Today's interviewee began her career in New York writing for Women's Wear Daily and for W, later becoming the magazine's European editor in Paris. She is the author of Encyclopedia of the Exquisite, a delightful book that provides the background on a wide variety of charming and glamorous topics like the history of champagne; the art of lounging on a divan; the riot incited by the appearance of London's first top hat; and Julia Child's tip for cooking the perfect omelet. In October she released All the Time in the World: A Book of Hours, which is described as an agenda turned upside down in favor of the impractical and the ephemeral: drinking hot cocoa, taking a nap, waltzing until dawn, while providing an antidote to the contemporary cult of "getting things done." I also recommend checking out her website and reading some of the fascinating essays about her life, like the time she spent in India massaging people with leprosy and the ups of downs of decamping Manhattan for rural Maine.
What was the process like of selling The Encyclopedia of the Exquisite? From a reader's point of view it's delightful but as someone who has seen how agents and editors think, I could see it being a tricky sell.
I met with a string of different publishers who were interested, but Nan Talese was the one who really got the book. Right off the bat she understood that the production quality of the book must live up to the name. That wasn't something that other publishers understood as readily. It had to be beautiful and well constructed, which makes production expensive, otherwise it wouldn't work.
The beginning of the book has an email address where you ask people to send in corrections: how many submissions did you receive and what were they on?
You would be surprised! There were perhaps a dozen or so emails querying one point or another. The world is full of experts. I always loved receiving those strange and erudite emails. Here's the one that I loved receiving best. "One quibble, presumably to the publisher: the drawing of a fly on the back of the book jacket is anatomically incorrect. Flies, indeed all insects, have only six legs, not eight. Several years ago, the geneticist E.B. Lewis won a Nobel prize in part for discovering how to make eight-legged flies, but I doubt that the artist who drew your book cover had those particular creations in mind."
What was the editorial and revising process like when putting the book together? How similar did the first draft look to the final, and what were the most major suggestions your editor had?
The draft and the final were strikingly similar, and we made hardly any changes. Having worked many years in magazine journalism, where the staff members are numerous and the tiny tweaks and changes never stop, that gave me a real sense of vertigo.
In the beginning of Encyclopedia you discuss the fact that you were unable to afford many of the items or lifestyles you cover as a journalist. Do you think that's the case with most writers in your field?
For sure, many of the people who work in the luxury industry, whether as journalists, or in other roles, can't really participate in that world. Those careers can come with a lot of expensive strings attached.
Working in the luxury field, there are places to go and people to see, and there is an expectation that you'll be properly attired for the occasion, as well as having actually experienced much of what you're writing about. As a young editor, you can go broke fast that way, for sure!
How, typically, does one break into the luxury writing field? (I ask as someone who has wondered how I can get paid to try out a crazy new workout regimen or juice cleanse and write about it for a glossy.)
Starting at the bottom as an intern or an assistant is the usual way people enter either the magazine world, or, say, the film industry, etc. But everyone wants the guinea pig stories--the ones where you write in the first-person about trying a new diet or a workout. You'll have to fight for those, or befriend the health and beauty editor.
I always assume that the writers for high-end magazines are already very familiar with extravagant lifestyles, which was why it was surprising to hear that you were not. What are some tips for sounding like you're a Town and Country ideal audience member even when you're not?
I had just graduated from college when I started working at a glossy magazine. So everything was new. I think the best way to begin writing about anything is to assume that you know nothing. So, in a way, it was ideal to start out that way.
Encyclopedia of the Exquisite began as a file. How did All The Time In The World start?
After turning in Encyclopedia, it still felt like I wasn't quite finished writing about history in that way. Sometimes I think All the Time in the World is the book I was trying to write when I was doing the first one.
What were some items that you love that didn't make either of the two books and why?
That list is so long! When my research leads nowhere, it rarely kills my curiosity--it only makes it stronger. For every story that made its way through the process and into one of the books, there are three that didn't and remain open questions burning in my mind.
Could you list one or two specific items--maybe ones that you could see cycling off into its own new book?
I still have piles and piles of scribbled scraps to work from. My eye is fairly fickle, however. I may be interested in some obscure 19th century ship captain like Joshua Slocum one day, and Yves Klein's judo fascination the next. At the moment I can't imagine a single-subject book, but perhaps one day, as I come back down to earth after the release of All the Time in the World.
What, if anything, do you miss about living in the Midwest?
I love the long lonesome perspectives one sees when driving down Midwestern roads. I love the violent summer rainstorms that turn the sky green and blow the curtains in.
You sound very adventurous, between living in Paris, doing what you did in India, and decamping for the country. What is your next adventure (either small or large?)
My husband and I just came home from Ethiopia with our two daughters, who are 6 and 4 years-old. It's a huge adventure!
What exactly is a rude massage? You mention being the victim of one in your bio.
In Tunis I visited a very traditional hammam. The women there were very curious and happy to have a foreigner there, until they saw that I have a small tattoo on my shoulder. Well, that didn't go over well at all. The masseuse was very rough--like she was trying to scrub off the tattoo---and everyone whispered and stared. It was pretty awful.
How does it feel to be the 370th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Fantastic! Happy to be in good company. Thanks for taking the time to interview me.