Very Fine Day #37: Isaac Fitzgerald
“There had to be these other moments, right? Good moments. And trying to find those smaller moments… that’s the challenge."
VERY FINE DAY features weekly interviews with writers, creators, reporters, and internet explorers. Learn more about the people who keep the internet humming – and check out previous editions here. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter, or just follow Brad. Subscribe now and never miss an edition.
“Sometimes it can be just as hard to try and go back and figure out that it was bad. But there had to be these other moments, right? Good moments. And trying to find those smaller moments… that’s the challenge”.
Hey VFD readers, members, passers-by. Thanks for coming along. Water’s warm, I promise. Let’s jump in.
Everyone has a tough life in some way or another. And if they don't think they've had a tough life, then you know there's a big ball coming down the canyon right behind them, in their shadow, and they just haven't turned around to see it.
I know that these things are very singular, and what’s tough for one person isn’t tough for another. And, obviously, we all start at different places on that scale and we certainly all start with different levels of comfort. But... life is tough.
Anyway, what I’m getting at is our guest today: ISAAC FITZGERALD. Isaac is a writer, an editor, a presenter… he’s a man who seems to have lived many lives. A bartender, traveling east to west coast, growing up in rural Massachusetts. “All the hick shit,” as he puts it.
Isaac had a tough life early on, at least in my opinion, and he’s got a book coming out next year about that and we talked about it. Not the book — his life. But then, the book is about his life… so I guess we did both.
We’ve probably crossed paths a few times: he worked at BuzzFeed a couple of years ago. But to me he always just seemed like that guy who was into books. He had that Literature Industry Thing. It seemed like every time there was a new writer doing things that everyone wanted to talk about, he already knew them and had probably been talking about them - very positively - for months or years before then.
He’s a really positive guy. And I’m sure that’s not always the case. I’m sure there’s some dark shit in there. We didn’t get into that too much. I like to let people choose whether we go down that road and, besides, I’ve been told by many of you that sometimes I can be dark enough.
But Isaac is great, and we went over trauma and what it means to write about trauma. What it means to live through trauma and what it means to realise that the writing can be therapy, or the writing can at least make you realise what you want to talk about in therapy.
So that’s the interview.
Another thing I wanted to mention: I got a job. I know it was only last week that I said I no longer had a job, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t be open with you all, but y’know how these things are. Sometimes you gotta be quiet for a while. I’m going to be heading up VICE in Australia. It’s really exciting. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a cool job and I’m freaking out a bit. Maybe. Maybe I’m fine. Confidence isn’t cool anymore right? Suppose I can just imagine I’m confident. And I am to a certain degree.
I’m doing this thing at the moment: no sugar, no dairy, no gluten, no alcohol. No fun. Clean October. See how that feels. Y’know, sometimes you just ask yourself the question: what would my life be like if I didn’t fill it with shit all the time? I’m eating more vegetables, at least.
I think the real inspiration was my dog. She’s a greyhound. She’s elite. A sprinter. She’s an athlete, purebred for centuries or thousands of years, even. And all she eats is boiled chicken and vegetables and she looks amazing. I’ve just been looking at her for a while thinking: Man, what would that be like? So we’ll see.
Welcome to the new subscribers. I hope that you enjoy this, and if you do, please tell a friend. Share and all that mess. Chuck it up on Twitter. And to all of you readers, new and old, I’m forever grateful and in your debt. Perhaps more-so for the ones who scream and shout about what I’m doing. Just kidding, sorta.
Anyway, that’s it from me.
See you down the road.
VFD: Did you just go to Europe or something?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Yeah, I got extremely lucky with that. Last year stopped everything, and then there was the hopefulness of late Spring and the beginning of Summer. The vaccines were working better than anybody expected. The rollout seemed to be going very well. Before you know it, it quickly became clear that – surprise, surprise – politicising the vaccine was going to have consequences. But early Summer felt really, really good. Things feel a bit murky now.
I’m seeing somebody at the moment and they’re basically an international scout – so they work for publishing companies all around the world.
