By turns comforting, depressing, and illuminating, Scratch paints a fuller, more personal picture of what it’s like to make a living from—or while—writing. I spoke with Martin about the intersection of writing, money, and class, as well as the process of making Scratch. (This conversation has been edited and condensed.)
Joseph Frankel : Some of the writers you spoke with for Scratch were very frank about their finances and their class backgrounds. Others were a little more reluctant. What accounts for these different levels of openness?
Manjula Martin: In my experience working with writers on this topic, it’s often the people who have more money who don’t want to talk about money. Transparency is a really scary thing for a lot of people in any profession, and I think there are good reasons for that. But people who are excited to talk about the topic, even if they’re nervous, inherently understand ... that it takes transparency to change stuff. It’s the old saw of “knowledge is power,” and I think that extends to writers and money.
There are a lot of barriers to access for people who come from low-income backgrounds, or maybe less traditional educational backgrounds, or who have had to deal with other types of prejudices in their life. If we want that to change, we need to start being honest about how this business actually works.
Frankel: Essays in the collection call attention to the creative value of day jobs and, in the case of Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams), their impact on writers’ output. Others, particularly the piece by Alexander Chee (The Queen of the Night, Edinburgh), think that the discussion of day jobs helps to romanticize unfair pay for writers. How do you think about the relationship between other kinds of work and writing?
Martin: I think that some of the stuff Chee says in his essay is particularly valuable for younger writers who maybe haven’t been around in an era where folks were ever really compensated well. I’ve certainly written for free. I’d bet Chee has done it too, and I think he talks about that in his essay. But if you’re hiring me to do work, you need to pay me, is sort of his stance. And I agree with that 100 percent.
You mentioned romanticizing that relationship between work and craft. I think it’s very tricky because there is a lot of dangerous romanticization, and that can set writers up, particularly in the beginnings of their careers, to blunder in a business they know nothing about.
Chee has a great quote in his essay where he talks about how any education in writing should include an education in how to make a living as a writer. There is a place for the romantic in the writer’s life, but there’s a difference between romance and being ignorant. Gay says that really nicely in her interview where she’s just like, “I don’t want to kill the dream of my students by being like, ‘it’s really hard to make a living!’” But it’s also the responsibility of older generations of writers to let folks know really what it’s like.