Mary Pilon // The Cagibi Express Interview

Mary Pilon is the co-author of the new audio series, Twisted: The Story of Larry Nassar and the Women Who Took Him Down. She is also author of the books the The Kevin Show, a story of Olympian Kevin Hall and the syndrome that makes him believe he stars in a television show of his life, and The Monopolists, a best-selling book that chronicles the secret history of the famous board game.

A regular contributor to The New Yorker, Esquire, Fast Company, MSNBC, Vice, Politico, and Bloomberg Businessweek, Pilon has worked as a staff reporter at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and as an Emmy-nominated producer for NBC Sports at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

More about the new audio series, Twisted: The Story of Larry Nassar and the Women Who Took Him Down, follows the interview.

: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

Mary Pilon: I love this notion, but I want to be clear that I don’t think that all wandering or distraction is bad—far from it. What Belloc is talking about is a bit tangled up; for me, travel has proven fulfilling, but I’d certainly categorize much of it as wandering and distraction. That, too, was fulfilling. Tis a privilege to wander. Distraction can often be a break from anxiety. I’m with Cheryl Strayed in believing that often the wandering, the not knowing where one is going, ultimately can make sense. Depending on the situation, it takes bravery to wander, to go forth even when the outcome is uncertain. It’s taken me years of guilt, and I’m still working on that. Did I mention I was in Portugal a few days ago?

: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.

Pilon: Food. Always food. I don’t think I could ever cover food because it would risk spoiling the pure joy I experience in diving into local cuisine. Language isn’t far behind. I love speaking Spanish when I can, but even if I’m going somewhere for a few days, I try to learn even a few phrases. It helps me check out of my routine in the US while being a gesture to those who host me. If I have my act together, I’ll try and read books or articles from the country ahead of time. And the old school print reporter in me still loves to check out the local paper wherever I wake up.

Lately I’ve pushed to turn off my phone and social media when I’m trying to immerse myself somewhere. I think Instagram culture can ruin travel. It should be an experience, not a photography staging competition. I worry about it being harder and harder to get distracted when traveling. Those limitations on device usage are freeing for me.

The old school print reporter in me still loves to check out the local paper wherever I wake up.

: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.

Pilon: I’m somewhere between “a” and “d.” I’ve filed stories from planes, trains, mansions, shitty hotel rooms, fancy hotel rooms, tents, parks, coffee shops, my apartment, cacophonous sports arenas, my high school bedroom, and myriad time zones. If you’re trained as a journalist, you get this ingrained sense of the conditions for creativity never being ideal, yet you write on. That was a huge lesson for me. It wasn’t until I started working on my first book, “The Monopolists,” on mornings, nights and weekends outside of my newsroom jobs that the idea of cultivating a workspace of my own even occurred to me. Overall, I’m pretty low maintenance. Give me a laptop and some coffee, I’m good to go.

That said, I spent a fair amount of time decluttering my apartment in Brooklyn for sanity and creativity. It feels spacious, airy and has loads of natural light, plenty of books, and a puppy, so that’s been great. I have a desk and working typewriter, but I do most of my work at my dining room table. I think that’s something I picked up growing up from watching my mother because she was always working at our dining room table. Now, it feels oddly comforting to me to charge away at mine, but I make a point of packing up my things at the end of a work session.

Freelancing made me realize that I also need to see people. I work a lot out of coffee shops (always tip your baristas!) and I spend a fair amount of time at coworking spaces. Writing can be a lonely gig—I need to be reminded that there are other humans out there who may, god willing, someday read something I’ve worked on.

: This is Cagibi Express and we are here to deliver news to your readers—what can your readers expect next from you? What are you working on now?

Pilon: I have a couple of projects that are top secret which I mostly wanted to say because it makes me sound like I’m in the CIA or something. But I can tell you about LOSERS: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scoreboard, an essay collection that I’ve been working on with Louisa Thomas that is due from Penguin next summer. It’s all about what it means to lose in sports and includes a dream list of contributors ranging from Olympians speaking firsthand about what it means to Gay Talese, who is, in my mind, the patron saint of sports defeat journalism. Yes, we’ll have an ode to Bill Buckner. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll never look at losing the same way again. It was my first go at co-editing an essay collection and I’m having a blast working on it.

: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?

Pilon: Travel is huge for my writing and my soul. Journalism, in particular, plants this blessing (or curse) of always being on the hunt for a story. Head to Cambodia to see some ruins and leave writing about boxing and genocide. A retreat to an ashram in India turns into an investigation of pollution in the Ganges River. Go to Iceland with some girlfriends and leave after tea with the president. Hell, even roaming around my normal haunts in New York this spring resulted in a profile of a wizard for The New York Times. The world is full of material. I think with writing, there’s this dance between knowing when to step outside and when to head inside. I left my hometown of Eugene, Ore., when I was 18 and as cheesy as it sounds, I think part of me will always feel like a small town kid visiting as a tourist anywhere I go. It used to feel isolating but now, more and more, it’s an odd sort of gift.