VFD: Great gig.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Oh, absolutely. And part of her job was travelling a tonne and, of course, she’d been locked out for a year and a half. She had some publishers in Sweden, Finland, and Norway who were like: come on over for as long as the countries accept Americans, let’s do it now. Now’s the time. The Winter hasn’t really set in yet and we can all eat outside. And so I basically went along for the ride.
And again, this has been a hard year for everyone, but when you experience that for the first time… that’s the first time I had probably travelled out of the country in years. Because I hadn’t been getting around much even before that. So just to do international travel felt incredible. Just to be somewhere else felt incredible.
VFD: Have you been there before?
Isaac Fitzgerald: No, I'd never been. Have you ever been?
VFD: No, no. What was it like? Just drinking elk blood, stuff like that?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Yeah, yeah, all that. Elk blood – that was the Fins. But truly, it’s interesting seeing that, too: how different countries react.
Finland was definitely still about masks, and we all know Sweden very much took the Godspeed and good luck approach. And Norway was very serious. Norway is always very serious. They’re like: well, we’ve got free oil money so what do we care. And that’s what was amazing. Basically, right before we stepped foot in Norway they closed their borders to Americans. Luckily they let us in because we were like: we’re only here for a day! I think they realised it would have been more of a pain in the ass to send us back to Sweden anyway. But it just felt extraordinary to travel – especially given that my general feeling is that it’s now going to be time to go inside for the Winter.
VFD: Yeah, for sure. When you went back were you bummed to be back in the US? What’s it like there? You’re in Brooklyn, right?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Y’know, it’s really about everybody’s different comfort levels. I am doing my damnedest to stay outside for the most part. In a way it actually felt very nice to come back to New York. It was a wonderful trip but that’s one of the best parts about travelling, right? You actually get excited to go back again and to go home.
I really love New York – and again, talking about media misrepresenting you with the way things are going in Australia – often so many people are so ready to be like: New York City is just a ghost town! Your city has been taken over! It’s ridiculous. It’s like: No.
If you actually go outside – if you actually aren’t reading stuff on the internet and go to New York City – this Summer was beautiful. Tonnes of people were here, lots of tourists. Of course, you’ll read that one story about “so-and-so refusing to show a vax card gets into a fight”. But everyone’s wearing masks. Everyone’s showing their vaccination cards. Everyone seems, for the most part, very happy. Kind of like: we’re all in this together.
VFD: Yeah. Everyone’s over it, right?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Yeah.
VFD: It’s partly the “we’re all in this together” and it’s partly the “I can’t keep doing this, personally.” And I’m at a position where I don’t mind what your motivation is. It’s fine with me.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Totally.
VFD: Well man, I’m gonna be honest – I don’t really know where to start here because, obviously, we haven’t talked a lot. I think I met you a few times when I was in New York. And then doing a quick Google and just from being online… it seems like you lived quite a life, right? To put it gently. So where did you grow up?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Let’s start at the beginning, it’s something I always do.
One of the ways I put it is: my parents are married when they had me, just to different people. Which is the truth. I’m a child of passion.
I was born in Boston and it took them a little while to get their ducks in a row, let's just put it like that. More of a family shrub than a family tree. And it took a little while for the dust to settle from all that, but luckily I was a baby so that worked out for me.
But I was raised in a place called Haley House, which is a Catholic Workers thing. And the Catholic Workers is basically a socialist-Catholic organisation that was started by Dorothy Day here in New York City.
Basically, the idea of it being: we're gonna focus on that whole “help poor people” thing, and maybe less the whole “let's give money to the Vatican” thing.
Isaac Fitzgerald: And so I was very lucky to grow up in a very unique situation. Although, when you're a kid you don't understand that it's unique. So I’m living in this place called Haley House and then we moved to a place called John Leary House. And that was basically low income, subsidised, halfway housing for the unhoused – which is what my parents were.
They eventually do get together! But because of that, they had kids, they were unhoused. They didn’t have a place to go. And they got that in the Catholic Worker, which is wonderful because that’s what it’s supposed to be for – to get people back up on their feet. And I won’t give you the long, long roll, but just know that I grew up in inner-city Boston and then I moved with my mother, and my father eventually followed, to rural Massachusetts. That’s where the name for my book came from.
