Mélanie Berliet is an immersive journalist and author who has written rich pieces about her experiences—the shadow and the light—for publications like Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, Elle and Esquire.
When I first discovered her work, I was enamored. Enthralled. Seduced. I spent hours online devouring her writing.
I thought she would be perfect for this interview series. When we agreed to meet at Kaffe 1668 in Manhattan, she told me that at the start of her writing career was the revelation that she should enjoy what she does.
“Our day-to-day existence is so dictated by our occupation,” she told me. “For a long time, I didn’t think too much about what really interested me, but then I started to pay attention to what I was doing in my free time, which was reading and writing constantly—and I wondered if I could make it into a career.”
That was her first step. She persevered, putting her work out there and applying to different magazines and publications.
“Some of my most successful pieces were initially rejected,” she said. “It’s hard to be a writer, making no money to start. But if you want it badly enough I do believe you can make it happen. It takes perseverance.”
But she doesn’t spend energy worrying about what people think of her.
“I got an up close look at how short and fragile life is [when my sister died], and it doesn’t fucking matter what people think,” she told me. “When you take risks in your work, it’s going to touch people more. I didn’t realize that for a long time, but I was internalizing it. Do I think about what my parents would say, people ask me? I don’t give that a second thought.”
I am now grateful to call Mélanie a friend, and am so excited to introduce my audience to this amazing woman.
Read on for my interview with her!
Amy Segreti: In your book, Surviving in Spirit, about addiction and the death of your sister, you say that your path is only understandable through the lens of you and your sister’s relationship.
Mélanie Berliet: Yes. So much of my life is defined by my relationship with her; she had a tragic path that really informed my own path. I realized in retrospect, I didn’t know I was changing as a result of her. If I can credit her in some small way for the choices I’ve made to become a happy person, I think that would make her happy.
As an immersive journalist, how do you decide what to immerse yourself in?
If I’m scared of it, I know it’s going to be an interesting project for a day. I sell the idea first and then I have to do it (for example, the time I went to an illegal lap dance lounge and worked that night).
As the day approaches, I’m very nervous. But I know that for me, the material I get through the immersive method is richer than what I would get otherwise.
I also love writing in the first person and I enjoy the writing process. I don’t always necessarily enjoy doing the weirdest shit I’ve done, but I’m researching in a way that makes sense for me.
What gives you the bravery to share the personal stories that you do?
I’ve always been an open book with my friends; I never really hid personal details, and that is a trait that has blossomed even more in me over time.
Memoir has evolved as a genre; it’s no longer just for rich and famous people, nor is it only acceptable for people to write a memoir when they’re 70.
I really do believe in sharing, if only because I believe in other people’s stories. If I can help people by revealing my story, why not?
How did you go about publishing your book? And why did you choose to go digital?
I’d written the proposal in 2011. Originally I shopped it with my agent, pitching it to various print outlets, but after a few meetings I grew disheartened because everyone wanted me to change my story in order to make it more marketable. Most people wanted me to strip any mention of [the love affair that features prominently in the book], but for me they go hand in hand; I thought I’d be doing the story a disservice.
I got a sense that there was a reason that their businesses are dying—the people that I met with admitted they weren’t sure what sold and didn’t sell. After one meeting, I told my agent that I wanted her to hold off on shopping my proposal, and that I wanted to explore other outlets of getting it out there because the print world was not embracing me. My contract with them happened to expire soon, and I said I wanted to be affiliated with them but non-exclusively.
Then when I met with Chris Lavergne, the publisher of Thought Catalog, he and I saw completely eye-to-eye and we cut a deal to build a platform for me through Thought Catalog.
Honestly, Beyonce going digital meant something to me. I know I’m not Beyonce, but…
Do you have any rules around who you’ll write for and who you won’t?
I have two rules: I won’t write for free and I won’t pay to go to parties.
So awesome. Mélanie, how do you start a typical work day?
