Elizabeth Mitchell is a journalist, editor, and author, most recently of Lincoln’s Lie: A True Civil War Caper Through Fake News, Wall Street and the White House. Before speaking at a Zócalo event titled “Is It Time to Consider Lincoln More Critically?,” she spoke in the green room about the golden age of the American magazine, coping in COVID through comedy, and how she got the nickname “Biz.”
When are you at your most creative?
Absolutely in the morning. I need my freshest mind to be able to do my best work. So I try to start it almost as soon as I wake up and work pretty consistently on the writing part, in particular, for the next several hours. I'm not averse to a six in the morning sort of situation. I think it's because I got trained from my kids needing to be out the door for jazz band and things like that.
You were an editor at SPIN and George magazines during the so-called "golden age" of the magazine industry in the U.S. What do you miss about that time?
I definitely miss my colleagues. The experience of those newsrooms was so fun. I'm still friends with many of the people from both publications, and it was just this crazy energy of trying to get these magazines out the door with all of the things that could possibly fall apart.
In SPIN's case, being in the music world when Nirvana was at its height, and at George, John F. Kennedy Jr. [starting] this publication that would try to bring politics to all sorts of people who had never been interested before—we were on a true adventure. We were meeting all kinds of luminaries and great artists and everybody as we were trying to put the magazine together. I've missed that the most, of all of it.
What's been your best quarantine guilty pleasure?
I've gotten—to an almost embarrassing degree—really interested in comedy. I watch comedy; I read about comedy; I listen to interviews with comedians.
How did you get the nickname “Biz”?
It actually came at my birth. I was supposed to have a different name, and then right when my mother gave birth, she decided she actually wanted to name me after herself. But she didn't want me to have the variations that she had through her whole life—she would be Betty, Liz, all these different things—so she just came up with “Biz” and figured it would stick. And it did.
What's changed the most in the journalism industry since you started out?
The pay is much worse now—certainly for any freelancer. The other thing is the time that's allowed for journalists to go out and really pursue a story and get great depth on it—it's very rare to have that situation. Often that's coming through a nonprofit more than it is a publication.
The good: greater diversity in the newsroom. Women have more respect than they did back when I was starting. So that's all very positive.
I do think, from the newsrooms that I've seen, there's not quite as much of the feeling of comradery and interaction because of the fact that everything's happening on computers. People don't have the need to go talk to each other quite as much as they did back in the old days.
What was your first foray into journalistic writing?
I had a friend who was working at Details magazine, and they told me that they were in desperate need of someone to write the script for a comic that was going to be in the magazine. I had to very quickly come up with the story joke about Madonna. That was my first magazine piece, and it made me start to think about writing for magazines in terms of real reporting.
But I was working for neighborhood newspapers in New York for a while. I had a pen name, and I would go around and figure out things people could do for free that were fun in the city. So I learned a lot about the city at the same time that I was writing—things like Con Edison, which is our electric company, had a museum. It was a very odd museum and they only let people in during the lunch hour. I thought that was such an odd thing, that anyone would want to go to the electric museum for lunch. Steve Forbes, who ran Forbes magazine, had a collection of Fabergé eggs, and he would open that for people to tour, as well. It was one of the only free things you could do in the neighborhood I was writing about.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was going into kindergarten, there was the local paper that did a story about some of the kids starting school. When asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?," I said: "Writer." There were other dreams along the way, but that one stuck with me. It's the combination of everything. I so admire people who write beautiful sentences, but also, as I've gone more into journalism, having that license to go anywhere. That just seems so valuable. I've learned so much from people from horse barns to Capitol Hill.
What's the most intimidating interview you've conducted?
The weird thing is that even ones that should be intimidating, by the time you get to talk to the person, you know the subject matter so well you're not really that intimidated. You're just excited to get the shot at asking them questions.
It's the moment before that's the intimidating part—because you just want to make sure that your presence there is justified, and you're not just interfering in someone's life for no reason. Usually the moment it begins, you're fine.
What's the weirdest job you've ever had?
Cleaning holography laboratories in Stockholm, Sweden. It would be this strange thing where you were going around, spraying Windex on all kinds of pedestals, and then, sometimes, there'd just be a floating head, a hologram. At the time I was doing it, the only other employees at the place were from Eritrea, and the only common language we could speak was Swedish. So I learned everything about Eritrean liberation during the coffee breaks.
What's the best thing you've read recently?
It's hard to choose. I thought Luster by Raven Leilani was remarkable. I also really liked A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet, which recently came out. And I don't mean to be too on the nose about this, but I think [event moderator Richard] Kreitner’s book [Break It Up] is great. It's fascinating to rethink how the country even came together, and the idea that the divisions were so much part of who we are—that division is in the foundation of the country.