In Caitlin Kelly’s book, Malled: My Unintentional Career In Retail, she combines her personal story of moving into low-wage customer service at 50 and a detailed, national analysis of this $4 trillion industry. A regular contributor to The New York Times since 1990, Kelly has written for USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Glamour, More, and other publications in Canada and Europe. Kelly shares her background, as well as her experience researching and writing Malled. She also offers tips for non-fiction writers.
What inspired you to become a writer?
My father was a documentary filmmaker and my mother worked as a freelance writer and staff magazine editor. Their jobs looked like fun–travel, learn, and get paid for it. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
I was also an avid reader, and two writers really inspired me, as a 12 year old: British zoologist and nature writer Gerald Durrell and Ray Bradbury. I wrote a fan letter then to Bradbury and he wrote back. Writers were real people!
How did you get started as a freelance writer?
I lived in Toronto, and read a women’s magazine published there called Miss Chatelaine, (now called Flare). I wrote a long letter to the editor saying what I didn’t like about the magazine, and she was curious to see who this opinionated little thing was. She gave me my first assignment. I did a lot of feature writing for our weekly college newspaper, and used those clips to win paid assignments. I was writing for national publications as a sophomore and had a weekly newspaper column before I graduated.
Why did you write Malled?
I wanted to expose the reality of retail work–it’s too often hard labor for poor wages. We all shop, and many consumers assume that sales associates are on commission, being properly compensated for their skills. Most are not.
What was your process for writing it? Getting it published?
I wrote an essay that ran in The New York Times about working retail and received 150 emails from all over the world. It clearly struck a chord, so I found an agent in June 2009, wrote three sample chapters, and sold it to Portfolio in September 2009.
I had been working for The North Face as a sales associate since September 2007, so I continued to work in the store until December 2009 to gather more details, color, and anecdotes about my third holiday season and the developing recession. Working from memory and notes, in addition to conducting dozens of original interviews with retail experts and workers nationwide, I wrote it between January and September 2010.
How did you organize your research? How did you decide what to include and what to eliminate?
I wanted to include many different perspectives on retail work, from career associates to people like me who were used to earning much more but were forced by the recession into lower-wage hourly employment. I also spoke to analysts, consultants, and retail storeowners. I wanted to offer readers a comprehensive study of this industry, so I included details of widespread labor conditions and practices, and tried to focus less on my own story.
In what ways is writing a book similar to/different from writing feature articles?
It’s similar in that you need a very clear idea what your story is and what your focus will be, in order to most efficiently use your time and energy. But it’s very different because you have 80,000 to 100,000 words in which to tell that story. This demands much more detailed reporting, thorough analysis of the issues and terrific writing to keep readers moving through your narrative. It needs a narrative arc, which very few magazine pieces demand anymore. Frankly, writing a book demands a level of technical skill many of us may not have had the chance to develop if all we’ve been doing are simpler, shorter pieces.
The most essential difference is voice. This is your book! You don’t have to write it–and must not write it–in the style of some women’s magazine edited-by-committee. It will become your calling card.
What advice do you have for those who want to write non-fiction inspired from real-life experiences?
That’s a whole post in itself! For a memoir like mine, you’ll need to decide what you’ll include and how closely you’ll identify your characters. This has legal and ethical implications you need to be thoughtful about. You’ll also need to do a lot of careful reporting to recreate entire scenes you didn’t witness firsthand.
Additional advice for non-fiction writers?
Read as much great non-fiction and journalism from every country and era, as possible. I find it really inspiring. I loved, for example, Peter Godwin’s memoir of Zimbabwe, When A Crocodile Eats the Sun.
Try to win assignments that really push you hard to think deeply and broadly and to up your writing, reporting, and interviewing game. It’s easy, when pay rates are stagnant and stories run so short, to get lazy and lose the hunger to keep improving your skills. Great books come out of smart thinking, deep analysis, and the willingness to break away from the trendy-y pack.
“Save string,” one of my favorite newsroom expressions–start a voluminous clip file on any subject or issue you think potentially book-worthy. It takes time to see patterns and themes. The best non-fiction books offer a deep dive into that subject, but also understand and explain context: how and why this story, told now, means something to your readers.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
That there would be so many ups and downs. Not to freak out when the rollercoaster dips and to save every penny of additional income when it’s rising.
Some stories just can’t be written too soon. You may not yet have the skill or emotional maturity to do them justice.
I hope to write my next book about our experience of work and job satisfaction. We spend most of our lives doing it, but we rarely examine it deeply or talk about it in a way that’s not just focused on self-help or improvement.