In Conversation With Tajja Isen
IN CONVERSATION WITH
I'm delighted to welcome writer, editor, and author, Tajja Isen to AD's In Conversation With today. I first heard of Tajja when I read a piece she wrote for Catapult titled Building a Home Used to Be Easy—Especially in ‘The Sims’. As someone who grew up playing The Sims, and owned every expansion pack created throughout the game’s first decade, I was captivated by the story.
It would be a while before I discovered that Tajja Isen is not only an accomplished writer, but also an established voice actor, well-known for her roles in shows like Atomic Betty and The Berenstain Bears. A fact I learned through my partner, who played Betty's soundtrack on repeat for a week when he heard I was talking with one of the voices who had shaped part of his own childhood.
While Tajja still pursues voice acting, her writing has appeared in dozens of outlets across the United States and Canada. She's the editor-in-chief at Catapult magazine, and the former digital editor for The Walrus.
Isen's debut book, Some of My Best Friends: Essays on Lip Service, was released to critical acclaim earlier this year. One of my Daily Hive April picks, Tajja's collection takes on the cartoon industry’s pivot away from colour-blind casting, the literary world’s hunt for more diversity, and the law’s refusal to see inequality.
Tajja and I connected last month to talk about her role at Catapult, the writing process for her debut, and what advice she has for aspiring writers.
|Tajja Isen by Karen Isen|
As editor-in-chief of Catapult, tell me about a day in the life.
I'm the editor-in-chief of our digital editorial content, which means I oversee Catapult magazine and our writing-focused vertical, Don't Write Alone. We publish new content daily, so there's a lot to keep an eye on! My day usually starts with reviewing the pieces that have gone up that morning to make sure we're on track with our publishing calendar, everything's up to snuff on the home page, and I'm familiar with the final versions of pieces that I've had eyes on at various other stages of the production process.
From there, my days are a mix of working with writers on drafts, discussing and green-lighting pitches from writers and my team of editors, moving pieces through production, running editorial meetings, attending other interdepartmental gatherings, and supporting my team of editors in whatever way they need. And emails. Many, many emails.
What was your vision when you joined the magazine last year?
I joined the magazine last year as an editor, where my primary duties were to bring in more pieces for the magazine and to help support junior editors. I was lucky to have a lot of freedom in that role to pursue the subjects and approaches I'm most passionate about and that I wanted to see more of on the site—essays that combine personal narrative with research, pop culture, humor, etc.. Basically, work that uses various tools to connect the personal more explicitly to the world. Near the end of last year, I was promoted to editor-in-chief when my predecessor in the role, Nicole Chung, was hired by The Atlantic.
In this new role, I am able to turn my goals for the magazine into a broader set of editorial objectives. I want to build on the magazine's legacy of being a platform for nurturing and launching a diverse slate of writers, but also to expand the types of essays we publish, using memoir as a portal (a … catapult, perhaps?) into bigger questions and conversations. Other goals of mine are to foster more collaboration with the books and classes departments, and to make special themed series and projects a regular, recurring part of the work we publish.
Your debut, Some of My Best Friends, a stellar collection of essays, received rave reviews from many. When did the idea come to you, and what was the writing process like?
I'd been orbiting the set of questions the book engages with—questions like why do writers of color keep getting pigeonholed and why does the vocabulary of diversity feel so cringe and how is it getting easier to say something while doing nothing for about five or six years.
As I paid more attention to the world around me, I began to connect the dots across the various spheres I inhabited: the way the entertainment industry touts diversity while not implementing policies and practices that elevate minoritized creators in a meaningful way. The way the law speaks the language of neutrality while coming down hardest on the people who have the least amount of power. The way Canada, the country of my birth, clutches its pearls any time anyone suggests it might be racist because diversity is our national brand.
Given how the idea coalesced, spreading to make its presence known in various corners of my experience, the writing process was really exciting and clarifying. It felt like I was mapping a pattern, trying to persuade the reader of a specific worldview, and putting words to things I had felt for a long time but hadn't articulated in this way before—and that's the effect I hope it has on the reader, too; that kind of aha moment.
Having interviewed Nicole Caputo recently, and reviewed many Catapult and Soft Skull books, I'm curious — what involvement do you have in the publishing arms? Do you read the books?
I loved your interview with Nicole Caputo. I'm a huge fan of her cover designs and I was thrilled that she designed the cover for my co-edited essay anthology, The World As We Knew It: Dispatches from a Changing Climate.
I mentioned earlier that one of my goals, coming into the EIC role, was to foster more collaboration with other departments. With the books department, a lot of it already happens naturally—many of our columnists and magazine writers have gone on to publish books with Catapult; if a writer of ours has a book coming out, we will often try to feature them in the magazine in some way around their publication, whether it's an original essay or an interview. In part to foster that collaboration, but also just because I think our book editors have incredible taste, I do read a lot of the books we publish!
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Spend time figuring out who you are and who you want to be on the page—and asking yourself whether those two are the same thing. Share your work with people you trust before you're ready to think about your writing as something to be published and sold. Try pitching short-form writing first, and if you are lucky enough to find an editor you love to work with, whom you can feel makes your writing better, find ways to work with them again. Be open to the collaborative process that is editing and publishing, but also, know your limits—if somebody is trying to push you toward saying something that does not feel authentic or comfortable, don't be afraid to dig your heels in (this is where all that time you spent figuring out who you are and who you want to be will pay off).
Who has inspired you most in your career so far?
If it's a who rather than a what, then I have to say my mom. She graciously read everything I ever pushed across the table at her and always, always took me seriously as a writer before there was any reason to do so. My career has taken a lot of strange and unexpected turns, and I'm so grateful to both of my parents for never doubting when it was time for me to either leave something behind or take something to the next step—unconditional support is a gift I don't take for granted.