Did you ever write a negative review of poetry?
I once wrote a…it wasn’t a totally negative review, but it was a pretty critical review. I actually still agree with the review, but, yeah, I felt sort of guilty and weird about it. On the other hand, I didn’t want to write positive reviews about things if I wasn’t gonna write negative reviews. I mean, then it’s just being a publicist.
You said you studied poetry in grad school—did you get a master’s?
I got a master’s in poetry, and then I went into the literature doctoral program to try to become a college professor. And almost from the beginning, that seemed like a terrible idea. Partway through the program I was like, there are no jobs available, and anyway, I personally was not suited to become an academic. I’m a dilettante, I’m interested in a lot of different things, I’m very social—
[Laughs] That is really a disqualifying thing!
I mean, I respect academics a lot, but the kind of work you have to do where you spend, you know, three years in the catacombs, and then you create a kind of text that’s like layer upon layer… I mean, the thing I like about my writing is that when it’s good, it’s funny or playful or communicative—and that’s not really the value system for writing in academia. Also, I’m a very hoppy-brained person, and I like that in journalism you can just kind of jump from topic to topic. I’m just better suited for that.
What were you gonna write about for your PhD thesis?
I was a Victorianist, and I was writing about “The Public Woman: The overlapping categories of actress, Jewess, and prostitute.” [Laughs]
What—that sounds great! I know that one of your first real jobs was writing for Lingua Franca, which I was obsessed with when I was in grad school. How was it writing for them? Was it so fun?
It was great. And it was very lucky. When I was in graduate school, I had a friend [named] Dan [Zalewski, now features editor at The New Yorker], and he was a much more career-driven person than me. He knew about the media world and magazines, and he was always applying for all of these different magazine jobs. He finally got an editing job at Lingua Franca, and, even though I had never even heard of [the magazine] before, I started writing short front-of-the-book pieces for them. It was just one of those incredibly fortuitous things that I would never have thought of on my own.
It is true that in journalism, people often get jobs through people they know by various means. My big advice for young writers—and not in some sort of sleazy nepotism way, but in a this-is-how-journalism-tends-to-operate way—is that it’s a small world, and it’s good to build relationships with editors, because editors are incredibly busy and they need to work with people they can trust, so they often end up reaching out to very small worlds. When you build relationships with editors where they trust you and they like your writing, once you have that in place, it always helps you. If they like your writing, they might recommend you to someone else, and then if that person is a talented editor, they may get a job at a [bigger] publication, and you will already be one of their writers. When I was at Lingua Franca, I wrote a bunch of pieces about sexuality and psychology and stuff, and then there was this magazine called Nerve that was about sex and culture, and somebody who knew an editor there had read one of my pieces and recommended me to them, so I wrote a piece for Nerve. And then that editor left that job and asked if I wanted to interview for this other place, and my editor there was Sue Dominus, who’s now an amazing writer for the New York Times and is just a fantastic, totally incredible person. She recommended me to Jodi Kantor at Slate, so I wrote for them, and then Jodi was hired to head up the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times, and I was just one of the writers she brought with her. So I think that when people are starting out, it can be great to write for smaller places where there are talented people, because a lot of times those talented people end up moving on to other places. On the other hand, that’s a ridiculous recommendation. Like, the “journalistic advice” would be: “Go work for a small magazine that’s held in very high esteem and [whose staff] then gets cherry-picked by larger publications. Then you will have connections at various large publications!” It’s like, how can anyone plan that?