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Episode 20: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela Takes Culture (Not Too) Seriously

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In this episode, I spoke with historian, podcaster, speaker, and wellness instructor Dr. Natalia Mehlman Petrzela. Natalia is an associate professor of history at The New School. Her first book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture, was published in 2015. She is a co-host of the weekly podcast Past Present, and also hosted the amazing podcast Welcome to Your Fantasy, about the cultural phenomenon of Chippendales. Natalia’s newest book, Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession is coming next month from the University of Chicago Press.

MENTIONED IN THE SHOW

TRANSCRIPT

Kate Carpenter 0:00
Hey everyone, believe it or not, this is the final episode of season one of Drafting the Past. I’m gonna take a quick break over the new year and put together another season of great episodes about the craft of writing history. In the meantime, I’m putting together a couple of bonus episodes, and I need your help. I want to hear about the great writing advice that you’ve received. Go to draftingthepast.com and click on “leave a voicemail.” Leave a short audio message telling me about the best writing advice you’ve ever received. And don’t forget to let me know who you are. In the meantime, on to the episode.

Kate Carpenter 0:38
Welcome back to Drafting the Past, a podcast about the craft of writing history. I am Kate Carpenter, and for this episode, I was so excited to talk with a historian whose work I have long admired, Dr. Natalia Mehlman Petrzela.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 0:52
I’m so happy to be here.

Kate Carpenter 0:54
Natalia is an associate professor of history at The New School, as well as a wellness educator and speaker. Her first book, Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture, was published in 2015. She is a co host of the weekly podcast Past Present, and also hosted the amazing podcast Welcome to Your Fantasy, about the cultural phenomenon of Chippendales. Natalia’s newest book Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession is coming next month from the University of Chicago Press. I was lucky enough to get to read it early. And I can tell you that it is a truly engaging and fascinating history. So while you go and preorder the book and wait for your own chance to read it, hope you enjoy my conversation with Dr. Natalia Mehlman Petrzela.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 1:44
It’s funny, I didn’t immediately land on becoming a historian, but I think I always knew I wanted to be a writer. But I think back to my third grade publishing party, which was like the highlight of my elementary school career, and I still remember that I wrote this quote unquote book called The Brain Operation. And I remember I bound it in like this yellow fabric, and I stuck a cover on it. And like, having a book with my name on it was just so exciting. So that was probably the beginning of my trajectory as a writer. And it’s funny, I’m not only into the object of the published object itself, but to do remember, in high school, must have been in high school, when those newer printers came out where you could print like two sheets on a page. And I remember being like, this looks like a book. So I guess I’ve always wanted to kind of be a writer. But you know, I’ve always gravitated towards like the writerly fields in academia, history literature, like the humanities. And I actually always wanted to be a journalist. And I really went back to become a historian, because it seemed like the most journalistsic-y kind of academic field, and I realized, I thought that to write well, I needed to be expert in something. And so that’s kind of a little overview of how we got to where I am today.

Kate Carpenter 2:55
So where and when do you like to do your writing?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 2:57
Definitely before like, 4 p.m., anytime that I can. So my brain turns to mush in the evening and in late afternoon. And so at that, I try to save the work for that time of day that like, doesn’t take a lot of brainpower, like answering emails, maybe parts of writing, like doing footnotes, or things like that, but like, none of the creating. So usually, if I’m like, really on my game, I’ll get up at like five and write at five, and much of Fit Nation was written at five o’clock in the morning, but but very early in the day it has to happen, or it will not happen.

Kate Carpenter 3:29
How do you write, I mean, do you write on a laptop, on notebooks?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 3:33
The thing that the pandemic has taught me is that I’ve got to write anywhere that I can. So I really, I mean, I really write in a lot of places and a lot of different ways. I mean, I It’s funny, looking through the finished product of this book, I’m like, Oh, my gosh, I wrote that on the Notes app in my phone. When I was like watching my kids at the skate park. I wrote that like sitting, you know, at the beach in the parking lot. But so I really write everywhere. I mean, the advent of Google Drive on mobile has been huge for me. And I guess it’s like, really, as a mom, it’s very cliched that like moms do a lot of things. But I unlike in graduate school, where I’d be like, Oh, I have like six hours today to like just write which I know has its own pressures. Now. I’m like, I have an hour and or 20 minutes, and I need to like knock out a few paragraphs. And so I do that anywhere. And everywhere that I can. I will say I have a really nice new desktop that I got about the time that I think like I got paged, proves back and I haven’t had a desktop for a very long time. And it feels positively like spa like to be able to do something so big and sit in a proper chair. But yeah, being a mom and also being a mom during the pandemic really pushed me to be to realize writing can happen anywhere, and no amount is too small to be worth it.

