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An Interview with Emma Banks

Emma Banks describes herself as a forever learner, and I can tell from her demeanor that the title is suitable. She had a very calming presence; her voice sounded like ASMR and all of the rigidity and awkwardness I expected from meeting someone who I held in such high regard for the first time dissipated in her soothing energy. She seemed unusually perceptive of her environment, humble, and ready to collect the lessons and stories the day would offer. There were no pretensions. I had organized the interview to learn from her, but it became clear that she was also going to glean whatever she could from it.

Emma is truly attached to the act of writing and the act of learning, rather than clout or fame or attention, and it's evident from her work. The former editorial director for Milk, when this interview took place, she had just started working for Refinery29 as a lifestyle writer for branded content. She said her goal with writing was to occupy the space between relatable and poetic, insightful without being inaccessible. Whenever I read her articles for Milk, I always feel understood, but also stimulated, and even though the two brands have drastically different styles, I walk away with the same feeling after reading her stories on Refinery.

She also told me about he importance of recognizing the power in mundane moments, in keeping with her something-to-be-learned-from-everything philosophy. She said the writers she admires most give these seemingly ordinary memories their proper significance, and that's one of the ways they influence her work. After the interview was done and I was walking back to where I was staying, her words still buzzing in my mind, I couldn't help but think that this was one of those moments.

How did you get your start at Milk?

That's kind of a funny story. I was working at a startup that wasn't doing so well, and they told us all that we should be looking for other opportunities. So I was frantically googling writing jobs, and I stumbled across this website which sounds like a spam website, and an editorial assistant job from Milk was on there. I applied, and then remembered I knew a girl at Milk Makeup, emailed her, and then I got the job. I guess, in a way, it's all about who you know. But yeah, I was very lucky.

How long did you work for Milk?

I was there for 2 years and 9 or 10 months. So, almost three years.

How did you get your job at Refinery?

I actually just applied on their website. I guess that's contradictory to what I just said, how it's all about who you know, because I didn't know anyone at Refinery. But yeah, I just applied on their job board. I was in Mexico with my girlfriend, and on our way back to the airport I finally allowed myself to check my email, and I had an email from an HR woman asking if I could get on the phone.

What is your position at Refinery?

I'm a lifestyle writer for branded content. We do big feature packages that a brand sponsors or we integrate the brand somehow. I do other branded stuff on the side, or like emails that go out to our subscribers or little copy points here and there.

What's the hardest part about your job?

Right now, I'm just learning all the ways that they operate and the technical aspects of coming into a new company, especially one that's so big. Milk was a lot less structured, so in that scenario, I think the hardest part was building that structure for myself, because you have to decide what you want to prioritize, what's most important for the brand and how you can go about doing that with limited resources.

What work are you most proud of?

We did quite a few projects at Milk that I was really excited about. We did a partnership with Rock the Vote to promote kids registering to vote. With a few days turnaround, we somehow pulled a shoot together. We did another first time voters project kind of like that, just talking to people who were participating in the voting system for the first time. It was some 18 year olds and some much older people. That was interesting, to get those perspectives. We had a lot of initiatives based around minority perspectives and getting POVs from people all across the queer spectrum or from different racial minorities, just trying to get the editorial platform to really be fully representative of the Milk community. That was fun. I got to talk to a lot of really interesting people.

What's the most rewarding part of your job?

I've always loved writing, and I still take a lot of pleasure from that, even if it's simple or doesn't feel very complex. But on top of that, I think just meeting people that really know what's fulfilling to them and they're pursuing it. Getting to speak with them and write about that experience and craft it into something that's digestible for a really big audience is an interesting challenge for me.

What's the writing process like at Refinery?

For branded it's a little different because there's client approvals, but on the editing side, for me, in the office, I have a senior editor and then we have a top edit and then the feature package itself goes through rounds of client approval also.

Did you know you always wanted to be a writer? Did you ever consider pursuing a career in a different field?

I knew I wanted to be involved in journalism in some sense. For a while I wanted to be a photographer. I shot a lot when I moved to New York. But I always came back to writing. Not that you have to pick one singular way to identify, but I always found myself more excited to call myself a writer. I found it really organic and natural to express myself through that medium. So, in one way or another, I've always found myself in positions that reflect that. Ever since I was in middle school, and I found out the high school had a newspaper, I was like "I wanna do that." I guess it's just that magnetic attraction to the thing you enjoy.

