Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer living in NYC. She is an agent’s assistant by day, a writer for McSweeney’s, Bustle, and The Jewish Currents by night, and a freelance editor, transcriber, and proofreader in whatever those hours in between are. Her work has been published in The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts, Printer’s Row, Tin House’s Open Bar, Four Chambers Press, The Rumpus, The Toast, Hypertext, and more. She is the founder of TheOtherStories.org, a podcast for new, emerging, and struggling writers.
Geosi Gyasi: You’re a writer, Editor and Imaginator. Could you tell us what you actually do as an Imaginator?
Ilana Masad: Into every generation an imaginator is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the muses, inspiration, and the forces of blank pages; to stop the spread of writer’s block and the swell of their number. She is the Imaginator. #BuffyReference In reality, I don’t think I’m anything special (I just really like Buffy) and I liked the sound of the word “imaginator” when I was making my website. I imagine things. About people and places and situations.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any relation between writing and editing?
Ilana Masad: Absolutely! At least in my experience. I think there’s a big difference between editing someone else’s work and editing your own. But as someone who analyzes books as I read them just for fun (because I can’t turn that analytical part of my brain off), I know what to look for in a manuscript that I’m reading or editing. Editing also makes being edited so much easier because I know the mindset the editor is coming from. I also think it makes me a better writer; editing others, I know what to avoid myself or what parts of my own writing I can work on and improve.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us about the literary landscape in New York City where you live?
Ilana Masad: Oh boy, that’s a tough question. I feel like there are multiple layers to the literary scene in NYC. There’s the low level, where I’m at – the aspiring writers that litter this city like its pigeons, fighting to survive and eating whatever scraps we can find. There’s the level of people who run workshops and work in publishing or on the agency side of things. There’s a parallel level of people working as regular staff writers and editors for both online and print newspapers and magazines. And then there’s the elite, the people we pay to see talk to one another or read their work in big auditoriums.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember anything about the time when you were on the staff of “The Oxford Student” newspaper at Oxford University?
Ilana Masad: Of course I remember! How could I not? It was my first experience at intensive copy-editing, as well as my first experience of getting promoted. I was first a sub-editor (which is basically a proofreader but posher because of the English accent), then the de-facto Chief Sub-Editor, because I was proofreading most of the paper and organizing the other sub-editors. Then I was the actual Chief Sub-Editor as well as the Section Editor for the Arts & Lit section (where I started a flash fiction column!) and finally I was a Deputy Editor, working directly under the two Chief Editors. It was a great experience. I learned a lot about editing, about writing, about getting along with coworkers in a cramped space where people are passionate about what they’re doing but also kind of see it as a big joke (we all knew that delivering the rugby scores was not seriously breaking news. The one time we had a scoop it was pretty grim and involved a body falling off a church spire and the blood that was left on the ground after).
Geosi Gyasi: You received your BA from Sarah Lawrence College where you happened to be the non-fiction editor of the Sarah Lawrence Review. Why did you decide to study at Sarah Lawrence College?
Ilana Masad: Because of the writing and theater programs. I used to want to be an actress, and decided I wanted to go to a school where I could study writing and maybe also dabble in some acting. Which I did, mostly in a club called Midnight Cabaret (where we wrote, rehearsed, and performed an entirely new skit show every Friday at midnight) and in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Though I also had an actual role in an actual play – one by Tom Stoppard no less!
But the reason I stayed at Sarah Lawrence and loved it so much was the entirely unparalleled faculty. Each and every one of my teachers was dedicated, wanted to be there and do what they were doing, and made it an absolute pleasure for me to study with them.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any major difference between editing fiction and non-fiction?
Ilana Masad: It depends on what kind of non-fiction, for one thing – is it narrative non-fiction or is a reported story, an interview, a review? I think that editing narrative non-fiction is rather similar to editing fiction except that you have to be more careful of the author’s way of telling their story. Narrative non-fiction can be fascinating but can also be extremely dull. Fiction is different because there is almost always room for suspension of disbelief, unless the work is trying to convey something historically accurate as well as create a story and characters within it. So maybe they’re not so different. There is always a narrative, something being conveyed, and editing whatever work it is means trying to make that piece of work the best it can be on its own terms, without inserting your own style or voice into it.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any fond memories about the days when you interned at the Writers House Literary Agency?
Ilana Masad: Of course I do, and Michael Mejias who runs the intern program would have my head if I said I didn’t. But in truth, yes, I do. I learned how to write editorial letters, pitch letters, reader’s reports; I learned how to work thoroughly and for hours on end on one manuscript and be able to give a concise opinion; and my intern class was simply fantastic. We were a great group of people and I’m still friends with some of them, and Michael is definitely one of my mentors.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired you to become a writer?
Ilana Masad: I don’t know, really. When I was in high school, I wrote poetry, like everyone does it seems, and it was in Hebrew (I grew up in Israel primarily). Then at some point, while getting ready for college, I started writing a lot. Telling stories. My mom is in the process of moving from Israel to Los Angeles at the moment and over the last year whenever I’ve been home we’ve been going through old boxes of mementos, and I was incredibly surprised to find all these things I’d written long before I realized I was a writer. I don’t think I ever thought of it as something I was until I started taking writing workshops and honing my skill and realizing more and more that there was nothing else I would rather do with my life than spend it around words, books, and keyboards.