Kate Carpenter 4:53
Talk to me a little bit about how you organize your research and your source material.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 4:57
So that’s something I’m actually learning more about every day. For this book, I use Zotero, which is this free online software. And I would basically like save PDFs in there and try to re label them in ways that would make a lot of sense for me, when I was coming back to it later, I would keep notes in the kind of notes fields there and try to have tags so that I could return to them in a in a meaningful way, I have found that the most meaningful way for me to tag and organize things is actually chronological. So I had my Zotero library, which has more sort of qualitative notes, but also, of course, chronological one. But then one thing that I hadn’t realized was so useful, but actually having the luxury of a research assistant and having to explain to her like, oh, how, you know, this is how I want you to do this, I realized that organizing things chronologically and thematically is actually really, really helpful for me. So with this Ra, for example, she was going through all kinds of different press documents, many of them from kind of ethnic publications. And it was really cool, because she would be like Asian American publications. And then within that, she would both do it by year, and then also sort of by general topic. And so that allowed me to go back and then that was in Google Drive, pull things around in order to reorganize them for chapters.

Kate Carpenter 6:15
Where in your research process do you like to start writing?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 6:18
That’s a great question. I wish I had some pat answer to that. I mean, often it’s a deadline that just makes you start writing, right, like, you know, I would say, we’re in a perfect world without deadlines, which I have sort of had at some points in my life. There’s a moment when the sources almost start repeating themselves a little bit. Like I remember with my dissertation, which became Classroom Wars, that book, how many angry right wing letters to the Superintendent of Education? Are you going to read like, there are only so many Trump’s right, there are only so many ways to be pissed off in that regard. And so those were very colorful letters to read. But I’m like, I don’t need to read any more of these, like, I get the picture. I’ve read a dispositive sample. But then a lot of times, this is what I always tell my students, you just have to stop because the thing is do right, and you have to start writing. And so that’s often it, you know that there’s a looming deadline that kind of makes me stop.

Kate Carpenter 7:11
And then what’s your approach to revision like?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 7:14
I love revising. And I love working with good editors, really any editors, but good ones, of course, are better than not so good ones, but I do not understand all these people on Twitter who are like so pissy about editors and what they make them do. I’m like, What a privilege to have somebody smart diving into my work and helping me make it better, like this is amazing. So I actually really, you know, we all kind of dread revising, because you have to, like, go back to the thing that you thought was sort of done. But it’s so much less intimidating than the blank page. And I love like, refining work. And I love I’m very prolix. And I just have too many words, and I love kind of that winnowing down and kind of be more efficient with my language. So, you know, I like to step away from things like for a night or for depending how much time I have, it’s sometimes even longer than that, and then really come back with fresh eyes. Um, yeah, working with an editor is like the best, most satisfying thing.

