Tag Archives: profile

‘I Thought, Well, We’ll See What Happens!’: Iconic Editor Nan Talese on Her Marriage and Career

For Vanity Fair, Evgenia Peretz profiles 83-year-old iconic editor Nan Talese, who rose through the ranks of one publishing house after another before being given her own eponymous imprint at Doubleday in 1990. Aside from being one of the most powerful women in publishing, Talese is also known as one-half of one of the most interesting and curious marriages in recent history. One of the underpinnings of her union with famously non-monogamous New Journalism pioneer Gay Talese is a pledge she made to him early on that she wouldn’t ever impinge on his “freedom”—an agreement that allowed him to have many affairs, some supposedly in the name of “research” for his book about the loosening of sexual mores in the free love era. The profile comes just as Gay plans to write a book about their marriage.

In 1981, when Thy Neighbor’s Wife came out, something discomfiting was starting to happen to Nan and Gay: their power in the world began to shift. Gay’s book was critically panned, not for the substance, which reviewers barely paid attention to, but for the salaciousness of its author. “What was alleged was I was doing frivolous research. Getting my jollies, hanging around massage parlors, getting laid, getting jerked off, all that,” says Gay, whose reputation dimmed. An active member of the writers group PEN, he’d been on the verge of becoming its next president. But in light of Thy Neighbor’s Wife, the women of PEN revolted, and he resigned. Nan’s career, meanwhile, was skyrocketing. In 1981 she was named the executive editor of Houghton Mifflin, the old-line publishing company based in Boston; she’d commute there while still running the New York office. Gay believes her rise was at least partially tied to his downfall. “She started getting a lot of publicity about Thy Neighbor’s Wife . . . . What about this guy’s wife? This guy’s wife is Nan Talese. She’s this terrific, revered editor, and she’s married to this disgusting guy.”

But, for Nan, who still saw herself first as Gay’s champion, the power shift hardly felt like comeuppance or victory. His bad reviews, and his fallen reputation, were as devastating to Nan as they were to Gay. She defended him publicly, as she does today. “I think most of the press told more about the reporters than it did about Gay,” she says. And so, for the next few years, life continued as it had before, in keeping with the pledge—only, now the pressure had intensified for Gay, as he was looking to recapture literary greatness. There continued his long periods of absence, notably in Rome, where he went to research Unto the Sons, about his ancestors in Italy. There continued romantic entanglements on the road. “I don’t want to degrade people by representing the whole all-star cast of women. I could, but I won’t,” says Gay.

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Rachel Cusk on Eschewing her ‘Cuskness’ For Her Alter-Ego in ‘Outline’ and ‘Transit’

Heidi Julavits profiles memoirist and novelist Rachel Cusk for New York Magazine’s The Cut. Julavits focuses on various aspects of Cusk’s writing, including the ways in which her approach to “autofiction” is somewhat different from that of some compatriots in the land of blurred lines between memoir and fiction. Those include Sheila Heti, Ben Learner and Karl Ove Knausgaard, all of whom tend to infuse their protagonists with recognizable strains of their personalities.

Both Outline, which came out in the U.S. in 2015, and Transit are narrated by a woman named Faye, who, like Cusk, is divorced, has two children, and is a writer. Faye describes, or really more accurately transcribes, her encounters with other people. In Outline, she travels to Greece and meets a man on a plane; she goes to a restaurant with a friend; she teaches a writing workshop. She is less an interlocutor than a recording device or a processing machine. She receives. Faye, in literary terms, is a cipher. She is a zero, a naught, a nothing.

In Transit, Faye becomes slightly more “visible” (and audible) via her involvement in a home-renovation project; she converses with contractors and pacifies angry neighbors. Nothing happens, really, but these books are nonetheless gripping self-portraits of multiple humans. They are like eavesdropping on strangers, or watching a secret video feed of strangers, if those strangers were also casual philosophers. The conversations vacillate between the mundane and the lofty, as if the characters — enabled by Faye’s ­presence — are always grasping at bigger life questions. Outline and Transit both are welcome breaches of privacy that emphasize the intensely shapeless loneliness of people. They are books about middles.

