Erika Janik has a wonderfully descriptive tagline on her author website: Writer, Historian, Inveterate Seeker. Curious About Everything (especially history). Passionate About Writing. I wondered how her curiosity and passion led to her most recent book, Marketplace of the Marvelous. Here are her answers to five questions (plus one bonus question) about her writing process:
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Marketplace of the Marvelous?
Erika: A few years ago, I wrote an article with my husband about a family that ran a fraudulent medical “institute” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, around 1900. They diagnosed just about every complaint as a “sexual dysfunction” and prescribed some kind of electrical device as the cure — an electric belt, an electric vest. The research just got a little out of control (which is kind of the story of my life) but also led me to question my assumptions about what medicine had been like in the past. I thought I knew that quacks preyed on innocent people and made a mint prescribing concoctions made of alcohol and opium, but I kept running across so-called quacks who recommended things like drinking water and exercising for health. And others who seemed to truly believe that their remedy worked and had no intentions of defrauding anyone. I started to wonder why these alternative healers were so popular in the 19th century (and they really were), and what influence they had on modern ideas of health and wellness.
Erika: I spent about three years researching and writing this book. I’d say at least a year and a half of that was spent not having a clue what I was looking for or how this would all come together! I made lists of questions as I read 19th century health manuals, newspapers, and letters. As with any project, I’ve accumulated far more research than could ever fit in a book — at least a book anyone would want to read! My knowledge of medical history was fairly limited so I first got a lay of the land reading some other medical history books. I soon discovered — to my delight — that this story involved three things I love: women’s history, utopian ideas, and quirky characters.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Erika: I wish I knew the answer to this question. I tend to spend months taking notes and then decide one day that I’m ready to write. I never really know when that moment will come. I usually decide on several topics and themes that I want to address and go through my notes highlighting everything that falls under that topic. It’s imperfect — some things overlap and other things don’t seem to fit anywhere — but somehow this seems to work for me. For this book, I first organized all of the research on each major medical movement (hydropathy, homeopathy, etc.) and then broke each of those down further into topics like theory of disease, opposition from mainstream medicine, and women. I usually run out of marker colors.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Erika: I have an amazing day job as a radio producer so I tend to sneak in research, writing, and promotion around the edges. I get up at 5AM and head to the gym for an hour. I’m usually at work by 7:30AM. Every day is different. I’m often in the studio interviewing someone or coaching writers who have written essays for broadcast; editing audio; updating social media and uploading audio files; and of course, lots of meetings. Other days, I’m out in the field recording with my headphones, recorder, and mic following someone around and talking about his or her life.
My job is very flexible, which is great because I often have public talks related to one of my books or an interview on weekdays. I’m usually juggling email and phone calls from my two lives all day: work and writing.
I’m usually home from work by 4PM. That’s when I start writing or researching. I’ll break for dinner around 5:30 or 6 and then continue to work until 8PM.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Erika: I’m thankful to be affiliated with the University of Wisconsin through my job. I work on campus and live only a few blocks away. The various campus libraries are a tremendous resource for my research, as well as the online collections and databases I can access through the university library system. In an ideal world, I’d travel the world to do my research but since that’s not feasible, the library catalog, interlibrary loan, ProQuest, and JSTOR (a scholarly journal archive) give me the armchair version of a research trip.
Also, my treadmill desk. I’m a pretty active and restless person so being able to walk and take notes is a dream come true. It’s harder for me to write while walking but I’ve certainly done it.
Bonus question: Your work covers a breath-taking range of topics — American history, natural history, medicine, cooking. What’s the common thread?
Erika: History is the thread. I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember. I had wonderful history teachers and parents who instilled a deep appreciation for the past from an early age. Family vacations frequently revolved around visits to presidents’ homes (James Garfield’s library is gorgeous) as well as stops at odd sites like the world’s largest ball of twine or the telephone museum. I’m insatiably curious about the world and how it got the way it is today. I studied women’s history in graduate school so I’m definitely drawn to stories that involve what I sometimes think of as “women in unexpected places.” And all those visits to large balls of twine drew me to idiosyncratic characters and unusual ideas.