Interview with Author & YouTuber Justin Little AKA Vernaculis
Creator of the YouTube channel and persona known as Vernaculis, Justin Little brings an acerbic wit and engaging style to storytelling. He has emerged as an original voice of New Journalism for the modern indefinable age. His debut collection of essays, The Misadventures of a Jilted Journalist, is available now from Clash Books.
Full disclosure: Christoph Paul is the Managing Editor of Clash Books.
When did you first start writing and what made you want to continue working on the craft?
I first started writing when I was in high school. I ended up writing eighty pages of a novel before destroying all evidence that it ever existed. It was some terrible rendition of a zombie survival scenario. After that I gave up and tried a few other things, but what brought me back to writing was journalism. I had already discovered the works of George Orwell and Christopher Hitchens, which both had an immense effect on me. They showed me that regular people with a bit of luck, hard work and courage can change things for the better, or at least prevent things from spiraling further into the worse through the sheer act of writing about their experiences. I wanted to be a member of that club, so to speak.
Why is George Orwell one of your favorite authors?
It has become extremely difficult to distinguish between calculation and conviction in modern politics. Orwell is routinely praised over his two seminal works: Animal Farm and 1984. While they were fantastic books, Orwell shines most brightly in his non-fiction. You can tell that everything he wrote was what he genuinely thought in the moment, that he didn’t say anything for effect, and was very in tune with his own inconsistencies. He never acted superior to the average person after a slight snooty phase in University. For example, he didn’t say that the masses are so stupid they need some strong-arming leader telling them what to do all the time. Nor did he sugarcoat how disconnected the average person is from important contemporary events. He genuinely cared about the truth and politics to an extent that I wish I had the physical courage to exemplify. When one finds an author like that it’s a responsibility to read everything they’ve written.
Your book has pieces of journalism and reflections on the genre. What do you enjoy and what do you despise about current day journalism?
I suppose the only thing I enjoy about the current state of journalism is how “gatekeeping” has been all but eliminated, aside from at the highest levels of the craft. There are still press passes and the need to get credentials to enter lots of places as a reporter, but social media essentially allows anyone to be a journalist provided they have the ability to write and publish. There are plenty of free outlets available for people to do these things online.
What I dislike about current day journalism is almost everything else. The mainstream press treat themselves like a more intelligent class of person because they have access that others don’t. The emergence of “new media” on YouTube and elsewhere provided some slight hope for a little while, but the most popular of these have constructed themselves to emulate the mainstream press while at the same time condemning them. All they truly do is provide commentary, and while commentary can be valuable it should not be called journalism.
I am extremely pessimistic about the state of the press due to the fact that the incentives are all wrong. The system doesn’t operate under the idea that the most truthful, accurate and syntactically capable journalist will obtain the most readers and be the most successful. People want to read exciting, exaggerated, partisan stuff that makes them feel like they are in the right, so that’s what they are given. And it works. It doesn’t matter if the stuff is true or not. This is partly why we see this sort of “intense polarization” that I keep hearing about.
You write both fiction and non-fiction. What do you enjoy about working in each genre, and what are the challenges in fiction versus non-fiction?
I enjoy non-fiction when my imagination needs a rest and I enjoy fiction when I’m tired of arguing. The main challenge for me in non-fiction is finding a way to make “reporting a story” both accurate and linguistically pretty. What’s easier about writing non-fiction is the actual technical writing portion. I can bust out five thousand words in a day if I have something to report on. The audience gets more passionate about non-fiction as well because there are political issues tied up with it. With fiction it is nearly the opposite. It’s a good day if I get five hundred words down. Although, the good thing about fiction is that being wrong is impossible.
You host a lot of people’s favorite YouTube channel. Who are some of your favorite YouTubers?
That is awfully flattering of you, but recently I’ve found myself not so much drawn to “YouTubers” but “YouTube videos.” I enjoy learning about things and keeping up to date on current events, so I generally just watch C-Span, documentaries, book reviews and a few friends of mine. My YouTube history doesn’t have much pop and fizzle.
What have you learned craft wise after finishing your first book?
No matter how good of a writer you think you are there will always be mistakes that you miss. You could read the book hundreds of times and still miss the most obvious of errors. I’ve learned through this process to take the editing phase of writing much more seriously than I had previously. I also learned about “crutch phrases” and how often I was using them. It’s a little embarrassing when you read over your manuscript and you’ve used the phrase “in my opinion” an insulting number of times. I’m trying to wrangle my unconscious when it comes to those things.
Being a young author yourself, what advice do you have for writers just starting out?
The main issue I have writing is self-doubt. That what I’m putting down isn’t good enough, that it’s been said more beautifully before, that I’m wasting people’s time, and that there’s nothing I could say that would contribute something valuable. It’s not so much an “Inner Editor” as much as it is an “Inner Cynic.” It’s not correcting you as much as it is doing its best to hinder your progress. All I can say to people just starting out is ignore this voice. Allow yourself to write poorly sometimes.
Finally, what are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a dystopian novel that follows a conflicted political foot soldier who desperately wants to be remembered fondly by history, but can’t figure out what the “right thing to do” is. Things just keep getting thrown into the gears of his moral compass and hopefully people will enjoy that kind of journey. On top of that I’m floating around the idea of attempting coverage of the 2020 Presidential Campaign as an independent journalist. I want to at least try and prove that you don’t necessarily need a mainstream press outlet to figure out what’s happening in the country. Either that or I’ll figure out once and for all that the only people allowed to know the whole truth are people who’ve promised to keep all of the incriminating bits to themselves in exchange for press credentials.
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