Faye, while she shares biographical data with Cusk and appears to present and process events from Cusk’s actual life, is quite different from the characters devised by other autofiction writers of late — Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgaard — with whom Cusk is frequently grouped. The books of these writers, though distinct from one another, more centrally feature an authorial self; about Heti, for example, Cusk says, “She uses herself, her Sheila-ness, much, much, much more than I do.” Cusk does not, in these novels, use her Cuskness. And yet she’s filtering through a narrator that does not by accident resemble her.

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Enormous Changes… Arrived at Slowly, Over a the Course of a Politically Engaged Lifetime

For the April edition of The Atlantic, Nicholas Dames profiles late author and activist Grace Paley. In particular, Dames focuses on Paley’s persistence in the face of political obstacles, as an activist, and as a writer — often through a stalwart recurring character, Faith Darwin Asbury.

Through Faith, Paley discovered her great subject: the evolving political engagement of the generation of women who came of age in the shadow of World War II. The stories Paley wrote after The Little Disturbances are ever more plotless. They are snapshots of female community—in particular, the group of Greenwich Village women early to the postwar quest for feminist consciousness—or, in Faith’s own words, “a report on … the condition of our lifelong attachments.” Paley borrowed the method of linking characters across a story series from Isaac Babel, one of her lodestars. But unlike Babel’s Odessa stories—–or, for that matter, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio—–Paley’s stories about Faith extend the timescale well into adulthood. Faith and her friends age, shedding lovers and children and parents, and finding new objects for their political passions. It turns out that rather than voice, Paley’s true subject was time.

Put another way, her theme was how the ethical aspirations of political life extend over time: how they survive inevitable disappointment; how they steel themselves into endurance.

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‘I Still Live in a Small Town That I Hate’: Roxane Gay’s Perspective on Her Success

This week, a number of people heard of Roxane Gay for the first time when Simon & Schuster canceled its plans to publish controversial alt-right author Milo Yiannopoulos’s book. (In the weeks prior, Gay had withdrawn her forthcoming book, How to be Heard, from the publisher because they were giving the former Breitbart editor a platform.) For most writers, there’s no such thing as a bad way to be discovered by new readers. But it can be annoying when those who’ve just become aware of your work perceive you as an overnight success, especially when your career has been building for years. In a profile for Brooklyn Magazine, Molly McArdle asks Gay for her perspective on her success.

“A lot of people think it’s been overnight,” Gay says of her success. “In many ways my life hasn’t changed. My friends are still my friends. I still live in a small town that I hate.” But some things have started to shift. “It’s easier to pay my bills, certainly,” she says. “There’s a lot more scrutiny and attention.” There’s also a new apartment in Los Angeles, where she lives when she’s not in Indiana teaching at Purdue. (“It’s a workable compromise.”) There’s new creative projects in new genres: comic books, screenplays, occasional radio. Gay is the first black woman to write for Marvel, and her series, World of Wakanda, spins off from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther, tackling romantic love between queer black women in a way that is both literally groundbreaking and utterly natural. Still, Gay sees herself first as a writer of short fiction. “I’m relatively new to nonfiction,” she says. (I have to respectfully disagree with the bestselling essayist, a phrase so rare it’s practically an oxymoron, on this point.) With only one novel, she adds, “I’m a beginning novelist.” But Gay also sees growth, accomplishment: “My writing is more confident,” she says. “I’ve always taken myself seriously as a writer. Now other people take me seriously.”

