We Are Upstate NY With Essayist Sari Botton
We are Upstate NY with Sari Botton, bestselling author, editor, and teacher. These days, Sari is busy as the publisher of Oldster Magazine, Memoir Monday, and Adventures in Journalism. On top of that, she teaches creative nonfiction at Catapult, Bay Path University and Kingston Writers’ Studio. And, she just announced on Twitter, “I’ll be the writer-in-residence at @newpaltz in the creative writing program this spring, starting in January.”
Her career includes serving as a contributing editor at Catapult, and the former Essays Editor for Longreads. She is the author of the memoir in essays, And You May Find Yourself…Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo. She edited the bestselling anthologies Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York and Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York.
Let’s get to know essayist, Sari Botton!
INSIDE+OUT: Where are you originally from and how did you wind up in the Hudson Valley?
Sari Botton: I was born in Long Beach, New York, and raised in that area. I attended college in Albany, at SUNY. Then I spent about 15 years in Manhattan, mostly in the East Village. In 2005, my husband, Brian Macaluso, and I got evicted by non-renewal in a loft we thought was rent stabilized but turned out not to be. After too long in housing court—where we actually won our case but lost our apartment—we moved first to Rosendale, where we lived for nine years, then to Kingston. Brian is from Peekskill and has siblings in the area. And I had spent a year—half of 2000, half of 2001—in Rhinebeck before I met him. So we both knew we liked the area.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer, and how did you get your start?
“I became a writer because I felt like a weirdo, and I was just trying to make sense of the world around me”
As I say at the beginning of my memoir, And You May Find Yourself…Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo, I didn’t become a writer because there were writers I admired; I became a writer because I felt like a weirdo, and I was just trying to make sense of the world around me. I started writing at around 7 or 8, and I would hide in the bottom of my bedroom closet recording my observations and feelings. I thought I wanted to be a playwright, because I wanted to be an actress, and I figured I could just write my own material. In college, I had some great (paid and credited!) journalism internships that started my professional writing career. When I was in my mid-20s, I took an essay workshop at NYU, and I found my calling—personal essays and memoirs.
Tell us about your most recent books and why you wrote them.
I was working on the material for And You May Find Yourself… for many years—decades, really—with different ideas about what it was. It was only in the past couple of years that I realized what the through line was: how many wrong places I’d landed in my life because I hadn’t really been myself or even known who I truly was. I’d been conditioned as a woman born in the 60s to keep adjusting myself to please men and other people with more power than I had. I’d also been fractured at around 11 by my parents’ 1976 divorce, which is something I think a lot of Gen-Xers experienced. At some point, I realized it was a Gen-X mid-life coming-of-age memoir.
You’re an editor as well! What is it about the written word that is so moving and powerful to you?
Verbal expression is so powerful, whether it’s spoken or written. I’m a petite woman living under capitalism and patriarchy. I struggle to be seen and heard in this world. The written word gives my voice much greater reach. I feel this way about what I read, too, and the work of others that I edit. I love how much I learn and am changed by other people’s writing. Also, the job of editing other writers’ work while trying to retain their voices is like a fun puzzle to me. I have fun with structure and sentence shaping and syntax. It’s like a kind of mathematic equation. I totally nerd out with it.
How was the idea for Oldster Magazine born?
“From the time I was 10, I’ve been obsessed with what it means to pass through time in a human body, what milestones we’re supposed to reach and when. It all started with my uncle saying to me at my 10th birthday party, “Well, you’ll never be one digit again…” It blew my mind.”
When I was the essays editor at Longreads, I started a similar series called “Fine Lines”. After I left there, I knew I wasn’t done with the subject. I kept trying to figure out where to go next with it. Then, one night in late August 2021, I had a dream that I started a magazine called “Oldster.” I joked about it on Twitter, then realized it was actually a good idea. So, I went to my desk and started a Substack newsletter called Oldster Magazine.
Was what the most endearing or most surprising interview you’ve done so far on Oldster?
This is a tough choice! I’m so moved by all of them. I think the two that blew me away the most were 67-year-old Lucy Sante’s, in which she wrote about how life-affirming her gender transition has been, and 92-year-old Tibor Spitz’s, in which he exclaimed that every day is his birthday because he survived the Holocaust. Then there was 52-year-old Rashunda Tramble talking about how, when she was growing up in the south, Black matriarchs were so stylish and dignified, it gave her something to aspire to. It was a refreshing departure from the way in which so much of white culture deems women invisible and dismissible as they get older.
What are some of your favorite books or podcast (aside from yours, of course)?
There are so many good podcasts, but I adore the Everything is Fine podcast hosted by Kim France and Jennifer Romolini, which is for women over 40. It’s smart and irreverent and always relatable and eye-opening. The Maintenance Phase podcast blows me away with its insights into toxic diet culture and fatphobia. And Ursa Story, a podcast focused on short fiction, with Deesha Philyaw and Dawnie Walton, has been a new favorite, especially as I’m beginning to work on some short fiction. The last short story collection I loved was Each of Us Killers by Jenny Bhatt. Right now I’m reading Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket: Stories by Hilma Wolitzer, and just loving it. The last essay collection I loved was Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service by Tajja Isen. The last novel I loved was Marcy Dermansky’s Hurricane Girl. (I love everything Marcy Dermansky writes.)