Basically, I lived in a town called Athol, Massachusetts. Which of course everyone in the state calls “Asshole”.
VFD: That’s nice.
Isaac Fitzgerald: But you can’t call a book “Asshole, Massachusetts”! That’s why it’s called “Dirtbag, Massachusetts.” But yeah, everything that you’re thinking: very rural, very low-income area. But what that gave me that I’m grateful for is that I have this childhood that was very much inner-city and my early teenage years were spent in a very rural setting. So I kind of got the best of both.
VFD: How rural we talking? What were you doing for fun?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Like: my best friend when I was 12 years old - we're very, very different people now, but my longest-running best friend – was this guy, Liam Walsh. And I grew up in a house that had no heat. We used a wood stove to keep the house warm. Running water: yes. But we had a water pump that still worked in the back - so that was kind of a new thing. But my house looked amazing to Liam. Liam literally had just gotten electricity and running water, I think, in his sixth grade year there was an outhouse. But yeah, the usual stuff: we shot each other with BB guns, just all the hick shit. Driving trucks at way too young an age…
VFD: Totally. Went on a journey of self-discovery on a raft down a river…
Isaac Fitzgerald: Yeah, exactly, exactly! But at the same time it was very fun and very free. I won't lie, it was a fun place to be a kid out there in the woods.
Isaac Fitzgerald: But it's also a very small world. And that's kind of what comes next - and I think it was really helpful, for me - I really lucked out: I got a full scholarship to a boarding school that was also in Massachusetts but that had students from all over the world. And I'd never even been on plane. All of a sudden my world was just… bigger.
And I was raised by people who loved books. These are very intelligent people, both in the Catholic Worker and in rural Massachusetts, but it was still small and very local – especially when you're a kid. That becomes your whole universe. And all of a sudden, at the age of 14, I recognised that there's this whole rest of the world. I feel very lucky for that.
VFD: When you say you recognised that - is that a positive experience? Did you ever hold animosity? I think when people think about their upbringings and their youth they either see it as a positive or a negative. And then there’s a moment in their life where that also switches: they start positive and they go negative, or they start negative and they go positive.
Isaac Fitzgerald: I think that's really insightful, Brad, because you're 100% right. Just to speak openly - and this will definitely be in the book - but I grew up in a very loud household. I grew up in a household that had violence in it. I think my parents were struggling to figure out life and to get their act together. But when you're a kid you don't have that empathy. You don't understand the hardships that they're going through. And so I resented them for a long time. For a long time I was basically estranged from my family. I think at the age of 23 I moved back to the west coast and I never came back for Christmas or Thanksgiving. I never came back for the holidays. I went for a couple of years.
I was always sure to call and I didn’t want to be a total disappearing act, but for a few years there I didn't even see them, and there was a lot of resentment. But y’know: there’s a lot of therapy that has gone into all that.
VFD: That's good.
Isaac Fitzgerald: But, to do your flip – as you call it – I don’t have this perfect arc. I’m not like: oh, now I forgive them. It’s something I’m working on and we’re still having those conversations.
VFD: They’re both still alive?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Yeah, they’re both still alive. I’m very lucky in that. And they’re both open to those conversations, which I know is not true of every parent in that situation. So I feel very lucky for that. But the thing that brought me back to the East Coast is that both my half-brother - which is my mom's kid from her first marriage - and my half sister - my dad's kid from my dad's first marriage – now have kids of their own. And I'm just watching my parents be the world's best grandparents. Like, all grandparents are great, don't get me wrong, but even my siblings are like: we didn't think your parents were gonna be good at this. But they are! They really, really are.
And this still doesn't mean that I make every Christmas. It doesn't mean that I make every Thanksgiving. I still live a very independent life. But there is room for that growth and that healing. Obviously, there's a lot of hardship in my childhood that I'm still dealing with and that's very difficult. I try to just speak openly and honestly about that.
Isaac Fitzgerald: At the same time, I can find that there were moments of joy in my childhood as well. And as I get older, I find that I have more room for empathy. Again, not excusing the actions of my parents, but understanding that there were actions that were impacting them as well, and that there is generational trauma and generational violence.
