Writer’s craft

Delia Cai of Deez Links talks about her future book (and fanfic past)

Hi, I’m Wing Sze Tang and you’re reading The Knowhow, a weekly newsletter about ambitious women doing noteworthy things, and other stuff I find fascinating. If this issue was forwarded to you, add your email below to join the list.


Happy 2021, everyone! Yes, even this stock greeting sounds too Pollyanna for the moment, given the messed-up way this year has started, but I have to believe there are better days ahead.

I took a holiday hiatus from this newsletter, but I’m now back to my regularly scheduled programming. If you subscribed in the past few weeks, welcome!

DELIA CAI TALKS ABOUT HER FUTURE BOOK (AND FANFIC PAST)

Five years ago, Delia Cai was an Atlantic Media intern just out of college, spending her cubicle-bound days writing corporate memos. The newsletter hype cycle at that time, starring buzzy outlets like The Ann Friedman Weekly and Today in Tabs (now back from the dead!), gave her the idea that it might be a fun thing to try. So she whipped up a logo in MS Paint and started Deez Links “strictly for shitposting about links and media gossip and news app takes” to her circle of friends.

Since then, Deez Links has become a must-read for media-biz insiders and curious onlookers alike; last year, her audience grew from 2,500 subscribers to more than 8,000. (See also: her thoughts on the Substackaissance/current newsletter hype cycle.) She covers industry happenings, and does smart Q&As with marquee journos (The Atlantic’s pandemic decoder Ed Yong, Culture Study’s Anne Helen Petersen) and top-of-the-masthead editors (most recently, Vanity Fair EIC Radhika Jones). Did I mention she also has a day job as BuzzFeed’s growth and trends editor, and just finished the manuscript for her first novel?

Recently, Delia has been teaching me everything she knows about newsletters as part of Substack Bridge (stay tuned for the next mentorship cycle), so naturally I wanted to interview her for this little baby outlet. Read on for how she realized her not-a-reporter personality, how her Midwestern roots shaped her upcoming book, and how she found her very first audience in her secret past life as a teenage fanfic author.

Interview has been edited for length, clarity and flow.

In another interview, you talked about starting Deez Links fresh out of j-school, when you didn’t know what you wanted to do, but knew you didn’t want to be a reporter. Why was that an immediate hard no for you?

So I went to Mizzou’s j-school, and by your second semester, you’d report on stories for homework. You can’t interview anyone you know—you have to find strangers. I was a freshman, so had no confidence and was mortified at the idea of being on campus and sort of begging people to stop and talk for a story about the weather or something. In Columbia, every year you have all these crazy little journalists trying to find a story that’s never been done, so the whole town knew the drill if a baby-eyed freshman approaches with a microphone, and everyone was a little sick of it.

That experience was very formative and sort of gruelling, and I realized almost immediately, This is not my jam at all. I loved working on the school paper, talking about media and the industry and the gossip. I loved the behind-the-scenes stuff. So I think that experience made me realize, Okay, my friends totally thrive in this environment, where they’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna call this person up and badger them,’ and that is not my personality.

I had a nice chat with a professor once who said, “You know, there are editor personalities and there are reporter personalities.” And I remember that was such a relief to hear because I thought there was something wrong with me that I didn’t get a thrill out of calling people.

In a recent email, where you announced your book, you touched upon previously feeling a “run-of-the-mill inferiority complex” rooted in being a woman, an Asian-American and someone who grew up in a not-news-literate immigrant household. I relate to all of that, except I’m Canadian. How did you figure out how to quiet that self-doubt?

I think, honestly, it’s been just hearing feedback from friends whose work I admire and whose judgment I really trust, and from people who had no vested interest in being like, “That was great.” Once I got to a point where people I didn’t know very well were saying, “Oh, this is good, you should keep doing this,” that helped a lot. I wish I could say it came from inside, like one day I just woke up more confident.

I’ll also say I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of mentors who are women and people of colour. And I’ve been very lucky in that the successful white men I’ve interacted with were all very kind and supportive and invested in sharing their knowledge. When you’re talking about things like money or salary with your girlfriends or people in your cohort, that’s a different conversation than asking someone who has this almost unvarnished view, like, This is how much this work is worth, and this is my experience as a white man. It’s like seeing into another world, in a way. One conversation is like, “Oh, are you guys also having this experience?” and the other one is like, “This is what it’s really like.” And I think both are extremely important.

That’s information you’re not going to learn in school or any other way. Someone has to tell you, and you don’t necessarily know what you don’t know until someone tells you.

Exactly. It’s like the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, right? You can have someone who can give you feedback or spend time helping you learn things. But you also need someone who can help give you visibility or opportunities, and more often than not, it has to come from someone who’s already sitting at the table.

During the pandemic, you worked a full-time job at BuzzFeed, put out a dailyish newsletter that tripled its audience this year alone, and finished the manuscript for your first novel. So the obvious question is, how? Do you know something about productivity that the rest of us don’t?

One reason I’m so hesitant to even talk about the book is that it sounds insane, objectively, to me. Not only has this been a really stressful year, but it feels like very poor taste to be like, “And I was productive!” The short and easy answer is that I don’t really have a whole lot else going on. I live alone. I’m single. And I’m just sort of a loner in the way that I need to see or talk to a friend like once a week, but not a whole lot more beyond that.

