An Interview with Erin Stewart

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Please tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.

I’m a freelance writer. I write a lot for web and newspapers, mostly things like opinion pieces, reviews, and essays. I also recently completed a PhD in nonfiction writing where I produced a book on missing persons. I’m based in Oxford, UK right now, but I’m looking forward to moving back to Australia in September.

 

How do you apply the knowledge and skills of anthropology in your work?

There are so many ways! A lot of writers and journalists actually studied anthropology as undergraduates – Tony Jones in Australia, and US writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Ted Conover, William Langewiesche, and many others. There are also anthropologists whose books have done well in mainstream markets like Margaret Mead, Sigrid Rausing, and Daniel Miller. It’s so useful not to take social norms for granted and to be curious about others’ perspectives. That outlook has helped me so much when it comes to interviewing people, listening to what others have to say while suspending judgement, and asking questions about the world around me. I tend to find that anthropologists are also evocative writers, reading the ethnographies of people like Geertz encouraged me to pay attention to my own writing as an undergrad.

My primary interest was in medical anthropology, which has carried over to my writing work. I write a lot about health and illness, disability, as well as the social impact of tech related to the body (how do wearables, for example, change our bodily experiences?). Understanding concepts like biopower and phenomenology has informed my approach to this work, even though I’d be unlikely to quote Merleau-Ponty or someone like that in a 500-word opinion piece!

 

Tell us about an interesting or important project you’ve contributed to.

Last year, an essay I wrote was included in an anthology about women in sport called Balancing Acts which was a cool project to be part of because so many women brought in a range of perspectives and experiences around sport and how it links with sexism, commercialisation, comradery, fandom, and similar themes. It felt important because although there is a healthy discourse on inequality in sport, especially in elite sport, reading through it I learned a lot about how that inequality carries through to a diverse range of sports at just about every level. I’m also not a sporty person at all and I don’t know much about sport, so my contribution gave me a chance to reflect why gender equality in sport was important to me and to feminism in general, even though I’d very much neglected considering this.

 

What are some common challenges in your work?

My main challenges are those that come with precarious employment. I have to constantly pitch article ideas to editors and search for opportunities or else I won’t be paid. There’s also a lot of email writing and paperwork like invoicing, following-up on articles and payments, tracking income and expenses, doing taxes as a sole trader, etc. all of which I abhor.

 

What do you love about your work?

I like the freedom. You can work with ideas and issues and people that interest you. I also like being able to spend swathes of my day writing, it feels pretty luxurious a lot of the time.

 

How did you get to where you are today?

I was always interested in writing but when I went into uni I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write as a career, so I did a general Arts degree and tried lots of different subjects that interested me. I loved anthropology but knew that because of my own health issues and because of the kind of lifestyle I aspired to, years of fieldwork probably wouldn’t suit me, so I returned to writing. I graduated during the GFC so it was hard to find a job that paid in a human currency, so I made up my own job, pretty much. You don’t need to have a particular background or to get anyone’s permission to write, you can simply start sending out finished pieces and the ideas you have and eventually you create relationships with editors and sources and it gets easier over time. After a couple of years of writing, I realised that I missed the rigours of academia and did my PhD, which was a lot of work but I loved immersing myself in a topic for an extended period of time.

 

What advice would you give to a student of anthropology who wants to work in your field?

People are very interested in cultural and social analyses, so having a background in anthropology is really useful. We’re in interesting political times with lurches to the far-right, populism, and even fascism. We need anthropologists out in the world to tell us what on earth is going on. The trick is to be able to translate your knowledge and critical thinking into prose that a general audience will understand, so I think using your time at uni to practise is a great idea. Writing for student newspapers and street presses is a way to get that experience and have others guide you to improve your writing. As well, don’t be afraid to try your hand pitching and writing for paying markets while you’re still at uni either, a lot of young writers fall into the trap of writing for free for longer than they need to.

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