Sarah Lyall grew up in New York City and is now London correspondent for the New York Times. She lives there with her husband, the writer Robert McCrum, and their two daughters. Her first book was entitled The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British.
Lyall: It’s really hard. It was so hard to switch gears, you know. I’m so used to writing relatively short pieces, 1200 words, 800 words, whatever, maybe some magazine pieces. But suddenly you’re writing a book, and you’re expanding, and you don’t have to just keep cutting out material. You can put more material in. You can write in a different way. And I feel that, you know, all the old, my old abilities as a creative writer in school, etc., before I was a newspaper reporter had kind of atrophied, you know. The muscles that I had, it just dwindled, and I had to really, really, really work to get those going again. Also, you know, having all that time. When you’re a reporter – and you probably know this, too – you work to deadline, you know. It’s like, do it now! You have 2 hours, and 2 hours is, like, a long time. But, suddenly, you have 2 years, and it’s really hard to discipline yourself to actually do it. Also, I was shocked at how bad I felt doing the book, you know? I felt like it took so many drafts to make it sound like it hadn’t taken any drafts at all, you know? I think it was John Kenneth Galbraith who once said something like, “It takes me 8 drafts to achieve that casual, effortless tone that my editors love so much.” And that’s how I felt. I mean, I had to write it over and over again to get it to sound exactly the way I want it to. And I found being stuck alone, with just me and my thoughts, which when you’re newspaper reporting, you’re not, ‘cause you’re always looking at the web and you’re always doing interviews and you’re always talking to your editor, and that’s, you know, you have to have a very short attentions span, in a way. For a book, you have to have a long attention span
You know, this is a book of essays, and they’re supposed to be funny, and there are, you know, it’s impressionistic, these topics that I have picked. So, if I do another book and, you know, picked one topic that, you know, it would be a whole different world for me. I’d love to try it. I’m, you know, incredibly relieved I was able to do this one at all, ’cause for awhile, I thought , I don’t know how people do this, how they’re left with themselves and live through it, book after book after book. It’s just beyond me.