Kate Carpenter 8:11
So Fit Nation is your second book. Is that right? And Classroom Wars, right, being the first. How did your writing approach change between those books?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 8:19
So my writing approach of these two books was so different, it’s funny, I don’t feel that I as like a human being, trying to write in the world, I have changed that much. Because I’ve always had this ambition to take on issues that I’m passionate about to historicize them and to hopefully write them in a way write about them in a way that is, you know, compelling to lots of people, maybe not like lots and lots of people, but a good number of people. So I feel like that’s just always been me. But the writing process was so so different. And I think part of it is Classroom Wars came out of my dissertation, and Fit Nation is my second book. And I was like, you know, a professor in the world, kind of at a more advanced stage in my career. So that’s one thing that’s been different about the process. I, there’s so many ways to talk about this. But as a graduate student, I was very fortunate to have funding to basically work on my dissertation. I didn’t have kids yet. And so my writing process there honestly, was much more tortured in a lot of ways because I kind of had this feeling of like, Oh, my God, I’m getting like, paid this money to write this important work. And I don’t feel like it’s good enough. And like, there are all these hours in the day. And did I get anything done? And like, I was very existentially tortured about like, will it ever get done? Will it be any good all these people have this faith in me, you know, in this program that have given me funding to do it fit nation, I almost like didn’t have time to stress in that way, in the sense that I had a job. I had two kids, there’s a pandemic, there’s like, a lot more life happening around me. So that process was very different. The other huge thing which was so different, and I think both speaks to the moment that I was in in my career, but also like the media landscape that it has evolved in these years. I did not so much as write a blog post, there was no Twitter. There was I mean, maybe there was, but I wasn’t on it. I joined Twitter in 2009, which is when I finished my PhD, Facebook wasn’t really a thing. So like, there was no public writing or public thinking about what went into that book Beyond like conference papers, right? Fit Nation, totally different animal. Like, I actually feel like I have had the privilege of this like global workshop process happening over the past decade or so, because that book came very much out of lots and lots of public writing that I was doing and speaking, whether it was a tweet, you know, tweeting about issues, or writing in fitness publications, or writing in sort of more traditional popular media, like the New York Times or The Washington Post, I feel so fortunate that I had this ability to work out those ideas, no pun intended, in public and so that is a long answer. But the writing process was very different, in part from the public miss and the privateness of it, and there are a bunch of factors that that shape why that was the case.

Kate Carpenter 11:11
To demonstrate how Natalia packs historical detail, cultural analysis and more into what reads like effortlessly engaging prose, I asked her to talk to me about the introduction to the first section of her new book. Here’s Natalia Mehlman Petrzela reading from her book Fit Nation.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 11:29
His defined muscles carefully powdered to more closely resemble the Italian statues that inspired him as a former lead, pale, frail and delicate boy, Eugen Sandow perched atop a black velvet box in scanty silk shorts, posing and preening before awestruck Knightley audiences that approach 6000 The Prussian born strong man reveled in the enthusiasm of his relatively uninhibited American hosts at the 1893 World’s Fair, especially the women who lived up to run their gloved hands over his flex physique. Timid at first, the society ladies who scheduled private viewings with Sandow swooned at his winking invitation to come feel how hard these muscles are, and were reportedly reduced to nervous trembling and even fainting spells upon touching his rippling body. Promoted as the world’s most perfect man by famous showman Florence Ziegfeld, Sandow indeed presented a spectacle for the nearly 26 million visitors who streamed through the neoclassical Great White City constructed at Chicago through the summer and fall of 1893. Fair goers from all over the country gaped at eye popping installations that showcase the extremes of human capacity. There was the first 264 foot ferris wheel. The life size reproductions of Christopher Columbus’ Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria ships, the displays of exotic cultures from 10s of foreign countries. Tall, slim, great little Ziegfeld, as Sandow remembered his indefatigable promoter, had first booked in an esteemed but emotionless German symphony orchestra that failed to impress the throngs seeking intense sensory attractions. The strong man, however, sold out every seat in the house. Like the fair’s most popular attractions, Sandow inspired a collective awe that appealed across class lines in a moment of socio economic strife. Ogling at Sandow’s sculpted physique to Ziegfeld and Sandow’s good fortune proved a universally appealing escape people were willing to pay for. The spectacle of a strong body flexing onstage was so arresting because the intense physical cultivation it took to arrive at this moment of proud display, and the performance itself was still sufficiently strange to be a stage attraction. Regular exercise, especially for aesthetic gain, was uncommon for most men and women, who associated girth and leisure with enviable abundance. Weight training was so unheard of it was only beginning to be integrated into military training regimes. But all that was about to change. Thanks to the efforts of strong men and women and their entrepreneurial peers, physical educators, the federal government and the beauty industry, the deliberate pursuit of fitness would start to shed its seedy, suspicious cast to become an arena for participation rather than performance in American life. But it would take half a century of sweat to get there.