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The Business of Being “Jane Roe”

Last week, on February 18th, Norma McCorvey — aka “Jane Roe,” the plaintiff in the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court case that legalized abortion — passed away. Four years ago, in February, 2013, Vanity Fair published this fascinating profile of of her. McCorvey, who wasn’t able to actually have the abortion she fought for because of the timing of her pregnancy and the drawn-out case, famously had a change of heart many years later, becoming a pro-life activist. Through most of her adult life, regardless of whether she was fighting for or against women’s reproductive rights, McCorvey managed to monetize her position, not only publishing two memoirs, but forming one sketchy foundation after another, on either side of the argument. Author Joshua Prager had to write around the subject — whom he and all those interviewed portray as mercenary — because she refused to be interviewed without payment of her $1,000 speaking fee.

Young Norma McCorvey had not wanted to further a cause; she had simply wanted an abortion and could not get one in Texas. Even after she became a plaintiff, plucked from obscurity through little agency of her own, she never did get that abortion. McCorvey thus became, ironically, a symbol of the right to a procedure that she herself never underwent. And in the decades since the Roe decision divided the country, the issue of abortion divided McCorvey too. She started out staunchly pro-choice. She is now just as staunchly pro-life.

But in truth McCorvey has long been less pro-choice or pro-life than pro-Norma. And she has played Jane Roe every which way, venturing far from the original script to wring a living from the issue that has come to define her existence.

“I almost forgot i have a one thousand dollar fee,” she texted in August in response to a request for an interview. Told she could not be paid, she texted back: “Then we wont speak.”

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Behind the Scenes of Longform Storytelling: A Reading List

That’s me in the photo. June, 2011: my first time interning at a daily newspaper and the first time I read Joan Didion. She blew my mind, of course. Eventually, I started sharing my favorite longform pieces on my personal blog, which led to a variety of opportunities, including my gig here at Longreads. If you’re new around these parts, like I was just a few years ago, the stories below will give you an idea of the strength and skill that goes into creating engaging literary journalism.

Each of the four stories below has been featured on Longreads before, minus the annotations, of course. The interviews with the authors are just as fascinating as the essays they’ve written. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Adrian Chen, and Brian Kevin discuss their research methods, their writing style, and how they choose which details to include and which to let go. There are literally dozens of other Annotation Tuesday stories I could’ve featured — it was hard to pick just three! — so be sure to take a look for yourself on the Nieman Storyboard website.

1. “Annotation Tuesday! Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and ‘If He Hollers Let Him Go.’” (Elon Green, October 2014)

Part of successful longform storytelling is a seamless blend of the macro and micro. In recounting her journey to Yellow Springs, Ohio — where comic Dave Chappelle lives, where he grew up, in part — Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah does just that. She never interviews Chappelle himself; she interviews several of the people surrounding him, including his mother, scholar Yvonne Seon, and Neal Brannan, co-creator of “Chappelle’s Show.” Ghansah and Elon Green share a fascinating back-and-forth about the impossibility of objectivity, the n-word, and comedy as a weapon.

2. “Annotation Tuesday! Adrian Chen and ‘Unfollow.’” (Katia Savchuk, January 2017)

Tech reporter Adrian Chen — formerly of Gawker, now The New Yorker — wrote a marvelous profile of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was once a devoted member of the Westboro Baptist Church. When Phelps-Roper took over the church’s social media accounts, her life changed. In between hate speech and emojis, she engaged with people of different backgrounds and worldviews. Chen explains that it took a long time for Megan to feel comfortable opening up to him and sharing her story publicly. But when she did open up to Chen, she gave him access to her emails, her journals, even her private messages on the Words With Friends app. They spoke for hours, and the result is a nuanced portrait that demonstrates the nonlinear nature of healing.

3. “Michael Kruse and the Woman Who Disappeared in Her Own Home.” (Paige Williams, August 2012)

I remember reading this piece when it was first published in 2011. I was interning at a daily newspaper and learning about feature writing and reporting for the first time. Michael Kruse and the Tampa Bay Times (previously the St. Petersburg Times) came highly recommended to me, and this story, “A Brevard Woman Disappeared, but Never Left Home” — is a contemporary classic. Journalist and professor Paige Williams dissects the story on an educational basis; Kruse answers her questions and adds commentary.