VFD: Yeah, it’s a big moment where you realise your parents are people. You’re like: Shit…
Isaac Fitzgerald: I can’t just be angry at you! That’s two-dimensional! God dammit!
VFD: You’ve been through stuff! More than me! Just by being older!
Isaac Fitzgerald: Exactly.
VFD: So the book: have you had to write that whole thing in the pandemic?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Oh, I wish. My editor wishes. No, it took me way longer. When I first pitched the book I think it was accepted in 2018.
VFD: Wow, OK.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Yeah, exactly. And it was originally going to be a collection of essays. It came after I had written this essay “Confessions of a Former Former Fat Kid,” for BuzzFeed. And it was just going to be a collection of essays.
And then I found myself growing as a writer. At some point you usually stop and you put the thing down and you’re like: OK, I’m done. I can grow as a writer in the next book. But with this book it slowly went from what was going to just be this mixtape – a weird mix of different essays that didn’t really have an arc – to eventually realising that I was writing about my childhood more than I thought I would. So it’s kind of a memoir in essays, with more of an arc throughout the whole thing. Calling back to different essays, being in conversations with one another. So that process took a couple of years and then, yes, the new stuff that I’m publishing now definitely came out of the pandemic. But even that stuff I find myself reworking and reworking, because – and it’s different strokes for different folks – but personally I found this a very hard time to get work done.
VFD: Yeah, it was.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Which is shit because you’re like: this is all needed, supposedly. To sit around in our houses.
VFD: Well yeah, but that was in a context where you couldn’t die from going outside. And that kind of puts a big cloud over the idea of work, or of being productive.
Isaac Fitzgerald: You're throwing yourself an indoor karaoke party of one because you're just trying to stay sane.
Isaac Fitzgerald: But I am really excited. It's gonna come out in Summer of next year. And on the one hand, it feels very vulnerable. It feels hard to put something like that out into the world. And on the other hand, it does feel like this book was the book that I've been trying to write, basically, even before I had the skills to write.
I knew I wanted to tell this story, and in the last 10 years I’ve been trying to figure out how to become a better writer. And now I feel like this is me. I think it's the best book I could have gotten done where I am now, and I'm looking forward to sharing this one with the world and then moving on to whatever comes next.
VFD: When did you realise that being that open, and writing about your life in that way, was not just incredibly traumatic and the worst thing you could do? Unless it is!
Isaac Fitzgerald: I was actually just talking about this in conversation with this wonderful author Rex Ogle. He had this middle grade memoir come out called “Free Lunch” that was about poverty and his middle school years, and he has a new book that just came out, too - I believe it will be a trilogy - called “Punching Bag”. It was kind of about his high school years and dug deeper into the physical abuse that he experienced as a child, and the trauma of living with mentally ill parents and parents who have substance abuse issues.
And this is something that interests me: to have therapy, obviously, is something he brought up. And I wholeheartedly agree with it. But it’s like: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Therapy definitely helps inform the writing, and for me, the writing actually helps me get to certain things that I want to talk about in therapy.
But he also talks about - and I want to be clear, this is Rex’s idea – how he would perform little rituals before he went into “Alright, now I’m going to write about this really messed up thing.” And I definitely did this one. I don’t really think of it as original, but just playing music from the time period that you’re writing about can help. Music that I listened to when I was 16, it can spark the memories and get you in the mood.
But he said he would only play the music while he was doing it, right? And then he said something that I also thought was fascinating: he said he’d have rituals, like lighting a candle, and when he was done he’d blow it out. And just having little signatures like that can help. Like: I’m gonna be thinking about this hard stuff. And it’s not that blowing that candle out makes the hard stuff go away, but it does take you out of the moment. And I just thought that was so wonderful.
The other things is that it’s not fun to think about these memories. In a way, it’s stuff that I’ve been carrying around for a long time. These are things that I’m very familiar with.
And Rex also talked about how the even the more difficult thing is often finding those moments of joy, actually.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Because when you experience the trauma he experienced, the violence, all while you’re a kid – that's gonna set in your mind.
