The Lily Koppel Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

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My interviewee today graciously supplied her own bio, which I will gladly use in lieu of writing one myself. I'm too busy getting excited for tonight's show! Lily Koppel is the author of The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal (HarperCollins, April 8, 2008), she writes for The New York Times and other publications. She lives in New York City. You can catch a trailer for her book here.


I got to know you in a very cool way: your Dad, who reads my blog, told me about your project and sends me links to your stories. Have your parents always been so supportive of your career choice?

Unlike Florence's parents, who ignored her art, my parents encouraged me to choose my own path in life. My mother, my archivist, keeps a trunk filled with my journals, drawings, including many self-portraits, which look eerily similar to Florence as a young woman, and my early writings.

Did Florence ever seem embarrassed to share her life's intimate details with you and the world?

The first time I met Florence, in 2006, she hugged me. At 90, she was as open with me as she was in her diary. Florence made me part of the family. An ageless phenom, she spoke about her early love affairs and even her first orgasm, an episode recorded in the diary, very matter-of-factly.

What if anything do you think sets her journal apart from others from that era?
In her diary, Florence had the literary equivalent of perfect pitch. She is a beautiful observer and "feeler" of life. Her entries read like haikus, such as her entry of April 10, 1932, "Wrote all day--and my story is still incomplete."

Do you keep a journal? Would you ever plumb it for fiction/nonfiction?
I have dozens of journals which I've kept since I was Florence's age, many with pastel covers and tiny locks, which came with twin keys, as well as a series of black and white composition notebooks. Florence wrote in her beloved diary everyday for five years, between the ages of 14 and 19, from 1929 to 1934, while I kept a more random daily record, as well as dream journals and notebooks for story ideas, which I plan to revisit. As I learned from the red leather diary, a journal is a time machine.

I still can't believe your building was throwing out the old steamer trunks. Was there anything else of interest that you found along with the diary?
The trunks were treasure chests. It was like finding a message in a bottle. Unhesitatingly, I climbed up into the dumpster, unearthing from the steamer trunks, a beaded flapper dress, which I wore to parties in New York until pearls from its frail fringe started hailing down. I also inherited an entire collection of elegant handbags, such as a Lucite purse filled with hat pins, hand-rolled cigarettes and a Revlon lipstick in "Bachelor's Carnation." I wear the gorgeous tangerine bouclé coat from Bergdorf's with an iridescent lining and single Bakelite button, which only needed a trip to my local Aphrodite Dry Cleaners.

Do you think you changed Florence's current life by bringing her past back to her?
It was a magical moment when I reunited 90-year-old Florence with her crumbling diary, which she had been separated from for more than half a century. I sat next to her as she journeyed back to the girl she once was. She told me she had wanted to be an artist. "If I had been true to myself would I have ended up living this ordinary life?" she asked me. She confessed, "You've brought back my life."

Why, of all the things you've covered, did you feel that the diary had the most promise thus far as a book?

The red leather diary was a portal into a forgotten world. Already a book in its own right, it was a deeply personal statement, which relates to how all of us record our lives whether in the pages of a journal or a blog. From the time I encountered the dumpster full of steamer trunks, I felt I was climbing into my own movie.

Was it difficult coordinating the rights to publish the diary?
Before the diary was even a book, finding Florence was the real challenge.

What are you doing to prep for your book tour? How are you deciding what to read?
Florence and I are embarking on this journey together. Readers, I believe, will discover the book as serendipitously as I found Florence's diary. I'll explain how I found the diary and tracked down Florence with the help of a private investigator while Florence will read her actual diary entries, such as from July 3, 1932, "Five hours of tennis and glorious happiness--all I want is someone to love--I feel incomplete."

What is the blog portion of the book's website going to consist of? Is it going to be reader-interactive?
The Red Leather Diary blog is a worldwide journal community where people can scan, type in or take a photo of an entry or page from their diary. Entries can be submitted anonymously.

When you interviewed the Maharishi, did you understand what he was talking about the whole time or did you have to pretend? Was it difficult to convey what he said to the readers of the Times?
I flew to the Netherlands to interview Maharishi, the guru to the Beatles in the 1960s, in his woodland retreat, where I interviewed him for The New York Times Magazine in his golden log peace palace. The most difficult part was that although we were in the same building, the only way Maharishi communicated was through closed monitor television, so I was speaking to a holy man in a white dhoti with a garland of flower petals around his neck framed in a silver flat screen.

What have been some of your most challenging assignments for Times?

Covering Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was very difficult and moving.

Can you tell us about your career trajectory to and at the paper?
After graduating from Barnard, I started at The Times. While working as a news assistant on the Metro desk, I began reporting for The Times celebrity column, traipsing from red carpet movie premiere to party to after party interviewing hundreds of celebrities. While this was fun, I was looking for a story, which completely touched my own life, like the diary, and began to carve out my own beat covering the city's hidden stars, the characters of a disappearing New York, such as my articles on Manhattan's last typewriter repairman who worked out of a crammed office in the Flatiron building and the sleuth that helped track down Florence.

Did reading it and interacting with Florence make you consider your own life at all?
Florence's diary changed my life. I was inspired by the young woman of its pages and 90-year-old Florence to life my life fearlessly and authentically, and to never give up on my writing.

What are you working on now?
A new book is in the works, which taps into my own life and history.

I heard it from a little birdie that you are dating a crime writer. Between the two of you, what genres CAN'T you do?
My boyfriend and I met at a book party at Odeon, the 25th anniversary celebration of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City.

Do you regret ever not taking James Gandolfini up on his offer of a one-on-one interview?
At The Times, editors asked if I wasn't scared I was going to get whacked. But maybe I could have hooked my boyfriend up with a source.

How does it feel to be the 204th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
That's a lot of joeys in Zulkey.com's kangaroo pouch.