Today's interviewee is the author of a new collection of original essays The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, out now from FSG. She is also the author of the essay collection My Misspent Youth, the novel The Quality of Life Report, and Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, a memoir. Since 2005, she has been an opinion columnist at The Los Angeles Times, covering cultural and political topics. She has written for numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper's, and Vogue. Chicagoans, you can catch her December 2nd when she appears at the beautiful Women's Athletic Club!
As a columnist and an essayist, how do you know which ideas are meant for your columns, or freelanced pieces, or longer-term book essays?
A column must be limited to pretty much one idea. I only have about 730 words to work with. It appears in print as well as on the web, and both versions have to hit that mark, so there's only room for one point. Which means it needs to be a solid, coherent one. My natural inclination as a writer is to combine several ideas and find the places where they intersect, so when I first began writing the column I'd try to do this, thinking a single idea column was unambitious or boring or something. But a single idea column is, in fact, a column. Especially in a newspaper. The longer essays usually evolve from several ideas that I hope to converge into a larger -- I won't say "point" -- but, rather, suggestion. To me, an essay is a suggestion that you make to the reader, an invitation to the reader to think about things in a particular way. You're not saying "I'm right" but, rather, "just think alongside me for a moment or two." A freelance idea often comes from an editor. If it's topic I think I can do something with -- and if my schedule allows -- I'll take it. If not, I'm usually honest and tell them I'm not the best writer for the assignment. If I need the money, of course, I'll take it even if I have no idea what I'm doing.
Which L.A. Times columns from the last few years have you written received more outrage than you expected? Less?
At this point, I expect outrage if I write about something political or polarizing. An opinion columnist's job is to outrage people. The situations that surprise me most are when I have a column that seems completely benign and in fact gets an overwhelmingly positive response except for a handful of people who absolutely hate it. A few years ago, I wrote a column about my dog Rex dying. It was one of my most popular columns of all time. People still write to me and tell me it comforted them when their dog died, that they kept the column and bring it out to read when they miss their dog. But despite all this affirmation, a few people wrote nasty, vile comments in the comment thread. They insulted my dog. They insulted me. It was to the point where another commenter wrote "I'm sure that Rex would be shocked to know that even in death he is the target of such vitriol and hatefulness." That became one of my favorite comments I've ever received.
The column that surprised me with how little outrage it received was one I wrote about Larry King when he retired. I can't remember exactly what I said but it was pretty harsh, how he was never a good interviewer, that he was senile, increasingly looked like a corpse and so on. And no one complained. Everyone loved it and agreed! It was kind of sad, actually.
Where or when do your ideas frequently strike you? How do you keep them filed?
At any given time, really. Often from talking to people, having conversations with friends. If I get a sense that there's something in the air that a lot of people seem to be thinking about but not able to articulate or figure out all the way, that makes me think it might be worth writing about.
What is your comment-reading policy, and if you do read comments, what methods do you have for not letting them get to you too much?
I sometimes read comments on stories written by other people, especially news stories. In some ways, comments on news and political stories have replaced the old man-on-the-street interview, so as a columnist it's helpful to know what people are thinking and how they're reacting to things. As for comments on my own work, it's very much a matter of willpower. If I'm feeling strong and have better things to do that day, I'll skip the comments. In moments of weakness, that's when you go to them. Which is exactly when you shouldn't. Maybe someone should start a 12-step program for people who are addicted to and ravaged by their own comments.
How frequently do you re-read your earliest essays? What usually stands out to you when you do?
Not very often. I had to reread My Misspent Youth over the last year or so because it's being reissued. What stands out to me is how much it sounds like the way I still sound. I think once I stumbled on that voice in my early 20s, it just stayed there and dug in deeper and deeper. I will say that there was sometimes an in-your-face quality to my writing that I think has mellowed over the years. It was very much a function of youth, I think. I saw it as a stylistic choice and it wasn't all bad -- it put me on the map, it distinguished me. But I think perhaps it reflected an anxiety about not getting noticed, about not rising above the slush pile or standing out from the crowd. I think I'm more relaxed now and as a result more circumspect. But that in and of itself is a luxury.
A few essayists (Lena Dunham, Kathleen Hale) of late have been the victim of their own style of honesty backfiring on them. What do you keep in mind when you're writing brutally honest pieces that help you keep the audience on your side (by and large)?
The rule of thumb is "implicate the narrator" (i.e. yourself, if you're writing in the first person) more than anyone else. Make fun of yourself. My god, have a sense of humor. I think Lena Dunham does this very effectively. She's totally aware that she's knocking herself, even though some readers have proven themselves rather overly literal. But sometimes I see personal writing that kind of sabotages itself by taking itself so seriously. It's like this earnest, diary entry kind of stuff. Or it's a rant of the sort that used to be confined to your journal but can now end up on the web within minutes of writing it. So I guess what I'm aware of is that the audience is sacrificing valuable time (and often money) to read something I've written and it better damn well be carefully considered, have a shape and a structure, be generous rather than being an overshare. Being funny also goes a long way.
What's the best compliment you ever got on your writing?
Recently someone wrote to me and told me I sounded like Richard Ford in his Frank Bascombe novels. I don't see it, but I worship Richard Ford and I love those novels. It was the highest, highest compliment.
Please tell me you've received positive feedback from parents regarding your writing about your decision not to have kids. I always thought that was a valid life choice but never moreso until I had kids.
Yes, many intelligent, satisfied, non-defensive parents think it's perfectly wonderful that some people don't have and/or want kids. Most of my friends have kids. They like it that I don't because, unlike their fellow mommies, I don't judge them on any parent-related issue. Someone can say "I put Ho-Hos in Sophie's lunchbox everyday" and I'll be like "that's awesome -- what are you reading these days?"
On that note, why do you think the word "selfish" gets deployed so frequently as an insult? You're selfish if you don't have kids/have too many kids/work/go on vacation/drink while pregnant, etc.
Because all humans, by definition, are selfish. And people hate most in others what they hate most in themselves. Ergo, in the words of the great Pee-wee Herman, "I know you are, but what am I?"
What age do you think is officially middle age?
One year older than whatever age I am at any given time is officially middle age.
What are some of the oddest products you've written ad copy or press releases for?
In the 90s I wrote website copy for the Always Maxipad website. It was an extremely lucrative gig. Sometimes I wish I had it back.
You've said in another interview, "I've written profiles of celebrities I hadn't heard of before I got the assignment": like who?
This is going to cancel out what I just said about not being middle aged, because it will date me terribly. I wrote a magazine cover story about Kristen Stewart and didn't know who she was. I profiled Orlando Bloom when he was in Lord of the Rings and I hadn't heard of him. But I am a hard hitting, in-depth reporter and now I know everything about them. If they were kidnapped by Isis I could locate them with a drone.
I am writing this question from a coffeeshop while movers finish putting our crap in vans and move us two miles north to a larger, surburban home. So tell me: will life be perfect when we live in this house?
That is entirely dependent on the quality of the woodwork.
How does it feel to be the 399th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Like I showed up one minute too early. Surely the 400th person is going to be showered with balloons and given a George Foreman grill or something.