Geosi Gyasi: Are there times you worry that you made the wrong choice of becoming a writer?
Ilana Masad: I wouldn’t say that, exactly. I think that what I worry about more is that I’m not really a writer because when I tell someone I’m a writer and they ask “Oh, can I find you on Amazon?” I have to tell them that they can’t. I’ve written five novels and am working on a sixth but none are published. I’m a writer no matter what – the question is will I be able to write for my living in the way that I’d like to (i.e. fiction for the most part). And that is something I grapple with daily because I simply don’t want to do anything else with my life but make people feel what I feel when I read books.
Geosi Gyasi: Where did you get your story, “Voracious” from as published in One Throne Magazine?
Ilana Masad: Actually, I got the idea from a writing prompt I got in my senior year of college. We’d read Lydia Davis’s story, “The Thirteenth Woman” and my teacher, David Hollander, asked the class to write a story for next week about a person who both does and does not exist. And that’s how “Voracious” came about.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you struggle with ideas for your stories?
Ilana Masad: Not really. Everything is a story to me. A piece of Kleenex that’s lying in front of me can be a story. My mind just thinks in stories. My struggle is finding time to write them and not losing the ideas I have. I work so much as a full time freelancer that my own writing becomes secondary, and I hate that and am constantly trying to find ways to remedy that.
Geosi Gyasi: I read somewhere online that you’re partial to cats and books. Could you explain that?
Ilana Masad: Well, I’ve always loved cats. Very much. I love their independent natures. I’m an animal lover in general. And books are… well, let’s just say that I would rather die than be told that I couldn’t read another book for the rest of my life. I love their smell, their texture, the feel of them in my hand; I love the stories nestled inside of them and the innumerable ways we can read those stories; I love the language I find inside books, the peculiar combination of words made out of symbols that we’ve decided mean something. I know this sounds incredibly pretentious, but I mean it sincerely. Books are my first and greatest love. I surround myself with them. They’re my escape from the world.
Geosi Gyasi: In which “style” would you place your story, “A Lifetime of Author Bios”?
Ilana Masad: You know, I don’t really know. I’d love to say that it’s fiction, because it does technically tell a story of one writer throughout the course of her life. But it’s in Shouts & Murmurs which is a humor column, so maybe it’s humor? But writers I know told me it made them want to both cry and laugh, which is what I was going for. My humor tends to be rather morbid and/or upsetting.
Geosi Gyasi: Where did you get the idea to write, “At a Glance”?
Ilana Masad: That was another writing prompt from that same teacher, David Hollander. He challenged us to write a story using a format that is not used in fiction. I looked up the text of those leaflets that come with all Apple products. “Your iPhone At A Glance” or “Your iPad At A Glance” and I copied the language from there and replaced it with something else entirely, and somehow I managed to tell a story, though I never know whether the story I’m telling is the same one that people are reading.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you know when you come to the end of a story?
Ilana Masad: I don’t, always. Usually I know that I’ve gotten to the end when the conflict of the story (if it’s in traditional story format) is resolved. If I’m writing something more experimental or a piece of flash fiction then I have restrictions that I need to work with, which often actually make things easier for me. I like restrictions. A blank page without instructions is a scary thing to start out with.
Geosi Gyasi: When and how did you start your blog, Slightly Ignorant?
Ilana Masad: I actually started it in September, 2008, when I decided to start writing more. And I’ve managed to maintain it more or less for the past six and a half years now. I don’t post as often as I’d like, but I try to, because it has always been my place to try things out, to just get out the scenes that crowd my brain and that don’t necessarily lead to full stories. Recently I’ve also been using it as a place to post pieces that I haven’t found a home for elsewhere.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you find time to write? Do you have a strict writing schedule?
Ilana Masad: Short answer: I don’t, and no. Longer answer: I write for many of my jobs/freelance assignments/whatever you want to call them, and so sometimes it just gets exhausting to stare at a screen for so many hours. And my brain doesn’t flow with a story when I’m writing longhand, unfortunately. I love the feeling of a keyboard beneath my fingers (when I was in Oxford I always got stared at in the sacred Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian, for typing too loudly and vigorously on my computer). Recently I started an early morning writing date with a friend which is helping. I want to have a strict writing schedule, but it’s very hard to do when I have anywhere between five and twelve jobs at any given time (some paying and some not, some projects of my own and some that are given to me by employees or as opportunities through zines).
Geosi Gyasi: This question may sound odd but who is a ghostwriter?
Ilana Masad: I don’t know. My first thought is always of the TV show and the books it spawned, all under the brand name “Ghostwriter” – that is, there was always a cool ghost who communicated with these kids through letters and words. But I suppose ghostwriters are those who don’t get a byline, who write something for someone else, whether it’s a technical manual or an autobiography.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you likely to be caught doing when not writing?
Ilana Masad: Reading manuscripts for the agent I work for, going to the gym, walking feverishly back and forth from subway stations, listening to NPR and playing Candy Crush, chatting on Facebook and spending way too much time on Twitter. Also doing stuff for my podcast, TheOtherStories.org, which takes up a LOT of my time.