For the adults in your life, they're going out into the world experiencing all these different things, right? But when you're a kid, your home life and your school life… that's basically your whole world. It's a very small world. And so of course, those moments have incredible gravity. Sometimes it can be just as hard to try and go back and figure out that it was bad. But there had to be these other moments, right? Good moments. And trying to find those smaller moments, that can paint a three dimensional portrait of what the experience was like, that’s the challenge.
VFD: What did your folks say?
Isaac Fitzgerald: So, again, I'm very lucky in that they're willing to discuss it, and they're willing to acknowledge it. I know that there are some people who write about stuff like this and their parents won't even walk down that road with them. And I'm very, very lucky that my parents acknowledge it. It might have something to do with the Catholic-ness of it all. They’re like: We’re people. We fucked up. We hope someday forgiveness can happen. And there’s a lot of that in the book as well. But I’m finishing it right now, and then I plan on sitting down with them and we’re going to go over it.
VFD: That’ll be a moment.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Well, my mom’s all in. My dad is a little bit like: Yeah, it happened. Do I need to read the book?
VFD: It’s like therapy in a book! Check it out!
How did you get to a position where writing was your thing and you felt you could do it?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Great question. For me, I was raised always reading. And I do have my parents to thank for that – they really loved books. I remember some of those early moves – we had a blue Toyota truck – and there wasn’t a tonne of furniture but they had milks crates filled with books. They really loved books. They made sure I was going to Boston Public Library. And so I have them to thank for that.
I was always reading books throughout the move into rural Massachusetts. And then I got the scholarship, went to college, and was always in the back of the classroom with a book. It’s something my dad taught me at a very early age – don’t leave the house without a book. And it’s just something that I always had.
At one point, my parents were separated for a while, and my dad actually took the time to read “The Fellowship of the Rings” over tape and mail them to me. So books were fundamental. But I never really understood that you could write them.
VFD: Yeah. They just appear, right?
Isaac Fitzgerald: They’re just there! And don’t get me wrong – there was some bad poetry in high school. I’m not gonna pretend there wasn’t. There were some attempts. But it wasn’t until I got out to San Francisco when I was 23-years-old. There was a place called 826 Valencia and I had just moved out there, staying with a woman that I was dating at the time. She literally had a roommate – I’m not talking a flatmate – I’m talking like they were sharing a room and there were five other people living in this apartment made for two people.
And I think after me showing up for a bit she was like: OK, can you get out of the house now? And she told me there was this place that had a sign that said storytelling and bookmaking workshop. So I went down there, I walked in, I was like: I love books, I love stories, let’s go! And about five minutes in I realised: Oh… this is for kids. And what I was in was like a volunteer recruitment meeting. What they want is for you to work with local kids to help them with their homework. There’ll be school classroom visits where you help them make a book and teach them how to tell a story and stuff. Which is wonderful, but in my mind I was like: This isn’t what I thought it was going to be.
But even then - even at the age of 23, when I was a total dick - I still knew I couldn’t just get up and leave.
Isaac Fitzgerald: I’d look like an asshole. So I stayed. And that’s when I noticed that there were all of these pages that surrounded the room that were framed, and they had all of these markings on them.
So I raised my hand and asked: What are those? And they were like: well, 826 Valencia was founded by a local San Francisco writer named Dave Eggers - who now I'm very familiar with his work, but at the time, I was not - but Dave has a lot of friends who publish and each of these pages are from one of those manuscripts.
And the reason why they had them - all of these different friend’s manuscripts with all this scribbling out - the reason they had them is so that kids can see that while writing is a very solitary art form, you can always give your work to a friend, or to a family member, or to an editor, or just anybody. Maybe one of the volunteers can give you feedback. You're not going to love all the feedback, but that feedback will help you make that story into something more. And it was the first time in my life that I was like: Oh, wait, writing can be collaborative.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Sorry, I’m going on a monologue about this. But basically, up until that moment, I was reading old books. So I thought writing was a bunch of dead old white guys.
VFD: Hahah, totally.