4. “Annotation Tuesday! (Back to School Edition): Josh Roiland and His ‘Literary Journalism in America’ Syllabus.” (Josh Roiland, August 2015)

During my senior year of undergrad, I embarked on an independent study of longform journalism — reading hundreds of essays, interviewing Ben Montgomery, and analyzing what makes different stories tick. Ready to embark on an independent study of your own? There’s no better place to start than this syllabus — I wish it had been around when I was in school. Roiland, presently an assistant professor with the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine, goes into glorious detail about each of his reading selections.

When Oscar de la Renta Told Hillary Clinton Not to Wear Black

“What’s Senator Clinton wearing?” the designer wants to know. It’s Inauguration Day and De la Renta is in his studio, too busy tweaking his new collection to attend the festivities. He is squinting at Chrissy Haldis, a tall, willowy, and by all accounts mannequin-mute brunette who has served as his house model for the past two collections. She stands rotating in slow circles, sheathed in rare, velvety Uzbekistani fabric that, when hemmed and cut, will become a long coat retailing in the neighborhood of $10,000. In De la Renta’s adjoining office, the inauguration is being broadcast over the Internet—there is Laura Bush, pert and stately in a pearly De la Renta cashmere dress, though the designer is currently concerned about the clothes another client, Hillary Clinton, has chosen for the event.

“She’s wearing black,” someone points out.

De la Renta frowns. “What?”

“It’s a black jacket, and a—”

He cuts her off. “Oh, I always tell Senator Clinton . . .” He pauses delicately. “Well, I mean, I’m sure she looks beautiful. Hillary is a beautiful woman. But I always tell her not to wear black. She looks tough in black”—he tenses his fists and jaw to illustrate his point—“and she is more than just a tough lady. The problem is that everything else she has, every other piece of clothing that’s not black, is mine, and with Mrs. Bush also wearing something of mine today . . . ”

After a moment, De la Renta simply laughs. The designer, who grew up under a dictatorship, seems to find politics most compelling, not as an engine of policy and social change, but as a theater of bombastic personalities kept in line by social formality.

“I’m a nonpartisan voter,” he says with a smile. “I vote for the man, not the party. I voted for Clinton, but I voted for Bush. I also voted for Reagan.” He pauses. “Black! I cannot believe she’s wearing black!”

— From a 2005 profile of Oscar de la Renta in New York magazine. The iconic fashion designer died yesterday at the age of 82.

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Photo: YouTube / Oscar de la Renta Film, Bill Clinton Presidential Library

What Happens When Ronan Farrow Interviews Miley Cyrus

Beyond music, Cyrus is expanding her interests. After her breakup, she tells me, she asked Diane Martel, the director responsible for Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” videos, to “just completely, like, drown me in new movies and books and art. I lived in Nashville, where that shit isn’t accessible.” We flip through a book of photographs by Cindy Sherman. “Check it,” she says as we arrive at Sherman’s Untitled #276, in which the artist poses as a kind of grungy Cinderella. “Lady Gaga completely ripped that off.” Cyrus is finding her taste in movies, too. She tells me she just watched the Tom Cruise 1990 drama Days of Thunder three nights in a row. She’s also newly enamored with the 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire. “I’m Blanche to a T, complete psycho,” she burbles cheerfully. I stare at her. I literally cannot imagine anyone less like Tennessee Williams’s fragile, lost Blanche DuBois. “Every time I watched her,” she goes on, “I was always like, ‘That’s me!’ ” If Cyrus is a Vivien Leigh performance, it’s Scarlett O’Hara in the early scenes of Gone With the Wind. She’s impetuous, beautiful, smarter than many give her credit for, slow to listen, quick to talk, adept at using her sexuality to her own ends. As for the world beyond the arts, Cyrus is leery.

—Ronan Farrow, on Miley Cyrus in W Magazine.  Read more profiles in the Longreads archive.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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