The Amelia Lester interview

DSC_4031_2.jpgHello there: I wrote a piece for Mom.me about how the terrible twos get a bad rap. Next year we'll see whether "threenager" is really a thing.

I first took note of today's interviewee's writing when I found myself reading her "Tables for Two" restaurant reviews in The New Yorker, even though they were of restaurants I'd certainly never have the chance to dine in: her writing is just that crisp, descriptive and a little sassy to boot. Then I learned about her impressive career and wanted to know more. Originally from Australia, Amelia Lester received her undergraduate degree from Harvard, where she was a writer for the Crimson. A year after graduating, she got a job at The New Yorker as a fact-checker. She then had a brief stint at The Paris Review before returning to The New Yorker in 2009 as a 26-year-old managing editor. Later she relaunched and edited the "Goings On About Town" section. Earlier this year she was named executive editor of newyorker.com. She also fact-checked this bio (but not this particular sentence.)

How are the restaurants you write about in "Tables for Two" chosen?
We've had "Tables for Two" in The New Yorker since the first issue, in 1925, which featured a scathing review of a new dance hall. We don't pretend that the column is in any way comprehensive, or that we are anything other than aggressively idiosyncratic in our selections. But the idea is, generally, that it's not just about the food. It's an opportunity to experience a particular moment in the city alongside the writer, who happens to be eating dinner. So together with my editor and the other "Tables for Two" writers, we try and identify interesting places which reveal something about part of the city at this point in time. And sometimes, you just go somewhere because you've heard they have an amazing Burmese tea leaf salad, or lamb tartare.

What's your researching method?
Typically, I go to a restaurant twice. It might seem like fun to go to dinner with me, with the magazine picking up the tab. It's not. I am extremely bossy and order for the table so we can try lots of different things. I make people give me a slurp of their ramen and tell them to get the clafouti when they actually want the sundae because I had that last time. (To be honest, I'm like this even when the magazine isn't paying.) Sometimes my notes can devolve a little over the course of the meal but if that happens I write down my impressions first thing the next day. Restaurants are most often small businesses into which people are pouring their energies and love so I try to take the responsibility of writing about them seriously.  

What was your last guilty pleasure/fast/cheapo/gross-but-good meal?
If it's good it's not gross, and I don't really believe in feeling guilty about things which bring you pleasure! Anyway, I like all sorts of things I probably shouldn't. The dumplings from my local Szechuan place. The blue cheese burger at PJ Clarke's. Raisin scones from my office cafeteria. My favorite thing in the world is warm spiced bar nuts. I have been known to make a meal from those.

In your time as a fact-checker, what was one fact you checked that was actually useful in regards to your own life, and one that was completely useless yet utterly fascinating?
The more paper and words people throw at you, the more they're trying to hide. That was a useful thing to learn. Additionally, I learned a lot about what presidential candidates do at pumpkin-growing competitions, because they attend a lot of them, and I was a fact checker in the lead-up to the 2008 election. The utility of that information is a little up in the air.

I presume you get fact-checked now: do you feel like you make life easier on your fact-checkers due to your own experience doing it?
Every writer should be so lucky to get New Yorker fact checked! The process is like the Valencia filter on Instagram: it makes everyone look better.

How frequently do you go home to Australia? What's your system for making the flight go as quickly as possible?
I have been lucky enough to go home at the end of every year, to spend Christmas at the beach with my family and to make my Northern hemisphere friends and colleagues jealous. I have the twenty-four hours in economy class down to a fine, if sloppy, art. The rules are elastic waist everything; screwtop shiraz; avoid all breakfast meats. Also accept that any movie you watch at altitude will make you cry.

Since so many of the articles I read about your job mention your youth, what's one "Do what I did" and one "Don't do what I did" piece of advice you'd give to aspiring writers/editors who will be graduating soon?
DO: Ask for what you want, because you might just get it. Often, it's the only way.

DON'T: Be afraid to change if your situation isn't working.

Where do you get your cheekiness from? Do you come from cheeky stock?
You know the American concept of the roast? Australians are doing that to each other all the time. It's how we show affection.

What do you listen to when you run?
I am not even embarrassed to admit in a public forum that the Spotify Top 50 gets me through the Prospect Park loop most mornings. This has the added benefit of allowing me to quote Pitbull's more philosophical lyrics to friends in conversation about their current life quandaries, which I think they really find useful/powerful.

What do you read to decompress? Which publications do you subscribe to?
I read anything James Wood or Kathryn Schultz say I should (most recently, Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan trilogy, and H is for Hawk, respectively). Every morning on the way to work I read the New York Times on my phone, and every evening coming home I attempt to do that day's crossword. (By Wednesday I'm usually stumped.) There's Twitter, of course, for everything else. You didn't ask this, but I spend significant amounts of time watching TV, including Silicon Valley, Veep, Louie, GIRLS, Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City, Game of Thrones, and Mad Men.

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Do you get to provide feedback on your New Yorker avatar? Do you like it?
I did not get to provide feedback, but I love that mustard-colored turtleneck. It's made of neoprene so I never have to iron it.

How does it feel to be the 407th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
It's like when my gym named me their member of the week. Validation as an adult is a rare and precious thing.