What advice would you give your younger self?

This is something I ask people a lot, but I still haven't come up with a good answer. When i was 18, I thought the trajectory I was on would be really linear. So I would say, more often than not, it's very winding. Even if you don't see a direct connection between where you are right now and how it will benefit you later, just have a posture of learning and gratitude to be there. Hindsight is 20/20 and you understand completely how that molded you, and what skills you got from that. But in the moment, it's just kinda frustrating if you're not where you want to be. But there's always something to learn from every person you meet, every position you're in. So I would just not worry too much about labels and timelines and continue to be a forever learner.

Have you ever been in a non-writing job? If so, how did that inform the work you do now?

My first internship in New York was for this brand Apiece Apart, which is a small designer. I honestly can't even remember the title of the internship, but it definitely wasn't writing. It was like fashion intern or something. It was a lot of running around the garment district, steaming clothes, putting on clothes, that kind of thing. It gave me a little bit of insider knowledge into the world of fashion, and I write a lot about fashion now. I think just having a tiny glimpse of what it's like on the other side of the whole industry has been super informative for me. That was the strangest internship. I mean, I enjoyed it, but I was like, "What am I doing here again?"

Who are your biggest writing inspirations?

I read a lot of short story fiction, so these people are not really journalists, but Lucia Berlin is probably my favorite author. Kurt Vonnegut-- his work is like a better version of Black Mirror. Peter Orner I love. I love to think of Eve Babitz and Joan Didion as opposing voices of California. I just love how Joan Didion is so buttoned up and serious and dry, and she's from the North obviously, and then Eve Babitz is like this Hollywood wreck who somehow pieces together sentences. I love both of them. Zadie Smith I love. Fran Lebowitz I love. Mary Oliver. Marilynne Robinson. A lot of very smart women. I could go on.

In what ways do they inspire your work despite not being the type of writing you do?

I think they inform my perspective on storytelling, which is that sometimes the most human we feel or the most memorable moments are the really mundane ones, and that you could pull something special or really important from these times in your life-- or your interviewee's life-- that don't seem to be that exciting on the surface. So we should pay attention to the little things as well as the big landmark things. I'm always trying to think about that.

What's a very memorable mundane moment from your life?

When I first moved to New York, I lived in an apartment with no windows, but it had a skylight with bars on it, and I would lay in bed, staring up at the moon through that skylight, thinking, "I'm so fucking glad I'm here. I'm so lucky to be here." And I'll never forget that littl skylight. It didn't lead to any life-changing book ideas or anything. It was just me and that skylight.

What do you think is th emost important skill for a young writer to develop?

Just to be a good listener. Don't interrupt you subject. Give them room to pause, to add to a thought, or finish a thought, before you move on.

How would you describe your voice as a writer?

I think I'm still figuring that out. If we're on this spectrum of very colloquial and very poetic, I think I'm interested in where we can land that's relatable but also sparks something that normal conversation wouldn't. Like, more special than a comment thread on an Instagram post, but it still feels like it's coming from a friend, like a really intimate way of speaking. That's what I try to aim for but I'm working on it.

Has your writing style changed going from Milk to Refinery?

Yes. As brands, they're so different. Milk is more grungy. We use a lot of curse words and it's like this place to go to have a good time. You don't sleep at Milk and you meet the next Soundcloud rapper who's going to be famous, y'know. And Refinery is very much for the millennial woman. We don't curse at all. We're a little more polished than that. We're trying to be almost prescriptive, like giving women advice that they're seeking out, or finding a way to make our stories actionable and useful, instead of aspirational. Very different. Almost the complete opposite.

Do you think you'll miss writing in Milk's style at all?

Ultimately I want to be writing in my own style and not have it permanently attached to one brand so it was good practice for me to remove myself from that and insert myself into another brand. I'm sure I'll have to do it again one day. I think it's good not to be married to one point of view, because at the end of the day, I'm not Milk, I'm also not Refinery. I need to think of myself as an independent person from my job.


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