Katya Cengel at Home: On Writing and Her Dog, Pip

Katya Cengel is a freelance writer and lectures in the Journalism Department of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington PostMarie Claire, and Newsweek. She is the author of From Chernobyl With Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union (Potomac Books, 2019), Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back (Potomac Books, 2018), and Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life (Nebraska, 2012).

In your most recent book, you share your time as a young journalist just starting out abroad. What do you hope readers will take away from it? 

I want young people to be open to adventure. That may sound like a strange thing to say at the moment, but I think it may be true more than ever right now. Adventure does not have to mean traveling to a different country, it is more a way of looking at things and being receptive to something entirely new and different, which is extremely relevant in today’s environment. I also hope they will be able to find humor during hard times, another lesson for all of us right now. Of course I don’t mean that the tragedy of the pandemic should be treated lightly but humor can help in healing when used at the right time and in the right way.

What is one non-writing-related activity that helps you stay creative at your keyboard?

Walking. I like to run and play sports, but during the day when I am writing I find that a walking break is the best re-energizer. While out walking I can think things out and outline where I will go next with a story. Pip has been getting a lot of long walks lately. When I end up thinking out loud, she is a great cover.   

So you have a dog. Is she enjoying your company?

Pip is named after Pip from Dickens’ Great Expectations so she was destined for literary greatness, although that mostly meant chewing my books when she was a puppy. Now that she is a mature 11, Pip tends to just sleep and snore rather loudly while I write. Pip managed to sneak into the media before when I worked as a features reporter at a daily newspaper and is excited to make it into the newsfeed once again.  

What has changed (or not changed) about your writing life at home?

I am relatively lucky in that some of my work involves overseas assignments and I had just returned from a long trip in Asia before the quarantine began. Writing up the stories I gathered there has been keeping me busy at home. While abroad I take pictures of the people I interview so that I can better remember them when I am back home working on the story. My photos from Bangladesh—one of the most populous countries in the world—are filled with people. When I was there, I felt like I was never alone. I worry that social distancing will be extremely difficult in a country with such a high population density.

Anything else you’d like to mention about your book(s)?

After reading my latest book From Chernobyl with Love: Reporting from the Ruins of the Soviet Union, a journalist I know who is from China mentioned the parallels between the Chinese government’s initial secrecy surrounding the virus and the Soviet Union’s handling of Chernobyl. Since then I have seen a number of other articles referencing Chernobyl, including one about how visiting the exclusion zone that surrounds the plant offers a glimpse of the apocalypse, something that doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it once did. Chernobyl is a central theme and setting in my memoir, so I find the references intriguing. And with baseball canceled, I am hoping more people will read about the behind-the-scenes life of minor league ballplayers I covered in my first book Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life. When we talk of quarantine and being separated from our families, I am reminded of my second book Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back and how the families I followed were separated or at risk of being separated because of deportation. I never thought all three of my books—on very different subjects—would all sort of collide in such a way.

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