Kate Carpenter 14:32
So I chose this passage because it was so engaging and you know, of course, representative of the rest of the book, which is so engaging, but it also packs just so much information in what kinds of research go into building out a scene like this.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 14:47
Oh my gosh, so much research. So I mean, in that for that scene, I read a ton of press about the World’s Fair. I read Sandow’s memoir, I read, what else did I read? I read it Read a lot of advertising, like from the World’s Fair itself, I read a lot of are a few personal accounts of the World’s Fair. So what I it was really hard because a scene like that, and I tried to recreate scenes like that throughout the book, like you’re trying to set a mood. And that’s a literary activity, but we’re setting a mood as well as literary activity while having to stick to the norms of historical accuracy. Right. And that’s a really hard thing. And it’s a risky thing. And you know, I remember in graduate school reading Linda Gordon’s wonderful book, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, it’s a book that is so is wonderful. But it’s so rich on description. And I remember there was like, a real debate about like, are historians allowed to do this? It was like, her black dress like, swished on the ground and like, yeah, there’s a little bit of poetic license that I think I’m sure she took, and I definitely took there. But I do feel confident as a historian from all the photographs I looked at to I forgot to mention that, that the mood that I am setting actually reflects, you know, as best as someone in 2022 can, what was going on there?

Kate Carpenter 16:06
One thing that is fascinating to me about this is just how I guess efficient your language is here that you know, you don’t feel kind of bogged down in details, but they’re, they’re all there. Does that take a lot of revising?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 16:17
Yes, I revise a lot. I mean, I tend to like spit out a lot on the page, which is just over word count, and often overwritten, and then pare back, pare back, pare back, I was so lucky to have a writing group for this process. And also that particular chapter, not those exact words. But a version of it was published as a journal article in this, in Transatlantic, which is a France-U.S. publication. And so I was lucky to have the hands of various editors helping me kind of pare down, like, what’s the story here? And of course, my editor at University of Chicago Press also.

Kate Carpenter 16:52
So this section, forgive me because I am thinking about structure in my own project right now.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 16:57
Yeah, of course!

Kate Carpenter 16:58
This section is an is an introduction, or this is an introduction to a first section, which then has several chapters. And that’s how the book is structured in these sections. How did you think through that kind of organization?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 17:09
Hilarious that you asked, because when it happened, I was like, someday, I’ll be talking about this, like this good story. So I had until the last last minute of going through copy edits, I think it was like seven chapters. And like, that was it and they were these enormous, huge, you know, like 50, page chapters, some of them. And at the last minute, I’m like, I can’t do this. And I divided it at that moment into like, 42 chapters within parts. And then at my editor was like, you cannot have 42 chapters. But I like what you’re thinking. And I think we made it, I think it’s ultimately 27. And so it literally was in that moment, and we titled them, like, pretty, I think they the titles changed a little bit. But it all happened very quickly. And I feel very good about that decision. Like there was a lot of there were a lot of agonizing long decisions in this book that I feel very good about two, in part, because of the time we invested in them. But that one, which happened very fast, like sometimes good things just happen fast. And I feel very good about that. Because I think, you know, attention spans these days, including my own, it’s hard when you’re trying to sell a general interest book to be like, Oh, settle in for 50 pages here, like the reader wants that satisfaction, at least I do have like turning the page. I mean, like, Okay, I just like got through a chapter. So there are a lot of shorter chapters now. 27.

Kate Carpenter 18:27
Yeah, I really like it, it also kind of breaks the argument into really like, cohesive pieces.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 18:32
So that’s that, thank you for reminding me of that in terms of structure. So one thing I didn’t want to let go of was that I did feel that each of those big chapters had a kind of analytical arc of the type you would find in an academic article. And I’m like, I don’t want to lose that. Like I want somebody who just wants to assign part one or part two, and just wants to make a case about the federal government and policy or just wants to talk about feminism. Like, I want them to still have that kind of encapsulation, I guess. And so that’s sort of why we kept the parts in order to say, hey, like, these things still do hang together, but they’re divided into these smaller sections.