: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel? Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?

Pilon: Yes, yes and more yes on the former. When aspiring journalists ask me about whether or not they should pursue journalism, even as many argue that it’s changing radically, I always answer the same way: “You get paid to travel and learn about things. What more could you want?”

That said, in 2016, I spent a huge chunk of time out of the country, between my own fun voyages and assignments, including the Olympics in Rio. After the election in November, I like many Americans realized the country I least understood was my own, so I made a point of sticking around more in 2017. Since then, I think I’ve used travel more for the latter. I enjoy my life and work in New York and feel extremely humbled and privileged by it. It’s cliché, but I think sometimes to appreciate it, you have to step away. That said, I’m a few days off of being on the Portuguese coast, so if any editors out there need a beach correspondent, I know someone.

: Tell us about a book you read that made you want to go and visit a place you’ve never been to.

Pilon: My mother gave me a copy of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood at far too young of an age to try and steer me away from journalism and into something more sane like, say, optometry, but it had the opposite effect. I wanted to live in New York City and go to places like Holcomb, Kansas, and ask people about crazy, true stories. And here we are! Sorry, mom.

My mother gave me a copy of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood at far too young of an age to try and steer me away from journalism and into something more sane like, say, optometry, but it had the opposite effect.

In high school, A Moveable Feast and all things Hemingway really kicked off my love of European travel as an escapade. Borges in college led to me Argentina. Ken Kesey reminds me of home. E.B. White’s Here Is New York is about as good a love letter to the city as one will find and I still turn to it often. Recently, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee made me yearn for a ticket to South Korea. Ursula K. Le Guin as a teenager, and today, still makes me wish for a ticket to another world. Someday…

: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?

Pilon: Myself? I know that sounds nuts and a bit existential, but the hardest time I’ve ever had writing is when I’m locked in my apartment, stuck. And per the question above, I know it has nothing to do with my actual living space, but my head. That makes it almost worse. If I can’t get on a plane out of the city, I’ll go for a walk or a run, but that helps my writing enormously. For my books and screenplays, that feeling can go on for weeks, months, years, in and out of wherever I’m living and working.

I’ve had this Camus quote scrawled into one of my notebooks for years, that “what gives value to travel is fear…travel robs us of such refuge. Far from our own people, our own language, stripped of all our props, deprived of our masks (one doesn’t know the fare on the streetcars, or anything else), we are completely on the surface of ourselves.” 

And that, well, that can be on the other side of the Atlantic…or the dining room table.

Do you have a favorite cause you’d like to share with our readers, maybe one that doesn’t get enough attention?

Pilon: I’m a woman who writes about sports. For all the progress that women have made in journalism, they’re still wildly unrepresented on the sports beat, especially when it comes to elite publications or management positions. This has an impact on coverage; four percent—four percent!—of sports coverage features women, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, even as we’re well into the Title IX era and the landscape is filled with female sports stars. To me, that’s simply unacceptable in 2019 and something I think about far more consciously than when I started covering sports years ago. Sports isn’t just about sweaty people on a field or on a court—it’s a prism into politics, race, gender, money, power, and other themes that are hugely important. I don’t think enough people think of it that way and as a one-woman band, I find I’m constantly having to argue for shifts in how the beat is covered—and who is behind the scenes covering it.

More About the Audio Series

Mary Pilon’s new audio series, Twisted: The Story of Larry Nassar and the Women Who Took Him Down, co-authored with Carla Correa, is available as an Audible Audiobook. From the publisher:

TWISTED+by+Pilon+and+Correa from Audible 300w.jpgAmerica’s top gymnasts have been show stoppers at the Summer Olympics for decades – the women’s artistic team won nine medals in 2016 alone. But beneath the athleticism, smiles, sponsorship deals, and haul of gold medals was a dark secret: a story of sexual abuse and trauma that, when revealed, became one of the biggest scandals in the history of American sports.

In early 2018, Larry Nassar, the former doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, was sentenced to serve out the rest of his life in prison after pleading guilty to a variety of sex crimes. In a show of unparalleled force, more than 150 young women – from gold medalists to former Michigan State University athletes to old family friends – confronted the once beloved Nassar in court, sharing their pain and resolve. Many of them took legal, financial, and career risks to speak out.

But these women’s stories also reveal a stranger, more far-reaching truth: that the institutions responsible for protecting them – from the United States Olympic Committee to local police departments – had known in some form about the abuse for years, and had not put an end to it. Twisted tells the harrowing story of these crimes and how Larry Nassar got away with them for as long as he did.

New York Times best-selling author Mary Pilon and Carla Correa chronicle the scandal from its inception, tracking the institutions that Nassar hid behind, the athletic culture that he benefited from, and the women who eventually brought him to justice. In this Audible Original, you’ll hear directly from these people – including the voices of coaches, parents, industry leaders, and the survivors themselves – as they grapple with the truth about Nassar and describe what it took to bring him down.

Appears In

Issue 7.1

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