7 For Seven: 7 Questions For ... Delia Cai
"Not having a certain kind of rarefied privilege can make you more aware of bigger stories and realities in the world, and that can help make you stand apart."
Delia with the little pomeranian
Every second and fourth Friday of the month, Brady Gerber’s “7 For Seven” interviews writers talking about writing. This week’s guest is Delia Cai. Delia is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Catapult, GQ, and The Cut. She continues to send out her Deez Links from her Brooklyn apartment, where she is developing a serious three-a-day quarantine seltzer habit. And Delia wants you to check out … Deez Links! Read this interview on your browser.
Tell us: What (all) do you do? Bonus points if you show us how you got to where you are today.
I work as the growth and trends editor for BuzzFeed, and I also write a media newsletter, Deez Links. I started the newsletter as a Tinyletter about a year out of college because I needed some way to get into the discipline of forming an opinion and writing every day and staying on top of media industry news.
I had gone to journalism school at the University of Missouri, which was phenomenal in a lot of ways in that it drilled a lot of industry history and theory into you, but we didn’t learn a lot about how the business worked or how outlets were trying to make money. So that was what I was really interested in after college — I got a fellowship at Atlantic Media where I was just reading Nieman Lab and Poynter all day and making little memos about what I learned. I thought it was kind of dry at the time, to be honest, but it was basically like a little post-grad experience that taught me so much.
Walk us through a typical day.
I work from 10 to 6 during the day for my job. I honestly love BuzzFeed a lot because it still mostly involves geeking out about the internet all day and working with people who are all deeply fascinated with both the art and science of making interesting things and being obsessive about social media. After dinner, I catch up on reading everything cool that I saw online and may not have had time for, plus some print mags, and then I’ll spend a half-hour or so writing up a short paragraph or two about something I especially like, and that becomes my newsletter for the next morning. Sometimes I will be moved to write something longer, like the media man fantasy beefs thing, which I honestly do not even know how to categorize. On weekends, I’ll spend an extra hour or two arranging interviews for Deez Links or working on some fiction, but I try to be mostly disconnected on those days.
Describe more about how you work; how do you do what you do?
For my job at BuzzFeed, it’s a lot of just keeping up with a bajillion Slack channels to get a sense of how things are going for everything on the site, and then being on social media and reading tons of other newsletters to get a sense for what everyone else is talking about, and then working with writers to brainstorm around ideas for what to post next. I create a lot of reports with my team, especially at the end of the month or a big event, like Halloween. We’re always trying to understand how our content performed, why it performed that way, and what we can experiment with next.
For the newsletter, I use Pocket over the course of the day to save things I think could be interesting. When commuting was a thing, that was the time when I would go through those saved articles. Then I’ll just write out the day’s newsletter on Google Docs and then schedule it on Substack for the next morning. (Honestly, Substack is worth using just for the scheduling element alone.)
What’s your trick for when you’re feeling stuck?
When I get stuck writing something, I will honestly just lie down on my couch and close my eyes. It sounds very Victorian, but something about the sensory deprivation plus comfy digs helps kick my brain into gear. Then I get back up and run as fast as I can back to my laptop.
List some of your notable influences, past and present: writers, books, works of art, zesty memes, anything and anyone that has inspired you.
I am extremely obsessed with books that are either about intergenerational stories that follow characters for decades or the immigrant experience (my parents are immigrants from China, so this is pretty unsurprising), or both. So I love Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (like is that OK to say? I know we have issues with Junot Diaz but you can’t tell me that book isn’t dazzling), Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart. Both of Hanya Yanagihara’s books killed me. I might think about Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings until I die. It feels like some brilliant form of psychotherapy, to follow characters for lifetimes and generations and suss out how we are who we are based on the people who came before us.
Oh, and best article so far: Glynnis MacNicol's ode to New York during the pandemic. There are a lot of these floating around of course, but this one feels seminal to me. MacNicol weaves together a lot of threads from the general mythology of living in New York and gives us an essay that assigns meaning to the act of staying in the city during the pandemic. Like a lot of people, I've had the privilege to wrestle with the decision about whether to leave or not, and this is one of the things that reminded me, an insecure transplant, that I chose to live here, and it still is the best decision I've ever made.
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Advice time: What’s a piece of wisdom that you wish you first heard when you were starting out?
When I started as a fellow at Atlantic Media, there were like forty of us recent college grads all together, and most people had gone to very fancy Ivy League and liberal arts schools or lived in big cities their whole lives. And I felt so intimidated by that, and this sudden realization that there were all these advantages that I didn’t even know you could have, like being able to grow up in a family that got the Sunday Times delivered every week, or just knowing what the correct behavior was at a fancy work party. I felt like I was already so behind. What helped was just using every opportunity to sort of play the fool and ask really dumb questions — with the knowledge that not having a certain kind of rarefied privilege can make you more aware of bigger stories and realities in the world, and that can help make you stand apart.
“Art”: What the heck is it?
Anything that speaks to you in one of those subterranean sixth senses that we don’t have a name for. You just shiver in recognition.
BONUS: Cats or dogs?
My brain would like to remind me that I would only have the ability to ever take care of a very calm cat, but my heart says dogs. I really miss just walking around and running into like, the perfect little pomeranian at a crosswalk, and feeling such an insane amount of joy from that.
BONUS BONUS: Pick a piece of writing that you're proud of and walk us through how it was done: How you got the idea, how you confirmed it was going to happen, drafting the piece, editing it, and publishing it?
So I wrote and published a short story last year for Catapult, called “Big Fan,” and of course, it felt ridiculous to have that kind of luck with what was technically my first short written as an adult. But it felt like something I’d been working toward for a decade: in middle and high school, I was writing and publishing just an astronomical amount of fan fiction and regular fiction to this site called Quizilla all the time, and it was something I loved doing so much. But I didn’t think I would ever actually be a writer in that way.
So I went to j-school and got into journalism and just didn’t pick fiction back up. And then last year, I finally got to a place in my life when I felt secure — emotionally, creatively, economically — to try it again, and it came out in a rush over the course of a month, and it felt incredible. I was lucky enough to know Matt Ortile from our time at BuzzFeed and showed it to him, and he spent six months tenderly helping me polish it, one sentence at a time. Part of me hated how long the process took — I like blogging and tweeting and doing things with instant results! — but part of me felt like holy shit, I forgot how much I loved the craft of this.
BONUS BONUS BONUS: Music time! What are you listening to these days?
Oh, I really love Carly Rae Jepson’s Dedicated Side B. I feel like listening to that and generally happy, summery pop right now reminds me to expand my emotional range behind just like “I’m hungry” and “I’m tired” lately.
Photo Credit: Delia Cai