Kate Carpenter 19:09
I’ve been thinking about both this book, and then a lot of your other work, which is really clear, very accessible without losing that half of academic work. So I guess I have a two part question, which was deeply unfair, which is, how do you do that? And b, why is that important to you?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 19:25
Oh, gosh. So these are good questions. So how do I do it? I mean, I’m constantly figuring it out. And like often when I’m working with editors, who are non academic editors, or like to academic Natalia like pare it down, tone it down. And I think the real challenge there is like, I never want to shy away from conveying complicated ideas. But I think the challenge is to do that in a way which is both clear and also compelling. Like you want people excited, you don’t want to just write have a clear, like abstract of your ideas, which is like the most boring form ever. You want to be clear and compelling. And so you know, That has really come from writing in public. I mean, the first fitness history writing I did was for this online magazine called well and good, it’s now become like much more lifestyle, it used to have a little bit more critical analysis. And they’re working with this wonderful editor there, Melissa Gelula, I mean, she was great, because she was so interested in the things I’m interested in gender and culture and history and power. But she’s like, I’m writing for people who like are smart, but they’re mostly on the site for like green juice recipes, right, or for like a fitness class review. And so it was really cool. She was very formative to me, in helping me like, keep the half of these ideas, but kind of pare down my language. So that’s one answer to your question. Another thing that I think is really important to think about is that, you know, the kind of turn to American Studies and pop culture studies of the past 30 years that would say, and even more so in the past 20 years, I think, has done a lot to kind of legitimize the study of a lot of the kinds of things that I’m interested in, whether it’s fitness, or bodies, or mass culture of models, all these sorts of things, which, before were thought to be insignificant, and you know, beneath scholarly historians, like that’s changed. One issue to paint things with a broad brush brush that I have with a lot of that writing, is I sometimes feel that there is a tendency to sort of compensate for I’m talking about this unserious pop culture thing. So I’m going to layer on all this like theoretical language and like make this like incredibly arcane, and like, sort of honestly esoteric, and like hard to hard to, for anyone to read. And it’s like, I encountered this a lot where I had this this podcast that I made about Chippendales as a cultural phenomenon. And so obviously, it was like doing my little lit review. And there isn’t much written about that. But some of the stuff was like, I’m like, How are you making strippers, academic and boring, like it was so overlaid with, like, theoretical jargon, that I think that’s a tendency that I understand, especially for folks who are like, you know, trying to say, like, Hey, this is serious, take me seriously. But I think that it can actually undermine the greater good of like, look, there’s this thing that like, a lot of people spend their time and money and energy on and like, it’s actually important. And let’s understand it, like, to me that in itself, that’s enough. So like, let’s understand it, you don’t need to be like, and it is academically extremely complicated. And making it valuable means making it you know, impenetrable. And so to me, like having to work around those dynamics has been really important in doing this work, and doing it in a way that I hope is valuable to the academy, but also beyond it.

Kate Carpenter 22:42
You’ve given me a great transition, because I do want to talk more about your work in podcasting. I’d especially love to talk about Welcome to Your Fantasy, which I adored and helped get me through actually, while I was working on my general exams, go for a walk every day, listen to it. So I thank you for that.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 22:59
Thank you for listening.

Kate Carpenter 23:01
But I am really curious to know about your work in podcasting and, and how you write for podcasting if it’s changed the way you write.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 23:08
Okay, first, thanks for listening. Working on Welcome to Your Fantasy, which is this nine part narrative podcast about Chippendales as a cultural phenomenon, which is also a true crime story. Like, it’s just something I’m so proud of, in part, I’m just so proud of it. And the team we worked with was just so wonderful. I learned so much. So you know, first thing I should say is like, I was not the primary writer of those episodes, I was giving feedback, and I rewrote a whole bunch of stuff to be more in my voice. But it was primarily Joel Lovell and Maddie Sprung-Keyser of Pineapple Street Studios, who really did that. So I learned a lot. I mean, when we sat down in those first sort of like story meetings, and I started kind of like writing out what I thought was good. Like, I remember Jenna Weiss-Berman, and one of the co founders of Pineapple Street, she’s like, um, this is gonna sound weird, but like, you know, make it like, I think she uses the term dumbing it down from academics like, this is how you talk, like, no one can be looking at a book and go back and like, reread it, like, it needs to be very, very conversational and very, very simple. And that is really hard to write when you’re training the way we are. So that was really hard. But I came to be able to do that, and also to speak things out in order to figure out what I was talking about, and how to say them. And it’s funny because I’m so used to writing in paragraphs and you know, writing in the way that we write in a scholarly way, that I think sometimes I actually talk like that too. And that’s not necessarily the most natural way to talk. So it was a real real shift to do that. And if you like, just to give you a really concrete sense of what it looks like, like a podcast script, looks like almost nothing like the paper that an article is written on like that. You’re bolding things that you’re emphasizing. Here is a lot of like dot dot, dot, you have like the scripted material, which is like the narration basically and like one font, then you have like the tape that plays that you need to be able to see it that way. So it looks really different. It looks more like if you’ve ever seen a screenplay like it looks a little bit more like that.