Isaac Fitzgerald: And I thought they wrote in ivory towers and they were touched by God, and they just had a gift. Prose just fell out of them and then they hit print and the pages came out. They sent it to New York, they put a book cover on it, and then you're a millionaire.
VFD: Yeah! That’s how it works, right?
Isaac Fitzgerald: It’s not how any of it works! But it was in that moment that I was like: Wait a second. Maybe it can be more like a craft. Something you can practice. Something that you do over, and over, and over again. It’s something that you get feedback from other people on.
And so through eight to six months, I end up volunteering with the kids and I eventually end up working there. I met so many different literary people through that system. But that is what it really comes down to for me: a creative writing place for kids. They were like: here's some lessons for eight year olds! And I was like: Yeah, we should let the eight year olds know this. Totally. I, of course, know this already…
And that's when I realised practice makes perfect. So I started writing and writing and writing, and journaling, and it was all shit, and it was all shit, and it was all shit! And now I think it's less shit.
VFD: I like how it's never good. It's never amazing. It’s only ever “significantly less shit”.
How do you deal with the mental strength required? I guess that's how I describe it. Like, how do you sit down and actually fucking write, again and again and again. And again.
Isaac Fitzgerald: There are people that are amazing at this. I do believe that there are those people who are like: if I don't write every day, it hurts me. Or they live to write.
I am not that person.
Let me tell you, my apartment is never cleaner than if I'm on a deadline. I will procrastinate. I will try to do anything other than sit down and actually do the work. So, for me, I have to trick myself into it. I’m a big fan of the reward system. Just like: get this done and then you get to go to the bar, or then you get to eat food. Whatever works for you.
But then the other thing that I have found, which has been interesting, is allowing myself to have time to do it. It's in my later years that I realised that in the last 10 to 15 years, every CV, every single resume that I've ever had, was a lie. I can't multitask. I told everybody I was, but I’m a shit multitasker. Which is to say that I need time to get my focus, and then I need to be focusing just on that one thing. If it's writing, I need to be focused on that one thing. So for me, it's about making sure that I have the time to do that, and then to try to build a system where I can do it repetitively.
With the book - and it took me a long while - for a long time on this I was flailing, I didn't know what I was doing and and very insecure about it. But eventually I started realising: OK – and maybe this is just getting older - but I get real tired in the afternoons. I’ve never napped before but I'm starting to see the point.
VFD: Yeah, exactly.
Isaac Fitzgerald: So I'm actually at my best when I need to wake up and immediately go sit down and try to use those first couple of hours, because that's usually when I'm at my sharpest and my most energised. And this is where Walk It Off come ins. This is the Substack that came out of the pandemic.
Not to tell two stories at once, here. But basically, during the pandemic, I found myself - like we all did - with so much more time on my hands. And I feel very lucky because that was such a hard time in so many different ways for so many different people.
For myself, I live alone. I don't have children. And I found myself with time. And I started using it to just walk, and walk, and walk. And I wrote a piece for The Guardian, because I believe I was walking 20,000 steps a day. Which, let's be honest, that's almost 10 miles. That’s kind of like: hmm… is that a new habit? Or is that neuroses? Is that a problem?
VFD: Totally, like: is that a problem maybe?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Yeah: How much are you distracting yourself?
But getting in the habit of it made me feel healthier, made me feel happier, and I feel very lucky that I have that time. But that's when I realised: oh, if I start walking, I'm going to start writing about this. Just the way that I used to keep a journal.
Y’know, long before BuzzFeed I worked at McSweeney's. I worked at a place called The Rumpus. I worked at 826. But it has been a very long time since I have had time to keep a journal. So I've fallen out of that practice. But I realised that if I just wrote about my silly little walks, basically, I could make sure that I keep that habit going.
So that's what helps me do it: putting myself under a deadline, and a reward system, but also making sure I have a reason to keep doing it. And that’s what Walk It Off started as. And I’m just very happy that I then came up with the idea to interview people on these walks.