I have coffee immediately and I read whatever interests me, then I’ll go to the gym. I get a lot of my best ideas when I’m running—it helps round out what I’m focusing on for the day. Then, I reply to emails and start writing.
I shower late morning; sometimes I work naked, because I can. After lunch, I’ll usually go to a meeting at a pretentious coffee shop. ::laughter::
What advice would you give to yourself of 10 years ago?
I would tell myself that it’s ok to quit sometimes. When I was younger, my mom didn’t let me quit things, so I had this really big fear of quitting Wall Street. If you’re feeling misplaced, sometimes it’s ok to stop what you’re doing and reevaluate.
I finally started quitting in my 20s when I left Wall Street and began to explore how I could be a writer. Watching my sister go through everything that she did inspired me to do that.
Paint me a picture of your inner child. What’s she wearing, what’s she doing?
She is a people-pleaser on some level, because I really do fixate on making people close to me happy. I think she wants to remain young. I remember even when I was young, I enjoyed being the youngest. My brother tells me I still dress like a 12-year-old girl. I love dresses—people think they’re more work, but tights are too easy and pants constrict me.
She’s also a bit of a brat. She’s wearing a navy blue babydoll dress with knee-high socks.
What spiritual practices or tools do you have that keep you centered?
I consider running a moving meditation. I have a poor sense of direction, but I will wander and lose myself in thought, and that feels like a form of meditation to me.
When I was in therapy, my therapist would talk me through a hypnotic meditation, from toes to head, and I would feel so amazing afterward, so at ease. I left feeling like a wet noodle. I respond well to that kind of letting my mind go.
What does it mean to you to fully show up in your life?
I think that happens for me on the page. I don’t see another option than to be as honest as possible when I sit down to write. I put everything I possibly can into that piece, every relevant part of me—because it’s not going to be good otherwise. That’s when I feel present; it forces me to sink into myself. Through writing is the truest expression of myself.
What are some influential books you’ve read that have impacted the way you operate in the world?
Confederacy of Dunces, because the narrator sounds like my sister. I also love The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; I had a crush on the main fictional character while I was preparing my memoir.
And Beautiful Boy is the book that made me think it would be worthwhile to tell my own story. In the world of addiction memoirs, most are written by addicts; but David Sheff wrote about his son’s crystal meth addition.
When it comes to your work and creativity, would you say you’re a sprinter or a slow-and-steady runner?
I try to sprint, but I’m a slow sprinter; I’m trying to get better at my speed. I will revisit a sentence in a paragraph over and over again, and I am obsessive. My boyfriend makes fun of me: I say I’ll be done in an hour and I’m always done five hours later.
I need time and space between my work to edit it—your ear changes.
What’s something in your life or work that you’re trying to improve right now?
I am trying to get better at producing more content; some writers just amaze me. I’m trying to write faster and more, and doing that requires letting go of my perfectionism. I fixate on the final draft, and I think at a certain point, I’m changing it and not making it better. I’d like to hone my ability to let go of a piece so I can write more—that to me is practicing the craft.
What do you do for writing inspiration?
I often go to museums, but I try not to think about what place might inspire me—sometimes, it’s the subway. I am an observer, and it doesn’t have to be a hub of creativity that I’m observing. When I was single, I used to go to bars and restaurants by myself and get inspired there.
How do you get motivated when you’re just not feeling it that day?
Sometimes I wake up feeling so inspired; other days, it’s a struggle. And on those days, you have to accept the reality that it’s just not happening that day. Once you accept that and let yourself do other things, you can do other things that might inspire you. I get inspiration from wandering.
Where do you do your best work?
Work is what you do, not where you are. And it’s also not the timeframe. It doesn’t mean you’re not working when you’re at a museum. Norah Ephron’s mom told her everything is copy—you have to look at how you live your life every day as potential material.
What is your one-word definition of success?
Thank you so much, Mélanie.
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