Kate Carpenter 25:12
Did you find that those lessons translated to other writing?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 25:15
Absolutely. So in helping me be clear, I found that writing for podcasting was really great in helping me articulate my ideas for other kinds of writing. And I am, you know, as much as I write, I am very intimidated by the blank page. And I found that actually using my voice and using voice notes, and just speaking, what I meant to say, could be like a great bridge to get from that blank page to get like something on the page. And so I use those skills a lot, both like the voice part, and then also just be like, alright, well, I have this idea. So let me just write it the way I’m talking and write it down. And that’s not obviously what I’m going to publish as an op ed or as an academic article. But it’s a great bridge, because it’s so clear.

Kate Carpenter 25:59
I want to talk a little bit to about your speaking because you do a great deal of public speaking. Do you see a relationship between yourself as a writer and yourself as a speaker?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 26:07
Absolutely. I mean, so much. I love public speaking. I mean, it’s a version of what we all do is teaching but to be it creates a connectedness with people, which is so it’s inevitable, I think, from the page. So I love doing that. I absolutely see it connect as connected to my writing. I mean, there’s a pressure I think, to be clear, and compelling. And to winnow out the extra staff when you’re speaking, that is even more intense than with writing, I think, like there’s something I can like write a paragraph that is maybe like, a little bit muddled, and like, hope it sort of makes sense. And like, press send, or, like, put it away, when you’re standing in front of a crowd. There is no room for muddle. Because you’re you like feel like a foil. So I feel that speaking really helps me clarify my thinking. And then that thinking I can often apply in new ways to writing. And so I’ve actually, it’s interesting, because in what might feel like a reverse of like the normal process, like I’ve actually given talks before, that I then turn into articles, and it’s writing the talk, like someone will invite me to speak about something and I’m like, Okay, well, I guess I have thoughts on that topic. I can like, talk for 40 minutes and say something valuable about that. And then in the process of writing that talk, I’ll be like, Oh, like that it could actually be an article. And now it’s all fleshed out. And I should say something that’s very important to that. So I never read talks, like ever, ever, ever. I always speak them. And I’m very reliant on slides. And I know that might make me seem pathetically lame and terrible, but I actually like not texty slides actually, what I do to help that that kind of clarity of thinking is, I’ll be like, each slide, one point, usually one image, and I’ll have like an image up there, honestly, to remind me what I might be what I’m talking about. Sometimes in the little notes field, I’ll like have like two or three bullet points. And that I’ll just like talk through in that way. And again, it’s like, it’s like a live outlining process almost right to have like, each slide really represents something and have to really stick to that. And also have time like, you know, some of these speaking engagements. Sorry, there’s no running over like you have to, you’re talking for 20 minutes, 40 minutes. And that’s it. So you make your point to that. That kind of pressure, I think, has really helped me as a writer.

Kate Carpenter 28:26
I’d like to talk a little bit about your own influences. Are there other writers that you you look to or you read?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 28:33
Oh no, I never read, what are you talking about? [laughs] Yes, of course. So an early book that really shaped me, and it’s like surprising how much it shaped me was Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s book, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls came out in the 90s. I mean, a lot of what she writes about in there has been revised in various ways. But I remember encountering that early in graduate school, I think, and what it is, it’s a history of girlhood, but through reading diaries of girls, and it’s very, like, not ideological, it’s not super academic, even though she’s an academic historian. And it’s very emotionally gripping and educational. And I was just like, oh my god, like, this is what I want to do. Like, I want to grab people with my writing and with great sources and do serious work. But also like, I want lots of people to read that, you know, not just to make a historian graphical contribution, which is, of course, very important, but to to like really, like be part of a conversation and kind of shape a conversation. So that book was very important to me, and I still think about it recently. Yes, I there’s so many writers that inspire me, I think that Anne Helen Peterson is just like she’s such a top notch writer and thinker. I mean, this is maybe embarrassing to say but like I sometimes like oh, she’s like the a plus version of my brain. I’m like and plus range, because so often I’m thinking of about some often like very niche cultural phenomenon, and it’s like her next tweet or substack is like some beautiful distillation of like, why this thing matters. And I’m like, Oh, I was like almost thinking of that in that way. But so she’s a really great writer. And also, you know, I think I believe her PhD is American Studies. So she’s someone who comes from a scholarly background and is writing for the public. Someone I learned about through her substack is Meg Conley, who is an also a really interesting writer. She actually, possibly I know, she didn’t go to college, she talks a lot about sort of being sort of an autodidact. And she writes, her writing to me is so like, electrifying. Like it’s so emotional. But it’s actually incredibly eloquent. It’s totally embedded or kind of bolstered by all sorts of like, textual references. Like it’s not just memoir, writing. And I just love that combination of like, personal memoir and history that I just find really, really amazing. So those are some books recently, I’m actually looking right now down a book I really loved a lot by a historian that I learned so much about recently is Emily Dufton’s book Grass Roots, about marijuana and America. That’s just an example of, you know, it’s sort of in my field, because I talk about wellness, and I’m a 20th century us scholar, but like, I don’t necessarily have to read a book about pot. And it’s so well written, it covers so much time policy, culture, etc, and weaves it all together. So well. So those would be those are the obviously the only writers who influenced me. But those are some people who are top of mind right now. And I should just say, I am just a voracious reader. Like I just love to read. I love it. I learned I just Yeah, I think everyone who is probably a listener of your podcast is like that. But I just feel like I’m constantly soaking up information, but also stylistic lessons. And that is a gift to be able to have space in my life to do that.