VFD: How do you approach the interview part of it? What do you think about when you’re thinking about what to ask?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Again, it’s kind of lucky. There’s two parts there: For the most part I’ve only spoken to writers and editors. I know I talked to one photographer, Maddie, who’s amazing, and I talked to Dan Saltzstein, who is a New York Times editor, but he writes as well.
Anyways, what I'm trying to explain is that it has mainly been artists thus far. And I'm actually hoping to widen that aperture at some point. I would love to go for walks with all sorts of different people, everywhere, and also here in New York City. But I think why I'm drawn to that is the same thing that we've been talking about throughout this - I'm still always trying to learn. I didn't study writing, I never got into an MFA programme. I'm all for people who do, but I never got an education in it. So maybe it's based on some insecurities that I feel around that, but I'm almost always trying to learn more. So when I'm approaching my interview process, I want to read up on the person's work, but nine times out of ten I'm asking questions that I genuinely want to know the answers to. Because and I love this. Because you're always going to get a different answer from different people.
But really, what my my real core question for each walks comes down to is: how do you do what you do? I'm like: tell me your secrets!
And even Maddie - she's an incredible photographer - she has done stuff for the New York Times and every major publication, and I’m out here with my iPhone trying to take little shots of flowers. So I just ask her: how do you do what you do? And I think that's always fascinated me because I think we're all changing all the time and always getting better and always approaching our writing or art differently. And I just want to get these little moments in time with people. Sorry, I'm giving you such long winded answers.
VFD: It’s alright! That's the idea! Actually, I’m interested to see what you think here as well, in regards to Walk It Off. But I think it’s the long winded answers where people just kind of go off on a tangent, those are generally better. But they do take more work.
Like: I'm very aware of the fact that my audience will have to read, and have to commit to reading, to get to the good stuff. And I make a decision – what could be full of ego – to be like: Oh, screw you. If you want it, read it. And they’re going to read this part, too, and probably be like: hey, screw you Brad. But I think that’s good. I think it’s nice. It has a good flow to it and people don’t actually talk in a question, answer, question, answer format. That’s not how a conversation happens.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Yeah, exactly. It's very conversational. I will say this: with Walk It Off, I know for a fact that the sweet spot is a half an hour conversation. And I think that usually leaves me at a pretty good word length, obviously trimming some of the excess off. But I don’t think that I have done one Walk It Off that’s less than an hour and a half. Some of them can be three hours long and I have to make significant cuts. I do some rearranging.
And y’know how in Substack you’ll hit that thing..
VFD: Yeah, it’s like: Your email is too long!
Isaac Fitzgerald: Exactly. So I always try to keep it below that. And sometimes it goes over if you add a link, so I have to delete the link and smooth it out. So I'm trying to get better at keeping my conversations shorter. But as you can tell, I suck.
VFD: No, not at all.
How do you – and you can tell me if you’re less online now - but a significant part of your life at BuzzFeed and, well, just being alive in the 21st century - is about being online. And I think there’s a lot written and said about the way that the internet apparently destroys your attention span and destroys your ability to read. Destroys you ability to write. Destroys your ability to focus. And these things require you to be offline, right? Did you ever have that kind of struggle? Or are you just not an online kind of person?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Oh, no, no, no. Extremely online. Far too much. As are we all. Especially after this past year.
The way I always think about this is: I’ve worked a tonne of service industry jobs. Waiter, bartender, host. All these different gigs. I was working from a very young age – I started out when I was 12 working at a country store – and I knew that I loved books from a very early age. And I truly believe this: I don’t think I ever get to a point where I feel like I could pursue writing… without the internet.
Isaac Fitzgerald: And I’m sure there are studies, and as much as I’m sure it has deteriorated my attention span…
I mean, not even deteriorated. We’ve talked about it: I’m a procrastinator. Of course it’s easier for me to open up Twitter and start playing around there than to actually do the work, right? But as much as that happens, I feel grateful for the internet. I really do. And I don’t think I’m the only writer, especially of our… I don’t know what you want to call it – I think you’re significantly younger than I am – but the age group…
VFD: The “Online Generation”
Isaac Fitzgerald: Yeah. We came up through this new kind of format that was fun to play with. And especially early on felt kind of low stakes. And I genuinely appreciate that.
