Faculty Profile: Haley Mlotek

If the journalist, editor, and labor organizer has a beat, it's the art of conversation

As a journalist, Haley Mlotek is known for her sharp insights in books, fashion, relationships, trail-blazing women, and more. After all, why have a beat when you don’t even need to pick a lane.

In addition to a stint as publisher of WORN Fashion Journal, Mlotek is also senior editor of SSENSE, co-chair of the Freelance Solidarity Project, a division of the National Writers Union for digital media workers, and author of the forthcoming book No Fault: Romance and Divorce, which will be published Viking Books and McClelland & Stewart. 

If there is a theme in her media career, it’s good conversation. Whether it’s to get a subject to tell their story, an editor to pay more for said story, or the publishers of many stories to treat freelancers better, Haley isn’t afraid to ask tough questions with even tougher answers.

That’s why, on Aug. 20, Haley will share a comprehensive overview of tips, tactics, and techniques for asking hard questions at Pandemic University. (Tickets are $20 CAD and available until 12pm ET. Register here.) Her seminar includes guest experts with their own unique perspectives.

We got a little preview this week, and asked Haley about her work with the Freelance Solidarity Project, how to write about fashion when just about everyone lives in sweatpants, and the kinds of editors she cherishes most.

Register for Asking Questions with Answers You Don’t Want to Hear (C$20)

Is there a particular interview or conversation that sticks out in your brain as especially difficult or memorable?

One important lesson that my class covers is: some questions are best answered by not answering at all. This is one of those questions 😉

You’ve been referred to as a writer who has written for any publication you’ve read. That’s included The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Nation, and The New Republic. What have you learned from publishing with such a breadth of outlets and audiences?

I’m lucky to write for the publications that will have me, and I’m even luckier to work with editors I respect and trust. There are very few luxuries as a freelance writer, and the ability to follow a good editor wherever they go is the truest one.

Just because fashion is superficial doesn’t mean it’s not deep.

I also find that a lot of the best editors are also writers themselves — I’m thinking specifically about Durga Chew-Bose, my colleague at SSENSE, and Jazmine Hughes, one of my guest speakers for this week’s class, but there are many others — and they all share this quality of being both instinctive and insightful. They trust the choices that writers make while also being attuned to the subtexts that we, as writers, can’t see in our own work.

Finding people like that to collaborate with has taught me more than I can put into this answer, but I’ll elaborate in great detail to anyone who asks.

A lot of your writing and editing revolves around fashion. Given that the pandemic has many of us in sweatpants for the foreseeable future, how has your work adapted?

I mean, one of the best recent pieces of fashion journalism was about sweatpants, so they seem like as good a place as any to start!

I do think that the best fashion or style writing is more interior than it gets credit for; it’s as much about how clothes feel as it is about how they look. I often say that just because fashion is superficial doesn’t mean it’s not deep. The conditions for getting dressed have changed, and that means that the way we explain the experience of clothing has to change as well. At SSENSE, I find myself drawn to stories that situate trends or clothes from where they start — in a mind — to where they end up — on a body, while pausing to look at everything that shapes that process, from political realities to philosophical inquiries. 

That said, I’ve been wearing the same Bernie Sanders T-shirt and sweatpants for the last four days.

You’re the 2019-2020 co-chair of the Freelance Solidarity Project, which advocates for digital media workers within the larger National Writers Union. What inspired you to get involved?

I’ve had a lot of different jobs in media and seen this industry from so many different perspectives — I’ve been a writer, an editor, and a publisher, and I’ve also done copywriting and consulting work for brands or agencies. Like many of my colleagues, my experiences have been both unique and typical; no one really has a straightforward career, but everyone sees the same problems wherever they go.

Together we can use the principles of collective action to set, and then raise, standards, both for ourselves and for our communities.

I wanted to get involved in the Freelance Solidarity Project because together we can use the principles of collective action to set, and then raise, standards, both for ourselves and for our communities.

We always want to, which books, movies or TV shows are getting you through the pandemic?

My concentration has been as staticky as a broken television, which feels as appropriate for the circumstances as it is frustrating. Some new books that have held my attention have been The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio and The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante; I’ve also really loved reading collections of correspondence like Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, and The Dolphin Letters: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle. 

I’ve been watching I May Destroy You, which I love because it hurts my feelings on a weekly schedule, and I’ve also been trying to watch everything included in the Agnes Varda Criterion Collection, and Bill Gunn’s Personal Problems, both of which have the perfect emotional register for mid-August afternoons. 

But returning to my favorites is what works best when I’m really struggling. I’ve re-read The Folded Clock, Sleepless Nights, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, re-watched Point Break and Basic Instinct … what can I say, I love the classics.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Register for Asking Questions with Answers You Don’t Want to Hear (C$20)