Kate Carpenter 31:57
What’s some of the best writing advice you’ve received?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 31:59
Okay, so I don’t know who originally said this. But I know who said this to me. And I’ve repeated it a lot. And that is Lori Flores, she’s a historian of Latinos in the United States. And she actually came to talk to a class of mine. And she said, the best writing advice is park on a downhill. So and what does that mean? Basically, when you shut your computer, when you take a break, make sure that you have stopped somewhere where it’s very easy to pick up, where you don’t have to, like push yourself up the hill, and like, you know, worry about rolling backwards. And to me, particularly because I write in this highly interrupted way, as I was describing before, like, that is just genius. And so how does that happen? For me? Well, a lot of the times what it is, is I’ll be writing. And I’ll actually pause, knowing sort of what comes next. And I’ll just put a note to myself, which is like, these are like the two bullet points of the things that I want to write about next, or, you know, I’ll like put the screenshot of the source that I’m going to be dealing with next, just so like, I know where to pick up a lot. And if it’s in a big document, like the book, like highlighted in magenta, so I just like know exactly where to get in. That is really great writing advice. Do you want more tips, or?

Kate Carpenter 33:07
Sure I love them all.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 33:10
The other thing that is so rare in history, but I think is so important is to introduce collaboration into your work. And that can look a variety, like a variety of things that can be like a genuinely co authored, you know, article, which is a little bit rare. But you know, I recommended I’ve done it, and I love it. But also like, you know, just sort of the work collaboration, like I had this great friend in graduate school, Sarah Manekin and we were in different graduate schools, but we met through a fellowship that we both had. And we would have this thing called the accountability partnership. And we would say, we, it was like, pre a lot of the technology we have today. So we would email each other in the morning, and be like, Hi, I’m checking in, I’m gonna accomplish a, b, and c today, like, I’ll email you on the other side and let you know what happened. And we would do that, like, you know, not every day, but we would have the days that we agreed to do that. I cannot even tell you how awesome that was. It was so great to just have somebody else who was sort of keeping you it who was definitely keeping you accountable there. And I think the key for that, like you can’t do that was just anybody for that. For me and Sarah, the way I would describe it is like, you want someone who you’re like comfortable and friendly enough that you can be like, Oh, that’s not gonna get done because I want to get a manicure or because I have a kid thing or whatever. Like who you want to let into your life a little bit and be vulnerable. But you’ve got to also be like a little bit intimidated by their brilliance and competitive with their productivity. I’m like, holy crap, I’m not gonna let Sarah Manekin see what like a useless slacker I am. Like, I’ve got to show her I can write this chapter. And also, like, at that point, what am I gonna let her finish her dissertation before me so, you know, in a healthy way, I think finding those accountability partners to kind of keep you on track. It can be really wonderful. And we ended up actually co authoring an article about that process.

Kate Carpenter 34:59
With that and you’ve mentioned a couple others, but is there sort of a writing community that you rely on?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 35:04
Yes, I have had different relying I have a different writing communities over the years. One was that partnership right now my most consistent one is this writing group that is run by historian David Greenberg, here in New York, we meet in person. And one of the things that is special about that is, it is a combination of journalists who write about history, and historians who are writing for a public audience. So it’s actually really cool to come together, like all of us want public readership, but we’re very different in our background, and in the way we kind of approach writing and in sort of, in the disciplines that we come from. So I’ve, I’ve learned so much, I continue to learn so much from them. And I’m presenting there tomorrow night, I actually have to go get my act together after I get off this call.

