In conversation with

Pandora Sykes

Journalist, Author and Podcast Host

pandora sykes

Introduction

Introduction

You’ve probably read words written by Pandora Sykes in publications like The Sunday Times, Grazia and GQ, and in her excellent book of essays, How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right, which is coming out in paperback this May. Or perhaps you’ve listened to her her podcast The High Low with Dolly Alderton, or her latest series The Missing, where she investigates missing persons cases that were never solved.

Pandora is most interested in connecting the broad strokes of modern culture to the individual.  As a writer and reader, cultural critic and interviewer, podcast host and oftentimes podcast guest, she is constantly dissecting the cultural zeitgeist, finding ways of examining, exploring and discussing the impact these moments have on our lives.

We spoke to Pandora about the essayists she admires (Roxanne Gay, Jia Tolentino, Zadie Smith), tips to get over writer’s block (“You do not have writer’s block, you have a deadline” as said by a friend of Dolly’s) and the books she’s most excited about this year.

Question and Answer

What's the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Probably a semblance of ‘kill your darlings’. The turns of phrase or the sentences you deem most poetic, might be the ones dragging down the rest of the paragraph.

Do you have any tips or tricks on how to move through writer’s block?

I am torn on this – part of me thinks that writer’s block is a painful but necessary part of any creative deep-work, which can mean that you need to stare at a wall for a certain amount of hours before the thinking part is ‘done’ and something else kicks in which allows you to write anything good. The other part of me often thinks of something Dolly’s best friend said to her, with charming bluntness: you do not have writers block, you have a deadline. Which basically cuts through all the wishy-washiness to remind you that you are obliged to deliver something, so goddamit, deliver it. In short – as you can probably tell – no advice. Wish I had some for myself. You’ll get there. Eventually.

“I often think of something Dolly's best friend said to her, with charming bluntness: you do not have writers block, you have a deadline. Which basically cuts through all the wishy-washiness to remind you that you are obliged to deliver something, so goddamit, deliver it.”

How do you go about self-editing? Is there anyone, aside from your editor(s), who you send your work to for a second opinion?

I very much believe in the need for writers to have editors. I have a tendency to waffle so someone to cut through the chaff and locate the wheat, is essential. That said, I think that the best editing is done with a light hand, so you can barely tell they’ve been there. Re-writing does no-one any favours! As for who I send it to, yes about three really good friends, and I tell them to be brutal. My own self-editing is the longest part of the process by far and usually involves me whittling the word count down by about three quarters. I have found there to be two fairly distinct schools of writers: those who write, slowly and carefully, with a full-formed narrative from the get-go. And those who dump it all down on the page, and then prune and prune and prune and hone and hone and hone, doing the introduction very last of all. I am a pruner and a honer.

What drew you to the essay form for your first book? Were there any other essayists you looked to for inspiration?

I have always wanted to write essays, but they are not a very sexy proposition to a publisher – they don’t tend to sell! But I thought there might be an appetite for them, with the rise of long-form culture, lifestyle and think pieces that we saw across (mainly American) websites. And basically, my desire to write them grew stronger – as a journalist, I am frequently given a 1,000 word count and I was chomping at the bit to go deeper. I totally appreciate that essays aren’t for everyone though, and that’s fine – I don’t think you can write for everyone, though I want as many people as possible to feel welcome in my writing. Essayists I enjoy include Roxane Gay, David Sedaris, Jia Tolentino, Jiayang Fan, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Ann-Helen Petersen, Raven Smith, Joel Golby and Zadie Smith. In the UK we would tend to call it longform writing rather than straight-up essays, and I really like Sirin Kale’s work and Oliver Burkeman’s. Moya Lothian McClean is also really good.

You’ve mentioned before that you love short stories. Who in your opinion are masters of the form?

LOVE them. My favourite collections include Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny, Hot Little Hands, by Abigail Ulman and All That Man Is, by David Szalay.

Who has been the most influential writer in your life?

I truly could not pick one. Roald Dahl meant a lot to me as a child. As did Enid Blyton. Both, it has transpired, are pretty controversial individuals – Roald’s anti-semitism; Enid’s hatred of children, her racism – the ramifications of which I am still grappling with. Do we ban our children from reading these revered authors, or do we allow them to read them with context? And if so, how do you provide complicated context and caveat to, say, a 6-year-old? I’m still figuring that one out.

How do you choose what to read next?

I have a bookshelf (a stack of books kept in my fireplace, pictured!) where I specifically keep my “to read next” books – which is about 60 books that are a mix of proofs and battered paperbacks I’ve bought off eBay, In the main, I read books that are about to come out – which is something I would like to change, as there are so many ‘old’ books I also want to read – because I tend to write about, and interview authors about, new books. As for what I read next, I pick the next one based on a mix of mood, what I’ve read before, and blurb. Cover doesn’t come into it.

And finally, we’re sure that you’ve got some excellent book recommendations for us. What are you reading at the moment? And what’s your favourite book that you’ve read this year?

Some of my favourite books I’ve read this year are ones that have either just come out, or are about to:

We Are All Birds of Uganda, by Hafsa Zayyan
Here Comes The Miracle, by Anna Beecher
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, by Peter Ho Davies
What It Feels Like For A Girl, by Paris Lees
Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu

I’m currently reading How We Met, by Huma Qureshi. It’s a gorgeous love story, simply written but about big themes: faith, family and boundaries – both personal and inherited.

Pandora's Storylist

Books

  1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
  2. One Day by David Nicholls
  3. The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour
  4. Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Magazines

  1. The Week
  2. The New Yorker
  3. Grazia
  4. The Times weekend supplements
  5. The Guardian weekend supplements

Newsletters

  1. Maybe Baby by Haley Nahman
  2. Culture Study by Anne Helen Peterson
  3. The Muse Letter by Sophia Hembeck
  4. Vittles
  5. Gen Yeet by Terry Nguyen

Podcasts

  1. Longform
  2. Shameless
  3. You're Wrong About
  4. Fortunately with Fi & Jane

Websites

  1. The Atlantic
  2. gal-dem
  3. House & Garden
  4. The Cut
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