On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner about her philosophy of profile writing, why she believes structure is the most important element of storytelling, how she came to write her novel Fleishman Is in Trouble, and what’s in store in her next book. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Butler: I imagine many of our listeners first encountered your writing in the form of your celebrity profiles. The process of your writing them is foregrounded in many of those profiles. How did you happen upon that meta-technique, and how have you refined it over the years?
Taffy Brodesser-Akner: It’s a thing that I am known for, and it’s mostly treated as a good thing, but I categorize it as a bad thing. I categorize it as the thing where, when I haven’t been able to make a person as forthcoming as I need them to be, or when I do not yet feel like the thing that happened within the story is enough to explain to a reader what the story was like or what the challenges of the story were, or what this person is actually talking about, my weakness is then to tell the story of the story. I think it was forged as a thing I do when I was sent in 2014 to profile Nicki Minaj, who fell asleep while we were talking. I knew that GQ, a men’s magazine, had a very male ego, and if she didn’t give us anything, they were going to kill the story. And I thought, “Not on my watch!”
When you’re writing about a person, one of the problems you encounter is that the reason the person is worthy of being profiled is not necessarily because they are good at talking about what they do. That’s where the writer comes in. I realized it’s not her job to make my story good, it’s my job to make my story good. So I wrote a story about what I would have asked her if she’d been awake and what I think she would have said.
The other reason for that device is that I grew up reading celebrity profiles, and I hated most of them. The ones I didn’t hate all have the same quality, which was that the writer was not in bed with the subject. It’s very easy to become so dazzled by a celebrity that by the time you write it, it’s me and the subject doing something for your benefit, the reader. Like this is what it’s like to be friends with this person. But that’s not what a profile should be, because I’m not friends with that person. And we didn’t have something that emulated friendship. We had a weird, short, intense relationship that we both knew the length of, the extent of, and the stakes of. I am the reader in those situations. I want the reader to know that I know what my job is. My job is to go there and to tell you what it would have been like if you were there. Anything beyond that is starfuckery, and starfuckery is the thing that I am afraid of in those stories.
When you’re writing a profile, are you pitching your editor and then the Times is pitching their team? Is their team pitching the Times, and the Times is assigning you? How does this stuff get worked out?
I can’t remember a time when somebody came to me and said, you should write about this person, simply because that doesn’t happen with very famous people. No publicist comes to you and is, like, Tom Hanks could really use a good story right now. Tom Hanks is going to get a good story, and something does happen where his people reach out to people at the Times, or people at GQ. Or the people at GQ know it’s coming, so they fight off the Esquire people. It all happens without you. And then half the time they bring it to you. When it’s obvious, they bring it to you. They bring you Tom Hanks, who has a big movie coming out. They bring you Josh Brolin, who has a good big movie come out. They bring you Ethan Hawke. They do not bring you Gwyneth Paltrow. In fact, you might have to, over a series of years, make a case for Gwyneth Paltrow that keeps getting treated like you were making a joke.
To learn more about how Taffy Brodesser-Akner scored her Gwyneth Paltrow profile assignment, listen to the full episode of Working.