Kate Carpenter 35:51
And so is that I mean, do you critique each other’s work then? Is that how it works?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 35:55
Yeah, so we critique each other’s work. Usually, it’s I mean, it’s now produced, like quite a lot of books. And so it’s usually book chapters that people are, are presenting their book chapters or book proposals to I’m really slacking tomorrow night, I maybe need to like up my game. But this i Oh, this is an article that I have been sitting on for so long. I haven’t actually written it yet. But I have some interviews that I’ve done. And there’s a really compelling frame, I think around it that kind of connects contemporary right wing fights over education, to a lot of the work that I did in Classroom Wars, but some characters from Classroom Wars, their family members ended up reaching out to me, like long after it was published. So I went, and I interviewed them. And I haven’t done anything with those interviews. And so I have, like, you know, how it is intellectually, like, go back to another project feels like so challenging in certain ways. I need to just pump it out. But I haven’t done anything. And at least tomorrow, I have to be able to talk about it intelligently for a little while. So I’m going to try to put together an outline.

Kate Carpenter 36:58
Well, before I let you go do that. I am curious to know. And I realized this is an unfair question when you are in the midst of promoting the book that has not even come out yet. But are you able to talk about what you’re working on next?

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 37:12
Sort of. So as I mentioned, Fit Nation is my second book, I have an idea for a third book, which I want to co author with another historian who I know if you know me, you know him too. I can’t say anything about that yet. But one thing that’s interesting, I think, is the co authoring piece there. Because I do feel I’m very lucky to be you know, have one of these tenure jobs, which is like, increasingly, just has increasingly disappeared. And I do feel with each book, I can be a little bit more adventurous like I don’t think I mean, I would definitely wouldn’t have co authored a book as my first book, while I’m trying to get tenure. But so we have an idea for a co authored book that I think would be really exciting and brings in a lot of the themes. And so fascinated by luxury, leisure, immigration, suburbanization, like it’s kind of got it all. But I will say something. And this speaks to the privilege I feel I have right now to be a little bit more exploratory and experimental with some of my work. Right now. I’m in the early stages of executive producing of video documentary about, again, something that’s like very much on the themes that I’m like, no one to explore. I don’t know if it’ll happen. But it is really much like Welcome to Your Fantasy. To me, it feels so exciting to bring the skills that I have as a historian and as a storyteller, and all that, but into a new medium, which is so different. And so I’m just like, learning, learning learning. I’m like, Yeah, sure. I’m an expert. I have expertise. I know about a lot of things. But like, I want to understand like, how do you set up that shot? Like, how do you have the visual, amplify the narrative here in a way that’s very different from me. So that’s something that can when I hope it takes off, but I’m working on that too. And there are a few other podcast things in the mix. But, you know, I have learned with like non ACA, academic things take a long time, but they sent they tend to be sort of like certain once they are an idea. Like if you have an idea for a conference panel, and you propose it, either you get it or you don’t. But it’ll you’ll at least propose it. I have found that in some of this history, stuff that ventures more into like the entertainment world, there’s a lot of quote unquote, ideating that doesn’t actually come to anything. So we’ll see. I’m like enjoying learning about it and enjoying being able to think about and do historical work that I think is important, but not necessarily in the forums that have been central to me so far. But yes, I will definitely knock on wood write another book. I’m really excited to do that.

Kate Carpenter 39:40
Well, this conversation has been so fun for me and so inspiring. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela 39:46
Thank you. It’s so rare to get to talk about the craft, not just the content. So I appreciate that so much. Thank you.

Kate Carpenter 39:53
Thanks again to Dr. Natalia Mehlman Petrzela for joining me on Drafting the Past. You can learn more about her work and the other books she mentioned in the show notes at draftingthepast.com. I also want to give a huge thanks to all of you for listening to this first season, for sharing the show with friends, supporting it on Patreon, leaving reviews and sending me notes. I feel so lucky to do these interviews and even luckier to know that they have made a difference to you too. I will be back very soon with another amazing batch of interviews. In the meantime, happy writing. And remember, friends don’t let friends write boring history.

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