Speaking of podcasts, tell us about yours.
I’ve only had a few episodes of The Oldster Magazine Podcast, but I recently got the Descript App, and I’m getting ready to make the podcast more of a consistent feature. I’m going to interview a diverse array of people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds about their experience of “passing through time in a human body.”
Can you describe your creative process?
Getting started is often hard for me—like, on a day-to-day basis. I have to override my fear and anxiety and perfectionism again and again. I’ve developed some hacks to keep myself going. I’m always interested in lowering the stakes for myself in early drafts of things. That means allowing myself to produce sh*tty first drafts, as Anne Lamott calls them. I also like racing against a timer for very short intervals—five minutes, then ten, then twenty—because that makes it impossible for the editor part of my brain to even enter the room. The writer part of my brain needs to create first, without the editor or critic horning in. Once I get myself started, I sometimes can’t stop. So, I always need to just trick myself over that first hurdle.
Another helpful thing is having a second project that I “cheat” on my main project with. It’s like a little escape valve, and it just keeps me working. I toggle between both things, and before I know it, I have created two things. I also always have somewhere I can drop in new ideas as they crop up. The second that they do—I add them to a notebook, my iOS Notes App, a Word doc I’ve had going since 2005, or a Google spreadsheet of story ideas. I get the ideas down when they come, sometimes in cryptic notes, and then later I can mine these stores for things to work on.
What is one question you’re constantly asked or the biggest misconception about your work?
A few years ago, a really snobby novelist asked what I do. I said, “I write essays and memoirs,” and he replied, condescendingly, “Well, then you must have had a very interesting life. My life is boring, so I make things up.” Wrong. The meat and potatoes of the personal essay and memoir categories are NOT interesting lives. Sure, there are some famous people who write memoirs (usually with the help of ghostwriters, like me!), and people who have survived remarkable experiences and tragedies. But that’s not really what these categories are about. Instead, they are about illuminating the common—the mundane—through your own interpretation of your experiences, in such a way that you illuminate readers’ common experiences. That’s what art is. And personal essays and memoirs are forms of art.
How is your industry changing and how are you adapting?
It’s such a hard time to be a writer and editor! Publishing and media have been shrinking and consolidating for years. I keep having to do more work for less. Right now, Substack is providing a way for writers to make a living—via paid subscriptions. I will ride this train as far as I can. Who knows how long it will last?
As a writer with multiple platforms, do you still seek assignments or are you focused on your own work/brand?
I do still seek other assignments. They are harder for me to get, the older I get. But I keep building my own “brand” because I need to, and also because I’m having fun with it.
What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
I’m starting to work on both a book of fictional short stories and a book proposal for an Oldster Anthology. (Love to toggle between two projects!) I’m also going to learn how to write television and film scripts.
What is it about the Hudson Valley that makes it unique to live + work here?
The Hudson Valley is incredibly beautiful. I like that there are many who share my more progressive politics. Kingston is the perfect city for me because it’s a city, and I love living in cities, but I’m a 20-minute drive in any direction to some of the most beautiful nature.
What impact does your business have on your community?
I’ve been working hard for years to foster a writers’ community locally. I think I’ve had an impact on other writers moving here. I’m always happy when there are more writers around! Before the pandemic, I operated Kingston Writers’ Studio as a co-working space for writers. I had to close it then, but soon I’ll start leading workshops locally. I’ve already started leading them virtually. I want to make Kingston even more of a hub for writers.
What local businesses do you rely on to be successful?
The bookstores! The Golden Notebook in Woodstock, Oblong Books in Rhinebeck and Millerton, Spotty Dog in Hudson. In Kingston, Rough Draft Bar & Books is such an important establishment. It is a wonderful bookstore, and a nice bar, and a fantastic gathering space, and Kingston couldn’t need all these elements more right now. I’m so grateful it exists. So many of the restaurants and bars I’ve loved for so long have recently gone out of business. It’s so hard to operate food and drink establishments, and the pandemic made it harder. I miss the “scene” that I used to be a part of, where I could just walk into, say, the back deck at Boitson’s, or the backspace at Lis Bar, or the outdoor area of The Beverly Lounge, on any given summer evening and bump into an assortment of friends and acquaintances. I’m grateful to all of them for hanging in there as long as they did.
What is missing in the area that you wish we had?
I long for a greater variety of ethnic restaurants. I wish there were more clothing stores that had affordable but quality clothes.
Who or what inspires you personally?
Jen Metzger inspires me. From the time we lived in Rosendale, from 2005 until 2014, I’ve watched her go from an engaged civilian who got involved in politics, to a high-level, progressive, effective politician. She is smart and engaged and powerful.
Tell us something about yourself that people might be surprised to know.
I failed gym and typing in 9th grade. The typing failure is more surprising, because now I type constantly, and fairly well.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
If I could do anything, I’d be a professional singer, or a doctor, or…maybe both! A singing doctor.
What would be your dream local Staycation?
What is your current state of mind?
Anxious about the state of the country and the world, but encouraged by the recent midterms—especially Jen Metzger’s win in the Ulster County Executive race, locally.
Connect with Sari Botton and Oldster Magazine Podcast
Purchase her Books HERE
Subscribe to Oldster Substack HERE