I’ll also say, pandemic aside, I turned 27 this year, and I’ve been living in New York for a few years. So I’m at the point where I’m not existentially struggling as much. A good friend of mine Michelle Delgado said, “I think the trick behind writing is having a pretty stable point of view of the world and the way you process things.” And I didn’t have that up until a few years ago. Finally finding a place that feels like home, and working somewhere where I love the people—having these other parts of my life more or less figured out—gave me this environment of stability. So I could take all the energy I spent on, say, worrying about not getting along with my roommate and put it in my creative pursuits.

It was a very slow ramp-up: I started with, Okay, I’m just gonna write fiction for two hours every Saturday. That was at the beginning of 2019, and then I was adding an extra hour on Tuesdays, or whatever. I think in this time of total isolation, there’s something nice in escaping for a few hours into this fictional world of your own creation, and puzzling through the logic of a universe where there isn’t COVID. It’s basically a long therapy session I’m having by myself.

Even as someone who writes for a living, I don’t know how I would begin with fiction. How did you figure out what you would do?

Growing up, I really wanted to just write fiction and be an author. In middle school, I didn’t have friends, so every day after school, I would come home and write my Draco Malfoy fan fiction for, like, two hours for a site called Quizilla. It was a website of probably a few thousand other middle-school-aged girls. But to me, it felt like this whole world where you could publish stories in installments, and get up on the leaderboard for top-rated or most-viewed stories. That was when I first got a taste of “Oh, I have an audience.”

Because the thing was you could publish these stories, and then “friend” people and message each other. Eventually, I’d start getting messages from my Quizilla friends asking, “Well, when’s the next chapter?” It’s so funny to think that I was 14 and taking my deadline very seriously for my readers. So that was kind of nice because, you know, I didn’t have an editor. No one knew about it. It was this weird life I had as a teen. I’ve never really explained this out loud to someone.

So that whole experience helped me figure out, Okay, here’s kind of how you map out a plot beforehand. Here’s how you do scenes and characters. In a lot of ways, writing this novel was a return to a lot of that. I found myself pulling out the same strategies or methods I had when I was in middle school.

I know the novel is probably top-secret right now, but is there anything you can tell me about it?

I’ll say it’s basically about my experiences as the daughter of Chinese immigrants growing up in a small town in the Midwest. Because I didn’t know that was weird. I didn’t grow up around a lot of other Asian kids, but when I moved to D.C. and moved to New York and started talking to people, it was interesting to look around, at a party or something, and be like, Oh, I’m not different because I’m the Asian one—I’m different because I’m the one who’s from a small town in Illinois.

The whole coastal-elites-versus-middle-America thing, I didn’t really understand it until the election, and until I was in media and met people who’d grown up on one of the coasts or with tons of Asian friends. It was sort of like realizing this part of my background I thought was super normal was not. My friend Ari Curtis was honestly the first to say something about it. She was like, “You should write about that because I don’t think anyone knows what it’s like to be, you know, the only Asian kid in your Sunday school class.”

Last question: Do you believe in making New Year’s resolutions? And if so, what’s on your list?

I think resolutions are good because you need something to jazz up your life in January when things are pretty boring. I’m actually a big fall resolutions kind of person. I love that back-to-school feeling. I’ve talked about this with my friend Kara who does this great productivity newsletter, Brass Ring Daily. We’ve talked a lot about structuring your year in the same way as a school year. Or in BuzzFeed parlance, it’s like planning a sprint. Okay, this is a time I’m gonna work really hard. These are little breaks. This is a long period of rest and restoration, just like my summer. I think that’s been really useful for me to think about.

I’d really love to sign with an agent. That’s my goal, not really a resolution. In terms of life resolutions, I’m trying to live more in the present. As a very risk-averse person during this pandemic, I’ve been thinking, Oh, as soon as I get a vaccine, life will be great. But then, There will still be 5 percent… I just have this existential thought: Oh, my God, it’s never going to be safe enough for you to do what you want. So with the understanding that life is going to be very unpredictable and strange and scary, I’d just like to find ways in every day to still enjoy myself a little.

Subscribe to get Delia Cai’s media newsletter, Deez Links, if you don’t already!

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WHAT I’M READING

Inside a Deadly Siege: How a String of Failures Led to a Dark Day at the Capitol” (NYT): Of course, a full reckoning of what happened will take months/years.

How Science Beat the Virus” (The Atlantic): Clickbait-y headline aside, this is a fascinating look at “the biggest pivot in the history of modern science.”

Vogue Got Too Familiar, Too Fast” (The Washington Post): Robin Givhan critiques the widely slagged-on-social cover featuring VP-Elect Kamala Harris. (Anna Wintour didn’t see the backlash coming, judging by Kara Swisher’s podcast, Sway, a master class in asking questions people don’t want to answer.)

Alexi Pappas Describes How She Accepted & Overcame Depression In Her New Memoir” (Refinery29): The Olympic runner shares an excerpt from Bravey.

WHAT I’M DOING

Resolving to doomscroll a little less and read books a little more, starting with this hotly anticipated page-turner.

Keeping my skin happy with this yes-I-see-a-difference exfoliating toner.

Bundling up and easing back into running after my summer hip injury, feeling thankful for the mildish-so-far winter.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST

If you’re wondering who’s writing this:

My name is Wing Sze Tang, and I’m a freelance journalist. I’ve spent my career telling stories for some of Canada’s biggest magazines. (Find some of my articles here.)

You can support this free newsletter (thank you) by forwarding it to your friends, sharing it on social media or clicking that heart ♡ you see below. Or send me your thoughts! I check my email ([email protected]) far too much.

Thanks for reading, and see you next week!