In our new series “Behind the Byline,” we’ll be chatting with Atlantic staffers to learn more about who they are and how they approach their work. First up, we have Amanda Mull, staff writer on the Health desk and “Material World” columnist. We spoke with her in April.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Nesima Aberra: What’s on your mind?
Amanda Mull: My weekly Friday-night Zoom with my neighborhood friends, and also, I need to figure out what I’m going to cook for dinner tonight.
Aberra: How has the pandemic changed your approach to writing?
Mull: It definitely makes it harder to write. It’s harder to write anything, because crisis steals your focus and precision, but also because the entire internet is covering the coronavirus, so you have to be quick and creative about how you approach ideas.
Aberra: What do you cover for The Atlantic?
Mull: There’s no great way to describe my beat, I’m pretty convinced. But I write about how people experience life. So, how they think about themselves and their identities, the things around them, their social relationships, and their relationships to the economy, politics, society, and culture. I do sort of write about everything.
Aberra: What inspired your column, “Material World,” and what’s your favorite story from that series?
Mull: My background is in fashion, so I started taking on stories about how people shop, how people think about buying things, and how people think about solving their problems with their bodies or with their emotions or with their everyday lives. Often in the United States, that happens by buying something or trying to buy the right thing.
My favorite story for the column is probably the article on “premium mediocrity,” about an overarching aesthetic and economic through line, and how a lot of young people spend money and build lives now. I thought that was really interesting and gets at a really large concept that a lot of people experience, but not a lot of people have the language to talk about. And those are my favorite sorts of problems—things that people immediately understand when you try to describe them, that they just have not tried to put words to. So if I can find something like that, I’m always excited.
Also, I loved the article about free shipping. I think now we are seeing that a generalized understanding of supply chains, and how that sausage is made, how things get to us, how things are sold to us, is really important for understanding the society we live in. So I am retroactively glad I wrote that. It seemed important at the time. It seems even more important now.
Aberra: What is Generation C, and how are things going to shake out for them?
Mull: I think that the generation that is young, that is in school or just barely out of school right now, will certainly want better for themselves. I think we have an opportunity to, out of tragedy, grow a better, fairer society. It doesn’t happen every time. It might not happen this time; it’s impossible to say now. But I think that it would be wise for people who are dissatisfied with what’s going on now to keep that in mind.
Aberra: Have you bought anything that’s been important to you while quarantined?
Mull: I’ve tried to limit my online shopping to necessities, because I know that delivery guys are overburdened right now. But several months before this happened, I did buy a new couch that I’m very happy I got. I’m glad that I did not wait any longer, because now so much of my life is conducted on it.
Aberra: What does your cooking life in quarantine look like?
Mull: I have always liked to cook. That’s a normal weekend activity for me. I make at least one thing that I can pick at over the week. Filing a story is nice, but there is no satisfaction like finishing something and holding it in your hand and then having it be useful to you for the foreseeable future. With cooking there’s that. Before, the time to do bigger projects just sort of evaporated. That doesn’t really happen right now. Even if I have to get on my computer and have to write something up real quick for work, I’m still here to monitor my focaccia dough.
Aberra: How is Midge?
Mull: The quarantine has been great for Midge. It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to her. I’m here constantly, and I’m always eating in the house, so there’s always a bite for her. She gets to take a lot of naps. She loves the quarantine. She hates going outside. A lot of Chihuahuas do.