Exclusive Q&A with Nikki Erlick AB '16

Nikki Erlick AB '16 is the New York Times-bestselling author of The Measure, which was selected as Jenna Bush Hager and The TODAY Show’s #ReadWithJenna Book Club pick, as well as the Barnes & Noble Discover Pick. Translations of The Measure are forthcoming in 14 languages. Her writing has also appeared online with New York Magazine, Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Literary Hub, and Vox Media. She graduated Harvard University summa cum laude and was an editor of The Harvard Crimson. She earned her master's degree in Global Thought from Columbia University.

Q: Your debut novel, The Measure, was an instant New York Times Bestseller after its release this past June. Why do you think the themes, characters, and storyline of your book are so resonant with readers? How do you feel your novel connects to society and the world around you?

I started writing this book at least a year before the onset of the pandemic, so it’s been quite powerful to see the way the story has resonated upon publication. Even from the earliest brainstorms in late 2018, I always intended for this novel to explore questions of how we value our own lives, how we value other people’s lives, how we want to spend our time, and what our priorities are in life. But those questions have taken on an even greater sense of relevance and urgency in light of recent global challenges, which has allowed the story to resonate in a much deeper way than I ever anticipated, and I’m incredibly grateful to every reader and bookseller who has recommended this book as a way to potentially reflect upon these difficult years.

Q: The premise for The Measure is fascinating: one day, a box appears on everyone’s doorstep containing the knowledge of the amount of time they have left to live. How did you come up with the idea? How did you know that was the idea you should follow through with when brainstorming?

I’ve always been drawn to big questions: How much control do we have in our lives? How much power do we have over our destiny? I wanted to see if I could tackle these big questions in the form of a story, because I’m someone who turns to stories to help me make sense of the world and navigate its many complexities. As I was wondering how to craft a story about something as complicated as destiny, I remembered the ancient Greek vision of fate. I was fascinated by the figures of the Three Fates, who had this immense power to spin the strings of life on their spindle and measure out the amount of time that each of us would receive. I couldn’t help but wonder, what if? What if we were able to see our strings? How would that impact our world? What would we do with that knowledge?

The decision to have the strings arrive in a box for each person came a little bit later, when I realized that I wanted people to have a choice of whether or not they would look at their string. Even if the characters’ fates are pre-determined in one sense, they still retain a sense of power and agency when it comes to choosing whether or not they wish to know, and then, of course, choosing how to use that knowledge. The box itself was inspired by another famous Greek myth—Pandora’s Box—as the ultimate test of willpower: Can you resist the temptation to look?

I knew this was the idea that I would stick with when I simply couldn’t stop thinking about it, and all the potential characters and problems that could arise from this premise.

Q: Did you always know The Measure would be a novel, or did you play with other forms (screenplay, short story, etc.) initially?

My dream had always been to write a novel, and The Measure was actually my first attempt at a full-length manuscript.

Q: Your writing career spans across genres, not limited just to fiction. What type of writing is your favorite to do?

I received a crash-course in journalism as soon as I joined The Harvard Crimson, and I’m so grateful for the training I received in reporting, interviewing, writing, and editing. I’ve loved my assignments as a journalist and travel writer—exploring new corners of the world and meeting so many fascinating people—but writing this novel has been the most challenging and rewarding of all my experiences so far.

Q: What is the biggest challenge of writing a novel? What did you find was the easiest part?

I think the greatest obstacles, as a first-time author, were simply all of the unknowns and the accompanying self-doubt: Was this even a good idea for a story? Would I actually be able to complete a full manuscript? And if I did complete it, would anyone want to publish it? Writing a novel had been my dream for a long time, so there was a lot of fear and uncertainty as to whether this was, in fact, an impossible dream.

I’m not sure that any of it felt easy, but in those magical moments when the writing flowed smoothly, it certainly felt fun. And the whole process—from finishing the first draft to connecting with thousands of readers this past summer—has felt incredibly fulfilling.

Q: Who are your biggest writing influences?

Oh my goodness, there are too many to list! As a young reader, the works of Lois Lowry, Natalie Babbitt, Betty Smith, and Markus Zusak stand out in my memory, awakening my love of reading and showing me the many magical directions that a story can take, as well as the profound emotional impact of fiction. Two of my favorite contemporary authors are Ann Patchett—her style is beautiful, and her wide range of different tales is truly impressive—and Ted Chiang—his imagination is astonishing, and his short stories are deeply thought-provoking. But the greatest influence on my writing will always be my family, for inspiring me, supporting me, and encouraging me to pursue my passion.

Q: How do you feel that your time at Harvard prepared you for your career as a travel writer, a journalist, and now an author?

My time at Harvard gave me the incredible freedom to spend hours and hours immersed in books. I studied Comparative Literature, so I was exposed to a wide variety of literature from around the world, and my main extracurricular was writing for The Crimson. I spent four years constantly thinking about language, storytelling, structure, themes, and ideas. It was an excellent training ground in all forms of writing.

Q: What feedback or review have you received for The Measure that’s been the most exciting to you?

It was quite thrilling to see my novel featured in the New York Times Book Review—and also an incredible honor and excitement to be profiled in the New York Times myself and interviewed live on The TODAY Show—but I think the most meaningful interactions have been the personal exchanges with readers who reached out to me directly just to share how much the story meant to them or how it resonated with an experience in their own lives. It’s been a real privilege to have so many people share their stories with me.

Q: What media are you currently consuming? What are your recommendations for compelling, powerful, or just straight-up delightful books/shows/films/etc.?

I try to read and watch widely across different genres. Some recent books I enjoyed: The Candy House by Jennifer Egan, Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang, The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd. Some recent shows I enjoyed: Severance, Call My Agent, For All Mankind, What We Do in the Shadows, Abbott Elementary.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring young novelists? Any tips on getting your manuscript seen by a publisher?

I think the most common advice that I was given was to “keep writing,” which of course is excellent advice. But, sometimes, it felt difficult to keep writing when I had no idea if anyone other than my family was ever going to read what I was writing! For me, the best advice was actually to keep reading. Writing can be challenging, and we all suffer from bouts of writer’s block, but reading is a never-ending well of inspiration. And reading a wide variety of stories will provide the best sense of what’s possible on the page and what makes you personally feel excited and inspired.

In terms of getting your manuscript in front of a publisher, my best advice is to find an agent with whom you feel a genuine connection—and can see yourself building a lifelong career alongside. Fortunately, many publishing agents are open to email queries from unpublished writers where you can pitch your novel directly. The hardest part is that you can’t just pitch an idea—you have to finish writing a full-length manuscript before you can start querying agents!

Q: What do you like to do in your free time?

I just moved from NYC to Los Angeles earlier this year, so I’ve been using any free time to explore this new city. And I’m always looking for new spots to visit, so if anyone has a favorite place to share, please let me know!

Nikki Erlich's book The Measure was published in May 2022 and can be purchased on Amazon and other places where books are sold.

Photo Credit: Federico Photography

Calendar Programs Jobs & Career Development