Longtime journalist and writer Eilene Zimmerman dropped by Columbia and lead a joint event at Skylark Bookshop with KBIA about her memoir Smacked in February. Vox reached back out to her to talk about the changes COVID-19 inflicted on the rest of her book tour. Zimmerman stopped in Columbia as part of a months-long press tour for her book, which came to an abrupt end in the first week of March.
Smacked stemmed from her 2017 New York Times article “The Lawyer, The Addict” which blew up over the internet. Her memoir chronicles the story of her ex-husband’s overdose and also explores the dark world of white-collar drug addiction, especially with lawyers.
How did you get into journalism?
I always wanted to write. I wrote when I was a little kid, I wrote little detective stories that I told my sister, and I always found that I expressed myself and felt best, I think, when I was writing. I think some journalists like the investigation and the reporting, and I like the reporting, but my favorite part is the actual writing.
You’ve written extensively before for the New York Times and several other newspapers. What was that transition like going from writing articles to writing your own book?
I was kind of terrified. Because you know in journalism, the longest story I probably wrote that got published was the one that preceded the book and that was like a 6,000-word story that got cut down ultimately to about 4,000 words. That was a long-form for me. Everything else was like 800 words, 1000 words.
I remember meeting with my editor and she was like “Well you know try and do 70 to 80,000 words” and I was like oh my god how am I going to write that much? And it felt really overwhelming. So, I did what I do with my stories anyway, and I made a really detailed outline and I was able to chunk everything down.
I think it’s really hard to write short. And it’s such a luxury to be able to write long and just express yourself and not have to fit into a nut graf or a lead for the format of a newspaper.
Your book is also a memoir of your own life. How was writing about your own personal experiences?
I felt really exposed. Usually, I’m writing other people’s stories, which feels very comfortable. Having to write about myself felt so against everything, I was like “why am I a story?” But then I had a great editor at Random House, this legendary, wonderful, I’m-so-lucky-to-have-her kind of editor. And she just explained to me that you have to be the emotional heart of the story. And you have to take the audience with you.
How long did it take to write the book?
They asked me, how long do you think you’ll need? And I said nine months, I can bang that out. But actually, it took two years. And they told me it would and I thought that’s ridiculous, I’m fast, I can write on deadline. But you know, I turned it in after 10 months of writing it and they said “this is a really good start.” And I said what are you talking about its done! But two versions later, it was done and I’m really grateful to that process and I learned a lot. You don't get that process when you write for a paper, you might get one or two revisions and you gotta do it really quick and then it's out. So, this is a much more luxurious process.
How has COVID-19 changed your book tour plans?
In general, all my events got canceled or postponed until the fall. But, it's very uncertain what it will be like in the fall, if there will be big gatherings or not.
I’m kind of on hold like a lot of other authors. I feel fortunate that my publishing date wasn't in the midst of covid, like I did have a month planned and I’m very grateful for that and I did have good press coverage. But it did cut it short. It was like all of the sudden everything came to an abrupt stop and I just had to rely on word of mouth and continued coverage. I'm trying to do more podcasts where people are listening and watching rather than having an in-person experience.