I’ll be honest: I’m doing my best to tweet less. And who knows what that is: is it just where we are in this moment right now, or am I getting a little big older and I’m just like: the world doesn’t need to know what I think about the world. And that’s OK! A lot of the time I’m wrong, anyway.
So that is what Walk It Off, before it became Walk It Off, was for.
I would put my phone down, turn it on aeroplane mode, just so I could go out in the world. Especially because after the pandemic I spent so much time inside just staring at a screen and talking to friends over Zoom. So there’s a part of me that’s trying to step away from that aspect of it.
But I’m never gonna be disdainful of it. Because the other thing is that I think there’s probably a whole other generation of incredibly young writers whose names we've never known, that are going to find their voice, are going to find their agent, are going to find their editor or their publisher, because of the relationships and the ways that they communicate online.
Even just looking at publishing, there's still a fucking long way to go but it's become so much more diverse and so much more inclusive than it was 20 years ago. And I think we have a lot to thank the internet for that for you. All of a sudden, you can make these connections with people all around the country and all across the globe, that maybe otherwise you wouldn't have made.
So I'm still a true believer for sure. But I’ve also got a little bit of an old man in me where I'm like: Alright, there's somebody else out there that's younger, smarter, quicker. They're gonna have more fun on Twitter. I don’t need to do all the takes. But I like that it’s still there.
VFD: Yeah - just walking out of the bar, putting your hat on the hook. “I was here.”
Isaac Fitzgerald: “I’ll be in the back now.”
VFD: Well thanks so much, man.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Oh can I just as real quick: how are you? What's new? Give me the update.
VFD: Yeah, I’m good. I'm ready to start going outside again next week. I start a new job soon, which I think I can talk about now. Definitely, when this gets published next week. I’m heading up VICE here in Australia.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Fuck, Brad!
VFD: Yeah I’m trying to be cool about it, and chill, and not think about everything I could do incorrectly. But no, it’s really exciting. I started that yesterday and watched a bunch of induction videos about VICE. It’s very interesting to see the similarities and crossover between VICE and BuzzFeed. I don't know if there's a rivalry there, and whether or not I should say that, but it’s like: Yeah, we do things this way. And I'm like: yeah, doesn't everyone? And then you realise: Oh, no. It was actually just a very small amount of digital publishers that did things this way.
But yeah, that's gonna be a big focus. And I have been thinking a lot about how to make VFD happen while making that happen. But I think it’s like a lot of things: you just do it. Make it happen or don’t.
Isaac Fitzgerald: And find your balance, right? That’s something else that I think is very important to me as we “open up” from this grey murky area we’re in.
I’m trying to protect my time. I still want to go on these long walks. But all of a sudden people are like: Oh, hey, let’s meet up! Let’s do this! Let’s do that! And all of a sudden your schedule starts to fill up.
But I do think, especially in terms of work, that as people come out of this, I think a lot of us, maybe because of the internet, all of a sudden your work follows you home. You can access your email everywhere. Social media was tied to your work, right? And I do think that as people come back into this there might be a little bit more of: OK, I'm so stoked about this job. I want to work at this job. But it is important that I get to keep my side things going because that makes me personally happy. It's called hobbies. Everybody's always had them for a very long time. And they should remain a part of one's life. But also just congrats on that, that's awesome. Like, way before I got into any of this, I worked at a bar called Zeitgeist in San Francisco.
VFD: Oh, you worked there? Cool.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Yeah, I was there for two or three years. They were lost years. I kind of walked in when I was 23 and I walked out and I was 26. And I was just like: Oh, shit.
But everybody would always bring magazines in. And the one magazine that they would keep at the bar was VICE. And this was early, early days. I mean, I'm not sure they even had a website. I don't know what was going on. But anyways, all I'm trying to say is congratulations. That's super exciting news.
VFD Yeah, I’m super happy about it.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Well in that case I’ll let you get to work!
VFD: Yeah, thanks so much. I really appreciate this, and you taking the time.
Isaac Fitzgerald: No, totally, it’s a two-way street. Thank you for asking me.