Interview with Journalist and Author Mélanie Berliet


Mélanie Berliet chats with us about taking the leap from journalist to memoirist in a candid, tragic, and entertaining book, Surviving in Spirit: A Memoir about Sisterhood and Addiction, and lends insight into digital-only options offered by today’s new publishers.

Q. How did you first get involved with Thought Catalog?

About two years ago, Ken Kurson, Editor in Chief of the New York Observer, emailed saying that he’d enjoyed an essay I wrote for Thought Catalog. This confused me because I’d never written for TC! I was about to explain to Ken that he was mistaken when something (unwillingness to sacrifice a perfectly good compliment, perhaps!) told me to do some Googling instead. I soon realized that TC had reprinted a piece I originally wrote for XOJane through some content swapping arrangement. I immediately wrote to TC’s founder, Chris Lavergne, and suggested lunch. Soon after, I signed on to become one of TC’s featured writers, among the likes of awesome people such as Ryan Holiday, whose work I’ve long admired.

Q. What made you choose Thought Catalog as a publishing partner over the traditional publishing path?

When Chris Lavergne and I first sat down together, we talked for two straight hours—about the current state of books, publishing, technology, etc. Chris is a really smart, unassuming guy and I was drawn to his appetite for the future. I had just completed a round of meetings with editors at traditional publishing houses set up by my agent at WME that left me totally disheartened and disillusioned. None of the traditionals seemed open to experimentation or to any approach that deviated from their go-to formula. I wanted to feel excited, not hopeless, about my book project and I sensed that Thought Catalog was the place for me.

Q. What have the advantages been? Disadvantages?

The advantages to publishing via Thought Catalog are that it’s flexible and fast and you get to supplement your project with posts on their website, which has an insanely large, loyal readership of millenials. The main disadvantage is that some people (like my mom, for one) don’t seem to understand that a digital book is a book. I’m guessing that there are always people resistant to change within an industry as it evolves. We can’t all be early adopters!

Q. You explore very specific themes in your writing, largely about women and sexuality. (And you aren’t afraid to go nude in proving your point!) What draws you to write about these more provocative topics? Have you ever faced fear in doing so?

I do fear going undercover sometimes, but I use my level of anxiety over a given project as a measure of how compelling the story is likely to turn out. It’s psychologically fulfilling to push my personal boundaries and to push the proverbial envelope. I developed a certain amount of immunity to caring about others’ opinions while watching my older sister Céline gradually succumb to alcoholism (she died of cirrhosis at age 30 in 2009). In dying, I believe my sis inadvertently gifted me with perspective. She taught me how to live without giving two shits about what people might think of me for doing weird shit.

Q. In your book, Surviving in Spirit, you write about your sister’s alcoholism. What compelled you to write the story?

I think I had to get it out of me! Most of my work is designed to entertain so this was an uncharacteristically dark subject for me to tackle. But as difficult as it was to go there, it was also therapeutic. To quote Maya Angelou: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Q. What advice can you offer aspiring writers and producers?

First of all, persevere. You have to keep going. It helps if the creative process is rewarding in and of itself and you don’t fixate too much on the money. The value of what you do doesn’t have to be tied up in the money you earn doing it. Obviously, we all have to eat, but it’s important to focus on the work first. I would also say that it’s important to develop a thick skin. Some of my most well received stories were pitched and rejected at least ten times before I found them a home.

Mélanie Berliet has written for Vanity Fair, Elle, Cosmopolitan, The Atlantic, and New York Magazine, among other publications. She also creates and produces original content for television and the web. Follow Mélanie on Twitter and Facebook.

Michele Sullivan

Michele Sullivan is the President of Caterpillar Foundation, the philanthropy arm of heavy equipment giant Caterpillar Corporation that has contributed over 685 million dollars worldwide to alleviate poverty. She has been named as one of the Top 50 Most Powerful Women in U.S. Philanthropy and has served as a U.S. delegate to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women. Sullivan's forthcoming title LOOKING UP (HarperCollins) expands on her popular TED talk "Asking for help is a strength, not a weakness," highlighting the importance of perspective, making the first move, finding one's village, and learning to ask for help in life and business.