as each hour passed I’d become slower and less productive. So I would give myself a good breakfast and a healthy start and try to be as prolific and as fast as possible. Even though I might slow down in the evenings, I wouldn’t necessarily stop. I’d often let the words pour out as they came and then revisit them in the morning the next day and refine.
2. What is your favorite childhood book? Or one book you think everyone should read?
My absolute favorite book as a little girl was “Geraldine’s Blanket” by Holly Keller. I asked my parents to read it over and over and over again. And I bought it for my first son when he was born. Now that I’m older, I understand why I loved it so much. It’s about a little girl who loves her blanket. Her parents try everything to convince her to get rid of it including plying her with new toys. In the end, Geraldine has an idea, she turns her blanket into a dress for her new doll. “Now Rosa has the blanket, and I have Rosa!” she declares. She uses innovation and creativity to outsmart her parents and grow up a little, without giving up what she loves.
3. What is something you’ve seen, watched or read that you think is overlooked and deserves more attention?
A children’s book that has captured my heart as an adult is “An Awesome Book” by Dallas Clayton. The words and illustrations are beyond your wildest dreams and I’d encourage everyone to read it, kids and adults alike, because it is truly awesome and will compel you to dream bigger.
4. What is the best piece of writer’s advice you’ve received?
When I started writing “Brotopia,” I had the great fortune to work with an experienced writing coach who had helped many writers before me. The issue of “women in tech” seemed so big and so vast that I didn’t know where to start. It made me question whether this really deserved a book, or even could be captured in a book because there were just so many different possible lines of inquiry that took off in so many different directions. My coach told me not to worry. He said, “If you knew the answers already, it wouldn’t be worth writing a book about. The fact that you don’t know, that means that this could be a great book.” During the hardest times, that’s what I held onto.
5. Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to write this particular book? And when did you know it was over?
To me, “Brotopia” will never be really “over.” At a certain point, I simply had to stop writing because I had pushed my deadline so many times that my editor finally had to put her foot down so we could get it to the printer! It’s not because I was lazy. It’s because the story of women in tech continued to develop by the day, and still does. I could have kept reporting the story forever, but ultimately, I had to put the pen down, take a deep breath, and push the book out into the world. Luckily, I had the opportunity to write a new Afterword for the paperback release of Brotopia, which is out now. And I continue to advance the story in talks I give about the book across the country whenever I have the opportunity. I’m a journalist and trained to report the newest and freshest information.
The start of my journey is much more clear. I’d been interested in covering the issues of women in Silicon Valley for a long time and started asking guests on my television show what they planned to do to hire and promote and fund more women. At the end of 2015, I interviewed one particular investor – who had no women partners at the U.S. branch of his firm at the time – and asked whether he felt a responsibility to hire some. He replied that they were “looking hard” for women but were not prepared to “lower their standards.” That was the spark that lit the fire that compelled me to write “Brotopia.”